High Performance Gear – A Clever Choice?

Dom Turysty, Zakopane, Poland near the Tatra Mountains
My British travel companion Andrew limped towards me in pain. Blisters again. “That’s what you get for wearing brand new leather hiking boots,” I thought to myself.

“And why don’t you get yourself a pair of lightweight trail shoes?” I added silently. ‘They’ll surely help you move faster.”

I contemplated all of this as I soaked in the magnificent view from the summit of Rysy, a 2,499-metre peak in the High Tatras that straddles the Slovakia and Poland boarder. Andrew and I spent the prior day hiking to Chata Pod Rysy, a mountain hut precariously situated below Rysy’s summit. We woke to a noisy room filled with rambunctious Czech climbers eager to attack the nearby crags and after a hearty Slovakian breakfast, we were off to Rysy.

The ascent of Rysy was steep yet straightforward. I stared towards Poland, our destination that lay mere kilometers yet over 1,400 vertical meters below us. The descent looked especially steep but locals had told us that long stretches of fixed chains are in place to help navigate the sketchiest parts. The intense steepness of the terrain along with cloudy skies, snowy patches from a recent storm, and a language barrier made me a bit hesitant. We begin the descent confident that we were prepared. Slow going and tough, the descent was accomplished without incident.

A short bus ride from the base of the High Tatras brought Andrew and I to the funky resort town of Zakopane, Poland and a much-deserved pivo (Beer). Dom Turysty PTTK, one of the area’s largest budget hotels displays a sign that reads, “Tourist you have to remember – the mountains are only for clever ones.”

The sign made me chuckle and I imagined placing one exactly like it in Jackson Hole, Wyo., the place I have called home for over six years.

“I am definitely one of the clever ones,” I thought smugly having just completed the tricky descent of Rysy. “Yup, the mountains are for me.”

Over the past nine years, I have lived in three different Rocky Mountain resort towns where there is a constant reminder to be rad, go big, get extreme and do it all in the proper gear. While the intense nature of people’s passion for outdoor activities doesn’t surprise me, I am still amazed at their unrelenting quest for the newest/best/most gear.

I remember first being aware of this several years ago when I lived in Crested Butte, Colorado. At this time, fat skis were just becoming acceptable to the hardcore crowd and I was living in a house with three testosterone driven males. I clearly recall one of the guys praising the importance of owning the latest outdoor equipment. He even had a name for it – “high performance gear.”  At first I resisted buying excessive amounts of gear, but then I caved in. Being a member of the fairer sex, my reasoning went, I needed all of the help I could get if I was expected to hold my own with the boys in the mountains.

Although Rysy is half a world away and straddles two former communist countries, I wasn’t prepared for people’s indifference towards their outdoor adventures. You can imagine my surprise when I saw tons of folks, very few of them decked out in top-of-the-line, high performance gear, ascending upon Rysy. People of all ages, shapes and sizes were ready to tackle Poland’s highest peak. Most of them wore heavy, high-cut leather hiking boots, not the low-style, lightweight ones we prefer in Jackson Hole. And the equipment got even worse: external-frame backpacks, blue jeans, cotton tee shirts, you name it.

“Don’t these people know anything about being rad in the mountains?” I thought.

To make matters worse, it was approaching noontime as I got to the lower reaches of Rysy. All morning, clouds had threatened to pour rain on the High Tatras. A storm would have made the steep ascent a challenge and perhaps a real danger. Surely, these cannot be clever mountain folks.

A few days later, I was talking to an employee at Extreme Sports Zakopane, a local mountaineering store. We were discussing Rysy, and I was curious to know if many accidents or rescues occur there each year. He calmly assured me, “It is not a problem.”  From my years of travel, I have discovered that when someone says to you in broken English, “It is not a problem,” it is best to forget about what you have seen and go with it.

Apparently, Rysy is doable for the average Tom, Dick, and Harry. (Or more accurately, any Pavel, Stanislaw and Jan.) Plenty of people summit Rysy each summer and from what I noticed, few of them would be considered rad in Jackson Hole.  Or, maybe they’re so rad they don’t need the newest, high-tech equipment.

I thought about the gear I had with me on Rysy and tried to judge it’s retail value: Lightweight trail shoes and Gore-Tex jacket from The North Face, down sleeping bag guaranteed to keep me warm to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, an Arc’Teryx pack complete with two liter camelback to assure I stay properly hydrated, polyester shirt to wick away moisture. Surely it’s worth a pretty penny; surely its retail value represents a sizable chunk of the average Polish or Slovakian person’s income.

These observations led me to wonder, “Precisely what does it take to be clever in the mountains?” Skill, proper planning, and smart decision-making abilities are indispensable, but how important is the latest high-performance gear? Is it clever to go into the mountains with a pair of clunky hiking boots, a 20-year-old pack and a poncho?

Many of us move to the mountains to escape the consumption driven lifestyle of the cities and suburbs, but how much of this do we really leave behind? Sometimes it seems as if we just trade a BMW, a Rolex and a stock portfolio for a full-suspension mountain bike, a $425 Gore-Tex jacket and a quiver of skis.

It is now mid-October and I am back in Jackson after six glorious weeks in Eastern Europe. I savor the last days of fall and anticipate the approaching ski season. My savings dwindle, but if I’m careful, I will be able to postpone working for a few more weeks.

Glossy ski magazines preview the newest outdoor equipment and much of it is available at local mountaineering stores. Each piece reinforces the need for high-performance gear. Each item promises to help provide a more pleasurable experience in the mountains.

A pair of K2 Dawn Patrol skis catches my eye. I am sure they will help me tackle every condition the backcountry throws my way. Owning a pair, I have convinced myself, will make skiing any double black diamond a breeze.

To I really “need” a new pair of skis, or can I survive on the pair I bought last year? New skis or some more time free from work? What is the clever choice? That’s for me to decide.

What, exactly, does it take to be clever in the mountains?