Three Stars: The Long Road of Learning To Write Gear Reviews
Andrew Bisharat dissects the art of the gear review, and relates some of his more memorable (mis)adventures during the process of gear testing.
After graduating college, I went off to become a climbing dirtbag. That doesn’t mean that I moved into a $100,000 kitted-out Sprinter Van and glamorized my life each day by posting backlit, sun-drenched Instagram photos of myself drinking coffee and journaling in remote wilderness locations alongside a socially conscious girlfriend, invariably in Lotus pose.
Back then, neither Instagram nor Sprinter vans existed. I had just broken up with my girlfriend. She wasn’t a climber and didn’t want to live with me in a tin-box sedan while I flailed on random outcrops. Fair enough. Of course, I quickly regretted the decision once I was on the climbing circuit and realized that I’d never met or seen—nor ever met anyone who had ever actually met or seen—a single woman who also climbed. Maybe it was a bad season, but it seemed as if single women who climbed were as rare as yetis. Dudes I met on the climbing circuit spoke of them around campfires in hushed tones, speculating about their migratory patterns.
“They’re in Hueco right now,” someone would say. “By March, they’ll be moving up to Indian Creek.”
“Well, then, why the fuck are we in Bishop?”
“The temps are so good.”
Yeah, life was sweet. I was living out of my car and climbing every day. I wasn’t even going to law school like the rest of my loser college friends.
Being a dirtbag with no consistent climbing partners, no consistent life partners, and no real direction or planning beyond the next week’s rest-day schedule, however, isn’t without its own brand of first-world consternation. So when the opportunity arose to take an internship at Rock and Ice, I leaped at a chance to do something resembling a career.
I’ve always felt that I somehow owed it to myself to translate my real, lived climbing experiences—pathetic and mediocre as they might be—into the written word. Part of the fun of going climbing, at least for me, was coming home with a story and trying to spin it onto a page. There seemed to be something grander, deeper, more meaningful to the objective experience of interacting with pieces of rock that I hadn’t yet figured out.
Progression, whether as a climber or a writer, is inevitably an experience of feeling inadequate. Climbs sent could always be harder. Sentences could always be better. Climbing and writing, it mostly seemed, were passions for the doomed.
When I showed up at the magazine with a stack of written pages I’d been working on in one coffee shop or another, the editors politely informed me that they had no interest in my sappy, existential, self-absorbed bullshit. They especially had no interest in reading overwrought descriptions about mountains and weather—my specialty at the time.
“Bisharat! Get in here!” called Duane, the publisher, one day. “You want to write up some gear?”
To be honest, I had no preexisting passion for or interest in gear. I would’ve preferred if he had asked me to do a cover story about my most recent 5.11 project—“a fearsome fissure in all its gruesome glory, tormenting the psychic plane of my very consciousness like a hurricane barreling across a darkened sea,” as I once described a 40-foot crack with a tiny runout.
“Hell, yeah!” I said. “Will this be for the magazine?”
Duane chuckled and shook his head. “No, no, no … this can be for the ‘website,’” he said, using air quotes and jangling his hands above his head as if he was clearing smoke from the room. This was a time when websites were still the dregs of the publishing world, best left to interns.
Duane rummaged through a swag-mound in the corner of his office. It was one of the most glorious piles of new equipment I’d ever seen outside of an REI. There were shiny cams, new shoes aplenty, and enough rope to fix a toprope to Boot Flake.
“Here, have this,” Duane said, shoving a bulky coat into my arms. “I have no idea what it is. Maybe you can figure it out.”
I read the tag: Acme Solar-Paneled Jacket-Vest: It’s a jacket AND a vest. And it can charge your MP3s.
What does this have to do with climbing? I thought.
“I have no idea what this has to do with climbing,” said Duane, who could apparently also read minds.
