What now feels like way, way, way, way back in December or January, I filled out my personal bio on the DenaliGirls blog, and noted my undying affinity for the gaiter, a piece of climbing apparel that covers over the boot and continues up to the knee, keeping snow, rain, and those fine, granular pebbles encountered on alpine climbs out of one’s socks and shoes.
I am a gaiter zealot, and always have been – in that bio I wrote that one of my favorite pieces of gear is “My Outdoor Research gaiters – I love those too, although mostly because I think gaiters are pretty damn sexy. I’m aware this is not a widely held view, but really – gaiters are sexy.”
One of the things that happens in the course of preparing for Denali is that you turn a keener eye to the gear that you already do have, and to considering whether it’s up for the climb. I hadn’t really thought about evaluating the condition of my gaiters when we began preparing and getting organized, but the limitations of my existing Outdoor Research gaiters were brought to light on the very first day I wore my then brand-spanking-new Spantik double boots out of doors. We Denali Girls had recently been discussing a MountainTrip gear list recommendation that we leave the gaiters at home and instead use a bit of stretchy cord to tie our pants down around our boots (saving weight, mostly), and I was inclined to ignore it – mainly because I love my gaiters.
But on that first day out in the Spantiks I pulled the under-sole strap of my old gaiters into place, reached down to wrap them around my calves, and promptly realized the gaiter wasn’t large enough to make it all the way around the higher and thicker ankle top of the boot itself. The gaiter “seals” up your leg by way of a long strip of Velcro that extends from your frontmost laces (on the toe of the boot) all the way up to just below the knee, and the part that needed to wrap from the back of heel to the front of my boot just wasn’t wide enough to even close – the Velcro didn’t reach. Additionally, the under –sole strap on one of my gaiters had begun to wear through where it attached to the gaiter itself, at a metal buckle that was rust encrusted with years of wear and exploration in our wonderful but wet Pacific Northwest mountains. The threads within the strap were visible, and it was easy to see that it wouldn’t take much for it to be sliced straight through by the rusty buckle itself.
So I set my gaiters aside, went out to muck about with the girls, and more or less abandoned them for the duration of the spring, save one or two muddy climbs up Tiger Mountain, where we train.
To stay abreast of the wildly long and intimidating to-do lists for Denali I’ve been using Google Keep, an app on my Droid phone, which lets me create a checklist that I can then “check off” (a psychologically satisfying experience) without deleting items – completed tasks are simply crossed off and moved below a line in the app, so that if you need to do them again, or need to remember what you’ve done already, you can simply scroll to review. “Fix gaiters” became an item on that list somewhere around February, but because simple gear acquisition is such an all-consuming task, it just sat there.
These last few weeks have been like a wonderful breath of fresh air, though, as I’ve finished “buying all the things” and been able to focus in on the small stuff on my to-do list, like adding extra foam insulation to the soles of my down booties, building an insulation sleeve for our pot, and returning extra pairs of softshell pants and long underwear (and getting money back – woohooo!) I’ve made it a goal to check off two or three of the little things each day, and check in with my list whenever I have even fifteen minutes of downtime.
A few weeks ago I had a few minutes, and the only thing I could see on the list that would be easily do-able was to go deal with my gaiters. Adding to my motivation, Jenn had given me a pair of her gaiters (her under sole straps were delaminating) and a jacket (also delaminating – that woman works her gear HARD!) to bring in to the store in SODO, and I was feeling a bit overdue in ascertaining what our options were, so I left the house a bit early and swung by the Outdoor Research store in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood, to see if I could humbly request a repair.
At that point I hadn’t thought much about how old my gaiters were, or when I got them, or why they were so worn through – instead I was focused on filling a gap (NEED GAITERS) and sheepishly wondered if I should have, I dunno, brushed off some of the caked on mud and muck on the bottoms and sides of mine, before going in to suggest they might require repair.
The guys at the Outdoor Research store were terrific, though. Within moments they’d clarified the Lifetime Warranty (“Lifetime means lifetime,” I think one guy said), and after I asked to size up so that they would fit around my new Denali boots, I was unquestioningly given those as my replacement pair. They grabbed my gaiters, eyed the wear approvingly (when they asked where I was headed on my trip and I said Denali, one nodded and said, “that’s the kind of place you’re supposed to take ‘em!”), and in one movement flipped my trusty companions into a back room, strode to the shelf, cut off the tags (to prevent re-sale or them being returned), and gave me two brand-new pairs of gaiters – one for each of us – and a new replacement hardshell for Jenn.
I was so dazzled by what it meant for a company to honor a warranty so completely, and so unhesitatingly, that I thanked them repeatedly, clutched my pile of fresh-from-the-factory Goretex to my chest, and stumbled back into the sunshine, and off to the trailhead to meet our little crew.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that such a formative piece of gear was gone, and one that had, truly, taken me so many places. Mulling them over as I drove to Tiger that night, I realized that I bought my first pair of gaiters at a time when I didn’t even know what gaiters were.
I landed in Alaska for the first time ten years ago this month, as a driven, ambitious young wannabe scientist and freshly minted college grad, headed for a summer of fieldwork studying plants on Alaska’s North Slope (to put it in context – Prudhoe Bay was closer to our field station than Fairbanks!) I was thrilled to be in Alaska, thrilled to be given the opportunity to do the kind of plant ecology research I would be doing, and I was thrown together with two other recent graduates and told to go get some of the gear we needed. Lucky for me one of the two other students actually knew what he was doing, and took us to a store that may or may not have been called The Prospector, where I went about buying everything he told me to get – including knee-high gaiters.
I didn’t know what a gaiter was for, at that point, but I dutifully tried them on and put them on my pile, along with some awkward Helly Hansen fisherperson’s jacket and pants that I still have, and still haven’t worn. I then proceeded to wear those gaiters all summer long, and into the fall, and over mountains and hills and through rivers and streams and bogs and tundra, across several different continents…for just shy of the next ten years.
When I bought those gaiters, my friend who knew what he was doing (who would very quickly become one of my very best friends) also took the time to cut me a length of tubular webbing, a piece of thickly stitched, hollow fabric tubing, and thread the under-sole strap through it, to protect them for as long as possible. I didn’t know what that was for, really, but I thought it made me look spiffy and like I knew what I was doing (and I thought I did know what I was doing, so this jived, with me), so I left it on there. For ten years!
A year and a half ago now, Ed, Leigh Ann, and two Basic students and I did Glacier Peak through one of Ed’s innovative “epic” routes, where we end up more or less circling the entire mountain to climb it, making it much more arduous (and interesting) in the process. On the way down on an 18 hour day in which I popped my first water bladder (on a collected rock I probably shouldn’t have picked up), I somehow, magically, lost one of those pieces of threaded webbing. When we got to the car in the dark, boots and gaiters caked in thick, gooey, mud, it was gone.
But when I handed over my gaiters at OR the other night, the second piece of that ancient, 2005 vintage webbing was still there – right where Greg had put it, protecting me and my gaiters, all those years ago in Alaska.
It’s a few weeks later as I finish this piece, and I still feel a little bit sad not to have realized the opportunity that laid ahead of me, and taken my trusty old gaiters back up to Alaska, one last time. How wonderfully full circle it would have been, to stand on Denali’s summit in the same gaiters as I had purchased on that first trip up there 10 years (to the very week) before, and think about how far life has taken me since that very wonderful and critical summer of self-realization, as experienced in a pair of super sexy, knee-high black gaiters…
So long, old friends. Thanks for keeping the dirt/mud/rocks/sand/water/leeches out.