When I’m traveling and people find out I’m American, one of the first things they usually say is: “Oh, America: Black Friday!”
I’m not sure why this event has managed to attach itself to the American identity, but I’ve had enough foreigners ask me about it that it clearly has. The rest of the world sees us as capitalism-crazed lemmings; people who will jump out of bed at 5 a.m. for anything, as long as the discount’s high enough.
And maybe that’s true, for some segment of my countrymen. But that’s not MY America. The same way the extreme Islamic clerics don’t represent Nouman’s Morocco, the homophobes in the streets don’t represent Iuri’s Brazil, and the Brexiteers don’t represent Sean’s England. Black Friday shoppers don’t represent MY America.
You can’t (successfully) stereotype people of any country — but the US, even less so. As I tell people when they ask about my home: there are many Americas.
And in my America, we #OptOutside.
While everyone else got up at 5 a.m. to snag #dealz, we got up at 5 a.m. to go snag some early-season ice climbing at Hidden Falls, in Rocky Mountain National Park. Find a different side of America, below the jump.
For those who don’t know, “Black Friday” is the day after the US holiday of Thanksgiving. It’s called “Black” Friday because traditionally, this was the day that businesses could count on making a profit for the year — their reports would go from red (losing money), to black (earning money).
Black Friday is considered the official start of the Christmas shopping season. Traditionally, stores have offered big one-day-only sales on Black Friday. These sales can be so good and so limited, that many people camp out the day before to ensure their spot in line.
This trend has gotten a little out-of-control in recent years; many people were lining up ON Thanksgiving, or even the day before.
Since Thanksgiving is traditionally a day for spending time with and appreciating family, there was some sinister symbolism in the day starting to be overshadowed by… you know… buying things.
In recent years there’s been a growing cultural backlash to the spectacle of Black Friday. Which is where #OptOutside enters the picture.
#OptOutside is a movement started by the popular US outdoor retailer REI (Recreational Equipment, Incorporated). REI is a member-owned co-op that started in Seattle, Washington, in 1938. Over the years, the company has grown and expanded. Today, it operates 154 stores in 36 US states. REI stores sell outdoors gear, ranging from basic car-camping tents to high-end technical pieces, like mountain-bikes, ice axes, and rock climbing protection.
This type of technical outdoors gear is expensive. I love REI, and often shop there when they have a sale. They would stand to make a lot of money by doing a Black Friday event.
Since 2015, REI has closed all of their stores on Black Friday, and given every employee a paid day off. Through this initiative, called #OptOutside, REI has taken a stand against capitalism and encouraged both employees and potential customers to experience the company’s mission: to play in the outdoors and appreciate the natural grandeur of America.
I’m not an REI employee… but I like the concept.
There are 10.6 million photos on Instagram tagged with #OptOutside now. Clearly: I’m not alone in this. So, this year, I joined the movement.
Despite our bad rep in the international press, the US has a lot to offer — especially in the outdoors. It’s important to remember this, with the Trump administration reducing national monuments and favoring the oil & gas industries over the outdoor recreation industries. The outdoors are our American heritage and our greatest treasure.
The Outdoors Culture
The US has a very visible gun culture — this is another thing foreigners frequently bring up to me. But you may not have considered that hunting enthusiasts are often great environmentalists, who work hard to ensure that American ecosystems stay free and untainted.
That’s America. And I bet, if you’re a foreigner, you don’t think of us in those nuanced terms. Truthfully, sometimes, WE don’t think of ourselves in such a balanced way. But that’s how it is.
One doesn’t HAVE to be a hunter or a gun nut to be an outdoorsman though. One simply has to appreciate what’s there.
And you will find this culture of appreciation strongly present in Colorado, my home state. I’ve been living in New York, London, and a number of other places lately. Big cities, culturally strong — but unappreciative and unconcerned with nature.
That’s toxic to the soul.
I took a week off work and flew home to Colorado for Thanksgiving, to catch up with exactly this feeling of appreciation, love, and enjoyment of the environment. It was a great decision.
So: My Black Friday
I woke up at 5:45 a.m., in a bed I very much didn’t want to leave. But I wrestled myself out and drove to meet my climbing partners for the day, Meg and Lea. We had chosen a Wal-Mart parking lot as our place to meet. Wal-Mart is always a safe place to leave your car, as they allow car-camping and won’t bother you about leaving it parked and going somewhere besides their store (bet you didn’t know that, either).
I arrived a bit early, so went into the Wal-Mart to get a coffee and a snack. I had expected a madhouse of people running around shopping for deals. What I found instead? Most of the lights were off, and only a single cashier was open. Sure, I saw some people buying gigantic TVs, but it was far from the madhouse the media would have you believe. No one had been trampled. I saw no fights. I got my snacks and met up with my partners.
