Got Stuff?

Technically speaking, gear is gear as long as it is actively useful. After that, it becomes stuff. At a certain point, it becomes certifiable crap, such as the 25-year-old randonee boards taking up space in a certain writer’s garage. Or that single climbing skin. Or the abandoned blades used in a cross-country ice-skating experiment. With the exception
of other primates using crude tools, humans are the only species that utilizes gear, which gets put to use every time we step outside.

1) This may shock you

If you like really big gear, you’d best settle down in Wyoming or Montana, which rank first and second in U.S. truck ownership. In Wyoming, you’ll find .55 pick-em-up trucks per capita, with Montana coming in at .51. The District of Columbia, comparatively speaking, lags at .0734, despite the vast amount of bullshit that someone needs to haul away.

2) Gear for swingin’ free

Guys: How many times have you been out on the trail, on your bike or hitting the links, when you’ve said to yourself, “WTF, I wish I’d had the foresight to wear a kilt!” Sport Kilt, which manufactures all manner of models to suit the manly modes, has what you need in the form of the Boulder Kilt, Commando Kilt, Hiking Kilt and even the Comfy Kilt, which is an oh-so-soft flannel model designed for the privacy of your own home. (“This is the kilt in which you can completely unwind.”) It doesn’t hold a pleat real well, so the makers recommend you upgrade to a Sport Kilt if you plan to go outside.

3) At altitude, holding your drink isn’t easy

If you’re like me, many a backpacking trip has been scuttled because of the lack of classy, packable martini glass. GSI Outdoors has taken care of that with the Glacier, a 215-gram stainless vessel that has been likened to the ware that James Bond drinks from. The company also makes a nesting, two-speed hand-crank blender (the ice supply remains problematic, though), as well as the most stylish cathole trowel you’ll ever see.

4) A scrotal sanctuary

According to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, there is a search-and-rescue mission underway every 36 hours. This includes overdue aircraft, hikers, hunters and you-name-it who are using the outdoors and don’t know where the hell they are, or do know where they are and really wish they could get somewhere else. Wouldn’t it be good if each of them were carrying a Cocoon, a lightweight shelter that slings over a tree branch and resembles an inordinately large bull scrotum when occupied? It keeps a person warm and sheltered from wind and wild animals, and inside “The user is comforted by warming colors and materials.”

5) Poor delivery of gear

Daredevil George Hopkins had it all planned out when he stepped from a small plane over Devil’s Tower on a $50 bet (this was in 1941) and parachuted safely to the top of the formation. The next and critical part of the experiment didn’t go so well, though, when the plane made its second pass to drop off the gear he needed to descend the tower. When his buddies tossed out a rope, pulley, sledgehammer and axe, the stuff fell to a ledge beyond anyone’s reach. A second attempt to drop another rope worked, but it tangled the rope beyond use. The nation’s best climbers assembled to try to find a way to get Hopkins down, and the Goodyear Blimp was dispatched from Ohio with the idea that it could help pluck Hopkins from his perch in three days (it made it as far as Fort Wayne before crapping out). The good thing: A follow-up drop soon after the failed rope delivery provided a tent and bottle of booze to Hopkins. Subsequent drops yielded huge amounts of food and luxuries like a fur-lined flying suit, all of which got heaved over the edge when a team of climbers got to him six days and five nights after his landing. He reported feeling fine after rappelling down.

6) Failed retrieval of gear

What happens when idiots try to load a jet ski into a van:

High at Low

Why the highest summits are at low latitudes

By M. Michael BradyAmerican and European mountaineers have long known that, if you want altitude, go south. After Alaska became a State in 1959, Americans could add “or north” to that rule, as the elevation of the summit of Denali (Mount McKinley) is more than a vertical mile above any peak in the traditional continental 48 States. But the old rule still holds, as the summit elevation of Anconcagua in Argentina is the highest outside Asia and nearly half a vertical mile higher than that of Denali. Likewise, French mountaineers proudly point out that the summit of Mount Blanc is the highest point in Europe. But far south from there, the summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is two-thirds of a vertical mile higher. Moreover, no summit elevations in the Americas, Europe or Africa can match those of the world’s hundred highest peaks in the Himalaya and Karakoram of southern Asia.

Scientists have long reasoned that the greater number of high mountains at low latitudes is more than just a coincidence. Save for volcanoes, three effects are known to effect mountain height: the extent of tectonic uplift, the strength of the Earth’s crust at that point and the nature of subsequent erosion. For years, schoolchildren have learned about the third of the three effects. Americans know that erosion wore the ancient Appalachians down to elevations lower than the newer Rockies, and Norwegians know that glaciation left their mountains lower than the Alps.

