Essential Skills: Garment zipper replacement

Replacing a zipper, generally in a full zip jacket, is one of the most common and thus, most essential serious gear repairs you’ll do.  Serious in this case being roughly defined as requiring more than tape or glue to manage.  The zipper on my 4 year old Haglofs Pile hoody recently died, providing a good tutorial on how to effect this repair.

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The first step in any repair is preventative maintenance.  With jacket zippers, the first step here is to buy garments made from good materials.  #5 YKK zips are a good place to start (# refers to size, bigger meaning larger, and the number can generally be found on the back of the slider, bottom stop, or both).  #3 zippers are in full zip jackets a invitation to a short product life.  Zippers fail when the materials wear, so keeping the teeth clean and not yanking too much both go a decent way towards maximizing function.  When separation begins to occur (see above), often a worn slider is at fault.  The metal of the slider wears ever so slightly, enough that it doesn’t fully engage the teeth when pulled up.  Engage the zipper, and bend the two halves together with pliers (this page has good photos).

With my jacket, this did not get the job done.   Wear to the plastic teeth, combined with fraying on the bottom stop, prevented things from seating properly, making total replacement the only option.  As I outline below, this isn’t too difficult or time consuming, but it is also not the most basic repair.  Companies with good warranties and repair policies (e.g Patagonia) will replace zippers, often for free.  Companies with mediocre policies (e.g. OR) will usually send you a new jacket).  Companies with less good policies (e.g. Arc’teryx) will often give you the run around before replacing the garment.  For me repair is both better style and better for the environment.  Knowing I wanted to put a beefier zipper into this specific jacket (packed size and weight not being a concern), I ordered up a #8 YKK coil zip as a replacement, and got out the knife.

Haglofs did a good job making the zipper both well sewn in an fairly easy to remove.  The strip of grosgrain is the key here: remove the little bartack on either end, cut out a few inches of stitching on one end, and at this point the thread is thin enough you can just rip the rest of the stitch line in a good yank.  The zipper itself is sewn directly to the fleece with another line of stitching, similarly slowly cut out a few inches with a knife or seam ripper, then give it a rip.

The only tricky part of sewing the new zipper on is the tendency of fleece to stretch, especially if your machine doesn’t have a walking foot.  Pins aren’t a bad idea to prevent this, or use stitch lines in the garment as reference marks, sewing 3-5 inches at a time and making sure the fabric doesn’t stretch.  If you let the fleece stretch, the zipper will get longer than it should, and the fit will be weird.  Once you’ve stitched the zipper in on either side via a plain seam, and in this case reused the zipper flap, again via a plain seam, flip the garment back right side out (top photo) and top stitch through the folded seam to lock everything in place.

Simple, easy, and now you can fix your own stuff.  Once practiced this is a ~20 minute job.

The B&P mentoring program

Donald Trump has shown, more starkly than almost anything else one could imagine, how deeply structural racial bias and discrimination has been and is, and how it remains in many or even most cases the pivot point for social power in the United States. After the past four years we know more about this, which is to say more about ourselves, than we would under any other circumstances.  Structural bias will in many cases erode away in the face of history, but very slowly, and with the potential for retrograde progress.  It is our responsibility to bend the curve of history, to help social justice along, in consistency and speed.

I’ve been guilty, for a long time, of thinking about wilderness ahistorically, as something which is a precondition for social justice.  I still think this is true, but all too often my assumptions have jumped from wilderness and wild pursuits being physically democratic, insofar as accessibility is concerned, to that accessibility being literally effective.  I grew up spending time outside with my family, going hiking and boating from a very early age.  It wasn’t until I started rock climbing at 12 that I felt ownership over my own learning in the outdoors, and that experience, supported by my family background (read; privilege) allowed me to move on and teach myself canyoneering, mountain biking, hunting, skiing, packrafting, and so forth.  Making the venue and information of and for a given wilderness pursuit accessible is one thing.  Making the self-certainty necessary to teach oneself out there in the wild is another.

That matter is something I would like to help address.

