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Arc’teryx Alpha SV Review: Last Shell Standing After Alaskan First Ascents

Arc'teryx Alpha SV in Alaska(Photo/Chris Lindsey)

The Arc’teryx Alpha SV shell has been a go-to for hardcore alpinists since 1998.

The release of GORE-TEX PRO in 2020 promised improvements vaulting the Alpha SV system beyond its already lauded status among those that venture into the harshest environments on the planet.

Arc’teryx uses GORE-TEX PRO with Most Rugged Technology paired with its most robust face fabric to produce a shell system to withstand the worst conditions. I took the Alpha SV and another premium shell from a competing brand into remote ranges for over a week in Alaska last winter to attempt first ascents on ice — and the Alpha SV was the only garment to come back in one piece.

The Arc’teryx Alpha SV groveled across sharp granite, razed across pointy ice, was raked by ice screws, and even gouged by crampon points and ice axes. While the other shell tore, the Alpha SV held strong.

In short: The Arc’teryx Alpha SV is a top choice when durability and reliability are paramount. When staying dry and warm is a requirement, but everything wants to deny you, the Alpha SV deserves serious consideration.

Specifications

The Alpha SV has specifications similar to other high-end shell systems destined for remote and harsh endeavors.

Alpha SV Jacket

Arc'teryx Alpha SV jacket
(Photo/Arc’teryx)

GORE-TEX PRO Most Rugged (N100d, 3-layer) defends the outside of the jacket. Arc’teryx lines the interior with a “Micro Grid Backer” that fends against abrasion and contamination. The brand dope dyes the backer, which uses much less water and resources than traditional dying methods. A Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment helps prevent wet-out.

A helmet-compatible StormHood with a laminated brim tops the jacket, and pit zips allow venting. Die-cut velcro cuff adjusters are low-profile, easing use with gloves that have gauntlets. A tall collar with a laminated chin guard allows turtling in when the spindrift blows. And the laminated lower hem uses Cohaesive adjusters that can serve as a Hemlock (usually pieces of foam in the hem) to keep it from riding up under a climbing harness.

There is one internal dump pocket and a zipped pocket. There are two external, pleated, high-volume pockets at chest level and a Recco reflector in a left bicep pocket. Water-resistant WaterTight zippers defend against water ingress. Finally, Arc’teryx offers the Alpha SV jacket in five colorways.

Alpha SV Bib

Arc'teryx Alpha SV bibs
(Photo/Arc’teryx)

Arc’teryx constructs the Alpha SV bib with N80p-X GORE-TEX PRO with Most Rugged Technology and reinforces it with N155p-X face fabric in wear-prone areas.

Keprotec instep patches fend off damage from crampon points and ski edges, and an elasticized waist keeps snow out. A zippered right thigh pocket adds to the storage capacity of the jacket.

Like the jacket, the Alpha SV bib also has a Recco reflector and water-resistant zippers.

Both the jacket and bib contain bluesign-certified materials, and the bib is only offered in black.

Arc’teryx Alpha SV Standout Features

All the above can be found in other top-end expedition shells, but I found some differentiating attributes of the Alpha SV system.

The seam allowances are only 1.6 mm. This tight and tidy material allowance for seams and the resultant accurate and compact stitching reduces bulk and weight. Micro seams are proof of quality construction from experienced machine operators. I’ve managed and designed for an outdoor-oriented textile production floor, and I’m telling you, 1.6 mm is pro status.

The GORE seam tape follows suit. At 8 mm wide, it also promises tight construction and confirms experienced manufacturing staff.

Both the jacket and bib are cut generously for layering in extreme conditions, and the built-in articulation was visually apparent.

The bib has thin, removable knee pads to both insulate and protect.

Arc’teryx offers the Alpha SV jacket in men’s and women’s, but the bibs are only offered in men’s.

Arc’teryx Alpha SV in Alaska

The Arc'teryx Alpha SV jacket in Alaska
The author setting up a belay in a cave in the Alpha SV jacket; (photo/Austin Thayer)

I spent a little over a week in different remote ranges in Alaska last winter, exploring, attempting, and gaining first ascents on ice. I had two GORE-TEX PRO shell systems to test in what I consider proper “expedition” environments. The temperatures hovered in the teens, winds were common, and seemingly everything wanted to tear outer layers. But the stoke was high.

