All three forks of the Flathead have been setting all time records for five straight days, after the warm snap from last week built to a crescendo of melt over the weekend. It’s a remarkable thing to see, the relatively placid river M and I floated at around 3000 cfs 10 days ago swollen eight times over. I spent some time this afternoon sitting in strategic spots, watching and listening.
My original plan had been to ride and hike down 5 miles of old road to the point above the confluence of the Middle and North Forks. That plan lasted 300 yards until I reached the 1/2 mile of the road which was flooded. I rode, then pushed once it got hub deep. The 30 yards or so before the bridge over a side creek which floods every year looked about waist deep, with a strong current forced up into the tributary by the speed of the Flathead. It was a cool sight. Hopefully things go down a bit before the Bob Open, flows like this will cramp everyones style.
I took my own advice this weekend, sucked it up, didn’t go to the Bob, and instead made the long drive to somewhere totally unfamiliar: The Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
It was good to be hiking in cactus country again.
Befitting the desert, water was a problem on my route. The idea was to hike upstream, cutting a ninety degree bend across the badlands, then packraft back the next day.
All the water I found looked like below, or worse, and was salty enough to be undrinkable.
There was that cattle tank, but the shit to water ratio was well over my cutoff.
The elk/antelope/deer/cow trails were awesome. Above looking SE, below looking NW.
By early afternoon I was, after a lot of up and down, up at the height of land, with drainages leading either south the way I had come, but north and then west where I had hoped to go. I did not have much water left. It was pushing 90 degrees, and the breeze had died. The gulch heading south was a bit shorter on the map, so I played it safe and dropped in.
The tight, twisting canyon reminded me of the Markagunt around Bryce, or the circa 7k reaches above Zion.
Sure enough I ran out of water, with no useable sources and many miles to go. No point in doing anything else but keep moving as the cottonmouth grew.
Cow traffic in the area was minimal, and several months old. Or older.
I was suffering a fair bit, but the scenery kept me going. I like the desert, I like XC hiking, and I like seeing new stuff around every corner.
The river was still a really welcome sight. Fortunately I had brought some Carborocket, which helped bring me back to life once the Aquamira kicked in. It also gave me enough wherewithall to check for ticks and find seven on my left leg (but none on my right), which was pretty icky.
At that point I had a few hours of daylight left, and a lot fewer river miles to get back to the car. Fortunately the Missouri is really slow. Also fortunately, it was amazingly quiet, all the better to enjoy the massive amount of wildlife. The loud splashes following ahead of me turned out to be Spiny Softshell turtles hucking themselves off the bank. The number of bank beaver lodges was astonishing, and around dusk the beavers came out in force, and sitting up on the bank watching them cruise back and forth was fantastic. I did sleep on my raft in the vain hope that it would keep the ticks away. (I pulled one off in the morning.)
The morning of the second day I was still cooked, tasty and big dinner nonwithstanding. More packrafting in the cool early morning was perfect, especially as the Missouri is, unlike all our local rivers, mellow enough to zone and not worry about being swept into a snag. Hours later I was back near the road and subject to the slack jawed wonder of fisherpeople at my Scout and I, one of whom even helpfully told me FWP would give me an 80 dollar ticket for not having a PFD. I packed up, and started the long drive home, content.
Chris Townsend wrote about wilderness recently, concluding that “The distance doesn’t matter; it’s the situation that says where you are.” There is big dubya Wilderness in the US which in season have tons of people. The “most remote place” in the lower 48 is in August a 6-8 hour hike along trails wide enough for ATV traffic. There are, at the same time, lots of places which are not denoted by a big green spot on the atlas and like the Breaks have lots of roads. These roads may be driven once a year. They feel pretty wild. I’d refine Mr. Townsend’s statement to say that miles don’t matter, but effective distance from other humans makes all the difference.
The best thing is that there are a lot more of these wild places than you think, hiding in plain sight.
We humans are lazy creatures, by which I mean complacent in the face of habit. We do not need any particular reason to keep doing what we do on a regular basis, we need a rather particular reason to do anything else. Which is why it makes sense that Ryan got there first.
I’ve driven within 200 yards of the Wild Mile many times, and never really thought that the rowdy in spring run would be fantastic packrafting at lower flows. The word duh would be appropriate here.
