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The North Face: ‘Top Secret’ Outerwear Project Unveiled

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[leadin]In Nepal last winter, after failing to summit a frigid 6,400-meter peak, Conrad Anker stumbled onto a massive pillar of ice. The renowned mountaineer was with Renan Ozturk, a regular partner on similar far-flung and cold expeditions.[/leadin]

photo by Tim Kemple

The pair had traveled to the Himalaya to test gear and identify final design tweaks to a line of top-secret apparel and outerwear from The North Face.

Anker had just six ice screws, barely enough for the climb overhead. But wracked with a case of “vertical jones,” as he put it, the pair roped up and started to climb. The ice pillar shot skyscraper-like into the air, and Anker and Ozturk ascended cloaked in monochrome suits, grey jackets of fused fabrics and layers underneath.

Next month, the kit of clothing — including base layers, mids, jackets, and shell pants, all made exclusively for climbing — comes to market as The North Face’s 2015 Summit Series Collection. A rebirth of the sub-brand (Summit Series had no 2014 line), the company has focused and refined, chopping nearly 75 items from the line and giving buyers just one option of each top-end apparel and outerwear offering.

Summit Series 2015

In total, the 2015 Summit Series line contains eight men’s and eight women’s pieces, as opposed to more than 90 total styles in 2013. The new wares include items from a synthetic base layer shirt (the Summit L1 Top, $125) to a massive down belay jacket (Summit L6 Jacket, $500).

A hardshell jacket, the $600 Summit L5 Shell, is cut from a single fabric sheet then folded into a parka shape and “fused” for fit and durability. The marketing spiff calls it “the most advanced shell outerwear The North Face has ever built.”

Climber’s ‘Kit’

All the pieces are made to work together, with coordinating pockets, seams, and zippers, and there are features specially designed for the rigors of the alpine world. In full, a climber purchasing the entire eight-piece set would drop a cool $2,700 to “kit up” like Anker and Ozturk did on the Himalayan ice.

I met with Anker in Utah in August, and I interviewed him again last week about the line launch. He jumped to a food analogy, one culled from years of climbing around the globe, to explain the decision to pare the Summit Series line down to only a core, niche offering.

“It’s like heading up a mountain and knowing you will only be eating couscous for days,” Anker said. “Sometimes less choice is better; you find something that works and stick with it.”

Conrad Anker; photo by Tim Kemple

On Meru Peak, a big wall at altitude that’s regarded as one of the world’s hardest climbs (and now the focus of a major film, “Meru”), Anker and his team ate only couscous on the second, and only successful, ascent. “It simplified a formerly-complex part of the process,” he said.

If a climber wants top-end outerwear from The North Face, he or she now has just one choice. The Summit Series is the couscous diet, Anker’s analogy continued, the most streamlined, effective, no-B.S. option that The North Face offers in a world used to lots of choices.

Anker as well as Joe Vernachio, VP of global product for The North Face, gave me insight on the line. I got the full Summit Series kit to try on, too, from the base layer to the mega-puffy. (It’s early fall and I have yet to use it anywhere cold and steep.)

The following are some take-aways and opinions from my time so far with the Summit Series suite, a new top-line contender in the category of clothing and outerwear made for activity in some of the harshest places on the planet.

Brand Reboot

The Summit Series launched in the year 2000. But after a dozen years, Vernachio said, the line “became a segmentation strategy to keep specialty stores special,” not a pinnacle product as intended. So the brand shut it down for a season, and in the summer of 2013 its designers and core athletes reimagined what the collection could be.

Octagon baffles, insulated with The North Face ThermoBall synthetic fill, on L4 jacket

“We wanted to make a climber’s kit, a pinnacle kit with the best materials and design techniques,” Vernachio said, admitting the new direction was a risky business decision. “We’d lost a little of the spirit of what we do.”

With the re-launch, a “connection to the climbers is a main push,” he said.

Subdued Color Scheme

“The aesthetic was made to blend with the environment,” Anker said.

He noted tropical areas in the world are colorful and bright, with parrots and dart frogs. But the high-alpine is a monochrome place of rock, ice, clouds, and snow. The Summit Series clothing is made to let a climber “blend” with that environment.

Testing Summit Series gear in Nepal; photo by Tim Kemple

“The color is grey so that a climber is not thinking about being visible, or maybe in his head thinking about a rescue situation where a bright jacket color might stand out, “Vernachio noted. “The new color scheme is made to let a climber feel in harmony with where they are.”

High-Tech Hardshell

The Summit L5 Shell and Shell Pant are pinnacle pieces and cited, as noted above, as “the most advanced shell outerwear The North Face has ever built.” This is justified not with new materials or nano-tech. Instead, the shells are (like their color scheme) almost subdued — they are nothing “fancy” in the expected sense, but instead very minimal, weighing 20 ounces (jacket) and 14 ounces (pants) and possessing few “bells and whistles.”

They use the company’s new DryVent membrane, which is a proprietary technology TNF calls its most waterproof and breathable to date. A real “advancement” is in the manufacturing of the jacket material, and how it folds and “fuses” together, including minimal seams, a low-profile patchwork over grid fabric, and, most substantially, an articulated form actualized from a single ply of fabric to eliminate stitching and cut weight.

Climbing-Specific Features

“The product is unique and crafted for specific endeavors and core athletes,” The North Face notes, meaning climbers only. It is not made to be multipurpose, though surely you could ski or hike in the line, too; just don’t look for all the features.

Example: The L5 shell pants have no internal gaiter. Anker told me, “They are a pure climbing pant, narrower than normal so you can see your leg better when climbing, and not made for a ski boot.”

Summit Series L5 shell jacket and pant

A reinforced neoprene loop is built onto the back of the massive L6 down belay jacket. Shaped to clip with a carabiner, and placed below the hood, the loop is there to let a climber attach the jacket so it hangs with the exterior fabric facing out to deflect the weather. (Many similar jackets have a clip point inside, exposing the interior to spindrift or snow if left hung beside gear on an exposed belay ledge.)

The L5 shell jacket has simple Velcro cuffs and elongated, asymmetrical sleeves. An ice climber reaching high will not expose a wrist. The L5 pants are very minimal (14 ounces) and have a higher back and an integrated belt to keep skin covered if you’re bending and contorting on a climb.

There is no zip-through crotch, Anker also called out, as this is “fast and light,” alpine-style gear, not 8,000-meter down suits where it’s hard to relieve yourself (and a zip-through is needed). Both shell pieces have small zippers and low-profile pockets; they are made to wear with a harness and a pack.

Limited Release

For one of the world’s biggest outerwear brands, the Summit Series is limited in its availability. Vernachio said less than 100 stores will sell it in the U.S., and the company told GearJunkie a total of 32,515 products from the line have been sold worldwide to retailers.

Vernachio noted The North Face is looking at a specific customer base with the line, and that the products will be available “for a brief amount of time.” He said, “These will not be on a sale rack” at the end of the winter when shops cut prices to sell their stock.

The North Face - Summit Series 2015

  • Summit L1 Top (Base Layer) – $125
  • Summit L1 Pant (Base Layer) – $125
  • Summit L2 Jacket – $250
  • Summit L3 Jacket – $350
  • Summit L4 Jacket – $300
  • Summit L5 Shell Jacket – $600
  • Summit L5 Shell Pant – $450
  • Summit L6 Jacket – $500

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