Why Our Gear Represents Our Personality

Looking back, it makes sense that I found the jacket the day after college. I had just gotten my psychology degree and was ready to try and figure people out. Myself, for starters.

The jacket was hanging in our living-room closet: a high-end red North Face coat, lined on the inside, with Gore-Tex on the outside, almost never worn. Things in the living-room closet, I learned, belonged to no one. They were remnants of the car-flipping-in-the-Vermont-field parties we’d had that year. Abandoned.

The jacket was a Large, my size. I was not into skiing then, but I knew a $400 ski jacket was nothing to leave in the closet. I grabbed a nice fleece to go with it, and stuffed them in my last available duffle bag.

Two years later, I stopped for a night in Colorado. It snowed 22 inches. Yada, yada.

In the eight years since then, roughly 1,000 days in the Arctic wind and bleaching sun have turned my red North Face jacket a burnt shade of orange. They don’t really make jackets this color, especially with non-faded zipper lines. So it stands out.

The hood is fraying, the Velcro doesn’t stick so the wrist flaps hang floppily, and it’s got seven holes patched with either duct tape or black fabric circles from when I have collided with pine trees. But I swear to God, it’s the warmest jacket I’ve ever worn. It seals just above the bottom of my goggles and completely shields me from the wind. That’s why I keep wearing it.

Not long ago, it developed a zipper problem. Someone told me the factory might repair it, even though I had no sales receipt, nor had it ever been officially mine to begin with. I sent it in like the cheap bastard I am, and, to my surprise, they not only fixed the zipper, but also the shredded slobber guard. I was so happy, I mailed them a thank-you note.

While it was at the factory, I wore a different North Face jacket I’d gotten for free from an ex-roommate. This one was blue and didn’t block out all the wind, so it sucked. But something funny started happening when I wore it. First, people told me in the T-bar line they didn’t recognize me, then they expressed genuine concern for my orange North Face jacket. I know, I told them. I hope she pulls through, too.


Last fall, I flew to Nepal with a trio of North Face-sponsored skiers, the most well-sponsored of whom was not only over-wardrobed at the moment, but also my size.

In advance of the trip, and for photography purposes, he sent me a hard-shell jacket, a soft-shell jacket and a thick, burly winter jacket; a pair of bibbed expedition snow pants; fleece gloves; top and bottom base layers; and a wool hat. All North Face, top of the line. I was enthralled.

I never planned or even really noticed my gratis North Face collection mounting up until recently, mainly because one garment still dominates, despite all my newer options. The original jacket has become a part of my persona, who I am. Just like all of my gear, but to a greater extent. Part of the reason is that I don’t care about gear very much, so I tend to hold on to things that are still functional and keep using them. This leads to sentimentality, and, ultimately, stubbornness toward paring down my collection.

When I say I don’t care about gear, I mean that I’m not a nerd about it. I want to be warm, but don’t really worry about ounces. My mountain bike is heavy. My skis are wide and long. I have spent 10 minutes debating in front of my computer whether to order 2.25-inch tires or 2.35s, but those situations are rare. Usually, I just ask my brother for suggestions.

I got my goggles for free from a sponsored skier friend, and I found my mismatched poles next to our condo complex’s dumpster. Not long after that, I saw two pairs of skis sticking out of the snow in the same spot. One of them was a mint pair of 173cm Atomic Sugar Daddys, the perfect size for my father-in-law.

So I tuned them at the ski shop where I work, and gave them to him at Christmas. Some fathers-in-law you don’t tell you found their gift at the dumpster, but not Rich. I couldn’t wait to tell him. He liked the skis immensely more once he heard where I got them.

It reminded me of when he first heard my jacket story. He thought it was the greatest thing ever and couldn’t stop laughing. To this day, he still tells random people how I found it in a closet, then cracks up at his own story.

Our relationship, in fact, has been significantly enhanced by our mutual views on gear. Rich wants to get the most for the least, but will settle for the minimum if it’s either that or the maximum. I’m the same way. If it works, awesome.

Most people I know do not share these beliefs. During our ski trip to Asia last fall, talking about gear was like drinking water: something you did at least 15 times a day. My friends could dissect a backpack design like a frog in formaldehyde — and they did. It was like listening to French people argue about wine.

You can compare people’s gear-repair preferences and get a pretty nice image of who they are, too. Some skiers won’t let anyone touch their skis — or their bike. Others would rather lick a warm turd than solve their own problems. They’re overjoyed to pay $20 for a derailleur adjustment that takes a mechanic 13 seconds.

I tend to break a lot of gear and try to warranty it. I’ve returned the same pair of Voile telemark bindings six or seven times with various ailments. There is nothing more attractive than a company that fixes your broken stuff for free.

The quiver is another good personality indicator. If you have a quiver of mountain bikes, like my friend Dave, who has four (and, to his credit, takes care of them himself), you are someone who wants precision and options. If you are a member of the one-rig club, as I am, you’re either cheap or slow or broke. That’s my dated psych major talking.

It’s true that the right piece of gear, like a top-notch avalanche transceiver, can prevent you from dying — and also that the wrong piece can kill, like a frayed rope on a big wall or a faulty ski binding on an exposed slope. In such life-or-death instances, my gear-related pet peeves are moot.

But, most often, they play out the same way each time. What bothers me most about gear is when people are idiots about it. For example, one night last fall, my friend Jeff was talking to a guy he knew about backcountry skiing.

“We should get out this winter and make some turns,” Jeff said.

“What setup are you on?” the guy replied, suddenly wary.

“NTN,” Jeff said.

Despite having no idea how strong a climber Jeff is, the guy immediately said, “We can never go skiing. Your gear is way too heavy.”

Which completely misses the point. Gear, like the cycling cream you lather around your butt hole, is an enabler, not a means to exclusivity.

If you are not careful, however, your gear can leak the fact that you actually suck at what you’re doing, like renting 120-mm-waist skis on a bulletproof day. So stupid. But if you’re tuned in, you can command huge respect from other gear monkeys by showing up with well-conceived selections.

In that sense, gear acts as a way to measure intelligence, which I’m embarrassed to even write.


Ultimately, my gear equals me. For six months of every year, my faded purple ski helmet might as well be a name tag. But it took me a while to figure that out — to realize how much your gear represents your public identity. You have probably noticed by now that it bothers me.

Gear can’t tell you how it feels, because gear can’t talk. It doesn’t eat or sleep or leave steaming coils in your garage. On the contrary, gear is like toilet paper: you want some that performs its job ably, but you don’t really need the triple ply, at least not in my opinion.

Having the triple ply is nice, don’t get me wrong. There’s no doubt a 22-pound carbon bike climbs better than a 30-pound alloy. But remember my tired old jacket.

Let’s not give gear too much credit, is all I’m saying.

Breckenridge writer Devon O’Neil covers skiing for ESPN.com and fixes core shots on the side. His work can be viewed at www.devononeil.com..

Anchored, But Never Tied Down

When my boyfriend gave me my personal anchor system, it came in a series of Christmas gifts wrapped in newspapers, positioned so a photo filled one side of the box, with humorous thoughts and proclamations written over the heads of the people depicted. On the box with the PAS inside, a grinning woman in aviators declared, “You may not realize it yet, but this shit is about to become real important to you.”

I think he was talking about giving gifts between the two of us and sharing holidays in a way that signaled the development of our relationship and our commitment to one another, and not necessarily what was in the box, but it applied to both. I had just started climbing and had no idea what the daisy chain of black webbing would do for me.

He took me out climbing a few weeks later, and on an unseasonably warm January day, he climbed to the top of a sport route on North Table Mountain near Golden, Colo., used his own daisy chain to anchor himself to the top of the climb, and belayed me up from there. He’d girth-hitched my anchor system to my harness, given me advice on how to position it to keep it out of the way (which I ignored, because, yes, I was that kind of student), and, at the top of the climb, showed me how to clip its locking carabiner to the anchors and back it up with another quickdraw. Simple enough. Then he talked me through cleaning the top of a sport route so I could take down routes myself and save him from having to complete every climb he put up twice.

