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.
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.
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