Gear, Stuff and What We Need


The annual Gear Guide from April 2014.

I’m on the lookout to buy a pair of belay gloves and two cool child-sized fleece sweaters, possibly from Patagonia, for my little kids. This year’s Gear Guide from Climbing magazine had a good breathable pair of gloves but no kids clothes (but why would they?)

I would probably send an Instagram around of both finds if I get them. I might even hash tag Gear Addiction or gearaddition just for amusement.

Since Natalie and I started our hopscotch move to a townhouse and back to our condo, we have let go of belongings and made rules about what new things can come into our home to stay permanently (such as decorations, books and magazines.) We’ve read that such habits can keep things tidy too.

The process of moving twice in just over a year, and reducing our collection of stuff, also made us examine why we want new things. It quickly became obvious to us: If it wasn’t something we needed or enhanced how we lived, that thing we thought we needed was merely emblematic of what we wanted our life to be. It indicated what we would rather be doing. It begged the question: Why not just do it or get rid of it?

I guess we were filling voids. For me, that meant gear for the kind of climbing and hiking I wanted to do but wouldn’t be able to commit to, if at all. I suddenly felt like I was forcing a square peg into a round hole.

What we really needed to do is go out and do what we are day dreaming about. Get out and do it. We’ll figure out what we really need, and in some cases what we don’t.

Take for instance my Uncle Tom. (He was my mentor and guide for getting into outdoors pursuits. I joined him on his quest to climb the Adirondack Mountains’ 46 highest peaks on several backpacking trips, mostly on trailess routes.) After every trip, he returned home and emptied out his old REI external framepack. He did so to ventilate the contents and sort everything into two distinct piles: 1) Stuff he used, and 2) Stuff he didn’t.

He cussed over the stuff he didn’t need. It weighed him down.

But we both learned something after these exercises. Sometimes things we needed we didn’t even bring. A hatchet would have been helpful. The pillow was unnecessary. And maybe we should take less food.

What I really remember are what shines through in the photos. The landscape. The smiles. The rocky trail and the feel of stepping stone to stone under a weighted pack.

I think we learn more from doing than shopping. We figure out what we need from trying. We find who we are out there.

Good luck.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.

Via Ferrata and Zip Lines on Everest and Moving Day


I had to pick something up at the rock climbing gym, so I asked Wunderkind, who is almost in preschool, if she wanted to go see it with me and she gave me an enthusiastic yes. Then I asked her what she thought people at the climbing gym do? She indicated that you play… and then go down the slide.

A slide made me chuckle. The pleasure of a slide struck me; that’s what Everest really needs. Well, maybe not a slide, but the placement of a ladder at the Hillary bottleneck suddenly felt like the wrong path to draw money from high altitude climbers through the new fees structure (aside from improving the flow of traffic). What the mountain really needs is something more exciting: Via ferrata or zip lining — the world’s highest, of course.

The via ferrata would take inexperienced climbers to the top of thr mountain, or least to the south summit (the rest of the way would only be done through more technical work,) and then you could fly down to the Khumbu Glacier in time for tea with your porters. Throw in some fixed-place cameras and you can sell the photos of you climbing the iron way and riding the cable.

Why hasn’t Nepal thought of this before?

On a wholly other topic, I’m contiuing to find my place in this urban-suburban Peaklessburg.

My family — all four of us — are moving back to our old neighborhood inside the Washington, DC Beltway and into our old condo. We previously thought that it was too small for our growing family. Now we think it’s perfect for us (at least for a little while.)

To make it work, we’ve embraced minimalism (or at least much more than we ever have in the past,) and adopted the belief than home is merely home base from which to go out and live rather than your monument of your life. We just need a place that facilitates our life.

This move is part of a landmark decision for us. I have been saying for years that Washington was Peaklessburg (and it still is), and it never gets enough snow for long enough to be able to cross-country ski or snowshoe right outside my front door (something I grew up with and always considered a baseline for judging what’s normal.) But since having Wunderkind and Little Senshi, we look at the city in a different light and feel it’s the best place to raise them. So we’ll be here a while.

One minor factor that made the choice palatable was finding fun and some satisfaction in climbing at the local rock climbing gym. I have always climbed indoors but usually thought of it as a poor alternative to the real thing.

The rock climbing gym is actually conveniently located, has like-minded people, and it motivates me to stay active. I might even meet up to climb with a one of the climbers I use as a source occasionally. It’s also kind of amusing to be ” the old guy” at the gym; most of the climbers are 10-15 years younger and usually have no worries in the world and no idea about climbing history.

Still, pulling plastic beats hooking iron on a big mountain.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.

The Climbing Life with Chris Kalman

Cerro Fitz Roy (Ippei Yuge 2010)

Brewing hot coffee from melted snow in the dark is a chore, yet it’s part of a familiar early morning ritual. It’s an ideal period for taking in where you are: outside at play.

The climbing life is full of these moments and they are a little different for everyone. Still, I imagine Chris Kalman and his partners, Austin Siadak, Matthew Van Biene, Tad McCrea, on their upcoming attempt on Cerro Catedral in Patagonia doing something like this somewhere along the way. Together, they will be working to complete a new route on the 3,000-foot east face in Chilean Patagonia.

If you read Alpinist in the last year or seen the list of grant recipients for the Copp-Dash Inspire Award from the American Alpine Club, you might have already been introduced to Chris Kalman. He and I recently got to know each other over a long-spread-out email exchange during this Austral summer season in Patagonia. It turns out, despite having never met, our background had gone beyond both being from Northern Virginia, except he’s taken a very different fork in the road.

Kalman is fully embracing a climbing life and climbing full time. Our emails turned into a bit of an interview so we worked out this Q&A to share with you to share how the climbing life can become real.

