On being prepared

I was recently looking through some photos from a winters ago and came across this one. It immediately made my hands sweat. Not because it’s a good photo or because what my friend Mike is doing is anything special. It’s because it brought back very clear memories. The snow that day was absolutely horrible. Wind-scoured, sun-burnt, old, crusty, and inconsistent. That was a bad season here in the alps. While the US was getting hammered with record-breaking snowfalls we had a dry and sunny winter. We actually went 5 weeks in January and February with no weather. Just sunshine, blue-skies and no snow. It was nice, for sure, but it wasn’t winter. But through that nonexistent weather and those bad conditions I still had a great season and my skiing got light-years stronger because I was out there making turns.

Outdoor sports are like that. If you’re into the sport enough and you go frequently enough you will have days where the conditions are miserable. Days where you wish you’d just stayed at home. It’s inevitable: Given a long enough time-line and venturing far enough from the road you will find yourself confronted with pissing rain, big lightning storms, terrible wind, bad snow and wet seeping pitches at least a few times. All of this got me thinking about the gear that we choose to use. Outdoor gear has become something of a fashion trend. It’s extremely common to see Patagonia (Pata-gucci) on the streets in major cities, Arc’teryx and Mammut are about as close to Haute-fashion as you can get (with prices to match) and even Zuck can’t be seen in public without at least one North Face logo. But when it comes to these terrible days in the outdoors this gear is the stuff that we depend on to save our skin. So, here are a few of my golden rules of gear selection that will keep you from looking like a poser but still leave you in full capacity to get the job done.

How to not suck in the mountains

  1. Light is right… to a point: Having light gear means you can move faster, using less energy. This is a good thing if you’re going to be moving all day long. But there is a point at which the lightness of your gear can actually be a burden. The lightest skis on the market ski like wet noodles, the lightest jackets are going to explode in a shower of nylon the first time they touch stone, those “composite” avalanche shovels don’t have a hope in hell of digging through debris. A good rule of thumb is to find the lightest thing you can for the conditions that you are going to see 90% of the time then go one step up. Believe me, when you find yourself in those conditions that only happen 10% of the time, you’re going to be really really happy you’ve carried around a few extra grams.
  2. Bright Colors: Don’t be stupid. Why would you want a white jacket for skiing, or a grey jacket for rock climbing. Get a color that is bright and will stand out against the backdrop of your sport and season. When your friends are running around like chickens with no heads looking for you in the avalanche debris having a red jacket or a yellow backpack could be the difference between you living or dying.
  3. Multi-function everything: I don’t ski with pole straps anymore. I haven’t for years. When the mountain slides out from under you the first thing you want to jettison are those sticks with tiny anchors on the ends. But, unlike most of my skiing friends, I still have the straps attached to my poles. Why? I like to have a little extra webbing and a buckle incase I need to rig something. There are lots of small things like that: my shovel doubles as a sled (so do my skis for that matter), I always have a tiny pocket knife clipped to my climbing harness, the list goes on. It’s important to make sure your gear can serve multiple purposes. Carry less stuff but still be covered for any eventuality. More functions plus less stuff equals the same level of preparedness. This however does not apply to safety gear like avalanche probes–do not, under any circumstance, buy ski pole probes.
  4. Don’t be a junk-show: Pack your crap inside your bag. Seriously–there is no need to hang your climbing shoes on the outside or tie your sleeping bag to the top. Fit it inside or get a larger backpack. And while we’re at it, pay attention to how you pack your gear. Keep the heavy stuff close and low (close to your back and low down in the pack). Make sure you can get to the stuff you’re going to need during the day. Common sense you say? Look around on the trail (or in the airport) the next time you’re out–you’ll see what I mean.
  5. Details, details, details: Everything is a small detail until it’s a big fucking problem. Go over your stuff at home before you head out. Check for worn-out bits that might break, check that you have all the little things that you are going to need and check that you’re not packing stuff that you aren’t going to need. And always double check the batteries in your head-torch. Apply this same mentality to maintenance while you’re out. Tired and need a rest? Take one. A short rest now will keep you from bonking out later. Make sure you’re eating and drinking enough. Be disciplined. Like I said, it’s easy to gloss over all the little details until it’s a life and death mess that you have to sort out.

“If you don’t go, you won’t know”

That is quote from a good friend of mine. He used to use it whenever I’d be waffling over leaving the house or not (usually because of a bad weather forecast). I used to hate it but, over time, I slowly grew to love that phrase. Some of my best days in the mountains have been days when the weather has been bad or the snow conditions were hateful. It’s important to get yourself into small trouble every now and again close to home so you’ll know what to do when you’re days from the road and something serious happens. You’ll also be surprised at how often a bad weather forecast is wrong and the weather is amazingly good.

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