The Himalayas, Nepal, fall 2018
It´s the morning of the last day of September and high above the clouds on the sunny top of Mount Lhotse at 8 516 m, two people are carefully putting their skis on. It´s a mere stone´s throw to Mount Everest, the highest mountain on the planet, with only South Col, a knife-edge ridgeline above 8000 meters, separating the two peaks. Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison are standing above the abyss, that is the Lhotse Couloir, the covoted crown jewel of ski mountaineering descents – a 700-meter couloir starting with a 60-degree slope angle over exposed terrain and followed by a mandatory descent of the 1400 m mountain face.
Nelson and Morrison are some of the most experienced ski mountaineers in the world and they have honed their skill sets and fitness levels for years to be able to attempt such an exposed ski route starting at the awe-inspiring “death zone” in the Himalayas. The bright yellow outfits they are wearing, however, are hiding another secret weapon, that is helping them in their high-altitude endurance pursuit in some of the world´s most extreme weather conditions.
Colorado, U.S.A. two years before.
Professional climber and The North Face athlete Andres Marin is winter climbing towards the pyramid-shaped top of Mount Sneffels at 4315 m, together with Scott Mellin, the company´s Global General Manager. Typically for a mountain environment in the winter, the weather changes several times during their ascent with the clouds and the sun rivalling for their place in the sky above them.
The duo, dressed in the standard 3-layer shell technology, have to take their jackets off whenever the sun takes over for a longer period of time. Standard procedure for anyone who has done climbing or ski touring in the spring. During one of the jacket changes Marin comments casually to Mellin, that life would be so much easier if they could just use the same jacket during the entire ascent (and descent). The comment takes a permanent place in the back of Mellin´s mind, and after the trip he calls a meeting at the North Face headquarters in California.
2016 TNF Innovation Center, California, U.S.A.
Mellin´s task of challenging the status quo of the 3-layer shell technology using today´s high technology is handed to TNF´s Innovation Center – a top secret lab, that handles the company´s R&D. The researchers quickly turn their interest towards nano technology. The term refers to technology, where you control matter on a nano-scale – between 1 and 100 nanometers, to be exact. When you think that 1 nano meter is one billionth of a metre, you get the idea how small the particles used in nano technology are.
The scale brings different benefits depending on the industry, but in general taking things to a molecular level allows you to add high technology to products in unseen ways. The creation of a high-tech shell jacket still begins with spinning yarn, the yarn spinning wheels you see in museums have just been replaced with high tech machinery in automated factories. For this reason, the Innovation Center teams up with a partner company, that is a pioneer in the new and exciting field of nanospinning.
2017 South Korea.
Inside a factory is a heavily-guarded high-tech production facility with strict clean-room environment – no foreign particles can interfere with the nanospinning process, that takes place inside. When the machines start, an extremely thin polymer weave sprays through 220 000 nozzles onto a sheet-like film. Through a microscope it would look like a grid of spaghetti, but to the naked eye it is invisible.
The resulting sheet achieved with the nanospinning has some unique qualities: it can stretch four-ways and is so porous, that it far exceeds the breathability of existing membrane materials. After the nanospinning, the sheet is laminated onto fabric using a process, that has a-need-to-know-basis-only classification, familiar from Hollywood movies.
2017 TNF Headquarters, California, U.S.A.
The product development team is handed the task of designing new outfits using the cutting-edge material. The material opens up the horizon of clothing design possibilities. Before when designing new outfits, the team had basically ten fabrics to choose from with different thicknesses, weights and cost.
Another limiting factor was, that the previously used membranes weren´t stable enough: a very light and supple face fabric couldn´t support the integrity of them. And if you wanted to create different zones with different abrasion (durability) or permeation (breathability) areas, you had to use either paneling or 3D-engineering, which was both time-consuming and expensive.
