Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket
Lightweight and highly breathable waterproof protection.
Mountain Equipment's Tupilak is, they say, a 'serious, stripped back technical shell jacket ideally suited to alpine and expedition climbing on the steepest lines and biggest faces'. As a distinctly average climber, steepest and biggest are well beyond my humble remit. But you don't have to be climbing hard to appreciate the quality of this mountain shell. At 530g (size L) it's no flimsy ultra-minimalist lightweight, but strikes a more workmanlike balance between weight saving and toughness. With the emphasis tilted towards the latter, this is a jacket for all-day wild weather, built to shrug off the rough and tumble of alpine and winter climbing. There's nothing extraneous on the Tupilak, no attempt to be flash - instead this is a functional beast on which every feature has had to earn its place. The articulated cut is excellent, the hem length and hood size are commendably generous, and the fabric - Gore's most breathable and durable ever Pro shell - is an ideal match for the design.
I received the Tupilak to test in early August, just in time for a month of easy-but-high climbing in the Bolivian Andes. Though that's a short timespan for a review it's certainly been put through its paces at high altitude (as have I, wheeze, pant). While it has yet to tangle with a Scottish winter the features that make it so good in an icy blast at 6000m suggest that the Tupilak also has the makings of a top Scottish winter climbing shell.
The latest version of Gore-Tex Pro came out for the winter 2013/14 season. Gore have developed it specifically to suit the demands of climbers and mountaineers, and reckon it's their toughest fabric to date. But it is also highly breathable - as much as 28% more so than the previous generation of the fabric, according to lab tests. Apparently this has been achieved by leaving out the PU sheet typically used in multi-layer ePTFE membranes. But for most of us perhaps, more interesting than how it is made or what the lab results suggest is the all important question of how it performs in a shell in real life.
I've only been using Gore-Tex Pro on the hill since spring of this year; the Tupilak is the second such shell I've received to test. In the last month I've worn the Tupilak in almost exclusively cold, dry conditions - not the most rigorous proving ground for breathability - but a longer term trial of another jacket has given me ample opportunity to see how the new Pro copes in warmer, wetter environments. So far I've no complaints to make of its breathability, which I've found excellent in a variety of settings, from steaming uphill on dank Scottish spring hillwalking days to climbing on big snowy mountains at well below zero, with several layers under the shell. Even when working hard I've yet to feel unpleasantly damp, so I guess I'm sold on Gore-Tex Pro.
Bonded to the outside of Gore's Pro membrane, Mountain Equipment have used two different weights of face fabric: an 80D on high wear areas around the shoulders, the crown of the head and most of the arms, with a lighter and softer 40D elsewhere. They say this gives an excellent combination of durability and lightness, and I'm inclined to agree. Though I've not yet had the chance to abuse it on mixed routes, perhaps the toughest test of a jacket's longevity, it has so far proved more than a match for classic mountaineering. For its relatively modest weight the fabric seems impressively sturdy, and I'm fully expecting the Tupilak to last several Scottish seasons. There's a degree of stiffness to it too, and in windy conditions I'm convinced that this helps to keep you warmer by preventing air movement and compression in the layers worn beneath. Snug inside the Tupilak you feel really armoured from the elements. Unfortunately the fabric crinkles like a crisp packet with every move, though you soon stop noticing the noise.
The Tupilak is cut along the lines of a typical climber's physique - broad at the shoulders, tapering to a fairly slimline waist that sits neatly under a harness or rucksack hip belt. Sizing is markedly on the larger side, without seeming excessive. There's enough room inside for easy layering over other several tops, something I've really appreciated on icy pre-dawn starts at high altitude, yet when the wind picks up you don't flap like a flag. The length is generous too, giving more weather protection below the waist (why wouldn't you want that?) and less chance of the jacket riding up out of a harness over the course of a long day. Insufficient jacket length is something of a bugbear of mine, and I'm glad to see Mountain Equipment bucking the trend for shorter-cut climbing jackets here. Clever tailoring gives good arm lift without billows of extra fabric under the arms too. When climbing I tend to forget I'm wearing the Tupilak, which suggests that Mountain Equipment have put thought into the cut. There's no stretch in the fabric - this freedom of movement is down to the fit alone.
If the number of imperfect examples I've encountered are anything to go by, the hood on a climbing jacket is one of the hardest things for a designer to nail. Some are too restrictive for comfortable use with a helmet; others just never seem to move well with your head. Less-structured hoods tend to billow in the breeze, while some don't really offer enough protection to the lower face. The Tupilak's hood suffers from none of these faults. In fact it's one of the best I've used. Cut generously to accommodate modern high-volume helmets, this 'Super Alpine' hood is Mountain Equipment's largest. Retreat, tortoise-like, into the cavernous sanctuary of the hood and you feel well covered from the worst of the elements. Though very spacious at full extension it can also be pulled tight with draw cords concealed in the hem and at the rear to give a very effective wind-proof close fit around a helmet-less head - a rather better seal than on some hoods I've tried. The stiff wired-and-laminated brim resists deforming and flapping in the wind, and directs raindrops away from your face. With a snug high collar there's plenty of protection for the lower face too, just what you need when the spindrift starts stinging. When pulled snug the hood moves well with your head, letting you just get on and climb without feeling impaired.
Up out of harness range are two large chest pockets, spacious enough for gloves, hat and map. Inside you get a single smaller mesh-backed pocket, good for loose items you might want to hand - I've been keeping spare batteries warm in here.
The front zip is a YKK Aquaguard, chunky and confidence-inspiring, backed with a drainage flap so that any water that does penetrate is directed down and out at the bottom. It's the same deal on the chest pockets.
For ventilation you get pit zips, a lighter weight YKK WR zip, laminated and bonded rather than sewn-in, to reduce seams. I haven't always been a big fan of pit zips, but I'm coming round to the notion; with several layers under your shell you can give yourself a bit of an airing without having to open it all up to the elements. That probably is a feature worth having after all, and those lightweight zips hardly add a fraction to the overall weight.
A lot of shells seem quite tight in the cuff, making it a struggle to pull them down over your gloves. But the Tupilak's sleeve cuffs are deliberately cut very broad, so it's easy to fit your sleeves over a pair of gauntlet style gloves, to 'give you a proper seal on character building days' as our man at Mountain Equipment has it. 'Interestingly this is actually one of the points that the Plas Y Brenin staff working in Scotland feedback on most vociferously' he says. 'You can give them the best fabric, hood, fit etc. but if they can't get their cuff over a glove they're not happy!' And neither would I be. The cuffs are adjusted with a simple velcro tab, so you can get a snug seal on a bare wrist too.
Down at the hem is the usual elasticated draw cord, with sewn-in adjusters that sit neatly beneath a harness. The cord is 'dual tether' rather than a closed loop, so it won't accidentally snag on any protrusions or get clipped into a karabiner by mistake.
It may not be the lightest, but 500-odd grams is certainly a respectable weight for a jacket built like the Tupilak. Tough, protective, functional and clearly made to last, the Tupilak is a superb all-round mountaineering workhorse which could do the business anywhere from the Andes to Aonach Mor. With slightly more length than the typical climbing shell it'd be a solid choice for winter hillwalkers too.
"A serious, stripped back technical shell jacket ideally suited to alpine and expedition climbing on the steepest lines and biggest faces.
The combination of GORE-TEX® Pro, our Alpine fit and our proven Super Alpine Hood make this one of the finest climbing jackets available."
See this product at the Ellis Brigham shop