(This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.)
Disclaimer: While I have the Helio shell, pant, and gloves on loan from Black Diamond, I am doing my best to get them smelly enough that BD won’t ask for them back. (How that is accomplished is a trade secret of professional gear reviewers). I had a chance to use this kit out over the last few weeks of January, so my thoughts below are initial impressions. Also, I happen to be a tack-on medium in most BD apparel. Since sizing is so user specific, I won’t discuss it below.
Black Diamond reorganized their ski line to include the Helio two season’s ago. As they expand that line to now cover five ski widths, they are also expanding out the non-ski Helio offerings. BD has used the Helio tag to organize soft goods geared towards lightweight touring and ski mountaineering. Some non-ski Helio items have been around as long as the skis, but three standout 2018 pieces are the Helio jacket, pants, and gloves.
Helio Active Shell
Gore-Tex Active is the top of the line when it comes to waterproof-breathable lightweight material. The lightweight feel has made me rethink my general distaste for hard shells. Black Diamond is not alone in using Gore-Tex Active in a shell, but they have added a smart and simple design that works well for a backcountry jacket. The 2018 Helio Active Shell has a good amount of room in the hood, a well cut shape, long side zips, and some nicely thought out finishing touches. Which avoids the gripe I often have with shells: the noose that menacingly appears around my neck whenever I zip the hood up over a helmet. Two extra large front pockets easily fit climbing skins, are high enough to access while wearing a harness, and are the only zippered pockets in the jacket (there is one stretchy internal mesh pouch). This keeps things simple; in the mountains, simple is good.
The 2018 Helio stands atop the touring minded and lightweight options in my mind, but BD makes a number of other Gore-Tex shells too and is also releasing a proprietary waterproof/breathable (‘BD Dry’) material made shell — the Recon. The Recon will be a bit cheaper and works well as a resort/downhill/crossover touring shell (powder skirt and all). Some of the other jackets BD makes work better for climbers, but the Helio is a hard shell ace on the skin track.
Helio Active Pants
The simplicity of the Helio shell was designed into the Helio Active pants as well. Cuff zips (1/4 length with a small internal gaiter), two pockets: that’s it. I like them because the design is so basic.
The weight of Gore-Tex Active works better than any other hard shell material I have tried in a touring pant. The Helio feels cut a bit slimmer than most skiing hard shells. Some might complain about the lack of side-zips (no venting option), but I actually like this: it always bugs me when too many zippers are in the mix (though this does nix the option of putting the Helio on over other pants, ski boots or crampons). Leaving side zips off, keeps the bulk down. I usually tour in soft shell pants, because hard shell pants often feel too heavy and stiff for my tastes, but the Helio feels light and agile.
One complaint about the Helio pants is the cuff — it is tough to zip the low profile cuff shut while touring, I have been either zipping up the cuff a bit or pulling it up to the top of my boot rather than wrestling it shut. This is a problem, but hardly fatal. Another small concern is a delam on the BD logo seam (you can see it in the photo above) — this one might be my fault for dragging the pants through an Alaskan alder shwack, but worth noting.
Overall I like the low bulk and breathability.
Options options options. The Helio glove is a three-in-one glove system. The Helio liner is a good skin-track weight, the outer is a solid mid-warmth glove made with a durable Dyneema shell and waterproof Gore-Tex lining. Worn together the two gloves add up to a light yet warm mountain tool.
The ski glove game is lost by many gear companies because for less than $20 at Home Depot you can buy a pair of Kincos. Black Diamond has similarly struggled to beat out the simple leather and cloth of a cheap-o hardware store glove, but has found a path to compete in weight, dexterity, versatility, and waterproofing enough to make the Helio glove a worthy mitt for the kit.
I like skinning with liner gloves, and the Helio liners provide a nice balance of small, but grippy, while also feeling durable enough than I don’t think I’ll bore a hole in them too soon. The shell worn alone is a comfortable general purpose glove for many a backcountry day, while also dexterous enough that I have used them a couple times ice climbing. The Helio system worn together is burly enough to handle serious days in the mountain. Dexterity takes a hit when both gloves are on, but that seems to be the case with most warmer gloves.
The Helio fixed length carbon pole rounds out the non-ski ‘Helio’ labeling. I haven’t had a chance to take the poles for a spin, so can’t speak to anything other than their featherweight stats. ‘Helio’ bindings are on the way (rebranded ATK). The ‘Cirque’ pack is made with the same Dyneema as the Helio glove and might as well have been called the Helio pack (stay tuned for a pack review).
Black Diamond is clearly developing their ski touring design focus, exemplified by the Helio tag. I am excited to see what else comes down the pipeline. The Helio Active shell, Active pants, and glove succeed in offering a well thought out lightweight kit for ski mountaineering, touring, and alpine days.