Now, they can basically use as light and supple materials as they want, meaning there is no longer a need to design heavy and stiff shells, that everyone is accustomed to wearing in order to have waterproof protection. If the team wants to have an area, like for example, under the arms, to be more breathable, they can do so by just altering the qualities fabric: certain parts can be made to be more breathable – or durable if needed. All this is possible, thanks to the new nanospinning technology.
Enter the 4-way stretch capability of the new material into the equation and you get the full picture of the new frontier of outdoor clothing design the TNF product team is entering. The product team comes up with three series using the new wonder-material: Flight Series for running, Summit Series for mountaineering and Steep Series for freeriding and free touring.
The Alps, winter 2017/2018
The product team members of the company´s European headquarters in Ticino, Switzerland are handed out samples made of the new material. The lightness and suppleness, and the missing pit zips of the new jackets first raise questions among the team accustomed to wearing traditional stiff heavy 3-layer shells. They are converted, however, during the first ski tests and the team is amazed at the breathability, lightness and soft hand-feel of the material.
TNF athlete team members, including Markus Eder, Sam Anthamatten and Viktor De La Rue are handed two jackets in a blind test, where the other jacket contains leading membrane technology and the other membrane made with the new nanospinning technology. All the athletes give similar feedback: the jacket with the new membrane technology is lighter, more breathable and more comfortable, than the one using traditional membrane technology. Later on, the athletes are given a new mission: to put the clothes using the new material through the wringer.
De La Rue spends several days on a high-alpine couloir-mission near Chamonix and reports trying to beat the material up on purpose, while abseiling down narrow rock-lined gullies. The verdict: the material is as durable as the materials previously used, but at the same time lighter and more breathable.
Outdoor retailers around the world, October 1. 2019
Over the past few weeks selected high-profile outdoor and ski apparel retailers around the globe have received shipments, that contain outerwear using industry-shaking technology. Once unwrapped, the packages reveal jackets, pants and bibs from The North Face´s Summit Series, Steep Series and Flight Series collection. Instead of the usual membrane brand, the label now reads:
It´s been a 3-year development project, starting with Andreas Marin and Scott Mellin climbing in Colorado, harnessing nano technology, rigorously testing the material, also in the Himalyas, and finally getting the final product available for the public.
Challenging the status quo of an industry isn´t an easy task. According to Scott Mellin, the prime mover behind the idea, the company culture helped with the quick project initiation: “disruption is a key part of The North Face brand and if you want to evolve, innovate and ultimately provide the best possible experience for your athletes and consumers, you have to be open to change.”
How is the FUTURELIGHT changing the outdoor apparel industry then? Well, in the past most of us have accepted the downsides of 3-layer shell technology in order to stay dry and protected from the elements under extreme conditions: the heavy weight, noisiness and uncomfortable hand-feel. It has just been part of the package.
Now, the new FUTURELIGHT collection by TNF challenges that with the notion, that you can have both protection from the elements with light weight and comfortable feel.
Let´s start with the weight. Like the name suggests, the material is light, so much so, that much of the material consists of air. This means, that the end-product, like your ski jacket, is 30% lighter than what it would be, if was still using traditional membrane technology.
Another major advantage of the FUTURELIGHT material is the air permeability of the material: a FUTURELIGHT jacket is up to 5-times more breathable, than a jacket using a traditional membrane. As a result, some of the Summit Series jackets designed to be used for high alpine activities, like ski mountaineering, do not feature the industry-standard underarm ventilation zips. Why, you may ask? Simply, because the garment breathes so well, that the ventilation zips are no longer needed, resulting in an even lighter jacket.
For endurance sports, like trail running and mountain biking, the FUTURELIGHT material can even be fine-tuned to allow air to permeate also from the outside, so it not only lets sweat pass through, it also lets outside air in, to cool you off during high active sports.
These are all revolutionary improvements for people used to wearing 3-layer shell jackets and pants while skiing, but what about those skiers, who never liked shells in the first place?
