a meditation on the Myth of Gear in modern climbing culture: over-reliance on equipment (especially by novice climbers) in the twin worlds of mountaineering & rock-climbing.
You might have heard of the debate on big mountains about “expedition-style” vs. “alpine-style” ascents. In short, the first is how they did it in the olden days — effectively, “laying siege” to a mountain with a small army of climbers and support staff, going up and down and up and down, building camp after camp at gradually higher altitudes, until finally the elite crew was ready for the summit push. This perhaps made sense in the days where there wasn’t satellite imagery, accurate weather forecasting, or even a decent topo map of the peak in question. These men (and a handful of women) were literally forging directly into the Great Unknown.
But as the land became measured and documented, and the accepted routes became established — even well trodden — the need for this type of organized assault dwindled. You can still find it aplenty on mountains like Everest today, where wealthy Westerners with questionable mountaineering credentials can pay upwards up $100,000 to ascend — using well-established fixed lines and plenty of supplemental oxygen (and notably, carrying no gear!) — to the summit, with ample support (and tent setup, and gear hauling, and cooking, and first aid) by the amazing Sherpas who have lived there for millenia.
Even in our local paradise (and global treasure) of Yosemite, as recently as the 1950s, some men still followed such cues — the attitude was: get up to the top by any means necessary — Warren Harding’s 3 year ascent of El Capitan being perhaps the most notable example, where in the course of the climb, he drilled and planted more than 100 permanent expansion bolts into the face, assisting his climb.
His chief adversary of the era, Royal Robbins, in a rage, followed him up with a sledgehammer and sharp chisel, shearing off the bolts behind him.
But, according to Robbins himself, he had an epiphany about 2/3rds the way up: Hardings route was far more difficult — even with bolts — than Robbins had imagined… and he began to see the bolt placements as high art, as opposed to defacement. He left the remaining bolts in, completed the ascent, and thus effectively ended the feud with Harding. Ironically, neither man ever made another major climb after that day. The Yin and the Yang of classical American climbing had completed their dance.
That little story is fairly well documented in the excellent documentary, Valley Uprising.
And I ramble. In that case, both men had skills that placed them in the absolute upper echelon of the climbing community of their day. They were both elite athletes, both making first ascents of previously unfathomable faces — and both with radically different climbing styles and philosophies.
Now, shall we return to the thesis of this post, aka The Myth of Gear?
The core idea is this:
Never use gear as an excuse. Use what you have. Your body, mind and heart are your primary instruments on the mountain. Everything else is window dressing. Would it be nice to have snowshoes? Yes. Necessary? No. Same for crampons, axe, harness, protection, etc.
What?!? Its true. Compare:
Trad Lead vs. Free Solo
|The rack here is typical for “trad lead” climbing on a big wall… the person leading the climb is finding the route and placing protection points for the rest of the team to follow. S/he theoretically needs all that gear — each piece of protection has a unique shape and therefor fits into/onto a unique mountain feature.
It can be… cumbersome, and… heavy.
|The kit Alex Honnold is sporting here is what we use in the sports of free soloing, bouldering, and DWC: a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag, that’s it… naked as we came… and our hands, feet, legs, arms, knees and elbows (and whatever other body part can supply some temporary friction to the rock!).
It is minimalist, it is elegant, and it is pure.
Free soloing is to climbing what longbow is to hunting
— the ultimate reduction. The highest skill.
Mountaineering is a sport that has gear.
LOTS of gear. Lots of EXPENSIVE gear.
Some is for comfort, and some is for safety. But lets break it down: what is really at the heart of the gear obsession in climbing? Is the Myth of Gear real, or is it a consumerism-driven western fantasy, akin to “He who dies with the most Toys wins?”
This post originated due to my ever expanding list of “Gear I need” in order to attempt / accomplish my next mountaineering mission. The list started very basic 6 months ago, and looked something like this:
- cold weather sleeping bag
- winter mountaineering tent
- water bottles
- winter gloves
- leather hiking boots
- ice axe
That was it!
I solo summited Whitney in the depths of winter with just that. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, it wasn’t pretty, but I got it done… in my own minimalist style.
The Innocent Questions
Now I have friends asking me: did you bring rope? a harness? a helmet? cams? Why didn’t you have real crampons? Can you feel the myth of gear growing in my mind with each question? …all of which could be translated one of two ways: a) why weren’t you better prepared? and/or b) why didn’t you bring more gear?
So, of course, feedback in hand (they are, to their credit, experienced climbers), I got home and went about two paralell missions: a) planning my next expedition, and b) acquiring all the “necessary” gear. I’m still in the middle of Task A. Task B, I got some stuff (most notably a pair of badass mountaineering boots and “real” crampons), but after realising the fallacy, I’ve hit the “stop” button on additional gear acquisition.
Climbers are, in fact, not alone in this dilemma. The Myth of Gear in fact pervades many recreational (and vocational) activities. I faced a very very similar challenge in 2014, when I began serious training for my first 70.3 Iron Man Triathlon.
The Iron Man Analogy : Buying Time
In that sense, it’s a bit like my triathlon days. Personally, I had an expensive pair of running shoes — I would not have splurged for them myself, my girlfriend got them for em as a birthday gift — and about the most basic 20-speed bike I could steal (my beloved Cannondale CAAD 10), along with a secondhand 10-year-old wetsuit that a triathlete friend gifted me when he upgraded his own kit.
Now, realise: on that triathlon, I was *passing* people riding $20,000 carbon fiber bicycles. Why did they have such expensive kit? corollary: Why hadn’t they simply trained harder?
I actually ended up in the upper third of all finishers, time-wise. I calculated (easily — I had made an extensive spreadsheet) that with another $10,000 of kit — mostly aero / carbon fiber bike upgrades — I would have actually finished in the 80th percentile, not just the 60th. In other words, in triathlons, you can buy speed.
You can buy a better finishing time. In the extreme extrapolation, you could say, it might be possible to buy a place on the podium (at least for your age group).
Its not the bike, its the athlete.
Now, in mountaineering, it’s true — things are not quite the same. In mountaineering, you are grading / rationalizing equipment purchases on three axes:
- — comfort
- — ability
- — safety
Its that third one that is the real butt kicker. I experienced this one first hand on my first reckless solo ascent of Mount Whitney in the winter.
Can money buy safety & security?
The short answer: NO.
Whitney illustrates (sort of): That morning, I found myself on a very narrow cliff ledge, my only contact with the rock and ice about 3 spikes on my microspikes (which I had mistaken, in my ignorance, as the equivalent of crampons). Said microspikes were purchased from Amazon… the absolute most inexpensive I could find… just $13 for the pair (on flash sale). I had been proud of my frugality at the time:
But after I had successfully made that traverse, I thought: “Dayammm… if my spikes had failed, and I had fallen and died, would my last thought have been ‘I sure am happy I saved $200 on crampons…’”
The answer is obvious: NO.
My knee-jerk reaction was equally obvious. Almost as soon as I got home, I stormed into the local REI, and without hesitation, picked up the most evil, beastly looking, American-designed and -certified crampons that I could find.
The *next* time, I thought, I am attacking that mountain with a vengeance. The razor-sharp serrations on the crampon points said as much. They looked just… fucking EVIL. The Myth of Gear laughed at me: in this case, I wasn’t buying speed, I was buying security.
Tellingly, much much later on in my insane 38-hour assault on that mountain, my left discount microspike did indeed fail. The rubber gasket ripped right through, and soon thereafter half the chain and spikes flopped uselessly around the front of my boot, jingling with every step. But I *had* made it safely back to within two miles of the trailhead. And the rocky precipices were (for the most part) high above and behind me. So what does that tell me?
Well, that actually illustrates the counterpoint to the money / safety equivalency argument.
Bottom Line: Its not the Gear, its the Climber
Gear can be support, and gear can also be a crutch. Meditating on the Myth of Gear, I have so many analogies to this situation that they are popping out of my skull. real quick:
Hunters start out with shotguns. then move to sighted rifles. then move to black powder. then move to compound bows. then move to longbows. Lesser (more natural?) equipment manifests a purer experience. I imagine at some point (I recall that Eustace Conway actually accomplished this feat), you would simply leap down from a tree perch with a sharp knife in your teeth, and fell that prey with one simple, smooth stroke to the jugular. ultimate elegance. no ammo, no projectiles, no distance. just an intimate embrace of life and death.
I had some serious adventures in the backcountry of Arches National Park, travelling along more than 60 miles of trails marked “Flood Danger / Uneven Terrain : 4×4 vehicles only”. How did I move on those roads? Top down, in my 2WD, rear-wheel drive 1991 Mazda Miata. Sure I thought the rear axle would snap at any moment. Sure I got precariously stuck on cliffsides a few times. But I stuck it out. I persevered. And both my car and I made it back out unscathed, and perhaps stronger for the attempt.
- Its not the car, its the driver
- Its not the bike, its the athlete
- Its not the weapon, its the warrior.
…and soooo, finally:
Debunking the Myth of Gear
You work within the limits of what you have. If you’re ever sat there, staring at a rock face in the wilderness, thinking that your gear is not good enough for your intended route, I have several suggestions:
- imagine what a climber would have done 100 years ago. Yes (unless you are indeed world-class), humans climbed that very same route, in the same conditions, with far inferior equipment, a century ago. It is quite possible that indigenous people did the same, barefoot with no equipment, a millennium ago. Think about that. Trust your body. Trust Nature. Find your route. Make your climb.
- work with what you have. improvise. realise that you put yourself here, and that you brought what you brought. You have the right gear for the job. It may not be the best / latest / lightest gear in the world, but it is what you have with you today, this day, here and now. So recognize that, and make the best of it. Start your climb.
- pick an easier route. What is more impressive? Sending a 21 foot bouldering problem with only hands, feet, chalk and balls… or ascending a 1,000′ vertical wall leaning on rope, anchors and ladders, while hauling 60+ pounds (and $6,000+) worth of equipment? More importantly, what brings you greater personal joy? Both are valid. You know which one I lean towards. Shut up and climb.
The Myth of Gear says that you will be safer, more comfortable, and more capable… if you just buy this one extra thing. I ask myself, and you, my fellow adventurers, do you really need it? Can you do without? How can you creatively solve the same problem that you think the next piece of gear will address? Could you possibly choose a route or move that is actually more fulfilling, and requires less material objects?
Alpine style is fast and light. You can go light by swapping out steel for titanium, but you can also go light by just simply doing more with less. And I can promise you this: shaving 10 pounds of gear off your pack…? You are guaranteed to perform better, faster, and safer than under the heavy load. Think about that.
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