Postcard: Slate Creek on fire

Like most people with working eyes, I’m a sucker for fall foliage. I also have questions: Why do one aspen tree’s leaves turn yellow and another orange? What determines when each grove shifts from summer to fall? If you know the answers, feel free to chime in below. This (unedited) shot depicts a glowing grove in prime autumn backpacking territory: the Slate Creek drainage on the northern end of Colorado’s Gore Range.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

A Nod to Nostalgia

Why are we so nostalgic?

As with so many young men that are older in wisdom and worldly desires than they are long on chest hairs, I’ve always had a yearning to understand the past, have been drawn to the ideals and technologies of yesteryear, and have longed to experience the simpler days-gone-by.

As a photographer, I’ve attempted to explore these ideas my whole life; I’ve written about them and wrastled with them in my own ways, and I’ve looked to older gentlemen and women, mentors and teachers, to try and gleam some understanding of these emotions.

Is it just a part of the human condition? Or do some people have a deeper connection to the past? Whatever the case, I continue to learn about my fellow Earth-dwellers and myself as I travel, photograph, admire and appreciate that which came before me.


Postcard: Bajhang District, Nepal

What do you do when the only way across a raging river is on a bridge that you really don’t trust? You cross it, of course, or you stay on the wrong side forever. Here, the late Kip Garre walks the plank during a 2009 ski expedition to the northwest corner of Nepal, after some aphrodisiac peddlers swore the bridge would hold.

Ever since this trip, whenever fall starts to show its face in Colorado, I think of the many adventurers who are setting out on expeditions into the planet’s greatest mountain range. If you happen to be one of them this year, may your travels be safe, fulfilling and unpredictable.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Mountain Passages: Written in the Sky

The ineffable look of the sky exhausts my modest vocabulary.

It is late summer here in the High Country and the color of the sky is telling me that I maybe have six more weeks of cycling before I have to rack the road bike in the garage and unrack the alpine touring (ATs) skis to be tuned. dave's cloud

The sky is a crystalline blue that obviously goes on to darkness. This sparkling blue backdrops white puffy cumulus clouds that often morph into cumulonimbus, the kind of cloud that can go grey in a matter of minutes and throw lighting bolts that will blast you off the ridgeline if you are dumb enough to be there after lunchtime.

You can almost smell fall coming on the air. It’s the best time of year in the High Country and as good of a time to die as any. The weather is beautiful, with warm days and cool mountain nights. No more of the flatland heat that can scorch the back of your eyeballs. And months before mountain winter, when four layers aren’t enough to keep you warm on a windy backcountry patrol.

A mountain person is dying of stage four prostate cancer, and he’s not seeing anyone anymore besides caregivers and his son. But when he’s feeling okay he answers the phone. I won’t bother with his name. If you Google your own name you’ll realize just how unimportant names are. But we’ll call him Dave. The couple of thousand people who know him will know who I’m writing about.

I first met Dave when he was director of a Mountain Trail Running Circuit in the mid-80s. Some fool had talked me into running the circuit. We had to run something like eight out of twelve races to qualify to earn overall points. Some of the runs were simply ridiculous like the seventeen-mile Imogene Pass run from Ouray to Telluride, or the half-marathon up Pikes Peak, and the grunt up Mount Evans to just over 14,000 feet. Others included a 10K course at Winter Park that made its way through a storm sewer and then followed a mountain stream where runners could be seen standing in the water trying to find their shoes.

But it was the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton that reminds me most of Dave. The run started in downtown Silverton at 9,300 feet and went six miles up to the top of Kendall Mountain at 13,000 feet, and then back down. Dave made some announcements at the start of the race.

“You fast folks, remember when you are blasting downhill that slower runners are still working twice as hard as you did to get to the top. Give them some space.”

“That’s me, a slower runner.”

“You guys going uphill, watch for the boys and girls coming downhill fast. Give them some space. Crashes are hard at that speed.”

The run was awful. Near the top, runners had to scramble hand-over-hand for the last 200 feet to touch the summit. At the start of the race Dave would hop in a Jeep and greet all the runners at the summit. So I’m pretty close to last, I’m bleeding from a knee that hit the ground, and there was Dave.

“You are looking strong Bear.”

“Fuck you,” I managed to grunt.

“You may have dead last in the bag.”

“Double fuck you.”

I was still running as I reached the finish line…last. Dave called for applause on his megaphone. I was handed a beer.

Earlier in his life Dave bought into the American Dream but then quit. He just walked away from being a successful Mercedes salesman because it was too stressful. His Dad and brother had died in their fifties of heart attacks. He was determined not to die that way. He got fit and ran trails in the summer and snowshoed in the winter.

The local ski area wanted to hire him to run a snowshoe school. Dave was excited about a seasonal job in the winter. Then they told him that he had to shave his beard off, and Dave smelled corporate stressfulness and rejected the job, but kept his beard and instead ran a free-lance snowshoe touring business out of his apartment in Nederland. In his spare time he revised a successful snowshoe how-to book by The Mountaineers.

