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Hot and heavy on Cat Bells, but the well ventilated Ascent 36 isn't too sweaty
UKC Gear, Nov 2013
© Dan Bailey
I've hillwalked with the Ascent 36 in all weathers, from snowy early spring to the summer heatwave, then on through autumn rains and back now to snow again. Conclusion: It's a good year-round bag, robust enough for winter mountains and with a well-ventilated back to minimise summer sweat.
Capacity and storage
The Ascent is available in a range of sizes from a pretty tight 22 litres to a roomy 42 litres. The 36 is a good compromise - enough for big winter hillwalking loads and even lightweight overnights (conceivably - I've not done it), but still easily compressible when half full. The number of pockets on the bag gives plenty of different storage options. This is great until you wonder where the compass is. As well as the conventional lid entry the main body of the sack can be accessed through a zip in the bottom, and a drawstring allows this base part to be cordoned off into a separate compartment. On a much bigger bag I'd see the logic in this arrangement, and I've occasionally made a bottom entry myself (no sniggering at the back) to reach a deeply buried item; but I can't see me ever needing this in a day pack. There's a separate front pocket too, not hugely deep but usefully wide. Access to this is easy via a full-length vertically-aligned zip. The two lid and under-lid zipped pockets are a fair size for gloves, hat, sunnies, compact camera and the rest, and a folded OS map just fits too if you've not overloaded. But where's the little plastic key clip? I know it's a small thing, yet they're pretty much de rigeur on rucksacks these days, and on an otherwise feature-rich bag the lack is a bit of an oversight. Down on the hip belt there's a single zipped mini pocket - maybe a little small for smartphone or GPS (I wouldn't know) but an ideal home for jelly babies. Perhaps the compass should live there too? Long gear like tent poles can be carried externally under the twin side compression straps, which open just wide enough to stow most things you'd want to strap on outside. The elasticated side sleeves stretch enough to hold a water bottle, and since the lid straps cleverly run under these sleeves they're held neatly out of the way - not something I've seen done before (see the product shot at the top of this review). The twin axe/pole attachment loops are a nice simple elastic arrangement, and the lower loops are adjusted by a toggle on the inside of the sack. Whether they'd withstand years of abuse with heavy ice axes I'm not sure.
Fit and frame
The Ascent's 'Motion Fit' back system is probably its chief selling point. Firstly, to minimise sweatiness Salewa have put a great big air gap between the harness and the body of the bag. It's wide enough to slide a hand through, allowing the air to circulate freely. A soft padded panel sits against your back, ventilated with a grid of big holes. This works well, and I've had a more or less dry back even after steaming uphill in summer heat. One obvious drawback to packs of the air gap variety however is that by holding the load away from the body they shift the centre of gravity backwards. For me at least this affects balance a little too much for climbing, making the Ascent 36 a walking-only pack. Happily Salewa have gone some way to compensate for the balance issue by employing a nifty bit of framework. The strong steel wire of the 'torsion frame' is held against the rear of the sack body. It supports a heavy load, but it's springy rather than rigid, and crucially it pivots in the small of the back so that as your trunk twists one way and your hips another (ie. when you're walking) the frame flexes with you rather than resisting the torsion. You only really feel the benefit of this when the hip belt is secure. Sadly the fixed back length of the Ascent 36 is too short for me (1.8m, fairly long back) but it does fit my wife, and she's sure she can feel the whole system working as billed. As for straps, the hip belt and shoulder straps are nicely slimline and well sculpted, with sufficient but not excessive amounts of padding. Little velcro tabs allow you to secure any loose tails on the hip belt - a good touch.
Untaped seams give rain an easy route into a rucksack, and the Ascent 36 has plenty - particularly around the big outer compartment. None of the external zips are of the weather'proof' kind either (for what that's worth). To make up for this Salewa give you a rain cover, neatly stashed in its own velcroed sleeve at the base of the sack. Elasticated toggles secure the cover snugly around the top of the shoulder straps, and the whole thing tightens at the bottom. Now when rain falls vertically out of a calm sky I've no problem with rucksack covers, and the Ascent's performs as you'd expect. But just add wind, that essential ingredient on a properly grotty British hill day, and rain covers are a pain. When they're not flapping wildly they catch a gust and billow like a parachute, threatening to send you skywards. I'm not a fan. If your rucksack's not weathertight in its own right (few are) then drybags inside are the answer, at which point a rain cover is redundant. A final thought on rain. Where pack and hipbelt meet there is, effectively, a deep well in which accumulated runoff can collect. The water's only real way out is through the ventilation holes in the back panel, and then I guess down your trousers. Admittedly this would only be possible on a resolutely rainy day, but it does suggest that the Ascent range was designed with a drier climate in mind.
There's a lot going on with this bag, from the profusion of storage options to the well ventilated and cleverly articulated back system. If it fits you, I think this 'Motion Fit' frame is what sets the Ascent range apart. However to my mind the frame is more elaborate and heavy duty than a medium-sized day pack really demands, and after plenty of use I still think the Ascent's feature set would be more in keeping on a 60-70 litre backpacking behemoth. The designers have clearly thought a lot about the Ascent, but I'd like to see this attention to detail applied to a simpler, lighter, stripped-back pack. That's just me though, and I'm sure there will be other walkers for whom it's all spot on.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com: