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I Climbed With the Acolytes of Foam

Colorado Prose

Author:  Brian Harris

It was my first trip with the Los Alamos Mountaineers, and I didn't know what to expect. So I was surprised when I met a quiet band of fanatics, dedicated to spreading the word on the virtues of open cell foam and its mountaineering applications. It started soon after I pulled up to the trailhead on Friday night. I noticed a pile of gear. In the pool of my headlight, one of the things in the pile looked like an old stuff sack, with a vaguely military appearance. They belonged to Ken. The gear and Ken reunited I went to bed, thinking no more about it.

Ken, it turns out, is an old school mountaineer. When I cracked that it looked like he hadn't bought any gear since the Reagan Administration, he corrected me. It had been several administrations prior to Reagan since his last gear acquisition. He made all his gear. That stuff sack thingie was actually a huge mitten, made out of open cell foam and covered with nylon. We talked a little about them, especially how snowboarders seemed drawn to them. He also made his own parka and sleeping bag out of this miracle material. I marveled at his inventiveness and thriftiness, but wondered if that would be my style.

As the day progressed and we got higher and higher up Lindsey, I began to hear other references to foam. James, well on the way to the last of his 14ers, noted how they also made excellent overboots for winter camping. If they got wet, say from falling into a river, you could just wring them out. Lisa suggested a sleeping bag sewing bee, so a whole group could have their own customized, open cell sleeping bag. Steve, the teacher from Santa Fe, told me about the evolution of his bag and how once you try foam, you'll never go back. Apparently engineering the drawstrings correctly is essential, so that one can regulate the volume of trapped air. Steve Dorn, Gina and Pat never buttonholed me to discuss foam. Perhaps they're heretics, or maybe they're waiting for another climb, so it doesn't seem as if they are coming on too strong.

Finally, the day after the climb, (which by the way was excellent even though I turned back at around 13,600) sitting over a cup of coffee, Norman tells me about his foam sack, and how well suited they are for every condition. I was beginning to get suspicious, wondering if they were in fact trying to convert me. But no, they were just enthusiastic and wanted to share the good news with a like-minded stranger. And they never asked for a donation.

It was a great weekend in the mountains. Three out of 6 summited. James and Norman got the 14er list all ticked, and Lisa blazed a variation that James called solid 5.5. We watched as they disappeared over the headwall that separated us from the summit ridge. Waiting for their reappearance and speculating on their downclimb provided plenty of entertainment and drama. Upon their return, we celebrated their achievement with white frosting on top of white cake compliments of Steve and Gina. That evening Norman generously shared one of his two beers with me. It was also the anniversary of Thomas Hornbein's ascent of the West Ridge and traverse of Everest. If I'd known that, I might have been inspired to find the "easier" 4th class scramble that Norman found up the Headwall. Who wants to go back to Lindsey?

Telling a friend in New York City (which requires a completely different set of survival skills) about the foam clothing, her first question was "How can they do that with cell phones?"


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