Plaid Free

Plain in a land of plaid

I stood in front of the mirror and sighed. What am I doing? I wondered aloud. I was flashing back to those days in middle school where there was a very real possibility that one of my peers would point at me and call me a loser just because of the clothes I was wearing. Cold sweat beaded on my forehead as I pictured the reactions waiting for me at the Outdoor Retailer Show when it became clear that I was on the wagon, so to speak, a tartan teetotaler—that I had, in fact, gone plaid free.

As I entered the great bustling halls of the Salt Palace, I felt the gazes of hundreds of horrified show-goers fall on me as I walked past. In my cocoon of self-consciousness, I tripped over a small wiener dog following his owner across the aisle. As I was now on his level, the nub-legged canine approached me, cautious and sniffing. One look at my solid blue, short-sleeved, collared shirt with a finely embroidered flock of birds swirling on the shoulder, and the creature started to yap at me and back away in fear. His owner, wearing a plaid shirt and mismatched plaid shorts, turned to see what the fuss was about. A look of anger and confusion crisscrossed his face before he turned in a huff, as if to say, Come along, Denali, he’s not even worth it.

I sat stunned for a minute as the plaid-patterned world swirled around me, whelmed up over me, disoriented me with its many colors and designs. Just then, a dear friend who I hadn’t seen since last year’s show grabbed me by the elbow and hoisted me to my feet.

“Hey J,” he said jovially. “Not rocking the plaid this year, I see! Good move—plaid is played.”

It took a moment for me to tighten up my slack jaw and shake the anxiety from my eyes, but once I did so, I was amazed to see that my friend wore a dark grey shirt with little campfires printed all over it. And then to his right I spotted a plain black shirt, and a green one with pale stripes over there. Was that an acid-washed denim that flitted in the distance? I couldn’t be sure. The more I looked, the more I noticed the anti-plaids—still only a small percentage of the crowd, sure, but a significant one. I wasn’t alone, after all. Proudly plaidless, my friend and I headed over to the Royal Robbins booth to wait in a long line for a free latte.

From a purely logistical standpoint, it wasn’t easy to make it through the show (four days) without wearing a plaid shirt. My employer’s liberal dress code excluded only a few items of clothing, but alongside shorts (especially of the cargo variety) and Crocs, T-shirts were also on the non grata list. Having worked in the outdoor industry for over a decade, my non-T-shirt wardrobe is limited, but by counting out plaid, my options ran dangerously low.

On day three, I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to make it. After spending a full 20 minutes gazing dead-eyed into my closet wondering if a v-neck was OR-appropriate, I went digging through boxes of old, forgotten garments. There, I found that tank top with horizontal stripes I’d purchased in an effort to fit in while bouldering at The Spot. I found an old rayon shirt with a mondo collar I got at a thrift store for a ’70’s party. I found my childhood bolo tie collection and a bunch of drab old long-sleeved dress shirts I used to wear to my first office job. No dice.

Finally, in the back of my closet, hidden behind a fluffy wall of down jackets and fleece hoodies, I uncovered a pair of collared, polo-style shirts that I’d long-since forgotten. Maybe it was the mustard stains and moth holes that prompted me to stash them out of sight, but flaws be damned, I was happy to see them. I pulled them free with glee, leaving my thick swath of plaid button-ups hanging. My audacious plans for a plaid-free show seemed suddenly attainable.

As day four drew to a close, I strolled among the booths with a sense of accomplishment. I’d stuck to my guns and come out the other side. Plaid, it turns out, isn’t required OR Show attire. In fact, a small but growing anti-plaid trend has already taken root in the outdoor industry.

For the time being, most outdoorsy guys’ closets look like mine, and so we can expect to see a strong plaid presence for at least the next three to five years. But as the practical, wicking, wrinkle-free cotton/poly blends of those old plaids grows threadbare, I have a feeling they’ll be replaced not with more of the same, but with some other pattern, or lack of a pattern, or who knows what. Maybe the plaid of the future is some pattern that hasn’t even been invented yet! Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it…

Is Psicocomp the Next Big Thing?

A climber catches air at Psicocomp
A climber catches air at Psicocomp

It must have been seven years ago that a small group of climbers, myself included, sat around a table in the downtown Manhattan offices of Urban Climber discussing a new approach to climbing competitions: deep water soloing.

We pondered the best way to do it. Perhaps in a lake, where we’d build a free-standing wall and then the climbers would get dropped at the start by boats. Speed boats. There would be revealing swimwear aplenty, a la surfing or beach volleyball, and a danger element in the form of big belly smackers from 30 feet. It would have that je ne sais quoi that bouldering and sport climbing and speed climbing comps just did not. We could see it in the X-Games or even the Olympics.

