Do we really need the best, the newest, and highest tech gear to play outside or will used gear fit the bill — especially in winter?

“If you can ski in these, you can probably ski in anything.”

My friend Peter was so excited to take me on my first backcountry ski tour that he had my quiver of gear ready to go: stubby 91 centimeter child-length telemark skis, skins folded in half to fit, and boots with broken bindings. Even as a novice skier I knew this gear set-up was questionable, but the thought of missing out on a fun weekend with my friends would be worse. Besides, I didn’t have any money to spend on anything better, and dumping money on a rental seemed less important than buying beer and snacks. 

On Skis
Nearly vintage telemark boots and skis

Ultimately the MacGyvered gear transported me to our winter camp where I enjoyed the bonfire festivities. However, the actual skiing was horrendous as I spent the weekend toppling over on the tiny little sticks each time I hit a bump in the ungroomed slope. I now know what it feels like to be in an episode of “Jackass.”

But my friends encouraged me the entire time, I didn’t get hurt, and I had fun. So I saved some money and invested in what I could afford — used telemark skis (still too short but adult-length), borrowed boots and hiking poles. I did splurge on some new skins. My friends were as stoked as I was now that I had a ski set-up that would sort of allow me to ski anything badly. Sure, making turns on telemark skis is infuriatingly hard even for lifelong advanced skiers, let alone a newbie, but it was a major step up from children’s skis.

On Ice
A vintage wood-handled ice axe: Oh, the stories it could tell!

I channeled this same mentality when I decided to try ice climbing. I borrowed my friend’s ice tools, crampons and some leather mountaineering boots in a men’s size 10 — only a few sizes too large. The extra space I filled with two additional insoles, wore three pairs of socks and laced the boots up extra tight.

Using a borrowed combo of brand new ice screws, very old ones, and one especially old piton, my climbing partner and I set out in search of routes not recorded on the Mountain Project app, as is definitely not recommended for new climbers who don’t even have their own equipment. When we found an unnamed and unrated perfectly frozen fall we celebrated the challenge that lay before us — and that no one would be watching our misadventure. Immediately, I felt my partner’s frustration as he struggled to place the first brand new ice screw, but that was only the beginning. Halfway up when he hammered in the ancient piton he hollered down at me, “Mo, this is getting kind of scary.”

To the Top

The remaining stretch of the climb seemed an eternity as I belayed him, followed by immediate terror when it was my turn to climb and clean the route. Thankfully the finicky new screws were easier to remove than place. Even the ancient piton, though it required some serious tugging, came out. 

For a moment, I believed I might fly up this ice chandelier without issues. But then, as I dislodged my crampon from the ice to take my next step up, I felt a rush of cold air. My foot was now entirely out of the boot which was still stuck to the wall by the front points of the crampon. When my partner shouted to see if I was okay, I replied, “I just climbed out of my boot!” 

Thankfully on top rope, I was able to gingerly slide my triple-socked foot back into the boot. I secured my right ice tool and used my free hand to gingerly pull my boot away from the ice. I kicked my right foot into a higher position to tighten the old school leather laces as much as possible. The fact that we made it to the top of the climb, and back down, without a single piece of gear falling to the ground is a miracle. And though we never entered the beta into Mountain Project, we agreed “The Stripper Pole” was a fitting name.

used gear
Equipped with used ice-climbing gear the author fires up her spirit and trudges on toward a memory-making climb.

So often the outdoor industry wants us to believe that we need the best, the newest, and the highest tech gear to play outside. For many, the cost and intimidation factor is enough to keep them from ever trying a sport like backcountry skiing or ice climbing. Using borrowed or second hand gear has allowed me to try sports I would be intimidated to try based on the expense of gear alone. While my ill-fitting equipment did highlight that there is no substitute for proper fit, fully functioning gear and actual training, taking advantage of what I had access to helped me jump the barrier between being able to let my friends show me the ropes of their winter hobbies versus staying home.

Making the Most of It

Slowly but surely, I’m upgrading my ski and ice gear to tools that fit me better and that are slightly more modern. But I still prefer to buy used over the latest and greatest. Rather than the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality of fancy winter gear, I like to think about keeping up with history. I think about people sliding on homemade wooden skis, climbing mountains in wool sweaters and leather boots, and the renegades who forged their own ice tools long before the outdoor industry existed. More than any piece of gear, I find that same creativity and resolve to use what equipment I can get my hands on that inspires me to keep getting after it, learning more, and most importantly of all, having fun each winter.

MORGAN SJOGREN is constantly roaming the Southwest (and world) chasing stories and adventures. She is the author of three books, her latest being The Best Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Hikes. Sjorgen loves thrift stores and trying new things, which led her to try her hand at ice climbing. While she plans to stick to using her limbs for running and writing, it is the mishaps and memories that keep fueling her shenanigans in the great outdoors.