Yet the interplay between uplift and erosion is not straightforward, because feedback between the two may be involved and there may be a link to climate. Moreover, the strength of the Earth’s crust has effects not yet completely understood, although it’s thought to be decisive in limiting the elevations of large high plateaus, such as those in Tibet and in the central Andes. Many theories of the underlying mechanisms have been advanced, and earth scientists have been debating them for decades. But now research conducted by scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark has provided a unifying explanation.

David Egholm and colleagues at the University’s Department of Earth Sciences processed satellite images of all large mountain ranges at latitudes from 60° North to 60° South to extract accurate data on the land surfaces and elevations, as well as the average elevation of the snowline in each range. Glacial erosion was estimated by computer modeling. These data were then indexed to the latitude
of the range.

They found that the warmer climates of low latitudes drive snowlines up, which in turn leads to higher mountains. Erosion was found to be more significant above the snowline, where glaciation can limit summit height. The summit of a mountain is seldom more than five thousand feet above its snowline. So mountains with higher snowlines tend to have loftier summits.

Surprising as it may seem, this research came out of a small, pool-table-flat, low-level country. Denmark’s area is about a sixth that of the State of Colorado; much of it is near sea level, and its highest point is at an elevation of 551 feet. But in the sphere that counts in such matters, scientific competence, Denmark towers. Natural scientists cannot escape Oerseted of the 19th century in magnetics or Bohr of the 20th in quantum mechanics. And no philosopher can escape Kierkegaard. The University of Copenhagen celebrated its tenth anniversary before Columbus sailed to discover the New World. Academic rigor is the rule rather than the exception in Denmark.

Moreover, many of the notable contributions to mountaineering have been made by lowlanders. Edward Whymper, famed for his first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, was born and spent most of his life in London, at an elevation of 79 feet. Likewise, Edmund Hillary, famed for his first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953, was born and spent most of his life in and near Auckland, New Zealand at elevations seldom more than 650 feet. Arguably, lowland location may be a prerequisite to understanding heights. But that connection has yet to be studied.

M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.


It’s a strange and wonderful thing when the first few trickles of (hopefully) imminent monsoon season (like mountains, seemingly predictable weather patterns are well capable of displaying false summits) hit generally fairly parched Gila Country. That joyful cli- matic circumstance is exacerbated by the fact that those first welcome splats of precipita- tion follow what in the Southwest is known as the “Foresummer” — the hottest, driest, windiest (and, in the last couple weeks before the monsoons fully materialize, the muggiest) time of year.

I should mention straight off that, despite whatever stereotypical mental images those not familiar with Gila Country might have (all of which are completely inaccurate), when it rains here, it is truly something to behold, in both relative and absolute terms. My very first night in Silver City, back in July 1976, I was curious why the curbs in downtown are all like 45 feet high. That very night, I received an an- swer, as the heavens opened up and before I could even begin to ponder the notion of what to me at that time was a new concept called a “flash flood,” Bullard Street suddenly became the first Class-4 main drag I had ever seen. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as I witnessed scads of household appliances, herds of mooing livestock, uprooted cotton- woods, Ford pick-up trucks, women, children & wheelchair-bound old people and barrels of perfectly good whiskey all being swept down the street to their assured doom in full view of the entire town. (OK, that may be slightly hyperbolic.)

In all my years living in the Colorado High Country, only a few times did I ever witness a rainstorm that approaches the level of ferocity of the average downpour in Southwest New Mexico. In the High Country, you sit there thinking, as thunder’s reverberating all around you, how weird it is to be up as high as the womb of lightning. Because of the altitude, you get the feeling that you are a visitor to the realm of storms, and, therefore, whatever storm-related fate might befall you, you basi- cally deserve it, like, if you weren’t living and/ or recreating up higher than people were ever meant to be, maybe you wouldn’t have got- ten zapped. In these parts, the storms come down to street level, as through they are purposefully, almost carnivorously, stalking the good folk of our humble hamlet. I mean, here we are, sitting on our front porches, smok- ing a bowl and sipping a beer, when, out of the blue, here comes an Old-Testament-like monsoonal weather front, salivating, licking its chops, looking for an otherwise innocent drunk person to scare the living shit out of and maybe even kill. And here’s another dif- ference between High Country monsoonal weather patterns and those found in Gila Country: In the mountains, storm fronts almost always arrive on the scene from the West; hereabouts, they literally come from all directions, and sometimes from several directions at once, just to keep us on our toes. (This would stem from our closeness to the Gulf of Mexico, the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.) In Gila Country, storms are sneaky bastards, ready to ambush the unwary, which pretty much includes most of us most of the time. But, as my buddy Pedro is wont to say, “At least they are warm killer tempests” — which is true enough; here you can actually comfortably stand out in the rain and not die from hypothermia in a matter of minutes, a reality that does not in and of itself mitigate the “killer” component of Pedro’s observation.