In Boulder, we have this modest little 10K every Memorial Day weekend where half of the town’s residents turn out to run or walk. The Bolder Boulder is a half-day party with a little exercise for most of us. Dave was the start announcer for years. He would have a complete list of the participants by staggered stage. He would underline names and call out four or five names in each stage.

“And in this stage we have the Bear.”

“Fuck you, Dave.”

“Winner of the Least Points Scored Overall two years running in the Mountain Race Circuit.”

“Double fuck you, Dave.”

“Dead last, two years in a row.”

Dave did such a great job on revising the snowshoe book that I called him from time to time to do books for whatever publisher I worked for. He’d come down from Nederland to Boulder on the bus with his day pack. He was always meticulously dressed in clean backcountry functional clothing, and his daypack was organized with stuff sacks for rain gear, a notebook, extra food, and maybe a jacket plus a full water bottle.

We’d have lunch, I’d pitch my idea and he’d promise to consider it. And then he’d always call back in a couple weeks and tell me that doing a book would be too much stress for too little money. I’d laugh and tell him that I’d have another pitch in six months, would he have lunch with me again. He always laughed too and said yes.

As a recovering book publisher I lost touch with Dave over the years, much as an alcoholic loses most of his bar friends. And then I got a call from another backcountry patroller who said Dave was dying and would I call.

I called twice and didn’t get an answer. My ex-running partner called and said he’d gotten through to him and that Dave wanted me to call. I called again and we talked and laughed for twenty minutes.

He told me that he was at stage four, and that he was trying to make it to his 75th birthday on September 11th. I laughed and told him that Blue Eyes, my wife, was born on 9/11 and how we left the year after for a couple weeks in France because she didn’t want to be stateside for the first anniversary of 9/11. “Too sad,” she said. We told other lies and laughed and I could sense that he was getting tired. I knew I had to say goodbye.

I didn’t know how. “So Dave, I guess I’ll see you again on the other side.”

“Yup, I’ll be sitting on a summit when you get there. I’ll be making fun of your trail running. And then we’ll laugh and drink beer.”


Alan Stark is a recovering book publisher and member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol. He lives in Boulder and Breckenridge with this blue-eyed woman and her dog.

Adapt And Overcome – An Interview With Skiy DeTray

Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 7:37am: “Hey brother, Andy took a whipper, got a concussion, then he took another whipper last night and completely de sheathed the rope, now I’m gonna lead tied in at knot and then solo the last few feet of each pitch! Adventure Western out here!”– Skiy DeTray via text from mid-way up El Capitan’s Native Son (VI 5.10 A4).

Skiy starting up the crux  pitch on Reticent Wall (VI 5.10 A5)
Skiy starting up the crux pitch on Reticent Wall (VI 5.10 A5)

I met with Skiy DeTray one week before receiving this text to learn more about his drive for climbing the most demanding and dangerous big wall routes in the world. In 2011, he spent 22 days on the side of Great Trango Tower, a 2,625-foot wall topping out at 20,623 feet in northern Pakistan. I also wanted to ask him about two other things: His work as a US Air Force Pararescueman in Afghanistan, and partnering with disabled athletes climbing El Cap.

We meet outside my office under cloudy skies in central Boulder. 38 year-old Skiy steps out of the car, reaches back inside for a six-pack of beer and we head inside. On the way in he tells me he’s packed to fly out to climb Native Son on El Cap in the morning. Dressed in a blue Patagonia synthetic jacket, loose blue jeans, a cotton T and what appears to be bedroom slippers—which he assures me are not just for wearing around the kitchen—Skiy’s at ease and relaxed. He has a light beard and dark blue eyes. He folds his 6’3” frame down in the wheeled office chair behind me, leans back and takes a sip off his Levity Amber Ale and talks about aid climbing.

“Aid climbing,” he says, “as you know refers to the struggle of high stepping in your aiders, making long reaches, and pounding in pitons. You let go of everything. All that holds you in place is a #1 head, or the point of the hook in the stone. The wind on El Cap at your back and the swifts around you. You just kind of float up the wall on copperheads and hooks. Then there’s all the mastery of technique and efficiency of systems and adventure. And there’s the necessary pain of it. Aid climbing has a roughneck work side of it. It’s delicate yet physical.”

From 2009 to today, he’s successfully climbed El Cap over 30 times, setting speed records with various partners on routes like Tribal Rite (VI 5.5 A4) in 19:48, and Shortest Straw (VI 5.7 A4) in 12:23.

The Pararescue Life

During his early twenties in Montana, Skiy ice climbed in Bozeman and took several trips to Yosemite to free and aid climb. In his mid twenties. tired of dead-end jobs and wanting to save money for Chamonix, he tried out for the Air Force special forces, undergoing two years of so-called ‘Superman School’ and was selected as one of the branch’s elite Pararescuemen.

“It turned into a job I loved,” he said. “There’s band of brothers watching each other’s back. Plus,“everyone skydives, scuba dives, are paramedics, and mountain rescue experts. I did that from 2001 to 2007.”

Skiy says one of the things he learned during his time there is the importance of teamwork. He credits his time as a Pararescueman, or PJ (Pararescue Jumper) to helping him become a better overall climber.

“They beat it into your head to adapt and overcome every situation you encounter. Complete the mission at all costs.” He takes a long breath and leans back in his chair. “It was two years of training where 90 percent of people don’t make it. It’s insane. And then four years operating with the teams with real life, high-risk civilian and combat rescue operations. We did civilian operations in Iceland and Tucson and Alaska and three tours in Afghanistan.”

He explains how he flew into the high mountains near the Pakistan boarder and recovered injured personnel under enemy fire: “I was basically special forces in Afghanistan. But there’s nothing basic about it.” He lets out big laugh. He makes a look like his eyes are bugging out of his head, looks at me hard and lets out another laugh. “It was A4+, A5. Ha, ha.”

After six years of active duty, he realized that he needed to make a change in his carrer that would allow him to climb. In 2009, he joined the National Guard, which allowed him to spend several months each year working in Alaska as a Pararescueman and six months on YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue).

Veterans Chad Jukes, Mike Kirby and Skiy DeTray enjoying the summit of El Cap on Sept. 11. Photo Paradox Sports
Veterans Chad Jukes, Mike Kirby and Skiy DeTray enjoying the summit of El Cap on Sept. 11. Photo Paradox Sports

Present Work, Medic

Today, Skiy works as a flight medic in West Africa. His schedule is 60 days of work on, and 60 days off.

“It’s nice,” he,” says. “But, my climbing has paid the price this year which I why I can’t wait to quit my day job. One more stint and I can take a few years off.”

Having free time from work gives him the flexibility he needs to spend a week or more on the side of a big wall. Like the time he  climbed El Cap with two disabled military vets through an organization called Paradox Sports, based in Boulder, Colo. The team, including vets Chad Jukes (below the knee amputee) and Mike Kirby (partial foot amputee), successfully completed Zodiac (VI 5.10 A2+) on September 11, 2013. Skiy talks about a moment of adaption and overcoming, which occurred during their first bivy up on the wall.

“Mike, a prior army vet, dropped both of his shoes. We’re thinking the climb is over, we have to go down. Then the wheels started turning. We can make shoes out of sleeping pad material and duct tape and still get to the top of this thing. It just exemplified that no matter the challenge that if you adapt you can overcome any situation. It captured the whole Paradox spirit. War has left a lot of us with mental and physical disabilities. But through a positive adapt and overcome attitude anything is possible. Including still having an amazing life. It breaks my heart every time I hear a vet has taken his or own life.”

Andy Hoeckel and Pierre Ollson at a portaledge camp at 17,000 feet on Great Trango Tower. Photo: Skiy Detray
Andy Hoeckel and Pierre Ollson at a portaledge camp at 17,000 feet on Great Trango Tower. Photo: Skiy Detray


I ask Skiy if kids were in his future.

“Hell no… well, at least for a few years. I want to mix climb, rock climb, and ski four to five days a week and that’s kind of it. I can’t wait to visit the Moose’s Tooth in Alaska. I want to inspire people in a place and time where I was when I was young and impressionable.”

I ask if he’s a nihilist. After all, the aid routes Skiy seeks out are the hardest, most dangerous ones, such as Plastic Surgery Disaster, Reticent Wall with the rating of A4 and A5, which means serious injury or death in case of a fall.

“I’m quite the opposite,” he replies.

I asked what his childhood was like, how and when he got into climbing and why he joined the Special Forces. He grew up in Spokane, Washington. His mom worked at REI and due to her work she was able to expose him to rafting, camping, and climbing when he was only 8.

“There were all these climber hard-core dudes who worked at REI when I was a kid,” he says. It was climbing that grabbed him the most and he hero-worshiped the stars in climbing movies. “I feel like those videos inspired me set the tempo for that fuel to push yourself and always squeeze out what you have and the body you have,” he says. “To this date I can recite literally every line from those movies.”

He laughs slowly as we talk about what it was like getting his start top roping and bouldering at age 8 at the local Spokane crags called Min E Ha Ha. To reach the rocks located 12 miles from his home he’d have to persuade his mom to take him, or whoever he could get to take him there. He’d often bring his bike along, and ride the 12 miles home after he was done climbing, which he did generally alone. In the third grade, he started lifting weights and joined the cross-country team. He started leading routes at age 12. Climbing, running, and competitions were the main driving forces in his life from age eight to 16. While a member of the Mead High School Cross Country team in 1995, Skiy ran a two-mile race in 8:58, and was beaten by his teammate by 1/100th of a second, earning him second place in the country.

“If I just leaned in a little bit more,” he said, “I could have earned first.”

Skiy won a scholarship to Montana State for his excellence in running. There, his love for running was overcome by his desire to climb rocks. “I lost the plot and started rock climbing. I loved it.” He continues. “In my thirties, I could have worked a full time job and put money in the bank and put money in my retirement. Instead, I moved to Yosemite to become a granite climber, a speed climber and an aid climber.” “I was on YOSAR for four summers. One summer in Tuolumne, three seasons in the Valley. Those were the four best years of my life.” He sums up his climbing career: “So far: 30 years. Still alive,” he says. He free climbs about 150 days a year.

