Arc'teryx Alpha SL Pullover: Four Seasons, Four Stars

Posted on: May 18, 2010


MSRP: $250

Weight: 11.3 ounces (322 grams)

My Alpha SL Pullover has seen its share of the West. In winter it's charged through powder in the Absarokas and high Rockies; in spring it's tackled mud season on hiking and biking trails across Wyoming; in summer it's scraped up long alpine routes in the Tetons; and in fall it's explored from the canyons of Red Rocks to the top of Castleton Tower. No matter the season, this hardshell is only missing from my pack if I'm wearing it.

There are hundreds of technical jackets that claim to be both waterproof and breathable. After two years of testing the Alpha SL, I've found that this pullover falls into the rare echelon of outerwear that's outstanding in both regards. The shell uses Gore-Tex Paclite, in my opinion the best polyurethane-coated breathable membrane for its weight, in a two-layer construction with no liner—an advantage for someone who wants four-season adaptation. No liner also means less weight and bulk, and more breathability. The excellent repellent treatment also stands up well, and the durable face fabric takes no issue with the occasional chimney pitch or arm-bar wrangle.

A few simple elements point to Arc'teryx's thoughtful design on this pullover. There's just enough elbow room for unencumbered mobility, even with winter layers underneath. The hood encases all but the largest helmets, and a cinch cord keeps the headcover and brim from flopping around when up. And on almost every outing with the Alpha, I took advantage of its huge marsupial pouch—which sits perfectly between waist and sternum backpack straps—for topos, snacks or headlamp.

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I've had a tent zipper break on the first day of a week-long mosquito-infested trip, and I've spent some unnecessarily cold nights when a sleeping bag zipper just wouldn't budge (fortunately not the same trip). Since these incidents, I've gravitated toward gear that will operate even if mechanical function, like a zipper, fails. This is the most utilitarian advantage a pullover has, whether it's baselayer, fleece, softshell or hardshell. But there are other benefits when it comes to waterproof pullovers: fewer zippers mean less weight and less leaking. And that's why, even after two years of great service, I'm still scratching my head at the Alpha SL.

My gripe is that this pullover has a full-length zipper up the coat's side, starting at the right hip and ending in the right pit, under the bicep. I've never used it except to open a few inches for ventilation (the left side has a standard pit zip), so I can't tell you why it's there except to nix all the natural advantages that a pullover should have. The Arc'teryx website suggests that the zipper "provides easy donning and exceptional venting properties while maintaining frontal storm protection." I'm not a big guy, but the Alpha has never been difficult to pull over my head, even when skiing with bulky underlayers. And never have I needed—or wanted—to open the entire side of the coat for ventilation. I'm never that hot in a rainstorm or snow squall, and if I were that sweaty, I'd rather just take the layer off.

I had a chance to speak with one of the Alpha's product designers when I first started testing the jacket. I asked him about the unusual size zipper. He rehashed the same "advantages" that the website listed but also hinted that the design was more a fashion choice than a functional one. Which again leaves me scratching my head. The craftsmanship on the Alpha SL is extraordinary, and it's the lightest hardshell in Arc'teryx's lineup. Since the purpose of this shell is to be a bombproof yet lightweight mountain essential, I'd gladly relinquish the superfluous zipper to shave a few grams while also reaping the functional advantages of a pullover.

Until fashion takes a back seat to function, the Alpha SL Pullover gets four stars instead of five, even as it continues to be my most trusty go-to shell.

Pros: Lightweight yet durable; excellent water repellency and breathability; two-layer construction is ideal for any season; allows for good range of movement.

Cons: Full-length side zipper defeats the purposes of a pullover.

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