Back in the late nineties Mark Twights forward thinking volume ‘Extreme Alpinism’ hit the shelves. Among his many ideas was the concept of over layering for extra warmth. Prior to this innovative idea the general plan for adding a layer was to remove your gloves, loosen your harness, remove your shell, put on your extra warm layer, shell back on etc, a real faff.
Twights' simple idea was to layer a synthetic insulated jacket over your shell when you needed to boost the warmth of your clothing system. Unlike down, synthetic insulation retains a lot of its thermal properties when wet meaning it doesn’t need protecting from the elements. Fast forward to the current day and the concept of a belay jacket has spread across the worlds mountains and in particular to the demanding world of Scottish winter climbing.
Rab® were one of the first brands to produce a dedicated belay jacket and my original is still going strong after years of abuse. It has a lot of ‘character’ now but fundamentally it still does an amazing job of keeping me warm when the environment is determined to make me wet, cold and miserable.
There are two fields of thought in belay jacket design. One is to go as lightweight as possible with minimal features. It’s all about lightweight maximal warmth for belaying or emergency situations.
The second option is to build a robust technical jacket with plenty of features. This gives the user more survivability and also allows the garment to be used for climbing when conditions are really bad. The latest incarnation from Rab falls into the latter category. The Photon X Jacket is a great looking technical jacket packed full of features - multiple big pockets, reinforced patches, reflective detail, stiffened hood visor and plenty of warmth.
In the last 6 months I’ve worn it to the summit of Antarctica’s Mount Vinson, photographing Emperor penguins on the Weddell Sea, running film safety on a Lake District hillside and on a diverse range of Scottish winter mountain days. Early season conditions in Scotland have been challenging and perfect for hypothermia with the freezing level up around the summits. It’s a bit of a standing joke that the community of mountaineering instructors who work the Scottish winter season measure how bad the weather has been by the number of pairs of gloves they get through in a day. Needless to say there have been a number of 6 glove days in 2017. However, I’ve been very comfortable in the depths of my Photon X. In the worst of conditions it’s great to be able to sink down into the insulated collar and try to hide. The hood goes up and stays up with minimal adjustment and the pockets will swallow a whole picnic of supplies.
The level of insulation is just about perfect for Scottish winter climbing. I’ve warmed up quickly whenever I’ve over layered with it, but interestingly I’ve never felt like overheating when navigating off in a hoolie. It even dries overnight in my unheated campervan so it’s ready to go in the morning, even if I’m not!
Overall a very impressive piece of kit for Scotland and further afield. Bad weather is very much part of the mountaineering game but this is a very useful tool in successfully operating in it.
I've just returned from seven weeks in Nepal climbing and guiding. My personal highlight was a solo of the South West Ridge of Ama Dablam, summiting in seven hours after an open bivi at camp two. Either side of this I lead two very successful commercial trips to Island Peak in the Khumbu and Thapu Chuli or Tent Peak in the Annapurna Sanctuary. The North Face very kindly kitted me out with three items from their flagship Meru range - the Shaffle down jacket, the Meru mitts and the Gore Tex shell of the same name. I wrote a couple of initial reviews for the Shaffle & Meru jackets just before I departed but have now had a chance to put them through their paces in the environment they were designed for.
I opted to use a similar system to The North Face athlete Andy Houseman, as described to UKC, with a technical baselayer, synthetic insulated jacket, Meru Gore shell and the Shaffle as a belay jacket. The Khumbu was experiencing it's coldest October in twenty years with plenty of high winds so I spent a lot of time climbing in the full system. Summit temperatures on Island Peak were -26oC with strong winds.
My last few trips to the Himalaya I've gone for the soft shell option only taking a very lightweight waterproof for the walk in. However based on my experiences in the Lakes I decided to use the Meru jacket in my system. The Gore Active fabric proved to be incredibly breathable and I didn't suffer any condensation problems.
I usually take a size large but the medium gave me a good neat fit. I would have struggled to get any more insulation underneath but as part of an over layering system it worked very well. I really appreciated the slightly longer length which was a welcome boost to my comfort levels in the high winds. Combined with the longer length of the Shaffle jacket and boots with built in gaiters I was able to use a relatively lightweight soft shell trouser in all but the coldest conditions.
