Wintertime means things like ice climbing, skiing, and enjoying the snow. Versatile insulation is a must, and happily Westcomb’s Alta Sweater is a thoughtfully designed, very warm puffy for wintertime exploits. I’ve been testing the Alta through the wet Spokane winter’s (short) ice climbing season and (so far so good) ski season.
Westcomb Alta Down Sweater Features:
- Polish 900-fill goose down
- Pertex Quantum ultralight fabric (1oz per 0.9 square yard)
- Primaloft Gold 200 synthetic insulation in moisture-prone zones
- 2-way center zipper
- Water-resistent / DWR
- Elasticized cuff
- Elasticized hem
- Mandarin collar
- Stuff bag
- YKK® VISLON® zipper
- Zippered hand pockets
- MSRP: $380
An alpine workhorse with premium materials
I’ll begin by saying that the Alta is quite a premium piece. For one thing, all of the materials are the highest quality – exceptionally fine 900-fill goose down, Pertex’s well-loved Quantum fabric, and Primaloft Gold insulation to trim things off. What’s more, it’s carefully handcrafted in Canada, making it one of the very few puffies one can buy that are made in North America.
Westcomb’s design philosophy is simple: keep it simple, keep it functional. They’re one of the best brands embodying the idea of functional minimalism, and their design team consistently impresses me. The Alta is no exception; it has only what it needs, and nothing else.
This design philosophy is apparent in a few key places in the jacket. For one thing, there are no plastic or shock cord adjustments anywhere on the jacket. This means no additional attachment points, no worn out shock cord, and no broken plastic parts. Instead, the seals around the hem and cuffs are maintained by careful tailoring and an elasticized band.
I think this works. The cuffs stay put underneath a glove gauntlet perfectly well. The hem is a more complicated story. The Alta is cut fairly short, and it’s certainly not the type of jacket that will drape down over your butt for extra protection. At the same, there’s no elastic to keep it in place. However I can’t say I ever noticed it creeping up during use; it’s a really highly stuffed puffy jacket, and that helps it keep its shape and stay in place well. It’s too short to tuck under a harness, but that’s no issue for belays thanks to the two-way zip. Similarly, it’s a great puffy for mountaineering trips to pull out at camp or on breaks. Some may miss the extra coverage, but I have no doubt that Westcomb kept things trim in order to stay true to their intention of creating a minimal bulk, maximum warmth jacket.
A significant aid to the jacket’s overall performance comes from Westcomb’s use of zoned insulation. Most of the jacket is premium goose down, but little accents of Primaloft synthetic insulation crop up all over. You can find it in the collar, underarms and hem of the jacket, particularly. These are both areas that are prone to picking up extra moisture during use. In normal goose down, this would result in wet, heavy goose down that doesn’t insulate well. Primaloft Gold, however, is unfazed by moisture and retains 90% of its insulation capability. It’s used sparingly, though – synthetic insulation is almost always heavier than goose down.
The goose down itself is an exceptional performer. 900-fill polish goose down feels as different from cheap 550-fill as down feels from synthetic. It’s incredibly light and compressible, though the jacket is so highly stuffed that it never feels insubstantial. The overall warmth-to-weight of the insulation is incredible. There’s also an effective draft tube along the main zipper.
The jacket’s performance in foul weather is mixed. On the one hand, the exceptionally fine weave of Pertex Quantum serves as a natural mechanical barrier against wind and wet. Wind can’t penetrate the fabric, and rain beads up on the DWR-coated, tightly woven barrier. However, the baffles are stitched through. This means that each baffle is essentially an oval, and the narrow end of each oval butts up against another narrow end. The result is a series of ‘thin points’ at the seams that wind can come through. The best fabric and insulation in the world can’t help this design, and as a result the seams do leak air in very windy conditions.
You’ll likely only notice it on exposed ridges or riding a ski lift, depending on your preferred activity. And the alternative is a type of construction called box baffles. Box baffle jackets tend to be heavier an more expensive, so it’s a different sort of jacket than what the Alta is trying to be. The Alta wants to be as warm as it can possibly be while staying light and purely functional; box baffle jackets just tend to be a bit clunker in exchange for their warmth.
The other features of the jacket work well. The three zippers all pull easily. I’m particularly pleased with the two-way YKK main zipper. It’s big and toothy, and it pulls very easily both up and down. It’s also fairly easy to seat and get started, which is not always true of two-way zips. The pocket zippers work well, though I can’t help but wish the pockets were fleece-lined. For a very warm jacket like this one, it just makes sense to me. Maybe concessions like that don’t fit with the functional minimalism ethos.
If I have a complaint, it’s about how the jacket looks. I rarely complain about appearances for technical outdoor gear, but I think I’ll mention it here. The Alta is an unusually puffy jacket. It truly looks like a giant blue marshmallow. It’s not that it’s not tailored thoughtfully – it is. I think it’s just that it’s so fully stuffed with exceptionally high-loft down that it looks almost comically rotund. Even the super-fit model on the Westcomb site looks like a green marshmallow. So, don’t buy this one for fashion shows. Buy it for ice climbing and skiing and hanging out with friends in the snow.
- Truly premium materials and craftsmanship
- Zoned insulation is a thoughtful and effective contributor to overall performance
- All the zippers work well
- No other features to break or get in the way of things
- Jacket is cut fairly short, no butt coverage
- Vain perhaps, but it’s just so puffy-looking
The Bottom Line: Westcomb Alta Sweater
I really enjoyed using this jacket this winter. It’s one of those great pieces that is so well built and uses such great materials that it is a delight on every trip. At the same time, it does what all the best gear does – disappear. You will look like a marshmallow to your friends, but it feels like you’re wearing a much lighter jacket. That’s quite a feat on Westcomb’s part.
Buy Now: Available from Westcomb.com