The Picture

28 10 2009

In case you were wondering, the picture above is a cropped version of a picture that I took one night on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Other than a few lucky moments during the day, the peak was only visible at night when the clouds would clear. One night before we went to bed, our travel mate Christopher had the idea to try to get some shots of the peak as the stars and nearly full moon beautifully framed the mountain. Here is the full picture.

Uhuru Peak at Night

Uhuru Peak at Night

BTW – that is Amanda glowing in the tent with her headlamp. The picture was taken on my Canon Rebel EOS SLR on a night time setting and the shutter was open for about 12 seconds or so.

Enjoy! DR


Your nationwide neighborhood running store

28 10 2009

Lest you think this whole blog is about our recent trip to Africa, let me shake things up a bit. Like I said in my original post, I enjoy a lot of things from mountain sports to golf to running, biking and swimming. So to mix things up, I’m going to make the first gear store review about the store that my wife and I buy all of our running shoes at: Fleet Feet Sports. I used to not consider stores like Fleet Feet as a “gear” store, rather more like “sporting goods”, but the more time (and money) I spend there, I have become to drop stores like this in the same category with Gear. They specialize in a very specific niche and do it well with competent staff and high quality products.

Fleet Feet is a national chain but all of the locations I have been in have really helpful and qualified employees. (I’ve been to a few different locations in and around Chicagoland and one in Louisville, KY.) I believe they are successful in this regard because they are a franchise. Each store (or group of stores in a region) are owned and operated independently but under the same core principals of the broader company. As a result, the employees are usually runners themselves who know what they are talking about.

Link to Locations

Link to Locations

When you walk in, of course they carry lots of shoes as well as technical running gear and in some locations, miscellaneous triathlon gear. On nice weekend days in the spring and summer, you often have to wait to be helped but its well worth it. A helpful and knowledgeable employee who is often an athlete as well gives you something that is terribly lacking at most retail places these days – time.

If you happen to be wearing your old running shoes they will do a quick analysis of the wear and tear on the soles and interview you a bit about your running (distance, pace, conditions, races, etc.). From there they will do a gait analysis which can be awkward when you’re running barefoot across the store trying to avoid other shoppers but very helpful to the final outcome. After that they disappear to the back and bring out a selection of different shoes that span the gamut of size, style, brand and price – all of which fitting the criteria decided upon by all the previous shenanigans.

I have bought three pairs of shoes from Fleet Feet and have always been very pleased. New Balance, Saucony and Brooks. I probably won’t buy another pair of Brooks for a while though. Not long after I started running in these shoes, I suffered a pretty bad hip flexor injury and although I can’t say it had anything to do with the shoes, my superstitions tell me that they are not completely without guilt.

At the Lincoln Park / Piper’s Alley location they even carry some triathlon gear. Of course they have you covered for the run but they also have wetsuits, speed suits, race kits and swim gear of all kinds. One of my favorite discoveries from my last trip in to Fleet Feet is Yankz. Yankz are essentially elastic shoe laces which allow you (as a triathlete trying to shave seconds in T2) to slide your running shoes on without having to tie laces. Being a bit lazy I used to tie my regular laces loose enough for me to slide my shoes on and off but these allow you to do the same thing but cinch back snug on your foot because of the elastic.

Blog Pics 001

Brooks and Yankz

A couple of miscellaneous facts about Fleet Feet: At least in Chicago, Fleet Feet is where you pick up race packets and information so it’s nice to have a central place to go for almost every race. They also a have a pretty good program for frequent shoppers that gives you discounts and rebates after you spend a certain amount. If you’re a part of their email list they send out really good announcements every few days. In the summer they sponsor an aid station on the Chicago lakefront for runners to grab water and Gatorade, which is really nice. Finally, when training for some of the bigger races they have free group runs for athletes of all levels of experience. I’ve never joined in because that isn’t really my thing but many of my friends love it and it’s a great way to meet people who have common interests.

The biggest down side to Fleet Feet is that you always leave there spending more money that you intended. Insoles, new running shorts and socks kind of add up quickly. But when you know that you are getting quality products, its nice to get them in one place. So from my experience, I endorse Fleet Feet Sports. One thing that I will reinforce in this blog is my belief that when it comes to gear, you get what you pay for. If you don’t want to spend a little extra money for a better product, then don’t be surprised when you end up with crap. Also, I will always be glad to pay a little extra for extraordinary service and Fleet Feet has always taken good care of me.

