Confessions of a gear nerd

November 24, 2008

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Outdoor people these days are becoming increasingly obsessed with gear, and as a result, the once lowly position of gear reviewer has become akin to the big-name DJ.

Reviewers like James ‘Goldie’ Thompson at Trail, or Keith ‘Big up’ Ricarby at Climber are regularly mobbed in Ambleside, their wicking tops ripped from their bronzed backs as they are forced to escape in sports cars from hordes of their screaming fans. Stalkers are also a big problem (‘review misty for me’), plus the constant travelling involved in gear testing; socks in the Andes one day, spoons in Alaska the next, it can really wear you down if you want to keep climbing the hardest routes on the planet in-between a busy schedule. All this can lead to a few problems when the reader discovers their pin-up gear reviewer isn’t quite who or what they thought they were.

It was a typical climbing shop Saturday morning. The store was heaving with climbers and walkers, plus the familiar families who travelled to the Peak District every weekend. This latter group usually came with the stated intention of ‘going out to the countryside, but were generally to be found visiting nurseries, sitting drinking tea in overcrowded cafes, or in this case, wandering around outdoor shops complaining at the prices.

On this day ‘tyre kickers’ - the bane of all busy shops - were in low attendance so trade was brisk and the tills were ringing with the usual weekend staples; new boots, blocks of chalk and replacement wires – lost, worn out and stolen.

Being September the shop was also crammed full of university mountaineering clubs, complete with the annual gaggles of first-year students, all bussed in from around the country to have their first try at this climbing thing. I’ve been told that some clubs try and put off these newbies by visiting the most unclimber friendly places on these first trips. Places like Rubicon, the Secret Garden or Ravenstor, and if at all possible in the rain. This is done in the hope that having already paid their subs, their new charges will be put off from ever going on any further trips, and that any that stay are obviously keen enough to be in the club. This ploy then leaves the real climbers free to invest the absentee member’s cash in beer for the coming year’s trips. Not a bad system really.

On this morning a large group was in from Cambridge University buying helmets. Now, this is usually the last piece of equipment many new climbers would buy, preferring instead to invest the money in a nice pair of pants, but only the day before a climber had fallen off on Stanage and landed on their head. The accident had been particularly messy and helmet sales had shot up as a result.

As is often the case with university groups there was one person who seemed to be the fountain of all knowledge, this person generally being either the club president or the club hotshot (they’d been to the Alps once and sat in a tent). This individual is usually identified by their special uniform; a pair of grubby pink Stone Monkey tights, North Face mountain jacket - purple and worn over a faded Buffalo - and the ever-present ‘I’m craaaazy’ fleece hat/bovine sex aid. They are usually to be found close to new members of the opposite sex.

‘See that Hard Grit video…I’m in that’.

This uni climbing club alpha dog is the person all the new climbers generally turn to for advice concerning gear, ignoring anything a lowly shop assistant might have to say and are most commonly called upon to offer advice on rock boot fitting. This advice is generally sought by either an 18 stone ‘I’m mainly into rugby’ type student (with his collars turned up), or some non-English speaking waif from Indonesia, who obviously just got on the wrong bus by mistake that morning. Boot fitting advice generally involves persuading the new member to squeeze their feet into a pair on Ninjas or 5.10 lace-ups, and always ‘at least five sizes smaller than your shoe size’. When boot buying is complete then begins the traditional ritual of the alpha dog persuading some poor student to blow their whole grant on a full set of Camalots or a portaledge.

Anyway, on this occasion, the advice coming from the head student was sound and helpful, and she obviously knew what she was talking about. All I had to do was stand there and get helmets down for them to try. I’d just returned from Yosemite where I’d been using one of the latest soft polystyrene helmets, and so ventured my opinion that maybe if the student was just into climbing then a soft helmet may be best.

Of the three soft helmets we had on sale, two were great but the third was absolutely terrible, having fallen apart several times while just hanging from the ceiling. Taking on board my advice she started advising the students to try on the third helmet and ignore the first two. Being a good shop assistant; i.e. I wanted the customer to buy what I thought was the piece of gear for them, I tried to persuade her not to push the dodgy helmet, putting forward my reasons why, but she was having none of it.

“Well, I think your wrong,” she said. “Andy Kirkpatrick recommended this helmet in one of his reviews”. Knocked back a bit all I could utter was “Did he?”. She carried on for several minutes telling me exactly what I’d said until a gap materialised for me to jump in. “Well,” I said, “I’m afraid that I’m Andy Kirkpatrick and I don’t ever remember recommending this helmet, and I’m not recommending it now”.

The whole room suddenly seemed to fall totally silent, as she stood there, helmet in hand, looked at me in amazement as if she’d just been served a McChicken sandwich by Jamie Oliver. “YOU’RE the Andy Kirkpatrick!?” she said, the sound of a shattering allusion carried in her voice. “But…but…what are YOU doing working here?”. If there are any stalkers out there then please get in touch.