Soft-shell Comparison

It’s summer alpine season and a durable, comfortable soft-shell is standard issue for long rock routes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Ever the obsessive, I’ve been on the hunt for a jacket using Schoeller Dryskin, the gold standard soft-shell material by which all others are judged. As Schoeller’s textiles have grown more expensive, fewer and fewer brands use the Swiss company’s materials. Mountain Equipment Co-op, of Canada (MEC), is one of the few North American sources for Schoeller garments at present, so I ponied the big cash ($140 plus $15 shipping–ouch!) to see what their “Ferrata” jacket was like.

I’ve also been climbing in OR’s “Ferrosi“(13.6 oz.; $125) soft-shell, and lately in Rab’s “Sawtooth” (14.3 oz.; prices variable with some retailers calling it “discontinued” UPDATE: The Sawtooth will see cosmetic/aesthetic changes in 2013, but remains unchanged in terms of materials/function–and the price will be $135), so I’ll compare the Ferrata to these two pieces.

The MEC “Ferrata”

The Ferrata uses Schoeller Dryskin throughout the jacket, which has a slightly woven/textured/brushed interior, making it hot above 70 degrees or so–limited in summer, perfect the rest of the year. An old pair of Mammut Champ pants turned me on to Schoeller textiles–I used them for seven or eight seasons, for everything from hiking in Denali National Park to climbing in the ice park in Ouray to ski touring in the Wasatch to summiting Mont Blanc. They were absolutely awesome, breathed like crazy, stood up to chimney groveling, sloughed off snow during big ski days.

Minimalist in design, the Ferrata has no adjustments on the cuffs, three simple pockets on the front, and a one-way zipper. Dryskin is heavier than the competition, so even with its pared down design, the Ferrata is still the heaviest of the three. Rab’s Sawtooth lacks a hood, unlike the Ferrata and Ferrosi, so it’s not a fair comparison, but even so–the Dryskin fabric is a bit heavier, which makes sense and guarantees winter-time use.

Out of the box the MEC jacket looks great, seems well built, and looks cool, too. I didn’t end up keeping it, though, mainly due to the fit: the torso’s simply too short for me and the sleeves are borderline. I’m not a particularly weird size (41 suit jacket, 5’10”, 165 lbs.), but I tried the jacket on with a harness and could immediately tell it would spend the day riding up over my harness and driving me nuts. This is entirely a preference thing; zero comment on the quality and performance of the jacket. I have no doubt the Ferrata would be a workhorse in the mountains and make a great do-it-all soft-shell.

The Rab Sawtooth atop the MEC Ferrata–both great jackets, but the Rab offers a way longer torso and sleeves: better for my skinny-ass body. Notice the difference in length of the two jacket bodies.

I was bummed–I had the highest of hopes for the Ferrata. I tried it on repeatedly, but just knew I’d end up wishing it was a different cut and fit. Again, this has nothing to do with the quality of the piece. I’d recommend anybody with a little bit more of a chest and shoulders check out the Ferrata. There’s also a matching pant–which is probably an awesome garment as well.

The OR Ferrosi I’ve used for the past two seasons climbing. I like a more durable soft-shell, instead of relying on a Patagonia Houdini or Rab Cirrus, when climbing rock. They resist abrasion really well and most offer better stretch, too. The Ferrosi has a lightweight hood, easily stretched around most of your helmet, but designed to wear beneath. I hammered the thing, guiding routes like the east face of the 1st Flatiron and falling off routes, including a sliding flailure on Dream Dome. The Ferrosi handled it all, keeping me comfortable up to 75 degrees on shady days. The Ferrosi material seems more wind permeable than Dryskin or Rab’s “Matrix” equivalents, making it a bit less suited to ski touring (in my opinion), but maybe a touch more comfortable in warmer temps.

OR’s Ferrosi jacket

Overall fit and cut of the Ferrosi suited my body type pretty well. The pockets were set a bit low for use with a harness (as were the Ferrata’s), but they’re probably more useful to non-climbers this way, so I get it.

My latest newcomer in the soft-shell department is Rab’s Sawtooth jacket (full disclosure: they comped me the jacket after I tried the pant and LOVED it, then begged for the matching top!). The Matrix fabric falls between Dryskin and the OR material in terms of weight. Its stretch characteristics exceed both the other jackets, as well. Despite the composition being identical to Dryskin (90% poly, 10% Spandex/”elastane”), it somehow stretches a bit more–probably the weave?

Much of the reason I’m such a fan of Rab products is the fit, so some of that is entirely subjective and perhaps not applicable to bigger dudes. From the above and below pics, though, you can see why Rab make such popular climbing clothing–with long sleeves and bodies, their jackets stay under harnesses, never pull up and off one’s gloves, and offer better coverage. I call it a “Euro” fit, mostly because the “American” fit has grown as our population has grown–depressing, but that’s the reality and manufacturers have to take that into account.

Check out the difference in sleeve length between the Rab Sawtooth (top) and MEC Ferrata.

The Sawtooth forgoes any pockets on the waistline, instead using two “Napoleon” pockets on the chest (both mesh-backed for venting, though I feel like the mesh could be a more open weave, like the Patagonia “Ready Mix” jackets of yesteryear). Napoleon pockets are nice because you can unzip on and reach in without having to do any weird, half-yoga maneuvers for high-placed (climber-style) pockets. Nice compromise.

Sleeves are long, true to the Rab fit, with adjustable hook-and-loop closures at the wrists–nice if you need to slide your sleeves up when struggling in wider cracks. The neck comes up to your chin, sealing off your neck/upper chest, which I like when Nordic skiing or ski-touring, as it protects you from getting a chill from a sweat-soaked base layer. The neck also uses a little drawcord to seal it down–not sure on this one; I’ll have to assess once the temps drop a bit or I get into some chilly weather up high.

Great jackets, across the board. I’m genuinely bummed I can’t use the MEC Ferrata, as it would be a great ski-touring layer, as well as ice climbing and beyond. I’ve been well served with my OR Ferrosi and the short time I’ve had the Rab Sawtooth I’ve been completely happy with it. Any of these would make a great do-it-all soft shell, depending on your needs, environment, and activities. I’ll wear the Sawtooth up into ski season, I’m sure and then we’ll see about the lack of a hood. On nice days, though, I’ll appreciate the light weight and super breathability. The Ferrosi is a stand-by rock piece, great all winter for routes in Eldo. And the Ferrata–sadly, I’m headed to the post office to send it back north.

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