So I’m looking for mentees in 2021, for a small handful of people with aspirations for the backcountry whose background and situation will make achieving those goals more complicated than would be the case for someone like me.  I’m not placing definitive restrictions on the race, orientation, class, or ethnicity who I hope to work with here, but white men are not it.  Yes there has been a lot of attention given to minorities in the outdoors and to social justice within the industry, and a lot of that verbiage has been monolithic and cliched, but the broader point about social justice, that we are neither the agent or architects of the more profound influences on our lives, stands intact.  My hope and intention is to use my experience, something both created and expedited by the circumstances of my birth, to provide an analogous bit of assistance for folks whose place in history would not do the same.

What will this look like?  I don’t know, but am eager to go on a journey with a few folks and find out.  I envision folks having significant and extensive access to my time, over the phone or via Zoom, regarding their hopes, goals, and the personal and skill development they’ll need to get there.  If someone wants to climb the Grand Teton, for example, or packraft the Middle Fork of the Flathead, it is easy to write up a list of hard skills they’ll need to master.  It is less simple to even define the mental aspects and less tangible skills that will be equally essential.  Things like dealing with loneliness and fear; managing layers and bedding during a 48 hour rainstorm; finding a layering system that works to your tastes and physiology.  I envision my roll as having more to do with helping people figure out the most important questions, rather than the more basic process of defining answers.  Perhaps, schedules and COVID concerns allowing, some combination of us might be able to go on a trip, or a few.  If you are based in the vicinity of Helena, Montana, that convenience would allow for more instructional options.

So, if you fit the above criteria and have some adventure goals you think might dovetail well with my knowledge base, send an email to dave at bedrockandparadox dawt com, with Mentorship Application in the subject line, and tell me what your hopes are and how you think I would be effective in assisting you.  This last part is important.  Any reader who has been around a while should be quite familiar with my style, and I think I can assure everyone that my writing does a decent job of representing who I am as a person.  Like any teaching relationship, the person to person dynamic is as important as any more direct factor, and neither of us should waste each others time if it doesn’t seem like we would be a good fit.  That said, in applying I ask for no commitment save to me reading and you writing your words, each with care.

I have no basis for evaluating the interest, but I don’t envision the application period being open for long.  I will update in this post, and notify everyone via email.

Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody

I’ve written an enormous amount about windshirts over the past decade, their importance in a layering system, and the associated subtleties.   To recap; outdoor clothing in general and wind layers in particular have over the past decade explored the range of breathability and overall weather protection in a comprehensive fashion.  Specific to windshirts, the frontier over the past few years has been in making a breathable fabric which is both acceptably light and acceptably tough, and most significantly does not suck up and retain too much moisture.  This last has been the primary liability of the otherwise category defining Alpine Start since in was introduced in 2014.

My 5 year old Alpine Start was getting long in the tooth, with the stock DWR all but gone and a few rips and holes.  I wanted to try something different, perhaps from a company with less evil/capitalist overtones.  The STP (Stretch Terre Planing) hoody is made from 90 grams/meter polyester, with a 4 way mechanical stretch.  Compared to the Alpine Start, which has an 80 grams/meter 93/7 nylon/spandex fabric.  7% spandex is a lot, and all things being equal, poly should absorb much less water than nylon, while potentially (all thing being equal, which they never are) being less abrasion resistant.  Dry time and moisture retention was my priority in a windshirt, so the STP fabric had my attention.

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Virtues of the fabric put aside for a moment (and it is a really good fabric), the STP hoody has a bunch of virtues that well suit backcountry activities, and a few major caveats.  The first and by far most significant downside is the torso volume, which as discussed here is positively huge for the size.  I don’t think I could live with the STP without modifying this, making it a big caveat for folks who can’t or don’t care to cut up their new 125 dollar shell.  The other caveat is the pockets, which sit right under a hipbelt.  They are nice pockets, with the interior side being mesh and the zippers well anchored and smooth running.  They are useful any time one is not wearing a pack, and I both don’t find them a problem under a hipbelt (so long as they’re empty) and don’t mind not having pockets on a windshell when I’m using a big pack.  Around town, skiing, day hiking, or biking the pockets are useful and useable, so there is the argument for that, and it is a good one.

