The Things That Make Us

In the weeks leading up to my wedding in 2007, my hair was a little long for my parents’ taste. I stood fast against weeks of subtle suggestions that maybe I should get it trimmed a little before the ceremony, until my father got on the phone one Sunday evening and said, “Your mother wants to give you some money to get your hair cut.”

I laughed and said Oh, really. How much.

Everyone can be bought for the right price, they say.

A guy who has just started to learn how to lead trad climbs but does not yet own the gear? He can be bought for a few hundred bucks.

I cut my hair. I got married. I collected the blood money from my dad, bought a set of Black Diamond stoppers, #4-13, a few hexes, a #1 and #2 Camalot, a pink and a red TriCam, a bunch of 24″ slings and six used TCUs from a friend. And that’s what I started with, plus a few old slung hexes from my pal Lee. That was the beginning of my rack.

Five years later, my hair has grown back even longer than it was before the wedding, and the marriage has long been over. But I still have my rack.

I’ve added more pieces, doubling my set of cams and ditching the Tricams, the hexes and the TCUs, and buying a couple big cams. And that set of gear, gradually assembled like a small library, has taken me so many places: early mornings waiting for the sun to come up in Rocky Mountain National Park as I hike up a trail behind a friend, wishing the sun wouldn’t go down in Red Rocks as we topped out after several hundred feet of jungle gym sandstone patina, days that start and end in the dark on the slabby granite of Lumpy Ridge.

When you have a fairly comfortable amount of disposable income, you can buy a lot of stuff, and I think most of that stuff falls under one of two categories: Form or function. Sometimes we buy things because they are symbols, and we think they will say something about us to other people. We like the mental image we have of driving a certain type of car, or on a motorcycle or bicycle, or how we look in a specific brand’s clothes.

I think the best things we can buy, though, are not symbols, but tools. Tools that help us do something, to get somewhere. I have a handful of things I love that help me get where I want to go, and my climbing gear, that collection of dinged-up metal and dirty webbing, is one of them. I love my old bicycle, and my sleeping bag, and a couple jackets that I feel like I’ve worn everywhere. We all probably do — skis with thousands of feet of turns on their resume, helmets with dents from everywhere, backpacks with broken buckles and holes in the bottom. Sometimes when I pull my climbing shoes out of the bottom of my pack at the base of a climb, I announce in my best Forrest Gump voice, “Mama says they was magic shoes. They could take me anywhere.”

Most of me would like to think it’s not about the stuff, not about materialism and consumerism. Like you didn’t buy it so you could post photos of your rack, or your bike, or your skis on Facebook — you bought it because you wanted the experience of swinging leads in Eldo or Yosemite, or riding Monarch Crest, or skiing Silverton. And you never get to a point where you don’t know where your important stuff is. You lose the TV remote, can’t find a pair of dress shoes somewhere in your closet, but you never say “What did I do with my skis?” or “Where are my quickdraws?”

I keep all my cams on one small loop of cordelette, and all my quickdraws on another one, and if I’m having a good month, I can remember what’s on each one without looking — let’s see, last time I climbed, it was such-and-such route, and I took doubles up to a #2 plus a #4, and there were 12 alpine draws in my pack, minus the one we left on that tree to back up the tat rap anchor on the way down …

But if I get busy or haven’t made time to get outside, and I happen to be moving my stuff around and pull my rack out of a backpack, there is this sound of all the aluminum of the cams and nuts clanking together, and the clatter that only a bunch of carabiners can make. And I can smell the nylon and the dynex webbing, and the rope dust all over everything. And I’ll pull a carabiner to straighten out the runner on it, or grab one cam out of the bunch and pull the trigger a couple times and watch the lobes go back and forth. And then I think,

Damn, when was the last time I went climbing?

And I start scrolling through my Contacts list on my phone, and start counting in my head, how many days until Saturday?


(photo by Mitsu Iwasaki)

11 replies on “The Things That Make Us

  • Jay

    Nice post, but I have disagree about one point. Motorcycles fall squarely in the tool category! At least for some of us. Stock brokers with $70k custom choppers they only ride during bike week can speak for themselves, but my machine gets me to the mountains.

    • brendan

      There you go, Jay! Sorry, I wasn’t trying to say motorcycles aren’t tools — but like you said, I definitely think there’s an “image” that sells a lot of them.

  • Nik

    I drive a Kia Rio with only one working speaker, no air conditioning, no power windows, broken radio, broken cd player, and covered in chalk. My weapon is a tool.

    • brendan

      One day in Eldo, I was following my friend Lee up West Overhang, and some dude on another route yelled over, “Are those hexes? You know they make cams so you don’t have to use those anymore.”

      They went to a good home.

  • Nick

    I remember a day in high school when me and some buddies all shaved our heads for money. Two of our dad’s offered $50 each if we did it.

    We did and immediately went to the hardware store to buy parts to build a slider for an upcoming vacation of wakeboarding in eastern Washington.

  • crashDarren

    Great post. You made me think about what little I have and I realized… everything I have IS a tool. 🙂

  • dynoboy

    A couple of weeks ago, when I was on vacation, my house was broken into. I got the message when we got back from a day of hiking in the rain at Forest Park. My phone blew up the minute I turned it on, 3 text messages and a voicemail from my landlord…never a good thing. Once he laid out the details the first questions out of my mouth were, “Is Mae (my dog) okay? Is my mountain bike still there? Are my bins of climbing gear still in my closet?” Fortunately the burglars didn’t have much of an eye for outdoor gear.

  • KatieSue

    I often get all poetic on the sound a rack makes. I have it hanging on a shelf in my garage so I can smack it and hear the clanking everytime I get in my car. One of my favorite sounds in the world.

  • Dave Sandel

    Just this past week I have started selling my “stuff” and keeping my tools. It feels so good. And it’s pretty nice to have some extra change lying around.

    Now, my current challenge? Resisting the urge to buy a new “tool” to get me to the crag. :-/

  • Iain

    I bought a set of Salomon AK rockets, the big green 200cm skis of glory in 2001. I bought them because some of my favourite pro’s rode them, I love them because they’re so damn good.

    Last easter after a day’s touring I discovered the edge is completely ruined in a couple of places.

    I very nearly cried.

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