Travels in Pakistan

The Great Trango Tower. The Norwegian Pillar ascends up the middle of the formation.
The Great Trango Tower. The Norwegian Pillar ascends the middle of the formation.

I asked him about his experience traveling through Pakistan and his time on Great Trango Tower.

“For 77 days, I traveled through Pakistan with Andy, a hard core, bar fighting, rough neck and Pierre Olsson, a Swedish Special Forces sniper. I felt between the three of us that we would be able to at least make to the base of great Trango. I think all climbing in Pakistan is worth the risk of getting to and from the climb because the mountains are that incredible. It’s the Wild, Wild West. You have to go there prepared to do anything.”

Great Trango’s height of 4,400 feet dwarfs El Cap’s 3,200. He described their attempt on the Norwegian Pillar as, “1,400 feet of 5.10 to an office sized ledge. Then 3,000 feet of aid climbing.”

The team had clear skies for the first seven days of the route and make strong progress. Then the clouds came in and they settled into their hanging camp located at 17,000 feet.

“We basically got to the ledge and a nine-day storm came and it snowed three feet. We knew that in order to reach the summit we would have to climb through the storm. So we quested in storm conditions. We were Jumaring in 20-degree temps, and aid climbing with beaks in a storm. It was insane.”

Days passed this way until they reached a ledge below the upper headwall, which stretches for the final 1,200 feet. They made 800 feet of progress.

“Then we got the call on our two way radio that another storm was approaching,” he says. “We were running low on food. We’d have to go without food for seven to14 days.” He laughs. “And we’d already lost 20 pounds each. I wish I would’ve taken food for 40 days.”

They retreated. Skiy plans to go back, but this time he’d like to make a four-day blitz up the wall to avoid being pinned down by a storms.

Skiy alpine climbing in Alaska
Skiy alpine climbing in Alaska

“I want to take my climbing from big wall, to high altitude objectives that require El Cap technique and finesse, plus gritty hard-core alpine endurance.”  Then he adds, “But in a minimalist lightweight style.”

“How do you know when to draw the line of dreaming and staying alive?” I ask but don’t get an answer. A week later I get a series of texts from Skiy from the side of El Cap:

Thursday August 29: “Fucking awesome!! Swifts, King Cobra, and red granite streaks! A bit spicy, loving it!”

Saturday, Aug 30, 2014, 7:37am: “Hey brother, Andy took wiper, got concussion, then he took another whipper last night and completely de sheathed the rope, now I’m gonna lead tied in at knot and then solo the last few feet of each pitch! Adventure western out here!”

Saturday, Aug 30, 8:52am: Andy is a little shook up, but ok. Sometimes the wall tests your mettle, we drive on.”

Of Yoga and Harley Davidson

Chanting in My Helmet

By Lisa Fierer

It turns out that you can use Vedic (Sanskrit) Chanting instead of taking two Valium, although its not marketed quite that way. Actually, I don’t know if there’s really a marketing campaign for chanting. Yet. 37217_455868106928_100369406928_5887650_2441254_n

I first got turned on to chanting while laying in corpse pose in one of my first yoga classes. My mind was absorbed with the absurdity of being alive and trying to play dead, which was how I interpreted the purpose of corpse pose (Savasana). This is so dumb, what’s the point? I wondered. I would later learn that such incessant thoughts are called “citta vriti,” often translated as “monkey mind”. And better yet, when I began studying the Yoga Sutras, I learned “Yogacitta vritti nirodhah (Ch. 1, Verse 2)”, which can be translated as “Yoga is that which stills the fluctuations of the mind.”

Laying there with my not-dead-yet monkey mind chattering away, a song began playing on the teacher’s iPod. It was the distinct sound of traditional eastern Indian chanting. Although I had no idea what the words meant, I suddenly felt relaxed and my mind quieted. It would be a number of years before I made the connection. After all, yoga is a practice of awareness. And I needed a lot of practice.


It was quite by accident that I began to chant while riding my motorcycle. It started out as innocently as practicing the pronunciation of vowels of the Sanskrit language. At the time, I was enrolled in an 18 month Sanskrit immersion course for Yoga Teachers. Although I had been teaching yoga for a couple of years, I still sucked at the study skills necessary to be a decent student. I loved how the sounds of the letters ‘tasted’ in my mouth and reverberated throughout my body, but I resisted doing my homework, which at the time was reciting the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet for at least 30 minutes a day.

It was an unseasonably warm November day, and I just had to hop on my motorcycle for a ride before my north facing parking space became iced up until March. I’d had my motorcycle license for at least 7 years, but had maintained a healthy fear of riding in the mountains.

Feeling brave, I decided to steer up one of the nearby canyons. I figured the roads would be clear of gravel and ice, and I could enjoy one last 70 degree day of riding. I was enjoying the roaring hum of my loud python pipes (I have a patch on my leather jacket that says “Loud Pipes Save Lives”) and remembered that I hadn’t done my Sanskrit homework yet that day.

“A, Aaa, I, Iii, U, Uuu…” I started with the vowels. They had quickly become my favorite once I learned that each one related to a phase of the moon. I know, I know, I too was aware that I was turning into a stereotypical Boulder hippie who looked to the moon and it’s various phases to govern their planting, harvesting of their home garden, and even the times to wake and go to sleep.

As I rode up the canyon, the large sweeping turns suddenly became hairpin turns as the mountain road tightened toward the top. And my contemplative vowel sounds turned into screams, “Holy #$*@! Mother $*&^%>!”

The thick plastic on my full face helmet filled with the heat of my words.

I was terrified and blinded by the condensation buildup in front of my eyes.

All of a sudden, my Sanskrit teacher’s voice came into my head, “Om namah sivayah, guravey, satchitananda murtaya…”

This mantra,  (a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of creating transformation) was one of the ones that appealed to me the most. It felt like a big mama hug, then a loving swat on the bottom launching me straight through, to a place beyond my fears.

And I realized the mantra was coming out of my mouth.Ustrasana-1

At the top of my lungs.

My motorcycle guided the next hairpin turn the way a salsa dancer maneuvers his partner through their spins, like one solid unit. As I approached the crest of the mountaintop, it dawned on me that maybe this ancient tradition isn’t just for ashrams.

These days mantras come to me in more places than just my motorcycle. As I wash the dishes, walk my dog, and do laundry. Even when I shop for groceries. They seem to course through my bloodstream. But rather than creating a separate little bubble of isolation, as a Valium loving acquaintance described, these mantras eliminate the need for such separation and instead create a sense of unity and connection with everyone and everything around me.

Lisa Fierer teaches yoga, SUP yoga and rides her motorcycle in Boulder, Colo. Read about her upcoming memoir, Thirst, and her classes at

Seeking Solar and Soul at Outdoor Retailer

Seeking Solar and Soul at Outdoor Retailer

By Mike Medberry

The Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City was an adrenaline-powered gathering of more than 28,000 people from around the world who came here to make deals on equipment and to test out the newest thingmos to sell them to you, their ever-so eager customers.  In the convention center, OR trade show called the Salt Palace, manufacturers met with retailers and gave their best rap on their newest goods. Face to face meetings went on in back offices and front offices. Wholesalers and retailers met with media representatives and gave their best spin. Retailers met with suppliers from other countries. Media people met with other media types and tuned their takes.  It is all very exhausting, amusing, and productive.

You think there is hype here? Of course. But I was here on another sort of search because I operated a business that sold and installed solar panels in Idaho—after five years it folded. I knew a lot about solar energy but not much about business.  Maybe I could learn about business, but more realistically, I was simply interested in why businesses in general rise and fall. In addition, I was curious about what the buzz was at the Outdoor Retailer trade show. I found out that these big honking halls full of consumerism and capitalism are a study in the ways of the world!  Let me explain.

Walking through the Palace

I walked into this coliseum, this Palace of Endless Business, with only the smallest clue as to what it would be about. I figured that less than half of the businesses will still be here in five years. That is just a cold fact and I saw no sense in pretending otherwise.  Who would survive and why, were what I would investigate. I would do some interviews and give my take on what  people said. That was my the plan.

But first, I had to get a “badge” to get into this grand conclave.  I stood in the shortest line of  media representatives and it was simply by chance that I stood beside the man who writes about businesses in Utah for the Salt Lake Tribune. He had a meeting with the major honcho of the conference and would interview him in less than an hour. He was antsy to get into the Palace of Endless Business.  The major reporter on the major newspaper covering this meeting in Utah was standing in line with the likes of me, a no-account, dirtbagger hanging out trying to get in? Yes. Well, good luck sir!  And yes, we do need a stinkin’ badge.  I got in with a little help from my editor, saying that I was reporting on the trade show for the Mountain Gazette.

Second, I did a slumming route of the coliseum to check out what was there.  Hundreds of competing businesses deployed literature describing their products, showed pictures of healthy users, and glamorous, lovely, living models right there on the sales floor struttin’ their stuff. Others highlighted the toughness inherent in pursuing their offerings (short films of people riding mountain bikes in improbable places, people climbing sheer rock walls with their groovy new chameleon-footed shoes, people taking kayaks down impossible waterfalls, and on and on) , some relied on their experience, simplicity, or the tried-and-true reliability of their products (think surfboards). Technological innovations, cost savings, cleverness and brilliant colors blared at me in a totally exhausting sort of way.  Most of the businesses relied on the newest lines of their product, running under the assumption that the newest is the very bestest. All who had beer and music on their side gained success in the short run.  And I was pulled into the swirl simply because… well… I am human, and I like shiny new stuff, and beer.