But, at the same time, the instant that first drop of rain impacts long-desiccated terra firma, the entire area becomes verdancy incarnate. Everything inclined to turn green does that, in about 15 minutes, in a National- Geographic-special, time-lapse-photography sorta way. Cactus-covered hillsides suddenly look like postcards from Ireland. Riparian zones become so lush that they bear more re- semblance to Central America than the image most folks have of southern New Mexico. And crickets and frogs spring to life and add their vocalizations to a natural symphony that also includes cicadas the size of house cats and the tweetings of the 200-some-odd bird species that call Gila Country home.

As I was lying there in bed the first night after the monsoon rains came this year, lis- tening, through no choice of my own, to the millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs that were apparently now living not only in my yard, but right under my bedroom window, I could not help but be impressed with every aspect of Nature that has some- how found a way to adapt to harsh environ- mental circumstances. I wondered how all these critters manage to survive the nine or 10 months of the year when local precipita- tion is anything but guaranteed.

By the second night, I was thinking that, in addition to playing their part in the sym- phony of life, the millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs now living directly under my bedroom window were also helping to drown out the usual nocturnal auditory emis- sions that define life in any New Mexico town: revving choppers, emergency vehicle sirens, firecrackers, gunfire, barking curs and loud rap music emanating from low-riders with faulty exhaust systems.

By the third night, though, I found myself lying there trying to figure out a way to get those aforementioned millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs to SHUT THE HELL UP so I could get at least a little bit of shut-eye. I found myself thinking, in between mentally concocting several dozen sure-fire methods for torturing crickets and frogs, that I would happily trade straight up the otherwise splendid components and results of monsoon season for a world sans chirp- ing and croaking, even if that meant watch- ing Gila Country wither away to a degree of Sahara-like dryness that it came to serve as a poster child for both desertification and Global Warming. Fecundity, be damned! The pox on the admirable adaptability of Nature! Screw Nature!

One of the main ecological features of a place that experiences true monsoonal weather patterns is that just about every creature — from pond slime pretty much up my degenerate drinking buddies — has to fit the entire procreative process into a single season, before things start to dry out again and everyone just finds a cool, dark corner to occupy for the next three seasons. Ergo: Since the chirpings and croakings of the crickets and frogs are unabashed mating calls (yes, I watch The Discovery Channel), those par- ticular creatures, of course, have little choice but to chirp and croak their fool heads off, no matter that yours truly is trying mightily to sleep off his latest beer-related indiscre- tions. Even though I often find myself this time of year perusing the web for products like “Crickets Be Gone!” and “Frogs Away!” I fully understand their situation, having bel- lowed out a mating call or two in my time, as well. Though I often find myself pondering the admittedly very un-environmentalist con- cept of eradicating every one of those chirping and croaking little buggers within earshot of my bed, I at least grok the notion of begging for sex. Thus, I make no effort to act upon my species-specific genocidal fantasies.

Toward first light, just as the crickets and frogs were handing the Fayhee-irritation ba- ton over to the cicadas and birds, my sleep-de- prived, delirious mind began to drift toward, as it often does, the subject of zoolinguistics (thanks to my buddy Stephen Buhner for straight-faced laying that word on me, as I was drinking beer and wondering aloud what on earth one calls the study of non-human verbal communication). I got to thinking about what it is those crickets and frogs are actually saying when they chirp and croak. OK, we know, as I said before, that they are “mat- ing calls.” And we know, or at least I think we know, that it’s mainly the guy crickets and frogs doing the calling, a grim reality that has made its way clear to the top of the evolution- ary ladder, to the very watering holes I visit. But what would their outwardly monotonous chirpings and croakings translate to, say, in a mountain-town bar? To the human ear, those chirpings and croakings seem to be the very definition of repetition — the exact same noise over (midnight, unable to fall asleep) and over (2 a.m., still wide awake) and over (4 a.m., thinking again of hunting down a 55-gallon barrel of “Crickets Be Gone!), ad infinitum (fuck it, time to get up).