The first principle which derives from the everyday implementation of human inertia is that locals often miss the best stuff in their area. After they’ve been around a while and been accultured into the melting pot of conventional wisdom, impetus to look at routine things in a new way is hard to find.
The second principle is that while living somewhere which makes you always want to travel is bad, living somewhere that is so good you never want to leave is worse. Even if you live in the best place in the country/world for your favored activity, too much time in the bubble will invariable diminish the quality of your experience. The phenomena is as inexorable as it is universal. This is why the out-of-towner climbs the long standing project, skis the plum line, pieces together the best backcountry route. The contempt engendered by familiarity is a fertile breeding ground for mediocrity.
So go somewhere new, and invite new folks to come visit your local stash.
Earlier this year I bought the Scout to see if a lighter, simpler, cheaper but still high quality packraft could fulfill many of my requirements. The utility of the main line Alpackas are well established, but their packed size and weight (6 pounds for my Yak, above) ends up being a significant burden for someone with a well-honed backcountry kit. For mere river and lake crossings the lighter and much cheaper options for Supai Canyon Gear and Flytepacker seem solid. I want something in between. Whitewater is never going to be my overall focus, and thus if weight could be saved and I could still have a reliable boat for serious backcountry conditions I’d be well served.
The Scout is 2.25 pounds less than the Yak. More significantly, it packs into 3/5 the space. It is short enough that I can’t fit my feet inside and have my knees low enough to not interfere with my paddle stroke. It lacks bow upturn, and has smaller diameter tubes. Interestingly, the sterns of both boats are almost identical.
When I rig the Scout for floating I use my Thermarest Prolite XS as a seat. Fully inflated, folded into thirds, and lashed down using a dedicated 1/2″ strap it is very effective at keeping my butt out of water in the boat and from bouncing off rocks. My pack goes between my legs, with one strap encircling the pack and lashed to the front tiedown, another holding the pack down and lashed through both rear tiedowns. A full 60 liter pack will fit here, stable and unobtrusive, or a smaller pack with snowshoes. Stuff like skis or a bike are not possible, save for very short and gentle crossings.
Most importantly the Scout is an Alpacka. Material and build quality are both high. You can slither down gravel shallows and bounce off stuff with just as little concern in the Scout as you can with a main line boat. In this area Alpacka is still unmatched (outside the heavy Feathercraft Baylee).
The Scout has definite limits, but they’re not as significant as I thought they might be. The combination of small tubes and short length means that stability and floatation are much less than a full size Alpacka. You’ll take on more water and be more vulnerable to flipping, all other things equal. The raftalounger position is great for waves firehosing down your rainpants, but doesn’t impede paddling power too much. I am quite comfortable running mild to moderate rapids in the Scout, I just know that my margin for error is smaller, and that my clothing will need to keep me warmer.
So who is the Scout for?
Experienced packrafters running mild water in lower 48 conditions, or harder stuff in warmer temps, may find a Scout suitable if overall efficiency is a priority. Tentative paddlers and folks who get cold easily need not apply. The Scout is more at home on smaller and warmer waters, and for this reason the arena of application will be much smaller in places like Alaska. Because the Scout is less forgiving and less dry, there will be occasions when the pure boat weight savings will be offset by more clothing, or the desire to bring a PFD when you otherwise might leave it at home. Most people will buy a Scout as a second boat to compliment a main line boat. If you take a friend rafting for their first time, they can use the big boat, and you the Scout.
An interesting case study is the current Wilderness Classic route. The Scout would be a bit scary in the very upper reaches of the Tasnuna, where cliffs made putting in obligatory. Almost all of the rapids in the next few miles could be portaged at the cost of 10-15 minutes, and on the lower flat river the small boat would only be a disadvantage if it were raining, and would be better against the headwind we fought last year. Crossing the Copper in the pool toy would be a bit nerve wracking, but wouldn’t have any practical disadvantages if conditions were similar to last years. Similar things could be said about the Chitina. It sounds like a full-on boat is what you want for the Klu, but I’m not going that way and have a very low risk tolerance for whitewater in a wilderness setting. In short, I’ll be very tempted to bring the Scout and enjoy the smaller pack, given that 85% of the route time will be walking, and 60% of that will be in bad to heinous brush.
Another example is the famous South Fork of the Flathead, best floated (for scenic and fishing reasons) in late July and early August. It’s possible to have cold rain that time of year, but the water isn’t too cold and the weather is usually very kind. Given the choice of the two boats, I’ll almost certainly select the Scout and enjoy the smaller, lighter pack on the 25 mile hike in.
The Scout isn’t for everyone, but it might be for you.
There is no question that I’ve grown more cautious as I’ve grown older, both in the woods and generally. Speaking to the former, I like to think that increased wisdom accounts for most. I’m better able to realize the full consequences of the more reckless things I’ve done, as well as visualize the long term impacts. An example of the later would be mountain biking. I will never ride technical terrain again like I did in 2008. Even if we move to Utah, Arizona, or another place likely to bring my skill level back up to where it once was, I’ve had too many concussions in my life, and would strongly prefer to not have another. Yes skill and mindset mitigates the risk inherent in riding stuff like National, but age has and will no doubt continue to slow my mind enough without the added speed from lawn darting myself into hard dirt. An example of the former is boating. I’ve packrafted enough creeks in the last three years to realize that much of my first year success, on runs like Upper Rattlesnake, had a lot to do with luck. Steep and technical creeks are risky, and while that risk can be mitigated, I’m realizing ever more clearly that the laborious and exacting process of doing so is no longer a priority.
I prefer to move through the woods differently.
There is a point in human explorations beyond which objectives become rather contrived, with the focus on seeking out difficulty within the landscape rather than traveling through it on its own terms. Whitewater, steep skiing, climbing, canyoneering and indeed most anything involving ropes qualifies here. There is virtue in these things, but taken too far their focus becomes myopic. And while the added hazard is not as straightforward as most think, such activities do carry more risk. As my understanding of how the world fits together, and of my own mortality, increases I find myself drawn to quieter explorations undertaken on the lands’ own terms. As Evan Hill of Hill People Gear said in a recent discussion (about risk): “For me, the ideal is roaming the backcountry, mostly off trail, and being a natural part of the landscape. Sometimes high, sometimes low, mostly where the other animals are, sometimes a place that just looks intriguing. The risk of injuring myself and the difficulty of extraction add to the commitment I make to being a part of that natural landscape and living by its rules. My belief is that our life in civilization is a subset of that larger world, always subject to its rules – though we sometimes forget that reality when we are resting in the collective insurance policy of close proximity to others. I go out to remind myself, to strengthen my connection to that larger reality, and to cultivate the intuitive faculties that are dulled by life in the hive.”
I’ve come to think of this ideal as traveling as the elk go. Elk are reasonable, dignified creatures whose habits match well with human capabilities. Bears and Moose are prone to impulsive, early and late season slogs over high and snowy passes. They pick good routes, but not easy ones. Deer avoid the high country. Following deer trails almost always lacks purpose. The abilities of sheep and goats (especially) strain or exceed those of the most trained humans. Wise people follow sheep and goats trails cautiously. Elk trails are simply the best; they take wise and purposive ways through major landscape features. You’ll learn faster and better following elk trails than those of any other animal.
This past Saturday, I packed a large load of whitewater gear ten miles back to fill another blank on the map for my packrafting guidebook. Projects can be a burden, but their structures gets you into places for which ease and prudence would never provide the impetus. On Saturday I first found myself carrying around beaver dams and log piles, then miles downstream gravel bar hopping and portaging the most continuous boulder garden rapids I’ve seen in Glacier. The steep, ~mile stretch I skipped had marvelous elk trails leading across the gravel bars and through the woods from one moderate ford to another. The elk travel the river corridor much as a timid boater (me) does; floating the moderate sections and skipping the woody and hard stuff. We found a similarly elegant and intricate route last August, weaving though some of the more rugged mid-elevation terrain in the park.
There is value to be gained from exceeding the mandate of the elk, namely that under duress your execution will default to a middling level in all things, and the only preemptive solution is to expand your upper threshold. The best way to move fast and safely down fourth class in a downpour is to be comfortable running it out on 5.9, and the best way to safely paddle harder stuff is to practice. To that end, I sucked it up and ran the burly last miles of the canyon, including one drop where I did exactly what I was worried about. The current slammed me into the wall, with the shale thankfully not cutting my boat. I reverted to slightly above my safe level of training and leaned into the wall, kept the water from flipping me, didn’t drop my paddle, and shoved off with one hand for an ugly if upright run.
Everything in moderation, including moderation, but when in doubt go as the elk go.