TSM: Where are you climbing now and who are your partners?

Chris Kalman: Now I spend summers in Washington state, where I climb mostly at Index – an awesome crag of world-class granite – and winters in Cochamo, Chile, which features a variety of 1000 meter walls and cirques of beautiful granite.  My favorite partners are still my first climbing partners I ever had, Grant Simmons and Miranda Oakley.  We all went to college together at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where we really started to learn to climb outdoors.  That said, Grant lives in North Conway (New Hampshire) now, and Miranda in Yosemite – so I am branching out in the Washington state climbing scene more and more.

When did you start climbing? Was it hiking? An indoor gym?

I first climbed rocks at my dad’s cousin’s summer camp in the sierra nevada when I was 6 or 7 years old.  I remember loving it instantly, but never thought about climbing again until my friend Colin Tharp, growing up in Northern Virginia, invited me to the Sportrock [climbing] gym [in Sterling, Virginia] with him when I was about 17 years old.  At the time, I was kind of a punk skateboarder (which is definitely more dangerous than rock climbing!), and my aching limbs welcomed the change in disciplines.

Torres del Paine (Frank Kehren 2013)

When did you recognize that it was more than a recreational activity or hobby?

This is a really interesting question, with really no clear answer.  Even though I am starting to carve out a career in the climbing industry now, it still feels recreational to me.  I was brought up with a very strong ethic of community service and selflessness stressed from an early age.  So for me, there have always been two kinds of activities: those you do for fun, and those you do for the betterment of people around you.  I suppose the real answer to your question is that when I saw those two things could be one and the same, that’s when climbing went from hobby to … to something more.  Now, I am very interested in climbing as a means: as a means to conservation, as a means to therapy (it has shown to be very helpful to post-war sufferers of PTSD), as a means to improving upon oneself.  When climbing can move into these more selfless, service-oriented realms, then it becomes more than recreation.

Did you turn down a traditional career path outright?

I distinctly remember thinking when I decided to major in philosophy that at the very least, it should make it difficult for me to “sell out” and get a job working in an office.  In reality, I think I knew more coming out of high school than I realized, and probably could have saved a lot of money by not going to college.  For me, the “traditional” career path never felt correct.

Coming out of college, I started working for the national park service in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and kind of instantly adopted the “climbing bum” lifestyle.  I spent my first two paychecks on a plane ticket to Thailand for the end of the season, and have been working and travelling for climbing on and off ever since.

I would definitely stress to people that it is possible to work in a nontraditional career path while still working in a traditional discipline with a traditional degree.  Biologists can find work in cliffside ecosystem analysis; engineers chemists and physicists are ideal candidates for jobs with gear companies (who are often sympathetic to climbing dreams and the need for time off); writers, photographers and videographers are the backbone of the climbing media, and can often find work for gear companies as well.  It took me years to get up the courage to test the waters of the climbing industry, because I believed it was something just for the super-elite.  In reality, the climbing industry is more of a “traditional career path” than you might think, and will often welcome good-hearted climbers with open arms.

Did a mentor guide you?

A lot of the joy of climbing for me has been figuring it out on my own.  That said, I can clearly remember a few mentors.  Scott Esser first showed me how to equalize a 3-point anchor at the Suzuki boulders in RMNP (I haven’t seen or talked to him in years, but I still remember that).  Jess Asmussen – one of RMNP’s lead climbing rangers – took me on my first multi-pitch, was there for my first trad leads, and has been a long-time hero of mine not just as a climber but as a role-model.  He’s just a great human.  Jeremy Long – one of the trail crew leaders of old at RMNP – took me on my first alpine route, Pervertical Sanctuary on the diamond.  There were times in my naivete, especially when hail was falling on us and lightning was striking with frightening proximity, that I thought we’d probably die up there.  He smoked cigarettes and smiled through the whole experience, and patiently explained crack climbing and french-freeing to me at 13,000 feet as I grovelled my way up the crux pitch first crack before we bailed.

Who’s your hero in the climbing world? Messner? Tackle? Honnold? Kennedy?

Those guys are all amazing.  John Muir has to be high on my list.  Peter Croft is an incomparable badass.  But really, I have to say my climbing heros are my friends Grant Simmons and Miranda Oakley.  Those two embody all the best things about climbing: joy, skill in movement, sharing their love with others, and selflessness; and none of the worst: egothumping, derision of other climbers, anger at the crag or gym when you fall off your project, posing.  I’d rather be a good human than a good climber any day.  My hope is that climbing can help in that regard.  After all, every time you fall, you remember how much you have to learn, right?

I don’t know if you heard about the death of Mark Hesse. He lead an active life climbing and supporting the community. What does it mean to have a full climbing life?

I did hear about this.  I don’t know if this was a bad year for climbing, or if I have just taken more notice of climbing deaths, but it seems the grim reaper has been lurking around every corner lately.  To me, there is no full climbing life, there is only a full life.  And a full life is not a destination, or an end-goal, but a process and a pursuit.  For those who choose to make climbing part of their pursuit of fullness, I would urge them to recall that the real work is not in sending five-point-whatever, but in bringing light to yourself and those around you by constantly trying, constantly falling, constantly smiling, and laughing, and trying again.

Chris Kalman climbs in  Cochamo, Chile in winter and spends his summers in Seattle where he is starting up a Pacific Northwest branch of the guiding company Treks and Tracks. As a 24-seven climber, he is also supported by Cilo Gear, Madrock Climbing and NW Alpine.

Thanks again for stopping by. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following The Suburban Mountaineer on Twitter and Facebook. Also look for me on Pinterest and Instagram.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 435 other followers