Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Jöttnar Alfar - a review

The Jöttnar Alfar is, in brief, a very warm hooded mid-layer of the type normally now called a hybrid. It is hybrid in the sense that it bonds two types of insulation, fleece (in this case Polartec Power Stretch) with and synthetic-‘puffy’-insulation (ThermoCool from German textile manufacturer Advansa) sandwiched between lightweight ripstop nylon. The Power Stretch is used for the arms and sides and the neck area of the jacket, whilst the ThermoCool insulation panels cover the front and back and over the top of the hood. What this provides is lots of insulation for your back and chest from the puffy sections along with loads of stretch and breathability from the stretch fleece areas.

The Alfar under Jöttnar's Bergelmir shell.
The clever mixing of materials means that Alfar gives a great fit, provides perfect mobility for climbing and layers under shells superbly. Power Stretch side panels and arms means that the Alfar will be a good fit for many - for me, medium is perfect; a slim ‘athletic’ fit but no problem with tightness across my chest and shoulders that I get with some midlayers in medium. The sleeves are long and allow the thumb loops to be used without increasing the pump; an unwanted side effect of thumb loops particularly when pulling on ice tools. The plentiful stretch also makes the Alfar suitable for any cool weather pursuits where you want no resistance when reaching. An early test for the Alfar was a cold October day when I was trying to learn the moves of a reachy granite 6c. A repoint attempt will have to wait for spring, but it wasn’t the Alfar holding me back - full stretch spans between little holds with no resistance from the jacket. Power Stretch has long been popular with climbers for this reason, but when slumped on a bolt trying to think about the next bit, the puffy insulation over my chest and back kept me much snugger than a solely Power Stretch top would have. The jacket’s great “layer-ability” comes from the slim smooth Power Stretch sleeves and slick nylon-shelled ThermoCool body, meaning a shell slips effortlessly over it.

The hood is pretty full-on; a strip of puffy insulation comes up the back and over the top meaning warmth but Power Stretch on the sides means you can still hear ok. The stretch also means that it fits fine over your helmet as well as under. I normally wear a hat under my helmet when ice climbing so am slightly sceptical about under-helmet hoods which is how Jöttnar describe this one. Nevertheless, I found the Alfar hood went up and down over various helmets with no bother and added instant warmth when I did pull it up. The hood doesn’t have drawcords, but does have a neat elasticated trimming around the face. This makes the hood snug and protective when on and fully zipped up, but it does have the downside of making the Alfar a bit restrictive around the chin/mouth if you try to zip it fully up with the hood down. I think if Jöttnar want to refine their design for future seasons, seeing if they could offset the top of the zip, as Patagonia and Mountain Equipment have done with the R1 Hoody and Eclipse respectively, might be one thing to try.

The hood goes over a helmet
Jöttnar are from the start aiming to build clothing of a quality on a par with best already available; and looking closely at the Alfar suggests they are getting there. Things like the care in the stitching and finishing is clear to see. Components such as zips are all top quality. The design is also very refined, particularly considering this is a brand new company. It is both little things like the successful “zip-garages” and the big things like seeing that the hand warmer pockets have clearly been designed to be used while you wear a climbing harness. With some of the design features you realise they’ve thought about it much more than you have. I actually emailed Jöttnar to ask if they had put the thumb holes in the wrong place - you have to have your thumbs forward - like you were standing to attention, hands at your sides - for the thumb loops not to put a slight twist in the bottom of the sleeves (Tommy and Steve, Jöttnar’s founders, are both former Royal Marines, so I did wonder if after military careers this becomes your default hand position when standing at rest!). There was only the merest hint of sigh in Tommy’s reply; the thumb holes were, of course, exactly where they wanted them to be. By introducing the slight twist to the end of the sleeve (which make no difference to comfort due to the stretchy fleece) it moves the seam of the sleeve out of the palm leaving no possible pressure point when you have a ski pole strap, ice tool (or perhaps even an SA80 rifle!?) in the palm of your hand all day. It’s nice to know that with Jöttnar there is a functional reason for everything.

My only question over the Alfar is could it be too warm for a mid-layer? On it’s own it is pretty breathable (the fleece side panels help a lot with this) so when not under a shell its warmth is mainly a positive, but layered under a shell you are really warm. I wore it recently on wintery traverse of the Snowdon horseshoe. It was way too warm to wear slogging up from the Cromlech boulders towards Grib Goch, but once I got onto Grib Goch’s verglassed and powder covered North Ridge it worked well on its own, the fleece panels letting most of my sweat out, the synth insulation sections keeping the keen wind off my torso. On the summit of Grib Goch the clouds rolled in and I pulled the Bergelmir shell over the Alfar, using it as a mid layer for the rest of day. In reasonably heavy snow conditions and cloud over Snowdon, then back down below the snowline over Lliwedd where, after some sunshine, thick clouds, sleet and, lower, rain made up the rest of the day, the Jöttnar gear kept me comfy - I didn’t feel the need to take the shell off while slogging up towards the summit of Lliwedd but I definitely got a bit sweaty in there as a result. The outer of Alfar was damp to the touch under shell towards the end of the day, but one way to look at that is that the ThermoCool insulated sections breath well enough for condensation to form there, not inside against the skin, but something with slightly less insulation might be better if you are on the move all day in those temperatures just a few degrees either side of freezing.

Jöttnar are clearly aiming at winter climbers as a big part of their target market, and here the Alfar perhaps makes most sense. It is possible to get too warm when pitched climbing but, when not wearing a belay jacket, it’s not easy! A very warm, climber-specific mid-layer like the Alfar is just the thing for cold days out on Scottish buttresses or Norwegian icefalls.

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