By and large, those chirpings and croakings are either mono- or bi-syllabic. So, as far as my 3 a.m. somnolent lizard brain thought process can tell, those male crickets and frogs are either saying, “Snatch,” or else, when they add in that romantic, albeit unvaried, second syllable, they might be saying “Snatch, please!” Or “Snatch, now!” Or perhaps, within those one or two lower-life-form syllables, there might be enough in the way of inflection that, to the ear of a potentially receptive female cricket or frog, the repetitive chirpings and croakings amount to, “Hey, baby, I’ve got the biggest sausage in all of Fayhee’s yard!”

But, perhaps, the human ear is simply unatuned to what’s really being said. Perhaps those crickets and frogs are reciting lyrical love poems in Cricket-ese and Indo-Frog that would rival a Shakespearean sonnet. Maybe what horny female crickets and frogs hear are not simple chirpings and croakings (“Snatch, now!”), but, rather, a cricket or frog Frank Sinatra crooning “Strangers in the Night.”

(My friend Julie thinks that the crickets and frogs are saying nothing more than “Wake up!” — and, since she is a card-carrying Earth Goddess-type, she probably speaks several dialects of both Cricket-ese and Indo-Frog. )

Thing is, it’s my guess that each species has its own vocal equivalent of a cricket’s chirping for nookie or a frog’s contention that he has the biggest sausage in the entire yard. Bull elks bugle, cats yowl and middle-class white guys on cruises grunt loudly while try- ing to dance the limbo after seven margaritas. And, once your mind starts wandering in that direction (that would be at 4:17 a.m.), there’s no way on earth to apply the brakes.

Though many young people might con- sider this some sort of urban legend, thirty years ago, guys in bars actually did ask women, by way of an opening conversational salvo (“chirp”), what their sign was. (Best response I ever heard to that lame interrogative (and I stress this was not pointed in my direction specifically, though it’s my guess it was point- ed to all males of the species in general) was, “Stop.” I’d like to imagine that cricket and frog females exercise similar discretion, that they don’t fall for any ol’ chirp or croak.) I remem- ber sitting in a now-defunct Colorado High Country imbibery, listening to the comely barkeep, who told me that, for the ninth time that very evening, some young buck newbie said to her, “We ought to go skiing sometime.” (“Croak.”) “Don’t these assholes have the ability to come up with anything better than that?” she fumed, leading me to believe that the problem was not that these guys were trying to pick her up, but, rather, that they were using stale lines. “Uh, we ought to go, uh, hiking sometime!” I responded (I thought wittily!), to no avail. (I considered mentioning something about having the biggest sausage in the yard, but, for once, was waylaid by some very uncharacteristic discretion that somehow percolated its way to my usually very uninhibited vocal chords.)

There’s a certain mountain bar that I’ve been in, shall we say, more than once. But almost all of my more-than-once visits have occurred during happy hour time; rarely have I been in that bar after 10 p.m., when the crowd becomes decidedly less ancient. Well, one night, I happened to be in the bar much later than usual, and I pointed my ears toward the various attempts at croaking and chirping on the part of the young males. The main syllables I discerned were, “Dude” (a particularly weird choice of chirp when pointed towards a female) and a “Beavis and Butthead”-type snicker, a flaccid “heh heh” that followed whatever the previous sentence was.

“My mother was just in a car crash.” “Heh heh.” And, since many of these young men were seemingly having far better luck at drawing the attention of the proximate females than most of my more loquacious happy-hour- drinking chums, I came to understand that, when it comes to attracting members of the opposite sex who are in their prime breed- ing years, maybe mono- and bi-syllables are indeed where it’s at.

For all I know, chirping frogs and croaking crickets — wait! it’s the other way around! — might get laid more than all my mountain amigos combined, which, now that I think about it, is nothing really to hang your evolutionary hat on. “But, do they ever find true love? Do they maintain lifelong relationships?” my now very drunk buddy Pedro asked when I bounced all this silliness off him.

“I don’t think that’s what crickets and frogs are really looking for,” I responded, like I’m the goddamned Dr. Phil of rutting and in-heat insects and amphibians. “Well, maybe the older crickets and frogs,” I added.

“Yeah, but, by that time, it’s the female frogs and crickets who are doing the chirping and croaking,” Pedro (three times divorced, I should point out) said, as I looked around the bar and noticed that the only female (probably for miles) left inside the bar was the well-worn bartender, and she definitely looked liked, if she never heard another chirp or croak the rest of her life, that would be just fine with her. (Pedro had shortly before chased off the last two female customers with a real successful chirp: “If you want to buy me a drink, I’ll let you.”) “And all the older male crickets and frogs are now wondering if it was all worth it, if they ought to have just kept their mouths shut in the first place,” Pedro sighed, to his mostly empty glass.

