Words by Joel Muzzey
Veteran snowboard pros John Jackson and Kimmy Fasani are still fairly new to the Burton team, both having joined the brand in the last couple years. As two of the sport's top-tier backcountry riders, the pair, according to Global Team and Marketing Director Bryan Knox, "was a natural fit" for Burton's AK outerwear line. The AK collection represents the pinnacle of outerwear technology and performance in the Burton line—as the name suggests, it is gear worthy of the demanding Alaskan alpine.
Since Burton's AK line made its debut back in 1997, the gear has been designed and developed in partnership with W.L. Gore & Associates, the company behind Gore-Tex fabric. You probably know that industry-leading Gore-Tex is the world's first and foremost waterproof, breathable fabric. If not, you should know that its unique performance properties make it an unsurpassed ingredient in high-end snowsports outerwear.
As part of the partnership between Gore and Burton, athletes on the AK program make an annual visit to Gore's testing facilities in Newark, Delaware. The riders tour the various laboratories and get a crash-course in all things Gore from the company's experts and engineers. They're exposed to the product testing process and what goes into the outerwear they use and abuse every day, all winter long. They also get hands on, jumping into actual testing scenarios. I was lucky enough to tag along on the field trip and see it for myself.
Both Jackson and Fasani's backcountry exploits have been well documented. John has been filming mind-bending video parts for nearly a decade and in the last few years his riding has accelerated, putting him at the very forefront of the backcountry freestyle movement. In 2011, he earned TransWorld's Rider of the Year honors as well as Video Part of the Year, among other accolades. He is currently at work on his own shred film with his brother Eric, called Brothers On The Run. Kimmy is a well known and respected pro who has been competing and filming on a global level since the mid 2000s. Her big breakthrough came in 2011 when she became the first woman to successfully land a double back flip.
With the work these two do on the snow, they're used to being the ones who do the amazing but when they took their field trip through the Gore facilities, they were the ones amazed. "I'm pretty sure there's nothing better than Gore-Tex," says John, "but before going there, I had no idea the testing was at this level." The "level" John refers to is best illustrated in Gore's Rain Room. This is a laboratory environment designed and engineered to create the actual velocity of rainfall. It's like a giant glass shower stall where waterproofing is put to the ultimate test.
To earn Gore's " Guaranteed To Keep You Dry® pledge, every garment must survive the rain room as well as other tests. That means every piece of AK outerwear must withstand 30 minutes of rain at a rate of 3 inches per hour without leaking through onto the cotton-clad mannequin. Garments intended for the wettest environments, like the 3L Hover & Freebird jackets must withstand 60 minutes of rain at a rate of 22 inches per hour. Basically, a simulated tsunami. On our visit, both Kimmy and John stood in for the mannequins, enduring torrential but nonetheless dry time in the rain room wearing 2013 AK outerwear.
Our testing tour then continued into the Environmental Chamber, a lab designed to simulate various weather conditions for tests related to physiology and performance. They call it the Comfort Chamber and inside temps can range from 120º to -20º. There's equipment with sensors for real human testers as well as machines that simulate sweating. Our tour guide and Burton's Gore liaison, Todd Folmsbee explained this lab allows them "to evaluate comfort in controlled conditions in a condensed time frame."
We moved on to the Glove Lab for a quick demo then walked carefully past the slowly spinning Abrasion Testing machines. We peered into the Suter Testing lab, where fabrics are exposed to pressurized water to test for leakage. Later we were led to a bank of literally hundreds of washing machines that run nonstop for weeks on end to carry out the all-important "wet flex testing" to ensure that the Gore coated fabrics hold up.
Gore-Tex is a derivative of PTFE—polytetrafluoroethylene, that's right bro—invented by Bob Gore in 1969. By 1976 Gore-Tex fabric was on the American market in outerwear. Since then, Gore has pioneered applications for this strange stuff for everything from NASA space suits to fuel cell membranes to cardiovascular patches used in heart surgery. Even though the Consumer Fabrics and Technically Oriented Fabrics divisions of Gore are cutting edge for the world of boardsports, relatively speaking, when you consider the other stuff Gore does, the fabric testing might even seem simple. Nonetheless it's serious.
On the partnership between Gore-Tex & AK, Gore's Todd Folmsbee, who is also snowboarder, explained, "We love working with Burton. They really push the envelope as far as design, style, and aesthetics. What's nice for Gore is that helps us, because it challenges us. What we try to do is bring to life some of the ideas the Burton team has—to meet expectations and deliver a high performance garment to the snowboarder."
And according to Kimmy Fasani, they're meeting the challenge. As we leave the facility, she shares a story from one of her first days out riding the backcountry in her new AK outerwear, "One morning we pulled into the parking lot at Brandywine in Whistler and it was pouring rain but we knew that the freezing level was at a higher elevation just a short way up the trail. On the sled ride up, the precipitation transitioned from pouring rain to sleet to snow and dipped to freezing temps. With so much moisture—from the rain to the snow—our outerwear froze on the way up. But we never got wet. Actually, I think we stayed out riding for six or seven hours that day—totally dry.