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First Ascent Downlight Sweater Mini-Review

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40168-hi-DownlightImagine spending nearly 80+ straight days wearing a jacket, only taking it off for brief periods of time while grabbing food or sleeping. Each time it’s worn over dirty, unwashed clothes and at night it’s wadded up for a pillow, drooled on and smashed out of shape. Never washed or maintained in any form, the jacket slowly becomes disheveled and discolored until it has aged many years in a few short months. Then, when the trip is over, without any receipt or proof of purchase or nary even a bit of fuss, the company let’s you trade it for a brand new one.

That alone is enough of a mind-blowing reason for me to recommend this down jacket (and by extension any other First Ascent gear), but that reason doesn’t have to stand alone. In spite of some very clear negatives, the 2009 Downlight Sweater I bought last year was a fantastic piece of kit, and if you can find one on clearance and need some down, pull the trigger without hesitation.

To anyone unfamiliar with long distance motorcycling, it might not be immediately clear why cold weather gear is so important. I have often been asked “Aren’t you hot in all that?” when I stop for gas or food on an apparently warm day, slowly stripping off all my layers with the moderated strictly controlled movements required to function while suffering mild hypothermia (typical layers: hard shell, down jacket, fleece 1, fleece 2, t-shirt, base layer). Exposure is the ultimate enemy and wind draws away your warmth regardless of the air temperature. Without fantastic heat retention, you will end up suffering hypothermia from exposure on a cloudy day at 80F if you ride for long enough at speed, and 50F for ten hours can be an extreme test of will.

At colder temperatures you fight a constant battle against mild and sometimes moderate hypothermia, without a doubt the highest risk I took on my trip north. On some days, riding in the rain, cold and soaked through, my entire world would shrink to ten feet in front of me as I screamed “I AM IRONMAN!” over and over again to maintain some sort of conscious focus. The euphoria as you sink into severe hypothermia is indescribable, your entire world shrinking into a ball of your own need for survival (sometime resulting in weird things like this blog post, typed in a frenzy with numb fingers and a clenched jaw recovering from such).

The point? Retaining your body heat for as long as possible is critical, and the ability to rapidly warm up cold-soaked gear is nearly as critical. This is the most important aspect of down gear in my opinion, and the First Ascent Downlight Sweater was perfect for the job. It is the best down jacket I have ever owned (though to be fair I’ve only had 750 or less fill before), able to warm back up completely during an hour stop for food (my fleece would often still be cool to the touch on cold days) and maintain warmth even when compressed.

The light material and construction is also incredibly tough and durable, something I honestly don’t understand. It feels like you could rip a hole in the jacket if you catch it wrong with a fingernail, yet I never lost a single stitch or caused a single rip. It even seems to stand up to heat quite well, as I often used the sleeve as a glove to hold a hot spark plug and once had embers from a huge fire land on it without problems. It manages to provide an effective amount of warmth while wet and dries rapidly in open air. Perhaps most importantly beyond staying warm, in 80+ days of near-constant use I never once washed it and it never ever began to smell bad (even when wet).

It’s not perfect, though. The slow loss of fill was a definite negative, although I’ve read that’s fixed in the 2010 version. The fit is a little odd, I do have a big barrel chest but I also have large shoulders and a bit of a belly, the result being that usually something is tight on the shoulders or the stomach – in Men’s Medium or Large it’s oddly tight around my chest while comfortable around the shoulders and belly. Visually the jacket became heavily discolored around high friction areas such as the neck and wrists (the photo shows this a bit, though it’s much more obvious in real life), which I imagine would upset anyone who trims their beard while adventuring or the like.

With the loss of down I had decided to buy a new one for my trip to South America when I read about Eddie Bauer’s supposedly amazing customer service. I decided to see if I could get a discount or something on a new one and took my old one to the Eddie Bauer store in the Fair Oaks mall in Fairfax, VA to see what’d happen. I’m still amazed at the response, I pulled out my beat up, obviously well used and abused jacket and said “Hi, I got this a few months ago and it’s lost a bit of fill and I was wondering if I could get a discount on a new one or something?”

The guy in the store just looked at me, pointed to the First Ascent section and said “They’re back there, if there’s a new one in your size you’re welcome to it.” …  uh, wow. I didn’t even need to wheedle or anything! They even let me pick a different size (the original was a Large Tall, the only jacket they had left when I bought it in Montana), and I’m now happily ensconced in a blue medium 2010 Downlight Sweater without any hassle whatsoever. No receipt, no “you bought it on clearance so bugger off,” no complaints of the state of the return, etc. Amazing.

Well played, First Ascent. I hadn’t been considering First Ascent in my shopping for new hard shell pants and jacket (mostly because there’s nowhere I can easily check them out), but with customer service like that I definitely will be now.



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