The North Face's flagship alpine shell, the Meru Jacket, has an awesome pedigree - Designed by Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin for their successful return to the Shark's Tooth on Meru and worn by Andy Houseman on the 6th ascent of the Slovak Direct on Denali it has real potential to be a top end performer. It'll be in my bag for Ama Dablam next month and then get a good hammering in Scotland this winter but here's my initial thoughts on what looks a very smart piece of clothing before a long term test in the next few months.
As an advocate of soft shell or windproofs for the majority of conditions my waterproofs usually stay in my bag. Luckily the Lake District weather has obliged over the last few days and I've been wearing this jacket almost constantly. As expected I've stayed pretty much dry, however when the sun did make a brief appearance the Gore Active shell wasn't far off soft shells levels of breathability and comfort and I was able to forget I was wearing a waterproof.
Many manufacturers will tell you that they don't like pit zips but fashion over function means that they have to include them in their high performance jackets to be able to sell them. Unfortunately they add weight, complexity, are a weak point and personally I find they don't work. Your waterproof should be your final bombproof layer against the elements. Full marks to The North Face for going against the grain and keeping the jacket simple and watertight - or so I thought!
They've replaced one weakness with another bigger one by including chest pockets with a mesh back to aid venting. This makes the jacket lighter and more breathable but means you will get wet if you are using the pockets. They are also only closed by weather resistant zips which aren't backed or covered by a storm flap so although I've not had any problems so far, there is the potential for driving rain to force it's way through. The main zip has a bit more protection with a small internal guard.
Many American designed waterproof jackets struggle in the windy UK conditions for want of a wired hood. The reinforced peak on the Meru is probably one of the better non wired hood I've used. It'll be very interesting to see how it copes with a Scottish hooligan this winter. It's also one of the few hoods I've tried which is actually helmet compatible.
The grippy rubber on the waist and shoulders is designed to prevent wear but also helps prevent your rucksack and climbing harness moving around. An interesting innovation as I have a couple of rucksacks that definitely slide off my waterproof clad shoulders as soon as I start climbing. I'm not a fan of chest straps, finding them restrictive, so this idea has a lot of potential...
Initial thoughts are that this is going to be a very good lightweight winter climbing and alpine shell. The potential problem with the chest pockets won't be an issue in alpine conditions so the real test will be in Scotland. The fit and styling are excellent and it has very clean and simple lines. Areas of wear are reinforced with tougher Active Shell and I get the feeling it'll be a lot tougher than it's weight would suggest.