When I got these Katipo soft-shell pants from Earth Sea Sky to review, I was living in the Central Australian desert—not an idea climate for testing pants that are designed for cold, windy weather. But the folks at Earth Sea Sky were keen to have me put their kit to the test, and I had a mountain biking and bouldering trip through Scotland in the pipeline.

Yep, the Gear Lad and I had big plans to spend our days climbing Scottish boulders and riding Scottish singletrack in beautiful, remote places, enduring authentically Scottish weather, revelling in Scotland’s idea of densely populated areas (‘Is that a person I see there on the skyline?’) and drinking a lot of Islay singlemalt. It would be the perfect trip for testing Earth Sea Sky’s Katipos, which I fully expected to wear every minute I was there—och, aye! Then reality popped my bubble: Scotland was hosting the Commonwealth Games that year, in addition to its usual round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup. Solitude? Wilderness? Och, nae!

ESS_Katipo_pants_4I quickly pulled together a brilliant Plan B—a mountaineering trip on the other side of the globe, in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, with Adventure Consultants. The trip was an introductory course, and it was based out of Pioneer Hut, at the head of Fox Glacier, in New Zealand’s South Island. Now I had the climate, the conditions and the activities I needed to put the Katipos through their paces.

But as it turned out, the first outing I wore them on was a date night with the Gear Lad. (I know, I know, but it was deadline time and I’d had to re-prioritise things like laundry.) Anyway, despite being technical bad-weather-specific outdoor trou, the Katipos have an elegant cut and they look smart—easily smart enough to pass as posh, tailored going-out pants.

Credit for that goes at least in part to that softshell fabric the Katipos are made of. This fancy-pants softshell fabric is called XTR Thermalite Stretch. It has a nylon shell layer and an internal layer of polyseter, together with a trace of lycra—somewhere in there—for increased give. Out in the field XTR Thermalite Stretch has the four-way stretch and give of yoga lycra, and it blocks wind like a solid oak door, but up close (and in dimly-lit posh bars) it looks like a woven fabric.

The clever folk at Earth Sea Sky have used a bunch of design features to support and extend the properties of their base material. The build of these pants looks pretty straightforward, but it’s actually pretty sneaky, with a panelled lower-back area, a crotch gusset and articulated reinforced knees—to make movement easier and to increase the range of movement available at all the key bend-points. Instead of a traditional separately constructed waistband at the waist, the waist on the Katipos is lined, so it is structurally supportive without being bulky or restrictive. (And there’s scope to belt-up with those nice wide belt loops.)

Further supporting the Katipos’ snug fit and low-volume, low-bulk profile, they have a fly zip with a single metal button closure. And while the Katipos have no back pockets, they have the two zipped hip pockets that offer stowage capacity. Being a short-legged critter, I needed to get my Katipos hemmed, but that’s all part of the store-bought gig, and I’m such a shortie I would be worried if a brand was selling pants my stump-length.

Climbing on Fox Glacier, NZ PIC: Nic Learmonth Collection

Climbing on Fox Glacier, NZ
PIC: Nic Learmonth Collection

Out in the field, the Katipos were the bomb. Cut to fit neatly through the waist and legs, without being overly tight, the Katipos are very comfortable to wear. Those articulated knees and the gusset crotch allow for a good range of movement in all the bendy places, and the XTR Thermalite Stretch fabric proved to be lightweight and low-volume as well as full of give, allowing me total freedom of movement.

As light and as nimble as a spider plucking at its web, the Katipos are the climbing pants to pack if you’re limited on space. They were my only pair of climbing pants on that mountaineering trip up on New Zealand’s Fox Glacier, and they felt like the right choice every day, no matter what we were doing. On that trip I was wearing a mountaineering harness and pack over the Katipos and, despite the multiple layering, I did not feel all bunched and cluttered around the waist, and I was able to move with confidence, knowing I would always be able to bend and flex at knee, groin or hip.

Practising crevasse rescues on Fox Glacier, NZ PIC: Nic Learmonth Collection

Practising crevasse rescues on Fox Glacier, NZ
PIC: Nic Learmonth Collection

The Katipos held out the weather, too. They kept out the wind and the cold, as they have been designed to do, and the close-ish-cut leg helped keep my body heat close to my body. Up in the mountains I wore a pair of thermal long johns under the Katipos for added insulation, but it was pretty cold up there, and after four years in the desert I was no way near acclimatised to it. (The temperature change, from where I was living, in the Central Australian desert, to the New Zealand alpine environment, was a toughie. I went from daily highs of around 37˚ Celsius to lows of –20˚ C, which in Fahrenheit is 100˚F to 4˚F—it hurt!)