Run well, Dan

My Boots…

26 10 2009

Amanda and I orignally planned to make the Kili trip in the fall of 2008 but about a month before we were to leave, she got a new job and didn’t feel comfortable taking off for two weeks right after starting. So we pushed the climb date back a year to Sept. / Oct. 2009 and off we went. One of the first things that we considered when planning the trip were our boots. Having not been hiking in a couple of years, neither of us had a viable pair to wear on the mountain so, knowing that we wanted to climb Kili eventually, at the beginning of our first winter in Chicago, we each got new boots. We bought them then for two reasons: 1) to have time to break them in sufficiently before the climb; and 2) to walk our dogs in the terrible weather that we have in Chicago during the winter time.

After some solid consultation from a knowledgeable salesman at REI, I settled for a pair of Montrail Torre GTX boots. I would like to say that I tried a whole bunch of different pairs and did an extensive comparison but I didn’t. Like I said, the salesman was knowledgeable and although he hadn’t climbed Kili before, he knew of the conditions and these were his recommendation. They fit and were comfortable and I was sold.

The boots performed wonderfully on the mountain and I got a ton of usage out of them while walking my dogs through the snow, rain, sleet and all around cold. At the risk of emasculating myself, I have pretty sensitive feet and ankles so I had to not only break the boots in, but figure out how to tie them comfortably. The upper would sometimes rub the tops of my feet and Achilles tendon painfully if I would tie them too tight. If I didn’t tie them tight enough, I would get snow and rocks in them. Once I got that down, comfort was never a concern.

The boots were sturdy and on the mountain they were the perfect shoe. Mountaineering boots weren’t necessary because Kili is fairly pedestrian in terms of technicality. I took a day hike with my light hikers on day 4 of the trip and noticed a major difference and was glad to put the boots back on. They offered a sense of security in the soles and around the ankles. To top it all off, even though I felt like I had broken them in sufficiently, I just knew I was going to get some blisters…Nope. Not one! On the way down (which is arguably harder than going up) I did get some hot spots on the outside of my big toe but I made it all the way up and down with no feet issues thanks to these boots.

There were only two negatives. First, the boots did not keep my feet warm on summit day. That could have had a lot to do with the fact that I got really sick and my body was revolting against me for making it go to such altitudes, but by the time I got to the top, my feet felt like cinderblocks because they were so cold. I also believe the socks I wore were adequate for the situation. Also (and this is really little) the shoe laces that came on the boots were lousy. The both tore on the mountain and were all around flimsy. Luckily I had planned for this and had packed a new pair.

You may or may not have noticed that I am speaking of these boots in the past tense. There is a good reason for that…I left them behind. No, I didn’t forget them or throw them from the Soviet-era bush plane that took us from Moshi to Nairobi, I gave them to one of our guides. Although the guides and porters that work for the company we went with are the best paid and well treated on the mountain, they still operate with some pretty sketchy gear. To these guys, gear is their livelihood. I felt like it was the very least I could do to leave some of my gear behind if it would help these guys out. Even though those boots cost me about $165 USD, I knew that I could go home and head back to the gear store and buy a new pair.

This is a picture of Peter, our guide who helped me to the summit after I got sick, with my boots on. There isn’t anyone that I would rather have those boots. He is a fantastic guy and my hope is that those boots will assist him in guiding many more people to life-changing moments of their own. I will post sometime in the future about these guys but if you ever plan to make this trip yourself, PLEASE plan to leave some of your gear behind for them. If you can afford to make this trip in the first place, you can afford to replace some gear if you need it again.

Dan and Peter at the end of the climb

Dan and Peter at the base of Kili

In a stoke of luck, I was checking out Steep and Cheap the other morning before taking my wife to work, and what was there…these boots for $100 off. So, thanks to my wife’s generosity, I bought the boots again and will be getting them in the mail soon. More on Steep and Cheap in a later post.

Peace, DR

19,340′ is REALLY High!

26 10 2009

Have you ever stood higher than any one else with their feet on the ground on an entire continent? I have! More like we have. My wife and I just got back from an epic journey to the top of Africa. After two years of planning, we finally made the trek to Tanzania and to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro – all 19,340 feet of it!

With all of the traveling that my wife and I have done, I have learned that traveling is a great time to use gear. Climbing Kili though, is a gear head’s dream! With the exception of my whitewater gear, I think I used almost everything that I had…it was great!

Amanda on the climb...Geared Up!

Amanda on the climb...Geared Up!

Kilimanjaro is a unique mountain. It sits on the equator and is the world’s tallest free standing mountain meaning that it is not a part of a broader mountain range. As you drive through or fly over the Serengeti, the landscape is pretty flat with some rolling hills and lots of wide-open space. Then, all of the sudden, you encounter a 19,000’ behemoth of a dormant volcano. You can see the mountain from miles and miles away and we flew into the Kilimanjaro Airport that sits at just below 3,000’. So, with over 16,000’ of elevation gain from the base to the peak, the mountain has six very distinct climate zones ranging from a tropical rain forest to alpine desert and everything in between. Therefore, you have to be prepared for anything and everything. And prepared we were!

