I wanted to love the Outdoor Research Ascendant hoody.  I really did.  It has so many wonderful qualities and so few flaws.  And yet, here I am, pulling a gear Jedi mind trick, telling you that it may not be the jacket you’re looking for.  Like that ex you let go, always wondering if it could have been great, the Ascendant haunts my dreams.

Take a look at the video overview, filmed early in my relationship with the Ascendant, and then scroll down to read more.

Update – Please check out the “What Happened?” section, below for a followup with Outdoor Research and some news about the second generation Ascendant Hoody, coming Fall 2017.  Ascendant 2.0 is in house for testing and we’ll have the full review posted soon.

What’s it for?

OR designed the Ascendant hoody to slot into their active insulation line.  It fits somewhere in between the Uberlayer on the heavier side and the Deviator on the lighter side.  Each uses Polatec’s Alpha insulation, but where the Deviator and Uberlayer get 60g and 98g Alpha, respectively, the Ascendant is the first piece to use Polartec’s new Alpha Direct insulation in 95g weight.  (Outdoor Research and Rab were the launch partners for Alpha Direct.  Each offers a piece like the Ascendant, while Rab will also offer a completely naked Alpha Direct piece called the Alpha Flash later this year.)

Alpha is Polartec’s version of the air-permeable insulation that’s sweeping the planet right now.  Alpha Direct takes the cover off of Alpha, exposing the insulation on the inside of the jacket and removing an air barrier so it, in theory, breaths better.  So, if everything works correctly, the Ascendant hoody should be perfect for high-octane, cold-weather activities.

Treating You Right

Just like that ex, the Ascendant has so many things going for it.  It features a 20D Pertex Microlight face fabric that has the perfect amount of stretch.  The DWR is effective.  I observed it shedding snow on the skin track and weird, frozen rain on a cold-weather mountain bike ride.  The fit was perfect for me – enough room in the shoulders and upper back that it didn’t restrict my movement at all while remaining trim in the torso.  Skiing in it is glorious.  So was biking – it has enough length in the sleeves that your wrists remain covered and the slight, drop hem and 30″ center back length keeps your lower back from freezing.

Alpha Direct is, well, Muppet fur.  (Can we say Muppet?  Doesn’t Disney own them now?)  It caresses the skin if you’re rocking a short sleeve base layer.  There’s no need to add a layer of something soft around the neck.  And, if you’ve ever wanted to see what Alpha looks like without tearing apart one of your jackets, here you go.  Because the insulation is exposed, I expected the Ascendant to suffer from the same malady as fleeces and some softshells – friction with the base layer making it tough to slide your arms in.  In a genius move by OR, the upper arms have an extra layer of Microlight that makes things slide smoothly.

Cuffs are sized perfectly to slide over a glove cuff without being too big to wear everyday.  Two hand-warmer pockets feature Alpha Direct inside to give your hands a fluffy haven when needed and the zipped napoleon pocket has a two-tone zipper that makes it look fab.

The hood is a perfect, scuba-style deal with a single draw cord in the back.  It has elastic around the edge to keep it close to your face.  I’m not really sure the draw cord is necessary, though if you have a small head it may help.  Again, the hood is lined with Alpha Direct, which feels so nice on your ears and cheeks.

The Breakup

Two things made me have second thoughts about the Ascendant.  The first is half petty, half legitimate while the second really concerns me and requires more exploration.

First, the half petty: there must have been a reason Alpha had fabric on both sides, right?  Alpha Direct looks delicate and durability was one of my first concerns.  Alas, validation –  it sheds.  When it came into contact with anything, the Alpha Direct left little blue fibers behind.  Base layers, glove cuffs, anything with velcro (even the soft side).  It was like Muppet herpes.  So long as this shedding doesn’t significantly reduce insulating power, it’s more of a hassle than anything else.  But, there may be environmental consequences.