I held up the heavy canvas coat. A large, inflexible solar panel occupied the entire back side. I tried it on and felt as if I was wearing a scoliotic back brace. Reaching into the pockets, I pulled out a handful of wires with a variety of USB-style connectors for music-dispensing electronic devices. So many wires were spilling out of each and every pocket they looked like whale baleens. I took the coat off and inspected the zippers stitched around the shoulder blades. As promised, the coat could be converted into a vest by removing its sleeves. It was the ugliest piece of shit I’d ever seen.
“See what you can come up with,” Duane said, and shooed me away.
“Thanks,” I said, and shuffled off, dragging the coat behind me like a dirty blanket. This jive-ass jacket wasn’t going to help me send!
Well … it wasn’t the most exciting writing opportunity, but it was an opportunity nevertheless. I decided to give it my best shot.
First thing I did was find the company’s number and call up the office. I left a message on the CEO’s answering machine. A carnival barker called me back within 10 minutes. It was a very small company; in fact, he might have been the only employee.
“I’m so excited to hear what you think about our solar jacket,” he said. “It’s literally the most groundbreaking thing on the market right now. There’s nothing else like it. Nothing!”
“I just have a few questions about how it works,” I said.
“This is literally game-changing technology! Have you ever seen a jacket with a solar panel on it? You can literally be charging your MP3 player while you’re out skiing, climbing, hiking, running. Did I say skiing? It’s got all the cords. They’re all built in. It’s waterproof! It’s breathable! It’s fast! It’s light! And it can become a vest.”
“Why would you want a jacket that can also become a vest?” I asked.
“Huh?” My question seemed so utterly stupid that it momentarily threw him off his game. He replied, “Oh, because it gets fuckin’ hot in the sun.”
Reviews might be the most widely read category of writing at the moment. Whether you’re looking to buy apps, music, art, toilet paper, vibrating massagers, climbing shoes, harnesses or quickdraws, it would be nearly impossible—if not unthinkable—to do so without at least a casual peek down the infinite scroll of opinions and star ratings freely offered by hordes of online consumers.
The fact that there are so many gear reviews—or reviews of any kind whatsoever—is perhaps a direct reflection of two phenomena: the sheer glut of products out there, and the fact that we inevitably want what’s best and will rely on the opinions of others to determine that for us.
“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard,” writes Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice.
Ironically, this may be one of the reasons why Golden Age climbers actually had it easier than we do today. I doubt that Warren Harding, upon being given the sawn-off cast-iron stove legs by the Bay Area climber Frank Tarver as a solution for protecting the wide-crack crux on his Nose project, asked about the make and model of stove.
“Are these hot forged or cold forged?” Harding presumably never asked.
Gear reviews seem to have emerged concurrently to the outdoor industry itself, though pithy references to gear are peppered across our sport’s literary canon. In her book The High Alps in Winter; Or, Mountaineering in Search of Health, from 1883, Elizabeth Alice F. Le Blond, in what may be the first-ever climbing-gear review, writes, “I invariably use the English Alpine Club rope, with red thread inside. It is light, and can thoroughly be depended upon.”
The red thread is how you know the shit is five stars. Thanks, Lizzie!
Does gear really matter? Throw a dart toward any page of climbing’s history, and it’s the indomitable human spirit that invariably emerges as the most important piece on a climber’s rack. Yet we pore over reviews to find the best shoes, the most popular down jacket, and see whether that lightweight carabiner actually is light.
By the end of the first summer in which I’d become irrevocably hooked on climbing, I had strung together a small rack of off-brand cams from the Czech Republic that I’d purchased using money earned washing golf carts. I fretted over this decision for weeks. The reviews I’d read convinced me that the Czech cams were safe enough, though not the best. I would’ve bought Camalots but I didn’t have enough money, and I was sick of washing golf carts. There was climbing to be done.
In retrospect, the Czech cams performed well enough. The worst part, to be honest, was climbing with new partners who were inevitably distrustful of my rack and, by association, me.