My PAS became a transformative tool for me in going from being a belay betty, who came along for a ride on a few 5.7s and 5.8s, to a partner who could follow and take down 5.10s. In a practical sense, what my PAS does is keep me from falling to my death. It has become a sign to me that I’ve completed something, whether it’s a single-pitch sport climb or just one of several pitches on a multi-pitch trad line. Locking its carabiner down is a signal to me to relax, to revel in the sense of accomplishment I get when finishing a route — I took up climbing for the same reason I gave up knitting: I like the feeling of having finished a task. At the top of a sport climb, it’s also the turning point at which my life goes from being in someone else’s hands to being in my own as I set up a rappel and control my own descent from the climb.

My PAS has become one of my most-revered pieces of gear. I trust it — not the blind trust that means never checking your gear to see if it’s wearing through. But the trust that tells me, if I’ve checked it on the ground, clipped it in and locked it, I don’t think about it again. I don’t worry that it might glance away at my moment of need. I don’t have visions of it unraveling or shredding and allowing me to plummet to certain death. Or even of it flirting with other women.

Flirting? Right. Because the truth is, the kind of relationship I have with my PAS is a kind of relationship I’ve never been able to have with a human being.

I trust it to have my best interest in mind. I don’t feel less in control of my own life when I use my PAS to anchor myself at the top of a climb. When I’m pushing grades and need to clip into a bolt to rest and visualize my next moves, I don’t resent it for holding me up. I would never feel a desire to log in to my PAS’s email account to see if it’s been using online dating sites again. I wouldn’t get jealous if someone else happened to take my PAS for a climb (not that it would ever leave my side). Even when it’s a little dirty, I’m proud to be seen with my PAS — my badge of honor in a gym, the mark that I’ve been out in the world, climbed hard and gotten dirty for it. It has impeccable table manners and is always dressed appropriately.

The boyfriend … well … let’s just say I have a friend who refers to him as Bad Hat Guy.

It’s a lot easier to share the world with just my gear. Ropes and webbing and quick draws and camalots place fewer demands on my time and attention, and are always ready and available to go when I am. They’re unflaggingly patient, even if I’m cranky. They don’t have bad days. And they never question whether I put the right kind of jelly on the PB&J. But, while I’ve had nights I’ve considered cuddling up to my rope, and the embrace of my PAS certainly is secure, it’s not terribly warm. And it never brings take-out Chinese and a six-pack over to watch movies after I’ve worn myself out climbing rocks all day.

I still think of that phrase, “this shit is about to become real important to you,” as I clip in at the top of a climb and my PAS becomes real important to me. I think about the boyfriend, now an ex, and all the men who have come after him.

After all, he’s been replaced. And my gear has not.

Freelance writer and Denver resident Elizabeth Miller is part of the third-generation of her family to be born in Colorado. If she happens to die while rock climbing, she would prefer to be buried near the old family farm in Meeker, though really, any open field will do.

Calendar September 2010

Ooom pah!
Billings, MT, Sept. 4-6. Can you dance for three days and nights? Youíre in luck if you like to polka, because the Big Sky Polka Festival keeps you three-steppiní high with, yes, beer, and German food and several fine polka bands, including Julie Lee and Her White Rose Band, Matt and the Dakota Dutchmen, the Polka Rhythm Kings and the Bob Bares Band. Think of it as Slovenian slam dancing. Bring the RV, the kids and grannies … itís got to be an experience you wonít soon forget. And everyone can polka! More info at bigskypolkaclub.com or call 406-656-7470.

A wee bit of green
Estes Park, CO, Sept/ 9-12. Ready to go Celtic? Longs Peak Scottish/Irish Highlands Festival in Estes Park has it all from music to marching, jousting competitions, dogs of the British Isles, highland dance, folk music, bagpipes and a bowling-ball shoot (not sure if theyíre shooting the bowling balls or rolling them … ). And certainly a lot of kilts (donít ask what they wear underneath those tartans … ) all at the beautiful Stanley Park Fairgrounds. Thereís a great lineup of music, including Mythica, Alex Beaton, Brigadoons, Rathkeltair, Albannach, Prickly Pair and Loch Carron, to name a few. Check it out online at scotfest.com or call 800-903-7837.

Fall color 
Jackson, WY, Sept. 9-19. Art in the fall has just as many colors as the changing foliage, and the 26th annual Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival has thousands of art enthusiasts enjoying the diverse artwork and spectacular natural surroundings. World-class installments of contemporary, culinary, landscape, Native American, wildlife and Western, arts, combined with an exceptional array of music, cowboy poetry and cuisine. More than 50 events round out the 11-day festival, which you can check out online at jacksonholechamber.com/fall_arts_festival/

Brews for youz
Denver, CO, Sept. 10-19. Honestly, there can never be enough beer fests, can there? The Mile High City jumps onboard with their Denver Beer Fest, and 10 glorious days of tasting, pub crawls, meet the brewers, brewery tours and entertainment ó all told, more than 100-beer related events. Theyíve also book-ended two major beer-themed festivals, the Great American Beer Festival and Oktoberfest (OK, so itís Ocktober Fest in September … ), September 17-19 and 24-26. Brilliant! Get the scoop and the draw online at denver.org/denverbeerfest and  oktoberfestdenver.com

What the Hay?
Hobson, MT, Sept. 12. What started as a friendly competition in 1990 between ranching neighbors has turned into full-blown sculpture artistry all constructed from hay bales. Last year, at the 20th-anniversary edition, there were over 50 innovative entries. Although local farmers and ranchers construct the majority of the creations, there have been entrants from all parts of Montana, as well as California, Arizona and as far away as New York. The sculptures are displayed in fields along the Bale Trail, a 21-mile loop just south of U.S. Highway 87, running along state highways 239 and 541 with the eastern end being in Hobson, the western end at Windham, and Utica being the halfway point. So, fire up the olí pick-em-up truck and either drive the trail or git yerself some bales and make yer own. For general and contest info, call Val at 406-423-5803 or see sculptures and info online montanabaletrail.com or Facebook Montana-Bale-Trail-What-the-Hay.

Burn the Grump
Crested Butte, CO, Sept. 13-18. In a week-long frenzy of Slavic-Italio-harvest-pagan rituals, the costume capital of Colorado once again hosts Vinotok, this year a week earlier than usual, and itís bound to be even more wild since itís the 25th anniversary. Twenty-four lads and lassies, the Greenman, the Knight, Dragon, Magistrate, Earth Mother, flag bearers, fire twirlers, drummers and of course the Grump all enable mumming, drinking, frolicking, town potluck, Liarís Night, storytelling and Saturdayís Vinotok passion play and procession, where the Grump is given a fair trial but always hauled down the main street to burn, convicted, at a huge bonfire. Join in and wear your Renaissance threads if so desired. More info, entertaining photos and videos on Facebook ìVinotokî.

Got Dem Blues
Telluride, CO, Sept. 17-19. The 17th Annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival runs rampant this year with George Thorogood & the Destroyers, special guests Elvin Bishop and Eddie Shaw, BB King, Otis Taylor with Chuck Shaw and so many more gracing the stage in one of the most breathtaking settings in the Rockies. Back is the 3rd Annual Coolest Campsite Challenge, artful campsite designs not just for amusement but will earn you some serious schwag this year should you top the competition. Itís three days of riotous fun whether you drop in for a day or the duration. Online at tellurideblues.com

Run for fun
Boulder CO, Sept. 19. The Boulder Marathon promises to be one of the best and most-entertaining races in the Rockies. Itís open to all walkers and runners and, hey, you have an entire seven hours to get through the course ó so, if youíre not a pro, semi, serious runner, you can just stroll through the day chatting with your buddies. It all starts at 7:30 a.m. at the City of Boulder Reservoir, where it also finishes (that would be at 2:30 p.m.). And itís fully supported, with ample aid stations and toilets. Get yerself online bouldermarathon.com.