Crux Questions: Notes From An Alpine Field Tester

Kelly Cordes
Fall 2013

Tiny droplets of ice water drip from an overhang and fall, splatter and roll off my shell at 18,000 feet. I stare for a moment, study their forms, then shake my head and zoom out to the expanse of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, where peaks rise forever on the horizon and an earlymorning haze drifts lazily from the valley floor. The only other human within miles is on the other end of the rope, and we’ve been climbing all night with only daypacks. Above, wind whips the summit ridge, strafing its edges into white, gothic-shaped cornices framed against the deep blue sky. We’re halfway there.

Whenever I’m climbing, I’m usually testing: myself, our gear, my mind.

When we build technical products, it starts with a need, a problem to solve. Then someone – a designer, the fieldtesting director, one of us field gorillas – comes up with an idea. A prototype gets made. Then it needs testing. Sometimes we dial in and specialize, other times we strive for versatility. How important is light weight versus durability? Do the features make sense for the end use? Nothing does everything perfectly, so we agonize and argue the trade-offs. Can it be recycled? What are the impacts of making it?

Such questions usually have answers, though they take time and effort to unravel, in a seemingly endless back-and-forth collaboration cycle.

We scrutinize everything from the hood adjustment to the pocket detailing to seam placements. Then we test some more, because the coolest ideas and the highest numbers from lab results don’t always correlate to real-life success.

With the products I help develop – alpine climbing pieces – form absolutely follows function. That’s why a Nano Puff® Pullover or an R1® Hoody is what it is – a minimalist climbing piece can’t have too many pockets, whistles and full-length zippers because it increases weight and adds bulk under a harness. When it comes to our Guide Pants, I don’t care how they look – I need them to breathe, shed moisture, withstand sharp alpine granite and give me the freedom to move.

Sometime around midnight in the high mountains of Peru, guided by stars and our headlamps, hallucinating from exhaustion and altitude illness, we finish our route, climb over the summit and begin our descent. Come morning, we stumble through the talus in a haze, reeking of ammonia-sweat, wandering like drunkards trying to find our bivy.

At the hostel in Huaraz I grab a hot shower, eat some food and lie down, satisfied. The chatter that typically occupies my mind fades back, leaving me to reflect on drive and purpose, whether or not we did it right with the route, the fine line separating success and failure.

My eyes wander across the room to the pile of well-worn gear and clothing, but I don’t think about feedback. Not now, anyway. Maybe that’s the most satisfying part about dialing-in our alpine products: Once we’ve got something right, it’s tangible enough that we can forget about it and just go climbing. Go test something else.

About the Author

Patagonia ambassador Kelly Cordes has devoted himself to alpine climbing for 20 years and has been a Patagonia field tester for over a decade.