Utah today is home to five major national parks.
Zion is probably the most beautiful canyon on earth. It started life as we know it as Makuntuweep National Monument in 1909 (Taft carrying TRs legacy), and became a national park a decade later.
Bryce Canyon, which has birthed a thousand postcards, became a national monument in 1923, and a national park 5 years later.
Capitol Reef, with its amazing rivers a streams hidden in huge folds of stone, was created a national monument in 1937, mostly by local advocacy. The Great Depression and WWII delayed funding, and it didn’t look like a national anything for many years to come. In 1968 the monument was expanded significantly, right on the heels of the movement which created the Wilderness Act. In 1971 it became a national park.
The massive complex that is Canyonlands became a national park in 1964, largely due to the adovocacy of the then superintendent of Arches, Bates Wilson. Canyonlands grew substantially in 1971, adding the Maze District on the west side of the Green and Colorado Rivers, which is to this day the most remote national park land in the lower 48, with the possible exception of certain areas in North Cascades.
The iconic Arches, so much more human scale and thus intelligible, has been a national monument since 1929, and a park since 1971.
All this is ignoring the two neighboring and in most ways greater federal wildernesses of the Colorado Plateau: Escalante and Grand Canyon. The first bill to create Grand Canyon National Park was introduced in 1882. In 1903 TR said it “….was the one great sight every American should see.” TR (pioneering the use of the Antiquities Act for such purposes) created it a national monument in 1908, and it became a national park in 1919. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated by Clinton in 1996, via unilateral proclamation under the Antiquities Act. The circumstances were highly charged, and resulted in among other things Mr. Bill being burned in effigy on the grounds of the Escalante town school.
Map by National Geographic.
As can be seen above the Escalante River drains the heart of a swath of country carved by the Colorado River into a peerless landscape. The areas encompassed by and connecting Grand Canyon to Zion to Bryce to Escalante to Capitol Reef to Canyonlands to Arches is remarkable. The only thing more remarkable than the diversity is the unity which binds the place together.
Save mineral exploration it is not especially useful land, in the explicitly anthropocentric and exploitative ways in which that word is typically used. Logging and cattle have done a number on the region, but the ruggedness has made this impact far less than it has been anywhere else in the lower 48. The blank area on the above map, directly below and across the Fremont River from Factory Butte, is the Henry Mountains. It was the last range named in the lower 48. Before the 1930s, the area between I-15, I-70, the Arizona border, and the line running north to south between Moab and Blanding contained not a single paved road. While the Colorado Plateau is now, in human time, irrevocably impacted, little is lost compared to other places.
In the 1930s proposals came from several sources, including Bob Marshall, to protect far greater areas in southern Utah. The designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996 can be seen as the inevitable end of a 60+ year debate. Indeed, not less partisan a source than the Deseret News said as much. What is left is to include the San Rafael Swell, Robbers Roost, and San Juan/White and Dark Canyon areas in the complex. Worthy areas all no one would argue. The problem is rather with the arguments which have dominated federal land designation in Utah for the last half century, which is to say the debate which surrounds federal land designation in the west today.
For many reasons the administration of the National Park Service, and to a lesser but similar extent the Forest Service and BLM, is divorced from local sentiment. Part of this is the arcane career track federal employment demands. Part of this is inextricable from the virtue of federal administration: the ponderous pace of change which is insulated from the vicissitudes of the day. This is essential, as preservation is inimicable to the hurly burly back and forth which will always be central to democratic government. And part of it is that like so many agencies today, the BLM, FS, and especially the NPS lives its life under siege. This has gone on so long that the consequent mentality has become part of the culture, and prevent the organization from making necessary concessions.
The NPS needs to make changes to survive. This is one example. Colorado River National Park, which will encompass the aforementioned land connecting Grand Canyon to Zion to Arches, will be another.
CRNP will embrace a broader and more inclusive model. Certain areas, such as the Maze, Roost, Swell, and Escalante, will embrace wilderness and inaccessibility. Certain areas, such as the White Rim, Needles, and much of Zion, will be more educational and accessible wilderness. Certain areas will be opened to wider ATV travel, hunting, and even on a select basis firewood cutting for local residents. Some uses, such as grazing and extraction, are more efficiently done elsewhere and will be forbidden. Needless to say, Glen Canyon dam will be decommissioned. The acrimony between National Parks and those who live near them needs to stop, and while the idea for a park on the Colorado Plateau is old, its time is not yet past. The point of this, which would in many respects be little different than the current hodgepodge of agency management? Continuity. It would not occur overnight, but as this sort of preservation is forever long term steps for long term good should not be delayed, even if they’d create a lot of annoyance in the short term.
