Who’d have thought two years ago when my husband bought me my first Columbia jacket that I’d be traipsing around in the woods with people from that very company on a media trip? I guess life is just that awesome.
I never had the privilege of attending a summer camp when I was a kid, but I imagine it was something like my first backpacking trip. In fact, that seemed to be a common thought among the group of nine journalists and Columbia employees who hiked Yosemite’s North Rim together from June 16-19 to test new gear.
“I told my wife it was like summer camp,” said fellow writer, Billy Brown (www.trektechblog.com), as we all gathered for a fireside chat the first night on the trek. “We’re all bonding.”
The Yosemite crew became a little family; when there are “poo bags” involved, it’s hard not to be just that.
Andrea Pallavicini, Columbia public relations specialist, asked me to write down the memorable things I said on the trip. And they appropriately became my subheads in this story.
“I don’t want to get my new pants dirty”
I’ve been worried and excited about this trip since May, when I first learned I’d be going. I’ve only ever really car camped and day hiked and, being the baby of the family, I never contributed a lot of work to the experiences. Usually my brother and my dad did all the heavy lifting of the supplies and setting up (the one, taped-up, blue tent my dad still uses). And my mom cooks all the hearty meals (oh, I miss Mama’s red chile, fried potatoes and tortillas cooked in a cast-iron skillet over the campfire).
Prior to leaving, I was worried about not being able to get in my daily run or eat my predictable meals. I worried because I’d never had to, you know, go in the wilderness. Questions swirled around in my mind at a thousand miles per hour: Were my new Oboz (unbroken-in) boots going to work out? Was I going to see a bear? Or would I make an ass out of myself?
To top it off, I had my older sister worried for me!
“Don’t forget to pack Advil PM,” she reminded me, noting that the sounds of wild animals would be sure to keep me up all night. She got me all nervous asking me if I had a headlamp, sock liners, thermal underwear and a pack towel.
So I ran out and bought most of these things (and borrowed from her what I didn’t buy).
I didn’t sleep very well the night before we left. I’d packed my pack the way the Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides had instructed me to, but in the middle of the night I woke up and realized I forgot some things, then I woke up extra early because I wanted to re-pack it all again. I suited up in a spiffy pair of hiking pants and my new Columbia Omni-Freeze shirt to start the testing process before going down to eat a hearty breakfast. I then had my pack evaluated by Southern Mountain Yosemite Guide Patrick Warren – who proceeded to re-pack it and take out most of my clothing choices.
“We’re going for maximum funk,” explained our other guide, Laura Steinbach, after informing us she and Patrick were wearing only one outfit for the entire four days and we should follow suit.
We were finally ready to go.
“I’m going to stop being a little bitch now”
Last summer I went for a nine-mile trail run with my husband and sister. We were halfway through when we decided to hike up Queen’s Canyon and up to the Punch Bowls in Colorado Springs, Colo. I was tired, and I just wanted to finish the last 4.5 miles of my run and go eat. We didn’t make it to the Punch Bowls because I forced them to turn around. On the way down the very steep trail back to the waterfall, I began to cry. So my husband tells me before I leave on this trip, “Don’t punk out and cry in front of the Columbia people.”
I didn’t – at least not at first. That’s because I was hopped up on the fancy hotels and Ghirardelli chocolates in San Francisco where I and other media got a preview of Columbia’s product launch for 2012 prior to the backpacking trip (Take a look here for our June 15 SNEWS story about the launch).
But then, well, there was that one shady side of the mountain covered in snow. I kept slipping and falling, slamming my butt into the ground. My pants were soaking wet. I kept envisioning myself sliding all the way down the mountain and crashing into a tree, which would promptly end both my life and my short-lived backpacking career. The tears just came.
“I can’t do this,” I wailed to nobody and everybody in earshot all at once.
“But you’re doing it,” guide Laura stated so calmly. Her calm, can-do response immediately instilled in me the confidence to get up off my soggy ass and try again (that and being afraid my husband would hear about me “punking out”).
“OK,” I said, wiping my nose and clearing away the tears from my cheeks. “I’m going to stop being a little bitch now.”
Sure, I fell a few more times, and yes, there were a few yelps. As I got into my groove, and we got past the snow, I was still supremely disappointed I didn't stop myself from crying.
“I’m just not going to eat because I don’t want to ‘go’ in the woods”
As I set up my tent at the magnificently beautiful Snow Creek Promontory Camp, I couldn’t believe I’d cried on my first backpacking trip. But one of my trip mates brought up a very important point.