Hours later, as I lay there in bed, bombarded by the chirpings and croakings of a million aroused crickets and frogs, with the latest batch of monsoonal storm clouds gath- ering over Gila Country, I thought to myself,

“Get it while you can, boys, for soon you will find yourself drinking at happy hour instead of pulling all-nighters!”

Chirp!!!! Croak ……. Heh heh.

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Douglas Adams may have taken it a bit too far in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” when asserting that a towel was “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” He was certainly onto something, but I’d argue that it’s hard to discretely wrap up a chunk of hair-studded pig fat for quiet disposal, so as not to insult your impoverished, but well meaning Guatemalan guests, with a towel. For that sly maneuver, you’ll need a handkerchief.

As far as necessary gear, in fact, the handkerchief, or pañuelo, by its significantly sexier Spanish name, is at the top of my list. Whether backpacking or traveling abroad, the pañuelo addresses one’s most basic needs: clean hands, quick-access shade, identity masking, tourniquet, sweaty brows, snotty noses … there is no end to the list.

Some among you are now fighting the image of an elderly man carrying his neatly folded handkerchief in the back pocket of his slacks. I’m not talking about that, although I’m sure even my grandpa, Vern, knew that backcountry cowboy coffee tastes far better strained though a (clean) pañuelo rather than a sock. What’s more, these old guys understand utility, which is the real reason every old timer has got one stashed in his back pocket.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a small handful of handkerchiefs, but I really only had one pañuelo. If memory serves, its original color was black with yellow and white designs throughout. I purchased it on a whim, probably in some gas station or at a checkout counter in the local K-Mart. But long before the pañuelo became an indispensable travel partner hitched to my belt loop, stashed in my daypack or neatly tied to my raft frame, it made its debut upon me at mid-thigh. This came in tandem with David Lee Roth, ripped jeans and the constant battle with my mother over the length of my hair. It wasn’t long before it had moved upward, abandoned its Van Halen playfulness and adopted employ as a stoic do-rag just in time for collapse of glam metal under the oppression of the AIDS scare, the first Gulf War and Nirvana.

As with the rebellious fashion of the pañuelo, its original colors eventually faded, leaving behind only the slightest hint that this scrap of fabric really began with a purpose. For most of our travels together, pañuelo was little more than that: a scrap of fabric. It lives in my memory: approximately 16-square inches, tattered and paper thin, and hemmed in multiple places with dental floss. During our years together, it soaked up everything from spilled beer to blood. It had bundled everything from scraps of tortillas to the charred remains of recreational embers. It had shielded my neck from the desert sun, and my hands from hot campfire pots. For more than a decade, whenever gear was assembled, my pañuelo was at the top of the pile.

While in grad school in the fall of 2004, I made a hasty stop on Lake Street in Minneapolis to join a “visioning session” for the redevelopment of a long-vacant and heavily blighted area of town. My evening plan still included a two-hour drive to southern Minnesota, where I lived at the time, so I’d intended my stay to be brief. Besides, Lake Street in 2004 wasn’t exactly the safest neighborhood, and all my meager possessions for a week at school were in the cab. When I returned to my truck after no more than a 20-minute absence, I was horrified to discover that my passenger side window had been reduced to a shimmering pile of glass shards. I guess I had made it easy for him, since all my most important items were neatly wrapped up in a carry-away backpack. He didn’t even have to dig!

Gone were:

One GIS textbook, one statistics textbook, approximately $80 worth of economics articles, one date book, one cell phone (I was kinda happy to see that bastard go), one calculator, one watch, one water bottle, one mechanical pencil, one pair of gloves, one bike light, one pack of gum (that I’d bought to get change for the fucking meter), one laptop computer, and …

… one miserable, thin, dirty and well-worn pañuelo.

My mind sifted through the likely scenario many times over the coming weeks and months. I’m quite sure that the shit-stain individual who rummaged through the contents of my pack quickly, and perhaps even with disgust, tossed my pañuelo aside. Fucker. Even then, even during my two-hour drive through a frigid Minnesota October night without a passenger-side window, I would have happily exchanged the entire contents of that pack, the pack and the window for that tattered snot rag.

I’ve moved on and now try not to bestow emotional importance to things like handkerchiefs. Luckily, this piece of gear is cheap and can be replaced (and probably should be) from time to time.

Nathan Boddy has stomped all over western North America, but calls the Bitterroot Valley of Montana home.  He has previously written articles for Backpacking Light magazine, a forum that accepts the utility and lightweight properties of the handkerchief.

Why Our Gear Represents Our Personality

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 and fixes core shots on the side. His work can be viewed at

Anchored, But Never Tied Down

When my boyfriend gave me my personal anchor system, it came in a series of Christmas gifts wrapped in newspapers, positioned so a photo filled one side of the box, with humorous thoughts and proclamations written over the heads of the people depicted. On the box with the PAS inside, a grinning woman in aviators declared, “You may not realize it yet, but this shit is about to become real important to you.”

I think he was talking about giving gifts between the two of us and sharing holidays in a way that signaled the development of our relationship and our commitment to one another, and not necessarily what was in the box, but it applied to both. I had just started climbing and had no idea what the daisy chain of black webbing would do for me.

He took me out climbing a few weeks later, and on an unseasonably warm January day, he climbed to the top of a sport route on North Table Mountain near Golden, Colo., used his own daisy chain to anchor himself to the top of the climb, and belayed me up from there. He’d girth-hitched my anchor system to my harness, given me advice on how to position it to keep it out of the way (which I ignored, because, yes, I was that kind of student), and, at the top of the climb, showed me how to clip its locking carabiner to the anchors and back it up with another quickdraw. Simple enough. Then he talked me through cleaning the top of a sport route so I could take down routes myself and save him from having to complete every climb he put up twice.

My PAS became a transformative tool for me in going from being a belay betty, who came along for a ride on a few 5.7s and 5.8s, to a partner who could follow and take down 5.10s. In a practical sense, what my PAS does is keep me from falling to my death. It has become a sign to me that I’ve completed something, whether it’s a single-pitch sport climb or just one of several pitches on a multi-pitch trad line. Locking its carabiner down is a signal to me to relax, to revel in the sense of accomplishment I get when finishing a route — I took up climbing for the same reason I gave up knitting: I like the feeling of having finished a task. At the top of a sport climb, it’s also the turning point at which my life goes from being in someone else’s hands to being in my own as I set up a rappel and control my own descent from the climb.

My PAS has become one of my most-revered pieces of gear. I trust it — not the blind trust that means never checking your gear to see if it’s wearing through. But the trust that tells me, if I’ve checked it on the ground, clipped it in and locked it, I don’t think about it again. I don’t worry that it might glance away at my moment of need. I don’t have visions of it unraveling or shredding and allowing me to plummet to certain death. Or even of it flirting with other women.

Flirting? Right. Because the truth is, the kind of relationship I have with my PAS is a kind of relationship I’ve never been able to have with a human being.

I trust it to have my best interest in mind. I don’t feel less in control of my own life when I use my PAS to anchor myself at the top of a climb. When I’m pushing grades and need to clip into a bolt to rest and visualize my next moves, I don’t resent it for holding me up. I would never feel a desire to log in to my PAS’s email account to see if it’s been using online dating sites again. I wouldn’t get jealous if someone else happened to take my PAS for a climb (not that it would ever leave my side). Even when it’s a little dirty, I’m proud to be seen with my PAS — my badge of honor in a gym, the mark that I’ve been out in the world, climbed hard and gotten dirty for it. It has impeccable table manners and is always dressed appropriately.

The boyfriend … well … let’s just say I have a friend who refers to him as Bad Hat Guy.

It’s a lot easier to share the world with just my gear. Ropes and webbing and quick draws and camalots place fewer demands on my time and attention, and are always ready and available to go when I am. They’re unflaggingly patient, even if I’m cranky. They don’t have bad days. And they never question whether I put the right kind of jelly on the PB&J. But, while I’ve had nights I’ve considered cuddling up to my rope, and the embrace of my PAS certainly is secure, it’s not terribly warm. And it never brings take-out Chinese and a six-pack over to watch movies after I’ve worn myself out climbing rocks all day.

I still think of that phrase, “this shit is about to become real important to you,” as I clip in at the top of a climb and my PAS becomes real important to me. I think about the boyfriend, now an ex, and all the men who have come after him.

After all, he’s been replaced. And my gear has not.

Freelance writer and Denver resident Elizabeth Miller is part of the third-generation of her family to be born in Colorado. If she happens to die while rock climbing, she would prefer to be buried near the old family farm in Meeker, though really, any open field will do.

Gear Mania Comes Home to Roost

Illustrations by Keith Svihovec

Two years ago, just before Mountain Gazette senior correspondent B. Frank and I embarked upon a two-week pack-shlepping trip to Mexico’s rugged Copper Canyon, I did something I had not done in almost 20 years: I bought a whole slew of new backpacking gear, most of which I test drove on a three-day trek into the Gila with a couple of my long-time partners in backcountry crime. This was all in all a strange experience on a couple levels.

