I’ve been impressed recently with the quality of jacket that Mountain Hardwear puts out. Their Ghost Whisperer was a Gear-of-the-Year winner in 2013 and their more recent offerings are putting on an equally strong showing. Up next in the roster is their Alchemy softshell climbing jacket, a techy piece of work if there ever was one.
Mountain Hardwear Alchemy Hooded Jacket Features:
- Asymmetrical, Velcro®-adjust cuffs protect the top of the hand without compromising mobility
- 3-way adjustable, helmet-compatible hood features a wire brim to hold its shape
- Large interior mesh drop pocket easily holds gloves and other essential gear
- Dual-purpose, pack and harness compatible zippered pockets double as core vents
- Easy-slide, water-repellant 2-way AquaGuard® VISLON® center front zipper
- Body Fabric: 3L Dry.Q Elite® Synchro NBT
- Body Fabric Content: 56% Polyester, 44% Nylon
- MSRP: $395.00
Hard tech in a softshell jacket
Perhaps it’s the bright orange color of the particular jacket that I’m testing, but there’s really nothing apologetic about the Alchemy: it is a consummately technical jacket designed for some very demanding adventures. As a softshell/hardshell hybrid it’s in kind of a funny spot – it’s not ideally suited to most climbing in the Pacific Northwest, but it offers a lot of potential in drier, cold climates. We’ll consider the fabric more later in the review.
As befits as jacket of this price range and intended use, all of the bells and whistles are present and accounted for. Most noticeably, there’s a two-way sealed zipper that is ideal for use with a harness or for added ventilation when things get gnarly. There’s a pretty tremendous slate of shock cord adjustments, too: the hem is fully adjustable and there are three (count them!) different adjustments on the hood and collar. The hood adjustment (not to be confused with the visor adjustment, which is on the back) is internally routed but can be accessed via flaps from the outside of the jacket – this is a great touch that maintains the jacket’s weatherproofing while giving easy access to hood adjustment.
The hood itself is very well designed. Coupled with a high-collar for extra protection, it fits just fine with my bulky Mammut Alpine Rider. The brim is reinforced with wire for added strength in high winds, which is the sort of touch I associate with excellent shells.
Since this jacket is built for climbing, it has two helmet-compatible pockets which are set high and away above the waistline. These are fleecy on the front but open up to the inside of the jacket via mesh to provide core ventilation. This, coupled with the two-way zip, definitely helped me control my microclimate.
The face fabric definitely feels like a softshell, but it’s not as stretchy as I would have liked. I suspect that the Dry.Q Elite that gives the Alchemy its overall performance benefits can only be asked to stretch so far. That said, Mountain Hardwear does much to alleviate this by careful placement of fabric paneling; it passes my arms-above-head-without-moving-the-hem test just fine. So, while the fabric itself is not inherently the stretchiest, the overall design offers excellent range of motion. The long arms and torso do much to aid this, too.
In practical experience, the Alchemy proved itself a very capable piece of gear, but it demands somewhat specialized conditions to excel. Being a softshell it has the slightest bit of insulation to it – namely a brushed fleecy inner fabric – rather than the sheer membrane of a hardshell. This makes it decidedly too warm for most climbs in the lower 48 during the summertime, but it can really excel in cold conditions in fall and winter, which is where my testing has taken place. The Alchemy went with me to Mt. Baker earlier in the season and it ran the gammut of natural testing; I sweat like a hog and it was muggy and rainy on our hike up the hogsback moraine, turning to cold, windy conditions for our alpine start the next morning.
The jacket was in a difficult place – it was slightly damp from my exertion and the rain the day before, and I was pulling it onto my shivering body at a god-awful hour in the morning. I climb hot, so I just pulled the jacket on over my base layer and shuddered as the cold Alchemy ran across my skin. I needn’t have worried, though – all the Dry.Q Elite needed was a little bit of heat to start kicking, and my body’s heat soon dried out the fabric.
On the whole I was much more comfortable climbing in the cold, dry conditions of our summit bid than I had been on the day before. This illustrates the same point I made above – the Alchemy excels in cold, dry conditions; it doesn’t breathe quite as well as comparable hardshells and it’s warmer, plus the denser face fabric tends to hold water more than most modern hardshells. Mind you, as my climb illustrated it’s versatile enough to cope with less-than-ideal conditions, but it’s a bit like asking a Porsche to pull a trailer.
The jacket’s fit is spot on; I’m 5’10” and weigh 175lbs. The waist of the jacket is a solid 32″ – I couldn’t wear the jacket comfortably over a harness, but it’s cut so slim at the hem that it fits very well under a harness. That’s fine, but it made for some confusing times trying to figure out how best to manage ventilation with the two-way zipper. Otherwise, though, I was happy with the fit – as I mentioned above, its sleeves are cut long which is something of a hallmark of great alpine fits – it reminds me fondly of the Rab Myriad which I raved about some time ago.
On the whole, the jacket is built with excellent craftsmanship; frankly I was a little surprised seeing as this softshell comes out of a Chinese factory. The seam taping is beautifully done and all of the corners are finished with fabric circles. The inside of the jacket is a testimony to excellent needlework and the lazercut accents found throughout the Alchemy certainly add a lot to the perception of quality.
- It excels in its niche
- Excellent hood design is very strong and versatile
- Tailoring of the jacket allows for great range-of-motion
- Lots of pockets and storage options
- Several great ventilation configurations
- Rather heavy – almost 1.5lbs
- Fabric itself lacks much inherent stretch
The Bottom Line: Mountain Hardwear Alchemy
It’s always enjoyable to review a truly great jacket. It took a little bit of time for me to realize that the Alchemy is designed for very specific conditions, but in those conditions it’s really excellent. The performance of Dry.Q Elite has long been respected in the industry and it’s good to see that sort of laminate paired into a worthy softshell. Softshells are often poorly done in my opinion, but that is not the case here. If you don’t think Mountain Hardwear can produce top-shelf shells, check out the Alchemy.
Buy Now: Available from Backcountry.com
n.b. – Mountain Hardwear produced a softshell with Gore Windstopper fabric that was quite popular in its time; this is a completely different product that happens to have the same name.