Igniting a Life Outdoors: A Jacket, WornWear, and Rebirth

Like a first love, it opened a world of possibilities.

I was 23 and a recent transplant to Boston when it found me on the glossy back page of an outdoor magazine. I was newly severed from the Rocky Mountains, for which I’d only just begun to develop an affinity, displaced into a world of brick and nonexistent social grace in pursuit of other capricious dreams.

Though I’d only dipped my toe before departing the West, mountaineering had seized my soul. The $199 Igniter jacket gracing the shoulders of some Eddie Bauer/First Ascent guide, probably Ed Viesturs or Dave Hahn, represented a connection to a captivating world I barely understood. No sooner had I put down the magazine than I e-mailed my mom to let her know what I wanted for Christmas.

The Igniter was one of the first real pieces of gear I owned, and certainly the first centered on mountaineering. I rocked it proudly around Boston as if every peacoat-clad businessperson in Copley Square would think I was a real, honest-to-goodness mountaineer, regardless if I only had three summer 14ers to my credit.

My favorite jacket returned with me to Colorado a few months later. I cycled through packs, shells, midlayers, boots and countless other pieces of gear as I dialed in my kit, but the Igniter survived every cut. My faithful puffy followed me to the tops of Mt. Rainier, dozens of winter 14ers, 18,500-foot Orizaba and my inaugural frozen waterfalls.

Of course I didn’t realize it until recently, but that beloved synthetic the color of an azure alpine lake performed the rare miracle of igniting (ba-dum, tshhh) an idea and subsequently seeing it through to reality. It not only inspired dreams, it accompanied me as they came true.

My Igniter succumbed, as things often do, to the inevitable arrows of time. The main zipper was weak and often pulled apart. One of the hand pockets lost its zipper altogether, and the other had a hole the size of a half-dollar ripped just beneath it. Part of the sleeve near the left shoulder suffered a gnarly snag that exposed large swaths of insulation. The jacket was still mostly functional, but by then it was five years old. The market was flooded with sexy alternatives. The role of synthetic belay puffy transferred first to a Rab, and later to an Arc’teryx.

I could never quite bring myself to get rid of the Igniter, as I did so easily with many other jackets. It hung forgotten in my gear closet, a tangible reminder of humbler days. There it remained as I finished the 14ers, ascended dream mountains, earned a full-time gig in the outdoor industry, signed on as an Arc’teryx Denver ambassador, accepted a contract to write an ice-climbing guidebook and once had like three whole people comment on one of my blog posts.

As my outdoor resume grew alongside my outerwear collection, I fell victim to the insidious trap awaiting anyone who stays in a hobby long enough to become a subject-matter expert. I lost touch with my roots. It became increasingly difficult to relate to mountaineering newcomers as I remained focused on my own goals and the insular group of veterans with whom I’d cut my teeth. Worse, gone was the magic that used to set my heart aflutter whenever my eyes first touched a lofty summit. Practicality and minutiae won out over the initial boundless promise of the American West.

Patagonia created a program called WornWear a few years ago, and they had representatives at the recent SIA Snow Show in downtown Denver. They offered to fix any piece of gear, within reason, for the benevolent cost of free.

I found my faithful Igniter where I’d left it, lonely and sandwiched between a twice-as-expensive synthetic belay jacket and my top-of-the-line down puffy. I shrugged it on with the familiarity of an old catcher’s mitt, reveling in the forgotten memories of each stain, stitch and tear. Within in hour of dropping it at the Patagonia booth, both ruined zippers functioned better than new. The rep also gave me the materials to mend the remaining injuries on my own. Like a phoenix from the ashes, my old jacket was reborn.

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I wore it a few days later during a snowshoe outing in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Looking down at the mottled splash of blue recalled dozens of fond memories: relaxing at Ingraham Flats on my virgin trip to Mt. Rainier, a winter camp shared with a now departed friend, watching sunrise from 16,500 feet on Orizaba, hooting and hollering after my first pitch of ice and opening a long-anticipated Christmas present that brought me nearer to the distant mountains calling me home.

We were all neophytes once, dreamers with pockets full of airy ideas and empty of common sense. I envied those newcomers. I missed the feelings of reverence for the mountains that bubbled in my 23-year-old belly.

The outdoor community, sadly, often turns into the very rat race we’re seeking to escape. In some form, we all crave recognition, acclaim, sponsorship, likes, follows, free gear, blog hits, paychecks and so on. It is and always has been a constant cycle of one-upsmanship. The choice to remove ourselves and truly experience the centering power of wild places is a conscious one.

Reconnecting with a threadbare old jacket was an unexpected lesson. A reminder to look up, to stop and fill your lungs with the healing air of a frost-nipped morning, to follow your whimsical dreams and to allow yourself to enjoy the bountiful gifts of the present. That’s what brought me to the mountains. Long after any of my meager accomplishments are forgotten, that’s what will keep me here.

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