First, there was the fact that I was remarkably — stunningly, even — behind the times on when it came to technical issues, like the different species of materials now used for packs, sleeping bags, tents and raingear, and gear specs, like boil time for stoves and heat dispersal stats for cook kits. I mean, I felt like a goddamned caveman.

Then there was the fact that all of my old gear — a Lowe Contour IV pack, an MSR Whisperlite stove, an Evernew stainless-steel cook-kit, a Bibler two-door I-Tent, a Katadyn water filter, a North Face Chrysalis sleeping bag, a full-length Therm-a-Rest self-inflating pad, a Crazy Creek chair, a Mont-Bell Gore-Tex rain suit, etc, etc. — all still worked just fine and dandy. Not a single piece of my backpacking gear — which was all cutting edge when I bought it — had failed, though it had all been used for multi-month thru-hikes on the Arizona Trail, the Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail and the Colorado Trail — to say nothing of hundreds of other trail days and nights in 20 states and 15 countries. Every single piece of backpacking paraphernalia I owned served as a poster child for gear well made, well used and still very much usable.

Yet, there I was, suddenly eyeballing catalogues, gear stores and websites, looking to — gulp! — “upgrade.” And, as a result, I felt sheepish, unclean, even, like I was suddenly a card-carrying member of the various gear-crazed, more-money-than-brains demographics that often dominate the sociology of Mountain Country and that my drunken reprobate hiking buddies and I ridicule at every opportunity, even though we like to see such people parting with their cash at our local gear stores.

So, why then was I discarding all that old, still-very-functional gear in favor of new stuff? I can tell you without compunction that it had nothing whatsoever to do with image enhancement, or keeping up with the Joneses, or being a compulsive gear-acquisition junkie. No, my shopping binge was a result of recent technical innovations resulting in much lighter equipage. After a lifetime of hauling heavy packs up and down mountains all day for weeks on end, my increasingly decrepit corpus delecti had taken a serious hit on the soft tissue front. Basically, a lot of shit had started to hurt. Ergo, I decided to take advantage of all the new gear now available that is literally often half the weight of the gear I have happily owned and operated for so long.

So, in stealth fashion, so none of my drunken reprobate hiking buddies would know, I pulled out the checkbook and bought myself a GoLite sleeping bag and frameless pack, a one-person Sierra Designs tent, an ultralight, three-quarters-length Therm-a-Rest pad, with a matching six-ounce camp chair, a GSI titanium cook kit, a Snow Peak stove that’s lighter than a Macanudo cigar, an EMS rain suit that can fit into my front pocket, a couple of flexible Platypus water bottles and, in place of the filter, a bottle of chemical water purification tablets. All told, I cut at least 20 pounds off the base weight of my pack, without making any compromises whatsoever on the comfort front.

All that is well and good, of course, but then came the day when yours truly met up with my drunken reprobate hiking buddies at the Gila trailhead. I did not say a word as I prepared to sling my new ensemble onto my back. But, before I could do so, my longest-lived drunken reprobate hiking buddy cleared his throat and said words to the effect of, “Damnation, boy, what’s that shit you got on your back?” The ribbing did not diminish for the duration of that equipment shakedown cruise. I was accused ad infinitum of jumping onto a faddish bandwagon. But, by the end of the trip, my drunken reprobate hiking buddies, who are the same age I am, started making note of the fact that I seemed far fresher than they were. And I was, indeed. It was not long before those drunken reprobate buddies began perusing gear catalogues for lighter gear.

It dawned on me as I penned these words several months ago, words that could go on in a retrospective and ruminative manner for many more pages (you know me!), that every member of the Mountain Gazette tribe likely has something to say about “gear,” and the role gear plays in their mountainous lives. Some, of course, eschew everything gear-related in a near Abbey-esque fashion, preferring to have their old Kelty Tiogas chemically decompose on their backs rather than purchase a new pack. Some are first in line when next year’s products are released. Most, I guess, are somewhere in between, buying new gear when their old gear wears out, or when there is a truly technological-improvement-based reason for pulling out the wallet.

No matter their procurement perspectives, we all own gear, whether that gear is new or ancient, top-end or scrounged from a dumpster. And many of us have gear-based stories to tell. Earlier in the summer, I put out a call for gear-related stories, and, as usual, received about 10 times more than I could ever get in print. What follows is a representative smattering of submissions that cover just about every conceivable perspective toward the often over-rated, often necessary, often unnecessary concept of gear.


