A puffy coat make the difference between Type II and Type III fun, but which is better, down or synthetic? Let me ‘splain. No no, there is too much. Let me sum-up: If it’s idiot-proof, I like it. But that’s just me. Most people are smarter and more careful, so for them down can be a great choice. When it really matters, though, I go for synthetic belay parkas (but I usually use a down sleeping bag, if I bring one – will get into bivy ideas another time). OK, I will ‘splain.
First, some plusses and minuses of each:
-Lightest insulation available. Unparalleled warmth-to-weight ratio.
-Compresses way better than synthetics. Longer life, too – doesn’t die or pack-out like synthetics can over time (some synthetics are way better/worse than others here).
-Nice, soft, cozy feel
-More expensive (especially high-quality down)
-Completely worthless when wet
-If the shell rips, you lose your feathers. Some down parkas therefore use burlier fabrics, which counters some of the weight savings.
-Bomb- and idiot-proof
-Maintains a high degree of its insulating value when wet
-It’s heavier and doesn’t compress as well. Some synthetics pack out after just a few seasons, making them less effective.
Down would be a slam dunk if it weren’t for the whole “worthless when wet” thing. And that’s a big thing with alpine climbing. Granted, a good DWR and water-resistant fabric works great for shedding snow, especially on shorter outings, and for winter climbing you’re usually dealing with a fairly dry medium (snow). But anyone who’s gone winter climbing or, much worse, alpine climbing, knows that you still get wet – groveling through nasty snow, pressing against dripping ice, climbing through rivers of spindrift that gets everywhere and then melts on you. Keeping down dry in most alpine environments requires diligence.
In my book, the more committing the situation, the bigger deal this becomes. While I love my big puffy down parka for a portable belay heater while cragging, for anything where just bailing and strolling back to the car could be problematic, I go for synthetics. Part of this relates to climbing philosophy – I don’t like to bring a lot of stuff, and since I usually skip or skimp on bivy gear, the stuff I bring has to be versatile and trustworthy if shit hits the fan. Having a clumped, wetted-out, worthless parka when strung-out on a route can be disastrous.
Personal examples of idiot-proof attributes that make me favor synthetic belay parkas:
-On one of my many failed attempts at the north buttress of Mt. Hunter, my down parka somehow got wet and formed some golf-ball-sized chunks of frozen down inside my pack (synthetics don’t clump together when wet like down). My theory: spindrift snuck into the pack (which always happens if you’ve removed the lid from your pack, which makes sense for saving weight), but melted just a bit from the body heat coming off my back, but then refroze. I know of several people who use down parkas in AK and other cold places without problems, though – perhaps it’s a personal reflection but, again, I’m a fan of idiot-proof things. For another example, I don’t want to be diligent about brushing off every speck of snow when I’m hastily stuffing the parka into my pack at the end of a belay.
-Another time in AK, part of a down parka got stuck in the zipper. Out of frustration, I yanked harder, and, poof, feathers everywhere. Fortunately it was just in the draft tube.
-Proving that I finally learned something, On Great Trango we just brought little sweater-style pullovers – mine a Patagonia Micro Puff (no longer made in the Pullover, and it’s gotten too heavy IMO; but the Nano Puff is the best product we’ve made since the R1 Hoody) and Josh’s a down version from Feathered Friends. Josh’s was super sweet, a little lighter, and slightly warmer since we stayed dry. Mine still would’ve worked if we got wet, important to me since we didn’t bring much to weather any sort of storm. On our final morning, day five, I led through an icy off-width while wearing every piece of clothing I’d brought. Were I wearing down on that lead, it’d have looked like someone shot a goose. I shredded the shell fabric – but the synthetic fill, though exposed, stayed put and kept me warm.
Lots of options exist for belay parkas in various weights (will talk about smaller, three-season puffy coats soon), but for winter warmth, as with many climbers I love Patagonia’s DAS Parka (DAS stands for Dead Air Space, which is what a good belay parka should trap). Of course I’m biased because I work for them, but plenty of long-suffering Patagonia product developers can attest to how I fucking rant when something isn’t right and real-deal (I should post one of my product rants sometime; looking back, some have been fairly entertaining…they’re good folks for tolerating my diatribes). Quite simply, the DAS rules.
So, to sum-up, down or synthetic? By the way, it’s almost marg-thirty, so why not get a little inappropriate, in deference to the season of holiday parties…
Think of it like women (or men – all about equality here). High-maintenance chicks suck. It’s a big drawback. Even if they’re hot. It’s like a down jacket. It doesn’t matter how comfy or nice looking it is, in the long run you’ll end up a beaten-down man with the thousand-yard stare, shivering and cold and lonely and broke and hating the world. For a quick session, though? (Meaning a day at the crag, get your mind out of the gutter!) Oh yeah.
But I’m in it for the long haul, baby.