Looking back, it makes sense that I found the jacket the day after college. I had just gotten my psychology degree and was ready to try and figure people out. Myself, for starters.
The jacket was hanging in our living-room closet: a high-end red North Face coat, lined on the inside, with Gore-Tex on the outside, almost never worn. Things in the living-room closet, I learned, belonged to no one. They were remnants of the car-flipping-in-the-Vermont-field parties we’d had that year. Abandoned.
The jacket was a Large, my size. I was not into skiing then, but I knew a $400 ski jacket was nothing to leave in the closet. I grabbed a nice fleece to go with it, and stuffed them in my last available duffle bag.
Two years later, I stopped for a night in Colorado. It snowed 22 inches. Yada, yada.
In the eight years since then, roughly 1,000 days in the Arctic wind and bleaching sun have turned my red North Face jacket a burnt shade of orange. They don’t really make jackets this color, especially with non-faded zipper lines. So it stands out.
The hood is fraying, the Velcro doesn’t stick so the wrist flaps hang floppily, and it’s got seven holes patched with either duct tape or black fabric circles from when I have collided with pine trees. But I swear to God, it’s the warmest jacket I’ve ever worn. It seals just above the bottom of my goggles and completely shields me from the wind. That’s why I keep wearing it.
Not long ago, it developed a zipper problem. Someone told me the factory might repair it, even though I had no sales receipt, nor had it ever been officially mine to begin with. I sent it in like the cheap bastard I am, and, to my surprise, they not only fixed the zipper, but also the shredded slobber guard. I was so happy, I mailed them a thank-you note.
While it was at the factory, I wore a different North Face jacket I’d gotten for free from an ex-roommate. This one was blue and didn’t block out all the wind, so it sucked. But something funny started happening when I wore it. First, people told me in the T-bar line they didn’t recognize me, then they expressed genuine concern for my orange North Face jacket. I know, I told them. I hope she pulls through, too.
Last fall, I flew to Nepal with a trio of North Face-sponsored skiers, the most well-sponsored of whom was not only over-wardrobed at the moment, but also my size.
In advance of the trip, and for photography purposes, he sent me a hard-shell jacket, a soft-shell jacket and a thick, burly winter jacket; a pair of bibbed expedition snow pants; fleece gloves; top and bottom base layers; and a wool hat. All North Face, top of the line. I was enthralled.
I never planned or even really noticed my gratis North Face collection mounting up until recently, mainly because one garment still dominates, despite all my newer options. The original jacket has become a part of my persona, who I am. Just like all of my gear, but to a greater extent. Part of the reason is that I don’t care about gear very much, so I tend to hold on to things that are still functional and keep using them. This leads to sentimentality, and, ultimately, stubbornness toward paring down my collection.
When I say I don’t care about gear, I mean that I’m not a nerd about it. I want to be warm, but don’t really worry about ounces. My mountain bike is heavy. My skis are wide and long. I have spent 10 minutes debating in front of my computer whether to order 2.25-inch tires or 2.35s, but those situations are rare. Usually, I just ask my brother for suggestions.
I got my goggles for free from a sponsored skier friend, and I found my mismatched poles next to our condo complex’s dumpster. Not long after that, I saw two pairs of skis sticking out of the snow in the same spot. One of them was a mint pair of 173cm Atomic Sugar Daddys, the perfect size for my father-in-law.
So I tuned them at the ski shop where I work, and gave them to him at Christmas. Some fathers-in-law you don’t tell you found their gift at the dumpster, but not Rich. I couldn’t wait to tell him. He liked the skis immensely more once he heard where I got them.
It reminded me of when he first heard my jacket story. He thought it was the greatest thing ever and couldn’t stop laughing. To this day, he still tells random people how I found it in a closet, then cracks up at his own story.
Our relationship, in fact, has been significantly enhanced by our mutual views on gear. Rich wants to get the most for the least, but will settle for the minimum if it’s either that or the maximum. I’m the same way. If it works, awesome.
Most people I know do not share these beliefs. During our ski trip to Asia last fall, talking about gear was like drinking water: something you did at least 15 times a day. My friends could dissect a backpack design like a frog in formaldehyde — and they did. It was like listening to French people argue about wine.
You can compare people’s gear-repair preferences and get a pretty nice image of who they are, too. Some skiers won’t let anyone touch their skis — or their bike. Others would rather lick a warm turd than solve their own problems. They’re overjoyed to pay $20 for a derailleur adjustment that takes a mechanic 13 seconds.
I tend to break a lot of gear and try to warranty it. I’ve returned the same pair of Voile telemark bindings six or seven times with various ailments. There is nothing more attractive than a company that fixes your broken stuff for free.
The quiver is another good personality indicator. If you have a quiver of mountain bikes, like my friend Dave, who has four (and, to his credit, takes care of them himself), you are someone who wants precision and options. If you are a member of the one-rig club, as I am, you’re either cheap or slow or broke. That’s my dated psych major talking.
It’s true that the right piece of gear, like a top-notch avalanche transceiver, can prevent you from dying — and also that the wrong piece can kill, like a frayed rope on a big wall or a faulty ski binding on an exposed slope. In such life-or-death instances, my gear-related pet peeves are moot.
But, most often, they play out the same way each time. What bothers me most about gear is when people are idiots about it. For example, one night last fall, my friend Jeff was talking to a guy he knew about backcountry skiing.
“We should get out this winter and make some turns,” Jeff said.
“What setup are you on?” the guy replied, suddenly wary.
“NTN,” Jeff said.
Despite having no idea how strong a climber Jeff is, the guy immediately said, “We can never go skiing. Your gear is way too heavy.”
Which completely misses the point. Gear, like the cycling cream you lather around your butt hole, is an enabler, not a means to exclusivity.
If you are not careful, however, your gear can leak the fact that you actually suck at what you’re doing, like renting 120-mm-waist skis on a bulletproof day. So stupid. But if you’re tuned in, you can command huge respect from other gear monkeys by showing up with well-conceived selections.
In that sense, gear acts as a way to measure intelligence, which I’m embarrassed to even write.
Ultimately, my gear equals me. For six months of every year, my faded purple ski helmet might as well be a name tag. But it took me a while to figure that out — to realize how much your gear represents your public identity. You have probably noticed by now that it bothers me.
Gear can’t tell you how it feels, because gear can’t talk. It doesn’t eat or sleep or leave steaming coils in your garage. On the contrary, gear is like toilet paper: you want some that performs its job ably, but you don’t really need the triple ply, at least not in my opinion.
Having the triple ply is nice, don’t get me wrong. There’s no doubt a 22-pound carbon bike climbs better than a 30-pound alloy. But remember my tired old jacket.
Let’s not give gear too much credit, is all I’m saying.
Breckenridge writer Devon O’Neil covers skiing for ESPN.com and fixes core shots on the side. His work can be viewed at www.devononeil.com..