New Gear and the Good Old Days

When we’re on an old, classic climbing route, my friend Lee sometimes reminds me how bold our predecessors were compared to us: “Now remember, when Layton Kor first climbed this route in the ’60s, he didn’t use a No. 5 Camalot. Or any cams at all.”

I usually say something like, “I know. But I believe he used bigger balls than I’m carrying.”

Waterproof tents, synthetic clothing, lighter, faster, more comfortable, drier, warmer. Unlike previous generations, I did not figuratively walk to school uphill both ways through two feet of snow. My gear is arguably astronomically better than that of my predecessors. I’ve been hit on the helmet with rocks launched from 30 feet above me and walked away unscathed, flew 25 feet down a climbing route and didn’t break my back due to my dynamic rope stretching and catching my fall, and I have sat through an 85 mph windstorm on Mount Rainier eating candy and listening to music in a wonderfully engineered mountaineering tent that did not snap in the hurricane-force winds.

Give me a weekend made more fun because of all the inventions of the past 40-odd years, and I’ll take it. I’ll hike into the mountains in the rain, kept dry by Gore-Tex (1976) or some other waterproof, breathable fabric; sleep in a dome tent (1971) on my self-inflating sleeping pad (1974) after listening to a few songs on my iPod (2011); then get up the next morning to climb a route in my soft shell jacket (2000s), using my cams (1978), all the while taking photos without having to change film thanks to my digital camera (2004). And I’ll probably post those photos on Facebook (2004) when I get back to civilization — but that’s a whole other can of worms (and to be honest, I might upload one or two pics taken on my iPhone (2007) directly to Instagram (2010)).

Few gear inventions in the past 40 years have actually led to real change. The cam is one of them — one could argue that Indian Creek would still be nothing but a scenic backdrop to some sleepy ranch land in the Utah desert without it. Mostly what’s changed in 40 years is our relationship to gear: We review it, we take over Salt Lake City twice a year and fill the Salt Palace Convention Center to see what’s new, and some people even call themselves “gear junkies,” as if a penchant for buying items for use in the outdoors is some sort of identity badge of honor.

But what really makes a difference? Snowboards. Dynamic ropes. Even Starbucks Via. How far do you want to go back? You know what really shook shit up in the outdoors? The wheel. Your ancestors 5,500 to 10,000 years ago would have had to walk to the trailhead, not because they didn’t have a car, but because they didn’t have the wheel. How about fire? Do you like hot food? Thank the humanoid that discovered fire approximately 800,000 years ago. Enjoy your Mountain House Chicken a la King and your hot tea after dinner, and mull that one over. Yes, climbers who put up routes in the days before cams were tough, and bold. Climbers who put up routes in the days before dynamic ropes were bolder. But man, you know who was hardcore? Those dudes who were hiking and trail running before humans wore shoes. And before fire.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor at Climbing magazine. He lives in a car. His blog, Semi-Rad, can be found at mountaingazette.com. He maintains a personal website, semi-rad.com.

40 years outdoors and the adventures along the way…