Like any two good gear heads in love, my wife and I traveled across the globe geared up and ready. When you climb Kili, you have to climb with an outfitter and employ porters. You can carry a daypack with clothing layers, water and snacks but other than that, the porters carry the lion’s share of your gear. Because of this, you are asked to pack in duffle bags or some other kind of bag that doesn’t have wheels. (BTW – these porters are amazing. They carry about 70 lbs. of gear on the backs and heads and RUN up the mountain!) We didn’t have anything like this so we bought two North Face Base Camp Duffels. What a great investment! (As with a lot of the gear I discuss here, I will be writing a separate post reviewing these bags.)

Traveling inside of these duffels over the Atlantic was just about everything we needed for the trip. Starting out at 4000’ (+/-) we hiked through a rain forest. This being the dry season and Tanzania suffering from the worst drought in decades, there was little to no rain. From here though, we started with warm weather clothes (non-cotton shorts and t-shirts) and always a pair of gators. My wife and I each carried Osprey Kestrel packs that we kept a light fleece and rain shell in. Upon reaching camp on the first night (where the rest of our gear had already arrived and was waiting in a completely assembled tent) it was necessary to put on some pants and a sweater before retiring for the night. It was also nice to be out of the hiking boots so I had a pair of Merrell light hikers to wear around camp and slide on for the numerous middle-of-the-night choo (bathroom) breaks!

Campsite at dusk; Uhuru Peak revealing itself in the distance

Campsite at dusk; Uhuru Peak revealing itself in the distance

(I will also do a post on the guiding company we used and the really nice gear that they provided for us and their porters and guides.)

The second day was more of the same in terms of gear: shorts and t-shirt and a fleece a little handier since we were gaining altitude. Starting the fourth day, it became necessary to have on a thermal layer under your hiking pants. By this time we were well above 10,000’ and when the sun would pass behind the clouds, the temps would quickly drop. One of the hardest things on the trek was moderating your body temperature. Many times throughout the day, the weather would drastically change in a matter of minutes which kept you always adding or removing layers.

A sturdy and warm pair of boots were certainly needed and if done right, appreciated. When hiking on such diverse terrain and in ever changing conditions, having the best pair of boots that you could afford, and that were properly fitting was a major part of the success / failure equation. Amanda and I both had boots from Montrail (I’m a big fan!).

As we climbed ever higher, the gear we used also changed. T-shirts became base layers covered by fleece vests, and soft shells; shorts were replaced with convertible pants often with thermal tights beneath. Nights were spent with warm pants (often with thermals still on), down jackets and an extra pair of wool socks.

No matter the altitude though, there were always some constants: CLEAN socks and underwear, gators, sunglasses, a hat of some kind, pocket knife or multi-tool, watch with altimeter, Nalgene, Sigg or Camelback water bottles, and a rain shell that could be accessed in seconds if needed. Of course, none of this would be made of the enemy of any good outdoorsman: cotton. Save the cotton for after the shower that you take once you get off the mountain; it feels great then but has no place in the backcountry.

Good 'ole Suunto Vector Altimeter / Watch

Good 'ole Suunto Vector Altimeter / Watch

For the summit attempt, a whole different set of gear had to be set aside. We began our summit attempt at just over 15,000’ and it was REALLY cold and only got colder as we went higher. I wore a pair of Under Armour thermal tights, Mountain Hardwear ski pants, a pair of sock liners and “expedition weight” Smartwool socks, OR gators, a base layer t-shirt from NAU, an REI long sleeve tech shirt, a poly Under Armour hoodie, and a Patagonia wind proof soft shell. I also had a pair of OR Windstopper gloves, a Smartwool beanie and in my pack I brought my North Face Nuptse down jacket for the peak (and thank goodness I did too). We began the summit attempt at midnight under the equatorial moon that was almost full so although I had a Black Diamond headlamp, I didn’t use it much because of the brightness of the moon.

At 18,000’ or so, I got really sick. The altitude and cold hit me like a ton of bricks and with a lack of sleep and not enough calories in me, I struggled to make the final push to the summit. Luckily, our group reached Uhuru Peak (Swahili for freedom) around 7:15 in the morning and we achieved our goal that we set out to accomplish so many months before. At the summit, it was necessary to have the down jacket and sunglasses. The sun rises rapidly on the equator and at 19,000’ is almost blinding. We snapped some pictures with a Canon Rebel EOS SLR and a little Fuji Finepix point-and-shoot pocket camera and quickly headed down.