“Why are you disappointed,” he asked, after I’d revealed my feelings about the day’s work. “Because you walked for nine hours up a mountain?”
Thinking back, I realized I cried at mile 23 of my first marathon and I didn’t beat myself up over that.
There were also other victories on the trip such as being able to go in the woods – which was surprisingly liberating.
“I feel rugged and awesome”
Every night during our trip, I’d find some new injury – my hips had tiny bruises on them, my right clavicle felt a little sore, my legs were heavy – so it always felt so good to sit down and eat dinner.
The food wasn’t your traditional freeze-dried camp food either. The Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides don’t mess around. In fact, I’m quite sure they’ve ruined every other backpacking experience I may have. I might make the mistake of thinking that every trip will feature fine Thai and Italian cuisine – not to mention the peach flambé so delicious I will neither confirm nor deny there was any licking of the pan.
Every night, as we’d sit down to by the fire, smelling a little funkier each time, I’d feel like I’d earned the right to relax for a little bit and enjoy the heck out of everybody’s stories.
All the fancy hotels we stayed at (including a pre-trip stay at the gorgeous Tenaya Lodge – www.tenayalodge.com – in Fish Camp, Calif.) had fluffy beds, but no bed compared to the warmth and coziness of the sleeping bag in my little tent. It was amazing to fall asleep hearing the rushing waters of what were called “creeks” (but were bigger than some of the rivers I'm used to in the arid Southwest). It was peaceful to wake up to that same sound, only complemented by the chirping of birds. Every sight we saw was more beautiful than the next one. It’s like John Muir said, “In all my life I think I shall see nothing else so grand, so sublime, so beautiful.”
I did, in fact, feel rugged and awesome every day. I can’t replicate any of those meals, any of those sweet aches and pains, those grand views or those delicious nights of sleep, no matter how hard I try. That funky smell, however? I could do without that.
All I can say is thank you to everybody on this trip for your patience, your kindness and your company. Columbia – y’all sure know how to throw an Omni-Awesome party! I have to say that this trip was one of the hardest physical challenges I’ve ever taken and because I took it with some of the most amazing people I’ve met to date, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
Now, I’m officially a rugged outdoorswoman.
How to make a newcomer feel welcome
On a trip to try on hiking boots at an Albuquerque, N.M., REI, I stood and watched as two sales associates passed me by, neither bothering to say hello or even make eye contact. I did an experiment. I set a timer. I stood for nearly seven minutes before a third associate asked if I needed help. He was a nice enough younger guy, but once he gave me a few boxes of hiking boots to try on, he disappeared. The experience made me feel as if my business didn’t matter. Something similar happened at another REI in Lakewood, Colo. I felt like I was imposing on the sales associates’ time. This is not to say that all my REI experiences have been negative, I received great customer service at the REI Colorado Springs, Colo. store.
Being new to the world of backpacking, I don’t want to feel even more ignorant when I go into a specialty store. Here are a few tips from my recent shopping experiences:
- Smile, say hello, and ask a customer when you see the person if help is needed. If the person is a newbie, as I was, it will make them feel welcome. Heck, it’ll even make an experienced person feel welcome!
- Avoid making somebody stand and wait for several minutes. If the person is already feeling uncomfortable and out-of-place, they may just leave. Even if you as a salesperson are in the middle of something else, when you walk by somebody just standing there, you should at least ask if the person has been helped or needs help. At least the customer will feel acknowledged, and you can always come right back or send another over.
- Make them feel like no question is a stupid question – even if you think it is.
- When you bring shoes for someone to try on, stay close by to be able to answer questions or bring different sizes. Newbies just aren’t confident enough to go hunt down somebody.
- Offer personal advice on what brands you like and why. Some people are starting from square one and need that personal insight.
- Find something you have in common with the customer and weave that into your advice. For example, “Oh, you’re flat-footed? Me too. I use this product to help me with that.…”
In the two stores mentioned, the attitude I experienced seemed to be that if you didn’t look like you belonged, you wouldn’t get quality customer service. Maybe that’s because I myself felt as if I was in a foreign place and didn’t belong. I’m not sure if I looked as if I didn’t belong or maybe I wasn’t assertive enough, but either way sales staff were unwelcoming.
Since I was going on a guided trip and had lots of people to turn to for advice, I was lucky. There are, however, a lot of people who could become outdoor enthusiasts, but as newbies they’ll need some handholding to break in and feel welcome. A bad experience in a specialty store could just turn them off from the start.