As with most Patagonia products, quality is of a high standard. The outer is a light but durable feeling soft-shell fabric. I found this to give a good level of breathability, allowing sweat to evaporate quickly despite the warmth of the jacket. It was also impressively water resistant, taking about forty five minutes to wet out in heavy rain. This is probably helped by the slimmed down seams which aid in reducing bulk. Wind resistance is high enough that you are being blown around before you start to wonder if it is getting through the fabric, and at these wind speeds I don't think you can tell the difference between wind permeating the fabric and the speed at which heat is simply being sucked away from your body. In these cases it is perhaps best to don a hard shell or belay jacket for total wind protection and simply to get as many layers on as you can!
The Speed Ascent Jacket in use - Image Jon Wickham
The inner is an R2 fleece (branded as Polartec Thermal Pro, High Loft when used by other manufacturers). The fleece is ‘spot welded' to the outer allowing the fleece and outer to move as one rather than feeling like a 'zip-in' fleece, however it is bonded only in critical locations to prevent the glue impeding breathability. The previous versions of this jacket included the Stretch Speed Ascent which utilised a loose lining, designed to offer maximum breathability, however the nature of the lining meant that it was extremely awkward to get on and off. This was re-developed into the Mix Master jacket that incorporated a fully bonded fleece lining, which as mentioned created an almost impermeable barrier due to the laminating process, therefore the current Speed Ascent utilises a mix of both processes to benefit from the best breathability whilst being easy to wear. The fleece is very warm, and has a cosy feeling which you don't get so much with Primaloft style mid-layers. Zipping the jacket right up allows the fleece to wrap around your neck, block out the wind and gives a real psychological boost. The fact that it lofts also really helps keep moisture away from your skin, not only warming you but keeping you comfortable.
Low temperatures and bad weather go hand in hand in this country, so a jacket with so much insulation has to cope with both. The hood is a key test of this as it can make the difference between feeling safely protected from the elements or having a piece of fabric slapping you in the face every ten seconds. Though simple in its design I was reasonably pleased with the hood. It is not cavernous but can take a Petzl Elios sized helmet without difficulty, though if the hood was a bit bigger it wouldn't be a bad thing. Stiffening of the hood peak comes from a plastic insert rather than being wired. Thankfully this is rigid enough to provide effective protection, so don't write it off before you try it. Adjustment is provided by a one-pull bungy on the back of the hood, which cleverly pulls the whole hood in around the face negating the need for the conventional pair of bungys around the chin. A stand out feature of the hood is that it shares its fleece lining with the rest of the jacket. Putting up the hood gives instant warmth, especially if worn without a helmet and really makes the difference in the cold, even when you already have a hat on. It would be nice if the jacket zipped up a little higher, leaving you with just an eye slit to see out of. However many people do not like such a high collar, and putting on a balaclava keeps the face protected.
In a jacket that is so warm I was surprised at the lack of pit zips. This is not a feature I feel most garments need, however you can warm up a lot in this jacket when exerting yourself and it would be nice to be able to dump excess heat on these occasions. Some venting is provided by the two large hand warmer pockets, these are fairly large and coupled with the small chest pocket allow for a fair but of storage, though some will be disappointed that an OS map is not an easy fit. Personally I think I would have preferred two large chest pockets to the current configuration, but that is a personal view. The pockets are cut to sit above a harness or hip belt, and low enough to avoid a chest strap, this is a possible reason for their design.
The cut is fairly technical, whilst not being too close it allows a few layers to be worn underneath, in addition to the mountaineer's own 'belly timber'. I found the cuffs a little bulky, in part due to the bunching of fleece, but also due to my short arms and narrow wrists, although Patagonia could potentially use thinner fleece around the wrists, perhaps keeping my wrists warm outweighs the slight bulkiness. The jacket's length is good, allowing it to sit under a harness waist band but not interfering with having to step high.
A jacket like this has a lot to live up to. I want it to perform with the durability, features and protection of a hard shell, whilst providing superior warmth and breathability. In general I found it did this well and was pleased with the advantages it gave over a conventional hard shell/fleece layering system. I found the warmth of the jacket meant it couldn't be used in temperatures much above freezing. This is fairly obvious given that the outer layer is soft shell, but make sure you are buying it exclusively for cold weather use, this is not an all year round soft shell. That said, in cold conditions the fabrics excelled giving a significant amount of warmth and being less bulky than a soft shell/hard shell and fleece combination as the two layers of fabric move together well without bunching up. The performance of the soft shell fabric allowed me to stay comfortable and prevented getting drenched in sweat, which would be easy given the warmth of the lining. Despite being very breathable it was wind resistant enough for a good level of protection.
Some people say that this sort of jacket can be used in persistent rain, as though the fabric will wet out you will stay 'warm and wet'. I did not find this to be the case, and once the jacket got wet-through I quickly became cold despite my body throwing out a lot of heat.
I generally used the jacket with a merino base layer and sometimes a stretch fleece in lower temperatures. I would advise against using the jacket with a stand-alone high loft fleece as the jacket inner catches easily and significantly reduces freedom of movement and comfort.
It is important to consider alternative products in this category, with the most similar products coming from Montane, Buffalo and Arcteryx. Overall the performance of the fabrics made this superior to most of these rivals, and provided good value for money. Though not a vital part of the jacket it is also nice to see that aesthetics have not been left out with two really individual colours as well as the simpler black
Overall, though aimed primarily at Alpinists the Speed Ascent is very versatile and would work well for anyone walking, climbing or skiing in cold temperatures.
The PlanetFear Star Rating Explained:
* A poor product with design and functionality problems. Not recommended.
** An average product. Recommended only for its low cost or as a back-up item.
*** A good product. Certainly worth considering, although better products may be available at the same price.
**** An excellent product and among the best available in its category. Highly recommended.
***** An outstanding product defining the cutting edge of outdoor technology and design. You won't find a better one!
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