In my initial review of the jacket I was critical of the inclusion of mesh backed chest pockets. These were designed to increase ventilation in the same way as pit zips arguably do. I personally feel that your shell should be as simple and bombproof as possible. Using these pockets in poor conditions means your core will very quickly become wet and cold. Additionally you can only use this venting if you have nothing in the pockets. In practice I never used the pockets to cool down preferring to use them to store hat and gloves which I found far more effective at adjusting my temperature.
The hood is by far the best non wired design I've used being one of the few that is truly helmet compatible. it won't clinch down to a full tunnel but does provide plenty of protection from the side. It's major advantage is that it will stay in place over a helmet or hat and turns with the head with the volume reducer being a particularly efficient design. I'm not usually a huge fan of hoods finding them restrictive in all but the worst weather but in the windy conditions experienced this season I found myself tucked away under this hood for most of the time at altitude.
The jacket is made up of two different weights of fabric to help protect wear points and increase durability. It proved itself as a tough jacket standing up to almost everything I threw at it apart from minor damage to the front / chest pockets. This area is made of the lighter weight fabric with no reinforcing however I find that it is always prone to damage if you have anything in the pockets. Maybe it's my graceful climbing style or just the fact that I store a lot of equipment in the pockets but it does always seem very vulnerable and my last four waterproof jackets have all suffered from this.
The rubberised dots around the shoulders and waist seemed to work. I wasn't carrying a huge rack but I didn't notice my harness slipping and I certainly didn't have to re-tighten it at any point during the day. A number of other manufacturers have tried similar ideas but have had real problems with durability but I'm happy to report that all dots are still in place! The velcro cuffs were a fairly universal design but with a better than average contact area. I've had real problems with small velcro tabs becoming choked in heavy snow conditions meaning it's impossible to seal the cuff. All jackets suffer from this to some extent but I anticipate this not being a huge problem with the Meru.
The best compliment that I can pay this jacket is that I didn't notice it in action. It provided a simple windproof, waterproof and breathable shell in which I could climb and trek. The features all worked and there was minimal faff. Some reinforcing on the front of the jacket and waterproof pockets and this jacket would nearly be perfect.
SHAFFLE DOWN JACKET
This jacket proved to be incredibly lightweight, useful and a great colour!. It uses 200grams of top quality down in a jacket that weights just 808grams. With no velcro on the cuffs it was very easy to whip on and off and I found myself using it for even short breaks or even in anticipation of windy conditions on the col above.
Like the Meru Gore jacket I wore a medium rather than my normal large which comfortably fitted over my three under layers. The very lightweight face fabric has proved surprisingly tough and there's no visible damage. Overall it's a very simple design with no drawcords, velcro, excess pockets etc, yet it maximises it's insulation while keeping the weight right down.
Sat around in the mess tent at base camp I had to use a couple of other layers plus this jacket to be comfortable. My older and far heavier expedition weight jacket is usually fine just over a thermal but now feels like overkill for anything under 7000m. It certainly takes up a lot more space in my bag. I didn't notice any difference in insulation with the body mapping, which places more down in certain areas, but then again I didn't suffer any cold spots in what is essential a very lightweight jacket. The theory behind mapping makes sense and allows The North Face to make the jacket lighter while offering the same level of overall warmth.
The cuffs of this jacket feature a recessed seam which produces a very warm collar of down around the wrist. In practice I couldn't decide if I liked this feature or not. It was certainly very warm giving a real boost to this vulnerable area, (warm wrists mean warm hands) but I found that it kept getting in the way and got very dirty especially when trying to eat dehydrated rations.
The hood worked great fitting over all my other layers and a helmet. It offers limited protection to the face but even without a volume reducer or drawcords it doesn't get in the way even when worn on its own.
The Shaffle is a very striking looking jacket and there were plenty of questions about it. Warmth for weight it's arguably one of the best pieces on the market. The North Face have done a great job at keeping it simple offering maximum warmth with minimal faff.
The Meru Mitts proved to be a very adaptable design being less bulky than traditional high altitude mitts. The combination of pile and Primaloft meant that they were plenty warm enough and were less prone to compression when trying to do anything with them on, a problem with down mitts. With wristovers and thermal gloves I'd be very happy to use these above 8000m with a pair of down mitts in my bag as backup.
