Review: Kinds of Winter

Bush pilot, guide, dog musher—Dave Olesen documents what it takes to survive the north in “Kinds of Winter.” A Review by Dick Dorworth

KINDS OF WINTER: Four solo journeys by dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
By Dave Olesen
Wilfrid Laurier University Press$19.99

olesenDave Olesen is a thoughtful, articulate adventurer who closely notes the details of an extraordinary existence in which the mundane chores of daily life entail severe consequences for inattention, keeps track of his experiences and observations in journals which he turns into books to share with fortunate readers. His latest book “Kinds of Winter” is, to sum up, beautiful. Olesen lives with his wife and two children, forty three huskies and a ninety year old Danish sailboat on a remote homestead by Great Slave Lake next to the Hoarfrost River in Canada’s Northwest Territories where average winter nighttime temperatures are below -20F and there are five hours of daylight in December.

Olesen works as a bush pilot and guide, and, for 15 years, he was a competitive dog musher, finishing the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled dog Race eight times. That’s a long way from the small Illinois town where he grew up, but in 1987, armed with B.A. degree in Humanities and Northern Studies, he fled to the north to pursue a life that inspired Gary Snyder to write of Olesen: “I salute this man and his passion, and his family for giving him space to explore it. An old Inupiaq Eskimo once said to me as I set out in a canoe on a September river, ‘Don’t have any adventures.’”

But the daily challenges of life at Olesen’s home are a backdrop and nutritious foundation for the kinds of winter he seeks and discovers when he and his teams of sled dogs really do go looking for adventure. He explains it thus: “Once a year for four consecutive winters I hooked up a team of dogs and set out on long trips away from our homeland, traveling toward one of the cardinal points of the compass: south in 2002, east in 2003, north in 2004, and finally west in 2005. Having gone out, I turned home again. It was as simple as that.” Yes, as simple as a man alone with his team of dogs going south for 155 miles, east 380 miles, north 210 miles and west 520 miles through the kinds of winter that keep the Northwest Territories sparsely populated.

The adventure alone makes “Kinds of Winter” worth the read, but Olesen is no chest-thumping conqueror of the extreme compiling a resume of achievement for the reader to admire. Olesen, like his literary/spiritual predecessors Muir, Thoreau, Leopold, Abbey and Snyder is reminding himself and the reader of Muir’s admonition: “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

DSC_1891 - Version 2-colourEvery human being can, with a bit of intentional effort and spirit of adventure, break clear away, once in awhile, and wash the spirit clean. But there are very few who do so who also have the literary skills and discipline combined with the human and environmental insight to realize and write: “Time. It is all nice and fuzzy that: ‘Go out in the wilderness and just let Time flow’ or ‘let Time have no meaning’ stuff, but in traveling between supply caches, or climbing a mountain, or paddling a long river in a short summer, Time takes on fundamental importance—it cannot be ignored. It is the approach of dusk at day’s end, the looming onset of winter in mid-September, the final sack of feed rationed out to a hungry team. Like it or not, folks, the clock is ticking, even ‘way out here’ in la-la land, Today, though, sitting just 75 miles from home, I am long on time. I can rest, and walk, and watch the day go by. Muir and Thoreau would be happy for me.”

We should all be happy for Dave Olesen who has the skills, discipline and insight to make every reader happy he and she took the time from the ticking clock to read “Kinds of Winter.”         —Dick Dorworth

Playing Risk: Dick Dorworth meditates on how we mitigate the dangers of the wild

OLD & NEW THOUGHTS ON RISK TOLERANCE

By Dick Dorworth

Like many older people I find in recent years that I learn more from those younger than from my peers. I recently gained a new sliver of insight into the matter of risk tolerance from my youngest son, Jason, who lives in Santa Cruz, California and is an avid surfer. Several years ago I heard about Mavericks, the famous, big, dangerous wave an hour north of Santa Cruz. I asked Jason if he knew about and had been to Mavericks. “I don’t do that kind of thing, Dad,” he replied. As a MV5BMzc5MTU5MTk2OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzg3NjcxOA@@._V1_SX214_parent I was understandably relieved. Last year the fine biographical film “Chasing Mavericks,” about two Mavericks icons, was released. It is, in my view, a superior film about the human quality of risk tolerance and much more. After I saw it I asked Jason if he had seen it. He knows some of the people portrayed in the film but his busy life as a parent, husband, firefighter, surfer and mountain bike rider had left him no time for the film. But he said something that resonates with lessons for those willing to learn them. He said, “You know, there are only a handful of surfers in the world capable of riding Mavericks, and within that handful there are only a few who want to.”

About 20 years ago I was talking about the latest casualty of the mountains with a friend, a fellow climbing guide. It is a theme that people who live, work and play in mountains return to all too often. Our discussion that day veered away from the specific most recent death of a climber we knew to all the people we had known who had died in the mountains over the period of our lives. Some of them had been friends, a few close ones. For reasons I’ve forgotten, we decided that we would search our memories and each make a list of all the people we knew who had died in the mountains. The next day we resumed our conversation with our respective lists which totaled more than 70.

We were both surprised. We should not have been.

There are more names on those lists 20 years later, but neither of us have kept track, nor shall we. People die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and it is both easy and practical for mountain people to acknowledge the inevitability and constancy of such events. It is not nearly so painless to move beyond acknowledgement to acceptance. Death and injury, untimely or not, and the questions and diverse answers that arise from them are often neither common nor sensible to everyone, and they are never painless.

Nor are they limited to people and activities of the mountains. They are integral to human life, regardless of where or how lived. There is a usually accepted perception (belief?) that people who engage in such mountainous activities as climbing, skiing, hang gliding, paraponting, kayaking, snowmobiling, snowboarding and the like put themselves at more risk than the general public. A physician I know who views climbing and, I suspect, climbers with jaundiced eye once showed me an article in a medical journal claiming that, statistically, a climber on Denali was more likely to be injured or die than a soldier in combat. I have no idea what data was used to determine that statistic, but that it appeared in a mainstream medical journal illuminates the aforementioned perception. When confronted with such a factual overview of an aspect of life you care about, it is always good to keep in mind the Disraeli adage “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” For me, conflating the unnecessary degradation and horror that war brings to humans with the fundamental beauty, pleasure and spiritual uplifting that mountains instill in them is tasteless in the extreme and a disservice to human understanding of the process of the life, which, inevitably, encompasses death to skier, climber, soldier, housewife and spy alike. I don’t know how to determine such a thing, but I suspect that, statistically, physicians who have climbed on Denali lead healthier, happier, and more creative and perhaps even longer lives than do battlefield and more mainstream physicians. And, yes, it is tasteless and an impediment to both understanding and appreciating life to conflate the two, a risk and a choice I am not willing to take. My suspicion is neither a certainty nor a statistic, only an affirmation of the integrity of each person’s preference of how to live and of the individual tolerance for risk that choice entails, whether in mountains, cities, battlefields or industrial farms.

I am reminded of Tom Patey’s well known verse:

“Live it up, fill your cup, drown your sorrow
And sow your wild oats while ye may.
For the toothless old tykes of tomorrow,
Were the tigers of yesterday.”

Patey, a fine climber (and doctor), made a simple, human mistake and died in a rappelling accident at the age of 48.

Unknown-1Like all people who have spent a significant amount of their lives engaged in mountainous pursuits, I have dealt with, thought about, observed, engaged in and been affected by the risks and the simple human mistakes inherent to that life. The operational human quality in dealing with those activities I choose to call, for a reason that will soon be clear, ‘risk tolerance.’ Personally, I am more comfortable (and, I will argue, safer) pursuing a day of any mountainous endeavor with which I am familiar than, say, driving the congested freeways of southern California, walking the streets of many neighborhoods of any large city on earth, dining regularly in the best known fast/junk food restaurants or, needless to say, engaging in violence, whether personally or patriotically inspired. This implies that people are more comfortable (and safer) with the familiar than with the exotic and unrecognizable, but even that does not insulate them from death and injury. Every year more than 30,000 people are killed in car wrecks in America (in 1972 it was 54,000). Every year more than 2500 people are killed in house fires, almost all of them caused by nothing more complicated, risky or unusual than cooking a meal, and more than 13,000 are injured in these fires. In 1978 more than 6,000 people were killed and more than 20,000 injured in house fires. These statistics do not include the firefighters killed and injured trying to save the lives and homes of American people engaged in an activity no more exotic or exposed to risk than cooking dinner for their families. Cooking a meal and driving to the store are not considered high risk activities, at least not statistically, but every day people die and are injured in their pursuit because something went wrong.
And after nearly every accident in the mountains and elsewhere there is a search for answers to why it happened, seeking lessons to be learned to prevent the same mistakes being repeated, sometime assigning blame, always striving to make tidy and comprehensible the complex and often inconceivable. And more often than not those searches turn up human error as a primary factor, sometimes incomprehensible error, sometimes completely conceivable. That the lessons are not learned is self-evident. As mentioned, people die and are injured every day in the mountains of the world, and so they will continue to be.

That people often act like sheep and will follow the herd even when knowing they are walking toward the wolves is well established. At least two recent, well-publicized avalanches that resulted in multiple deaths illustrate this. In instances like these, personal tolerance for risk, personal judgment and personal integrity itself are sacrificed (sic) to herd bravura. This dynamic can be observed every day from small groups in every walk of life to entire counties including but not limited to our own. This does not imply that the herd is always wrong just because it is a herd. Sometimes the herd avoids the wolves while one of the sheep goes to them.

Last winter four experienced, competent, knowledgeable backcountry skiers were at the top of a steep bowl covered with a foot and a half of fresh snow draining into a long gully with a couple of flat spots along the way. Three of them skied, one at a time, down skier’s right of the bowl, into the gully and to the bottom where the snow ran out and they were safe. The fourth skier waited for them before moving left to the center of the bowl and jumped off a fifteen foot cliff to land on the steepest part of the bowl covered with new snow. Naturally, predictably even, the slope avalanched immediately and took the skier for a 1500 foot ride that temporarily buried him in one of the flat spots before a second wave of the slide pushed him along until he wound up at the bottom partially buried, a bit beat up, but very lucky and alive. His friends dug him out and they all went on with their lives. Nice story that easily could have ended not so agreeably. At the end of the official report of this incident was a section titled ‘lessons learned.’ Not included in those lessons was what seemed to me the obvious one of avoiding jumping off cliffs onto steep, freshly snow loaded terrain. When I queried the writer of the report about this exclusion he replied, “Some people have a higher tolerance for risk than others.”

While the statement is true, it seems to me in this and other instances it sidesteps the onerous task of learning the lesson which, as human history illustrates, is quintessential human behavior. This dynamic is succinctly summed up by Kurt Vonnegut’s response to the well known George Santayana insight, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

As a species, as a culture, as a lifestyle, as members of communities of skiers, mountaineers, firemen, housewives, school teachers, politicians, writers, sky divers, bartenders, bankers, clergy, drug addicts and thieves we are, as the great Vonnegut noted, doomed to repeat the past. That is what it is to be alive. The silver lining in being alive is that as individuals we are sometimes capable of learning, sometimes without even remembering the past, much less having to repeat its mistakes. As a group, any group—any group—that capability is not so evident.

There are always those individuals in every adventure and aspect of life who stand out from the group by their ability to learn the lesson, gain the insight, raise the standard and in some small or large way expand the limits of the possible by example. Sometimes these individuals learn from their own egregious mistakes, sometimes they learn without them. (The skier mentioned earlier who jumped off the cliff onto a loaded steep slope reportedly told a good friend, “That will never happen again.” Good for him, the individual who learned.) Usually, those who raise the standards become the stars, the leaders, the ones to emulate and, eventually, exceed. They become the beacon and the authority, and they do not last long. It has been only 60 years since Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first humans to climb Everest, a milestone in mountaineering and human endeavor. Now any person with $60,000, a modicum of fitness and the desire for a piece of the action can climb Everest. My old friend Yuishiro Miura, who climbed Everest when he was 70 years old and again when he was 75, just odd-yuichiro-miuraclimbed it again at the age of 80. A couple of weeks before this writing Ueli Steck, arguably the finest climber in the world at the moment, and his two climbing partners were attacked by an angry mob of a hundred Sherpas whose profession involves getting those $60,000 clients up the mountain. The Sherpas were angered by a perceived violation of ‘etiquette’ on the part of the climbers.

Risk tolerance and etiquette delineate boundaries and, like fences, create good neighbors. When they are crossed some of the dynamics of accidents and high achievement in the mountains and elsewhere come a bit more into focus. I will argue (admittedly without having been there) that Steck’s personal experience, focus, knowledge and unusual skill provide him a risk tolerance and security for both himself and those around him not available to any of the professional Sherpas who were so offended by and, according to reports, violent toward him and his climbing mates. But the Sherpas do not and should not be expected to understand that. Unlike the intention of etiquette, risk tolerance is not democratic. For the Sherpas, Everest is for clients, not climbers, and one ignores that cultural reality according to one’s own tolerance for risk. Ho ho.

In an age when personal and professional spraying and promotion via films, I phones, the internet, GoPros, You Tube and Facebook are both immediate and endemic to the mountain culture, the latest exploit of the standard bearers, the super stars and the icons of the edge is immediately known and available to the world. The levels of achievement and risk tolerance of every super star of the mountains, seas, plains and cities in history are connected to and built upon the efforts of their respective communities. But those levels, no matter how well sprayed and promoted to the general populace, are only available to a few. Just because one sees a film of someone jumping off a cliff onto a steep slope and carving great turns in powder does not mean that every other similar mountain slope will not slide. Every slope, like very person, is different. The reasons for this are complex and obvious and, for some, difficult to accept and impossible to learn. As the good Kurt observed, we are as a species doomed to repeat the past. As individuals we can make some progress.

The level of risk tolerance for, say, Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, Shaun White, Kristen Ulmer, Will Gadd and others who came before and more who will follow, is different in both kind and degree from those of less commitment and effort, mountain intelligence and instinct, attention to detail and that indefinable quality that some are born with and most are not that can be polished and enhanced but never earned. It can be called ‘genius’ but might be

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nothing more than having been born with better vision or hand/foot-eye coordination than others. However one chooses to define it, that quality keeps some alive in mountains where others perish. As standards move up so do expectations, personal and cultural, but in all things there are only a few who are ca

pable of living on or close to the edge. And none of them can live there for very long, time being as relative as levels of risk tolerance. And when the many push to where only the few can, with luck, survive there will be accidents remarkably similar to those in the past.

Jason’s insight is always worth keeping in mind. That is, always listen to yourself—not the herd, not the promotion, not the cameraman, not the super star, not the comparison, certainly not the expert or authority—just yourself, your trusted friend who is the only one who can differentiate between wanting and thinking you should want to. Only you know what a tolerable risk is for you, and usually, not always, that risk is made more dangerous to the degree that it is comparative.

 

Dick Dorworth is the author of Night Driving and a longtime contributor to the Mountain Gazette.

A Sun Valley Musing

Stein Flip

I first saw Sun Valley in 1953 after an all-night drive from Reno, Nevada. I have written elsewhere of that first encounter: When we woke…the first thing we saw were the 1953 moguls on Exhibition, the most beautiful, exciting sight I’d ever seen. It was love at first vision, me and Bald Mountain, a long-standing love affair that persists to this day…. As a skier that was an important moment in life.

All these years later, I am a writer who writes about skiing and other things and that writing is influenced, colored, perhaps even determined by my life-long relationship with skiing. While skiing, like everything including writing, changes, evolves, grows and sometimes shrinks, the basics never change. Sooner or later, we always get back to basics. Seeing the moguls on Exhibition in 1953 sold me on Sun Valley because I wanted to ski, and Exhibition and Bald Mountain revealed to my young mind another dimension of what that might mean. In addition, within a week I had actually watched Stein Eriksen, Christian Pravda and Jack Reddish, among others, skiing on Baldy. No one has ever skied quite like Stein, and to see him in 1953 as a boy in love with ski racing was pure magic, a revelation. I still associate Stein with Sun Valley.

Stein was a world and Olympic champion and the first great ski racer who was also an astute businessman. He made huge contributions to skiing as a racer, businessman and spokesman, but his most enduring impact on skiing was a stylish gymnastic stunt — a full layout front flip on skis — he routinely performed like no one else. It was great athleticism and show business but had nothing to do with ski racing and little to do with mainstream skiing of the time. It can be argued that Stein’s graceful flip would have a bigger impact on skiing than his unique giant slalom turn. Such acrobatics on skis were standard fare in Stein’s native Norway, but they were rare in the U.S., and it took Stein’s assurance and grace to get America’s attention.

Ten years later, in 1963 I was living in the Sun Valley dorms and one of my friends and roommate at the time was the irrepressible Bob Burns, also known as Bobbie. He was a phenomenal athlete, a great guy, and he skied like no one we’d ever seen. He did everything wrong according to the technical standards of all we thought we knew about skiing, particularly ski racing. Bob sat back on his heels, locked his feet together, held his hands way too high, swiveled his skis like windshield wipers and violated every basic (as we understood them) tenet of traditional skiing. And, unlike us serious, even grim, ski racers, he smiled the entire time, as if he was really having fun. Nobody skied the bumps of Exhibition like Bobbie Burns and none of us could keep up with him and, in truth, we didn’t try. We viewed Bobbie as an anomaly instead of the revolutionary, if not prophet, of the ski world that he really was. We couldn’t see Bobbie for who he was because what he was doing didn’t fit into our seriously traditional perspective and historical knowledge of skiing. Though few readers of my work today would perceive it as “conservative,” that perspective was conservative, one akin to the far more significant and consequential climate change denial perspective of today.

There were a few skiers who responded to Stein’s flip and Bob’s bump technique with the kind of excitement and recognition of possibilities that came to me the first time I saw Bald Mountain. But there were a few, and that was enough. By the early ’70s, aerials and bump skiing were a big part of skiing. Today, from the Olympic games to terrain parks on ski hills all over the world, aerialists and acrobatic bumpsters are integral to and, some would say, the most-exciting and vital part of skiing and, of course, snowboarding. In more than just spirit, Shaun White is a direct descendant of the athleticism and spirit (and exhibitionism) of Stein Eriksen’s full layout flips and Bobbie Burns’ flamboyant bump skiing on Exhibition, something neither of them would have imagined in the early 1950s and 1960s. As a writer, I try to monitor my own perceptions of skiing and everything else and not put those observations into the box of my own limited perspectives. Like every writer (and every person), I have had my fair share of both success and failure in this effort.

At the same time that there is evolution, growth and change, there is a pull (back?) to the basics. Backcountry skiing — not to be confused with extreme skiing, para-skiing or cliff jumping — has grown in popularity an enormous amount in the past 20 or so years. Part of this growth is the price of a lift pass, prohibitive for much of the community. But there is something else, as many avid backcountry skiers can afford a lift pass and either choose not to have one or split their skiing time between backcounty and the lift-serviced ski hill. This something was perhaps best summed up by Pepi Stiegler, who won the Olympic slalom in 1964, ran the Jackson Hole Ski School for many years, is a lifetime alpine skier and who has spent most of his time on skis for the past several years in the backcountry. A few years ago, Pepi commented that many long-time alpine skiers are turning to the backcountry because “It’s like it was in the beginning. It’s like it was in the beginning.”

That is, back to the basics.

Long-time Mountain Gazette senior correspondent Dick Dorworth is the author of “Night Driving” and “The Perfect Turn.” He splits his time between Ketchum and the Bozone.

Ski Good Or Eat Wood: White Grizzly Adventures

catskills

It was dark and cold on a March Sunday at 4:30 a.m. outside the Sawtooth Hotel on Ace of Diamonds Street in Stanley, Idaho, many days the coldest town in the continental U.S. Right on time, Karl Weatherly, the well-known, fine ski/mountain photographer, pulled up in front of the Sawtooth in his 2002 BMW M3 which, I was soon to learn, he drives, as noted in my journal that night, “…with skill but like a maniac and I am really uncomfortable in the car with him.”

Maniac. Uncomfortable. Really.

Karl and I had met a few times but didn’t really know each other when he asked if I was interested in going to White Grizzly Lodge near Meadow Creek in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia for a few days of cat skiing. I checked out its web site, which proclaims “Hibernation is for wimps.” It seemed interesting, different, quirky and, you know, worth a try, and so it proved to be. We all live in Ketchum, but my partner Jeannie Wall and I spent that weekend at the Sawtooth for a book reading/signing at the hotel, some backcountry skiing on Banner Summit and the best food in the Sawtooth Valley in the company of friends. So I rose early and left lucky Jeannie to her sweet dreams and another day in the backcountry and joined Karl in the BMW. He had made the hour drive from Ketchum in 45 minutes and we had 12 hours to do the 15 hour drive to catch the last Ferry across Kootenay Lake in order to be at orientation and dinner at White Grizzly, but I didn’t know any of that until we were on the road and words like “maniac” and “uncomfortable” were sliding through my mind the way the BMW was (skillfully) sliding through the twisty black ice corners of Highway 75 on what is known in daylight hours as the Salmon River Scenic Byway. Committing to long drives with casual acquaintances is never risk-free.

After one particularly unnerving slide, Karl noticed my discomfort and immediately assured me with his soft North Carolina accent that, because of the superiority of the car, the tires on the car and the skill of the driver of the car, there was nothing to worry about. Everything was under control. After all, his car is equipped with radar detector and GPS. Besides, he explained, he likes to drive fast and outlined the time constraints involved in catching the ferry and, with what I have come to know as a particularly Karl Weatherly (maniacal?) smile, he immersed himself in what he likes to do, a trait I recognize, admire, practice and, my own discomfort notwithstanding, consider healthy for both individual and society. Still, it was a wild, stressful (for the passenger), amazing ride I’ll not soon forget, and, as I learned, a perfect warm-up and introduction to White Grizzly Lodge cat skiing.

We made the Kootenay ferry with 45 minutes to spare and dinner that night was worth the drive.

White Grizzly Lodge is a labor of love and the love of labor of its owners, Carole and Brad Karafil, who, though they have university degrees in things like biology, special education, business and accounting, have devoted their lives to skiing. They met in 1990 when Brad was 19 and Carole 29 and have been together ever since, and, in my view, they are both personally and professionally wonderful. They have owned and operated White Grizzly since 1998. I have been skiing for more than 60 years in a wide range of mountains, terrain, snow conditions, skiing pursuits and challenges, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like what Brad and Carole offer.

I mean, White Grizzly Lodge is not for every skier, not even for every good skier, not even for every very good powder skier. The lodge is rustic and spotless and the food exquisite, but among the many souvenirs, oil paintings, mugs and skiing accessories for sale are two revealing bumper stickers: SKI GOOD OR EAT WOOD and KEEP UP OR FUCK OFF.

Brad puts it this way: “I’d rather have eight skiers with the skills and experience to enjoy what we are offering here, than have eleven where three of them struggle and hold up the group because they aren’t fit for the terrain … We screen our guests because we aren’t willing to take those risks on the mountain. It’s about finding a balance. I value safety because I want to keep on doing what I do, and we only bring in guests that love steep powder, so my reward is being with them on the mountain every day.”

According to Carole, the French Canadian: “It’s the art of experience really, paying attention to all the details. What we do is a labour of love, and I want to celebrate that. I would really like to see more creative works coming through cat skiing. It’s all about carving the white, however you see it. It’s a very subtle thing.”