If you belong to this group, the new TNF FUTURELIGHT collection should be a revelation to you, allowing you to enjoy the best of both worlds: a breathable and waterproof shell, that will keep you protected from the elements, with a suppleness, 4-way stretch and soft hand-feel, akin to your regular street wear.
To sum up the benefits of the new FUTURELIGHT material for skiers like you and me, we quote the originator of the idea, Scott Mellin: “the ability to stay dry and comfortable for a day in one kit, without having to change multiple times a day means skiers will have more time to explore the mountains and more time to enjoy them. What we created with FUTURELIGHT lets you just focus on the day…”
The whole production process of the FUTURELIGHT material has been constructed with sustainability in mind, starting with the factory-level: “It’s as important as the performance attributes. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to create a fabric that had sustainability at its heart and that’s what we did”, says Scott Mellin, Global Manager of TNF.
The factory is 100% solar powered, and the energy, water and scrap material consumption, as well as the dying process of the fabrics during the production are optimized. So, for example, instead of relying on infusing the product several times for coloring, TNF is favoring more efficient pressure-treatment. The company has also paid a lot of attention to the social side of sustainability, offering workers of the factory substantial benefit and support.
TNF has also embraced recycling with the FUTURELIGHT production: 90% of all the fabrics being used for the new collections, including the membrane, are made using 100% recycled polyester chips.
The DWR, or the Durable Water Repellent used in order to make the surface fabric water repellent is PFC-free. What ´s really unique is, that also the membrane itself is PFC-free. This means, that wearing the FUTURELIGHT outfits, contains no risk of releasing harmful perfluorinated chemicals in the nature during the product´s life cycle.
Thanks to the recycled fabrics and sustainable production, TNF has calculated, that every men’s medium jacket, switching to FUTURELIGHT™ membrane saves the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from 26 miles driven by an average car.
The Himalayas, Nepal, fall 2018
Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison started their climb to the of Mount Lhotse at 1 o´clock at night. The thermometer read -30 degrees Centigrade and Nelson opted to wear the light version of TNF´s L5 Summit Series jacket for maximum breathability on top and the heavier version of the L5 bibs for better protection against skis and crampons. Because of the new FUTURELIGHT material, the jacket was so breathable, that it didn´t even need underarm ventilation zips.
After climbing for roughly 12 hours the duo had finally reached the top. Putting their skis on gave them a new boost of energy and having just climbed up the couloir, they knew, that unlike on Nelson´s first attempt at skiing it during 2012, it now had plenty of snow. They are now more than ready to drop in the Lhotse Couloir.
As Morrison makes the first turn after the 60-degree steep entry point, a huge sluff avalanche is released right in front of him and he watches as it charges through the entire couloir to the bottom of the Lhotse face. Relieved, the pair then reaches the crux of the couloir. With 55 degrees steepness and a width, that barely allows their skis to pass through, Nelson and Morrison are forced to careful side-stepping over the 1400-meter mountain face below them. Any mistake here and things would get really serious.
The snow in the couloir is so variable, that it takes a lot of energy for Nelson and Morrison just to stay on their skis. And the altitude doesn´t make it easier either: “for half the couloir we were linking 2,3,4 turns before stopping to catch our breaths”, says Nelson about the descent. When they reach the mountain face after the couloir, they can enjoy linking 10-15 turns before stopping, thanks to a more consistent snow base.
All-together, the descent takes 4 hours, including a 30-minute stop at camp 3 to pick up gear.
Nelson and Morrison decided to leave the usual down suits at base camp before the climb and opted to climb and ski in full FUTURELIGHT shells instead “We went 100% FUTURELIGHT, it was great, that they worked so well. Especially the light L5 jacket helped a lot, it was so adaptable to temperature changes, that you could keep it on and moving – not stopping to change layers”, says Nelson about advantages the new material brought to their first-ever ski descent of Lhotse Couloir in the Himalayas.
Words: Jaakko Järvensivu
Photos: The North Face
This article was first published in the Book Of Ski Stories by Downdays Magazine. You can purchase the book by visiting their website