During a 20 minute meditation yesterday morning, a thought occurred to me about what I should write about this week in my hiking column. It's OK to think while meditating, right? I was recovering from a bout of flu, and hadn't been out for a hike lately.
I was thinking about the changes and evolution of hiking equipment since the 1960s, when I started hiking steadily in the White Mountains.
I am not an equipment freak, and there are many who would be better qualified to comment on the progress of equipment (one of the best in my generation would be Rick Wilcox of International Mountain Equipment).
Picking a few pieces of equipment to think about is not only a tech inquiry and recollection, but a social commentary. We tend to have some amnesia about how a task was performed 30 or 40 years ago. We tend to acquire the latest in innovation and then can't do without out it, and forget how things were accomplished in the past.
So, it is an interesting inquiry (thank you, meditation). Here is where this column might lean towards reminiscing.
I bought my first pair of Limmer boots while working for the AMC Huts on construction crew in 1966. Old Peter Limmer, the man who immigrated and started the business, measured my feet with a tape. AMC Hut crew had a priority, and the boots took three weeks to make. They cost me $35.
Putting them on was a wonderful feeling. The jet age Vibram soles were perfect for heavy trail work. Working in the huts at that time, all the crew wore Limmer boots. For bug dope, everyone used Old Woodsman's Insect Repellant, a repugnant mix of tar and other chemicals.
Peter Limmer and Sons has evolved with the times. Today, they still make custom boots and also sell stock boots made in Bavaria. They repair their own boots and other brands.
Modern innovation and materials have created a wide variety of boots of varying weight and support. I still prefer all-leather boots with good ankle support, and a tongue connected with the boot so they are waterproof if you walk through a stream or pool. This is because of my early experience with Limmer boots.
I first climbed Mount Washington in the early spring of 1966 with some AMC crew. It was still winter up there. The preferred warm winter hiking boot was the Mouse Boot, a white rubber boot with some air pockets for insulation. It was military surplus, and, I assume, standard equipment for the 10th Mountain Division in World War II.
Leather winter boots were generally very heavy. So when lighter plastic double boots came out, it was quite the revolution in many ways, including the lack of a need to treat leather. Koflach was one of the early innovators of double winter boots. Their boots have evolved and today I have a pair of Koflach double winter boots that are incredibly light and flexible. The problem of cold feet never comes up. Newer innovations are boots that are lighter still, and combine nylon weave, rubber and plastic.
Technical climbing equipment has evolved alongside hiking equipment, if not more so. So it is good to keep that in mind. Foot traction really brings it to the fore. Ten-point crampons evolved into 12-point crampons in the 1960s, initiating a revolution ice climbing.
As for hiking, there were the options of in-step crampons and full crampons for winter mountaineering in the Presidentials. The first time I saw a newer innovation, I was hiking down the lower Tuckerman Ravine Trail in the spring, I'm not sure what year. Nick Howe (since then author of "Not Without Peril: 100 Years of Misadventure in the Presidential Range"), was walking down the trail. He had one these things under his boots that looked like extra soles, that were secured to the boots with Velcro straps. He called them Stabilicers.
Later of course, Kahlua Microspikes came out. When they did, I contacted the company and said if they sent me a pair I would review them in my hiking column. They did. They were wonderful. However, they were dangerous if used carelessly on stepper grades of ice. On one hike, I climbed up the Valley Way to Madison Hut, then tried to continue to the top of Mount Adams. On the grade above the hut, I stopped on an icy slope and turned back, knowing that with the lack of larger spikes or front points, I was on dangerous ground.
Since then Hillsound Trail Crampons, with slightly longer spikes and a Velcro stap, have become de rigueur with many experienced hikers. Also many variations of trail crampons and traction devices have come put.
Back when I bought my first Limmer Boots, I also bought a mountaineering ice axe at Limmer's. It was long with a wooden shaft, and with a straight pick. Since then, the pick has become bent, and light strong metal is used for the shaft. They are also not as long.
Of course, technical climbing axes, like technical crampons, have evolved, and these seem to attach to climbers like the exoskeleton of insects.
Treffle "Baldy" Boldoc lived on the start of the Kancamagus Highway in Conway. He had a store there, and in the walk-in cooler (which was not cold) he had a small Indian Museum. He allowed visitors to go in it.
His cellar, however, was off limits. That is where he assembled his "modified bear paw snowshoes." After the time-consuming work of bending the pieces of ash and assembling, he would send the snowshoes over to Fred Ranco's house on Dugway Road to be laced with leather. Fred was a Penobscot Indian. Baldy was French Canadian and Indian.
Years ago, Baldy had traveled on a pilgrimage up to Hudson Bay to learn how to make snowshoes, and specifically his modified bear paws. Later, when the Kancamagus Highway was novel and for years after, his ash snowshoes became the thing for hikers to have in this region.
All my hiking friends had them.
Then Sherpa snowshoes came out, made of tubular metal, plastic and built in crampons. Then Tubbs snowshoes came out, which were even lighter.
Baldy passed away, and many of his wooden snowshoes became wall decorations.
More recently MSR snowshoes have become the pair for serious hikers, with good traction, extenders, and elevators to level your foot on steeper trails.
Oh for the simpler days, when a talented violinist made wooden snowshoes in his basement, while upstairs tourists peeked in his walk-in Indian Museum.
Just a brief note on jackets. The privileged Bradford Washburn tested down jackets on Mount McKinley while many Americans fought and died in war torn Europe.
What has gone on since then would be interesting to trace. All I know is that today, I put on my light Wild Things Primaloft jacket to climb a very cold trail and stay warm in its thermal barrier. In the valley, I don my L.L. Bean DownTec jacket to stay warm around town. It weighs about as much as an apple, and is water resistant.
It has been interesting to briefly reflect on my impressions of hiking equipment progress. Then again, what is progress? When all is said and done, it is the quality of our time spent out in the world that is important — the quality of our relationship with others, ourselves and the world. All the rest is fluff.