Carving the white is subtle, but skiing steep, deep powder in closely spaced trees in the company of 15 yelping, yodeling closely spaced other skiers (some of them sometimes a bit spacey) is as exhilarating as Karl’s driving, as subtle as one can make it. There is room at White Grizzly for 12 guests. One of three snowcats is used every day and each customized (by Brad, a master metal worker) snowcat is big enough for the guests, four guides and a driver. The lodge tends to get repeat customers, often repeat groups. The week we were there, I was one of two White Grizzly neophytes. The main group of seven Canadians had skied together for 25 and more years and consisted of Andrew Buck, Jay Wilgar, Matt Walker, Chris Andrews and Matt Stemerdink, who grew up in Ontario and learned to ski on the 200 vertical feet of Chicopee Ski Hill as boys; Tom Kusomoto of Calgary; and Darin Cox of Vancouver, B.C. Stemerdink and Wilgar had skied together since they were three years old, and the tradition of an annual road ski trip to an exotic location was started by Stemerdink’s father, John, before the boys were old enough to drive. John is reported to be looking forward to the tradition continuing with the grandchildren. Responsible, respectable, traditional, energetic members of middle-age mainstream society, all but one of them family men, the seven gather once a year for a holiday (sometimes at White Grizzly) break of hard skiing and partying with a fervor and return/regression to youthful abandon that made Karl’s driving seem comparatively tame. The lone bachelor, Kusomoto, is engaged to be married and the group is plotting a 10-day bachelor party for him in Chamonix in 2013.

White Grizzly
Carole and Brad Karafil, owners of White Grizzly. Karl Weatherly • www.karlweatherly.com.

French Canada was represented by two Quebecers, Francois Morin, the lone snowboarder in the group, the only one besides myself unfamiliar with the scene; and Jean Francois Racine, a talented artist who painted snow-covered mountain landscapes of the area to sell and, for an additional fee, will include you in the painting making your best powder turn of the day.

The U.S. was represented by me and Karl and Tony Crocker, a California ski journalist, blogger and actuary who rolled skiing-related statistics, risks and costs off his tongue as easily and blithely and with as much obvious pleasure as he danced through the spaces between trees in deep powder snow, carving the white.

Francois and I had more than neophyte status in common. We were both Buddhists and vegetarians and, I surmised, were suspect members of the group of three Brad referred to, candidates for holding up the group. Francois was not only the lone snowboarder, but he admitted to me that he had never before boarded in powder. My deficiency was that, with the exceptions of Karl, who turned 60 that week and who skis as well as he drives and with a similar ethic, Tony, who was 59 and experienced in steep, deep powder in the trees, and Carole, 51, who lives for carving the white, I was 30 years older than anyone in the entire group. I suspect I passed Brad’s screening on Karl’s recommendation.

Thanks, Karl. Thanks, Brad.

Like snowflakes, clouds, people and parties, no two turns on a pair of skis are ever the same, and each run and day at White Grizzly was different from the others, while, at the same time, being remarkably organized, scheduled and thought out, an orchestrated improvisation worthy of Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane or Jerry Garcia. (I’ve already alluded to my age.) The schedule got the most out of a day: up early, eat, 20-minute car ride to the staging area, load into the cat, hour ride to the top of the White Grizzly Peak adjacent to the Goat Range Provincial Park and 11,000 skiable acres that receive an average of 11 meters of snow each season. Unload. The cat leaves. Saddle up. Ski down about 1,000 vertical meters on a different route each time to where, miraculously, we popped out of impenetrable woods onto a road where the cat was waiting. Load into the cat for a 30-minute ride back to the top. Repeat. Repeat again and again until 5 p.m. Gourmet snacks, drinks and lunch during the five to eight rides a day, depending on tree well burials, lost skis, lost skiers, photo ops and photo set ups. Then back to the lodge for evening festivities, which will be described shortly.

The White Grizzly learning curve for me was as steep as its terrain and not nearly so soft as the powder. The first morning I went up with my backcountry randonee set-up, the one I normally use for powder days in Sun Valley and for all backcountry adventures. The skis are wider and shorter than I normally use for lift-serviced Baldy groomers and even moguls when they are covered in fresh white. They have served me well on Baldy powder days, where I ski with a circumspect velocity and trajectory suitable to the natural governor built into the muscles and reflexes of age. I have, of course, observed with interest the young dudes and dudettes skiing the bowls of Baldy on powder mornings with a verve and velocity I fully appreciate and vaguely remember with a mixture of nostalgia and envy, the best of them on HUGE twin-tip rocker boards, each nearly the size of a monoski. Such big boards require more strength and better reflexes than mine and I never gave them a second thought for personal use until I’d spent half a White Grizzly morning skiing the heaviest, deepest powder to my arm pits that I’d ever skied (and I grew up skiing in the Sierra Nevada). The steepness and the trees were manageable, though I managed (sic) to get clipped three times by my faster comrades in powder, but it was clear I would not last a day, much less a week, at armpit exertion levels. (Four feet of fresh powder had fallen in just the previous three days.) Karl had suggested switching to larger skis during our drive the day before, but I was too fixated on the present moment’s velocity over which I had no control to focus on the subtleties of a future over which I had even less than no control.

After a few runs, Brad made the identical suggestion to Karl’s of the previous day and he had a couple of pairs of giant twin-tip rockers on the back of the cat, just in case someone lost a ski or an old guy came to his (literal) senses. I put them on and life in the trees and powder of the Selkirk Mountains immediately became easier, more enjoyable and worthy of carving the white. After a few turns on the giants, I was only sinking to my knees in powder that miraculously wasn’t quite so heavy, and I knew I had knee-deep energy and would be able to carve the white and make it back to the lodge for dinner. And so I did.

And each night it snowed. And each morning we rose early, ate and went back up to fresh powder on White Grizzly Peak. Group dynamics, always interesting to the attentive participant/observer, range from the harmonious worthy of the Grateful Dead or the Sun Valley Summer Symphony to the cacophonous worthy of the U.S. Congress. I have been on climbing expeditions that ended with some members of the team never speaking to each other again and others that formed lifelong friendships, and, when strangers are brought together even for something as enjoyable as powder skiing, it can go either way. During the cat rides between runs, this group easily engaged in a comfortable, harmonious dialogue of story-telling, jokes (among the seven Canucks often at the expense of one of them), questioning and philosophy, and, in truth, Brad and Carole were master conductors and the core group of Canadian friends treated everyone as family. As the elder of the group with the most mileage both on and off skis, I was sometimes called upon by the conductors to recount an exotic tale or two from earlier days of skiing and skiers. Judging by the intensity and intelligence of their questions and responses to my remembrances, as well as their skiing skills and enthusiasm, it was clear that my comrades were true lovers of the well-carved turn, the adrenaline high and the satisfaction and personal growth that can only come to those who pursue what they like to do.

Because slopes are steep, snow deep, trees closely spaced and branches loaded with snow that drops like a bomb from time to time, there is ample opportunity for skiers to get in trouble at White Grizzly. And, given enough time and turns, those who ski hard, like those who party hard, always get in trouble. Thus, at White Grizzly, the buddy system is used. Skiers are paired up for each run and encouraged to stay close to each other, as all pairs are encouraged to stay close to the other pairs. A skier, for instance, who fell and was trapped upside down in a tree well and could not get out on his/her own, would not likely survive the hour and a half it would take to make another lap and track him/her down. Almost every year, someone dies in a ski area boundary from the tree well scenario, in a more skier-friendly environment than the Selkirk Mountain woods. At White Grizzly, skiers keep track of each other for good reason. Each person also chooses a yell/yodel/yelp/woof/call/song/sound to emit from time to time so that the partner and the others have an auditory idea of location. My yell was HEEEE HAAAAA!!!!!! Others were more imaginative and melodic.

One guide always took the lead with instructions to stay close to and either left or right of his tracks and to give him a head start. Then, in pairs, with a few turns in between the teams blasted into the powder snow magic of the woods of British Columbia.

HEEEE HAAAAA!!!!!!!! HOOOOO!!!!!!! HAAAAA!!!!!!!! OH-DI-LAY-EE-OH!!!!!! WOOOOOOO WOOOOOOO!!!!!!! BUGGGGAAAAA BUGGGGGAAAAA!!!!! KA-CHING KA-CHING!!!!!!!!!

Through tight trees we skied, carving the white with none of the ballet-like grace of vast solitude and wide-open slopes of the powder skiing of dreams. White Grizzly powder skiing is less ballet and grace, its carve through the white more like break dancing in the Bugggggaaaaa Bugggggaaaaa Bar on a Saturday night in the company of a pack of serious break dancers. It works and it is great fun to dodge trees and other skiers in a skier’s dance in powder, and, as the slowest except, sometimes, Francois, I was always alert to the possibility of OH-DI-LAY-EE-OH or WOOOOOOO WOOOOOOO meeting me head on coming around a tree. There were some close misses, but no true encounters and, despite a few crashes, tree well burials, snow bombs dropped, lost skis and a few temporarily lost skiers, we always managed to meet the snowcat for the ride back up, the stories, laughter, hot and cold drinks, snacks, good food and good will. For me, the accent in skiing has always been more on the solitary, even meditative aspects than on group dynamics, but that isn’t possible or advisable at White Grizzly, and I wasn’t alone in having one of the best skiing weeks of a long life of skiing.

One day, Jean Francois spent the entire day at the top of White Grizzly Peak with his easel and paints. We checked his progress after each lap and gained run by run a better appreciation of the rigors, techniques and skills of the art of landscape oil painting.

Several times, Karl set up shots, so that, one by one, two by two, and three by three, skiers could have powder photos taken. Some of these adventures involved cliffs, rocks and other large drops into bottomless powder that cushioned equally the nailed, inelegant and the hopeless landing, all to the whoooooops and laughter of spectators. I refrained from air time, but thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Since there were a couple of web cams on helmets in the group of seven, most flights were recorded from both air and ground perspectives, and the day’s events were shown/relived/celebrated/cheered/booed late into each night in the lodge after proper preparation.

Like the days, nights at White Grizzly were a series of different improvisations on a theme. On arrival back at the lodge, there were hors d’oeuvres, hot tub, drinks, showers, naps, the internet, even reading. There is no smoking allowed in the lodge, so, despite fatigue from the day’s efforts, some of the boys took long walks of smoking indulgence before dinner. The entire crew, including Brad and Carole, dined together and wine, stronger spirits and conversation flowed freely. Long retired from the delights and demons of dipsomania, I sipped water and paddled only in the conversations, and when the talk and the emerging party moved to the lounge, I usually retreated to my room upstairs for reading, jotting in my journal and, when possible, sleep. Karl and the web cammers showed their day’s work to that most appreciative of audiences — the subject of the work — and the sounds cheers, boos, laughter and comments that made their way through the floorboards were muted enough that I usually but not always fell asleep before my roommates Tony and Karl arrived. Soon after, the muted sounds of serious partying were lost in the honking/snorting/earsplitting/unbelievable snorts of Tony’s snoring, sounds unlike any I’ve ever heard before. Still, despite snoring sounds one imagines could be made by wrestling or copulating elephants, I managed enough sleep to rise each morning with sufficient energy to continue to carve the white.

Downstairs, the party continued.

Hard and long.

WOOOOOO WOOOOOO!!!!!

Difficult for the non-participant to know what transpired at the downstairs party each night, though imagination can easily fill in the blank spots. One Canadian gentleman was so overcome from each day’s carved white exertions and dark night’s indulgences that he managed to fall completely asleep on one of the lounge couches every night. His nightly slumber inspired his best and oldest friends to unbutton his shirt and decorate his face, belly, chest and arms with demonic, humorous and even obscene black paint works of art that were not so easily removed when he discovered them in his morning mirror.

Still, he and everyone else was ready for the morning cat to the top of White Grizzly Peak and a day of carving the white.

On the last morning, after skiing was finished and we were getting ready to leave, I noted in my journal, “Skiing is over and it has been a unique and wonderful experience. I am filled with good will towards and connection to all the people here.”

That feeling alone is worth every and all effort and drive the labour of love of carving the white requires.

Long-time senior correspondent Dick Dorworth is the author of “Night Driving” and “The Perfect Turn.”   

