At £490 this is probably the most expensive piece of clothing I've ever worn, boots included. It's also the fattest and warmest down jacket we've been sent to review for some time. The Down Belay Parka is more Antarctic expedition than Scottish winter climbing. This has made it tricky to review. I've tried to make allowance for our warm wet environment, and to keep in mind the uses and places for which this jacket was actually designed. If you spend most of your time in the British hills then it is simply overkill; it's a specialist bit of kit for serious cold. If you're heading to polar regions, an alpine winter or the greater ranges then I think we can safely say that this may be just the thing...
As the name suggests, the Down Belay Parka is sized to fit comfortably over multiple other layers, and it's made long enough to provide maximum body protection. Even despite this, however, the sizing is immense. I was absolutely lost in my standard size Large, and had to go down to a Medium. This is still gigantic on me, coming well below the waist at the front and dropping lower still at the rear to give complete bum coverage - in fact it even covers the tops of my legs. The arms are both wide and very long, the collar comes high to protect the lower half of the face, and the hood is similarly spacious. There's tons of room in the body - too much, really, unless you're layering up over several other things. The cut is all about standing around on a long cold belay, or hanging out at a camp on an ice cap; think boxy and baggy rather than close and active.
At the cuffs there's an internal stretch sleeve, which has a very relaxed fit to make it easy to pull over the bulkiest gloves. This space is great, but with no way to tighten the fit at the wrist there's potential for strong wind to get in since it's really quite baggy.
The one place that it's cut noticeably closer is in the armpits, which I actually think is a bit of an error since it makes for a tight fit over multiple other layers, and it feels a bit restrictive here even while the rest is spacious. This jacket is not cut for climbing in; raise your arms and you get a lot of hem lift, even despite the massive length in the hem. But then you'd never climb or even walk uphill in the Down Belay Parka anyway, since you'd melt in a matter of minutes.
At 760g size Medium, this is a fairly hefty item to cart about. Versus a synthetic jacket of similar weight, I think you can expect a lot more insulating performance from the Down Belay Parka.
As you'd hope from a premium end, heavyweight down duvet, The North Face have used a box baffle construction rather than the cheaper stitched-through baffles you find on most lighter weight jackets. This makes for more efficient insulation, by minimising heat loss at the seams.
A high quality 800 fill power goose down provides the meat in the sandwich - and I'm pleased to say it is ethically RDS-certified. This stuff lofts really well, and of course compresses readily when you come to packing up. TNF tell me that you get 271.8g of fill in a size medium jacket. That's quite a lot of fluff, but not an exceptional amount. Several brands make jackets of equivalent or greater warmth. Let's take Rab as just one example. The Down Belay Parka is pretty comparable to the Positron Pro (760g total, with 300g of 800fp down), but it somewhat pales next to a hardcore alternative such as Rab's fully waterproof Batura (1190g total, with something like 450g of 800fp down).
We're not all bound for Everest of course, and the warmth on offer from the Parka's fill is pretty impressive in its own right. I've worn it on long cold winter belays and snowy summits in high wind chill, and felt fantastically toasty throughout. I think you would be hard pressed to get near its lower limit in the UK. While I can't personally vouch for how it feels on a 7000m Himalayan peak, that's the sort of environment that I'm confident it would do well in. This jacket can clearly keep you comfortable well down into minus double figures.
I only have one quibble about the fill. In an age when many brands are offering water-resistant-treated down, it came as a bit of a surprise that TNF weren't following suit here. Since untreated down clumps together and loses most of its loft when wet, it would seem a bit of a no-brainer to use a treated alternative that performs better for longer if you do manage to get it damp. Yes the Down Belay Parka is designed to be used in serious sub zero conditions, not rain, but surely in any cold environment there's always meltwater, sweat and condensation to manage at some point?
I've never been to the Antarctic or bivvied on an Alpine winter face, so my experience of serious dry cold is limited. I do know a lot about the wet cold of the UK though, and I think that using water-resistant-treated down would have been an advantage in our context.
The main body of the parka is 10 denier Pertex Quantum, a lightweight fabric at only 25g/m2. This has a micro-ripstop pattern that should help prevent tears, but despite this it's thin stuff and I wouldn't want to squirm up too many granite chimneys in it (that's not really what this jacket is for). A DWR finish helps this fabric shed light moisture, though it is by no means fully waterproof.
