The North Face: 'Commitment to the Core' for 2012

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

Snowguns blast the ski hills in Colorado this time of year. Ice hangs in daggers off cliffs that line I-70, fine stalactites descending in chill November air. I had come west with a couple dozen outdoor-industry types at the invite of The North Face to get a glimpse, appropriately in a lodge at 8,000 feet, of a few to-be-released products from the company’s 2012 line. In the flesh to demonstrate the company’s “Athlete Tested, Expedition Proven” mantra, mountain climber Conrad Anker was present to talk on his team’s hard-earned ascent this fall of a route on 20,700-foot Meru in India’s Garhwal Himalaya.

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The North Face team’s camp near the high-altitude tooth of Meru

In India, where Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk spent 12 days working up the high-altitude route, testing jackets may not have always been front of mind. But two members of the climbing team were there wearing parkas with a new technology, which was previewed for media at the Colorado event. Called ThermoBall, the product is a “revolution in insulation technology,” the company touts. In the hand, the fine filaments of ThermoBall feel like wispy pilled cotton, light and knotted with tiny spheres. Stuffed in a jacket, the new insulation will offer an alternative to synthetic insulations like PrimaLoft and natural down, the current mainstays of insulation for serious outdoor apparel.

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New ThermoBall insulation is an alternative to down

Made to mimic the clustering of down, ThermoBall is fabricated as small individual balls of synthetic fibers. More loft, warmth and compressibility are the promised results. In charts delineating ThermoBall’s insulation qualities, the TNF fluff was shown to have a warmth-to-weight ratio not quite as good as down, but 15 percent better than a tested synthetic (we assume that would be PrimaLoft One). Like PrimaLoft, ThermoBall works when wet (down does not work well when wet). I pulled on a prototype puffy ThermoBall jacket, which was knit with a new type of triangular baffle system to cradle the fluff, and immediately I felt the warmth.

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ThermoBall Hooded Jacket, to be released in fall 2012

In the 1960s, when The North Face was a small startup brand in San Francisco, a mission of the company was “to make the best products in the world.” Simple and flat out. In Colorado this week, the company hammered that its “best products” theme has always been present, but with innovations for next year, including ThermoBall and another fabric technology called FlashDry, the ante would be upped in 2012. The company also unveiled an avalanche airbag backpack and a vest jacket with an airbag inside. Both products activate with the tug of a rip-cord. The tug triggers compressed nitrogen cartridges and inflates a pair of angel-wing-like airbags that ensconce a skier’s head for protection if tumbling in an avalanche while also giving float and helping to keep the victim on the surface of the sliding snow.

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Like a backup parachute, TNF pack has rip-cord-triggered airbag inside

The North Face partnered with Germany’s ABS GmbH for the airbag tech. It then built the ABS system into a backpack, the Patrol 24 ABS model (picture above), and an outerwear piece, the ABS Powder Guide Vest. At about $1,300, the vest, which will ship in mid 2012, is touted as the first ABS airbag apparel to market. The pack, which will cost about $1,000, cinches onto a skier almost like a climbing harness, including a metal hipbelt buckle and an under-the-crotch strap, as it is made to stay on the body of a skier tumbling through debris and down a slope.

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Airbags on ABS pack inflate like “angel wings”

Hilaree O’Neil, a North Face athlete, spoke on stage about the pack and the ABS system. She has seen firsthand the terrifying effects of avalanches, including with her husband, who broke his neck after being caught in a Colorado slide. O’Neil had many avalanche stories. One of her close friends was saved by an ABS airbag. “Airbags will become mandatory and mainstream” for backcountry skiers, O’Neil said. She thinks skiers and boarders in the near future will include an airbag pack as well as shovels, beacons and probes as mandatory gear. The North Face pack and vest is a big step toward this “mainstreaming,” O’Neil said.