Me and Ed: (Remembering a man I never met but feel I knew)

Vintage Mountain Gazette

In late January 1963, I was in Sun Valley, Idaho. A recent college graduate, I was a 24-year-old ski racer who didn’t seem to quite fit into mainstream America. Through a friendship with Ron Funk, who cared even less about the fit than I did, I found myself committed to one of the more audacious ski adventures of my life, running the Diamond Sun down Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. As I wrote in “The Straight Course,” “The Diamond Sun may be the most difficult standard race in the world. It is the fastest I know of and starts on top of Bald Mountain and finishes at the Wood River 2 3/5 miles below. The route is any way possible down Ridge, Rock Garden, Canyon and River Run.” The Diamond Sun had been run only twice since WWII and is fast, dangerous and scary, and I was appropriately cognizant of this reality.

I mean, the night before the race, I was scared shitless, filled with doubts about myself and whether I had what it takes and, more, whether it mattered that I address those personal doubts and questions. In order to relax and take my mind off such heavy toil, my friend Mike Brunetto and I went to the movie showing in Ketchum that night. The film, “Lonely Are the Brave” with Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau, is, in my view, the best work Douglas ever did and is one of my all-time-favorite films. Among other things, it touches on the integrity of personal freedom and the freedom of personal integrity and the price one might pay for them.

At any rate, the film touched and inspired me and added a sliver of resolve to my scared-shitless mind and spirit. The next morning, we ran the Diamond Sun and everything went flawlessly for me. I set a new record (which still stands, as the race hasn’t been run since) of 2:21.0 for the 2 3/5 mile course. A fine memory of a good time, and I always thought of “Lonely Are the Brave” as an integral part of it. More important, the race gave me the confidence I needed to go to Chile the following summer with the intention of setting a world record for speed on skis. We went to Chile and set a record and that experience changed my life in myriad ways including better self-knowledge and the doors that open with a world record on the resume that would remain closed without it. The expanded awareness of my own human capabilities helped form much of my life and activities, including the writing, and, more important, the same commitment to writing as a path in life as dangerous and scary as the Diamond Sun, though slower of pace. Some of the doors that opened I probably shouldn’t have walked through, but self-knowledge is a process, not an accomplishment.

A few years later (1971), I began writing for Skiers’ Gazette, which a year later became Mountain Gazette and which eventually led to my work being published elsewhere. Mountain Gazette was as crucial to my writing as the Diamond Sun had been to my skiing.

By the early-’70s, I had read “Desert Solitaire” a couple of times and knew that Ed Abbey was a great writer and, in some ways, the spokesman of our times. I read his occasional pieces in MG and was impressed when then-editor Mike Moore told me that Abbey sent his contributions in accompanied by a check to help out the struggling publication. Since MG paid me for my work, I was grateful to Abbey for more than his fine writing, vision and personal integrity. When MG published my long essay/memoir, “Night Driving,” in 1975, it took up most of the issue except for a wonderful Abbey piece about desert driving, and I was thrilled to see my name with his on the cover. Good stuff.

That same year, Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang” was published. It is a very good novel that resonated with a large segment of America that didn’t quite fit into the mainstream and it nurtured all but the most pesticide-sprayed imaginations. After I read it, I gave it away as Christmas gifts. I was living between Truckee and Squaw Valley at the time and my neighbors, two New Jersey hippies whose son went to school with my son Jason, were among the recipients. A spacey friend of theirs was visiting from the east coast that winter and, one snowstorm morning, I went over to my neighbors’ home for a coffee. The spacey friend’s grin wouldn’t leave his face as he thanked me for giving “The Monkey Wrench Gang” to his hosts, and then he told me about his previous day. He had spent most of the day and into the night reading Abbey’s paean to the purposeful destruction of eyesores and pavement and machines that destroy the earth. He finished the book at 1 a.m. and was inspired to immediate action. Perhaps other, less literary influences were at play as well, but, despite the late hour and the storm, he hopped on a bicycle with a huge bow saw and rode the three or four miles to the freeway near Truckee and, under the cover of darkness and the storm, spent a couple of hours dropping a huge, offensive-looking, wood-supported billboard advertising one of the local ski areas. Then he rode the bicycle back home. He had taken Hayduke’s credo to heart (and action): “My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.”

The dropping of the eyesore billboard was the first eco-revolutionary act that I knew of in the Tahoe area, and though I was only one of a few who knew who had done it, I was only one of many who were amused, informed and inspired by it. Life went on and I read more Abbey and rightly thought of him as a giant literary and environmental and thereby societal influence of our time.

And then, some 20 years after the Diamond Sun, I was browsing in a bookstore and came across an Ed Abbey novel I didn’t know about entitled “The Brave Cowboy.” A quick glance showed that it was the basis of the film, “Lonely Are the Brave.” The novel is really good. I was and am amazed that I hadn’t put the two together, but knowledge, self and otherwise, is a process, not an accomplishment. A bit of research expanded my awareness that Dalton Trumbo had written the screenplay for the film, and if ever a Hollywood writer-type could be a soul brother to Ed Abbey, it was Dalton Trumbo.

I was bemused and informed and once again reminded of the ever-present connections and influences, known and unknown, that permeate all our lives, and I promptly wrote Abbey a letter of praise and thanks for his contribution to my life. He graciously answered and reiterated the worth and power of the written word and encouraged me to continue writing. We agreed to meet up sometime, somewhere in the Southwest desert, but it never happened and so, like most of his fans, I have the easy privilege of remembering and thinking of him through the greatness of his work, unencumbered by the rough edges of his person and the inevitable objections I have to some of his ideas.

Ed Abbey died in March 1989. As he requested, Abbey was buried illegally in a spot in the Cabeza Prieta desert of Arizona known only to his friends who buried him, Doug Peacock, Jack Loeffler, Tom Cartwright and Steve Prescott. It is reported that a large quantity of beer and hard booze accompanied the burial, some of it poured on the grave to help Ed on his way. In May of that year, a public memorial for Abbey was held near Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah. The day before the service, a friend and I climbed Castleton Tower in Castle Valley. It was May 19, my son Jason’s 18th birthday and I sat on top thinking that both Jason and Ed Abbey would have enjoyed the view from there. The next day, we attended the memorial, which was wonderful, moving and appropriate. Barry Lopez, Ann Zwinger, Doug Peacock and Dave Foreman were among those who gave beautiful eulogizes for Ed that day. Wendell Berry, who never met Abbey, recited a poem, calling him to Berry’s native Kentucky:

The old oak wears new leaves.
It stands for many lives.
Within its veil of green
A singer sings unseen.
Again the living come
To light, and are at home.
And Edward Abbey’s gone…

I think of that dead friend
Here where he never came
Except by thought and name:
I praise the joyous rage
That justified his page
He would have liked this place
Where spring returns with solace
Of bloom in a dark time,
Larkspur and columbine.
The flute song of the thrush
Sounds in the underbrush.

But for me the most moving, astonishing speaker at Abbey’s service on May 20, 1989 was a woman whose name I had never heard and whose work I had never read. Her name was Terry Tempest Williams and she spoke of her long hikes and talks with Ed in the Utah desert and of the importance of friendships and connections and the environment. Terry ended her talk by whipping out some post cards and waving them like a baton, intoning, “Keep in touch. Keep in touch. Keep in touch. Keep in touch.” With friends, with connections, with the environment. I was so impressed with Terry that I tracked down her work and have kept up on it ever since. As mentioned, knowledge is a process, not an accomplishment. As are awareness, friends, connections, the environment, work, life, the joyous rage, staying in touch. Thanks, Ed, for that and much more.

Senior correspondent Dick Dorworth is the author of “Night Driving,” “The Perfect Turn” and “The Straight Course.” He lives in Ketchum.  

The Mountain Gazette is 40 and damn proud of it!

Some Off-Snow Education

In my skiing scrapbooks is a newspaper clipping:

ARMY SKIING STAR CLOCKED AT 109 MPH

Portillo, Los Andes
Chile, Sept. 2 (UP)

Ralph Miller, former Dartmouth skiing star, now serving in the United States Army, today sped down a specially measured 45-degree Andean slope at a speed of 175.6 kilometers (109 mph) per hour.

He exceeded by 19 kph (12 mph) the former record skiing speed of 156 kph set by Italy’s Zeno Colo.

Others who bettered the Colo mark but failed to equal Miller’s were Bud Werner of the University of Denver; Marvin Melville of Salt Lake City, Utah; Ronald Funk of Sun Valley, Idaho; and Chick Igaya, the Japanese skier who is attending Dartmouth. All are training for next year’s winter Olympic games.

Dick DorworthThat was in 1955 and I was 16. My school beer-drinking fellowship drove automobiles that fast, but the 16-year-old mind stampeded at the concept of 109 mph on skis. It magnified the living legends that were Ralph Miller and Bud Werner in the mind of a young ski racer for whom ski racing was everything. The teenage competitor tended to view living people in mythological terms, suspecting that good downhill racers were better humans than poor ones. At the time, all downhills frightened me, and I progressed in admiration and sometimes awe of the mythic downhill racer. I studied this breed, reaching to understand what enabled them to go straight where I couldn’t or wouldn’t. I even categorized courage according to three men — Ralph Miller, Bud Werner and Dick Buek, on anybody’s list of the best downhillers of the time.

Ralph Miller’s courage was studied, thought out and calculating. Miller looked at possibilities and consequences, prepared better than anyone else and jumped in to do his best. It is revealing that Miller gave up racing to become a doctor. He would have made a great general.

Bud Werner had courage as hard as marble and as cold. Bud gave you chills because, once he had chosen his territory, there would be no retreat. Bud’s courage was win or lose, succeed or die, black or white. Werner said, “When you’re afraid of speed, it’s time to quit.” He also said, “There are only two places in a race, first and last.” And he must have known some lonely moments. Bud Werner was the leader of an age in American skiing, a peculiar sort of genius, a loner, the last of an American species, and he was loved the most.

Buek possessed a courage opposite to Werner’s — hot, loud, indulged in for its own sake. Dick got his kicks more from the moment lived in heat than from the results of the race, though he was a hard, conscientious competitor. Dick was nicknamed “Mad Dog” and he laughed the most. Dick carried the reputation of amazing feats and he enjoyed his life and himself, and he was long dead in a plane wreck before I knew the joy of mastering fear.

Courage was a calculating risk, a primitive hardness or a touch of insanity. What chance had a boy who lacked an essential trait of the brave? I couldn’t know then that confidence and resolution are organic and that there are more than three varieties. Each person carries his and her own courage within, and we cease growing when traveling heavy or feeding lean. Like anyone who reflects the past as a future hint, I know much now I didn’t know then, but I knew there must be a way to true desires and false ones will sooner or later show their hands. I knew a person’s endeavors are closely related to his or her inner needs, and I needed a lot.

In March 1957 something happened in an Aspen bar that followed me around for years.

It was the night of the Roche Cup banquet after the races, the end of a good time. After my first semester of college, I moved to Aspen to train and race, living in a rented room with Tony Perry and Ron Funk. Ron was just divorced and leading an athletic, monastic existence and we did not learn to be good friends that year. Tony and I were American college fraternity boys (he an SAE at Denver University and me a Sigma Nu at the University of Nevada, majoring in journalism), and we made up in Aspen social circles for Ron’s seclusion. In terms of ski racing, it was a discouraging winter, but my 18-year-old fraternity house mind saw a form of success (a word one distrusts more each day) in parties, romance, lust and participation in the races. I was sorry the season was over.

I was having a beer in my favorite saloon with my old friend Howie Norton of Piedmont, California. Howie is about 5”6’ and 120 pounds. Suddenly, a gentleman estimated at 6’2’ and 200 pounds became pushy about ordering a beer and he and Howie exchanged words. Howie was raised in a society where barroom fighting is looked upon the way Norman Mailer must have appeared to Jacqueline Kennedy when he informed her he wanted to write a book proving the Marquis de Sade’s sainthood. Howie would no more consider a barroom brawl than he would have invited Lenny Bruce to dinner.

My background did not preclude barroom fighting, but I was clearly outsized and under motivated and told the heavyweight we didn’t want any trouble. He asked me if we were “chicken shit” to fight and I said “yes” and that seemed to satisfy him and he left, my pride a foolish sacrifice to peace.

