Lightweight softshell jackets are a summer staple for both walkers and climbers. We compare 11 models here.
"...Soft shell? Never been a fan of it. Too flimsy and not windproof enough. It's hard enough keeping warm in the winter without having to worry about cold polar air ripping through your bones. The humble hard shell has always brought a level of comfort to me that I cherished in the mountains, as I knew that when the Weather Gods really turned nasty I could just zip up and I would feel fine. Unlike in a soft shell - or so I thought anyway...
Many of the world's top climbers rave on about how good Patagonia is, but the price tag attached to most of their clothing line is enough to put many people off. Armed with a pretty comprehensive range, I've been putting Patagonia kit to the test this winter in the Alps to find out if, honestly, it's worth the extra cash.
Before I get bogged down in the first review - the Ascensionist Soft Shell Jacket - for starters let me give you a simple overview of Patagonia gear. The fit is the best I have come across - unlike most US brands Patagonia don't just import their US sizing for Europe (let's be honest our friends across the pond are slightly larger built than we are). Gone are unwanted breasts and baggy arms, here is a fit that actually moves with you when you climb. It's a catch phrase that all clothing companies use, but that not many actually achieve - Patagonia call it Slim Fit.
As well as fitting well, so far the Patagonia jackets have all performed outstandingly well, in all kinds of scenarios out in the French Alps from moving fast up big faces to slow and hard technical mixed terrain. If you have always been a firm believer, like I was, that you seemed to be paying more simply for the 'Patagucci' image rather than for higher quality products then read on...
Soft shell? Never been a fan of it.
Too flimsy and not windproof enough. It's hard enough keeping warm in the winter without having to worry about cold polar air ripping through your bones. The humble hard shell has always brought a level of comfort to me that I cherished in the mountains, as I knew that when the Weather Gods really turned nasty I could just zip up and I would feel fine. Unlike in a softshell - or so I thought anyway...
The Ascensionist Jacket's fabric and feature list incorporates more fancy names and abbreviations than would follow the name of a well-seasoned lawyer. So, barring all the jargon, what are you left with? Well - a lightweight 544g soft shell, made with minimal fabric and minimal fuss. On the face of it, this might sound like you don't get much bang for your £200 bucks. However, take the Ascenscionist out a few times in the hills, and you'll find that you won't want to take anything else out instead.
The cut, as already mentioned, is superb. I have used this jacket about 85% of the winter so far, which is saying a lot considering I was always a hard shell man. At the end of the day this soft shell is about as close to a hard shell as I have ever seen. The waterproofness is amazing for starters. On two occasions I have had a proper hosing this winter. The first was starting up an early season Patri Droite where the rest of me, my rack, and ropes actually froze solid but the softshell kept my core dry.
The second occasion was when I was leading up the final pitch of the ultra-classic Nuit Blanche - I was within a few metres of the top when the overflow outlet from the snow canons released down the route. And yes, it is exactly how it sounds - a nice cold ice fall suddenly turns into a mini waterfall. As soon as I heard the water rumbling above me I pulled my hood up and then all hell broke loose. By the time Kenton had lowered me back down to the belay I had been taking a good showering for a while. We waited for nearly two hours before Nick Bullock came to our rescue way into the night. I was amazed to find that the Ascensionist had repelled such a torrent of water so effectively.
So the Ascensionist ticks all the boxes for waterproofness - an important box, in my eyes, to tick. However soft shells have a poor reputation when it comes to kicking back the wind chill on those particularly breezy days. It is a reputation that I think is founded on poorly built soft shells though.
At the end of the day even a cheap hard shell will cut the wind out very effectively as it's just a very glorified bin bag, but a cheap soft shell can be totally useless. However top-end soft shells are now really catching up with their hardshell counterparts in terms of windproofing, and the Ascensionist is a prime example. Even in full on winter Alpine gales I have been fine, and it has been my legs if anything that have given out first.
As for its breathability, well this is any soft shell's strong point. One feel of the fabric and you know that the Ascensionist is about as good as it gets. I have used this jacket on all sorts of energetic exercise runs from big ski touring fitness days to long alpine routes, and it has been nothing short of perfect.
Last month we climbed up the Couturier couloir on the Aiguille Verte and, while it is a technically easy climb, it is long when you have to break trail all the way up it with skis on your pack. Even with a Patagonia Nano Puff mid layer on underneath I arrived at the summit pretty much bone dry.
Climbing technical routes has also been a joy with this jacket. Due to its elastic properties you can pull whatever moves you can think of without the jacket riding up out of your harness. Big bonus in my books. The fabric itself has been surprisingly resistant and so far has come away unscathed from all sorts of thrutching mixed action and tree skiing.
OK, this is starting to sound like what you would refer to in the US as an 'infomercial' - lots of pluses but no minuses. However I can honestly say that I haven't found anything wrong with this jacket yet. For its intended use it is just incredible, and best of all it doesn't come with a ridiculous price tag. The RRP of £200 makes this the best value jacket I have ever worn.
Toby Archer goes into even more detail on the benefits and downsides of 'almost hard shell' soft shells in his review of the Marmot Genesis here.
Jon Griffith's first climbing days were in the Avon Gorge at Bristol. After university he moved to Chamonix, where he works as a professional mountain photographer: www.alpineexposures.com.
"It's hard to pick one specific type of climbing that I prefer over the others but I think my heart still lies with big mixed alpine routes that potentially involve a couple of nights bivying. I am still getting used to the whole Chamonix 'get back in time for the last lift' style - I still include bivying as a part of any decent mountaineering experience. I am also still getting used to crack climbing - it hurts.... a lot."
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