Speaking of Jackets…The Rab Neutrino Pro

Black Friday. Those two words, for some, conjure images of waiting for the Big Box stores to open, or prowling downtown streets for sweet deals in the wee hours after midnight, arms overflowing with packages. Because as ladies, we shop, right?

For others, the food coma following the big family turkey dinner drags into mid-morning, creating a turkey hangover of flannel pants and unwashed hair and Netflix. Because as ladies, we are domestic, right?

Well, no. At least not for me and my posse of mountain women. We’re in the parking lot two hours before sunrise, headlamps on, buffs covering our faces, microspikes at the ready. Because as ladies, we climb the hell out of the toughest trails in town.

After a quick gear check, we begin the long trek up the (in)famous Mailbox Peak. It’s not long mileage-wise, it’s long emotionally. It’s long spiritually. It’s long in that with every step, you question all of your life choices leading to this one as you make your way up a rooty, rocky, unmaintained mess of a mountain, gaining 4000 feet in two and a half miles. In the dark, in the cold, in the snow.

So, what to wear?

The tricky part about layers and temperature regulation on a day like this is that you’re exerting like crazy, you’re huffing and puffing, you can feel your pulse slamming in your neck, and yet it’s barely thirty degrees out. So the routine goes: you exert, you sweat, you stop moving, the wind blows across the snow and up your sweaty shirt, you put a jacket on, you move, the jacket is overkill and you’re red in the face so you take the jacket off. And you do this for 2.7 miles.

Sounds fun, I know.

But the reward of getting to the top! I don’t mean the views, because on some days (like this one) the views are non-existent. But even when you have a 360º pano of everything from Mt. Rainier out to the Olympics and up to the North Cascades, the emotional reward far exceeds the visual one. The feeling of accomplishment, the confidence boost, the unique pride of dancing on the knife’s edge of pain and pleasure, thumbing your nose at the very notion of “you can’t.”

And you want to savor that moment.

But you’ve just gained 960 feet of elevation in the final half mile. You’re decked out in wool base layers which are wicking copious amounts of sweat away as best as they can, but your back, underneath your backpack, is a bit damp. And that breeze on your neck that was refreshing is now chilling. So you put on your fleece, then your soft shell jacket, and you’re still freezing, and you know you need to keep moving, so you snap three photos in quick succession, grab your poles, and start down.

After all that work, you’re too cold to savor it and instead have to abandon your moment.

The Rab Neutrino Pro

Let me share with you my experience this morning. The story is the same until the words “then your soft shell jacket.” One minute I was hot and sweaty, my hard-working body giving off steam on top of an exposed snowy peak in a thick fog; the next, my circulatory system realized we had stopped moving and pulled the plug on the heat. I was standing there vulnerable to all these wintry elements, and I got cold. Fast. Shivering, I pulled my fleece on, then my soft shell jacket.

Then I reached into my pack and pulled out the crown jewel of my jacket collection: the Rab Neutrino Pro. Quickly shooting an arm down each sleeve and pulling its deep hood over my head, I zipped it up to my chin and immediately felt the warmth envelop me, like I was wrapped in a sleeping bag, like I was at home under a pile of blankets.

I got this jacket when I started climbing the Cascade volcanoes and realized I was going to need to make a real investment in a real parka. I researched like crazy and was drawn to this jacket for its 800-fill count goose down, its longer sleeves (I have long arms and hate cold wrists), and slightly longer back (it comes down well past my other layers). It cut into my rent money, but I bit the bullet and bought it, and I’ve never regretted it, not for a minute. The hood is roomy enough to go over a climbing helmet and has a little built-in visor. The pockets are deep deep and lined with Thinsulate. The zipper pull is big enough that I can operate it in mittens. The internal pocket keeps phone and snacks warm.

On a morning like today, its Durable Water Repellent surface helped it stay dry, even though we stood in such a cloud that some strands of our hair had frozen. A friend asked to try it on, because she had just ordered the same one sight-unseen and wanted to experience the glory I keep spouting off about. Since I was now nice and toasty I took it off and she slipped it on and then didn’t want to take it off. It’s that kind of parka: you shove your hands deep in the pockets and sink your face down into the chin part of the hood, and you don’t ever want to take it off.

From a safety point of view, the security I feel knowing that should I have to spend an unplanned night out in the wild I would be ok is priceless. Sure, I’ve taken my chances on quick summertime day hikes where I know there is reliable cell service and lots of other hikers and not brought my parka; I can’t say it’s always with me. But winter, remote, or up high? It’s always with me. Sometimes it doesn’t even come out of my pack. Sometimes I let someone unprepared wear it for minute to warm up. Sometimes it’s been so cold that I’ve worried it wouldn’t be enough, but it always has been. I carry it more than I wear it, but there are times where without it I wouldn’t have made it. In these ways it’s more like a first aid item than a garment.

That jacket has been to the top of all five Washington volcanoes, plus a couple in Oregon and two fourteeners in California. I slept in it on the Ingraham Glacier at 11,000 feet the night before summiting Mt. Rainier, inside my zero-degree sleeping bag, in our tent which was bending and flapping under the power of the icy winds that howled hard and fast down the mountain. It was on me the next morning when I walked across the crater and signed the summit register and stared out at the world in shock and joy and felt what it feels like to do something you never thought you could do. It was ten degrees up there and we were so high up that the sky was a darker shade of blue and each time the wind kicked up I thought my eyeballs would freeze, but my body? So warm. I imagine moments like that without my Rab and know for certain that they either wouldn’t have happened, or would have been miserable. I spent two hours at the summit of Mt. Whitney thanks to my Rab. I didn’t just tag it and trot back down, I got to spend time gazing out at the peaks and ranges of the Sierra and swapping stories with the folks that came and went, some first-timers, some celebrating their completion of the John Muir Trail, and even met Crazy Jack, who has summited that mountain close to 200 times (hence the nickname). I took an inordinate amount of photos. I had a small cheese-and-fruit platter (well, ziplock baggies but I call them platters) and walked around a bit. I savored every second of my time on all of these Big Climbs, not in any rush to leave, not distracted by the cold, fully present, taking it all in so I could take it all back down with me, every detail etched in my soul.

That is what this jacket is really about. That is what this jacket gives me. The ability to be present. To savor the summit. The memories of our mountaintops are all we have once we descend, and I don’t want my memories marred with the misery that comes with being chilled to the bone. I want to remember the feeling I get when I top out and look around and get tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat because I’ve done something I thought was impossible, and I want to sit and stand and snack and wander around up there for a while, and I want to leave when I feel like leaving, not because I’m wearing a crappy cheap jacket that is preventing me from staying.

My Rab isn’t just a coat, it’s possibility and experiences and the ability to enjoy those hard-earned summits. It’s safety and security and comfort. It’s the difference between staying for a minute or an hour. It’s being able to pull my mind away from my core body temp and focus it instead on the beauty that rolls endlessly out to the horizon in a hundred shades of purple mountains’ majesty. It’s hope, and dreams come true, and such full engagement in the moment that the moment becomes a part of you and changes you forever and for the better. Some people may think it’s merely a coat, but we are not some people. We are different, we are bold, we are adventurous, we dream, we roam, we long for wildness and freedom, something inside us draws us to find the raw exquisiteness of the natural world. And we should dress accordingly.

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