The Sharp End: testing top of the range pro shells from Black Diamond

As I packed my bags to return to the wild mountains of Patagonia this winter it became pretty clear to me that I was going to need a serious clothing system. With some ambitious plans in the pipeline, I needed hard shells that could do everything. I needed  comfort for the brutally long approaches, as well as wind and waterproof protection for climbing steep technical pitches and even tunneling through the vertical rime ice mushrooms on Cerro Torre’s incredible west face. I needed shells that were lightweight enough to carry for miles, yet burly enough to actually keep me alive should we have the misfortune of being caught out in a fierce winter storm on the southern icefield. It was a tall order so I reached out to Black Diamond.

Black Diamond have long been a market leader in hardware, having produced iconic climbing gear since the company’s inception and outstanding offerings in a number of categories ever since. In clothing though they are a relative newcomer, but in this case that’s far from a bad thing. Unlike others, with Black Diamond I have always noticed the strong influence of the company’s roots as technical hardware brand come through in their clothing designs. It seems BD’s designers are well switched on to what people like myself actually want, a no compromise product that’s truly made for serious climbing or skiing, and that’s it.

Having used a few different pieces from their clothing range extensively over the last few years I can honestly say I have been extremely happy them. So when I was given the opportunity to take their top of the range hardshells for a trial by fire (or perhaps ice?) in Patagonia this winter, I was psyched to see if they would live up to my high expectations.

The Sharp End shell and trousers are top of the range Gore-Tex Pro climbing hard shells from Black Diamond. They feature a Gore-Tex Pro 3 layer membrane for maximum breathability and weather resistance and as with most gear you get what you pay for. I will talk about both the Jacket and Trousers (pants for the Americans out there) together here, as I think of them as one clothing system. In my view to give the end user what they really demand, both garments need to work together as one functional, protective and comfortable clothing layer, so I prefer to think about them this way.

Before getting into the detailed features of these shells, I would like to touch briefly on my ethos of equipment reviews. Although I am fortunate enough to receive some product for testing from brands, I always strive to keep my reviews as impartial as possible. If I don’t like something I try to be as honest as possible while still retaining the perspective that some things are simply a matter of opinion. Not everyone will always like the same features, so there has to be room for personal taste.

While some people might see this idea as a contradiction in itself, my strategy for avoiding situations where I might be pressured to say something is good when in reality it isn’t, is to generally avoid these types of products in the first place. By and large the testing I undertake is for products that I strongly believe will perform, from equipment brands I trust and have used in the mountains for years such as Black Diamond. I never review a product that I did not fully get to try so in keeping with the (excellent!) name, I figured these shells had to be tested on the proverbial sharp end.

There are perhaps few places on the planet where the sharp end gets much sharper than the Chalten Massif in southern Patagonia. It’s a land of famously steep granite spires, wild rime ice formations and legendary storms. Over the years such impressive mountains have attracted climbers from all over the world and as a result during the peak summer climbing season it can be surprising busy, despite the remoteness of the place. But we came to climb Cerro Torre in winter, which is a different game all together.

In the coldest darkest months of the Patagonian winter the mountains are largely deserted. A few dedicated locals pursue the occasional ski mountaineering objective when the weather is good, but aside from that few venture deep into the mountains at this time of year. Determined to attempt the west face of Cerro Torre this winter we left the road and spent eight days in the mountains without seeing so much as a trace of another person. Waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, we stretched our supplies to the maximum fighting hunger, dehydration and relentless cold for days on end in pursuit of our dream. By the time moment to strike arrived, fatigue had already set in but we remained determined to try.

We climbed 1300 metres to just below a rime formation called the Elmo, the beginning of the hardest climbing. Looking up it seemed the summit was so close but in reality it was still very far away. Unfortunately we simply lacked the energy to continue the fight and keep enough in reserve to ensure getting down alive. In these mountains in winter your chance of being rescued high on the west face of Cerro Torre should something go wrong, is simply non-existent. Quite fittingly for situations like this Black Diamond espouse the slogan ‘Live. Climb. Repeat.’ If one hopes to realise all three components of this elegant mantra, knowing when to bail seems a necessary part of the alpine climbing process. So bearing that in mind we retreated off yet another of the world’s great mountains to live and climb another day.

As difficult as the decision was in the weeks that followed two more strong teams from Chile and the Czech Republic attempted the route to no avail. Despite their strength in numbers the mighty Torre shut down all attempts this season. For me personally it is certainly not the end of my quest to climb this incredible mountain and it was also not the end of the trip. As a second period of stable weather began to appear on the forecast I was ready for more. Opportunities like this are not to be missed, so I ventured deep into the mountains again with friends for an easier climb up the Northeast Face of Cerro Rincon and a solo attempt on Aguja Guillaumet.

So despite retreating yet again short of an incredible Patagonian summit, I did manage to do lots of climbing in the Sharp End Shells and have been very happy with how they performed. As I mentioned above BD’s designers put a lot of thought into the features you really want in a shell as a climber so here some thoughts on the shells after testing.

For me one of the stand out features of this shell system is the pleated leg pockets on the Trousers. These pockets are simply ideal for everything from small snacks to sunscreen and more. They are sit in just the right position on your thighs as to not interfere with your harness, even when it’s heavily loaded with gear. After all a pocket you cannot access is a pointless feature which only adds weight and frustration to the user experience.