Soon, he returned. We learned later that this fighter was a miner, married to the sister of a friend who was one of the best American skiers. He was neither satisfied nor about to be less than the traditional Saturday night liturgy of a certain strain of man who earns his subsistence by hard, physical labor. Again, he and Howie exchanged words. A disaster was imminent. I got off my stool.

“Hey, man, we don’t want any trouble.”

He shoved me violently against the bar, hissing obscenities. Next to my right hand on the bar was a full, long-neck bottle of beer. I picked it up. He threw his right, which I blocked with my left, and I hit him in the head with the bottle of beer. His eyes were like an electric light that has had the current switched off, and when I hit him with the left that had blocked his right it was like knocking over a wooden statue.

End of fight.

The bottle breaking against his head sounded like an explosion. There was blood and excited people. The wounded warrior had a serious concussion and several stitches in his face and head and he spent a few days in the hospital.

The bartender saw it all and he gave me another beer. When the scene quieted, I sought out the warrior’s wife to apologize and explain my side. Considering her husband’s condition, she was quite nice. She wished I hadn’t hit him with a bottle but explained with a wife’s patience that he had chosen that path before.

Then I sought out the owner of the bar. I’ll call this man Number Seven, a well-known personality, wit, skier and saloon keeper. I apologized. He accepted. In the ensuing years, we saw each other many times in the skiing world and always spoke and were friendly.

That night Howie and I left Aspen. A good winter and time in our lives left with us, the fight a good war story, an ugly memory.

At this point, let us more closely examine the 1955 UP (United Press, now United Press International UPI) story about speed skiing.

Zeno Colo’s old record was 159.292 kph, not 156 kph, and neither Werner, Funk, Melville nor Igaya bettered that mark. Melville and Igaya were never close, having quit many kilometers slower. The day before Miller’s record run, Miller and Werner went 158 kph. Funk was clocked at 156 kph, but fell in the transition and suffered a badly broken ankle and leg. Ron’s fall helped Werner decide that new territory might not be worth the price of holding.

Miller, who had MacArthurian traits, repaired the track after Ron’s fall and the next day went up alone as high as possible. Then he came down. He was timed by the great French skier Emile Allais with a hand-held stop watch over 50 meters, and his speed was actually measured at 108.7 mph/175.402 kph, not 109 mph. At 100 mph, a tenth of a second difference over 50 meters is about 18 mph, and anyone who has ever used a hand stop watch knows that two timers timing the same thing will always have a tenth of a second or more difference. For that reason Miller’s run is considered unofficial. He may have only gone 99 mph, but it is just as likely he went 112 mph. People who have raced on the Portillo track and know where he started tend to believe Miller was the first to go over 100 mph.

This revision of the 1955 UP story took me years to learn, and I was interested and spent many hours talking with Ron and others about it. What sort of truth and awareness could exist in the mind of a person who had, for instance, only that newspaper clipping to go on? So much of what we think — therefore do, therefore are — is based on newspaper and television reporting. We of modern civilization and culture are to some extent journalism products. I even majored in journalism in college before switching my major to English and graduating with a journalism minor. One of the better descriptions of journalism was given the world by James Agee:

“Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism, but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those unachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential falsehood. Journalism is true in the sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it (which is also, but less so perhaps, a limitation of art and science); but that is about as far as its value goes. This is not to accuse or despise journalism for anything beyond its own complacent delusion, that it is telling the truth even of what it tells of. Journalism can within its own limits be “good” or “bad,” “true” or “false,” but it is not in the nature of journalism even to approach any less relative degree of truth. Again, journalism is not to be blamed for this; no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse. The difference is, and the reason one can respect or anyhow approve of the cow, that few cows can have the delusion or even the desire to be horses, and that none of them could get away with it even with a small part of the public. The very blood and semen of journalism, on the contrary, is a broad and successful form of lying. Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism.”

Part of the answer to why a man finds himself in big speed on a pair of skis is involved in and attributed to the journalistic mind. The American of my age was reared as much by journalistic media as by family and school, and I do not think it has changed. There is something uncomfortable about the desire to be better than other people, but the newspapers said it was a good way to be, and to a sports-oriented teenager, the path lay through the self-conscious swamp of his own fear, lack of knowledge and unripe skill. Step by step.

This is a methodical approach to one-upmanship, as opposed to more spontaneous forms of the game, but evolution is in evidence here. By continuing through the swamp of fear (or any other swamp), familiarity will make the difficulty known, then understood, then natural and bearable. By persevering through eternally new swamps of the mind, man has progressed to his present state. By forgetting where he came from while never letting go of what he came through, man binds his vision and freedom and lives on the brink of a threatening tomorrow, neglecting the fullness that is today. I learned something about this through speed skiing.

The preceding is an excerpt from “The Straight Course,” by long-time Gazette senior correspondent Dick Dorworth. The book, scheduled to be published this fall by Western Eye Press, recounts Dorworth’s speed-skiing days, during which time he once held the world record. Dorworth, author of “The Perfect Turn” and “Night Driving,” splits his time between Ketchum and Bozeman.

In Pursuit of Pure Speed

(Author’s note: This essay is composed of three sections taken from “The Straight Course,” a book I wrote in the late summer and fall of 1969 while recovering from an injury. The book is about the three years I was a speed skier in Portillo, Chile, and Cervinia, Italy, and has never been published. I made these into a single essay in the early 1970s.)


Portillo, 1963: The Record

The process of detachment — of viewing myself abstractly — had reached an astonishingly intricate, fragile state. I was in an incredible state of mind. Fear, desire, frustration, the scope of our attempt, and pure physical and mental exhaustion had combined to wind me up so tight, so fast, that the contest was not as much with time as whether the record or the human mechanism would fall first.

The next day, the twenty-ninth of September, was the last day Portillo would be open for the season, the last possible chance for the record. Accordingly, we decided to go up early in the morning and run while the track was still ice. We were sure ice would make the difference. With one day, perhaps only one run left in us, it was necessary to extend ourselves. Sleep the night of the twenty-eighth was restless and unfulfilling. Fatigue sleep of a job undone.

We rose early, ate, and were out on the hill while most of the hotel slept. It was cold and clear. The shaded track was rock hard. Springtime frozen corn; it would remain firm for several hours. We had prepared the track perfectly at the end of the previous day. For the first time, every condition was in our favor.

We took a practice run to test the timing from 20 yards above the measured area. We averaged more than 100 kilometers per hour, and I knew in the center of my spine our track was as ready as we. I would not allow the thought that it was more ready. I remembered what Reddish had told me many months before.

The sun began to climb the track. C.B. Vaughan and I went with it. Because of the steepness, 400 meters takes great amounts of time and energy, and I was very tired. We climbed slowly, planning to reach the top before the sun exposed the entire track. I felt C.B. had more energy than I, but that may have been hypersensitivity to my own state.

We talked and joked, but the next day, we could not remember any of it. When we got to the top, the sun was on the track. Portillo was awake. Far below — an impassable distance — people came out to watch. On the hotel porch, many had binoculars. Skiers came down the plateau and stood off to one side near the bottom of the track. Spectators of a play in which the actors had not learned their parts, an audience removed, but only on the surface of action. They feared and hoped as did we. Difficult to realize at that moment, but we needed and used their positive energy, for it is true that each is a part of the main.

In that critical state and time, reality was C.B., the gigantic track below, the feeling of vertigo, and the hard knowledge that the next few minutes were the culmination of all that was behind, the determinant of much of what lay ahead. Funk, Purcell, the timers, other racers and many friends were down there watching with varying degrees of interest and involvement; our friends; warm human beings with whom we had formed close and not-so-close relationships, laughed, danced, drank, gotten angry, forgave and were forgiven; our immediate companions in eating, sleeping, working, relaxing — life; but at the top of the Portillo speed track, those people might as well have been on another planet. All living, except my reality, was suspended. They could not really understand the high degree of control we had made from the chaos of our feelings, nor our predicament, nor the mind, which equates self-abstraction with being near God. They could only see us as tiny figures on a white wall of snow, but even the least thoughtful could not help but realize our commitment.

I was nearly sick with vertigo and fear. We did warm-up exercises (a delicate task on a slope of 80-percent steepness), and in those last minutes, I discovered a bit of the structure of action. The months of discipline, work, self-abstraction and the winding-up process, honed to a fine, sharp edge by the last run on the last day under the iciest, most difficult, most perfect conditions enabled me to see myself marvelously clear.

I nearly laughed and would have but for physical fear. A great calm and confidence (not in success, but in my self) filled me. “Duped again,” I would say at a later time. I was at the precipice of the fastest skiing ever done, the fastest a human body had moved without free-falling or mechanical aids, hanging on the side of a snow-blasted cliff, stinking with fear and the stubbornness not to be beaten by it, when I saw the absurdity of my position. Many things had put me up to where I was — whatever it was in my inherent personality that caused me to recognize skiing as my form of expression when a young boy had put me there, and a racing potential that eluded my best efforts. And a public school education with its accent on grade rather than content. And the power of the great yellow lie called journalism, which warps the world’s mind with its pretension and shallowness. And the Hollywood ethic upon which I was weaned, an ethic preaching that what matters is coming through in the end — a barely disguised belief in a better life after death, which makes light-headed excuses for lifetimes of misery. And people like Number 7, who wage war on the past with inverted minds. And all the sweet experiences that had gone to hell. And Beattie with his clumsy feet and blind assurance. And all the teams I and others would never make. And all the old racer friends like Marvin Moriarity and Gardner Smith and Jim Gaddis, who had been caught by the sharp, sly, double-edged axe of politics, wielded by the universal soldiers of my particular way of life; but there was also the strength that learning about those kinds of things gives. And there were the good examples of how a man should be; I had once categorized them according to three fine competitors — Werner, Miller and Buek. There was Funk down there taking pictures; broken leg and all his hopes. There was Marcelle, dying the hard way. And Barnes, Lieder and Tiger, already gone. And my parents, who never understood but took pleasure when it reached newsprint. There was the good life and people of La Parva. And there were all the friends right there at Portillo. Somewhere in the world was a guy I didn’t know named Plangger, and he had something I wanted. And with me was my comrade, C.B. Vaughan. All the people and times and places I had known, and all the shades of emotions I had ever felt, and all the work I had ever accomplished came with me to Portillo. Pushed, pulled, or just came along as disinterested observers. Hard to know, but assuredly there.

And every one of them copped out at the last minute, leaving me entirely, flat alone. Duped again. Abandoned by my own illusions, leaving just me to do whatever was necessary.

The essential education.

The territory my mind had chosen as its battling ground — my place to wage war on all the inequity, hypocrisy, stupidity and frustration I had ever known; and my time to justify myself for Marcelle, Ken, Tiger, Brett, Brunetto, Funk, Lewellen and to my particular friends in Reno, Ron the Mustache and Joan the Potter, and to a few others for their faith, friendship and a smile at the right time, was an icy precipitous piece of snow on the side of an Andean mountain, useful in nature only for the tiny bit of water it would hold a little longer. Absurd. Pathetic in its attempt. Yet, something would be saved. Something communicated all around. Duped again, but not entirely for nothing.

I could have laughed.

Inside, where action begins, I was peaceful, confident and supremely happy. Calm, because preparation gives self-control, and I had come prepared. Confident, because confidence is the only possible state of mind under such circumstances; to be where we were without believing in ourselves would be suicidal, and, while life is richer and more poignant when it is risked (an effect carrying over and preceding the act of risking), it is so through a deep desire to

go on living. And happy, supremely so, to discover in that structure mentioned earlier, that life was okay, and so was I; the important thing was commitment, and I found in myself the ability to give everything, to lay the whole show on the line. In that ability is hidden happiness, and all men have it, lurking somewhere amidst neuroses, education, experience and belief, centered in the heart. Success, while certainly not unimportant, is a problematical (mathematical?) afterthought.