Calendar September 2010

Ooom pah!
Billings, MT, Sept. 4-6. Can you dance for three days and nights? Youíre in luck if you like to polka, because the Big Sky Polka Festival keeps you three-steppiní high with, yes, beer, and German food and several fine polka bands, including Julie Lee and Her White Rose Band, Matt and the Dakota Dutchmen, the Polka Rhythm Kings and the Bob Bares Band. Think of it as Slovenian slam dancing. Bring the RV, the kids and grannies … itís got to be an experience you wonít soon forget. And everyone can polka! More info at or call 406-656-7470.

A wee bit of green
Estes Park, CO, Sept/ 9-12. Ready to go Celtic? Longs Peak Scottish/Irish Highlands Festival in Estes Park has it all from music to marching, jousting competitions, dogs of the British Isles, highland dance, folk music, bagpipes and a bowling-ball shoot (not sure if theyíre shooting the bowling balls or rolling them … ). And certainly a lot of kilts (donít ask what they wear underneath those tartans … ) all at the beautiful Stanley Park Fairgrounds. Thereís a great lineup of music, including Mythica, Alex Beaton, Brigadoons, Rathkeltair, Albannach, Prickly Pair and Loch Carron, to name a few. Check it out online at or call 800-903-7837.

Fall color 
Jackson, WY, Sept. 9-19. Art in the fall has just as many colors as the changing foliage, and the 26th annual Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival has thousands of art enthusiasts enjoying the diverse artwork and spectacular natural surroundings. World-class installments of contemporary, culinary, landscape, Native American, wildlife and Western, arts, combined with an exceptional array of music, cowboy poetry and cuisine. More than 50 events round out the 11-day festival, which you can check out online at

Brews for youz
Denver, CO, Sept. 10-19. Honestly, there can never be enough beer fests, can there? The Mile High City jumps onboard with their Denver Beer Fest, and 10 glorious days of tasting, pub crawls, meet the brewers, brewery tours and entertainment ó all told, more than 100-beer related events. Theyíve also book-ended two major beer-themed festivals, the Great American Beer Festival and Oktoberfest (OK, so itís Ocktober Fest in September … ), September 17-19 and 24-26. Brilliant! Get the scoop and the draw online at and

What the Hay?
Hobson, MT, Sept. 12. What started as a friendly competition in 1990 between ranching neighbors has turned into full-blown sculpture artistry all constructed from hay bales. Last year, at the 20th-anniversary edition, there were over 50 innovative entries. Although local farmers and ranchers construct the majority of the creations, there have been entrants from all parts of Montana, as well as California, Arizona and as far away as New York. The sculptures are displayed in fields along the Bale Trail, a 21-mile loop just south of U.S. Highway 87, running along state highways 239 and 541 with the eastern end being in Hobson, the western end at Windham, and Utica being the halfway point. So, fire up the olí pick-em-up truck and either drive the trail or git yerself some bales and make yer own. For general and contest info, call Val at 406-423-5803 or see sculptures and info online or Facebook Montana-Bale-Trail-What-the-Hay.

Burn the Grump
Crested Butte, CO, Sept. 13-18. In a week-long frenzy of Slavic-Italio-harvest-pagan rituals, the costume capital of Colorado once again hosts Vinotok, this year a week earlier than usual, and itís bound to be even more wild since itís the 25th anniversary. Twenty-four lads and lassies, the Greenman, the Knight, Dragon, Magistrate, Earth Mother, flag bearers, fire twirlers, drummers and of course the Grump all enable mumming, drinking, frolicking, town potluck, Liarís Night, storytelling and Saturdayís Vinotok passion play and procession, where the Grump is given a fair trial but always hauled down the main street to burn, convicted, at a huge bonfire. Join in and wear your Renaissance threads if so desired. More info, entertaining photos and videos on Facebook ìVinotokî.

Got Dem Blues
Telluride, CO, Sept. 17-19. The 17th Annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival runs rampant this year with George Thorogood & the Destroyers, special guests Elvin Bishop and Eddie Shaw, BB King, Otis Taylor with Chuck Shaw and so many more gracing the stage in one of the most breathtaking settings in the Rockies. Back is the 3rd Annual Coolest Campsite Challenge, artful campsite designs not just for amusement but will earn you some serious schwag this year should you top the competition. Itís three days of riotous fun whether you drop in for a day or the duration. Online at

Run for fun
Boulder CO, Sept. 19. The Boulder Marathon promises to be one of the best and most-entertaining races in the Rockies. Itís open to all walkers and runners and, hey, you have an entire seven hours to get through the course ó so, if youíre not a pro, semi, serious runner, you can just stroll through the day chatting with your buddies. It all starts at 7:30 a.m. at the City of Boulder Reservoir, where it also finishes (that would be at 2:30 p.m.). And itís fully supported, with ample aid stations and toilets. Get yerself online