As mountain instructors we ask a lot of out kit. Day in day out we’re out in the hills whatever the weather abusing our clothing systems, demanding they keep us warm, dryish and comfortable
There are plenty of specialised items on the market but they all compromise in one aspect or another - durability, comfort, weight etc. However we occasionally find an item that just works. Its combination of features, fabrics and fit achieves that perfect balance and it become the piece you forget about. No clothing decisions to be made regarding activity level or weather, just annoyance when they’re in the wash!
My Rab Calibre Pants have quickly established themselves as that piece. In the last few months I’ve racked up more than 100 days of use and abuse. They are marketed as technical mountaineering pants for use in cold harsh environments. However the high levels of comfort and breathability mean mine have graced the local bouldering wall as well as the interior of Antarctica.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve kicked off my Scottish winter season. Conditions have been somewhat challenging but I’ve been comfortable pairing these pants with an eVent shell. Despite a good soaking on various routes I’ve been warm and dry by the time we reached the car with body heat driving their quick drying abilities. In more typical Scottish conditions I’ve layered them over a thin merino layer for a great system in all but the worst weather.
The fabric sheds water and dirt in equal measure and stayed looking smart throughout a 2 month Antarctic expedition - even Emperor Penguin poo washed straight off! It’s also slightly stretchy with good knee articulation meaning it climbs and skis well with very little restriction. The thigh vents, which I love from my VR Guide Pants, have been developed to include a far larger surface area for rapid heat loss while also providing sun protection. This means I’ve found them comfortable and practicable in a far greater range of conditions than I suspect they were designed for.
The knees and inner calves are protected by a very tough but flexible fabric which I’ve failed to damage despite my worst intentions. The boot grippers work well and even in deep snow I’ve never found the need to use the under boot laces.
The price means they are an investment but their versatility and comfort mean that I can focus on whatever the days mountain adventure brings and know that my leg wear isn’t going to be found wanting.
Synthetic duvet jackets have been a mainstay of my clothing system since becoming a realistic alternative to fleece back in the late nineties. I've used and abused a number of jackets from ultra-lightweight pieces to full expedition parkers and even insulated trousers in polar regions.I’ve found that Primaloft clothing offers a lot of protection and survivability for their weight. They are wind and weatherproof but also keep you warm when wet, which is essential for our typical UK weather.
The latest incarnation of the Xenon-X Jacket had a baptism of fire last month. I teamed it up with the lightweight Vapour Rise Jacket for the variety of different days inherent in being a mountain instructor - from chilly belays while guiding on a Lake District mountain crag, to a soggy day taking photos of a mountain event. It’s been used as a lightweight warm layer for a very windy mountain marathon and as a stunning bivi, high above Chamonix while introducing friends to the delights of alpine climbing. It provided instant warmth after an open water swim under a full moon and spent several days stuffed into the bottom of my rucksack as an emergency layer while instructing.
The new Primaloft Gold Active is slightly less warm weight for weight than its predecessor but it’s more robust matted composition means that the jackets lining fabric can have a more open weave and therefore greater breathability. This becomes very obvious the first time you work up a sweat. Normally I'd be venting a synthetic jacket and removing hats and gloves to avoid overheating, but the Xenon-X was comfortable across a wider range of activity, quickly wicking moisture and heat away, which also meant I didn't get cold and clammy when I stopped moving. Despite its low weight it feels reassuringly warm and will easily layer over or under my shell.
Rab® have kept it simple with a couple of hand-warmer pockets and an internal chest pocket which will take a map or guidebook with ease, while the under helmet hood is extremely comfortable and useful.
Many lightweight fabrics are prone to getting jammed in zips, however with the Xenon-X the wind baffle behind the teeth has been slightly stiffened providing the perfect balance between zip jam prevention and minimal weight and bulk.
Practical as a summer and winter climbing layer, this jacket is becoming my go to option for UK instruction and guiding. It ticks all of the boxes that a lightweight synthetic jacket should but introduces an element of flexibility. I look forward to putting the Xenon-X through it’s paces in Antarctica at the end of this year. I’ll report back on how it holds up!