Third, I had to write an article on this amorphous mass of ideas, things, and people.  So I chose some of the things that I had a little experience with: solar energy and paddleboards. There are 375 companies that have listed paddlesports and watersports in their OR Market segment listing.  Let’s take half as being an accurate number of paddle sports businesses that rely on SUP (stand up paddle boards) to survive, and make a living. There is no particular listing for solar products, but they are included in “Accessories” which seemed odd to me.

Finding a Focus when the Whole Wide World Is Flat

10605733_10203523672226720_933133726_oI went for a second more intentionally more focused walk in the Palace of Magical Things.  I had a paper cup of coffee with me which seemed plain wrong. Right out I got caught in a new idea that Sierra Designs was promoting.  Mike Newlands is an enthusiastic bloke and he grabbed me to watch what he was selling: “Just this one little thing, eh?” he insisted.  He exudes joy with a saleman’s ease and this new product was his perfect companion, a new kind of sleeping bag.  I mean hey, it’s just a sleeping bag,right?  But this bag would allow a lazy man to pee and a woman to have a cup of coffee without actually getting out of their bags. Ok, I’ll listen and laugh and maybe consider buying that bag.  I took a picture. What more could Sierra Designs expect?  They got much more—as reporters from Outside magazine rolled in and shot pictures of Sierra Designs’ new sleeping bag idea. That’s business: a good product, well presented at just the right time, with the right person enthusiastically showing it. Ok, I’m learning…

So, where was I? That was not what I intended to learn. Paddleboards and solar energy doo-dads were my schtick. Ok, I’m on it! But before that I got pulled in to the less visited rooms where Taiwanese and Chinese businesses represented themselves. Their power is vastly underappreciated and the influence they have is unparalleled.  At least for now…

Mike Gangos at Footland manufactures socks—colorful, useful, and beautiful socks in Taiwan—and he spoke very clearly when I asked him about their competitive advantage. “People from the US think that things that come from other countries are inferior. But they’re not. It’s more cost-effective to use materials in Asia and use of our employees is more efficient. More materials are available at lower cost. Labor costs, taxes, health care, are higher in the US than in other places.” He spoke ardently. “Why does Taiwan import so much from the U.S.? It is because we don’t have the land base.”  I wrote that down and thanked him for sharing the thoughts.

I stumbled into a manufacturer of plastic boats and talked with Andrew Lin, their Executive Manager at the Hong Kong site. Lin said that people come to their firm to receive various brands that are “much the same product.” He added that, “Your market is higher because of better marketing and local knowledge. You have more buying power, the quantity is greater, and the market is inherently higher. Our advantage is on the big brands.”

I asked him if their employees lived well. I had heard rumors of unfair labor practices and a little about the bruised environment. At that point, he invited me to sit down and called two other employees to sit and join us. He was an honest man. Lin said that the life in Hong Kong was simpler. “Western people pay more attention to the quality of life. In Asia, the people work more because they have to survive.” Lin paused for a second and continued, “I used to live in New Zealand, which was very nice, but now I’m in Hong Kong. I also lived in Taiwan. I’m making more money now, gaining knowledge on the business side, and I will live in a nicer place someday.” He was a nice guy and looked straight at my face. “The world is a flat place these days. There are no boundaries with the internet.”

One of Lin’s colleagues spoke: “Twenty years ago labor costs were the most important factor, followed by good management, a good supply chain, and very hard work. Culture is better in big cities but you’ll have to work hard for things in big cities.  Our economy has doubled in the past four years and it averages at a 15 percent rate.” One of the three spoke out almost confessionally and certainly with an undertone of passion: “I’ve never seen such bad conditions for the environment over the last year. Not in the 34 years of my life. The pollution has spread all over China; it’s not just in one centralized place.”  The person quickly mentioned that s/he was glad that the government is doing something about the problem and s/he was cheering for the government to deal with the pollution, despite the small problems in Tibet and a few other minor places, like Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.  “These are small problems when you put all of this in perspective,” another added.  I have protected their identities for what reason I don’t know.  They risked much.

They also mentioned that China was seeing its grip slip on its competitiveness as the population grew richer and more people became more certain about what they wanted. Moreover, other countries, Indonesia, India, and Pakistan, in particular, were coming on strong but with the disadvantage that they lack China’s manufacturing experience.  I thought that when one nationality dominates another and can pay them lower wages for resources, it was not a good circumstance. But no one said that. I found all of this enlightening and shrouded in ambiguity as I shuffled on to visit solar energy businesses.    

A Place In the Sun

Goal Zero, a business based in Salt Lake City and Bluffdale, Utah, provides portable power to backpackers, campers, and backup or emergency users. They provided 20 of their power sources to anyone who ran short of electrical power at casually scattered tables upstairs in the Palace of Good Things.  One of the unique things about the organization, according to spokesperson Lisa Janssen is that it they are “doing good.”  For example, Goal Zero has donated power to the Navajo Reservation to provide power in outlying places that have no powerlines. They’ve also gone to Africa, Japan, Haiti, and India to provide power and light to people there. “Our whole reason is to help people who need power,” Janssen said.