First, let us define our terms: solo mean alone, and safer means less likely to die.
Most discussions of safety in backcountry activities are based on a naively passive and fundamentally flawed understanding of how accidents happen. Show me 10, or 20, backcountry accidents and 9, or 19, times I’ll show you situations where bad or casual decisions got the whole mess started. Backcountry is by definition a bad place to get hurt, and while there are any number of hypothetical injuries which might only delay ones schedule, even something like a sprained ankle makes the likelihood of further problems greater.
Safety discussions must therefore focus almost exclusively on prevention. To stereotype, less experienced backcountry travelers spend their time researching and buying an 80 dollar pre-packaged first aid kit. More experienced travelers practice being outside so they’ll have the physical and mental abilities to not need first aid. A simple example would be tailoring macro and mezzo route choices to your abilities. A micro example would be not panicking and recovering when you loose your feet on a stream crossing, and knowing how to fall so that the inevitable slip doesn’t result in a stick impaled in your leg. The particulars of this difference are almost unquantifiable, so let us look at some examples.
Griz country: There are no statistics which I’ve seen that suggest hiking with two, or even three, people is safer than hiking solo. Hiking with four or more does seem to be statistically safer. My interpretation of this is that only with four people is the visual and aural footprint of the group so big that situational awareness can be discarded. Solo or with a partner the need to evaluate the situation before and while on the trail is the same; look for sign, determine if you’re in problematic terrain, and if you get too close to a bear act deliberately. Most people would be safer solo because they’d either be more aware in the moment, or not go into high-risk areas in the first place. Indeed, it would be easy to make a case that for most people hiking in Griz country in groups of two is less safe than being alone.
Climbing: Here we must make a distinction and restrict the discussion to true backcountry conditions, which is rather different than taking whippers on a well-cleaned crag a 2 mile hike from the road. 10 miles back, the last 2 miles of which were likely nasty talus, you should think about falling a lot differently. Even if the rock is bullet and your gear good, the consequences of breaking a hold while running out easy terrain are a lot bigger. In other words, your style should be a lot closer to that of a free soloist. This is even more the case when ice or alpine climbing. The rope team and the gear you place is more of a psychological aid than a physical one, as it serves mostly to let you climb comfortably and closer to your abilities on terrain you could theoretically solo 99 times in 100. In this respect a partner is safer. A partner is not safer insofar as being tied in might encourage you to treat the outing like a cragging session and pick a route too close to your limits.
Avalanche terrain: The more I learn about backcountry skiing safety the more I wonder if we think about it all wrong. On many occasions I’ve skied things while wearing a beacon and having partners nearby when I wouldn’t even have been in the same neighborhood without them. Given the many ways avalanches kill and main folks which beacons do nothing to prevent, I wonder how much validity this safety gear has, and if we should all be skiing things as if we were alone, with technology as a mere bonus. The most potent consideration here is of course the extent to which social factors influence decision making and put people in places they wouldn’t otherwise go. For full discussion see this. In my mind the jury is very much out of whether partners make most skiers safer most of the time.
Whitewater: Another ambiguous situation. In theory partners will help you scout things more efficiently, collect your gear if you swim, and haul you out of a strainer if you swim in a bad spot. The first can certainly be true, but is a convenience only, as is the second. You shouldn’t drop your paddle anyway, though eventually you will. The third case is desperate at best, and one no one should ever be in. As I’m to chicken to be much of a whitewater person, I’ll defer to Doug Ammons, the first person to run the Stikine solo: “The Stikine condenses the sport’s full range of experiences and challenges into a single day. It’s a gut-wrenching, threatening place — you have to have the mindset that you want to be in there alone. It’s is every bit the equivalent of soloing a major Himalayan peak.” Read the linked-to interview and decide for yourself.
Mountain biking: Does having someone to ride out and fetch a helicopter to evac you with your broker back make you safer? If it does that’s a kind of safety I can do without. Ride conservative when help is more than a cell phone call and 30 minute wait away. If you don’t having a friend to pull spinal traction will be little comfort.
