Soft shells, soft shells...that's all you ever hear about these days. But for next winter's mountaineering season, I'm in the market to replace my ten-year-old North Face hard (and I mean HARD) shell. What's out there ong the hard shellsboth high end and more affordablethat's durable, well-designed, maybe even innovative? John New York City
Anyway, the distracting whisper of "soft shell" in a gear guide or store these days gets people all nervous and insecure, wondering if they're missing out on the Great Secret of Life by not owning one.
Cynicism aside, soft shells really do work. For the most part they're perfect "most-conditions" pieces, meaning they work well in the weather most of us confront most of the time. Full-bore hard shells, like your North Face jacket, are more along the lines of "worst-conditions" gear. They're great when things get really, really nasty.
So they're especially suited for winter mountaineering, where it's safe to say you should always prepare for the worst, or close to it. And there are lots of great super-weatherproof jackets out there. Among the best: Marmot's Alpinist Ascent Jacket ($425; www.marmot.com). As the name implies, it's made for the mountains, and is as much jacket as it's possible to buy. Made entirely with Gore-Tex XCR, it has fully taped seams, reinforced shoulders and elbows, loads of pockets (including inside bottle pocket), and an attached hood that snugs over your head to turn the whole thing into the equivalent of a weather fort. I'm not sure I'd call it "innovative," but it's certainly state-of-the-art, rugged, and well-designed.
At one pound, eight ounces, the Alpinist Ascent isn't terribly heavy, but these days it seems everyone is trimming ounces. So a good option is Mont-Bell's Dyna Action ($359; www.montbell.com). Mont-Bell, a Japanese company that bailed out of the U.S. market for a few years, knows the art of making lightweight stuff. The Dyna Action is a full three-ply Gore-Tex piece, with lots of pockets, vents, and reinforcements, that uses a superlight nylon face fabric to save weight. It comes in at one pound, two ouncespretty fabulous for a true all-season mountaineering parka. It's also very competitively priced.
And there are choices even more competitively priced. L.L. Bean makes an all-mountain parka, with three-ply Gore-Tex XCR, called the Mountain Guide XCR Parka. It has all the weather protection of the Marmot or Mont-Bell pieces, yet sells for $279 (www.llbean.com).
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