Since the original Rab Strata I’ve been looking for an active insulation mid/outer layer that can do both with minimal compromises. That is: provide substantive static weight/warmth, as well as balance breathability and weather protection coherently. The Strata was more on the outer layer side of things, while somehow not providing as much static warmth as 16 ounces should have provided. The Nano Air Light is a good bit to the mid layer side of things, which is no vice but does limit it. There are instances where more outer protection is nice, so why not get it from one garment, rather than two?
The OR Ascendant hoody gets the balance just right. The Quantum Air shell and 95 grams/meter Alpha Direct work well together, shockingly better in all circumstances than the Strata. The Alpha Direct seems to wick faster than either the Nano Air or Nano Air Light, and is warmer (and heavier) than either (60 grams/meter and 40 grams/meter, v 95 for the Ascendant). The shell is more wind resistant than the Nano Air, but the material combo in the Ascendant manages internal moisture just as well.
Fit is very good on the Ascendant, a hair longer than average arms and torso, just enough room for a light midlayer underneath. Detailing is typical Outdoor Research, which is to say a bit odd and less than ideal. The hem cordlock is back at 430 on the tail. Defying expectations, I haven’t sat on it at all, and while it isn’t intuitive, it does have the virtue of being a bit lower and more reliably out from under a hipbelt. The open hand pockets work fine, as does the #5 Vislon zipper on both main opening and chest pocket. The chest pocket is a good size, not cavernous nor excessively small, but the material isn’t anchored, which creates a tendency for bunching. The hood is a bit of a disaster. The volume adjuster works well, but the under-chin cut and lack of a means to cinch this part of the opening funnels strong wind right under the ears. Tucking the shock cords just a bit down towards the chin would have sorted this nicely, an unfortunate confirmation that the relation between OR and hoods remains problematic. The “thumb loops” are even more unfortunate, small and vestigial enough to be the silliest feature I’ve seen on a tech garment in many years (maybe since the roll opening and lumbar cinch on the Montane Spektr?).
If the Ascendant is, in function if not in details, as close to ideal an active insulation layer as I can imagine, the remaining question is when you’d use it, and why you might invest in one over the potentially much cheaper combo of 100 weight fleece and wind layer. Potentially, because a fleece alone would not provide the same protection, and a wind layer with an equivalent protection/breathability ratio would not be a bargain item. The easy answer is that no such combo (aside from this and an Airshed) would move internal moisture anywhere near as well, and most if not all such combos will likely dry slower. The caveat is to not to use too much insulation for a given situation, especially moving, and expect sustainable results. Stop and go or generally slower paced activity in cool weather (within 10 degrees either way of freezing F, for me) would be a good use case, as would more aerobic activity in colder weather. The best use for active insulation remains, in my mind, as an all the time layer for folks who run cold and don’t struggle with sweat management. What I’m personally excited about is that the Ascendant will be warm enough to be a main insulation layer for summer adventures, one that will be not be limited to static use in the same way a UL down jacket would.
The Ascendant isn’t a replacement for the tragically discontinued Nano Air Light hoody (WTF Patagonia??!), but is the first active insulation piece I’ve used which is almost the same caliber. The fabric/insulation combo is also becoming quite common, suggesting that other options (with better hoods) may soon be available.