Golf, by the way, is a sport in which equipment holds a particularly potent promise of performance gains. Golfers never blame themselves for those errant shots that find their way into the rough. It was the club’s fault—and if not the club, then it was the wind, a distracting noise, the hand of a vengeful god, etc.
Climbers are generally far less susceptible to blaming gear for their own performance failures. Gear might not matter, but gear reviews do insofar as people—lots of people—read them. And if you are a writer, that’s certainly a point worth paying attention to.
Over the years, I learned that cobbling together a good gear review is surprisingly difficult. In the same way that chefs say an omelet is actually one of the hardest things to cook, a well-written gear review is one of those things that seems simple but is actually quite difficult to master.
A good review should be entertaining, if not funny; authentic, if not critical; and concise, but contain lots of information. Ideally, that information should be distilled from many months of real-world experience using and thinking about the equipment. You’d be surprised how many gear reviews you read are written by writers who do little more than look at what’s been written about the gear in its own press release.
Honesty is most important when reviewing gear, which seems obvious because the goal is to convince the reader that not only are you an expert, but you are authentic and trustworthy. That your opinion matters. There are so many subtle ways in which a writer can go wrong and dangerously bend if not break this trust.
There is also the question of star ratings—which, arbitrarily, top out at five stars. I wish these didn’t exist, but they’re arguably the most important part of the whole review. You could use the most flattering, articulate and creative words in the world to describe a piece of equipment, but all anyone really cares about is how many stars you’ve assigned to it. No wonder this is frustrating.
One time we featured a number of different harnesses within the same category on a single page. All received high ratings, though one company received a half of a star lower than its competitor. This was the end of the world for this company, who called us up and scolded us on the phone for 45 minutes.
Star ratings must be used prudently, which is the opposite of how people use them online, where everything is shit or sunshine. In general, I try to avoid giving gear five stars—there’s inevitably something just as good if not better out there. Also, I avoid giving something one star. Dude, is it really that bad? Probably not. I try to think about the fact that there are people, probably real climbers, who worked for very little money to design and manufacture this piece of gear, and how devastating it could be to receive one star for their months or years of work. Often, I just won’t bother reviewing gear that’s that bad.
The middle ground is three or four stars for anything worth purchasing, and two stars for something you wouldn’t recommend.
The best gear reviews manage to achieve all of this while also telling a relevant, entertaining climbing story. Reviewing gear isn’t just about offering an opinion. It’s a writing exercise I’m still trying to perfect.
I drove down the highway with a mug of coffee sloshing betwixt my thighs. My friend “Matt” was beside me. Our climbing objective that day was a popular four-pitch 5.12 splitter up a slender desert tower. We had ditched out on our respective jobs. At this point, I had been bumped up from intern to associate editor. Matt was a representative of an Eastern European mountaineering brand. Our mission would be testing a batch of new cams that Matt’s company was on the verge of releasing.
“You’re gonna love these puppies!” Matt said, referring to the cams, though I do also love dogs.
Matt told me more about the cams. I turned the radio louder, a sign that I didn’t want to talk about the gear anymore.
Soon enough, we had arrived at the base of the tower. Matt turned his pack upside down and dumped out dozens of brand-new widgets. Each cam was still in its plastic packaging. Tagged to each was a folded-up booklet, which literally couldn’t be folded in half even one more time, and contained a Joycean opus of legal disclaimers in four different languages and five-point font that basically just explained that if you die climbing, it’s your own fault.
Matt cocked open a pocket knife and started unpackaging each cam.
Officially, Matt’s job was to convince me, writer of the hoped-for gear review, to fall in love with the new cams and subsequently feature them, shower them with stars, and sing hymns of glory unto the publication’s salt-of-the-earth readership.
“If you don’t like ’em, it’s totally no big deal,” Matt said, lying to be polite.
Our adventure began with a tangential yet inauspicious event. As Matt unpackaged 20 pounds of new lightweight hardware, I was performing my normal calisthenics routine.