The water repellent treatment on the XTR Thermalite Stretch certainly earned its keep, too: New Zealand’s snow is not dry snow like the snow in North America and Europe, and we were digging about in this stuff, practicing avalanche retrievals and crevasse rescues. If anything was going to get soaked in snow juice, it was my pants, but they spat the water off, just like Earth Sea Sky promised they would.

I also wore the Katipos as straight-out climbing pants, and I was quietly stoked to discover I could high-step and frog-leg without having to resort to my usual trick of plucking at my trouser legs. And even on a summer day of clipping bolts in the sunshine at Wanaka (also in New Zealand), the Katipos did not feel too heavy or too hot for the game at hand. I rolled the legs up when I was in the direct sun, to aid with climate control, but those parts of me that were unaffected by this ventilation did not overheat or get sweaty like I had anticipated.

There were a couple of features in the Katipos that I was unsure about when I started testing them. I’m a back-pocket gal—the good ol’ back pocket is my favourite stash pocket, and if I’m thinking or cruising or just taking in the view, I often tuck my hands into my back pockets. My trip to Fox Glacier was full of moments that had me reaching back for pockets that weren’t there. But Earth Sea Sky has made a judgement call on the back pocket issue, and I think it made the right one. The wear and tear risk of back pockets outweighs their ‘I-wanna-feel-like-I’m-wearing-my-jeans’ benefits.

I also worried about how the XTR Thermalite Stretch fabric would cope with abrasion and the stresses applied through regular wear, particularly at the fly button, which is a metal button with a shank and has been attached with a standard stud. Only time will tell how the fabric around that stud button holds up in the years ahead—it’s doing fine at the moment.

Abrasion-wise, the Katipos have been good. I waved all kinds of sharp alpine hardware at them on my trip up Fox Glacier, and nothing has snagged or ripped. It’s possible I also may have crawled about on my knees at the top of a crag route once or twice (strictly for testing purposes, of course), but the Katipos are not showing any wear on those reinforced knee panels, either.

A very slight, very small patch of abrasion.

Microscopic evidence of user-error.

The one tiny spot of wear-fuzz I’ve been able to find was the result of user-error—I accidentally chucked something that had an unclosed Velcro fastener on it into the washing machine with the Katipos, and I guess there was a bit of conflict.

But surviving a Velcro strap attack is well and truly beyond the regular job description for a pair of climbing pants. (Please forgive me Katipos, it won’t happen again.)

All up, the Katipos have had a devastating effect on my wardrobe. Comfy, lightweight and low-volume, the Katipos are a pleasure to pull on, and with articulated and gusseted everythings, they make movement feel easy. I look forward to many years of climbing, skiing, tramping/hiking, travelling and date nights in the Katipos.

What is a ‘katipo’?

The katipo is a small venomous spider that is native to New Zealand. The Land of the Long White Cloud doesn’t have many dangerous critters so just quietly it’s pretty proud of the katipo, which packs a nasty bite, just like its cousins in America (the black widow) and Australia (the redback spider).

The word ‘katipo’ means ‘night stinger’ in Maori, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about this little Kiwi spider. Few New Zealanders have actually seen one of these shy and oh-so-endangered nocturnal arachnids, much less been nipped by one, but we all have a mental file on the katipo and how big it is (not very) and how it moves on those eight long pins (sneaky-quietly).

About Earth Sea Sky

Earth Sea Sky is Kiwi as, bro. Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, Earth Sea Sky is owned and run by Kiwi mountain adventurers David and Jane Ellis, and the clothing is designed, sewn and tested in that same wild little corner of the world.

Making warm and waterproof kit was part of the Ellis family’s heritage long before David Ellis started Earth Sea Sky in 1990. In the 1920s, David’s really great grandfather, Roland Ellis, made the first unguided ascent of New Zealand’s Mt Aspiring (3033 metres / 9951 feet); he also made the first down-filled sleeping bag in the Southern Hemisphere. Ellis-made gear has been to some pretty cool places, including Scott Base in Antarctica, and the top of Everest (with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, in the big ascent in 1953).

David and Jane have canned the word ‘unisex,’ so pretty much every item in the Earth Sea Sky catalogue has a women’s and a men’s version (you only have to imagine Tenzing or Sir Ed trying to squeeze into your women’s specific downie to appreciate the value of that!)

Earth Sea Sky ships around the world.

Being a Kiwi company, Earth Sea Sky uses New Zealand sizing, so its women’s size 10 is about a US 4. (If you’re shopping online, click on the little tape measure icon to see a sizing chart.)

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