Last month, we posted Patagonia’s article about microfiber shedding to Facebook.  If you don’t have time to dive in (but please bookmark it and read it when you have a moment), synthetic fabrics, especially fleeces, shed fibers in the wash and those fibers are ending up in our oceans.  This plastic micro-waste can work its way into the lowest levels of the food chain and follow that chain right up to us.  The Alpha Direct sheds more than any fleece I’ve ever owned; I’ve never had a fleece leave fibers behind in the woods like that.  So that’s one thing to think about.

outdoor research ascendant hoody polartec alpha direct review

But on top of that, while skinning up Jones Pass in a decent snow storm last weekend, I got soaked.  The face fabric wasn’t wet; the DWR did its job.  I didn’t feel like I was sweating that much; my hat didn’t get soaked like it usually does,  The back panel of my pack wasn’t wet, so I wasn’t sweating enough to wet through the jacket.  I was only wet on the inside.  Really, really wet.  I had liquid running down my arms and back.  I can’t pinpoint a cause, but I’ve worn the same base layer, an Arc’teryx Satoro merino blend, with other air permeable insulation pieces and never had this happen.  I’ve worn the same base with an Alpha layer before on a fat bike ride without issue.  Maybe a perfect confluence of temperature (about 16°F) and humidity caused it.  I’m going to try to duplicate it if I can.

Regardless, becoming completely soaked while outdoors, even when the temperature isn’t as cold as it was on that skintrack, is dangerous.  I have to wonder if Alpha Direct isn’t capable of maintaining its loft when it gets compressed.  I really don’t have an explanation, though.  So, while we were only doing one lap and I wasn’t very concerned that I would get cold, different circumstances could result in a very different and possible tragic outcome.  Polartec sells Alpha Direct as fast-drying insulation breathable enough that you never get that cold, clammy feeling, even when the activity ramps up.  Well, I got cold and I got clammy and I didn’t dry out before I got home, even though we stopped for brunch.

What Happened?

Added May 8, 2017

I spoke with Outdoor Research about the issue and it seems that I hit a sweet spot of sorts that overwhelmed the jacket, which is pretty much what I assumed.  I also learned a few things about how the new wave of stretch fabrics we’ve been seeing actually works.

Stretch fabrics have an acrylic coating on the inner face that does two things.  The first is that it stabilizes the fabric to prevent the individual threads in the weave from wandering as they move.  The second gets a bit more involved.  It seems the level of acrylic coating not only dictates the stability of the fabric, but also controls the breathability/water-repellency ratio.   More acrylic means more weather proof but less breathable.  Less acrylic means less weather proof but more breathable.  OR tuned the acrylic layer on the Ascendant intentionally.

They were aware that in a very narrow set of circumstances – cold, dry, high exertion – the acrylic layer could get overwhelmed, resulting in moisture getting stuck inside.  Sound familiar?  They estimated that it would happen in about 1% of conditions, if that.  The intent, then, was to make a jacket that was slightly more weather proof and slightly less breathable – on purpose – because they determined that keeping a bit more water out on wet days was more important and would suit more consumers than making the jacket slightly more breathable.

The good news is, what I experienced will probably never happen to you.  The better news is, Outdoor Research has a second-generation Ascendant hoody ready to rock for Fall 2017 that will feature a slightly tweaked acrylic layer for more breathability.  OR’s thought is, and I totally agree, that if it’s puking out there, you put a shell on over it and weather proofing doesn’t matter.  We’ll have a tester as soon as they’re available and I’ll try to break it again.  (Outdoor Research is already designing the third-gen jacket too!)

Well, Crap

Yeah, pretty much.  What sort if freak am I that I broke a jacket like that?  It’s possible that I could go out on a thousand more backcountry ski days and never have that happen again.  But I also don’t think I can choose to wear the Ascendant on cold ski tours.

So, Ascendant Hoody…we can still be buddies and hang out casually.  I’ll still pull you out for chilly days.  But we can’t have the intimate relationship I wanted to have with you.  You may be the perfect jacket for someone.  Just *sniff* not for me.

Update – I still stand by the review, but I’m aware now that the chances of me doing what I did again are pretty slim.  I still don’t think I’d feel comfortable reaching for the Ascendant on a multi-day or even multi-lap tour where getting soaked could be really dangerous.  For single lap tours, I’ll bust it out when conditions warrant.

The Ascendant is exclusive to REI for men and women through today and will be available at your favorite retailer after that.