Fit and Feel

I felt the jacket cut was generous but still “athletic” when used with multiple layers. I am six feet tall, have a 32-inch waist, and weigh just under 170 pounds. With layers appropriate for stop-and-go activity in consistently below-freezing and windy conditions, the jacket never felt billowy in my harness. It fit my relatively broad shoulders without feeling like it was compressing my insulating layer but still didn’t feel like a sail around my torso, which is rare.

The articulated shoulders let me move my arms into ice-climbing positions without grabbing layers or riding up at the lower hem. And even tucked into my harness, the Alpha SV jacket never bound my shoulders or exposed my wrists. All those things are hard to find in a non-elastic shell, but Arc’teryx found it for my body shape and dimensions.

Arc’teryx cut the bibs similarly, fitting my relatively slender dimensions without feeling baggy with Alaska-ready layers. With a base layer and thin insulating component, the bibs never grabbed at the knees or hips, and my insulation didn’t feel compressed while standing at belays. The articulated knees provided the shape and fabric slack necessary to high step without a bulbous feeling when standing. I appreciated the thin knee pads for providing a little cushion and insulation when kneeling on low-angle ice.

It was evident that the Arc’teryx Alpha SV was stiffer than the other shell, which was not entirely Mostly Rugged Technology. The stiffness decreased throughout the trip, but the shell didn’t drape like other, less burly shells. It consistently felt stiffer and more “crinkly” than my other waterproof-breathable expedition shells.

Overall, the fit and feel while standing and active were the best I could hope for without using less robust or elastic fabrics.

Use of Features

The internal dump pocket and two chest pockets are rather voluminous, which is a good thing. They were in constant use. The internal dump pocket seemed like it was always drying glove liners. The external chest pockets carried everything I needed to access on the ice that wasn’t hanging on my harness. Food, water, radio, goggles, glasses, etc., all fit in chest pockets without interfering with the harness.

I used the smaller internal zipped chest pocket and left sleeve pocket for smaller items like spare contact lenses and lip balm.

The pit zips are long and go down as far as possible while still clearing the harness. And I fully appreciated the large opening they provided. Although it was cold, windy, and overcast much of the time, I had the pit zips wide open when I knew a hard pitch of ice climbing was on tap. This helped prevent moisture accumulation in my inner layers. I feel it was a crucial step in keeping myself warm long-term. And it was much easier and quicker than removing the shell entirely, which I’ve had to do with less-ventilated jackets.

The side zips on the bib extend almost to the knee. I used them to vent while skinning or snowshoeing to climbs to mitigate moisture in my insulating layer. The side zips on the lower half were also long, which would help remove or don over boots and crampons. But I never take my shell pants off during the day. I did appreciate the generous Keprotec instep patches, as they guarded against countless crampon stabbings.

The right thigh pocket was perfect for my phone, and it was clear of all the harness accouterments, making it easy to grab for images or reference maps.

I found the lower hem adjusters and Velcro sleeve cuffs easy to manipulate with gloves. And the hem adjusters did help keep the jacket from riding up from under my harness.

I used and appreciated every feature on the comprehensive list for our backcountry multi-pitch ice climbing missions, other than the long ankle zips.

Weather Protection

Arc'teryx Alpha SV in Alaska
The author testing the wind-blocking ability of the Arc’teryx Alpha SV; (photo/Austin Thayer)

I’ve considered GORE-TEX the best in wind protection, and the GORE-TEX PRO with Most Rugged Technology reinforced that opinion. High on routes when the wind dumped spindrift, zipping up the jacket and pant venting options transformed the shell system into a fortress against the cold blasts. And the tall collar and generous hood allowed me to burrow my face from the cutting wind and keep ice and spindrift out.

