There is a worn, scratched, and cobweb-covered SMC ice axe that’s been hanging in one of my gear caves or another for over a decade. And I’ve never used it. This old blue ice axe is a bit too short for me, but the main reason it perpetually hangs on a wall collecting dust is that I haven’t been on a glacier or steep snowfield that required an ice axe in years. So why hold on to this un-used mountaineering tool for so long? Relationships with gear can be complicated.
I have a yellow, 45 liter Black Diamond pack that my wife Shallan argues correctly is no longer yellow. It’s a frayed, stained, greasy sack with one zipper and a few straps that has followed me on long-distance wilderness treks, all-day mountain bike rides, backcountry ski tours, and down Utah slot canyons. It’s traveled to Mexico, Canada, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Thailand, and most western North American states and provinces. And while I’m sure it has at least one more tropical surf trip left before it comes apart at the seams, these days it gets used more for hauling groceries home from the store on my back.
People get attached to specific pieces of outdoor gear or clothing for lots of reasons. That BD pack may smell a bit like a dog kennel on a hot, humid day, and never mind the missing hip belt buckle and abrasion holes. I love the simplicity and familiarity of that old pack and don’t see a retirement in its future anytime soon.
Back to that ice axe. It’s a sad story I rarely talk about that keeps me hanging on to this battered blue piece of steel, a hand-me-down from a friend. Brian was a few years older than me and seemed lifetimes wiser and more experienced in the outdoor sports and other life passions we both pursued.
The last time I saw him eight years ago, he showed up at the small cabin where I was living to solemnly brief me on his deteriorating predicament. The brain tumors that had already almost killed him in a climbing accident and the surgeries and treatment that followed, were striking back with a vengeance.
We sat out in the Scablands and talked about the absurdity, beauty, and pain that life serves up; the off-the-map places we still wanted to visit; and we drank whiskey in the moonlight while Brian played his guitar and sang Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard to coyotes, cattle, and sagebrush. Before I knew it, he was gone, and that un-used ice axe he’d given me after a hiking trip in the North Cascades became something more than a thing.
There are pieces of gear, like my BD pack, that we use over and over again out in nature that become difficult to let go of while they have some thread of life left in them. Other artifacts of our outdoor adventures, like that ice axe, are a different, sentimental beast. We hold on even though we rarely or never use them, their presence having long ago transcended the elements they’re made of. Memories of people or moments in places we can never get back become fused with wood, aluminum, Gore-Tex, canvas, or steel. //