The first thing I noticed about the Rab Ascent is the fit. Rab's fit seems to favour the tall and slim. I am pretty average I think, I'm just under 5'10” with 40” chest – not slim but also not fat nor particularly stocky. I definitely need a size large for my chest and shoulders, but the arms are longer than they need to be (not really a problem in itself) and the body is long covering my bum well, which is actually an advantage. In comparison, I take a medium in the sizing of many American brands such as Marmot or Patagonia. The Rab fit does seems quite specific so best to try one to see if it suits you.
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The construction of the jacket is stitched-through – if you could see a cross-section of the jacket it would look like a series of circles stacked on each other. This is the easiest and hence cheapest way to make down jackets but has the disadvantage that with stitching going through the jacket it makes an un-insulated area. The Finnish outdoor magazine Retki did a test of insulated jackets in a recent edition and one of their studies for the review was taking pictures of the jackets on test with a thermal imaging camera whilst they were worn in a freezer room. What was very obvious from these thermal images were which jackets were a stitched-through construction and which were not: warmer colours were clearly visible along the lines of stitching on the sewn-through jackets, and not there on the box-walled jackets. Box-walled jackets in cross-section look (unsurprisingly!) like a series of boxes stacked on each other, with no stitching through.
Rab do make box-walled jackets, but they cost more. If you want the ultimate warmth to weight ratio you simply have to pay more than the Ascent's relatively modest price and go for a box-walled jacket.
The hood for me is the weak point of the jacket in one major sense – it is detachable. I never detach hoods and hate it when they do so of their own accord, something that is easily done with hoods such as the popper attached one on the Ascent. Pulling a 60 cm sling off from over your shoulder is a good way to un-pop some poppers, but it can be done even whilst just taking a rucksack off, or pulling a stuffed jacket out of your pack. This is one reason why I'll stand by my assertion that a belay jacket should not have a detachable hood – the hood is so important to making a jacket warm. Of course you could add a few stitches and to make the hood virtually impossible to lose – problem solved? Not really. The second major problem with detachable hoods is that they mean the jacket needs a separate collar which is still there when the hood isn't attached. This out of necessity needs to be quite a tight fit – so much so that just over a cotton hoody I had trouble doing it up fully. Anyone wearing it over a hooded anything – a softshell for example – is likely to have the same problem. In comparison, my North Face Redpoint Optimus with its fixed hood, zips up easily over the same hooded sweatshirt. If you are going to be wearing the Ascent as a jacket on its own and hence just over your mid-layers, this may not be a problem but makes it less suited for alpine and winter climbing where you use it as a booster layer over a Goretex or shoftshell. And considering the popularity of hoodies amongst those sending hard problems and grit routes, it could even limit the Ascent's appeal for those cold Peak District mornings when the friction is good.
I also found the poppers that do the hood up at the front impossible to do use even with only thin fleece gloves on. It does have a Velcro patch as well as the poppers and this helps to get your face covered, but this still isn't ideal. Even once all done up it doesn't offer as much protection to the face as fixed hoods. I tried a Rab Neutrino in a shop for comparison, and its simple zip-up fixed hood covers more – it would be nice to be able to hide a bit more inside the Ascent's hood, particularly as the snug collar will make wearing a scarf tricky. Beyond this the hood is good: it happily goes over a helmet, has a wired brim to keep heavy snow out of your eyes, the adjusters can be used with gloves on and it's well insulated and very warm.
The jacket is made of Pertex Endurance which seems the perfect material for this kind of jacket – light, windproof and water resistant. I've worn the Ascent in a heavy, damp blizzard and it shed soggy snow with ease. The material is not waterproof though – if you want a jacket you can wear in rain for any length of time, this isn't the model for you. Rab, as well as other companies, do actually make other waterproofed insulated jackets. There are some very nice finishing touches to the construction like fleece lined pockets, collar and beard protector, and finishing over all is pretty good. I've seen some reports of recent Rab jackets where the owners felt they were losing excessive amounts of down. All down jackets seem to lose some feathers, normally through the stitching, but in the months I've had the Ascent it has not suffered from this problem any more than I would expect.
The Ascent isn't made out of the highest grade of down, nor the lightest possible materials. So although you get durability and a reasonable price, it is neither the lightest or most compressible jacket available. It is very hard to say how warm the jacket is, so much depends on what you are wearing underneath, what you are doing and personal physiology, but standing ten minutes, waiting for bus at –15 with just t-shirt and micro fleece underneath was no great hardship. Due to the amount and quality of insulation, I would imagine that it is one of the warmer jackets available at around that price.
© Toby Archer, Jan 2009
What RAB say
Down jacket with detachable hood. Designed for trekking, travel and mountain walking.
So who is going to make a cheaper down jacket with an attached hood? Presumably this can't be any more complex than sewing a collar and a separate hood. I'm not sure that people really do leave their hoods behind to “save weight” – if you need an insulated winter jacket you are going to want a hood as it makes such a significant difference to the warmth and protection that the coat will offer. In which case why make it detachable? Rather it seems to me that the cheaper end of the market is aimed at people who will use their jackets for casual use as much as active, and who might prefer it hoodless when out bouldering on cool autumn mornings or strolling to the pub in the evening. This is shame because everything else with the jacket works just fine for technical use.
To be fair, Rab do not claim that the Ascent is a belay jacket; their website gives “trek & travel” and “mountain walking” as its intended use. It is by no means a bad jacket – it is made of good materials, it is really warm and isn't too expensive. But if it wants to really live up to its name and be a good choice for winter climbers as well, it needs a fixed hood.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by TobyA: