Keeping warm at the top of Europe. A Rab mountain clothing system gets put through its paces in Arctic Norway: the Shadow Hoodie, a wind resistant technical fleece; the Alpine Pull-On, an ultralight softshell; and the Photon Hoodie, a lightweight synthetic duvet.
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"...The Alpine Pull-On is an interesting beast. Rab call it 'the world's lightest softshell'. Cynics might offer the alternative: 'world's heaviest windshirt'..."
Arctic Norway is a mountain lover's playground. In the space of a week we climbed a multi-pitch ice route, skied up and down numerous peaks - from the beach to about the height of tallest Scottish peaks - and I watched (then skied down) as Ed flew his paraglider, riding the breeze rolling in down the fjord and hitting the hillside that rises above it. We got sun-burnt faces and dealt with frigid winds coming off the Arctic sea where no land separates you from the pole. It's the perfect place to put a mountain clothing system to the test. However, when packing for the trip I chucked in a few of my old faithful items of clothing just in case I didn't get on with the new Rab kit.
I need not have bothered, they remained neatly folded and fresh smelling in my kit bag. On the other hand, the Rab gear arrived home in need of a good wash, having been used everyday for a week. As a system, the three items worked perfectly: a great solution to the sweat-freeze-sweat issues that come with ski-mountaineering but working well for ice climbing as well. I used various merino base layers underneath – some slightly thicker than others - but overall that seemed to make little difference.
The Shadow Hoodie has been reviewed in depth by Assistant Ed Sarah here and I agree with the thrust of her review: this is a great technical fleece. The Windpro fabric really works – I stood on a number of windy ferry decks to test this! – and has none of the sweatiness issues and weight that accompanied earlier (and frankly stupid) membrane windproof fleece. The Shadow is double the weight of something like the Patagonia R1 Hoody, but with the Windpro material is much closer to being a mid-layer than an insulation piece like the R1.
The Shadow fit is trim (Rab's photo makes the jacket look much more bulky than it really is) and the hood is well-designed: simple but so stretchy that it can easily be pulled over a climbing helmet. The thumb loops are ace, particularly while ice climbing. The chest pockets also work as vents, but the zips run so far down the pocket that if they are left open they are not too secure for anything in the pockets.
My only criticism is that - like another reviewer - I've had some stitching fail around the cuff/thumb loop area. This will only require a few DIY stitches to fix but is annoying on a relatively expensive fleece. Pulling the cuff down to use the thumb loop clearly exerts a lot of pressure on one small area, so it would be good if Rab could reinforce the stitching around this area in future production runs.
The Alpine Pull-On is an interesting beast. Rab call it 'the world's lightest softshell'. Cynics might offer the alternative 'world's heaviest windshirt' but that is rather unfair because I doubt it is actually any heavier than my 8 year old Sprayway Pertex shirt, while giving considerably more protection because of its hood.
The Pertex Equilibrium is textured: more like a light, stretch-woven softshell than classic shiny Pertex. Nevertheless it remains very light, it wicks sweat well, dries very quickly and is perfectly windproof. The hood is superb – stiffened and clearly designed to be helmet compatible – it is a far better hood than any I have seen on other windshirts. The chest pockets are big and usable, and can take a folded map (maybe not an OS with its card cover still attached) or ski skins stuffed into them. The front zip is deep for ventilation, and double-ended, making it easier to get to the pockets of your under layers even when zipped up out of the storm.
"...Nevertheless I was pleased to pull the Photon out of my sac and snuggle up in that whilst dispensing the occasional encouraging titbit from the safety of the belay ledge..."
It never got warm enough to rain on us in Norway, but the Pull-On has a DWR coating and I didn't get wet rolling around in wet snow* in it. Pertex (or similar) windshirts are amazing bits of kits providing a huge amount of protection for their low weight and cost. The Alpine Pull-On is heavier than some of its competitors, but it is still only 260g – that isn't an awful lot considering its great hood and increased usability over the lightest windshells. At around 65 quid, I suspect it will be an acceptable compromise for many. It isn't quite what I tend to think of as a softshell, but it is a lot more than a simple, superlight windshirt.
*This tends to be the result of my telemark turns in grabby crud.
Toby showing off in his new Rab gear
The Photon Hoodie has been around for sometime and is popular already but was new to me. Rab say their Alpine Generator is probably better as a light belay jacket (it has a more water resistant shell and even more moisture-phobic Primaloft insulation) while the Photon is slightly warmer but a more general cold weather jacket. If this is the case, then the Alpine Generator must be excellent as a belay jacket because the Photon is bloody good in its own right.
Rolling out of the car after a 17 hour-through-the-night drive, we headed up to an icefall in Tamokdalen. Ed had not climbed ice in three years and hasn't been doing it regularly for over a decade, so in retrospect handing him the screws and screamers for the second pitch of our icefall might have been a bit mean. But he is tough lad, although being a Scot he ignored the shimmering cascades of blue ice directly above us and promptly headed off to scratch about on the rock at the edge of the icefall whilst I settled in to watch. He got there in end showing that you never forget how to ride I bike or, indeed, scare yourself stupid on an ice climb.
Nevertheless I was pleased to pull the Photon out of my sac and snuggle up in that whilst dispensing the occasional encouraging titbit from the safety of the belay ledge like: “What are you doing up there?”, “Stop pissing about and climb the ice” and “It's –5 and windy, will you bloody well hurry up please”. The Photon's hood easily goes over a climbing helmet ... and the hoods of the Alpine Pull-On and Shadow - and the zips come up high and gives your face plenty of protection. Just the thing for snug (and smug) belaying. The sleeves are a bit narrower than on some full-on belay jackets, but I could still get my gloved hands through them with no problems.
Overall the fit is quite trim meaning that you could easily climb in it or wear it for more general use, but the size medium fitted perfectly over a size medium Shadow and Alpine Pull-On which, along with the good hood, makes it a belay jacket in my book. For midwinter ice or mixed climbing, particularly over bulky layers or when you are expecting to stand around belaying for hours, you might want something warmer, but otherwise the Photon is a good booster layer that doesn't weigh much or take up a lot of room in your pack.
Overall, the three items make a great combo for cold mountains when you don't expect rain. The normal Arctic Norwegian ski touring experience starts with a fight to skin steeply up through birch and pine. This normally involves copious amounts of sweat, panting and swearing and best done in just your base layer. A couple of hundred metres up you emerge from the trees to a fabulous views but a cold breeze. Pull on the Alpine Pull-On and keep sweating as you skin up: it breathes perfectly but cuts out the drafts. Up on the summit ridges swap it for the Shadow for a bit more warmth, but still plenty of wind resistance and excellent breathability. On the summit the Photon keeps you warm as you munch your sarnies and try to comprehend the grandeur of the views. Then stuff the Photon back in your bag and put the Pull-On back on over the Shadow to keep the wind out as you shred down/keep the snow out as you fall over embarrassingly on your first turn (delete as applicable to your skiing skill level). Together the three items work excellently.
Finally, in the past I've found that Rab clothing didn't fit me very well, seeming to favour the tall and skinny, so I was pleased to find that a medium in these items fitted OK. They are definitely a bit slimmer fitting than, for example, Patagonia or Marmot, and although arm and body length was great for me, with the Pull-On in particular I would need another inch in the chest to fit me perfectly (the Shadow is so stretchy it doesn't matter). Overall, if you are of a stocky build you might want to try before you buy, but for slimmer people the fit should be great.
PRICES: Shadow: £120, Alpine Pull-on: £70, Photon: £110
About Toby ArcherToby Archer is based in Finland, where he works as a researcher specialising in terrorism and political Islam.
He describes himself as an "international politics think-tanker, perennial PhD student, hopeless but enthusiastic climber, part-time gear reviewer, often angry cyclist, idealist, cynic."
Climbing keeps him from getting too depressed about politics. He blogs about both at:
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Toby Archer: