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Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket

[Short of time? Read the haiku instead]

I have recently come into possession of a jacket, and not just any jacket but the lightest fully-waterproof jacket in the world, weighing in at just 187 grams (although that information might be outdated by the time I finish writing this sentence). I say ‘came into possession’ like it fell off the back of a truck or something but it was all above board, and I like to reward such generosity with a bit of exposure in this almost-entirely-unread column. I do what I can.

I’ve previously reviewed a travel jacket which turned out to be entirely unsuitable for rain and the truth is I haven’t had much luck with waterproofs throughout my years of roaming the continents. When I trekked to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal, quite a serious above-the-snowline undertaking, I rented a ridiculous ‘pac-a-mac’ in Pokhara for 5 rupees a day and wore it over a big red jumper. Ah, those were the days. Also I have, not once but twice, been embarrassingly caught out on long hikes with just a pathetic, disposable plastic poncho. You know the $5 cling film garment that traps all the sweat and stinks like rotten fish after the first hour? I own a fantastic Arc’teryx waterproof jacket but decided against taking it because of weight issues, so ended up smelling like a dead herring while cooking inside like a self-basting turkey.

But never will this happen to me again! OR have produced a fully waterproof garment that packs down to the size of a plucked quail. It’s short on features, naturally – no pit zips, no pockets, no Velcro cuffs – but it keeps you dry. Bob’s your uncle. It’s more for emergencies than full-blown hikes but when you’re roaming the world, or cycling around New Zealand, it’s da bomb. One thing – it’s not that breathable a membrane so I wouldn’t use it for trail running or other really strenuous activities, but then no membrane yet invented can cope with that sort of output.

It’s also very useful as a wind-breaker. During the same trip on which hiked in Annapurna I was unfortunate enough to travel across India by bus. Oh, the stories I could tell (and will in due course if this blog exists long enough). My favourite though was the night bus from Bangalore to Hampi. Oh. My. God. In some ways it was just your average Indian night bus: hard wooden seats with no legroom; the toes of the chap behind poking me in the back; pack lost way back in the aisle and wedged under the arse of someone more comfortable than I. I was all set for great night.

The fun started when the driver, eyes like a fox, spotted a tantalising sheet of metal by the side of the road. Presumably debris from the many bus and truck wrecks that littered the shoulders of every Indian highway, he stopped dead and spent some time dragging it onto the roof and tying it down. I’m sure he was planning to use it for some long-overdue home improvements. It was tricky item to tie down though and fell off several times in the next few hours, each episode heralding an almighty clatter from behind followed by fifteen minutes of grunting, heaving and tying.

When he’d finally got his prize cargo secured and we were making reasonable time, the whole bus windscreen was shattered by a mysterious force, causing all and sundry a degree of surprise. This was shaping up to be my most exciting bus happening since the rear tyre caught fire on a journey through Guatemala. The driver was unperturbed – he had to get his precious metal home – so he continued driving. If you’ve ever ridden a motorcycle without eye protection, the first thing you’ll notice is that your sight is severely reduced by the cold wind snap-freezing your eyeballs in their sockets, and probably bugs and large moths catching you in the teeth and ears. Not surprisingly, our staunch driver was soon in possession of a pair of streaming orbs and was in danger of joining the honour roll of rusty bus carcasses strewn along the road.

Did he then give in? Not a bit of it! His enterprising solution was to borrow a pair of spectacles from a nearby passenger – problem solved! Well, not entirely. It was obvious from his hand gestures that the prescription lenses rendered all oncoming obstacles as blurry and indistinct as UFOs. Meanwhile we all sat shivering from both the onrushing wind and the assumption that we were soon going to die. I could have used my OR Helium II then. It was a long night.

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