first ascent softshell

So as I recently recounted, I passed up a 25% off Orion jacket in Portland because while 300 is a bargain for the Mission Workshop softshell weatherproof jacket, it’s still more than I can afford.

Or… The confession that I’ve been sucked into the technical fabric Ethos of Placebo Ideologies.

I was so depressed by my inability to rationally purchase an Orion jacket that I biked in my Arcteryx Gamma SV softshell and a hoodie over to an Eddie Bauer store. I was not looking for jackets, and was actually looking for wool sweaters and nice slacks to interview in, but with the Orion on my mind I found something else entirely.

The Eddie Bauer Whittaker Mountaineering First Ascent Mountain Guide Jacket. A mouthful, and a knife in the wind.

The Mountain Guide Jacket by First Ascent is Eddie Bauer’s tech/performance foray with Whittiker Mountaineering into the more technical side of outerwear apparel. Somewhat obviously, it’s a market position in response to the success of such brands as northface and arcteryx. The problem with this is that it’s not enough to throw together a jacket using high performance fabrics and good, solid technical design cues for active and athletic use.

That’s kind of what First Ascent has done, though. The reviews are correct that the jacket is cut oddly, with super wide, baggy arms, high armpits and a snug athletic torso. The armpits aren’t too high for most of my movement and are actually quite nice on a drop bar bicycle, but they are weirdly high for something with that much room in the sleeves and shoulders.

Still, for me to take off an Arcteryx Gamma SV and put this on and feel I’ve upgraded for my intended use, I’m not displeased.

And neither is Outdoor Magazine, apparently. They’ve been testing one for more than a year.

The fabric is boss, and I have no complaints with the shell’s properties so far. It repels slight precipitation admirably, but I have been out biking and hiking and lounging with varying layers underneath in some chilly to cold temps and it’s better as a fair weather jacket than it is in any real rain. The material breathes as well as you’d expect it to for its MSRP of 230… that is to say, exceptionally well. It’s a very lightweight and very thin, breathable shell.

The inside is a bunch of polyester fleeces of different colors and textures, and all of the pockets are welded seamlessly with a lightweight mesh to keep the jacket light and breathing all over. There are even some vent areas of the same mesh so you just have the nylon spandex shell and the ultralight mesh fabric without any real insulation layer. I really like this jacket’s inside design and it was actually my favorite part, up until two weeks of use turned the fleece panels into a piled fuzzy mess. The problem with light, thin fabrics is that they have be very high quality to not give out immediately, and the wear on the inside panels was unacceptable.

The exterior shell was great, with abrasion resistance on the shoulders and back and a few different textures to keep things attractive and interesting. It doesn’t show up well in the above picture, but there’s a lot of nuance in the look of the shell.

The zippers are ‘garaged’ by flaps in the fabric, and are welded to the rest of the outer so they’ll keep water out fairly well. They’re not as hydrophobic as Mission Workshop’s zippers, but they’ll fend off rain well enough… they’re not ‘exposed’ by any means. The inside of the pockets are also lined with red, so you get lots of red and silver accents on the black jacket that pop out when your hood is down or pockets are open. Kind of flashy, but cool.

Again, I didn’t test this in an outright downpour, but I feel for a short while it stays nicely water resistant for showers or Seattle misting. Most regular moisture beads up and falls off without a problem, though in a real downpour you’ll be looking for shelter within fifteen minutes. Justin Nyberg at Outdoor Magazine says it’s fine for a light drizzle but not much else.

What worried me is that the fabric is also 4-way stretch, and it’s VERY elastic. The exterior shell is 22% spandex (relatively high) so I’d assume the water resistance decreases with the amount of flexing you put the fabric through. Great for stretch and freedom of movement while being active, but not a good combination for biking in the rain. Repeatedly moving certain joints and stretching certain areas will let water in, and these areas while biking seem to always be hit with a disproportionate amount of water, like the lower back or butt or elbows. I have this problem with my softshell Swrve knickers, particularly in the knees, which then soak through completely and allow water to run down my shins. 4-way stretch is a beautiful thing, but that stretch usually comes at the expense of water resistance. In a jacket like this that can be sold for a benjamin, it’s an apt compromise.

The MP3/phone pocket is accessible from the OUTSIDE of the jacket… in my opinion that’s something this jacket got right that the Orion got wrong. Who wants to unzip their jacket to press fast forward or change the song? This does mean, however, that the zipper’s waterproofing is the weak link in the chain for ipod dryness in a downpour. Also, the passthrough for the headset cord is really attractively printed with reflective silver, and seems durable and stretchy while being nicely sized for iPhone/skullcandy jacks.

The logo on the breast is also silver and somewhat reflective. Not so sure about the look of the logo itself, but I’m not really complaining on the branded parts of the jacket. Overall I think they are pretty pleasing logos.

The wrist cuffs are velcro cinch fit and cut like tubes. they don’t taper at all without the velcro, which I actually despise because I hate having to use velcro every time I remove the jacket. It’s noisy, it fails after a while, it rips up the surrounding material and it’s just an all-around poor excuse for a cuff that isn’t contoured well to the stretch of the fabric. To their credit, the velcro straps do have a very cool embossed logo at the end that I like very much, and they give you enough velcro there to cinch the straps down as much as you’d want, even with small girly wrists like mine.

The hood is HUGE and will fit over a skate helmet or climbing helmet… it’s for mountaineering so that makes sense… but it’s also got a well designed drawcord with an attractive red anodized metal grommet pull that pulls the hood out of your periphery quite nicely. The brim is small but seems to work well. As with any hood, it will only keep rain off your face if you look at your toes. In the dry, it’s a huge and permanently attached feature that can get in the way, but folds nicely over the shoulders when not in use, so it’s not as much in the way as something this huge can be. For such a large hood, it’s well contoured.

I would not have bought or been happy with this jacket at MSRP, but for $100 off I feel that it is quite a deal. I tried to just- you know, pretend it was an Orion and use it accordingly.

A really poorly cut, not nearly as water resistant, baggy armed Orion.

Le sigh.

After wearing the first ascent mountain softshell basically everyday for about two weeks, I looked at the piling on the inside fleece and decided I’d return it for my money back before the month ran out.

I landed my dream job and I’d rather have the Orion now, even if I have to wear inferior jackets for the time being while I save up. And no, I didn’t wear the Rondels into the interview… but I have worn them to the office since.

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