Monday, February 25, 2008

Review: Arc'teryx Dually Belay Jacket

After a particularly frigid climbing trip to Indian Creek over Thanksgiving (the infamous frozen sushi fest), my wife decided that my much beloved Feathered Friends Volant Jacket was going to be hers. Fortunately for me, the new Dually Belay jacket from Arc'teryx arrived soon thereafter.
Over the years, I've tried quite a few synthetic parkas from a number of manufacturers. The appeal was being able to toss it over wet clothing when belaying on ice climbs. But I always ended up going back to down-filled jackets with a WP/B shell because of their warmth, compactness, and longevity. Until now, it just hasn't been possible to get that combination from any of the synthetics in a well-designed parka.
The Dually Belay jacket features a proprietary synthetic insulation that has a DWR coating on each fiber. Arc'teryx calls it ThermaTek, which is a hollow-core, continuous filament insulation--essentially Polarguard Delta with an extra water repellant treatment--that is glued to a 30 denier high-tenacity ripstop nylon face fabric. 
If this insulation sounds familiar it's because Wiggy's has been using pretty much the same technology since 1986. Jerry Wigutow is a maverick in the outdoor industry who has been railing against the marketing hype of the synthetic sleeping bag companies for ages. While Wiggy sometimes sounds like a crackpot, there is also a lot of truth to his rants particularly what he says about laminating insulations. I'm not a fan of his product because the design and detailing is lacking (I've been spoiled by high-end gear for too long to compromise on the little things) and they tend to be heavy (a 3.5 pound sleeping bag does not deserve to be called Ultra Light).
A few years ago, Mountain Hardwear was the first mainstream outdoor company to knock-off Wiggy's insulation concept with their Lamina sleeping bags, which proved less than successful so they had to redesign. Arc'teryx also made an attempt by laminating Primaloft but the performance left a lot to be desired and it had a stiff hand. Now Arc'teryx is back with ThermaTech and it appears they've got it mostly right this time. 
I've used the Dually Belay Jacket most of the winter and it is quite simply superb. The jacket maintains its loft and fluffs quickly after unstuffing so it provides a lot of warmth. Amazingly, at 22.2 ounces (men's large) it is 1.1 ounces lighter than the Volant down jacket and it fits into the same stuff sack. Let me repeat, the Dually is lighter and stuffs to the same size as a high-end down jacket of equal warmth.
Other niceties include a good high collar with wind seal in the neck, Lycra wrist seals, two zippered handwarmer pockets, and two large internal mesh pockets. The cut is trim yet athletic to allow good freedom of movement. The face fabric, which is the same both inside and outside the jacket, is very wind resistant and acceptably durable.
That's the good news, the bad news is breathability of the jacket is not as good as the down parka. Not a deal breaker though since this is more for standing around than working in the cold. The material doesn't have the soft hand and drape of down either but it's adequate. One design oversight is the lack of a pocket that doubles as a stuff sack (should be a no-brainer). And one very irritating design error is unprotected top of the zipper that chaffs at your chin when zipped closed (somebody smack that production manager).
But the really bad news is the cost. The Feathered Friends Volant Jacket with eVent outer shell (arguably the best down jacket on the market) retails for $330 and an optional detachable hood costs $55. The Arc'teryx Dually Belay Jacket has a suggested retail of an astounding $425 or the Belay Parka, which is the same except it adds a non-detachable hood, is $475. Considering this synthetic jacket requires a lot less labor to assemble (fewer seams) and the premise for the technology is twenty years old, it's hard to see how they can justify the asking price.
No doubt, if you need the wet weather performance (or if you get pro deals), the price may not be a factor.  Aside from the cost, the Dually truly is an exceptional piece of kit, no other synthetic jacket is even close, despite a few minor design issues. 
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