The Alpha Softshell: A Guide’s Take

“The client must never see the guide eat, drink, or change his clothing,” declared the Swiss-German mountain guide. Compact, steely-eyed, utterly convinced of every word spoken from his mouth, this gentleman issued declarations in steady stream, for any intimidated wanna-be to record.

And I, being an intimidated wanna-be, listened to every word, but how was one to survive without eating, drinking, adding/stripping layers during the day? Certain realities applied. I’m Italian; I always eat. Then there’s my preternatural ability to sweat. The namaste people stare and inch away in hot yoga. The cool kids snicker and point at belay ledges and on the skin track.

This mountain guide thing was going to be trickier than I’d thought.


Fast forward almost 15 years and I’ve figured out a couple tricks. First, the Swiss bergfuhrer didn’t say you couldn’t eat, drink, or dress while guiding; he said the guests couldn’t see you eat, drink, or dress. Important distinction, eh? And second, certain clothing helps with the hot/cold, overheat-and-sweat routine, though I still get looks in hot yoga.

Over the years I’ve experimented with quite a few layering strategies. When the first jackets hit the market claiming to be “wear it all day” versatile, I scoffed. Impossible, I roared!

Turns out the mad professors at Polartec had been busy in the lab, devising an insulation that would change my mind. Polartec Alpha, created for US Special Forces, promised to be insulative but highly breathable, too. Moisture escapes, some heat remains, no need to change layers. The impossible.

I’d heard about this mythic textile and then managed to score a Brooks-Range Alpha Softshell. Older, more experienced guides had turned me on to Brooks-Range gear–their snow science tools remain the standard for anybody working in the avalanche world. The Alpha was my first Brooks-Range apparel–and I hammered the thing.

The sleeves were breathable Polartec stretch-fleecy stuff (Polartec Power Shield, I came to learn) and the body used a lightweight shell material (nylon, 20-denier) over the Alpha insulation. I first tested the thing riding my townie on errands–mmm, warm on the downhill out of my neighborhood, but not a total hotbox on the way back up the hill. Might this…could this…was this the hallowed do-it-all climb and ski insulated soft shell?

I wore the Alpha on a mixed climbing day in Rocky Mountain National Park. We left the trailhead at 3 a.m., in cold temps. I zipped the jacket down in the sheltered trees, but left it on. Even a SFB (sweaty fat bastard) like me could wear this thing on the approach?! Miracles do happen! Once above treeline (we were walking into Longs Peak), the wind began to blow towards sunrise and I zipped it down, threw up the hood. All good. All very, very good.

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I gotta say, we climbed a bunch of pitches that day and I was good if we kept moving–in November, though, at close to 13,000 feet, I had to put on a puffy at longer belays. Some Alpha garments have a windshell over the sleeves and that probably improves cold-weather range, but at the expense of breathability. The Brooks-Range version is a better option if you’re skinning or moving fast on the up–the sleeves breathe and are air permeable, meaning you get a bit of evaporative cooling. This fact alone made the Alpha Softshell wearable in a wider range of conditions for me.

The Alpha Softshell was as close to a do-it-all piece as I’ve worn. I’ve tried a couple other Polartec Alpha garments, too, and had great performance. The stuff works and when built by climbers and skiers, you get a really dialed garment. My nephew ended up pimping my Brooks-Range Alpha Softshell after a season, but I remember that thing fondly. I bet it’s still going strong up in Bozeman, where my nephew rides, skis, and climbs.

Rob Coppolillo is an IFMGA/AMGA certified mountain guide, based in Boulder, Colorado. He co-owns Vetta Mountain Guides and is the co-author of The Mountain Guide Manual.


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