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With these pockets cleverly positioned on the front of the thigh there is plenty of space for full length zips down the sides of the legs. To get the most out of a shell system across the range of conditions you tend to encounter when alpine climbing, good ventilation options are essential. On long approaches uphill in the hot sun it can be very warm, so having the option to open the legs for maximum airflow is awesome. As you get higher up the mountains into the snow and persistent wind, you simply zip up the legs to give yourself full protection from the elements.

I feel the value in features like this cannot really be understated in pursuits where weight minimisation is of such great importance. To go a light as possible, I only take one pair of trousers on a trip like this into the mountains, so it must be capable of doing everything at least reasonably well. It’s not as easy as it sounds but the Sharp End trousers seemed more than up to the task.

Moving on it’s time to look at one of the most important yet difficult to compare or asses features of any performance clothing, the fit. For reference I am a fairly skinny guy and 6 feet tall, so I usually fit well into size small clothing with a fairly slim cut.  When I first tried on the Sharp End jacket it struck me as the classic fit I have come to expect from a north american outdoor clothing brand. It seems to me to be a little wider and more loose fitting than many comparable offerings from European brands which often favour a more contoured slim fit.

There are arguably advantages and disadvantages to the different styles and I personally can appreciate both. In this case I was happy to have a little bit more room in the jacket as the vast majority of the time I used it with some insulation layers underneath. This little bit of extra space allows insulation to perform at its best without being compressed by a tight fitting shell and I feel more space gives room for air to move helping the breathability of the jacket.

When I first pulled on the Sharp End trousers I was quite surprised to find they fit me very well. I had perhaps been expecting a similar cut to the jacket but in reality found them to be a comfortably neat fit on my slim frame. For trousers I generally prefer a more precise fit as I find if there is too much material around when climbing it will generally snag on crampons, which can be a dangerous and expensive past time! So overall I was really happy with the fit, but of course you have to try it on for yourself to really know if the fit is right for you. Like me you might be pleasantly surprised.

Looking more closely at the features of the  jacket I would say the Sharp End has all the key features you would expect from a top of the line mountain pro shell. It’s made of a tough 70 denier face fabric for durability to protect the Gore Tex Pro 3 Layer breathable membrane. The hood is easy to use and large enough to be comfortably helmet compatible with a climbing helmet or a relatively compact ski helmet. The pockets are well positioned to be accessible when wearing a harness, although I hardly used them instead favouring the excellent pockets on the Sharp End trousers. Finally the Velcro cuffs were easy to adjust and didn’t interfere with my different gloves, which is absolutely essential in winter time.

With so many good things to say about the Sharp End shells from top to bottom the discussion of cuffs unfortunately brings me to the main feature I didn’t like, the cuffs of the trousers. With a name like Sharp End I thought it was safe to assume that these trousers would be designed primarily with climbing in mind. Given that they are a Gore -Tex Pro hard shell and thus primarily suited to ‘full on’ conditions I think it’s reasonable to expect they will see a lot of use with crampons.

For climbing I generally prefer a trouser that is narrow and low volume at the ankle so that it can be comfortably tucked into the integral gaiter on my mountain boots. This keeps things as streamlined as possible around my ankles, preventing material getting snagged by crampons when climbing which as I mentioned above can be dangerous and expensive. The cuff on the Sharp End trousers is well made but bears more resemblance to the cuff a ski salopette with its wide diameter and an elasticated snow skirt. While I am impressed by how tough it feels, there is simply too much material here to tuck it into boot gaiters and have it stay put while climbing.

leg cuffs

I suspect this design is no coincidence as BD have long positioned themselves as a brand that caters to the huge crossover between climbers and skiers. As a skier myself I can see how this makes perfect sense and I do appreciate it. In between weather windows I took the trousers for a short ski tour and i’ll be honest, with skis on my feet I loved the big cuff. In fact if I had a more slim climbing specific trouser cuff it would have been very annoying as it won’t fit over a ski boot. So it’s pretty clear you have to choose one style or the other and it’s perhaps hypocritical to judge given that I do really like the ski cuff as well, for skiing. But I still feel that for a dedicated climbing trouser the Sharp End shell pants would be better with a slimmer, lower volume cuff.

Finally before I conclude I would like to touch briefly the durability of these garments. Those with a keen eye may have noticed in the photos and video that I blew out the right knee of the trousers. I feel it’s worth clarifying that this happened on the descent from Cerro Rincon where I tripped tearing the trousers with an ice axe (bummer!). Although it may seem like stating the obvious, no lightweight Gore Tex garment is ice axe proof! Aside from this damage, which is clearly my own fault, the jacket and trousers show basically no signs of wear at all despite almost twenty hard days out in Patagonia. Having used and destroyed, many light weight products over the years this is honestly extremely impressive and I really look forward to getting the knee repaired in time for more testing in the coming northern hemisphere winter.

Overall I have been really happy with these shells and look forward to using them in the future. While I was down south I never got the right chance to test the new Soloist Gloves BD sent me, as they were surprisingly a bit too warm for what I needed! So I look forward to putting them through their paces when Scottish winter begins and I will write another review to follow up. After all winter in Scotland is really the ultimate test of any good clothing system. If you can be comfortable in the hills on a brutal Scottish winter day, you can be comfortable anywhere… even Cerro Torre!

Images by: Matthew Tufts, Carlos Suarez, Scott Becker, Black Diamond

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