Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Arcteryx Acto MX Hoody Review

9 years ago I stood in a Philadelphia art gallery next to my professor, gazing at a blank white canvas with a $7000 price tag.  I was pissed.
"This isn't art!" I told my professor. "Who's going to pay $7000 for a blank canvas?"  It wasn't completely blank.  The artist had painted it white.
"Ah, but what is art if not something that evokes an emotional response?  Look how flustered you are."

I thought it would be easy to write a critique for what was, effectively, a blank canvas.  Yet, I learned, if I was going to pass the assignment, I'd have to offer my definition of art--my paradigm for what it should and shouldn't be--and show why I thought this was a poor specimen.

You would think reviewing climbing gear would be an easier, more concrete task, but you still have to reveal your calculus of psychology, environment, hopes, and dreams to qualify your opinion.  Otherwise you're like this guy, who reviewed the Arcteryx Acto MX Hoody on the Backcountry.com website:

"I had the chance to try this jacket on recently and I found it to be an amazing piece of equipment that I can't live without. You can rock it on it's own or use it for layering. It is super versatile and extremely technical. Perfect for any outdoor enthusiast. The liner is a fleece grid that can let heat out while wearing it alone or keep heat in if you are layering. Use this for anything you do in the snow. Not to mention it has a lifetime warranty. Awesome!"

His basis of review is from trying it on?

Anyway.  I have been interested in the Acto MX Hoody since Jason Kruk's "Acto PSA" (found via ColdThistle) piqued my interest in the jacket.  Then I got it for Christmas and have barely taken it off.  Here's my take:

Why a softshell?
When I reflect upon the times I've been most comfortable climbing in cold or chilly weather, I think of two moments.  One was climbing in Red Rocks in April with temps in the 40's or 50's, wearing  a long sleeve merino wool shirt, with a Patagonia Nano-Puff at belays.  The other was ice climbing in the Catskills with temps in the 10's-20's, wearing a wool T-shirt, a Patagonia R1 fleece, and a big puffy while stationary.  Both scenarios had garments that were exceptionally breathable and form fitting for climbing, with a windproof, insulated layer to bottle the heat during periods of inactivity.  But if you're wallowing in snow or if there's a stiff wind you can't get away with just a shirt or thin fleece.  You want something that can repel a little moisture, block some wind, while sacrificing as little breathability, and adding as little bulk as possible--like a "hardened" R1 layer.  That's what I want in a softshell.  That, and it should exude a fitter-than-thou, mysterious, danger-vibe around town (I can't deny being a weekend warrior).

Box Opening
I pulled the gift bag from under our 3' tall DC apartment Christmas tree, and revealed the black Acto MX Hoody from a nest of tissue paper.  Thanks wife!  The size small Acto fit my 5'9", 155lbs frame like a glove.  It fit so closely, I realized, I would only want a single thin layer beneath it.  Second, I noticed the fabric.  Where my last softshell, the Gamma MX Hoody, felt rubbery, this felt more like canvas--like a techy Carhartt.

Around Town
The "Blacto" goes with just about everything.  I wear it to work and around town in place of a sweater.  If it's colder than 50 degrees and I'll be standing around waiting for the metro, I'll throw a fleece over it.  I have particularly come to like the two breast pockets that swallow documents folded to letter envelope size, my ipod, chap stick, etc.  The hood takes some adjustment to comfortably accommodate an unhelmetted head, but that's a necessary inconvenience for climbing specific garments.  The one attribute that gives me pause is the primary zipper. It glides along its track too well.  The jacket wants to be all the way zipped or completely undone.  Anywhere between and it will unzip itself.  I'm fine with that if fixing the quirk means using a heavier, less flexible zipper.

In Action
No one expects a ninja
Hiking in the Acto in chilly weather is a dream.  It moves.  It breaths.  It protects from wind and drizzle.  It doesn't seem to get as heavy as the Gamma MX Hoody when wet, and it dries in moments.

I found it comfortable while climbing Gunks moderates in 30 degree weather before the sun hit.  Scumming the rock, the fabric bites like an upper body tape glove, lending confidence forgotten by those in Gore-Tex, various "Puffs", or overly elastic softshells.

I found it too warm when jogging one sunny 30 degree morning in Buffalo.  I'd want it to be colder before trying that again.  Not that it's the right thing for jogging anyway, hood bouncing around and all.

It's nice to have between pitches at the New River Gorge in the Spring air, though a sweatshirt would be as good.

The Acto performs as I'd hoped--like a bare bones light fleece that can block moderate wind and precipitation.  It's comfortable in the teens and 20's at high output.  It's sweet spot is moderate output in the 30's and 40's.  It's nice at low output in the 50's, and you can stand around with it in the 60's.

I think this is a marked improvement from the other softshells, such as my previous Arcteryx Gamma MX Hoody, which feels like a wet suit in comparison.  Other softshells may offer greater wind and moisture resistance, but their comfort band is narrower and occurs at lower output levels.

And the Acto looks killer around town (if I don't say so myself).  Just make sure the fit works for you.  The fabric stretches more like denim than spandex, and the more you fight it the more that zipper is going to fling itself open.

I believe the Acto will truly shine while ice climbing, and in a mountaineering setting.  Unfortunately, we had a non-winter this year on the east coast, and I didn't swing axes or wallow in snow a single time.  I'd be bitter, but we never stopped rock climbing.  Regardless, I feel confident putting my name on the line, the Acto is much better than that white painted canvas.

2/21/13 Epilogue:
I climbed ice in the Dacks over a four day weekend last week and finally put the Acto to the test. Tempuratures ranged from mid single digits to mid twenties. The wind ranged from 0 to 30 miles an hour. Over a tech tee and R1 hoody, the Acto performed perfectly during periods of activity. It stayed tucked in my harness. I felt light and free and warm when climbing. When not climbing I wore a DAS Parka on top. It's a great thing to feel in tune with your clothing system and to feel comfortable in harsh weather.

We climbed ice in the Catskills this past weekend. The weather was exceptionally warm, but still the Acto was comfortable. The jacket continues to be a favorite. The only blemish is where one tooth in the plastic zipper is broken from having jammed in my gri-gri last fall.

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