A year ago, a "waterproof soft shell" would have been considered an oxymoron to most people. After all, a soft shell is supposed to trade off rain protection for better breathability -- or so a number of ardent soft shell proponents have argued. But the new Mammut Besal Jacket ($375) clearly defies the paradigm.
This is a true climbing shell made for wet, winter activities. As you'd expect from a soft shell, the fabric has four-way stretch for freedom of movement and a fuzzy Coolmax inner surface for moisture wicking, comfort and a touch of warmth. The cut of the jacket is on the trim, athletic side too so there is no flapping in the wind or excess bulk restricting vision when climbing.
But unlike most soft shells, the Schoeller three-layer fabric has a waterproof/breathable laminate and all the seams are taped. So even in wet snow or drizzle, and when climbing on dripping ice climbs, the Besal keeps you dry. While most of the top-end soft shells have a good DWR, they just can't offer this level of protection.
In the cool to cold weather for which the Besal is designed, the fabric breathes reasonably well. When the heart-rate climbs and sweat starts to pour, venting chest pockets and pit zippers (all with water-resistant zippers) offer much-needed additional ventilation. The jacket does get somewhat odiferous after a good bout of sweating, however. The fuzzy lining does make the Besal slightly harder to pull over a fleece jacket, but this is also true of many soft shells.
As you would expect, the jacket has a good hood that will fit over a helmet; drawcords have sleeves so they won't whap you in the face. There is no waist drawcord to create pressure points under a pack's hipbelt, just elastic in the hem. Inside, a large mesh pocket and a smaller one for sunglasses provides adequate storage.
At 32 ounces (910 grams) for a size large, the Besal jacket isn't lightweight but it is extremely rugged; shoulder areas use Keprotec laminate for maximum durability. Yet compared to the typical beefy hard shell in the same weight range, this is trimmer and has far better freedom of movement.
So once again, advancing technology forces users to rethink their clothing system and question the need for traditional hard shells even more. Hopefully, Mammut will explain the technology to consumers -- a very weak area for many European manufacturers. As the first waterproof soft shell (more are on the way from other brands), the Besal Jacket increases the options but it's not the end-all piece since it remains too warm and heavy for some places and times of year. Serious alpine climbers and backcountry skiers are going to dig it though.
SNEWS Rating: 4 hands clapping (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)
Suggested retail: $375
For more information: www.mammut.ch