The original Arc’Teryx Alpha Comp Jacket came out about ten years ago — or so Internet searches tell me, because I neither climbed ice or alpine, nor needed such a dedicated, technical piece. Fast forward ten years and the new-for-2014 Alpha Comp Jacket and Pants continue Arc’Teryx’s pattern of innovation by combining GORE Fabric Technology with ultra-breathable softshell panels. These are, to my knowledge, the first pieces to only partially utilize Gore-Tex in a garment, and it apparently took Arc’Teryx quite a while to convince Gore to even let them do this hybrid combination. But enough history lessons and random factoids… how’s it all work?
In one word: awesome. The Alpha Comps are a combination of Gore-Tex Pro Shell and Arc’Teryx’s own Fortius 1.0. The jacket has Gore on the shoulder, arms, hood and along the hem, while the pants have Gore on the outside front of the legs and across the seat. Everything else is the very lightweight Fortius. (It’s easier to see in pictures: see the below image from the press release.) The items are labeled as ‘Gore Fabric Technology’ to ensure separation from typical ‘Gore-Tex,’ which carries a ‘100% waterproof’ guarantee (as these are obviously not due to the use of the softshell material).
I’ve been lucky enough to receive the Alpha Comp Jacket and Pants before general release, however between work and travel, have only managed half a dozen days of climbing in them, so this is still a very preliminary overview.* However, if you are familiar with the newest Gore-Tex Pro Shell, then you know it breathes incredibly well and is a fair bit quieter and more supple than the Gore-Tex of old. And Fortius 1.0 can best be described as thin — almost see-through — stretchy veneer of fabric between you and the environment: it breathes very well and is tough enough to withstand repeated abrasion against Rockies limestone.
Fit is typical Arc’Teryx, and just one of the reasons I love the clothing this company puts out (as you can probably tell by now!). The torso is roomy enough to fit a mid-layer but trim enough to not flap around in the breeze. The sleeves are generously long, easily accommodating my +3” ape index and allowing full freedom of movement without pulling up the hem. Speaking of which, the hem has Arc’Teryx’s Harness HemLock inserts (basically two pieces of foam inserted into a special cutout in the hem) that keep the jacket from rising out from underneath a harness: simple and effective. The hood is the incomparable StormHood, which is by far the best hood in the business, being large enough to fit oversize helmets yet allowing a full range of movement and visibility. There are two zippered hand pockets, useful for storing extra gloves or for extra venting due to the mesh backing. There is also a single Napoleon-style chest pocket on the left side.
The pants are anatomically patterned with pre-shaped knees. As mentioned above, the whole front and side of the leg is Gore fabric, as well as a large area on the seat. There are tough anti-crampon patches along the back of the cuff and inside of the leg, as well as a zippered gusset at the ankle (to accommodate ski boots). There is a dubious-looking yet very effective stretch-cord adjuster on the cuff: I was certain this would slip over time but so far it hasn’t budged a millimetre and is proving very effective at keeping snow out of my boots, even when post-holing up to my waist. The waist-belt is a low-profile metal-hook-and-loop closure method that I haven’t seen before but am quickly growing to like very, very much (it is simple, sits flat and doesn’t slip). Rounding out the features, the pants have a single zippered thigh pocket on the right leg, on the Gore section of fabric, with a Gore flap protecting the zipper: it is effectively waterproof, unless of course you manage to directly expose the zipper to water (highly unlikely unless you’re submerged in said water). The pocket is big enough to shove a pair of mid-weight gloves into.
In use, I’ve been shocked by how comfortable the Alpha Comps are, given their generous use of the Gore membrane. I normally don’t use Gore-Tex and try to match the softshell I use to the conditions, but even in mild weather (0C or so, and in the sun) I’ve felt no need to unzip the Alpha Comp Jacket to dump extra heat as the softshell fabric is just that effective. In those same conditions, I haven’t even noticed the pants (which means I am not overheating). The Gore does rustle a bit, which is slightly annoying during tedious trail breaking but ceases to become an issue when climbing.
On colder days, around -15C, the softshell of the Pants becomes noticeable: it is so breathable and thin that even the slightest breeze cuts straight through. At this temperature, I’ve had to start wearing two pairs of long johns to stay warm (where normally I would wear just one pair of long johns under my regular softshell pants). A buddy who happens to be an Arc’Athlete told me that he got a pair of Windstopper boxers to wear under the Alpha Comps in cooler conditions, and uses the thickest and warmest long johns he can find. This is the one area where I find the Alpha Comp Pants lacking and would prefer to see a slightly thicker, warmer softshell used on the upper thigh to maintain a better level of warmth. It’s a problem easily overcome with heavier under layers, or as my buddy discovered, with wind-proof boxers, however I feel using three different fabrics on the pant would provide for better overall performance.
The Jacket is just as good on the colder days as on the milder ones, and I haven’t noticed the obvious chilling during wind gusts that I’ve experienced with the pants. I do typically wear a base layer and mid layer underneath, so perhaps that extra layer of clothing cuts down the breeze enough to not notice it as much. My back is also often covered up with a pack, and I always use a belay jacket whenever I’m not actually climbing, so perhaps these two factors combined accentuate the chill I experience with the pants. To be honest, I don’t know yet as I haven’t used the pieces enough, and in enough varied conditions, to make accurate observations. Of course, it is also much easier to change around your upper layers to match conditions!
Upon first impression after just a half dozen days of climbing, I absolutely love the jacket. The combination of water- and wind-proof Gore and super-breathable softshell is hard to beat, and I no longer worry about packing an extra Gore-Tex jacket, or taking a heavier softshell to deal with precip and wearing a more breathable layer on the approach: the Alpha Comp Jacket is the one piece that I can wear from the truck to the top of the climb.
I like everything about the pants other than the fact that my butt gets cold on those colder days, and that they have only one pocket. It’s hard to fault a pant for being too breathable, though. They’re truly excellent for those milder days when you’re wading through wet snow just to climb under an icy shower: the Gore keeps you dry while the softshell dumps excess heat. I would, however, prefer to see a three-fabric-combo to add some windproofness to the upper thigh, and dual pockets ‘cause, well, I like pockets.
For reference, my Men’s Medium jacket weighs 391 grams, while my Medium, Regular-length pants weigh 437 grams. The Jacket retails for $420 Cdn, and the pants for $320, and both items are currently available from official Arc’Teryx stores as well as the Arc’Teryx website. Both items also come in a women’s version. I am seriously contemplating buying a second jacket, just in case.
* I typically use clothing for at least three weeks’s worth of days before any kind of review, and try to subject it to as many varied weather conditions as I can, however as Arc’Teryx has released a limited number of the Alpha Comps for sale at their official stores and online, and there has been quite a lot of interest in these pieces, I thought I would post my initial observations so that anyone out there searching for reviews can have a bit more info. The regular retail release (i.e. your local Arc’Teryx retailer) will be in Fall 2014. A thorough review will follow once I have accumulated more time in the mountains in these pieces.
NOTE: Arc’Teryx Equipment Inc. has provided The Alpine Start with samples for review, however this in no way influences my opinion of the products.