There are plenty of people who want to buy a dedicated backcountry shell. There are also plenty of people who want to buy a shell that can cross boundaries. The Black Diamond Helio is positioned at an interesting place because it is marketed as a lightweight backcountry ski touring jacket, but it totally has the chops to be a great year-round shell.
Black Diamond Helio Active Shell Features:
- Gore-Tex® 3L Active
- Soft hand Gore-Tex® C-Knit® backer
- Integrated Cohaesive™ cord management system
- Harness compatible hand pockets
- Full-length pit zips
- 30D Nylon Plain Weave 3L Active, with C-Knit Backer and DWR Finish
- MSRP: $399
The Helio is more than a ski touring jacket
Note: I’m writing this review based mainly off my testing of this jacket during a great season of backcountry touring in the PNW. However, I’m also going to branch out a bit from the ‘intended use’ of the Helio because it’s such a capable jacket. Black Diamond calls this an ‘ultralight ski touring jacket’ but I want to explore what it’s capable of beyond that.
As always, I’ll start with the fabric foundation. The Helio is built with Gore-Tex Active fabric, As virtually everyone knows, Active is one of the really premiere fabrics available today that emphasizes breathability first. It’s still totally waterproof and, though not as burly as Gore Pro, it is no slouch. This particular jacket features a 3-layer construction, which is important for extending the longevity of the jacket. This means that there’s a full protective lining between you and the Active membrane, keeping your oils and grit from damaging the fabric.
Black Diamond chose a very light face fabric to bond to the Gore membrane; at only 30D, this is definitely a choice that prioritizes weight savings over durability. The claimed weight for this jacket is 12.8oz. Objectively, there are definitely lighter jackets; when you look more closely at the feature set, though, this low weight is really a great accomplishment.
Here’s what I mean by that. The Helio is a fully-featured mountain shell that clocks in at 12.8oz. This weight includes the 3-layer fabric, but also two full-sized hand pockets, hem and hood adjustments, an internal drop pocket and full-length pit zips. Many ultralight jackets ditch some of these features, often the pit zips if the base fabric is Gore Active. In contrast, the helio has adjustable everything (with particularly nice cuffs, by the way) AND has full-length pit zips. In this context, the 12.8oz total weight looks great.
My biggest concern as I look at the stats of the jacket is its long-term durability. There are a couple reasons why. On the one hand, it’s a 3-layer fabric; this is a good thing because the full internal lining will protect the fabric from your nasty oils and dirt. On the other hand, the face fabric is a puny 30D weave and Gore Active is intended for lighter use than, say, Gore Pro. This might not be a problem for some users, but for those who are going to dedicatedly wear this jacket beneath a pack every day, I forecast delamination issues in high wear areas. It’s a very well-made jacket so these will likely take a couple seasons of lighter (eg non-guiding) use to show, but this isn’t one of those jackets that you can expect to perform for years and years. To be fair, the jacket that I count on ‘for years and years’ is made in Canada out of Gore Pro with a 100D face fabric. It’s just a different ballgame.
With that acknowledged, let’s talk a little about my field experiences with the Helio shell. I exclusively used this jacket for ski touring (its intended use), but by virtue of how this activity is done it’s also a whole lot like backpacking or even climbing in the shell. One of the key things to note is the jacket’s cut, which is fairly generous. The benefit here is that it increases your range of motion, and I appreciated that I didn’t feel restricted. The downside is really just the extra material weight and, perhaps, floppiness in the wind. Those downsides never effected my enjoyment of the jacket.
The feature set complements these activities well, too. I appreciated that the drawcord hem made it easy to keep the jacket beneath my harness. I also appreciated that the high pockets were accessible when I was wearing my pack waist belt (which was all the time). Perhaps the most incredible feature, though, was the pit zips – I swear that I have reviewed dozens of high-end shells, and these pit zips pull more easily than any others I have found. If you’ve ever sworn at your pit zips, the Helio will be a revelation. They’re particularly easy to open from the top and slightly harder to close from the bottom, but overall I was very pleased and pleasantly surprised.
Those generous pit zips are an important asset on high-output activities like ski-mountaineering or touring. Between these zips and Gore Active’s good breathability, I was able to to keep the jacket on longer without wetting out the fabric with my sweat. It’s not perfect, and we all know that shells have limitations. But, as far as shells go, this is a highly breathable option that can handle a lot of output.
- Carefully selected feature set gives you everything that you need
- 12.8oz total weight is great for a fully-featured alpine jacket
- Gore-Tex Active in a 3L package is breathable and reasonably durable
- Great fit for skiing and climbing
- This jacket will have a limited lifespan when used hard beneath a pack
- 30D face fabric is light but at the low end of durable face fabrics
The Bottom Line: Black Diamond Helio
I am happy to recommend the Helio as a great, lightweight shell for ski-tourers. I do think that the shell has more capability than what Black Diamond is strictly marketing it for, so don’t be afraid to buy this for all of your activities including skiing, climbing and backpacking. I do caution users that ultralight shells with 30D fabric bonded to Gore-Tex active will not be the most durable purchase you can make, but with that caveat the Helio is an extremely strong offering in a competitive field of high-end shells thanks to its excellent feature-set and careful design.
Buy now: Available from Backcountry.com