Uhuru Peak - Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro

Uhuru Peak - Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro

In one day, I’ve never experienced such a radical shift in temperature and weather conditions. We went from 15K’ to 19K’ where the wind made it much colder and pretty miserable. From 19K’ we descended rapidly to 10K’ and we were back in shorts and t-shirts – all within 18 hours. Freezing cold to hot and humid; a serious gear head is like a good Boy Scout: always prepared.

I would absolutely recommend that anyone make this same journey. It far exceeded our expectations of how much fun it would be, how hard it would be and how it would change us. I will follow up over time with posts that include reviews of some of the gear we used as well as the company that took us up and down the mountain successfully. I may also include something one of these days about lessons we learned regarding gear to pack or not pack. I would consider making this climb one more time and be even better prepared. And, although I try to never say never, I don’t know if I EVER want to go higher than 19,340′ again!

Poa Poa, Dan

The Birth of “GEAR CHECK”

24 10 2009

Here we go…

So I have this vision of what I want this blog to be. I want this to become the best and most comprehensive blog and website on the Net dedicated to outdoor gear and everything about it (heretofore referred to solely as “GEAR”). I know that’s lofty and ambitious but  guess I’m just that cocky to think that it’s possible with my affinity for gear.  You see, I’m a bit of a gear head / gear junkie / gear geek / gear addict…I love it!

I was raised with an appreciation of the outdoors and some of my earliest and fondest memories from growing up are of standing in a cold mountain stream in southern Colorado with my dad and grandfather learning how to cast a fly-line. I went on to work as a whitewater rafting and adventure guide during my summers while in college and that is where I began to really appreciate “gear.”

I think it began by simply liking the way it looked. I liked the cheesy North Face rain jacket that I had and day pack that I used for my school books. When I became a guide, I started to actually use gear. Using gear for what it is made for completely changed my attitude about it. I went from liking the way it looked to appreciating all of the engineering and design that goes into it. I began to understand the features and benefits of well-made gear and understanding why (sometimes) it can be a little expensive.

I also love gear stores. I love that smell that all really good gear stores have…you know, that fragrant cacophony of synthetic fiber, shoe leather, bicycle tire rubber, burnt rope and dog treats. Gear stores are like art galleries to me. When I travel, I like to seek out local gear stores to see what they have. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many gear stores I have been in and how much money I have spent at them. Of course, the Mecca of gear stores is REI, but I love them all.

I still use a lot of gear. My wife and I currently live in Chicago and along with (bad) deep-dish pizza, the Cubs, corrupt politics, bad traffic and Barack Obama, our great city is known for its weather. Good, bad, windy, wet, dry and cold…we’ve got it all. The best thing about that is that it allows you to use a lot of different gear. At 660′ above sea level, we don’t have the mountains and rivers that I associate the most with gear, but when you have 4 very distinct seasons that throw every kind of weather event imaginable at you, good gear is just about all that gets you through sometimes.

My wife and I also travel frequently to exotic places around the world. I’ve found that one of the best uses of gear can be while traveling. Where? You’ll find out soon enough but gear is always involved.

What kind of gear do I like the most? ALL of it! I’ve done lots of water and mountain sports. I’m also a runner and triathlete. I play golf and work out at the gym a lot. If it is found in a gear store, I’ve either used it, something similar to it, or plan on using it!

I’ve brainstormed broad scope of ideas on what I want this to be but I want the common denominator to always be GEAR. These are just a few things that I have in mind for what I will cover or what I want to include:

1. Gear reviews

2. Gear news

3. Gear store reviews

4. Travel stories related gear

5. Reports from events such as races or festivals and talk to people (maybe professionals) about their gear and why they have chosen certain products

6. Gear forum for readers to discuss gear

7. Gear Swap

8. Female gear reviews by my wife and other ladies

9. New stuff from gear manufacturers

10. Much, much more…

I’m not a professional writer and certainly not a computer guru. However, I have a passion for the outdoors and the gear that we all use to enjoy it and get the most out of it. That may seem a little strange to you, but hey, we’ve all got our “thing” and I don’t judge your love of chess or poodle grooming! As much as I could tell stories of carnage on the river, I could talk about gear; after all, gear is often what keeps us from dying as a result of that carnage.

So read away and enjoy as posts are added. I welcome your comments and suggestions and I encourage you to participate with me. Maybe I’ll have you write an entry one of these days. Tell me your stories of gear – what you like and don’t like; that piece of gear you can’t live without; great gear stores with good prices or service; gear “diamonds” in the rough…Geek out with me on gear…

Peace, Dan Robertson

(This post is dedicated to Colin Schafer born October 24, 1980)

Dan and Amanda Robertson on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Dan and Amanda Robertson on Mt. Kilimanjaro