Otherwise the fit and detailing are excellent.  The torso and arm length are both above average.  The minimal cuff detailing, with just a little bit of elastic sewn in, leans in to the strength of the fabric being fast drying.  The little cord thumb loops, unlike so many shirts, are actually big enough to fit over a (gloved!) thumb, and due to this and sleeve length are both useful and easy to ignore when you want to.  The hood is big (not helmet big), and while it lacks a rear draw cord the patterning and soft fabric work to keep it out of your eyes, and the drawcords are external and easy to cinch.  The cords are non-stretch ribbon, and the cord locks anchored bits of neoprene.  They are not easy to loosen, requiring two hands, but the whole interface is secure, and very low profile.  A similar system on a hardshell might go a long way towards solving the dreaded blizzard induced cord end to the face.

Anecdotally the STP fabric has been very fast drying.  On colder but not frigid, humid days I get a bit of bogginess in the Alpine Start which has never been ideal.  My first attempt at quantifying this difference did not endorse my intuitive conclusion, so I’ll be using the STP as a platform for further investigations there.  My assumption is that I’ll use it a ton this spring and summer, and report back.

The counter argument is that pricey, esoteric windshirts like this are chasing minute performance gains which may or may not exist, and that something like the standby, nylon windshirt is the more versatile option and better investment.  And it is hard to argue against that.  No question, something like the Windveil (or Patagonia Houdini) get too sweaty for a lot of activities, particularly winter activities, when the balance between enough protection to not get chilled but not too much is very fine indeed.  On the other hand, when the Windveil gets wet it doesn’t suck up too much water, dries fast, and still blocks the wind.  My sense is still that a more breathable option better fits into the performance sweet spot, but there is also no arguing that most if not all of my windshirt acquisitions over the last half decade have been about geekery, rather than strictly about function.  My aspiration this spring is to make that idea more objective.

Windshirt dry times mini-study

A crucial attribute of windshirts, particularly for backcountry (which is to say, multiday) use is moisture retention and drying speed.  If the most common, indeed only criticism of windshirts as a concept is that they can be viewed as redundant relative to a waterproof hardshell, the rejoinder to that criticism is that unlike a hardshell, a windshirt can be left on almost all the time.  A good windshirt will have an ideal blend of breathability and weatherproofing for the given user and use case.  Drying quickly nicely accompanies breathability where garment utility is concerned, and minimal moisture retention reduced the penalty of using the windshirt as an extra layer when true waterproof protection is required.

My benchmark for a number of years has been a static soak and dry test.  In this case, I took four windshirts I regularly use, immersed them in a sink of water, vigorously kneeded them to ensure total saturation, then allowed them to sit drapped over a metal rack in a 62 degree (F) house for 3 hours.  Weight, dry, soaked, and at one hour intervals post soaking, was taken to the nearest 10th of an ounce.   The test subjects were: a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody, new three months ago, with significant potions of fabric removed from each side to bring in the torso diameter; a 2014 Black Diamond Alpine Start hoody, heavily used; a 2016 Rab Windveil, extensively used but with a good DWR still active; and a 2018 Patagonia Airshed pullover cut down to a vest, and with the chest pocket removed.

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Dry time and moisture retention are, as will be discussed shortly, closely related but not the same thing.  Similarly, this test is not reflective of common field conditions, and ignores the more realistic metric of dry time while under the influence of body heat (i.e. while worn).  Years ago I ran the same test with both static and dynamic (worn) dry times, and found that while wearing the windshirt significantly accelerated dry times it did so at rates which hewed closely to those observed under static conditions.  Variations in the heat an individual can put out in a given situation, be that due to variances in metabolism, weather, or circumstances (i.e. how tired and depleted they might be) are going to be more relevant here than anything else.  A static test, such as this one, is more comfortable, less time consuming, and in my experience provides just as much actionable data.