In summary, there are many cases in the backcountry when being with a partner or group makes you safer. However, they are far fewer than most people think, and when other people do lend added safety it is often for reasons different than those usually considered. Most backcountry travelers have a disturbingly passive understanding of their own safety, and would benefit from a more rigorous consideration of short and long range safety factors.
I looked out from my perch… It is alive, I thought. I listened to myself breathe as I thought this. Not life in the way I would imagine. It is alive in the way that water is alive, filled with direction and intention. The wealth of shapes plagued my eyes, so much happening all at once, frozen in this moment so that I could walk across the surface of creation and destruction without them rising to strangle me.
-Craig Childs, Soul of Nowhere
It is time to train for the Bob Open, spring time, time to enjoy the world in the way I like most: hours from the road on my own feet. Skiing and the snow which require it are well and good, they bring us life, after all. But humans are meant to enjoy their fruits in kinder climes.
Often I wonder why I am where I am, following as I was yesterday a faint trail through snowy forest, postholing and sweating. I am often afraid in such situations. It would be easy to break an ankle falling through a snow trap created by willows or a log, despite my attempts to read the tea leaves on the snow surface I did that many times this weekend. Beyond that, fear of my immediate and petty injury or death, I worry about the continuance of my personhood. Fortunately, I have things to come back for.
The words I’d written seemed vain and fleeting now that they were in black ink. Perhaps this was what people who once lived here understood: there can be nothing but desire, otherwise a person might sit in this black infinity and never move again…Fire could free the words in my notebook just like this knife could free me. If I were to cut my tongue, I thought, sever it completely, then I would silence the weaknesses of my voice. Without my tongue I would never speak, never try to reduce this landscape to something conceivable. I would close off this avenue of escape from the desert, becoming even more a creature of the land.
Friday afternoon was beautiful, with record high temperatures. The Middle Fork was running clear, and just too high to wade. I made a lazy crossing in the Alpacka Scout and enjoyed dry trail through the burn.
Spring had come alive with flooded trails and elk, deer, bear, and wolf tracks. The next day I labored over two passes, postholing, loosing and finding the trail, climbing down and up 10 foot snow banks to cross streams, and eventually descending back to a southerly enough and snow free hillside, with old growth leading down to the creek. It’s been on my list as having good rafting potential, and even with only the Scout the flow looked just enough. You give up plenty in a little packraft with no deck, especially if you’re almost six feet and have to prop your feet up on the tubes on either side of your pack, which is a good angle for waves to firehose down your rain pants. Getting in and out requires different tactics, but in the willow sieved and deadfall ridden first third of the creek I got lots of practice. It seemed that a moose had descended that stretch a day before me, and whenever I was hauling boat, pack, and paddle through the drifts in the wake of moose tracks I knew I was on the right path.
Eventually, the log dodging around every corner came to an end when the meandering creek cut into gravel. A few rapids as a canyon rose around me had me nice and soaked when a toothy drop and rising shivers told me it was time to roll up my gear and hike the rim. Around the corner the deepening canyon poured over a series of drops I’ll never run, whatever the boat. A good elk trail on the rim, exposed to the sun and so dry and well traveled, took me down to the river.
The wilderness does not merely threaten us, however plausibly, with death. It threatens to make us look at how undifferentiated from the rest of everything we are. Individuality, which allows us to understand, anything, is a fragile veneer all too vulnerable to weathering.
Just as Childs put down his knife, kept walking, found water, and completed his journey to meet his wife, so to do my thoughts go when floating around an unknown bend. My life exists for others, and those are the ones I come back for.
I’m not going to say I told you so. I’m not going to say much of anything, other than that anyone who does serious backcountry travel, no matter the season, should read this incident report and the commentary and discussion here. Avalanches may or may not be the most problematic backcountry “objective” hazard, but this latest incident highlights rather starkly the simple fact that danger does not exist without humans. We create it by being there, and how and when we are where we are in the backcountry makes all the difference.
This lead to two posts: the one I already wrote about the flawed way avalanche safety has been conceptualized in the last decade, and one I’ll write next week about how solo is almost always safer.
The internet drives gear geekery, this much we know. I recall, back in my elementary school gear geek days, the excitement when the quarterly (and no more!) Patagonia and TNF catalogues arrived. Online “research” has sped up information dissemination, and decreased our attention spans. That this has led to gear fetishization taking the place of trip planning more than ever before is I think axiomatic. The more interesting question is just how this takes places, daily.