As so many had before us, we envisioned the next big thing. But our vision never moved any closer to reality than speculation. Despite a not-yet-unspoiled optimism, we hadn’t the money, time, or connections necessary to pull of a DWS competition, so we stuck to gear “reviews” and first-person essays about soul bouldering.

Fast forward to 2013, to the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City. The Unified Bouldering Championship comp held on the roof of the parking structure adjacent the Shilo Inn, despite the throngs it once drew and a certain energy, is no longer. In its place this year, a duel-style competition on an artificial wall towering more than 50 feet above the 750,000 gallon aerials pool at the Utah Olympic Park Training Center in Park City. In this event, known as Psicocomp, two competitors are pitted against one another in every round — whoever falls lowest gets the chop and winners advance to the next tête-à-tête. Still, even the victors can take breathtaking whips through air, clapping and plooshing into the pool with explosive results.

As I watched from the sidelines, jostling for position with more than a dozen photographers, I felt a vague sense of satisfaction. I had no involvement in the competition, but this idea that had been bandied about, expanded on and delved into for the better part of a decade had finally come into being. And it was just as cool as so many of us had imagined.

In science, great minds, famous and unknown alike, will often flit around the periphery of a major discovery for some time. Then, all at once, multiple parties will simultaneously come to the same conclusions. So it was with Charles Darwin, the guy who created the working theory for natural selection, and Alfred Russell Wallace, who you’ve probably never heard of but who discovered pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time.

For unknown reasons, certain ideas can float in the zeitgeist and then suddenly catalyze, seemingly from thin air. This is how the Psicocomp felt to me. It is the manifestation of a concept that has been laying dormant for years, periodically almost surfacing, but never quite having the right conditions to sprout and mature. For whatever reason, the planets are now aligned and the deep water soloing competition is reality.

Still, questions remain: will such comps survive the test of time? Or will the Psicobloc Masters Series ultimately become another Snowbird — a huge event laden with promise but lacking the fan base and commercial support to reproduce at scale? Only time will tell. I think the Psicocomp organizers are heading in the right direction, but they need a driving force, someone with serious clout, like Chris Sharma, who’s willing to keep his foot on the gas for as long as it takes to get this thing not just off the ground, but flying at safe altitude.

What happens after that is hard to predict, but maybe climbing will return to the X-Games (are they even cool anymore? I haven’t been paying attention). Maybe climbing will finally make it into the Olympics, after all. Or maybe these flashy DWS competitions, in tandem with the mushrooming gym culture and increased visibility of climbing as a whole, will take the sport to that rarefied next level that everyone is always talking about.

Personally, I hope the Psicobloc Masters Series is a big success. Maybe, for the first time, we have the right formula for translating the esoteric art of scaling vertical surfaces into a spectator sport for a wider audience.

What do you think?

 

[Video] Why Plaid? A closer look at the unofficial uniform of Outdoor Retailer

Last August I wrote a post called 50 Shades of Plaid, featuring a photo gallery of the many plaid shirts that attendees of the Outdoor Retailer Show wore. The post garnered an inordinate amount of attention and, as Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 approached, several people asked what I was planning for a follow-up. This video, shot entirely on an iPhone 5, is the answer — a closer look into plaid, the unofficial uniform of the Outdoor Retailer Show and the outdoor industry.

50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer

The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market (ORSM) is, according to the website, “the world’s largest outdoor sports industry gathering.” For this much-lauded trade show, thousands of brands, athletes, non-profits, retail store buyers, media outfits, and so forth gather at the sprawling Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City every summer to do business of one sort or another.

Whatever the reason a person attends the OR Show, almost everyone – every male, at least – will at some point don the “OR uniform”: a plaid shirt, probably short-sleeved, with khakis or jeans, and either approach shoes or flip-flops.

After years of administering lighthearted ribbings to my friends and co-workers for their unconscious adherence to the OR dress code, I decided to pick up my camera and document just a few of the tartan-clad attendees walking the red-carpeted walkways of the Salt Palace, which, one busy year, an event goer referred to as looking “like a table cloth.”

If you look carefully, you’ll find 50 different plaid (or near-plaid) shirts pictured in the gallery below. These I photographed with a modest effort – maybe 15 minutes over the course of Sunday, the final and slowest day.

With this, I hope to draw attention to a curious fashion phenomenon for which I can conjure no reasonable explanation. I have also included an image of myself, pre-show, in a plaid shirt — proof that an awareness of the plaid plague offers no immunity.