But Goal Zero has to make a living in the US and will have to provide income from the devices they sell closer to home or they’re out of business. Well, unless they receive further grants or a donor bankrolls humanitarian visits. (And the company was, in fact, acquired by a financial backer right after the show.)

The power sources (these batteries are also called generators) cost about one dollar per watt of electricity to purchase.  To understand what that means, think about what an efficient and powerful light or appliance uses.  For example, the LED light from my bedroom uses 8 watts, and my radio uses 11 watts.  My cellphone will take about 3 hours to fully charge with a 20 watt solar panel or battery.  This doesn’t mean that my light will cost me $8 to run every time I turn the LED light on or $11 for the radio. The Goal Zero’s Yeti 400 power source will cost $460 and, when charged, will provide 400 watts for an hour at no cost.  A 20 watt solar panel will add $200 to the price and would easily keep the battery charged. The life of the Yeti 400 and panels should be roughly 20 years, depending upon how much you use it and how well you care and maintain it.  So the cost of running the 8 watt light and 11 watt radio will be much less once you buy the battery and a solar panel.  But who will explain that to potential users? Goal Zero will. But therein lies the rub: educating people about what they will pay for the sun will take time.

Goal Zero batteries and solar panels offer a way to provide electricity without the exorbitant expense of providing commercial power through power lines. It is limited, but what they are doing gives major benefits to people who really need portable power in a pinch, whether in India or in the backcountry of the U.S.

Terry Peterson, the owner of HybridLight, is focused on providing light from solar flashlights. He has other products such as headlamps, lanterns, solar panels, and powerbanks but his forte, in my opinion, is in his flashlights.  They shine when you expect them to work—they are simple, and at night when you want the light in your tent, just flick it on. There are no batteries that will corrode or fail. Well, there is a battery in the flashlight, but I’ve never seen it corrode nor has it ever failed, even after more than five years of pretty regular use.  There is beauty in simplicity and wisdom in the focus.

HybridLight’s  flashlight has a small but adequate solar cell on one side and you have to face that side to the sun for a couple of hours and you’re good to go for the whole night. I mean, you can have it turned on for the whole damned night. And on a long winter’s equinox night for that matter. Believe me that is a handy tool when you’re hiking and the sun goes down on your third night out.  This is a tool that, like a pocket knife, I’ve found to be absolutely indispensable.

I asked Peterson what advantage he’d seen over competitors. “We designed the product for our own use and I thought that if we got it the way we wanted it, it might serve other people as well. We wanted to make it as durable as we could, as efficient as possible, it would have to be high quality and affordable, and every time you touch it it has to work. It has to be something that the owners will have for years.”

That didn’t really get to my question about how to make his business competitive, but his next comments did.  He said, “Going to China is a tough thing.”  Peterson realized that he would have to go to China to make sure that his product would be produced to strict tolerances and not the mumbly-talk that some wholesalers and retailers hear.  “You have to switch night and day, you take a long time to get there, and when you get there the language is foreign. When you talk to people in China they may tell you they understand what you said when they don’t. They just agree and have a hard time telling you when they don’t. You’ve got to be efficient when you’re there or it’s time wasted and money wasted to get to the place where you need to be on the flashlights. It’s not just a one-time visit. It’s more complicated than that.  I had to go there a second time to straighten things out.  It’s also good to meet people so they know who I am and I get to know who they are.”  He added: “I’d love for the flashlights to be American-made but the prices there were lower than anywhere else.”  And as anyone who looks around at the OR trade show could see, competition matters and it’s a fine line between survival and death.

Kayaks and Paddle Boards

10637797_10203523779749408_1886055003_nI walked around the Palace of Endless Building looking for someone to interview about their kayaks and paddleboards and was struck by the smiling faces of Brenda and Mark Schwartz who own Expedition Toys. I learned that they were siblings and they kindly agreed to talk with me about their business.

“How will your company survive with so much competition?” I asked, and spread my arms to show the many surrounding companies.

Mark responded, “branding helps. We bought the number one boats in France and everyone in Europe know about them. They’re incredible boats and it’s easy to get behind their product. Their construction is far superior to other boats and they’re not a brand new company.” He stopped and looked at his sister, she was nodding, and he continued.  “But, at the end of the day it really comes down to marketing and having a great product.”

I like these people. I trust them. Those were my first and last opinions on their boats. I believe that the French boats would perform superbly.  I’d buy a fleet if I’d had the money! Mark continued, “We’re pretty easygoing and pretty approachable and the fact of the matter is that we have a lot of fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously.  We tell people if we think that the boat will fit well with their needs and when they won’t and I think people appreciate that honestly.”

I thanked them for their time, shook hands, and left them with their retailer customers, but I was thinking it would’ve been nice to get a drink with them, sit awhile, and chat. Alas, I couldn’t.