Rocky Mountain National Park
We drove 40 minutes to the nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. We parked at the snowy trailhead for Hidden Falls around 7 a.m., where we found only one other car. “That’s a good sign,” my partners said.
We layered up, put on our winter gear and our mountaineering boots, and started hiking in on nice, even ground. Our path took us through a forest alongside a creek, a nice silent winter morning. Cold, but not too cold in our technical apparel (the sort of stuff you could buy at an REI).
As we debated amongst ourselves if the waterfalls would even be frozen this early in the season, we laughed: “Well, either we’ll have the place all to ourselves, or the ice isn’t in yet, and we’ll have a nice winter walk in the woods.”
Either way, we would be happy.
Ice climbing is an objectively silly sport. If you’re unfamiliar, it involves climbing frozen waterfalls. We do this by using Ice Tools and Crampons. Ice tools (sometimes called ice axes) belong in your hands, and are sharp picks which we sink into the ice and then pull up on. Crampons are climbing spikes — pointy things we strap on to our mountaineering boots. We use the front points on the crampons to kick into the ice, which allows up to stand, literally, on the side of a waterfall.
You sink your ice tools, move your feet up, kick into the ice, stand up off your feet, then move your ice tools up. It’s a pretty repetitive sport, really. Simple, repetitive, arbitrary and dangerous.
But it definitely beats shopping!
Ice climbing’s odd, because due to the variable nature of weather, the routes form differently every year. Sometimes a waterfall will freeze and create a climb, sometimes it won’t.
When we arrived at Hidden Falls, we found we were a few weeks too early for the real glory. The falls weren’t fully formed, and the ice was thin and brittle up top. If we were reckless and hacked away at such weak ice, the whole formation could collapse early, ruining the falls for everyone else, all winter. Still, we decided, with a bit of care, the falls were climbable.
Since the ice was weak and we didn’t have any rock protection for the mixed sections down low, we decided to not even try leading. So we walked to the top of the falls and threw down a top-rope.
Hidden Falls on Thanksgiving
As you can see in the photo, the ice hadn’t fully-formed to the ground. The little icicles you see stretching down would shatter if we attempted to climb them. But the upper falls was fat enough and solid enough to be climbed. We decided to access the upper portion by doing a few meters of mixed climbing — mixed ice and rock, climbed using crampons and ice tools.
This was my first time mixed climbing, and IT. IS. AWKWARD!
Thin ice that frequently breaks, scraping your crampons on rock until they kind of make purchase, hanging your picks off tiny little rock ledges… mixed climbing is not for the faint of heart. After two or three laps I’ll admit I found it KIND of fun and engaging… but I’m eons away from being able to ever comfortably lead this kind of terrain. Thank god for the top-rope.
Once you cleared the mixed section it was a short easy slope to the base of the falls, then pretty close to vertical ice climbing all the way up.
We stayed on the right side of the formation because the ice on the left wasn’t fully-formed yet. As I approached the top, on our first climb of the day, I swung a tool and sunk it straight through the thin ice, dislodging a chunk that fell on my partners below. Wanting to let the falls form completely, we stopped there, and never climbed the very top portion of the falls for the rest of the day.
We spent five hours or so at the falls, running laps, chatting, and enjoying the view of the valley behind us. As the day went on, the wind picked up, snow flurries arrived, and we found ourselves in the middle of a minor storm. As the weather worsened and the sky darkened, we decided to pack up and head out around 3 pm.
We’d had the falls to ourselves all day. Our only company had been a trio of hikers, who had come to the bottom of the falls, taken a few photos of our climber on the ice, and turned around. “That’s the best day I’ve ever had at Hidden,” Meg and Lea both agreed as we walked out. “We had it all to ourselves.”
As we left, two guys with ice axes passed us. We chatted, briefly, about the ice conditions, and they were on their way. A bit later, we passed a third guy with no tools who was simply heading up to check the conditions of the falls.
But besides that, not a soul.
We passed our day doing exercise, enjoying nature and our beautiful home, and spending time together. It didn’t cost a dime.
On our hike out, we stopped right by the parking lot, on a snowy bridge over a river. We chatted, warmed our toes, and shared some tea out of a thermos amid the softly falling snow. With tall pine trees towering around us, a tired feeling in our arms, and casual conversation on our tongues, it was a perfect moment. You won’t ever find that feeling in a store. Not even on Black Friday.
Hope you got a bit of a glimpse into another side of American culture, today. Although we had no company at Hidden Falls, I guarantee we were far from the only people using our Black Friday to #OptOutside and do something really cool.
And next year, we’d love to have you join us.
Comments are always appreciated!!