For the last few weeks I've been testing a new jacket from The North Face, the innovative Alpine Project Wind Jacket and after a dubious start it's really grown on me. At first glance I struggled to identify where it would fit in to my clothing system. Was it a soft shell, an insulated jacket without the insulation or a heavy weight windproof. The best description is probably all of the above as it's one of those pieces of kit that just seems to work. I must admit I've been using this jacket for a number of activities that probably exceed what the designers had in mind for it but layered over a thin thermal it's kept me comfortable fell running, bouldering, mountain biking, climbing, scrambling, hill walking, road biking, marshaling on a mountain challenge and even a photo shoot for Trail Running magazine.
'Rage against the wind in The North Face Men’s Alpine Project Wind Jacket a new pull-over anorak styled, hooded nylon micro ripstop mountain shell. Coated with a DWR water shedding finish. This wind shell has map accommodating twin alpine pockets and a chest pocket that’s handy for a compass, phone or gps device. The hood adjusts at the back. Simple and rugged ,The Men’s Alpine Project Wind Jacket offers effective wind shell performance as one would expect from a technical, athlete test Summit Series™ jacket.'
Designed as a technical and durable windproof it has proved surprisingly waterproof when caught out by yet another shower at the start of our traditional Lakeland summer. I would still carry a lightweight waterproof with a bad forecast but generally I've been very happy to use this as my shell. The double layer of ripstop nylon has proved very successful at blocking everything the elements can throw at me. There is an extra layer of insulation over the torso provided by an internal thin fleece scrim. However this doesn't extend down the arms which means the jacket doesn't bind when you're trying to put it on over a damp thermal, a great design feature which really makes a practical difference on the hill.
The jackets hood is one of its best features. It's a great fit, feeling comfortable, unrestrictive and turns with your head but offers far more protection than many other wind proofs. The slightly stiffened peak sits just in the right place to deflect the worst of the weather but doesn't restrict your vision. The only adjustment on the whole jacket is a cord at the back that clinches the hood in snug to your head. This also means there are no toggles to whip you in the face. However the price you pay for such a well fitting hood is that it won't fit over a climbing helmet.
Having raved about the hood there are however a couple of significant niggles. There is no way to secure the hood when it’s not in use which means it flaps around in a very annoying manner. Then if you place anything in the chest pocket while the front zip is open then there is a tendency for the hood to be pulled around to the left ending up perched on your shoulder. A simple Velcro strap would transform this jacket for faster paced activities. The second hood issue occurs only with a following wind when the drumming of the fabric over your ears drowns out any other sound (rockfall, climbing partners etc). I suspect this is due to the lightness of the nylon fabric and or the lack of hood adjustment but for whatever reason this is probably the biggest weakness of the jacket. Some reinforcing over the ears or an adjustable draw cord may go some way to helping prevent this?
The rest of the jacket gives a very roomy and comfortable fit. There were plenty of venting options with a long front zip and the lycra bound cuffs could easily be pulled up to your elbows. I get the feeling it would have been brilliant for last months ski touring trip to the Vanoise. The extra water repellancy would have been ideal for my frequent crashes!
Tunnel pockets used to be very popular in outdoor clothing but have pretty much disappeared from use. Here they work extremely well giving loads of room which is accessible while wearing a harness and having a deep lip to help prevent items from escaping if you forget to zip the pocket up. The chest pocket is small but will take a smart phone or compass.
For me this jacket makes a great multipitch cragging top offering lightweight insulation and weatherproofing. A couple of sessions on the very rough gabbro of the Carrick Fell boulders has failed to inflict any damage on the surprisingly tough lightweight fabrics. The jacket is designed to stuff into it's own pocket however one minor design flaw is the lack of an internal loop for attaching it to the back of your climbing harness.
After my initial confusion I think this jacket has identified it's niche offering a weather resistant shell that's just that bit more practical for UK conditions than a traditional soft shell and compliments my existing system of thermals, Primaloft insulation and hard shell waterproofs. A wee bit of fine tuning and this could become a classic multi activity jacket.
Member of the Rab & Lowe Alpine Test Teams & former reviewer for The North Face