I moved on and stopped to talk with two hip-seeming guys with the Lakeshore Paddle Board Company. Neither really wanted to talk with me—it was getting late–but they agreed that Sean should talk. Sean is the President of the business and he sat cross-legged and casual. I realized that it had been a long day and it was hard to talk with him. He stood up and had his story about how the lake paddleboards worked. It seemed a little forced, although all of his points were right on target. But maybe I didn’t need a paddleboard after all. I’m sure that other people would fit into his customer base but I was tired and moved on pretty quickly.  I didn’t feel very genuine somehow although he did seem to be at ease talking with me. There is that something of magic that either works or doesn’t and it would be different for different people. “Good luck!” I told him.

I promised that I would rate the businesses. But I really can’t. I’m sorry about that. They are all such good and talented people that I couldn’t wish one of them a single, bad thought. I’ve known what it meant to lose your business and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else. But I also know that it will happen and then perhaps the losers in the pack will take the same route that I have done and listen well. And become writers… Regardless, I didn’t have time to look at every business nor judge any without prejudice.

Go with Your Soul

I wanted to talk with a Patagonia representative because I’ve heard about their company’s innovation for more than 20 years and thought that their wisdom would give me some thoughts on my recommendations.  I talked with Corey Simpson about what qualities makes Patagonia a beacon in the recreational clothing and equipment industry and a star in the environmental world.

“It all starts with our 40 year old-vision,” he said, “and it’s pretty simple: we build the best product that we can, do no unnecessary harm, and we use our business to inspire people and find solutions to environmental crises. We’ve got to build products and get money to give away to environmental groups and create change.” Patagonia gives 1% of its income to environmental issues around the world and particularly in the U.S. So far, they have given a total of $100 million since 2002.  “The company has made the choice about the best way to do something for the environment and what’s the best thing socially. And when we got there it turns out to be the best thing for business.”

One of the clearest commitments that Patagonia has made to protect the environment is that the family owned business is also a B-Corporation.  What the Benefit Corporation status does is to allow the business to create a “general public benefit” which includes making a positive impact on society and the environment.  This benefit is judged by the company’s board, it’s stockholders, and employees. All of the employees at Patagonia are 100 percent committed to maintain an intact world. They have zeal to protect the earth but they don’t project that feeling on other firms. Mr. Simpson added, “It’s more important for businesses to find their own stories that separate their own business from the rest of the pack.  If you’re able to tell those unique stories, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling. It’s going to work.”

All of this left me with a little too much information, from China to Patagonia and Bluffdale, to form a clean decision, but what I can say certainly about the OR trade show next year is that I will look with my pocketbook handy, but I will only buy those things that fill my soul with goodness.

Mike Medberry writes and gets sun in Boise, Idaho.

Postcard: High on tundra

It is never easy getting up to 12,400 feet on a bike. Sometimes you pedal, sometimes you hike, always you hurt. That was pretty much the story this day too. A friend e-mailed me asking if he might escape the Front Range heat and would I be around for a ride. I sent him back a couple of options, one easier than the other. He chose the hard one, which brought us to this moment atop the Tenmile Range in Summit County. No one ever regrets putting in the effort it takes to get to this spot. (Click image to enlarge)

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: A Gift of Luck

A few days ago I lost a lens cap. It was deep in the phantom woods where Rip Van Winkle once napped. At the time, I figured I’d just get a new one. Then I discovered that a replacement would cost 35 bucks, assuming I could even find one that was available. No luck. So yesterday I decided to go back into the phantom woods and look for the lost lens cap. To cajole the collie puppy into coming along, I promised him a treasure hunt. He liked that idea. I took the unsheathed camera along for good measure. Off we went.

The plan was to retrace the route from the other day. I had no map but memory. The way led through places nobody frequents anymore—not even the sunshine. We walked and we walked and we walked. We kept a close eye on the ground. We saw lots of rocks and lichens and leaf duff. The occasional drop of an acorn sounded like a faraway footstep in the phantom woods. I kept looking over my shoulder. For his part, the collie puppy kept his nose on the task. The search continued. It went on for a long time. Nothing. I was ready to give up.

We drew near a pair of dying hemlocks. Suddenly the collie puppy just sat down and gave a little bark. He had found the lens cap! Right where I must have dropped it the other day. What luck! I picked it up and placed it over the camera lens where it belonged. We started for home.

Along the way I kept marveling at my luck. My luck didn’t like that. It ran off without warning. Oh well, soon enough somebody else’s luck showed up. Somebody named Warren. Warren’s luck must have been wandering around this lonely place for a long time. It spotted us and decided to tag along. Who wouldn’t? It gets lonely out there in the phantom woods.

Warren’s luck did not have much to say. More time passed. At last the collie puppy sat down again and gave another little bark. Had he found my errant luck? On the ground amid the decaying leaves was something shiny. I picked it up. It was a silver dog tag pendant. The inscription read: “All my love, Warren.” I turned to Warren’s luck for an explanation. It was nowhere to be seen, run off like my own.

I looked at the collie puppy. He was tired and wanted nothing to do with this discovery. All he cared about was getting home. That’s when I remembered something an old teacher of mine once said: “Consider the gift of luck as below the care of a wise man.” I put the silver dog tag pendant back on the ground where I found it. But not before I removed the lens cap from the camera and took this picture. Then we went home.