Back to fabric upgrades, the final significant unveiling at The North Face event last week was a technology called FlashDry. I did not get the nitty gritty on what FlashDry exactly is, but The North Face calls it a “naturally-derived fabric additive.” This secret sauce will be added into base layers and jackets, and it is touted to be a technology that embeds micro-porous particles that dissipate moisture (i.e., sweat). The particles increase the surface area that moisture sits on, the company cites, allowing the moisture to spread out more and evaporate quicker.

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Diagram of new type of waterproof/breathable jacket incorporating FlashDry

FlashDry will be sold both as a wicking-type solution for base layer clothing as well as in a Gore-Tex type system for jackets. It will come in a fiber-level additive or treatment for clothing where micro-porous particles will do the moving of moisture. For jackets, the company will use FlashDry in a laminate, creating a waterproof/breathable shield for Gore-Tex-like performance but greater breathability, the company cites. In an interview, Todd Spaletto, president of The North Face, told me FlashDry was one of the “biggest innovations in the history of the company.”

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FlashDry base layer

Overall, I found the new products unveiled in Colorado to be impressive. These look to be big leaps, not just incremental updates, and The North Face indeed is poised to offer some serious new technical toys for climbers, ultra-runners, skiers and other active people beginning in 2012.

In the company presentations, the TNF executives liked to pull out tag lines and mantras the likes of “Athlete Tested, Expedition Proven” and “Never Stop Exploring.” Another one, which I thought was kind of neat, was about making products with “unrivaled performance to [allow people to] explore the world and test the limits of human potential.” Maybe it sounds melodramatic from the outside. But sitting at a table with Conrad Anker as he describes ice climbing on Meru above 20,000 feet at night “with spin-drift coming down my neck, and bad protection far below” you remember that despite the marketing this equipment is seriously tested and seriously real.

Correction: In the original version of this article, we attributed Todd Spaletto, president of The North Face, as saying ThermoBall was one of the “biggest innovations in the history of the company.” In an interview with GearJunkie, Spaletto was referring to FlashDry technology (not ThermoBall) with this quote. The quote has been moved in the article to reflect this change.

—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie. Watch for tests of The North Face ThermoBall and FlashDry products on GearJunkie this winter.

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High in the Himalaya: North Face team on Meru’s steep face

Posted by Anon - 02/11/2012 12:29 AM

Sometime back when DuPont Corporation still manufactured polyester fiber they developed small balls of polyester similar to cotton balls and placed it in pillow ticking for pillows. They called this fiberfill product “cluster fiber”. Since it was never introduced to the outerwear market as an insulating medium I was not aware of its existence. I just read an article in Popular Science about these cluster fiberfill balls being used as an insulating medium by The North Face Company (TNF); they call this insulation “Thermoballs”.

