Atari, or Musings on Old Gear – Drew Brayshaw

// by: MWO

I was out in the mountains with Maxim de Jong back in March, just before the end of calendar winter at the back end of the Sumallo River south of Sunshine Valley. We were climbing a new route, or partial new route, on the north-east face of Mt Rideout and having a great day out in the mountains. A lot of the route was easy enough to simulclimb, but we stopped and belayed a couple of the harder pitches.

Now Mt Rideout, like a lot of the peaks in the Cascades, is not made of nice, solid granite but rather a mixture of old seafloor sediments that have been heated up and partly melted down to make an assortment of rock that ranges from firm and crackless down to very loose and broken in character. You can’t just stuff in a bomber cam and call it good on rock like this – you need to take advantage of seams and pods and horns, and work a bit more for solid gear, than you do at Squamish or in the Bugaboos.

At one such belay, Max was complimenting my anchor, which consisted of a couple of small nuts and Tricams stuffed behind a large horizontal flake in the roof of a small cave. It made me laugh because the actual gear – the nuts and Tricams – as well as some of the other stuff on my rack, particularly some old pitons, was all stuff that I have had since I bought my first rack in 1991, and in point of fact it was Max who sold it to me, when his old gear store on Second Avenue near the Cambie Bridge had its closeout sale.

A lot of times in outdoor sports we can get caught up in advertising and hype and envy of our friends who have shiny new things and think that we need to have the shiniest and newest and lightest of things for ourselves. There’s nothing really wrong with thinking like that – it sells gear, and that keeps gear stores and gear makes in business, which is good when we do actually need to buy new things. But there is a special kind of pleasure when you have gear which lasts a long time and which is still good at doing what it’s supposed to do. Every time you use it you get a little feeling of satisfaction that it still works. There’s a story that Henry Ford went over the Model T after Ford Motor Co. had been making it for a few years and asked the company repairmen if there was anything on his car that they never had to fix. When they pointed out the few things which indeed never broke, wily old Henry ordered the factory to make them of lighter metal so that they would indeed break – the birth of planned obsolencence.

That kind of thinking isn’t as prevalent in outdoor sports, particularly in climbing, where stuff that breaks unexpectedly might cause injury or death. But I know that I used to buy shell jackets, for instance, based on their supposed durability, because they were expensive and I wanted them to last a long time to make up for my investment. I was vaguely scandalized when I read a section in Mark Twight’s book “Extreme Alpinism” where he argued directly against this view – saying that he usually got rid of a jacket due to its colour, for instance, picking up a new one in a newly fashionable colour and not because his old one had worn out. But Mark had a point. In about 25 years of climbing and mountaineering I have had a total of 8 or 9 waterproof shell jackets. Two I just wore out, one got stolen, one was used when I bought it and even more used when I resold it. One was a tester jacket that I beat up for a year and returned to the maker. I gave away a couple of other ones when, as Mark said they would, they got to looking dated. The rest I still have hanging in my closet, different tools for different conditions. The oldest, heaviest one gets worn when ice cragging. The newest, lightest one is for stuffing into the bottom of the pack for those days when it might rain but probably won’t. And the other one does everything else.

There’s a Japanese term, “atari”, which is spelled the same as the 80s game console but which means something different. It literally means “hit the mark” or “success” but it’s used to refer to the lived-in, weatherbeaten look that things acquire from regular use, especially things like the worn, frayed spots on your favorite pair of jeans. You can fake this look on a pair of jeans by stonewashing it or manually distressing it or deliberately cutting holes in it, but the result looks fake to a trained eye, nothing like the marks of real wear, which can only be obtained by just wearing and using your jeans for a long time.

Old climbing gear has its own atari: the frayed spots on harnesses, the burrs on the wires of wired nuts, the faded colours of old ropes and slings, the worn-in dirt and patches of sticky tape over old crampon slashes on bib pants, the manual repairs and duct tape and hand sewn repairs on other gear. It makes me happy every time I see this stuff on my own gear. We’ve all been that guy at the crag with the rack of shiny new everythings at least once in our lives, and it’s a nice stage to move on from. Truly used gear can’t be counterfeited. It has its own silent stories to tell, if you are willing to listen.

I hope, you reading this, whomever you are, that you’ve thought of some old stories you remember about your own gear, and that you get to add some new stories soon.

– Drew Brayshaw