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Arc'teryx Alpha SV hard-shell jacket: A haven from the worst storms
Posted on: February 7, 2017
In most outdoor pursuits a lightweight jacket is ideal, but there is an exception to this rule. On expeditions in deep wilderness where foul weather is expected, a durable hard-shell jacket can provide a 'safe zone' worth a few extra ounces. The Alpha SV jacket is designed for this kind of high-abuse environment, and I tested it on a month-long expedition in Alaska to see if it was up to the challenge.
This jacket is the armored tank of rain shells, made of extremely durable fabric. The N100p-x Three-layer Gore-Tex Pro fabric feels smoother and more rigid than common ripstop nylon, with good reason. This fabric, developed by Arc'teryx and Gore-Tex, uses 80-denier fibers that are individually "false-twisted," a heat-setting process which adds bulk to the weave and reduces frayed fibers, which are the most common reason for a fabric to "wet out" and compromise water repellency. The result is a tough, crinkly fabric that resists abrasion from sharp rock and ice screws better than any shell I've owned. I didn't hesitate to wear it while scratching my way up gritty offwidths, use it as a seat on scree, or shove it into a pack with my crampons.
The Alpha SV jacket provides excellent protection from wet weather; hunkering in this thing is only one notch below sitting under a tarp. The Gore-Tex Pro membrane—one of the most durable on the market—is very waterproof, and the hood has an ample bill that provides full coverage over a helmet. A drawcord on the back of the hood and adjustment cords on each side help this hood adapt to any headwear situation, even a bare head. Zipped all the way, the high chin guard—while it doesn't have a fuzzy surface—keeps splashes of water, spindrift and powder snow out of your face.
The Alpha-SV works well for alpine climbing; the long hem stays tucked under a harness, chest pockets are easy to access, and the long sleeves, ample hood, and high chin provide excellent coverage from the elements. In this photo Drew Thayer (the author) is wearing the jacket on the first ascent of Spearhead Peak (7,140'), Neacola Range, Alaska. [Photo Craig Muderlak]
The Alpha SV's features are sensible for use in the mountains. The chest pockets are large enough for a small camera, bars or other items, and can be accessed while wearing a harness. Large pit zips are very useful for aerobic activity like hiking and skinning; the Gore-Tex Pro membrane is less breathable than most other lightweight membranes so ventilation is key for moving activities. There is a small pocket inside that is good for secure items, a "glove warmer" pocket that's handy for small gloves or a thermos (not big mittens), and an additional slim pocket on the shoulder that I haven't found much use for.
This shell, while heavy-duty, is easy to move around in. Two features that are critical for climbing: the bottom is long enough to stay tucked into a harness while reaching high for holds, and the sleeves are long enough to stay sealed around the wrist instead of riding up the forearm and letting in snow like many jackets do. This jacket is cut to fit over mid-layers, and the shoulders articulate for swinging ice tools. My only complaint concerning movement is that the N100p-x fabric feels pretty starchy and inflexible—but after all, that's the point. I smashed straight through a sharp thicket of spruce trees while skiing off Monarch Pass in Colorado and the fabric didn't show a scratch.
The bombproof nature of this shell comes with a significant weight cost. The Alpha SV weighs 17.3 ounces in size medium, which is on the heavy end for a rain shell. Considering that fully stormproof Gore-Tex Pro jackets are commonly in the range of 15 ounces (Patagonia Refugitive) to just 11.5 ounces (Arc'teryx Alpha FL), this is a good bit of extra weight to carry—up to 50 percent more weight than Gore-Tex Pro shells. More notable than weight is bulk—the inflexible, thick fabric makes it hard to cram this jacket into small spaces.
The Alpha SV is designed as a truly heavy-duty shell, and that makes it a rather specialized tool. I struggled to fit it into a small daypack for a multipitch rock climb, but I loved it in Alaska, where rain and wind kept us wearing our shells most of the time. This Alpha SV is a good choice for ice and alpine climbing, and long expeditions to stormy regions like the Pacific Northwest. It's also a great skiing jacket, as it will last seasons of hard abuse and providing ample coverage for those face-shot days. But this burly shell would be a cumbersome choice for mostly aerobic pursuits or single-day mountain jaunts when you just want to bring a shell along in your pack—I would bring a much lighter shell on a summer rock climb during thunderstorm season in Colorado. But if you're venturing far from civilization into stormy mountains or harsh winter conditions and can justify the price tag, the Alpha SV is just about the best weather protection that money can buy.
This jacket is roomy enough to fit over a down parka. Thayer at a snowy belay in the Neacola Mountains, Aleutian Range, Alaska. [Photo David Fay]
Drew Thayer has been climbing for 12 years, including six years of ice climbing and five years of alpine and big-wall experience in the US, Peru, Argentina, Canada and Alaska. He received a Copp-Dash Award in 2016 for an expedition to Alaska in which his team established four new routes in the Neacola Mountains of the Aleutian Range.
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