Somehow I split my britches open from knee to heinie. My nut tool suddenly caught a cool breeze.
“Da’ fak just happened?” I sputtered. Matt was on the ground, dying laughing.
“Gimme that tape.”
I snatched a roll of Gorilla tape from Matt’s pack, spent the next 10 minutes fixing my one-star pants, and ultimately created what looked like a black, shiny diaper.
With pelvis tilted gently forward, I admired my craftsmanship.
“Five stars!” I said.
Matt finished assembling our rack, and handed those bad boys over to me. I slung them across my chest and started climbing. My duct-tape diaper crinkled with the first high step.
I stemmed up a 5.11a corner with a perfect #1-sized crack. I took the #1-equivalent cam off my sling, retracted the lever, and fished it around inside the crack. Like a pair of hipster jeans, it seemed a little too snug for my liking. I put the #1 back on the rack and retrieved the #.75-equivalent piece. Way too small! I couldn’t even get a tipped-out passive placement. For no clear reason at all, I tried the #2 piece, a doomed idea.
“Well, shoot,” I muttered before going back to the #1 and absolutely slamming it home. Matt can deal with it.
As I climbed the first pitch, it quickly became clear that these cams had no range whatsoever. Each piece was seemingly made to fit just one size—not one range of sizes. One size.
Matt, now climbing on second, reached the first piece, which I had planted like a sequoia. Stemming and hanging by a thin hand jam, he struggled to uproot it. He stood there so long, wrestling with the gear and muttering curses, that his legs started violently shaking.
“Take,” he finally said. He spent another five minutes hanging on the rope and trying to finagle the cam free before finally giving up.
“I think it’s stuck!”
“Sorry, dude!” I shouted. “I couldn’t get anything else to work there.”
The next few pieces came out fine. Then Matt came to another one that was utterly irretrievable.
“Motherfucker!” he shouted.
I felt bad.
“Maybe we should’ve brought some Camalots,” I said. This elicited an evil glare.
On the next pitch, I followed Matt’s lead—and promptly stopped feeling bad. Even Matt had experienced the singularity of range-size endemic to these cams. I tried and failed to remove some of his placements from the perfect parallel-sided cracks.
By the top of the third pitch, we had collectively lost about eight puppies to the wall. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Dude, we’re leaving more metal on this thing than Maestri,” I said glumly.
Matt looked embarrassed. And sad. He sighed. We had one more pitch to go but we already knew the outcome of the day. Like the Texas flag, these cams were just one star.
We were down eight cams, and our spirits were low. Matt offered to take the last lead.
“Let’s try not to get any more of these cams stuck,” I said.
“I think I’ve got the hang of them now,” said Matt. “I’m feeling good about this.”
Matt took the rack, and started climbing. I watched as he soloed to the top without stopping to place a single piece.
“Dude, you just soloed that shit!” I said, as I joined Matt atop the tower. I guess that sometimes one-star gear can produce five-star leads.
Those cams never made it to market—they were killed faster than the infamous “Madam President” New York Times cover story of 2016. That was a smart decision by this brand, and perhaps one of the reasons it continues to thrive today. Consequently, I never got to review them, or tell this story.
I don’t know if I’m any closer now than I was years ago to putting my finger on climbing’s true and decisive meaning. But I will say that I’ve realized how elusive and indirect it can be. It reveals itself in surprising ways—even through the exercise of writing a gear review.
Gear comes and goes—even the good stuff. Every year there’s a new update to a product that already works just fine. What sticks out for me is how so many days have been launched under the premise of “testing gear,” but how few of those days have anything to do with the gear itself. What remains are the memories and experiences, the one-star failures and five-star leads.
Andrew Bisharat writes gear reviews from his home in New Castle, Colorado. Read more of his work at Evening Sends.
This article appeared in Ascent 2018 (Rock and Ice issue 250).
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