And the same was true for water resistance. Like other premium GORE-TEX shells, the Arc’teryx Alpha SV never let a drop of water penetrate the fabric. One time my partner punched through the ice curtain, which shot out a column of water. I followed and had no choice but to duplicate his position to remove an ice screw. I could feel the ice cold hit my leg, but not a drop got by the bib fabric or zippers.

The hood fit great over a climbing helmet once the drawcord was cinched. Combined with the generous and structured brim, it reliably kept precipitation and spindrift from my face or glasses.

The Arc’teryx Alpha SV gave me confidence that my layers and body would be well protected from whatever weather Alaska threw at us.

Durability

Arc'teryx Alpha SV bib damage vs. competitor
Field-repaired crampon point damage to the Arc’teryx Alpha SV bib vs. another GORE-TEX PRO bib; (photo/Seiji Ishii)

My ice-climbing trips to Alaska have always demolished gear. I admit I do not alter my actions to save equipment. I get very focused on the objective and job at hand. The price or longevity of gear never occurs to me while pursuing a climbing objective.

On the last trip, a top-end shell from one of the most well-known brands in climbing fell apart within a few pitches. Both internal and external abrasion delaminated membranes and coatings, and the pant lower legs looked like they had been through a shredder. This was within a few hundred feet of ice climbing, and the MSRP was similar to the Arc’teryx Alpha SV.

I brought two sets on this trip to avoid repeating shell disasters and the associated stress. The other one, also from a well-known climbing-oriented brand, incorporated GORE-TEX PRO stretch in large areas instead of Most Rugged Technology.

And again, within a few pitches, the difference in durability was apparent. I broke through some ice with my feet while making my way out of a cave that I belayed in to stay clear of ice fall. One foot broke through, which set me off balance, and then my other punched through as I fell. I caught a crampon point on a lower leg, and the other bib tore completely through. I caught a crampon point several times on the Arc’teryx Alpha SV bib with equal force and only poked a pinhole in the outer fabric. I didn’t compromise water or wind resistance.

The Alpha SV got plenty of abrasion cycles both internally and externally. Backpacks, granite, sharp metal points and edges, and razor ice constantly attacked the outer fabric. The inside of the jacket was always pinned by my harness, which has almost always rubbed liner fabrics or coatings off. Ropes got fuzzy, boots got abraded, and crampon and ice pick points dulled, but the Arc’teryx Alpha SV powered through. The DWR coating also impressed, beading water at the end of the trip as it did out of the box.

The Downsides

All the benefits listed above did have downsides.

First is the weight. The verified weights are 1 pound, 2 ounces for the jacket, and 1 pound, 4 ounces for the bibs in men’s medium. For reference, Arc’teryx lists the weight of the Alpha AR jacket at 15.2 ounces in men’s medium. I have a lot of shells in my closet, and the Alpha SV is among the heaviest.

Secondly, I have never found GORE-TEX to be that air or vapor permeable. And my guess is GORE-TEX PRO with Most Rugged Technology is the least permeable version. It was a good thing the venting options were generous on the Alpha SV jacket and bib. I never had to take the bib off, but I did remove the jacket on ski approaches when it wasn’t windy or snowing to keep my base layer from getting soaked with sweat. But, I never had to remove the jacket on any climbing pitch in the consistently below-freezing temperatures.

And lastly, the price. At an MSRP of $799 for the jacket and $649 for the bib, the Arc’teryx Alpha SV shell system is the priciest I’ve ever tested.

Conclusions

The “SV” in Alpha SV stands for “severe weather,” and I agree with the monicker. If protection from winter elements and durability are paramount to the success of your mission (and potentially to your life), the Arc’teryx Alpha SV has single-mindedly filled this role in its lineup. And the current version with GORE-TEX PRO Most Rugged Technology continues that trend.

The Alpha SV is heavier than other options, there are more breathable fabrics, and the price is astronomical. But when the consequence of shell failure is high, it’s hard for me to think of a more worthy option.

I will continue to test shells while hunting for big ice in Alaska, but I will pack the Alpha SV in case one fails, which one has on every trip — except for the Arc’teryx Alpha SV.

Check Bib Price at Arc’teryxCheck Jacket Price at Arc’teryx

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