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Overlapping Circles
Patagonia ambassador Colin Haley readies for the last rappel on Dracula, nearing the end of a 71-hour epic on Mount Foraker. Alaska. BJØRN-EIVIND ÅRTUN

Overlapping Circles

Kelly Cordes
Mountain 2012

Wind rocks the goddamned car so hard at the Glacier Gorge trailhead that I just sit there with the heater on. Don’t think, dude, because then you’ll realize what an idiot you are and you won’t go. Seems it never ends, in part because we testers keep barking demands for improvements. My short-guy insecurities nag at me so I zip up, put my pack on inside and struggle to open the car door against the wind. I ain’t no wimp.

The problem with shells has always been finding the sweet spot. No matter what the lab tests said, hard shells protected but didn’t breathe well enough. Soft shells breathed, but didn’t protect well enough. We wanted the circles to overlap.

I clip into my skis and start the approach where soon, in the trees and partially sheltered, I heat up. Then an opening in the forest: blasted again. What became of my beloved ’rado, with 300 days a year of sunny rock climbing? Well, from about November through April, my “backyard” Rocky Mountain National Park becomes Planet Hoth. Winds freight-train off the Continental Divide and scour the peaks, pelting snow and driving rime into every nook. Up high in the shade, I’ve climbed ice as early as September and as late as July, while, across the valley in the sun, my smarter friends climbed Lumpy Ridge granite.

Patagonia’s shell development cycle begins about two years out, usually starting with fabric and ending with features. A seemingly endless back-and-forth collaboration ensues between the field gorillas, like me, and our product people, and we scrutinize everything from fabric performance to seam placements.

An hour later, I slip-slide-skate across frozen Mills Lake toward my climb. It’s a Friday in January, and I did this exact same routine in similar conditions on Tuesday. My notebook: 16 degrees at TH w/nasty wind, did GG lap, went hard, used the gray shell and it breathed like a champ, loving this one, way better than the sucky blue one but features need work (emailed D with suggestions). I’d been testing new shells since November, from the Park to the San Juans to Cody to Hyalite.

But I always start with skepticism. Thing is, the slickest-seeming features work differently in the studio than they do in the field, and there’s only one way to determine how well a newly designed zipper, cuff or hood will work with gloved hands five pitches up in winter. And fabric lab tests are valuable, even crucial, but we all know about lies, damned lies and statistics. Anybody who’s been to Planet Hoth and had their sweat freeze into a sheet of ice on the inside of their “breathable” shell snorts margaritas out their nose at some of the old hard shell breathability claims. But …

Above the tree line, I plow through snow as spindrift nails me. I stop at the base, catch my breath, remove my gloves, and feel the inside of my shell before the next blast hits. Hmmmpf. Dry. Same as last time I tested this one. Zip up and cinch down, crampon up, grab my tools. Climb. Up top, check again. Slog down toward the car.

Back at the trailhead, I fight the wind to open my door and sneak in before graupel plasters my seat. I slam the door and feel the inside of my jacket again. Still dry. Ice encrusts my nostrils and I grin, not only because I’m confident that the circles overlap better than they ever have, but because it means I don’t have to do any more shell tests. At least for now.

About the Author
Kelly Cordes has been a Patagonia alpine climbing ambassador since 2005. Known for his “disaster-style” climbing (extremely light and fast), he regularly field tests technical alpine clothing, and contributes to both the Patagonia catalog and Patagonia blog, The Cleanest Line.® Along with many other ambassadors, he has played an important role – giving time, effort and feedback – in the development of our best alpine and snow shells yet.