While in that delicate, beautiful state, I adjusted my goggles one more time and signaled my readiness to the timers, feeling more-than-usual action in the center of things. Far below (like looking through the wrong end of a telescope), the signal pole waggled back and forth. I wished C.B. luck, said I’d see him at the bottom. I felt a sentimental reluctance to leave the big redhead up there alone.

“Good luck, Boy,” he said. C.B. called his friends “Boy.”

I planted my left pole below and to the back of my skis, the right above and to the front, executed a quick jump turn, pulled my poles out in midair, and landed in a full tuck, headin’ down.

Acceleration like a rocket launched in the wrong direction. The sound of endless cannons, moving closer. Irreversible commitment.

The soles of my feet said this was the one. My eyes saw the transition and peaceful flat, far, far away. My body, appalled at the danger in which it had been placed, acted automatically, reluctantly perhaps, but with an instinct and precision that preceded the mind that put it there. My naked mind had finally gotten hold of the big one that had always gotten away.

Jesus, it is fast.

After 100 meters, I estimate the speed at over 150 kph. That left 200 meters to the timing and 100 meters in the trap before the longed-for landing. Never have I wanted more to be finished with something. A few seconds — less than ten — a long way, more than time can record. More than anything, I wanted not to fall. Probably there is little difference in the end result of a fall at 150 kph and one at 170 kph, but the ice that morning accentuated everything that was happening. Acceleration. Sound. The beating against the legs. The texture feeling. The thin line of error.

In big speeds, the skis make peculiar movements. On ice, they make them faster, harder. Tremendous air pressure pushes the tips up; the skis want to become airborne. You push forward with everything you have. The air pushes up the tips; you push forward; there is a continuous change of pressure from tip to tail of the skis. Continuous and violent. On a good run, your body absorbs both change and violence. On a bad run, your body demonstrates them. The tips tend to make a curious, fishtail motion, which, combined with the tip-to-tail pressure change, cause the ski to pivot slightly underneath the foot. These things are happening to the skis you are riding. Happening as fast as a vibration and with as much power as the speed you are carrying.

While this is happening at the feet, the rest of the body is trying to hold a stable, compact, tuck position. Air pressure tries to push you over backward with a continuous, ever-mounting force. If you break the tuck, the pressure tries to rip your arm off. If you stood up at those speeds, your back would hit the snow before the thought could come of what a mistake you had just made.

About a hundred yards above the trap, my right arm, as it had the previous day, flew out to the side for some inexplicable reason of balance. It is tremendously unsettling. (The next time you are ripping along one of America’s scenic highways at 100 miles per hour, stick an arm out the window.) I jammed both hands forward and down — a high-speed version of what, in another age, was known as the “Sailer crouch,” the most-stable position in skiing —and rocketed through the trap and into the transition.

Each mile per hour after 95 feels like a difference of 10 miles per hour at half that speed. When I reached the transition, I felt more like a Ferrari than a human, and I knew before the timers that no one had skied that fast before. The run-out was easy — gradually extending the arms and raising the body for air drag, and a long left turn entered at about 60 mph, until I was able to stop. It took a couple hundred more feet than any previous run.

I stopped. I took off my helmet and goggles. I was alive. The most alive I had been in my twenty-four years. I felt the sun and saw the beauty of Portillo in the Andes as never before. My spirit was clean. My mind could rest content. I had discovered my own structure of action, and I had acted. For the time, the illusions had been stripped away, and I was completely alive. Also, successful.

I walked back around the corner and halfway up the flat. Up on the hill,

Funk was jumping up and down with his cast like a club-foot chimpanzee.

“One-seven-one,” he yelled. “Wahoooo,” hopping about like mad, arms waving.

I stood in the flat waiting for C.B. The calm joy I was experiencing was tempered by anxiety for the big redhead. I was safe in a giant, flat expanse of snow; I was alive; I was happy; I was tuned to a very high plane; but it wasn’t over until C.B. was safely down, so I waited a little longer.

Despite fatigue, the after-effects of hyper-adrenalation, anxiety and realization of the world record with all its attendant hoopla, those few minutes were the most peaceful, satisfying moments I had ever known. I knew they would be few, and I knew they were enough.

In ten minutes, the diplomatic “Bobby” Muller and Chalo Dominquez, the timers, had reset the watches. The pole waved for “Ceb.” He came in his yellow-black racing tights like a tiger falling off a white cliff. The sound — skis rattling against ice, wind rippling skin-tight clothes, and the impact of a body moving through air at 100 mph — carried clear to the flat; a unique sound impossible to forget, and not a reassuring one. C.B. rode a tight but high tuck. Twice his arms broke position, flashing out to his sides and immediately returned. Then, quite literally, he thundered into the transition and past me on the flat and around the corner to a stop.

It was all over.

I stood within my peace wondering about C.B.’s time and looking to see if it was in me to go up again that day, in case his time was faster than mine. Almost two years later, I was to remember that moment; I remembered it because it took that long to understand what that moment, that question, that impetus in myself was. As luck would have, it was a catechism I was not to face that day.

C.B. was still around the corner, experiencing, discovering and questioning on his own when Tito Beladone, the Grand Ambassador of Chilean skiing and friend of several years, skied down the outrun to me. “You and C.B. have the same time,” he said. The moment was inordinately formal to Tito’s vision of skiing, but he gave me a hug, a pat on the back, a kiss on the check, Chilean fashion, and his congratulations. He was elated and proud; I felt humble to have a part in giving him that moment.

I thanked Tito and skied down to C.B. I told him what had happened and we had a few minutes together. During those minutes, we knew what we had accomplished, and it was a fine time.

Then the backwash of success arrived. The friends, the ones with faith, the interested, the incredulous, and even the cynical and weak doubters, came to say what we already knew. And it was wonderful to hear.

Cervinia, 1964: The Wreck

The Cervinia speed run is both objectively and subjectively different from Portillo’s. The Chilean track measures 400 meters to the transition and up to 80-percent steepness. Italy’s is a kilometer long and 62 percent at the steepest point. It starts nearly flat and falls off to about 20 percent for 400 meters. On a good run, the competitor is traveling about 60-70 mph at the end of this relative flat, then the contour changes abruptly and drastically and the rest of the track is a consistent 60 percent. This contour change coincides with a crevasse that is boarded over and covered with snow to allow a crossing. It is impossible to resist being thrown in the air where the track changes. Depending on the individual run, conditions of the track, and, of course, the competitor, seekers of speed fly anywhere from 20 to 120 feet. How the racer masters that obstacle will have an appreciable effect on his time. As in downhill racing, it is faster to be in the air 20 feet than 100 feet; but the most important factor is one’s ability to hold the extremely low, tight, body position before the bump, in flight and after landing. Opening the arms slightly for balance will cost you the race. A serious alienation from the thread of balance at this point results in one of those struggling runs that bring awareness of the depth of the will to survive, a realization that casts a glow of understanding on the terror and struggle of rising from the swamp to open air. After landing, the big speeds commence. Up to then, speed is acquired gradually; the racer has time to get into a comfortable, compact position, time to

get accustomed to speed, time to get acquainted with the muscles he will need, time to think. In elapsed time, measured in seconds, the racer is on the Cervinia track three to four times longer than in Portillo; they are tracks of different temperaments arriving at the same conclusion. Commitment. Concentration. Freedom. Or the struggle of terror.

There is another crucial difference between Cervinia and Portillo: the transition, in terms of safety the most important part of a speed run. In the transition, speed begins to diminish. The transition is like the first touchdown of a jet, except this jet lands at full speed. It is where the potency of speed, the consequence of commitment, the gyroscope of balance show their hands. It is where gravity, always tiptoeing in your shadow, adds its weight to your passing. As if to see that your legs are as strong as you have committed them to be.

The transition in Portillo goes from a 52-percent slope to a 15-percent slope. You must accept and adapt to a 37-percent change in grade. Gravity does not hit you very hard; it tiptoes slightly behind.

In Cervinia, the transition holds you the way a jet taking off forces you into your seat; except this jet reaches top speed much faster. The transition is from a 60-percent slope to a 15-yard flat to a 12-percent slope, but the 12 percent is in the other direction. Uphill. You are confronted with a 72-percent change at over 100 mph. It is a transition that would like to suck you down and break you into a million pieces and spit them out in China. Gravity romps upon your head.

There is a difference between Cervinia and Portillo that manifests itself more in psychology than objective reality. After the racer in Cervinia has gone 200 meters, he disappears from the vision of the competitors on top. More than thirty seconds pass before an impersonal loudspeaker on a post at the start announces the racer’s time and “La Piste e Libre,” the track is free. Sometimes the track is not free. This can mean several things, including a fallen racer. But you do not know because you cannot see; and the starters, in radio contact with the bottom, are arbitrary about what they tell you. Aside from his announced time, you do not know how it went for the previous racer. This can weigh heavy upon the mind.

July 15, 1964. A day I must always remember. A day that expanded the horizons of my experience, showing me something of myself that only such a day could reveal.

Good weather. The best track we had seen. C.B. had a good run the day before and was hungry for more. I, too, had banished my discouragement and felt confident. I remember, distinctly, abundant happiness; to be in Cervinia doing this was, as I told the Peace Corps girl, the best thing I could do with myself. Nothing was so important to my progress as a man than getting my body down a mountain on a pair of skis, just as fast as I could go. I don’t know why, but I know it was so.

But that superb bitch, Fate, had a fickle lesson I hadn’t learned. We were all at the top. The first run began. The timing was not functioning perfectly, and the times of several racers had been missed. C.B. was growling about the timers not missing him. Alberti and I posed for photographs. DiMarco had an early starting number; mine was several numbers later; he went, but I was not watching. Bruno and I were talking when the starters and the speaker on a post simultaneously silenced us and changed the mood of the day.

DiMarco had gone 173.493 kph. The record was his, once again.

I felt empty; I did not want to talk or look anyone in the eye. It was a private moment. I think it was a private moment for every competitor who was consciously and seriously ready to win. The others, the Italians, cheered and shouted for their countryman’s success; it was not a good position for the Americans.

I went to C.B. We encouraged each other and readied ourselves to get the record back. He had served his apprenticeship, and, when he went a few minutes later, he was prepared. He went 168.145, a run beaten only by DiMarco, Plangger, and he and I in all of skiing history, but far short of what was necessary.

Then came my turn. I moved out to the track, acutely aware of that interpersonal pressure I have always hated. What had once been an attempt on my

part was now expected of me. That was my feeling, as if a heavier load than I ever intended to carry was, suddenly, mine. But I knew the work well, and I had faith in my will.

“La piste e libre.”

I began. In relative terms, it does not seem much to build up to 20-30-40 and 50 mph when, in a few seconds, you will be hurtling along at more than 100 mph. But you must pay close attention at those relatively slow speeds; your mind is absorbed in technical details, and there can be no abstract thoughts like records or the game. Your attention must be total.

Perhaps, on that run, my attention was strained.

I rolled my body into the most aerodynamic cone I knew how to make, working the terrain changes with a flat ski to get every wave of speed before the jumps and the steep hill, velocity at the jumps helping determine the eventual speed through the timing trap. I focused down, doing my best.

I flew off the jump but held position and landed with no problem. The big speeds rolled in upon me and I aimed along the right side, the fastest line.