TNF is groping at straws with this product. In order to use it, it has to be inserted in baffles just like down. Why are they going in this direction, I believe they believe from what I have read this product is as close to down as it gets and therefore, it is better than other fiberfill’s. Unfortunately for TNF they do not have any employees with any real knowledge of synthetic insulations so this is nothing more than a marketing ploy. It all came about when the mountaineer they promote Conrad Anker (CA) and the rest of TNF climbing team in 2008 had to abort an attempt to climb Mount Meru in India’s Garhwal Himalaya. It is not stated in the article the specific reason that the climb was aborted, but it is obvious that they were probably freezing as their down insulated clothing was absorbing the moisture they were generating. They were probably having the same experience with their sleeping bags. As is stated in the article CA “request for a better synthetic”. Strange because since the 1930’s when Eddie Bauer Company started making down insulated outerwear, down has been the choice of climbers all over the world. Is this the first time a climbing party has had this problem; NO. Climbers in my opinion will brutalize themselves saving weight. Down has historically had a reputation that it no longer deserves that it is the lightest weight most efficient form of insulation. Continuous filament fiberfill when used to its best advantage is so superior to all other forms of insulation, to include Thermoballs, it even makes down obsolete. According to the article; “Thermoball, created by noted outdoors/college campuses company North Face, is a synthetic insulation that closely mimics down. Unlike traditional continuous-filament synthetic insulations, which are laid out in flat sheets comprised of thousands of long filaments. Thermoball is made from short strands of polyester that have been spun and frayed into millions of fuzzy miniature cotton-ball-like balls, 0.15-0.2 inches in diameter (about the size of an oval M&M). They float inside hundreds of tiny pockets, or baffles, sewn into a jacket. They are designed to cluster like feathers, maintaining air pockets (which are key for retaining warmth) rather than clumping together into a solid mass”. Imagine that they take credit for creating a product that already existed; and I didn’t know they were an “outdoors/college campus company”. Exactly what does that mean? Many years ago (during the 1960’s) there existed a company Holubar located in Boulder Colorado. They made a down parka and pant that was of a baffle construction. They sold very few because the cost was significantly greater than the standard quilt through construction. Of course TNF is making these in China so the cost is $0.50 per hour, maybe. The published retail price is $280.00. A retailer selling this parka is paying approximately $155.00. TNF might be paying as much as $125.00. The manufacturer may not be making any profit because the labor to make this jacket must take 8 hours.That aside as this garment is used the balls of polyester are going to degenerate, collapse which will reduce the heat retention capability, which is not much to begin with. I would be surprised if the garment were good for a temperature nearing 0 degrees F. That is the nature of chopped staple fiber; they chose to call it “short strands of polyester”. It will not clump in a solid mass as down does when it gets wet. However, it will get soaked as CA states and I quote; “I noticed it stayed warm even when it got soaked with sweat on a long run”. He should have included in his comment the temperature during his time running which I suspect was above 32 degrees. If it were colder I doubt he would be warm. The fact that it trapped the moisture is simply not a good sign. The moisture trapped in the fiber will ultimately absorb heat being produced by the wearer of the garment causing a chill. If he were wearing a garment made with continuous filament fiber (Lamilite) as we make them here at Wiggy’s it would not have retained any of the moisture. I guess the claim that these polyester balls mimic down is accurate since the Thermoballs trap the moisture as assuredly as down absorbs the moisture. They insert the balls into triangular shaped baffles, a baffle structure used for years in the manufacture of sleeping bags, but they are making them smaller; I quote”Triangular baffles aren’t new, but the ones in the Thermoball jackets are smaller than any it’s been possible to use with down, since the individual balls in Thermoballs are smaller than each down feather”. If this is the case then the overall loft can’t be very much. They do not give a temperature rating for the jacket, I quote what they do say “ThermoBall weights about the same as down, but TNF claims its ratio of weight to warmth is 15 percent better than the best synthetic material, even though by specific clo ratings (the rating used to measure thermal insulation), down is still superior”. This statement is further proof of the lack of knowledge of insulations by the people employed at TNF. Ounce for ounce continuous filament fiberfill is not only the most efficient synthetic insulating material in the world, but as I said before it even makes down obsolete. The claim of 15 percent better is a fictitious number pulled from thin air, and if the ThermoBall is so good why at the same weight and thickness wouldn’t is be equal or even superior to down? They can’t say that because that would mean that a synthetic is as good as down for warmth but superior because it is not affected by water. Actually this construction will hold water in the garment. In my opinion, from what I have seen, from all of the companies that make outerwear or sleeping bags they just say what ever they think will sway the consumer towards their product. So, TNF is not alone when it comes to presenting erroneous information about their products. Unfortunately TNF will sell these jackets to the general public who will never use the garments beyond the movie theatre, so it will not matter that they are ill suited for cold weather climbing as far as I am concerned. Once TNF gets this product out there I would not be surprised if they start showing sleeping bags with these balls inserted. If that does occur I can’t imagine how false the temperature ratings will be.
Posted by Anon. - 11/21/2012 12:15 AM

I walked into the Granville Street North Face store today, and almost purchased two FlashDry jackets. I asked staff if anyone had worn the jacket, and how the jacket is in our climate for warmth. Staff had no idea, as nobody had worn the jacket.

I walked out of the store empty handed, as there are no temperature ratings on the garment’s product tag.

Staff are clueless due the fact that NF doesn’t supply them with proper information, or product samples to wear. It’s pathetic.

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