Ruth and Dave have just spent an amazing couple of days out with Salomon in Chamonix, testing the awesome new X-Alp kit. Read more to find out how they got on, and what they though of Salomon's new mountaineering offering... we just can't wait until it arrives in Spring 2015 so we all get to have a turn.
Early on Sunday (after a few minor issues locating Dave's house), we set off for Heathrow en route to Chamonix for the long-awaited launch of the Salomon X-Alp fast and light mountaineering range.
We were given (well, loaned...) X-Alp Carbon GTX boots, the S-Lab X-Alp GORE-PRO Anorak (Dave) and the S-Lab GORE-PRO Jacket (Ruth), as well as GORE-PRO pants and the awesome X-Alp 20 mountaineering pack. The kit was then thoroughly tested by a contingent of Salomon enthusiasts and professionals (plus Dave and I) in the mountains above Chamonix over 2 days.
There was enough snow to get a good feel for the performance of the kit in a range of conditions (Dave went up high, in pretty tough weather, and I bottled it staying close to the glacier...giving a wider range of experiences, is my excuse). We dabbled in climbing, trekking, ice and ridge walking, snow walking, and steep wooded and rocky descents- the mindset behind the range is to enable fast and free movement in the mountains, offering technical performance and flexibility from valley floor to mountain top. So we tried the lot- and it felt very very good.
It has been developed, like all the S-Lab kit, in conjunction with the Salomon athletes who practice their sport day in day out and know exactly they want from good mountaineering gear.
Starting at the bottom...
The X-Alp Carbon GTX boot is a pioneering light but incredibly technical boot, using Salomon's edging chassis for heel to toe flexibility but lateral rigidity to give support for climbing and for use with flexible or semi-rigid strap crampons. We both found the boot extremely grippy for climbing, and more than up to the job for strap crampons. Combining an inner shoe with an integrated gaiter the boots are lightweight and comfortable enough to wear for the whole day- doing away with the need to carry approach footwear as well as mountain boots. The X-Alp boots are close-fitting, using the Salomon QuickLace system all the way down to the toe- allowing extra precision. The lightweight flexible nature of the construction means they are responsive when climbing, and this combined with the grippy compound and the ClimbingZone tread pattern on the Contagrip sole unit gives a comfortable, flexible shoe-like feel on rock. On our long descent down into the town, we covered a lot of ground over tree roots, mud and even damp rock, and despite our best efforts to find a flaw, neither of us could make them slip. Dave commented at the end of the day that usually you'd be glad to take your boots off after a long day, but with these, he'd be happy to keep them on. I agree.
Dave was lucky enough to test the S-Lab X-Alp Anorak, in the Alpha Yellow- the model we'll be stocking from spring 2015. Utilising Motion Fit technology the GORE-PRO anorak allows unrestricted movement at the shoulder and full vertical reach, as well as articulated elbows for comfort and versatility. The FLOWTECH system allows maximum venting (perfect where changing effort and conditions mean it is hard to maintain a constant temperature). I got the beautiful and highly functional full-zip jacket- not available in womens until Autumn/ Winter 2015, but we'll have them for sure. On day one, it was warm, dry and sunny, and we all left the jackets at ground level while we tested the X-Alp Carbon GTX boots on some short climbs. The GORE-PRO pants performed well- lots of flexibility from the articulated knees, great fit, very breathable, full length leg zip vents and well-though out finishing details. The yellow colour is great (although I don't think I was the only one to get chocolate gateau on the leg during lunch in the refuge).
Day 2 provided more of a test for the shell layers- Dave and his more intrepid group proceeded up to Aiguille du Midi where weather conditions were very poor, and the anorak and pants performed as you'd expect from GORE-PRO- highly waterproof and breathable meaning comfort even during the exertions of ascents. The venting system of the anorak is ideal for these conditions, and the comfort and range of motion (MOTIONFIT) means it is not restrictive on the more technical sections. I stayed lower with my group, just up from the Plan de l'Aiguille, and we walked along a moraine ridge along the glacier (heaven for a geographer...) up to the snow for some crampon action. The jacket stayed on- the wind was cool and we had some rain (not the whiteout of higher up) and both jacket and trousers felt comfortable throughout (in fact I forgot I was wearing them). The reinforced zone at the base of the pant leg came in handy for my incompetent crampon technique, as did the articulated knees for my constant squatting down to unpack and repack the camera.
Salomon's philosophy for the range is fast and light, and consequently the X-Alp mountaineering pack is only 20 litres- lighter, more packable kit and one pair of boots from valley to mountain top means less need for a large rucksack. There is ample space in the pack to carry crampons (in the sturdy, reinforced Extreme Box, fastened with a zip, not the usual velcro) as well as attachments for axe, rope, helmet, bottle etc... It's comfortable (unisex fit- a fraction large on the shoulders for me, but this was sorted by adjusting the chest strap), stable and neat, and is brilliantly designed with a reverse zip against the back, meaning you can access the contents of the bag by leaving the waist strap fastened and swiveling the pack round to open it without removing it (at Kilian Jornet's request- its safer in the mountains to keep your kit with you at all times). Salomon are going to produce a larger pack later in the range, but Dave and I both agree this one is pretty close to perfect.
Out of the maybe 50 testers, only an intrepid 7 decided to walk down on day 2 from the refuge at 2317m to Chamonix at 1035m (a descent of almost 1300m in only 2.5 km). Salomon's Paul, Chris and Chris, and retailers Jez, Lisa, Dave and myself. We called ourselves Team UK. We felt this would be a final test for the kit, especially the boots- wearing them in the mountains for their technical competence is one thing, but walking out would usually require an approach shoe. We fairly bounced down the slope with fast walking interspersed with running (5 of the 7 of us had an early plane to catch), and the boots were fantastic. Performing more like an extremely grippy trail shoe than a technical mountain boot, the expression fast and light gained new meaning. It was a liberating experience, one which I won't forget in a long time. My legs hurt today- not the boots but the extraordinary slope.
We arrived back down in Chamonix less than 2 hours later. Still time for a shower and a coffee before the taxi back to the airport. The idea on which Salomon have based the whole X-Alp range is flexibility- allowing you to move freely and expand your playground. We climbed, we trekked, we crossed snow and ice, and we even ran, all in the same kit. This seamless transition between environments and activities is truly liberating- it has been a long time since I felt so prepared for...well... anything.
There are tweaks proposed, its not perfect. A slight change to the zip on the boots, an extra fastening to keep snow out at the base of the pants, last minute changes before final production. But this is great kit, developed and tested by mountain guides (and Dave and I- for what its worth...). We can't wait until it arrives- it is pioneering and does exactly what Salomon had hoped for their S-Lab X-Alp range- it expands your playground.
What an awesome 2 days.