About a hundred yards above the trap, the inexpressible happened. That thing you must never dwell upon, that point in space and time to which Perillat referred — “You must not think too much” — had coincided with my run. The thread of balance had broken. It was apparent and inescapable that I was going to fall. I was convinced. There was no fear, only a clinical, sure knowledge. All the time I was trying to avoid the inevitable fall, and all the while I was falling, there was no fear. Only a (detached?) cool observation of the fastest flow of events I had ever witnessed. There is an infinitely fragile line of balance at 100 mph because you are more like a projectile than a skier, and once that line is broken, it does not mend easily. About 200 yards remained to the transition; it takes slightly over four seconds to travel that far that fast. It seemed like five minutes, and I tried every conceivable adaptation to regain balance — and the line is so thin that spectators didn’t know I was in trouble until I actually fell. Even C.B., watching closely, didn’t know, but only a forgiving God could have saved me and the forgiving gods were busy elsewhere that day. I knew it would expose me defenselessly once I fell, but I was not scared. I tried a hundred positions and a thousand thoughts, but I would not be forgiven inattention. Experience breeds a slight contempt for the forces in speed. When I reached the transition, it sucked me down just like I knew it would, but I thought I’d try for Iraq in two or three pieces rather than China in a million. As I went down, I tried to get on my back and bottom. Perhaps I could ride it out in a long skid. I’d seen ski jumpers do that. Now I know that strange things happen to your body when it meets the snow at 100 mph, no matter what the position. In the twinkling of hitting the snow, I regained a proper respect for speed. If you are inattentive, as well as somewhat stupid, you may breed a contempt for big speeds, forgetting respect through the grace of being atop your skis each run. No one on his back at 100 mph will ever after have contempt for speed. Something caught — a hand, perhaps — and then came one of those falls skiers have bad dreams about. Eighty yards up that hill, rising out of the transition, in every conceivable body position, including upside down and backward and five feet off the snow. A memorable fall. Visually a blur of snow and sky and an occasional form moving faster than focus. Too fast for the eye, but not for the mind. The films of the fall pass much more quickly than the memory impression left with my mind, for the mind registers feelings, the eye only illusion. The left ski went away as the binding meant it to, and was last seen on the way to Zermatt. The right ski loyally stayed, and, halfway through the fall, the leg broke. The fall and I finished our relationship and it left me in a pile. Alone. I hurt everywhere and I began to review my scant knowledge of physiology. Not until then did I fear (feel fear) that I may have destroyed my body.

I once broke a leg that took two years to put back in shape. I flashed on those years. Bad years. I knew my good leg was broken, and my body was a pulsing pain. I undid the binding, which meant I could move, and fear gave way to the objective mind. My fall deposited me apart from people, and it took a little time for them to arrive. My left ski, poles, gloves, goggles and glasses were no longer with me, and the sleeves of the ultra-tight Japanese speed suit were somehow shoved up and over my elbows in a wad. C.B. was the first person to reach me. I was happy for that and grateful that he came so fast. He supervised the first-aid men and I was touched by his concern.

Italians are really prepared for accidents; I was fascinated by the first air splint I had seen, used on my own leg. People were swarming around, and by then it was decided that, in the relative world of injuries, I was all right. There were the smiles and relief of the silence of disaster giving way to the movement of life.

There was no fear, only a clinical, sure knowledge all the time I was trying to avoid the inevitable fall, and all the time I was falling there was no fear. Only a (detached?) cool observation of the fastest flow of events I had ever witnessed.

A few years later, I came to realize what it is to have your mind and the rest of your existence so far out of harmony. It is one thing to be intelligent, objective, aware, hip to your surroundings. It is something else entirely to observe your own impending destruction with the clinical eye of a research technologist in his laboratory, with no more feeling than the scalpel of a Dachau bone surgeon.

The mind was designed to keep body and soul (and mind) together. It was not intended to be so powerful as to block out the natural emotion of fear. If the mind can obliterate fear when there is every reason to feel fear, then what can the mind not obliterate? Love? Compassion? The sight of blood? If you are not afraid when you should be afraid, then you stand accused of stupidity. Your mind has sold you down a stream flowing nowhere.

In time, that fall gave to me a fear — not fear of broken bones or the impact after speed stops or even death, for you accept those possibilities in the act of commitment. No, not that, but fear of a mind so delighted with its own capabilities and power that it has neglected the basics of doing what it is supposed to do — keeping body and soul and mind together.

My mind failed in allowing no fear to me as I was falling up a hill at 100 mph, but valuable lessons are locked up within your failures. I learned that my natural feelings are friends, not enemies to be crushed and avoided and suppressed by a mind gone mad with power. I learned that from my fall, but I didn’t learn immediately.

1965: Second Year at Cervinia: The Death

(From my journal) The morning of July twenty-sixth the track was ice down to the blue disc (the one Gasperl hit), about 100 meters above the trap. Solid, wind-blown ice. Below that, the track was covered with soft, new snow, about 8 inches deep, blown there by the laws of terrain and wind. Those in charge prepared it in the same, masterly fashion. We were two days without skiing and this day was added to the schedule; it was an extension of our time. We went up to the Plateau Rosa early. The weather was beautiful, a slight bit cold.

At the top we joked, wished each other luck, did warm-up exercises, adjusted equipment — just like always. I was completely absorbed in what had to be done. The two days off skis were noticeable.

Mussner went first. His time came back up as 172.084. I was really excited when I heard that. The first time over 170 this year! The record was in sight! I ran fifth or sixth and held my position. It was a wonderful, free run; but I felt the change going off the ice onto soft snow. My time was 170.373, but I, and everyone else on the outrun, thought they announced 173. I hurried back up thinking I had the best run of the round, and I was full of getting the record back. I don’t know what it is about that bloody record.

When I got to the top Ninni told me I was fourth behind Mussner, Siorpaes, and Leitner. That seemed logical because I had been surprised to hear my time as 173. It hadn’t felt so fast. The slight disappointment filled me even more with desire for the record. I kept saying to myself — “I’m gonna get that bastard back.” I talked a little with Mussner and congratulated him for his fine first run. I spoke to Siorpaes. I observed the rituals. I remember grinning because I was sure Mussner and Siorpaes were as full of the record as I.

Then there came a time when no one wanted to go. There was no particular reason. One hadn’t finished waxing. Another was cold. Still another was tuning his mind. I was

Skiing

still tired from climbing up too fast. Mussner appeared ready, but he didn’t want to go. I don’t know why — nerves probably. (I’m sure now that he had a premonition.) I jumped into the breach and said I was ready. Actually I was still tired, but I was so excited and anxious about finally breaking into the 170s that it didn’t matter. I went anyway, and I held my position over both jumps. I put my head down just before the soft part of the track and immediately pulled it back up. The track was a monstrous mess. It hadn’t even been side slipped between rounds. I lost my position. It was like driving a car across a furrowed field at 100 mph.

I didn’t know how fast I was, but I knew it wasn’t very good. Now I know that my time was 168.539 kph. I was mad about the track and I skied to a stop in front of Egon. I said, “The track is really bad, Egon, why don’t they work on it?” He knew what I meant and felt just about like I did, and he said something like, “I don’t know, you can’t talk to these fucking Italians.Then I said, quote, “Well, someone’s going to get hurt up there.” Unquote.

Egon took my skis and began waxing them. A few were still getting into the 170s, and I was full of — with luck — the record.

Then Mussner came.

On Sunday night, the twenty fifth, Mussner saw a photo of Luigi taken on the first day. In this photograph Luigi’s head is completely down and all you can see is the top of his helmet. It is the most fantastic Lanciato photo I’ve seen. Walter studied the photograph for a few minutes. “Tomorrow I will do that,” he told Luigi. Luigi grinned, as any champion will whose disciples are trying to imitate him. It is the grin of pride and of being flattered, but it is also a grin of awareness of the difficulties in the refinements of any champion’s technique, the refinements which all disciples try for and hardly any ever achieve. In this case, the refinement of putting one’s head between one’s knees and skiing blind at more than 105 mph.

Mussner came and his head was down. I have the impression that when I was on top and Walter didn’t want to go he was forcing himself to be able to put his head down. (Perhaps also fighting a premonition.) This is what I think, but there is no way to know. Later, Franca told me that Mussner nearly didn’t go again; I don’t know why, nor does anybody. Then he said something like, “Well, there’s still the record.” And he left the top.

He came and I saw him from above the blue disc, just before where the track was bad. His head was already down, his position was good, and he held it like that all the way. Many things went into the sequence of what happened then, and no one will ever know exactly what they were, but this is what I think:

At the top of the timing area he began to veer right. I saw immediately that he was on his way off the track. A cold electric shock passed through me like a tidal wave of fear. My heart went numb and my blood disappeared. Walter went off the track just at the end of the timing, just missing the electric eye pillar. He went through a little post and that ridiculous net they had fanned out on each side. When he hit that post the world changed.

At that speed many things could cause a slight deviation of direction. It is impossible to have more than an opinion as to why he went off the course. It was obvious from watching how he held this position and from what he said afterward that he was unaware he was off course until he had already fallen. I believe two things killed Walter Mussner, not one more than the other. I think the bad track caused him to veer to one side against the natural slope of the track, and I think Walter’s head being down made him unaware of what was happening, and, therefore, unable to correct it. I think if the track had been properly groomed he wouldn’t have veered off course, and if he had kept his head up he would have known what was happening and he would have been able to correct it. But — and Walter Mussner is dead.

What happened when Walter hit that post and fell is something I don’t think I will forget as long as I live; and it will be more than a few days before the image leaves my mind, allowing me easy sleep at night and to write and read and be naturally of this life the rest of the time. He clocked a time of 170.132 kph just as he fell; but to the naked eye, it appears that the racers in the last 30 meters of the 100-meter trap accelerate to a much greater speed. I would not be surprised if the racer who clocks 170 for 100 meters is traveling at 190 for the last 10 or 20 meters. Right there, where there is that little boost of acceleration that anyone can observe, Walter fell. With incredible force and speed he went end over end, feet and then head hitting the snow, and each turn wrenching his body unbelievably. Afterwards, eleven holes were counted in the snow, feet, head, feet, head, feet, head, and, at the end, everything. It was difficult to believe it was a human body undergoing such gyrations, such speed, such force. The only thing I have ever seen like it were movies of Bill Vukovich’s car at Indianapolis when he was killed in 1955. It was similar to that.

For a few seconds that seemed like minutes after he stopped in a motionless pile in the transition, everyone was frozen still with astonishment and fear. There was — I am sure in everyone because it was there in me — the hope of a miracle that Walter Mussner would get up and that no one would have to go pick him up. At the same

time, I don’t think there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that he wasn’t going to move by himself. I have seen some bad falls, and I have even had a few myself; but this wasn’t like a skiing fall anyone had ever seen before. No one has ever fallen like that.

Then Rico was screaming over the loudspeaker. That snapped people out of their trance. Dozens of people were suddenly all around Walter, about 30 yards from where I stood. I started to go, but instinct told me not to; and I am glad I didn’t. Ivo (Mahlknecht) and Felice (DeNicolo) were there, and they were closer comrades than I; so he wasn’t alone when he shouldn’t be alone.

It took about half an hour to get him off the hill. During that time not one person even side-slipped the track, though competition was obviously to continue as soon as possible. I was mad and sick with the knowledgeable suspicion that if Walter wasn’t dead he was an agonizing pile of broken bones. Egon was furious, the way the German temperament gets furious when unhappy.

I stared at the group around Walter. Egon finished waxing my skis. I was, however, finished psychologically and spiritually, and I knew it. I told Egon I would run again if the track began to be fast enough for a record. I would go up and wait and listen to the times. If they got close I would go; if not, not. Egon said it was finished, but I went up and waited anyway; but I never came down on the track.

Just before I went up to wait, Hans Berger broke away from the group around Walter and came my way. Hans, who lives in Kufstein, is small, with tiny, delicate features and an expressive face. He usually looks about eighteen years old, though he is thirty. When he came up to me, he looked a hundred years old and there were tears in his eyes.

Ist es schlecht?” I asked.

“Ja,” he said in a strange way.

Sehr schlecht?“

“Sehr schlecht,” he answered in a way that made me know it was.

I went up to the top and waited with that in the pit of my stomach. Probably, it was best the track never got fast enough to make me think a record was possible.

They took Walter to Aosta and he lived a little more than five hours. Unfortunately, he was conscious most of that time. He fractured his skull, broke two vertebrae in his neck, pulverized his entire pelvic region, broke one femur and tore loose the femoral artery, and he tore himself open from the anus to the navel. He had acute hemorrhages of the brain, stomach, and leg. Toward the end he went blind. If he had lived he would have lost one leg, he wouldn’t have been a man any longer, and he probably would have been paralyzed. Kiki went with him to Aosta and held his hand until he died. She is only twenty and has never seen a dead person before, and she was still in shock and sometimes hysterics the next night when she and her mother told me about it.

