Drown Your Phone, Mountain, Summer 2013

Mountain Su EssaysFour inches of coursing water covered Crested Butte’s 401 Trail. My eye sockets filled with rain. No matter how fast I blinked, all I saw was a blur of swirling rock and pines. Water soaked through my mud-coated clothes. I shivered--borderline hypothermic as the Rocky Mountain thunderstorm delivered a 40-degree temperature drop.

This wasn’t the sunny lark I’d dressed for, but as my bike sloshed downhill in an ungainly amphibious descent, my buddies’ laughs echoed mine from somewhere else in the aquarium.

We hadn’t bothered to check the weather report. There were no computers at camp. In the pre-smartphone era, all we carried were flip phones—the kind you only talked on. We gauged the forecast by staring at the sky above Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven in Crested Butte.

Now I carry a smartphone, and so does everyone I know. When we’re camping, bike commuting—or heck, when we’re standing at a trail junction deliberating between “epic” and “abbreviated” routes—we can almost always call up the latest weather forecasts and virtually guarantee that a raindrop will never smudge our sunglasses. But there’s a downside to all this data hounding. Actually there are countless downsides, but one of the worst is that we’ve become fair-weather adventurers. And by “we” I mean everybody.

“The majority of the rainwear we sell, including the higher-priced pieces, is only worn for bumming around town,” says Jason Giroux. The apparel buyer for Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont, Giroux estimates that 90 percent of his customers and even shop employees bail on their outdoor plans when rain’s predicted. “Connectivity is a factor,” he says. “My iPhone has a radar app, so as long as I have service, I can see rain clouds rolling in or away.”

Such radar apps have kept me inside, deferring to a screen that promised rain and cancelling plans with friends. If I’d simply stuck my head out the window, I would’ve pried myself out of the office for that lunch-hour circuit.

Being wired has even changed the nature of big expeditions. “Smash and grab” climbers now watch forecasts until they see a weather window, then jump to book travel and complete their objective in mere days. “There’s no more waiting two weeks through bad weather,” explains Gore-Tex’s Dan Cauthorn. Internet availability in places like Patagonia means mountaineers can enjoy the comforts of town until forecasts trigger a summit bid. “Gore-Tex Active Shell is a response to that,” says Cauthorn. “The laminate is more breathable but less durable because you’re going fast, not sitting for two weeks in sustained foul weather.”

What are we made of, butter and flour? A cake left out in the rain? There’s something primal about being exposed to the howling, churning storms that hammer with so much wind and water that you get a little, or even a lot, uncomfortable. A light rain on a hot day feels good on the skin. A reminder that we are of this earth. Messy weather dulls domestic polish. You arrive home feeling tested. And, surprise, you passed.

That day on the 401, the lightning bolts stayed well away. We did not confront death. We just got wet. The rain jammed mud inside my shifter cables and chamois. I had mud in my ears, nose, and teeth. I have some post-ride photos from that day. Everyone is wearing huge, mud-splattered smiles. And not a glimmer of regret.