by Chris Weidner
A climbing partner once told me I have a rib cage “like a horse.” My shoulders are broad too, which means that every time I swing tools or jam cracks above my head, my jacket creeps above the waistbelt of my harness. It’s so annoying that I often just cinch the jacket over my harness. This isn’t ideal because it’s colder and harder to see the gear on my harness, but at least I can freely move my arms. Maybe I’m too picky, but I’m surprised more companies don’t get this right.
The Alpha FL (Fast, Light) from Arc’teryx is different. The ergonomic design and stretchy material allow total freedom of movement without the jacket moving up and down. Even for this barrel-chested guy, a size Medium fit me perfectly yet still offered smooth movement, especially when skiing and climbing. Needless to say, I tuck this baby under my harness. The Alpha FL also comes with removable foam HemLock inserts that protect even further against the jacket coming untucked.
With one chest pocket, a large hood, Velcro cuffs, and minimal seams, the Alpha FL looks like a simple jacket. What you can’t see are the high-tech ideas behind the design that make it the lightest, most breathable hardshell in the Arc’teryx line.
For starters, the three-layer GORE-TEX Pro material is the most effective waterproof, breathable and highly durable material around. Most waterproof shells that are lighter than the Alpha FL’s 325 grams (11.5 ounces) rip to shreds in a few pitches of alpine granite or grovelly mixed. Simply put, the Alpha FL is a slightly heavier but much burlier than any jacket in its weight category.
A second feature that surprisingly few companies get right is the hood. A hood should be large enough to cover a helmet without restricting neck movement, yet easily cinch down without a helmet, allowing full range of motion and vision. Sounds simple, right? Apparently it’s not. I’ve had to remove some jackets just to figure out how to adjust the hood. Arc’teryx nailed their hood with three simple toggles: one on either side, and one in the back. It’s easy, quick and intuitive — just like it should be.
In fact, every feature of the Alpha FL is quick and intuitive.
Thin, Velcro straps seal the cuffs and are somewhat stiff for easy maneuverability while wearing gloves. Two drawcords cinch the
waist, one above each hip. Four reflective blazes are easy to spot in the flash of a headlamp.
Perhaps the Alpha’s best feature is the absence of pit zips, which add frivolous weight and happen to be my third jacket-related pet peeve. If you’re sweating enough to need pit zips then you’re wearing too many clothes. And if a “breathable” jacket doesn’t compensate for mild perspiration without them, it’s useless.
The Alpha FL comes with a small stuff sack with an attachment loop for clipping to a harness. Stuffed, it’s about the size of a large burrito and the weight of a couple hand-sized cams — barely noticeable on the harness.
While geared toward fast and light alpinism, this hardshell is perfect for pretty much everything outdoors, from the Eiger North Face to gardening on a wet, spring day in your back yard.
At $399 the Alpha FL sells for a middle-of-the-road price compared with similar jackets from other brands. There are no extraneous features, yet nothing’s lacking.
Bottom line? The Alpha FL is a simple, lightweight hardshell that really works. Even if you’re as picky as I am.