I would suggest that the majority of climbs over 6000m these days are made on fixed lines requiring wearers to spend long periods maneuvering a handled Jumar. None of the popular models of ascendor will accept a full down mitt into the handle but the tapered shape of these mitts meant that they worked reasonably well with a Petzl handled version. However the little finger was then vunerable to the cold where it presses against the angle. The Meru mitt has what feels like a stitched through seam in the insulation along it's lower edge which gave a noticeable cold spot in use. I would imagine technical climbing with modern tools would have the same problem. Moving the seam would immediately resolve this problem or a more radical approach would be to fit a foam insert to protect and support this vulnerable spot for the many hours spent hanging from a jumar or ice tool.
The information that came with the mitts described a removable liner. My version didn't have this feature and was the poorer for it. Being able to remove the insulation to aid drying the glove is critical for multi day trips.
The gauntlet style offered plenty of protection without being too bulky over the Shaffle down jacket. There is reduced insulation in the extended cuff to help with this. However the supplied wrist loops are attached to the end of this gauntlet sitting half way up the forearm and proved very fiddly to use restricting removal of the mitt. Despite insisting all my clients used idiot loops on their gloves I was eventually forced to remove mine.
The leather palm has proved very durable and doesn't show any sign of the many meters of fixed line I slid down with an arm wrap - unlike one of my jackets!
I found the fit to be pretty good. I usually take a large glove to get the volume right but this usually leaves my stubby little fingers with rather too much deadspace. In mitts this can be worse but the pre-curved shape and the X-Trafit insert technology seemed to do a very good job of putting my hand in the right position with no excess fabric or insulation getting in the way of the job in hand. Surprisingly for a mitt i was able to operate my ascender and various karabiners while wearing them. The one minor gripe is the fit of the thumb which I found short and snug especially when wearing a pair of thermal gloves.
Overall the fit and technology behind this mitt are very good. A removable inner would transform it into a very practical option for all but the worst conditions.
A great wee film from Andy Houseman in his The North Face Meru kit climbing the Slovak Direct on Denali
I received a Blue Ice Choucas Harness just a few days before I was due to fly out to Kathmandu to lead an expedition on the North Ridge of Everest. At 170grams this harness is spookily light but the Dyneema webbing is incredibly strong and having had a quick play with it I felt able to leave my old heavyweight Bod at home (495gr)
In action it was very similar to the Bod with a number of advantages, the obvious one being the weight or lack of. There was plenty of adjustability in the medium/large size which fitted comfortably over my down suit but also clinched down tight over a pair of soft shell trousers lower on the mountain.
One great feature is the red belay loop which makes it very obvious even when peering down through goggles and an oxygen mask past a bulky down suit. I now extend my abseil device on a cows tail to remove the potential for error but if you chose to clip into your belay loop then this feature is a life saver.
The buckle was very easy to use even with big gloves on and it never froze, a problem I’ve experienced several times with other harnesses. Toilet stops at altitude are an interesting challenge usually occurring at the most inconvenient times but the spacing of the rear elastics meant that, without being too graphic, nothing restricted access and you were able to stay clipped in, an important safety consideration. Tried and tested at 8700m!
If you’re competent on Scottish style mixed ground then there’s not many opportunities to abseil on the North Ridge but on the couple of occasions I did the harness was surprisingly comfortable providing plenty of support to the legs. Some lightweight harnesses can ride up and restrict your breathing but in this case I think I can blame it on the altitude!
For me this is unarguably the best harness I’ve used for climbing at altitude. Like all Dyneema products it would be vulnerable to friction but after two months use of Everest it still looks as good as new. It would be ideal for many commercial trips such as Cho Oyu, Island Peak, Muztag Ata, Denali, Vinson etc but you would probably need a slightly more supportive harness for technical peaks such as Ama Dablam. It would also work great for easy alpine routes and ski mountaineering where weight is key. Overall a superb harness and one which I'll be wearing for scrambling, ski touring and general mountaineering in the next few months.
Member of the Rab & Lowe Alpine Test Teams & former reviewer for The North Face