In last month’s MG, I reviewed Graham Bowley’s book, “No Way Down: Life and Death on K2,” about the 2008 K2 disaster in which 11 climbers died. I talked about how impressive Bowley’s reporting on the event was, especially because he wasn’t on K2, and wasn’t even a climber. Well, climber and author Freddie Wilkinson has definitely one-upped “No Way Down,” in terms of a quality book about the K2 tragedy. Wilkinson matches the quality reporting of the actual incident, and then takes it upon himself to travel across the globe and do more investigation, resulting in a much richer account. Insight borne from Wilkinson’s experience on expeditions in the Himalayas and some of the world’s other great mountain range aid the explanation of the incident, and fuel his drive to figure out what really happened and also to explain the culture of Nepalese and Tibetan Sherpas and high-altitude crew. Later in the book, Wilkinson goes so far to reflect on and criticize his own coverage of the incident. Wilkinson’s writing has been previously published in climbing publications like Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Climbing and the American Alpine Journal, but with this book, he establishes himself as an author and a true journalist.
Chuck Fryberger has an expensive camera and shot “Core” in 35mm Ultra High-Definition, making it the first climbing movie that made me wish I had a bigger TV. This is a solid film, following some of the world’s strongest climbers as they battle routes that are at their limits. Fryberger, as a filmmaker, knows what he’s doing — when to play high-energy music as his tracking shot follows a car ripping down a dirt road in South Africa on the way to Rocklands, when to turn off the music so we can listen to a climber nervously breathe and scrape his or her way up a boulder problem, and how to find the right angles. Two highlights in this film, for me: A segment on BJ Tilden, who is not a sponsored climber, but a full-time carpenter in Wyoming, who climbs as hard as a sponsored climber; and when Hueco Tanks legend Rick Oliver shares this bit of philosophy: “There’s a leisure class at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. You can have a lot of money and no time, or a little money and a lot of time. And it’s very, very fun to be on either end of it.” Also great: The film can be e-mailed to you, for $19.95, if you don’t want to spend the $29.95 for the DVD or $39.95 for the Blu-Ray.
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: http://www.streetfire.net/video/jet-ski-loading-fail_2022987.htm
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.
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!
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.
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..
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.