Yes, I write about gear for a living, I have access to the most sophisticated toys and tools in the outdoor world, and I’m constantly geeking out over tech details.
But I’m keenly aware of the fact that the gear does not make the athlete. I was a much better paddler when I was using hand-me-down equipment, living out of my truck, and spending 200 days on the water every year.
Don't get me wrong, I love gear. My obsession with the lines on a pair of skis is borderline creepy. Proper safety equipment, and knowing how to use it, saves lives. But I also love the stories of athletes rising above catastrophic gear failures and still completing their missions. Here are six of my favorites.
Steve House, author of Training for the New Alpinism, dropped an ice tool when he was 48 hours into a 60-hour ascent of the Slovak Direct on Denali. "I said to Mark [Twight], who had been belaying, that the tool, which had been one of the first carbon-fiber prototype tools, had been with me on every route I'd done for the past six years and it seemed appropriate that it had died in battle," House wrote in an email.
"It didn't dawn on me how much harder it was going to be to ascend the last 4,000 feet of Denali's south face with only one axe." The other two members of his team, Twight and Scott Backes, shared the burden of climbing with a single tool as the three finished the ascent. "Whoever was leading always had two tools, and one of us followed with just one," House wrote.
Professional ski mountaineer and writer Brody Leven—terrified about being the weakest member of a team comprised mostly of his heroes—once brought two different size boots to Denali.
Obsessed over the gear he planned to take on his first trip to the mountain, Leven had ordered a pair of boots and liners that were a size larger than what he was used to because he’d heard the altitude made feet swell.
Unfortunately, he ended up packing one of his old, broken-in boots and one large one—with the old liner. Leven, who noticed the problem on day one of the three-week expedition, used a multitool to adjust the binding and noted a sticker on his ski to keep track of which foot it belonged to. Then he summited and skied Denali.
Ultrarunner Rory Bosio's Petzl NAO headlamp died suddenly sometime around 3 a.m. during the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc—a 104-mile race with 30,840 feet of climbing.
She had a spare headlamp in her pack, but it was also dead. "I was at the top of Col Ferret, it was pitch black, windy, and I had a long descent into the valley. Kind of hard to run fast downhill in the dark," Bosio says.
Luckily, she had a flashlight app on her iPhone (another piece of mandatory gear for the UTMB.) "It was a little awkward running with my phone in my hand, but it got the job done," Bosio says. She finished seventh overall in the race, and broke the previous women’s course record by more than three hours.
Professional kayaker and photographer Darin McQuiod's bulkhead system (the platforms that support your feet in a whitewater kayak) broke during his first run down the Class V+ Sierra classic, Dinkey Creek.
The break occurred right above the Nick Kelley Slide—a terrifying 50-foot drop that’s one of the most technical features on the run. Not wanting to run this Class V+ rapid with nothing to rest his feet on, McQuiod jammed a bunch of driftwood in the front of the boat and paddled the rest of the day without incident.
Ultrarunner Mike Foote emailed this response about overcoming a shoe failure at the Big Horn 100, just hours before placing third in the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji. "My insole wiggled its way completely out of my shoe during an 18-mile descent in Bighorn 100 in 2012," Foote says. The 30-year-old Montana native went on to set a record of 18:36:42 on the brutal course despite the incident.
Mike Wolfe, who holds the fastest recorded time on the John Muir Trail, knows more about big runs that anyone I know. But when it came to his first ski mountaineering race—the 40-mile long Elk Mountain Grand Traverse—he was a complete novice.
Racing on brand-new gear, Wolfe hadn't even skied in his boots yet, and his skins failed before he’d reached the crux ascent at Star Pass. Wolfe had packed Klister Kick wax as a back up, but it exploded in his hands.
The wax then turned into a super-glue-like material on the bottom of his skis, which made gliding nearly impossible. The situation would have been better if he’d broken a ski, because at least then he could have rationalized quitting, Wolfe says. Instead, he and his partner had a 14-hour epic to the finish line.