For years as a Boy Scout I struggled to keep cool enough in my sleeping bag to sleep well. More often than not, I ended up with the heavy synthetic-fill mummy bag unzipped as far as it would go—to my knee—and my leg closest the zipper outside on the tent floor. It wasn’t until years later—and after many discussions with my wife concerning optimal nighttime thermostat settings—that I realized I was by nature a very warm sleeper. Of course, everything is relative; camping out in Southern California is a completely different game from anyplace that gets truly cold. Nonetheless, my foray into sleeping quilts has proved a remedy to nearly all my outdoor-sleeping idiosyncrasies.
What is a sleeping quilt? Essentially, a sleeping bag with a large part of the bottom removed.
Climbing partner J and I have already delayed our trip one week due to heavy rain, and now it’s June 27 and we’ve decided to take our chances on the oscillating weather forecast. We load our packs into J’s Honda and hit the road for Niigata, where we hope to summit Hiuchi-yama today and Myoko-san tomorrow, before returning tomorrow afternoon. Traffic is light at 5:30 a.m., and aside from one 15-minute detour courtesy of our GPS unit, the trip is largely smooth. As we near the trailhead at Sasagamine, we drive past a family of monkeys moving through the roadside trees; they’ve attracted a dozen cars, all parked along the two-lane road, eager to photograph them.
The lowly sock. It’s battered, stretched, soaked, wrung, rolled, crushed and worn through. It is one of the least expensive pieces of our wardrobe, but has perhaps the most significant, sustained contact with the body, whether on the trail, the mountain or the slope. A good sock is remembered only when donning and removing, while a bad sock is at best an annoyance and at worst can jeopardize a trip or even one’s health.
One of the first lessons to hit home as I started learning to ski was the importance of staying warm on the lift ride up the hill. Several times this winter, we’ve been lucky enough to have near-storm conditions at the resorts here in Japan, Japow dumping all over the piste. Each time, though, the snow rode in on strong, cold winds felt especially clearly suspended in the chair, making warmth a priority. But on the way down, the muscles are working and the blood is flowing again; the trick is finding a way to avoid the chill on the way up while also not arriving at the bottom of the run swimming in sweat. The Patagonia Nano Air Hoody strikes this balance and has proven itself one of my most versatile mid-layers.
A desire to climb compelled me to conquer my fear of heights. This is how I did it.
I remember the first time. It happened, of all places, at the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles. The Wilshire Boulevard site doesn’t sit on any particularly steep relief. But one of the buildings, set on a very small hill, is ringed with a cement sidewalk wide enough that, from my low perspective as a child, seemed to drop off into the air. With no railing to protect passers-by, from my “safe” location next to the building’s full-length glass walls I warned my father not to get too close to the edge. My dad, with his usual sense of humor, walked carefully up to the edge and “fell” off into the abyss. I remember feeling extremely distressed, but soon my mom’s laughter hinted that I had missed something. With her coaxing, I tentatively worked my way up to the edge, finding my father sitting on the hill, looking up at me. Relieved, the experience passed from my immediate memory as we continued our visit to the museum, but looking back, I’m pretty sure that was the first significant time I associated a perception of height with a sensation of danger.
Let’s get this out of the way. I’m a sweater. For as long as I can remember, whenever I start physical activity, my body flips a switch and out comes the sweat. Doesn’t matter if I’m fat or thin. So when I read about jackets with “waterproof/breathable” membranes, I always have to chuckle a bit, because I know that I’m the kind of guy who would sweat jogging bare-chested (sorry for that mental image) on a cool day, and if I have a waterproof jacket on and I start some vigorous movement, I’m quickly going to become a sauna. So I have pretty realistic expectations for how today’s hardshells perform, and I’ve been able to use a number of them with different membranes, designs and technology.
The first thing I noticed wearing Westcomb’s Shift LT Hoody was that I could feel air from outside the jacket cooling my body. This was different from what I’d experienced with other waterproof jackets, and was reminiscent enough of wearing a softshell that I wondered whether the Shift was truly waterproof.
With the Sirocco, Petzl has taken the trend of lightweight gear almost to absurdity. After eliminating as much as possible, what is left is brilliant.
I began climbing in earnest in my thirties. Yes, I had spent time in an ROTC program in the Mountain West, where we abseiled from towers (using a figure-eight backed up with a fireman’s belay!) and practiced moving across class III terrain. But it wasn’t until years later that I bought my first shoes, chalk bag and harness. One of the decidedly few advantages to beginning a sport like climbing in middle age was that I never thought twice about wearing a helmet for sport or trad routes. Long past the need to “look cool” (now a woefully unattainable goal in any case–just ask my kids), and conscious enough of my own mortality to want as safe a climb as possible, a helmet proved–forgive me–a no brainer.
I didn’t play contact sports in school, and I grew up long enough ago that nobody wore helmets when riding their bicycle, so between ROTC and a few other brushes I’ve had with the military, my idea of a good helmet was something heavy and, well, heavy. Think one of the old Joe Brown helmets. But as I began researching helmets, and as I handled them in the local outdoor equipment store, I realized that my days of heavy headgear were behind me. And with the Sirocco, French climbing gear manufacturer Petzl has taken the trend of lightweight gear almost to absurdity. After eliminating as much as possible, what is left is brilliant.
When your job moves you around the world every few years, you get pretty good at organizing a house-full of stuff to be packed, shipped and unpacked at its destination. In the fifteen or so years my wife and I have been living this life, we’ve had a remarkably strong track record of getting the things we want and need to our new home. There is luck involved, too; one hears tales of cargo ships sinking, condemning all of a family’s possessions to The Deep. To make a long story short, we’re pretty good at this.
Then, imagine my displeasure when, after searching the last few not-fully-unpacked boxes we brought with us to Japan, I discovered that my trusty old pair of Asolo backpacking boots were nowhere to be found. Now, they’re not lost and gone forever; I used them a few times during our last stint back in the States, so they doubtless sit safely packed into one of our boxes in long-term storage.
So, when I decided to get back into hiking again after a hiatus, I spent some time online researching boots. But a number of sites, especially those preaching the lightweight and ultralightweight backpacking gospel, said boots were passé, that they didn’t really give support to one’s ankles anyway, and that shoes were the In Thing. I was skeptical, but as I read more, I found that even more mainstream sites were encouraging hikers to consider a low-cut shoe for hiking and light backpacking. Part of the rationale stems from a study by the U.S. Army that finds that among the soldiers studied, “Weight alone appeared to account for 48-70% of the added energy cost of wearing boots.” And that science is backed up by a considerable amount of anecdotal reporting from hikers who have made the switch. So I thought I would give it a try.
Note: The events of this post took place June 21-22, 2014.
Friend-and-coworker J and I set out for Shinjuku Station to catch the 8:00 am JR Chuo Line Limited Express Super Azusa 5 train bound for Nagano Prefecture. With 36 platforms and 200 exits, we eventually make our way to the waiting train, only to learn that we cannot purchase reserve seats at the platform, so standing it is until enough commuters deboard and unreserved seats open 100 minutes into the two-hours-and-change trip.
Hefting our packs and trekking poles, we move quickly out of Chino Station, scanning a building across the street for where our guidebook tells us the bus stops. The bus only runs a few times a day, and missing this one will keep us here for long enough to make sure we won’t reach our goal before nightfall.