“The bivy is pathetic … strewn with sharp rocks and flakes, a foot and a half wide at most. It’s amazing what we can live with when there’s no alternative.” Josh Wharton on the second ascent of the North Pillar of the Twins Tower. Canadian Rockies. JON WALSH

What’s the “Why?”: Notes from a crash-test dummy

Kelly Cordes
Spring 2014

The other day, I was daydreaming about alpine climbing.

About a half-century ago, the French mountain guide and author Gaston Rébuffat wrote one of the rare nonpoetic, strictly practical sections of his classic book Starlight and Storm: “Personal equipment should be warm, light, strong and of first-class quality … [it] will be severely tested, and it must be in perfect condition before every climb.”

I set the book down and my mind drifted. I started thinking about tools. The tools we use, how we use them and what for. Soon I was reading about the early climbers, marveling at what they did with what they had, from their clothes to their hardware.

It’s late afternoon on day two and I’m stemmed-out on small footholds 3,000 feet up a 5,000-foot route in Patagonia. This long pitch has funneled me into a soaking wet corner, where meltwater pours from above, drenching both the crack (which is an offwidth to begin with, dammit) and the unprotected slab to its right. Decisions, decisions. I look disappointedly at my remaining rack: one small cam and a handful of wires. Looks like another 40 feet until I can build an anchor. I pull on my hood, cinch my cuffs and zip up. Deep breath. I start to climb.

If any finished product comes from a process, I wonder what drives that process. What’s the “Why”? My “Why” is that I can’t pull myself away from the mountains, their beauty, what they draw from me and give me in return. “In this modern age, very little remains that is real,” Rébuffat wrote in a more typical passage. “Night has been banished, so have the cold, the wind, and the stars. They have all been neutralized: the rhythm of life itself is obscured.”

It’s now 4 a.m. and everything is real. The cold, the wind, the stars. The blurred double vision through my headlamp and the fatigue creeping into my bones. We’ve been climbing for 20 hours straight, when finally I reach a perfectly flat ledge. In the light of the moon I focus on the silhouette of the Torre group, its spires aligned big to small like chess pieces. I sit for a moment, feeling small. We’re 4,000 feet up, should summit later today. Dry but cold, I stuff my feet into an ultralight prototype pack that I’ve torn nearly to shreds – we’re gonna have to work on that one, I think flatly. I settle in, stare at the stars and start to shiver, then force myself to stop. I pull on a 9-ounce prototype down jacket, lower my heart rate, relax into a deep trance. Not too deep – in a few hours we’ll have to rise and keep climbing.

I climb because nothing else makes me as happy, and I work as a climbing ambassador/product tester for Patagonia, which means I know this: Patagonia doesn’t test its gear on its customers. I take prototypes up Fitz Roy. Tommy Caldwell takes them up El Cap. Kate Rutherford takes them up Cerro Torre, Hayden Kennedy up K7. Josh Wharton takes them up the Emperor Face and Walker Ferguson – the head of field testing and the best athlete of us all – takes them into the Alaskan tundra for weeks of isolated exploration. Patagonia relies on a small crew of devoted product testers. Some are underground hardcores, some are people you read about. None are dabblers, and every one of us has structured our lives around starlight and storm.

Sometimes during our product meetings I zoom out and can’t help but smile. From far corners of the globe, we’ll reunite in a room to talk. I laugh hearing the stories of where each tester piece has been, what it’s been through, and then hearing the unfiltered, no tasty-talk feedback from sunburnt, weathered, opinionated climbers. Patagonia’s product people take it all in, ask questions from big picture to refinements, see the common themes and then get right back to work to find better solutions.

I suppose the fundamental principles of our technical products remain timeless: make it simple, make it functional, don’t put a bunch of extra crap on there that we’ll just cut off anyway. I don’t need eight different pockets to engage with the mountains, so my garments shouldn’t have them.

By the time we finish the route in Patagonia and stagger back to town, I’ve carefully arranged the contents of my pack to ensure that nothing small will fall out of the big holes I’ve torn in it. Sometimes ultralight can be too light, and there’s only one way to learn. Better it happen to me than to our customers, though. A couple of months later, after my feedback and photos, a box arrived on my doorstep. Inside was a stronger version of the ultralight pack, with an attached note:

“See if you can destroy this one.”

About the Author

Kelly Cordes can’t seem to drag himself away from cold, wet, scary mountains. This fact, combined with his feedback and incessant hounding, contributed greatly to the development of our Alpine Houdini® Jacket.