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Hands-on Gear Review
Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell Review
Cons: Expensive, zippers are sticky and hard to manipulate
Bottom line: A full featured hardshell at a very light weight makes this one of the highest performing jackets we have tested.
The Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell is designed as a light and fast garment that cuts out a number of features in the name of shaved ounces. While it is thin and light, it also offers fantastic weather protection with long sleeves, a low hem line, and a surprisingly protective hood, considering it only uses one draw cord to tighten. Advertised as the perfect lightweight layer for backcountry skiing and cutting edge alpinism, we would have to agree. It also includes some handy features that were cut from the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, like pit zips and double cross-over chest pockets. While we had a few minor complaints about the function of some of the zippers, we thought this was one of the best jackets available in this review, and it scored near to the top - fourth in the review, in fact.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Helio Alpine Shell is another one of the new jackets to pair the GORE C-knit backer with a standard 3-layer GORE-TEX, and like the Outdoor Research Furio or Marmot Cerro Torre, it also offers top-notch weather protection. Its lightweight 30D face fabric is mobile and supple, but for some reason still retains a lot of the crinkly noise that C-knit is supposed to eliminate. It has almost the exact same feature set as the Marmot Cerro Torre, but has a lower hem and has double cross-over chest pockets instead of hand warmer pockets. These pockets make items more easily accessible while climbing, when one would rarely need to use a handwarmer pocket anyway. Like the Patagonia Refugitive, this jacket has Cohaesive buckles that we found to be the easiest of all draw cord buckles to manipulate with gloves on.
Black Diamond touts the Helio Alpine Shell as their lightest weight and simplest alpine climbing or backcountry skiing jacket. With its perfectly adequate feature set, we aren't sure why anyone would want to upgrade to a heavier and more expensive shell, but for those who really want GORE-TEX Pro or a lot more pockets, check out the Sharp End Shell for an extra $50.
We wore this jacket for many laps on glorious alpine powder in the San Juans and loved how the long, low hem helped keep blowing snow from getting in underneath our jacket. In our shower test, the super water-tight zippers did their job. We were also impressed by how well the hood protected us from a total downpour in the shower, despite having only one single back-of-the-head drawcord.
The design, with its embedded Cohaesive drawcord buckle, was very reminiscent of that on the Patagonia Refugitive, except that where that hood allowed water to drip down the neck, the hood on the Helio Alpine Shell did a great job of keeping out everything we could dump on it. We also commend this jacket for having one of the more durable DWR coatings in this test — it showed only minimal amounts of wetting out after three months of testing. 8 out of a possible 10 points for weather protection.
Weight and Packability
This jacket weighed 13.2 ounces for a men's size medium, making it the second lightest jacket in the review. While it was a couple of ounces heavier than the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, it also had an extra pocket and two pit zips in the mix, features that for most are worth the gain in weight.
Its 30 denier fabric also meant that it lacked bulk, and easily rolled up into a ball nearly as small at the Alpha FL when stuffed into its little stuff sack. Low weight and fantastic packability is without doubt one of the hallmarks and strengths of this jacket. 9 out of 10 points.
Mobility and Fit
There are many great things to point out about this jacket as it relates to Mobility and Fit, while also a few minor complaints. We really loved how, like The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L, this jacket had a low hem line designed to protect against snow entering from below. Blower powder days tested this feature and we can happily report that it performed as intended.
We also like the freedom of mobility we had in the chest and arms, despite having a size medium instead of a large, unlike what we found when we sized down in the Patagonia Triolet. The hood fits well both with and without a helmet, and is also very easy to adjust. Our complaints were that the collar was a bit tight, especially with extra layers on underneath. Additionally, the sleeves could have been an inch longer or so, although this proved to never be much of a problem during testing. While not as form fitting or stretchy as the Outdoor Research Axiom, we still felt it was worthy of 8 points.
Venting and Breathability
Made with a combination of 30D fabric and C-knit backer, this jacket was indeed very light. This helped us stay cool longer, and we didn't heat up nearly as quickly while wearing this jacket as we did in The North Face Free Thinker — a very good quality for skinning uphill. While it didn't have venting pockets or a two-way front zipper, this jacket did have pit zips for ventilation, unlike the Alpha FL.
These zips cut almost diagonal across the arm pit zone, ending toward the front of the arm at the top. In our field testing, we didn't notice any performance increase from this design. The waterproof zippers on this jacket, including those on the pit zips, were the absolute hardest to pull and manipulate of any zippers in this test. We literally could not open the pit zips with one hand because they stuck so much. Even using two hands we found this to be a bit of an awkward process. As such, we only gave this jacket 7 points when it came to venting.
The Helio Alpine Shell has a simple and minimalist feature set designed to keep things light. While it has more features than the similarly light Arc'teryx Alpha FL, some of them didn't work as well.
It wasn't just the pit zips that were hard to pull open and closed, but all of the other zippers were equally as sticky. We liked its functional and minimal use of only a single draw cord on the waist and the hood, and thought that the design was such that it provided better protection than the Patagonia Refugitive, despite the similar design. It only has two pockets, both cross-over napoleon style chest pockets, that are big and can hold most of the necessities. With so few features, it received a relatively low score of 5 out of 10 points.
Black Diamond claims this jacket is best used for alpine climbing and backcountry skiing, and we couldn't agree more. Being so light and packable, its usage could also be stretched to almost any mountain activity where light weight is valued, like backpacking.
The Helio Alpine Shell will set you back $499 if you pay retail, and this is not a small amount of money. While this is a great jacket and don't for a second doubt its durability or craftsmanship, this is trending toward the higher end of the price spectrum, especially for a minimalist offering that doesn't use GORE–TEX Pro. If you use this jacket for the next 10 years, of course it will be a great value, but if you are looking to save money where you can, there are other great jackets for less money. The Outdoor Research Axiom, $389 list price, was our Best Buy winner, as well as our second highest scoring jacket in the fleet.
The Helio Alpine Shell is Black Diamond's most minimalist hardshell offering, but with highly functional features that meet almost any need, we wonder why anyone would want something more? This jacket offers great protection for bad weather, and is light and packable enough to come along on any mountain adventure, regardless of whether it gets used or not. It offers more mountain functionality than urban chic, but that's exactly why we happily recommend it.
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— Andy Wellman
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