Bibler Eldorado eyebrown vent, as the seam seal dries in our garage. This is a damn expensive tent, even discounted.
The internet drives acquisitionalism not just because it brings all the cool new stuff so easily into view, but because the internet fosters community, and within that community one can bear witness to the acquisitions of others. The summary and quite unconscious effect of this is to drive the consumer mindset further. First by simple exposure to various stuff, some of which is bound to appeal, and second by inculcating an illusion that the mean pace of gear acquisition is significantly highly than your own. The ago-old competition to have the best lawn mower, atlatl, etc is like all things digital made more egregious.
The illusions created by the distance and depersonalization of the ‘net can be here rather dangerous. There is often no way to know if that well-versed person who flips cuben fiber, carbon bikes, or uber light mountain rifles every few months is a single anaesthesiologist making 600k a year, or merely an average joe with a disregard for credit card debt (something far more prevalent than most think, in my opinion). It’s worth noting that women make up seemingly 3% of the online gear chatter, for reasons I will not speculate on today.
There is another, perhaps more pernicious form of this, which I’ll call the lure of the insider. It further feeds and distorts the normalization of buying ever more stuff, and lay folks can fall victim if they don’t mind the gap. The gap being the discrepancy between the purchasing power of those with access to industry discounts and those who do not. I say access because the various permutation of bro deals and good guy discounts can never be fully accounted for. In either case, the potential savings on big ticket items can be substantial.
In my case, I occasionally get free stuff, be it a project for BPL or because the perceived influence I wield here on this blog. This last doesn’t happen very often, hopefully in part because I make it a point to be hard to contact. Pro-deals are a more substantial influence on my purchases, both their nature and their frequency. By choice I make an exceedingly modest income, and much of the gear I’ve acquired lately would simply never have been attainable at full retail.
The first effect of this is to make me appear more affluent than I am, which given the effect size I don’t consider a big risk. The second effect, and the more interesting, is the influence discounts have on my purchasing habits. I don’t buy crap, or even anything in which I’m not interested, just because it is on sale, but if my third choice ski or jacket is 100 bucks less that will be a powerful argument. The sticking point in all this is that part of every pro-deal agreement I’ve seen is a non-disclosure clause. One prominent company, whose pro-deal is both very generous and notoriously hard to get, takes their inspiration from Fight Club: “the first rule of pro-deal is you don’t talk about pro-deal.” While part of this is no doubt to keep them from being inundated by applications from wankers, it also distorts the market and the culture around it in a way which supports commercial excess and can only benefit gear makers.
So be a critical consumer of gear talk, in any setting. There is no such thing as objectivity, but that does not mean that all forms of subjectivity are merely subjective or created equal. For my own part I’ll be more open about the purchasing details in future gear posts, though for selfish reasons not as purely transparent as I might like. I don’t want to be kicked of the free ride, and I am not afraid to admit as much.
There are benefits to all this, both generally and in my case. My own ability to think critically about gear is undeniably enhanced by being able to use more gear, and by being able to acquire it more easily. Uniting the focus provided by unity of perspective with a broad first hand view of the market is valuable and difficult to achieve, and anything which makes that more probable is helpful. I also find it useful to be less attached to a purchase. If the monetary investment is substantial and there is no easy way to recoup some of that cost it is harder to admit to yourself that something is crap. Having a lower upfront cost makes this less likely, as does the speculative value inherent in pro-deals. Buy something at discount, use it for a few months, sell it at 50% of MSRP. This usually ends up being a good deal for the buyer and a modest loss over the purchase price for the seller, and allows my gear fund to chug along with minimal reinvestment needed.
All of which is a great preamble for my new role as a Gossamer Gear trail ambassador. I’m excited, not just because I get a free pack and discounts on other stuff, but because it appears that I’ll be able to have some influence in the product development process. Gossamer Gear has raised their game in recent years, and appears to have one of the most robust business model of the UL backpacking companies. They also do things differently than I do, which seemed important. There wouldn’t be much point in my feedback going to a company like HMG with whom I already agree on many things. My hope is that in a few years Gossamer Gear can take their products in some new directions, and that I can help them do it. Look for thoughts and numbers of the Gorilla pack whenever it arrives.