Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Makin' it easy?

The Outdoor Retailer show was in Salt Lake City a couple of weeks ago; that semi-annual orgy of gear, gear, gear.  As a longtime member of that industy I should fully embrace it since it’s what has brought home my bacon for most of my career, but every January and August I come away from the show with a niggling question in the back of my mind:  what, exactly, are “we”  - the outdoor industry – actually doing?  And part of the answer is always this:  we are making these interesting and – here’s the crux – challenging – activities easier, through gear-related innovations.  And I ask myself:  is  - or should – our goal actually be making our little activities “easier”? 

Long ago I was a resort skier at the venerable Mount Hood Meadows. I skied there both days every weekend all season and could not get enough.  But over time, as I skied the same runs that I loved over and over I realized that….I actually could get enough; in fact, too much.   I got bored; bored of my most favorite of things. It was about that time that brother Paul was out in Utah getting into telemark skiing, and while visiting him out there I took a couple of days off shredding Snowbird to go out into the backcountry and take the requisite ass-kicking that 3 pin bindings, 2-sizes-too-big borrowed tele boots, and stiff, skinny 205 cm “telemark skis” were guaranteed to dish out.  But a light bulb had gone on for me; this was a way to make skiing challenging again, and it literally re-opened Mount Hood Meadows for me. The game was on:  could I ski as well as I could on alpine gear on this compromised tele gear?  I attacked the terrain with new vigor, (with only a minor setback when I broke my fibula in a classic “tele break” at the boot top).  

I soon relished skiing hard on tele gear with my alpine friends and was lapping up the concept that I was cooler because I was doing the same thing on “harder” gear.  But at the same  time, I began the inevitable gear-creep: building a cuff out of an old alpine boot (telling myself it was because of my leg) and eventually getting plastic Scarpa T2 boots (tho to try to cement my cool-guy status, I held out for a long time!), “fatter” skis (that were still way skinny!), graduating from 3 pins to cables to Voile plates to cabled/cartridge bindings, etc.  And yes indeed, I could eventually shred as well on my tele gear as I could on alpine stuff.  But was that the point?  At the time it was.  And at that time I didn’t think about the paradox that is thus:  we try new, challenging activities in part because they are indeed challenging, and learning the activities and rising to meet the  challenges of the activities is part – sometimes a large part – of the fun, but then we embark on a journey to make those activities easier and actively take out the challenge, despite the fun associated with the challenge. 

And we do so by upgrading the gear.  To be sure, the activities become easier with experience and skill as well, but we – as good ol’ fashioned, we-can-buy-anything ‘Merican consumers – also have the ability and desire to buy our way to improvement, and we exercise that…..a lot. 

Eventually I gravitated towards AT ski gear, but that was more a function of safety because I got too paranoid about the concept of burly telemark bindings that didn’t release, both out of fear for my ACL’s/MCL’s and the implications of getting dragged down by skis in avalanche debris.  But it was also because….it just didn’t matter any more.  Telemark gear had evolved to the point where it was virtually indistinguishable from AT gear – and these days is actually burlier – and the fact that, as the bumper sticker goes:

Over time, the same thing happened to me with bicycling: I wouldn’t say that I was “bored” with it per se, but when I saw the opportunity for making it more challenging vis a vis’ single speeds and fixies, I jumped on these, and I found that challenge to be really fulfilling.  Riding a too-big gear on a fixy cross bike on our Shoreline trail is hard, stupid, slow, mildly dangerous……and really fun.  And singlespeeds in general are very much the telemark skis of the bike world; no real reason to imbibe other than for the esoteric “feel” of it.  And despite my friend Alex’s great blog post “Why Singlespeeders Are Like Jesus Freaks”  ( where I think he was talking about me because I think I was the only SS-er he knew, and my BD colleague Paul was kind enough to get me this sticker:

I’d like to think that I’m not (quite) a righteous zealot. 

But recently, I had a good viewing of the anti-me’s, and wondered about this concept of inconsistent zealotry.  As Ash was pondering which bike to buy our erstwhile friends Joe and Emma were horrified to hear that she was  - gasp! - considering a hard tail mtb!  “Let technology be your friend!”  was their memorable quote. And yet……they are both avid telemarkers  - the hard-tailin' single speeders of the ski world - who scoff at AT gear!  Ash and I talked about this concept a lot, and she ultimately bought what she calls “the ‘ultimate Middle Aged Powder Pussy (MAPP) of bikes”  and has been perpetually tickled by her decision. But she gave the whole spectrum of options a lot of thought, and in doing so brought clarity to her fundamental desires in that activity.  

So here’s my theory:  we are all in our own little arms-races of the Cold War of Gear with our peers, and if we all did our activities alone, we would not be the gear-hogs that we are.  Our friends get skis that are 120 underfoot and are rippin', so we gotta get skis that are 120 underfoot so that not only are we rippin’ too but – God forbid – our partners won’t chide us for bumbling on our typical 30 degree open powder runs.  Or – worse – we perceive that they are silently judging/mocking us for our potential dundering!  What’s interesting about backcountry skiing is that about 99% of your time is actually NOT skiing (if you ski fast!), yet many folks buy gear almost exclusively for that 1%. 

For sure, it’s a quality vs quantity thing.  For the SLC Sherpas, Samurais, Sherpitas, and Vikings it’s about quantity, and the turns….whatever! Fast, furious, barely controlled, powder/crust/ice, thrashing, etc.  For our friend TJ (for example) – who sports Big Boots, Big Skis, and Big Bindings – the amount of vertical/runs doesn’t matter, but those turns are so precious - so exquisite -  that they need to be perfect, and perfection is – in part – achieved by the gear.  And so our Quests for Perfection can lead us in multiple directions, depending on the desires. 

The great thing about the outdoor industry is that this mature market does indeed offer something for everyone, from the technoid, gram-countin', nuanced geek to the luddite to the bro brah to the gnarly chicks to the newbies.  But given the incredible array of choices that we have, it’s so easy to get caught up in the gear that at times I feel like there’s the possibility to have our activities actually be about the gear itself:   “My skis are too skinny for this deep stuff”, “My skis are too fat for this icy couloir”, “My tire tread isn’t deep enough for this mud”, “My tire tread is too deep and slow for these dry trails”.  The industry has created these expectations for us that ALL of our experiences must ALWAYS be maximized, and we have the gear/clothes to maximize, but the truth is that absolute maximization really only “should” matter to those who are competing (but competing…where?  In a race? With your buddies on a “friendly” outing?”).  As I learned from this commencement speech:  “the key to happiness is…..lowering your expectations”.  Is this gizmo I am using today perfect?  Perhaps not, but the experience I’m having with it is sublime…..unless my expectations are too high, and then I let that cloud my subliminity.    
Ultimately, of course, it’s all about fun; that’s why we devote so much of our money, time, mental energy, and lifestyle towards doing all these silly activities anyway.  But as the cool new shit comes out season after season and the improvements are increasingly nuanced, how much difference do they really make when trying to peg the fun meter? And if indeed, as they say:
then whatever was less easy would also be subject to derision?  And if everything that we did was indeed “easy”, would it be as much fun and have the same appeal?  Most of what we do outside is rooted around a challenge, whether hiking up Olympus or climbing the Eiger. Nailing the line in a big, scary rapid, firing a committing technical section, climbing quickly through the unprotected crux, or dancing down a steep, narrow couloir successfully..…all at – or even past – the limits of our skill and/or our gear generate the best, most addictive adrenaline rushes in our lives.  So should we – as gear producers and consumers – indeed strive to make all of those things easier?  

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