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TNB: When Gear Attacks

05-Nov-2013
By Duane Raleigh

  In January I decided to test a new pair of fruitboots on the local three-pitch ice flow of Glenwood Falls. Never mind that the mercury sank ominously below zero and a stiff wind whistled through the narrow granite confines of Glenwood Canyon, its song interrupted by the rattle and rumble of autos and semis on Interstate 70, a miracle of concrete that wends along the canyon bottom and is so close to the start of the climb you could practically fall onto the road.

I’ve been testing equipment and writing about it for 27 years. Along the way about 95 percent of the gear has been good to outstanding and the other five percent has included cams that fall out of placements, harnesses that come unbuckled, shoes that pop off your feet, belay devices that require a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering to operate, leaky shells, broken zippers, you name it.

To ferret out the great from the good from the marginal, I am constantly on the lookout for a proving ground, a route that will put new gear through the wringer. A three-pitch ice pillar in sub-zero conditions seemed right for assessing boot warmth.

Jefe and I pulled into the parking lot just as the sun began to brighten the eastern sky. It was one of those bitter winter mornings where even the car heater couldn’t keep up, and by the time we had our gear squared away my feet were already feeling chilly in their black cases of nylon, foam and rubber.

“You sure those fruitboots are going to be warm enough?” Jefe asked, arching an eyebrow and lacing up his heavy mountaineering boots.

“Should be fine. This model has insulation,” I said, and clacked the toes together for emphasis. “Not like the other kind.”

Thirty minutes later we had swum 100 uphill yards in thigh-deep snow and oak brush like concertina wire and arrived at the first pitch.

I pulled off my heavy approach gloves and pulled on a thin, nimble pair for leading. I noted that while my hands were already almost unusable from the cold, my feet were practically roasting.

“You wouldn’t believe how warm my feet are,” I said to Jefe. “They really warmed up on the approach.”

Smug with the satisfaction that comes from proving a skeptic wrong, I headed up the ice.

We didn’t get up the climb. Glenwood Falls is peculiar in that it faces south and east and while the upper pitch gets early and full sun, the bottom remains locked in an icebox, shaded by the opposite side of the canyon. This Stonehenge-like alignment means you can frost your nuts off on the first pitch while the upper pitch melts out. This is exactly what happened.

We tumbled back down the snowy talus and to the car.

“Yes sir,” I said to Jefe as I changed from the fruitboots to driving shoes. “A successful test. These might be the warmest boots I’ve ever worn.” I held them up and clacked the toes together again for emphasis. “Five stars!”

In the 40 minutes it took to drive home, my feet, which hadn’t been warm at all but had actually froze, thawed.

By the time I crawled into the house, my feet felt like they might burst. Crazy with the pain, I found and ate a  pain pill leftover from the family basset hound Blossom’s recent ear surgery.

Within a week all of my toenails had fallen off and the skin on my toes peeled to reveal bright pink newborn skin that was as sensitive to the touch as your most sensitive touching spot.

My ice season was over for a couple of months, but I can say—with accuracy—that I do not recommend those fruitboots for sub-zero cold, or even anywhere near zero.

As for technical performance on vertical ice and overhanging rock, I can’t say. I didn’t get to test them for those applications. Fortunately, it has gotten cold again, as it seems to do every year at this time. Ice and mixed climbing season is just weeks away and I have a few routes in mind that should be a fair test for those boots. Stay tuned.

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