On the face of it each of the four windshirts behaved similarly, soaking up a significant amount of water weight before taking 3 hours to become almost totally dry.  There are a few significant aberrations, the first one being that the Airshed gains significantly more than the other three when taken as a percentage of dry weight.  The Airshed gained 140% (2 oz up to 4.8), while the rest were in the 75-80% range.  This is surprising, and the difference cannot be entirely blamed on the double layer of stretch fabric at the back hem, which as the dry test went on stayed drastically wetter longer than the main Airshed fabric.  Indeed, the .4 oz from dry  at the 2 hour mark was by feel due entirely due to this strip of fabric.  So I need to replace this bit soon, and maybe that extra ~60% of gain was due to this little detail.

The other noteworthy variation is how much slower the STP hoody dried at hour 2, relative to the Alpine Start.  Judging by feel, this was due to the more elaborate detailing, namely the two lower hand pockets and associated layers of fabric, zipper, flaps, and so forth.  My biggest take away, or reminder, from this little project was that under those rare field conditions when things are getting soaked and resoaked, details like cuffs, hem complexity, and the number of pockets and flaps add up to make a big difference in dry time, and thus, warmth and overall functionality.  The project also taught me that advancements or changes in fabrics may have not amounted to substantive improvements in this area.  The Airshed fabric, on its own, may perhaps dry faster than similarly light fabrics, but I do not have the data to say so.  And while intuitively the STP fabric seems to retain less moisture in use than the Alpine Start, I need more information before I can say that is anything other than confirmation bias.

Seems like I need to do more laps around the block with drenched clothing.

The death of Purple

I’ve cracked three nalgene bottles in the past two decades.  The first was a classic 1 liter in milky plastic, before lexan invaded REI and college lecture halls.  It was ancient and wrapped in duct tape, and split radially when I dropped it in the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which was sad.  I think I was relegated to old juice jugs for the rest of that summers rock bumming.  The second was a few years later, Elephant Butte in Arches, at the flat sandstone base of the exit rap.  I got lazy, it might have been the third lap that day and the 40th that year, and let a single kink in the opposite strand rise 30 feet in the air.  I spent 10 minutes trying to huck a partially full 48oz silo through that loop, tied to the other end, before it shattered into pieces striking the rock.  The third was just the other week, when I gave Purple a stout whack on a tree, to split loose the ice which had layered inside after a 10 degree evening.  Purple cracked, and functionally, was no more.

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We found Purple on this trip seven years ago, in the midst of the talus along the west side of Norris Mountain.  Purple has been around a lot, on my first successful elk hunt, most memorably.  And this is why I’ve always like nalgene bottles.  They aren’t invincible, but they’re close enough, in the face of accidents and hot water and intentional abuse, that over the years deep memories accumulate.  Purple has the sticker from our Double Duck, and the one from that place with best coffee porter, and the stack Jamie sent me after I proofed their gorgeous map.  I don’t quite have any ideas what I’ll do with it, but I’m certainly not ready to just put it in the trash.

Without Purple, we have perhaps nine or ten nalgenes in the house.  Some are hiding in dark corners.  A few sit in the mud room and are used daily.  I believe, years ago, I bought one of them.  Another was a gift.  Several more were freebz at trade shows.  The rest, a solid majority, were found in the wild, taken home, cleaned, sterilized, restickered as needed over time, and adopted.  And for the pleasure of keeping fewer gatorade or smartwater bottles out of the wild, I’ll gladly keep hauling the ounces.

My favorite shoes

This fall I’ve been wearing little other than the Astral TR1 Merge, and for the sort of walking I like to do these days, they are far and away the best pair of shoes I’ve ever had.

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While they don’t have a tremendous number of miles on them, almost all of those miles have been off trail.  They went elk hunting in the Montana prairie badlands, did an alpine traverse on broken granite, went hiking, biking, and climbing in the Colorado Plateau, and have spent more time bushwacking and traversing limestones ridges close to home.  All of those are more abusive on shoes than average, in their own way, and the shoes are holding up perfectly thus far.

Traction across mediums has been excellent.  The lugs grip loose soil, either straight on or sidehill, while having enough surface area for good friction on bare rock.  The rubber is soft enough, without wearing too fast.  The midsole is thick and protective enough, without any hinge points, and without feeling unnatural or slow.  They’re supportive enough, for me, for technical mountain biking using flat pedals, but I can tolerate far softer shoes in all areas than most.  Significantly, the modest padding and added material in the heel and toebox have improved both hold and protection; I’ve not experienced any of the unpleasant talus bites I got often in the Brewers.  The only real flaw is the open mesh used in the toungue, which extends down into the toebox just enough to become a magnet for cheatgrass seeds and a conduit for sand.

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For me, they’ve been supportive enough to carry a 70 pound pack on a few occasions (deer pack out, as well as a family backpack load with a toddler on top).  For me and my feet, support means  enough padding and structure to insulate my feet from the terrain, even when I’m suddenly 50% again my own weight, while being pliable enough to not cause hot spots.  Zero drop is a big part of the later, as is the lack of illusory things like ankle support.  The Merges work for me because they’re a coherent package, the level of support, degree of structure, even the sole and rubber all working to serve one particular style of walking.

That style is a light footed one, based on balancing over terrain and using weaknesses and variations for purchase.  Smearing across the loose wet sidehill, rather the kicking steps.  Working the stable pieces of a talus slope, rather than digging through and into the loosest parts to make steps.  This style is as much about strength and ability as it is about the type and style of trip.  People who regularly take big packs into rough terrain are more often drawn to stiff boots due to pace, and indeed due to their line through a place.  This isn’t to say that fast line, fluid pace shoes are not compatible with a big pack, simply that melding such shoes with a heavy pack requires more than simple strength.  It requires a skillset, and that combination is due to how learning conventionally evolves has historically been uncommon.

That is changing, and as fluid line choice under expedition conditions works further toward the norm, I hope shoes like the Merge remain around as options.

Astral again

Last summer I bought what ended up being one of my favorites shoes ever; the Astral Brewer.  All of the limitations, and virtues, I noted in my review last summer have held true.  The lack of a little extra structure in the sides of the forefoot has gotten me pinched on numerous occasions.  The lack of a heal counter hasn’t been an issue while walking, but has threatened to pull the shoe off a few times in both mud and thick brush.  The rubber is very good, but the tread can be sketchy in mud and downright scary on loose over hardpack.  And while the upper fabric has manged over the past year, it doesn’t have much life left.

And I don’t really care, because the combo of zero drop, the right stiffness, and plenty of toe room is simply sublime, and simply not available in many other shoes.

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So I invested in the TR1 Merge, Astral’s midtop hiking shoe.  The tread pattern is more aggressive, the midsole 5mm thicker, the toe and heel have a rand, and the upper has a bit of padding in the ankle and tongue.  Weight, for my size 12, is 14.1 oz per shoe.

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The Merge does not have a heel counter, but on first glance the rand and doubled fabric provides a nice degree of stability the Brewer lacks.  It will be interesting to see if this breaks down at all.  I’m quite excited about the lightly padded ankle coverage, in a nonwaterproof package that doesn’t pretend to roll abrasion protection into the ephemeral notion of “support”.  I’m bummed by the thin stripes of pure foam in the sole, as the non-rubber areas of the Brewer have made for a few pokey experiences with cactus.

Overall, I could hardly be more excited.  Shoes over the past 5 years have only seem to come with more and more compromises for backpackers who like stout, minimalist shoes.  Exceptions are a big deal.

 

Evolution of the Tamarisk: Shoulder Straps

First: what the hell is happening with those packs, maan?

A lot.  Unfortunately, almost none of that is helping to get you a pack faster.  While the pandemic hasn’t impacted our family as directly or egregiously as it could, or still might, it has made the world more complicated.  I’ve been and remain on a slightly reduced salary, and our decision in early April for M to go back to work has been wise, in that any financial concerns have been well preempted.  What that has meant day to day is that we juggle our schedules, and that my time has been full enough that choices must be made: kid time, spouse time, meals, work, fun and exercise, yes.  Much else (e.g. cleaning, and sewing), no.

And I am ok with that.

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Hopefully one of the things we, as a society, get out of the pandemic is an easier time admitting that doing it all, especially as parents, is neither possible nor desirable.

One of the benefits of such mandatory emphatic choices, and of the necessity of managing creeping universal anxiety, has been lots of time in the woods, both on my own and with the little people.  The prototype Tamarisk has been used almost daily, even if that is only to transport rafting gear 200 yards from car to lake, or on a pint sized bikerafting trip (top photo, 5 miles on gravel, 10 miles of twisty and fast class I+).  I am more confident than ever in the design and size, and embracing the extended and indefinite timeline to tweak a few things (the belt could be a bit better, improved attachment points for a PFD).

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After 6 months of use I remain exceedingly pleased with the shoulder straps, which in packland present a problem whose answer is difficult to properly balance.  Too much padding is certainly a thing, as is too little, too stiff, and too supple.  My old Dana always chafed a little, and never really broke in enough (even after 200+ days) to conform to clavicle and armpit.  The 2012 Gorilla did almost everything right, with the thin foam being a little too stiff, and certainly far too ready to pack out.  The HPG shoulder harness was a study in how far one could get in patterning and conformity, but the Cordura facing against the user chafed and held sweat, and the thin and relatively supple foam let the webbing strap dig in once the load was big enough to stretch the Cordura.

With these three examples as limit posts, I set out a couple years ago to find something well in between them.  Most combinations of foam and materials have worked decently enough, and there is a case to be made for shoulder straps being an ancillary detail to things like the hipbelt and frame, so long as they are good enough.  But the whole point of the Tamarisk is to not just be good enough, and it is easy to recall trips like this one where anything with the least potential for discomfort will sing out to that effect, and loudly.

My current layup for the Tamarisk shoulder straps is a 5mm layer of fairly stiff EVA foam, 5mm 3D mesh turned inside out, and 500D Cordura, with a length of 3/4″ webbing bartacked every 3 inches the whole length.  The result is quite pliable, due to being well under 1/2 an inch thick, yet rigid, due to the EVA.  The thick 3D mesh makes things feel cushy, and wicks sweat (see above), both of which fight chafing during hot 12+ hour days.  Keeping the mesh inside out eliminates the traditional bane of that material, namely the extent to which it traps pine needles and debris, which build up over time no matter the cleaning efforts, eventually becoming abrasive to both clothing and skin.  The greatest cause for celebration is that testing the inverted mesh over the past two years, and this particular foam since January, has revealed no concerns with longevity whatsoever.  img_0010

The packs will come, eventually, but in this age of uncertainty I’m not making any specific promises.

Basal outdoor skills

A few days ago I was exploring some of the exceptional, hidden limestone cliffs we have locally, and following some mountain goat tracks up a scree slope led to option soloing up broken gullies and sticky slabs.  While liebacking off crisp solution pockets and smearing floppy shoes up sharp corrugations my mind went backwards.  To Paul Preuss, Norman Clyde, Herb and Jan Conn.  To ropes that might have broken, slippy ovals without a nose, and pre-War tennis shoes.  To pushing on and up towards that intriguing ridge, guided by experience, an eye for a line, and the necessity of being able to downclimb should those first two come up short.

There is an easy distinction between hard and soft skills in the outdoors.  Hard skills are doing things: tying knots, pitching shelters, taking a bearing.  Soft skills most commonly have to do with group dynamics and communication, but can also pertain to decision making.  Taking a bearing has limited utility if one’s group cannot agree on the best route across a valley, as does a well pitched shelter in a poorly chosen location.  This is all very well, but from an educational perspective I’ve long thought that a third class of skills underpin both the technical and heuristic, giving them both context and coherence.

It turned out that my line did not go.  The progression of ledge and slab ended around the corner in a monolithic line of pockets and implied edges.  I’ll return, some day, with the full sack of modernity, most prominently either a traverse in to a toprope anchor, or bolts.  Or maybe doubles of microcams and pink tricams, triples of small wires, helmet, and healthy fear.  Messner’s murder of the impossible has long since come to pass, with technology and the mindset of 30 years ago requiring a significant leap of imagination to consider the virtues of rock climbing as a pursuit where turnkey safety is not always an option.  The ubiquity and quality of gear has made safety an objective attribute, not entirely on or off, but often quite close to black and white.  As I turned to find a way down it did occur that a rope would have been expedient.  But in the manner of Preuss, for whom even rappelling was cheating, I poked over a series of ledges, downclimbed a tree, scratched across a hanging dirt slope, and jammed down a clean, overhanging corner to the scree slopes, creek bottom, and then the road.  For that hour in the vertical safety was under my feet, and between by eyes and the surface.  Can that smear hold my weight?  Will that flake come loose?  Can I reserve the next 5 moves, if the five after prove too much?

It is easy to view the safety brought on my kinaesthetic awareness, training, and judgment as part of the mechanical skills of climbing, outgrowth of hard skills and sibling to tying a clove hitch or placing a Stopper in an offset crack.  In this account the physical side of not falling is heads to the tails of a sound rope and protection network.  With climbing as the ultimate control sport, an activity in which the brakes are by default stomped to the floor, it is an easy assumption to make.  Whitewater boating is in many ways the opposite of climbing, where flow and the speed and rhythm imposed from without are the default.  Safety in whitewater has to do with instinct and preemption coming together and thus knowing when to stop, and when to let go.  Scouting, setting safety, and portaging can make running a rapid as painstaking and calculated as a 5 hour trad lead, and in either case the structural elements are a best set on a shaky foundation if judgement, self-knowledge, and process, what I think of as the basal outdoor skills, are not solid.

The other week, on Big Creek, we portaged a solid stretch of the crux, a decision which revolved around two burly ledge holes set 20 yards apart.  I had little faith, maybe 10%, in my ability to hit either and not flip.  I had a bit more belief in my ability to hit the precise lines through each feature, and make a big ferry between them.  There were big features both above and below, making the run in complex and the consequences of a swim significant.  I knew my skills, knew I was tired, and knew that I had doubt.  Hard skills were the past decade of paddling, reading water, practicing rescue techniques.  Soft skills were Will and I being honest with each other about our risk assessment.  The basal skills were even more invisible; me calling what part of my fear had to do with performance anxiety, and what part had to do with accumulated fatigue and the doubt over when my clouded mind would enable me to pick good lines in a timely manner.  On my scrambling excursion, hard skills were the past 27 (!) years of off and on rock climbing, especially having previously done moves of a vastly greater physical difficulty.  Soft skills were route finding, looking at the cliff and reading which ledges linked weaknesses, and which ran out in blank slabs.  The basal skills were internal; what percentage of past and current skill was available to me in each moment, how much of my desire to find the ridgetop was tempered by a realistic assessment of reversability?

Writ large, basal outdoor skills have to do with self awareness, and in adjusting goals and decision making day to day and hour to hour to keep them in tune with capacity.  This is how risk is managed on the ground and in the moment, be it the choice to run a rapid, ski a slope, or push forward with an extra 8 miles of postholing at the end of long day.  In a mundane but more pervasive and significant way, basal outdoor skills maintain the integrity of your backcountry functioning by saving mistakes.  Loosing gear, either by letting it fall out of a pocket or by leaving it behind at stops, is shockingly common, and in the case of something like a water bottle, knife, or a good chunk of your remaining food can be significantly debilitating.  Proper nutrition and hydration is both a hard and a soft skill, but the consistent and correct application is just as significant as what you packed, and a basal skill to the core in that constant adjustment to the demands of the moment is success itself.