If you're stood on a drippy belay, or camping for multiple nights in a condensation-riddled tent, you can't afford for your down jacket to start getting wet. To help guard against this The North Face have added large panels of a waterproof/breathable overlay. This two-layer DryVent fabric covers the key areas most exposed to dampness - shoulders, top side of the arms, cuffs, collar, hood and rear hem. It also feels tougher than the Pertex Quantum.
Only having waterproof fabric in the most vital areas obviously saves weight, but wouldn't it have been better to cover the whole thing with DryVent?
TNF don't agree. Here's what they told us:
"The reason for not using the overlay throughout is really down to bulk and cost. Using the Dryvent fabric throughout would mean having to fully tape the garment and in doing this it greatly reduces the packability and overall versatility."
The black-and-yellow retro 90s colour scheme of our review jacket won't be everyone's cup of tea. I think I look like a cross between a gilet jaune, a rapper, a bumblebee and the Michelin man - a look it's quite hard to carry off, and the main reason I've not ventured to unleash it in an inhabited area. Thankfully some slightly less radical colours are available.
With a hood that's sized to comfortably accommodate a helmet, the Down Belay Parka lives up to its name. With the added bulk of a helmet, head movement remains unrestricted, and the lower face stays well covered. Remove your helmet and the hood can be tightened onto the head pretty effectively, with two side volume adjusters and one at the rear. It's a good hood overall, with one weakness - there's no structure in the peak, so it can flap in the wind (though not when stretched over a helmet of course).
Two good-sized zipped hand pockets are provided, plus a small inner zipped pocket for your phone. The outer pockets may not be placed high enough to access beneath a harness, but then this is not the sort of jacket you'd ever wear under a harness - it's one to throw on over the top of everything else at a belay. Two stretch mesh pockets inside are the place to have your gloves warming and drying out; I actually think they could be a tad deeper for greater security. For convenience when packing, the jacket can be scrunched into one of the mesh pockets - it's a tight fit, and makes a very hefty bundle, though you'd expect that with this much fill to compress.
The YKK Vislon main zip feels suitably robust. There's a double zipper for easier harness access, and an internal storm flap with a synthetic insulated fill. This can occasionally catch a bit in the zip, so an anti-snag strip would have been a good addition.
There's no cuff adjustment, but you do get a hem drawcord with tails tucked up neatly into the pockets.
It's way more jacket than most of us will ever need, at a price that most people would think twice about, but if you're after a duvet for somewhere seriously cold then the Down Belay Parka would be a decent choice. There's nothing remarkable here - other brands do similar things, and for this sort of outlay you can get something even warmer elsewhere - but The North Face have certainly done a decent job. The addition of waterproof panels is good, but in my opinion it might have been better yet with a hydrophobic-treated down too.
The North Face say:
Staying warm and dry during belays can make the difference between success and failure. Designed for long, cold belays in variable weather, this harness-compatible 800 fill down parka features dryvent™ overlays in key zones to keep you warm, dry and focused on the next pitch.
- Weight: 760g size M (our weight)
- Sizes: XS-XL (available for both men and women)
- Fabric, Body: 10D X 10D 25 G/M² Pertex® Quantum GL—100% Nylon Ripstop With Durable Water-Repellent finish
- Overlay: 7D 42 G/M² DryVent™ 2L—100% Nylon Ripstop
- Insulation: 800 Fill Goose Down Certified To The Responsible Down Standard (RDS)
- 100 g of THERMOLITE® synthetic insulation in the centre front draft flap and pockets
- Attached, adjustable, insulated, helmet-compatible hood
- Tricot-lined collar for added warmth and comfort
- Exposed two-way VISLON® centre front zip
- Exposed VISLON® zip handwarmer pockets
- Inner chest pocket with zip
- Two large interior mesh drop pockets for storage
- Parka stows in the drop pocket for easy carrying
- Interior stretch-knit cuffs
- Hem cinch cord adjusts via the hand pockets for a clean, no-fuss interior
For more info see thenorthface.co.uk