So too with packing, unpacking, and transitions generally.  Efficiency here can save significant time in the moment, and far more time later in the ripple effect of being able to find gear easily, not forgetting anything, and having the correct items at hand for the tasks of the day.  Each transition during the Salmon River I was somewhere between 30 to 50% faster than Will and Robert.  Part of this was hard skill, experience, having done boat to hike and boat to camp transitions many times more than either of them (Robert, in fairness, was on his first multiday trip out of his kayak).  But I think the majority was basal skill, in that I’ve cultivated and practiced highly purposive transitions for a long time.  It is one thing to quickly and skillfully pack a pack with the same gear you’ve taken on similar trips for years.  It is another to adapt principal to a new range of items and have a coherent enough rig from day one.  In the case of the Salmon trip, I had never put so much inside my packraft on a previous trip, but on the first day I had the right stuff out of the boat for the day of paddling, and had the stuff inside secured and balanced enough that portages and self-rescuing after a swim both went without abnormal difficulty.

I don’t think many adventurers get far into backcountry pursuits without becoming acquainted with the importance of self-management and execution.  I do think many people, even those with considerable experience, consistently mistake both the inherent subjectivity of these skills and more importantly, the exacting moment-to-moment control that dependence on internal processes can provide.  It’s an amorphous thing to grasp, and not something concretely taught, but recognition of basal skills as an independent class which control the application of hard and soft skills will provide more consistent backcountry performance, and thus, safety.

Distance learning

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the new, or newly rediscovered, hikers and bikers and outdoorspeople the pandemic has brought out of rooms amongst the trees.  It is logical, and I see it as an extension of the last decades trend of increased outdoor participation in profile, if not as a percentage of the US population in fact.  The OIA 2019 report is padded, as it has been for at least a decade, with activities such as jogging and rv camping which take place outdoors but are not generally associated with the wild.  This last is important because some of the recent discussion concerning outdoor newbies has been about mentoring, and learning.

Part of me wants to welcome them all.  The other part of me wants to scream how members of the tribe can possibly, when we have yet to pass beyond the immediacy of how over-socialized our world is, get things so wrong.  Especially in the age of the internet, when instructions on every mechanics is easy to find.

I spent my whole childhood in southwestern Ohio.  Whenever I’ve returned, especially in the past decade, the logic of the landscape is jarring.  I learned to climb in a gym, learned to hike on vacations and in the strings of woods which clung to creeks around town, and when things got technical I turned to books.  Basic knots from the BSA hankbook, tracks and plants from all of Tom Brown, klemheist and biner block from Freedom of the Hills.  We never got enough snow to self arrest, but by high school had one BD X-15, a drill bit glued to the hole in a claw hammer, and ancient Salewa 12 points in hiking boots and “discovered” the 25 foot vertical ice pillars which formed on the spillway in our local big woods state park.  It was equal parts this DIY period so far from anything and my poorly-acknowledged introverted nature that has kept me on the self-taught path ever since.

Not everyone has this agency growing up, to say nothing of a family system that gives both a safe neighborhood to roam and fancy, fancifully chosen gear for Christmas.  There is a lot to be said, still, for core outdoor adventure being the ultimate encapsulation of first world privilege, in all its expensive and precisely curated discomfort and challenge.  There is a bit less to be said for the high cost of entry to outdoor pursuits.  This doesn’t hold too much water in things like backpacking, where skill and fortitude and thrift stores can provide 9/10s the practicality bought in a $5000 trip to REI.  It does, sadly, in things like boating and cycling, especially the later, which in the past 15 years has seemingly doubled down on eeking more and more profit as the last bastion of unfiltered yuppism.  There is still less to be said for the meritocracy of information, as today the process of learning has never been more accessible.

There is a stupendous amount of crap information, of course, but given that we’re confining the discussion to wilderness pursuits, the judgment learned in discovering bad advice to be what it is is more valuable than the skill of pitching a tent on six feet of snow or climbing a 9 inch offwidth.  My repeated attempts to convey how mindset creates safety are so perseverative precisely because these intangibles are the most valuable and most enduring things I’ve learned from climbing, backpacking, boating, skiing, and everything else.