The Italian and Swiss papers are full of stupid things about it. The people of Cervinia all say that the track was “perfetto,” and they put the whole blame on a mistake of Walter’s. They’ve gone on at some length why it’s not the fault of the Lanciato committee, the organization, or anyone’s. That is not quite true. Some say there is nothing dangerous about the Lanciato. That, too, is not quite true. Others call the Lanciato stupidly insane. Nor is that true. If I uttered to the press what I think about the track, they would interpret it as blaming those responsible for track maintenance for Walter’s death. That, also, is not the truth; and it would do infinitely more harm than good. And it would not help Walter. There is no prevention (except abstention, which is ridiculous) for such accidents, and there is no blame. It is part of skiing that fast.

I was the only one competing that day who saw Walter fall, and I returned to the top with a different perspective on our endeavors. The racers and officials asked about the delay. Why was the track closed so long? I said Walter had a bad fall that tore up the track a bit; the delay was necessary for repairs. I had neither desire nor right to elaborate. I sat at the top for a long time. Some racers got in six runs, nearly everyone got four or five. Only Mussner and I ran just twice. Visions of his fall tumbled through my brain. I could not make them leave. (They entered my dreams and woke me in the night for the next two years.) It was the same clear day, but a grainy, colorless filter had descended on the world.

Leitner, leading with 172.744, decided not to run again unless his time was beaten. It never was. My time dropped from fourth best to eighth. Luigi, suffering badly from a strep throat and cold, took five runs before breaking into the first ten. My place on the result sheets, the race itself, winning or losing, no longer mattered. What importance was the race alongside life itself? What game do we play in which the loser forfeits life? What type of men play this game? For it was obvious from the beginning that one of us would die because of some human failing, neglecting for a billionth of eternity the rules of the game. Is human failure cause to die? If it is, are we not playing with the rules and stakes of Neanderthal man? I never meant to play a game in which one of the players would inevitably, through mathematical laws as sure as those governing Russian roulette, smash his body beyond repair; yet I played and watched it happen and I felt deep in my innards that I had always known it was going to happen. I remembered waiting for C.B. at the bottom of Portillo’s track, wondering about the game’s next move if he beat my time. The questions would not disappear. I had no answers.

My friend Franca Simondetti gave Leitner and me some Sangria. We drank it over small talk and silence. Strange to drink the sweet Sangria, to feel its wonderful vapors fill your body and your brain, exploding your taste buds as you sit in the sun — sweet Sangria — all the while trapped with death in a vision of the boyish face of Walter Mussner and a fall unlike any other. Strange to sit like that with Ludwig Leitner, the big German who exudes toughness and confidence and plays the game hard, drinking and healthy. Life’s mysteries unfold through everyday functions.

Tiring of Sangria, small talk, and waiting for a run I neither wanted nor would ever make, I skied down alongside the track. Racers were still coming, about one a minute. As a competitor, I was allowed to stand close to the track, and I watched the big speeds from about 30 feet away. For the first time in three years of playing with eternity, I viewed it with a new realization of flesh-and-blood men, mere mortals, at play with the forces of the universe; it was wondrous that we dared, but never again would I view another man as a rival whose mistakes or refinements I must note and use to my advantage. I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew these men. We had joked, laughed, eaten, drunk and skied together. We had entered into freedom and struggled with terror, and together we had ignored our common reality. Walter Mussner reminded us of our negligence. I watched my friends like children in a play yard; proud, arrogant, innocent. We had accomplished great things, but, when all was done and spoken, we were just men; probably we could be better men, for we had not put away childish things.

When I got down to Cervinia, the word was around that Mussner was badly hurt. Only those who saw him fall had any idea what that meant. Most of the racers didn’t think that Walter would not be back with them. I returned to my hotel, changed clothes and packed my ski bag for Egon to take to Kufstein. Walter was in Aosta and I had heard he was alive when he reached the hospital; that is usually a good sign for the chances of survival. I put my thoughts with Walter Mussner and packed my bag.

After, I was carrying the heavy bag of skis up the street to Egon’s hotel when something happened I cannot define but only describe. It came in what I have come to know as a “flash.” Suddenly I knew Walter Mussner was dead. It was sure; it was something I knew. Walter was dead, and I no longer felt the hard sadness that had been with me since the fall. What I felt was something like intense peace and joy and relief, all together. I do not know if that feeling arose because Waller was out of his suffering, or because what had happened had happened to him and not to me, or if there was another reason. I set down my big, red Kneissl ski bag and rested. I did not question the fact of his death nor the quality or means of my knowledge, but I wasn’t supposed to feel what I felt. For I felt better and more alive than I had since Walter began veering right. An hour later, Kalevi told me Walter Mussner was dead.

Diary, July 4, 1965

From now on every man who tries seriously and truly for a record carries death in his hind pocket. I think that this year everyone will make it, but after this it will get too fast, too tough, and eventually someone will buy the farm no one ever wants but everyone gets.

Author’s note: At this writing (April 2010), the fastest skiers in history are an Italian man and a Swedish woman who set their records in Les Arcs in 2006. Simone Origone has gone 251.410 kph, and Sanna Tidstrand has traveled 242.590 kph.

Senior correspondent Dick Dorworth’s last story for MG was “The Loon of Mystic Heights Pond,” which appeared in #172. “In Pursuit of Speed” will appear Dorworth’s next book, “The Perfect Turn,” the title essay of which was previously published in the MG.

The Loon of Mystic Heights Pond

Most of our time is spent in Idaho, but Jeannie, my girlfriend, partner and love in life, owns a house on the pond in Mystic Heights just outside Bozeman, Montana. We spend less time in the house on the pond than it deserves, but our irregular visits are cherished, nourishing and always educational. Bozeman and the surrounding area has more people living in it each time we visit, as does the rest of western America and, in fact,the entire earth. An ever-increasing population of humans is referred to by humans as “growth,” but in the natural world it represents the opposite, a diminuendo. Montana friends both close and casual are, as everywhere, treasured, and the six-hour drive between these two homes and circles of friends and the gaps of time between them encourages appreciation of the moment, person and place at hand and leaves less time for taking any of them for granted. Absence really does make the heart grow.

Absence does not have a like influence on understanding.

Mystic Heights is a classic middle-class America suburbia subdivision, with an abundance of normal children from toddlers to teens, dogs of many sizes and breeds with an accent on Golden Retrievers and adults of a wide range of backgrounds, professions, inter-ests and political, social and spiritual leanings. Except this is Montana and Mystic Heights is at the entrance to Leverich Canyon on the northern edge of the Gallatin Range. That is, like other Western housing developments, it is suburbia joined to a wilderness laced with hiking/biking/running/horseback riding and (alas) motorcycle trails and roads. It is not unusual to start a run up Leverich and meet and pat on the head one of the friendly neighborhood Goldens and fifteen minutes later see fresh bear or cougar tracks on the trails of your run, and, on occasion, the maker of the tracks in creature. A few years ago, Jeannie was running alone and was bluff-charged by a bear less than a mile from the house. It was a black bear but grizzlies are abundant in the Gallatin and the experience, regardless of the taxonomy of bears, properly focused her attention on the present moment of survival and the long trail back to Mystic Heights. I ran up a favorite trail one day and on the way back down came across cougar tracks that had not been there an hour earlier, inspiring an unplanned burst of interval training to end the run. (In truth, I am a chugger with increased interval speed training in the jogging range of fleetness, but I call my endeavors running for purposes of communication. What would people think if I said I was going “chugging?”)

And then there is the pond.

The pond was once a gravel pit several miles from town, but Bozeman grew as part of the ubiquitous developmentof western America, extending pavement and subdivisions in all directions. Parcels of land once used for gravel pits, grazing, farming and just filling a natural niche in the environmental scheme of things suddenly took on an economic value as mysteriousandrandomastheoddsof winningthelottery.Capitalisminaction. Mystic Heights Subdivision was platted, lots put up for sale and Jeannie bought one.The gravel pit was lined with bentonite and filled from a spring on the southwest corner. The pond is roughly four acres in size, less than a hundred by two hundred meters across, forty feet at its deepest spot and, because of the bentonite, turbid, though the water quality is called “decent” by one who has analyzed it. As intended, it has become a private recreational center for the denizens of Mystic Heights, a superb swimming hole on hot summer afternoons, a place to paddle or float on buoyant contrivances — canoes, rubber duckies, inner tubes, noodles, inflatable mats and surf boards. Jousting and balancing contests among hormonal teens are spectator events. The pond has been stocked with rainbow and brown trout and there are said to be suckers as well. I have seen minnows, tiny crustaceans and turtles and a few people fishing on the pond and from its banks. I’ve never seen them, but algal outbreaks and fish kills have occurred.

Each autumn, flocks of geese stop at the pond during their laborious annual migration. They make a squawking racket that is endearing to me and annoying to some others, and I love watching the geese prepare in formation for their morning takeoff from Mystic Heights to the next pond south, accompanied by copious and loud communication. I always wonder what they are saying to each other. They leave in waves. Sometimes three or four groups of ten or twelve geese depart in a span of ten minutes, and it is beautiful to watch such graceful, tribal, harmonious creatures rise and form patterns in the sky. Geese are often on the pond in spring, but usually in groups of two or three or four, never in flocks of ten or twelve.

In winter, the pond is frozen and used for ice hockey and New Year’s Day polar bear plunge fests. The rest of the year, it is not unusual to see a wide range of avian and terrestrial creatures on or near the pond. Several years ago, one of the neighbors used the pond as home for his pet duck, a large white bird that couldn’t fly but added a resident neutered wildness to the suburban ambiance. I named him “Fred” in my own mind, but so far as I know he had no other name and Fred was shunned by his wild, multi-colored cousins during their short visits. Perhaps as a consequence, Fred spent an inordinate amount of time on the pond, quacking existentially into the void to no obvious response in order, anthropocentrically speaking, to substantiate his own existence and alleviate his disconnection from his own kind, much like some human beings do. I rather enjoyed Fred’s running commentary and was not distracted by it, but Fred mightily irritated others who were not amused, informed nor entertained by his lyrics. For them, a beautiful day did not include a loud white bird, even on a hot summer day. One day (or night) Fred simply disappeared, either at the hands of his owner responding to complaints or those of a stealth neighbor who had had enough of Fred except, perhaps, for dinner.

Fred’s close cousins, the mallards, are probably the most frequent and numerous visitors to the pond, except for the geese in autumn. I have seen ospreys, egrets, hawks, cranes and bald eagles at the pond. The bald eagle, the national bird and symbol of the United States, like the nation and values it symbolizes, has recently had its extinction rating improved from endangered to threatened. We hope this trend continues and that both eagle and nation make joint comebacks to health and vitality. Deer are often in the yard, and on occasion we have heard elk bugling from nearby fields. I once watched a bear leisurely amble along the bank beneath the towering cottonwood trees on the far side of the pond before disappearing into the fields beyond. A wildlife biologist who specializes in wolves was staying at the house and swears he saw a black wolf in the front yard.

Whether one views it as suburbia in the wild or wilderness in suburbia, Mystic Heights is as symbolic of Montana, the American West, perhaps the environment of the Earth itself as the bald eagle is of the United States. That is, humans tend to think of things as they are as something else. How could we not? My friend Jack Turner reminded me the other day:

“Two hundred billion stars in our galaxy, billions of galaxies. We are spinning around the Earth’s axis at about 15,000 mph; around the sun at I don’t know what; and around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way at around 500,000 mph. Weeeeeeeee… And nobody knows.”

Nobody knows. And, of course, we spin at different rates at the equator, in Anchorage and at the South Pole, and the Earth itself spins around the sun at a different rate in January than in July. I mean, truly, nobody knows. Weeeeeeee.

The only ones with a clue are the ones who acknowledge that nobody knows.

Our understanding of nature is incomplete, and whatever humanity’s selfimposed absence from the natural world does to its own heart, it tends to fragment its deficient awareness of our proper relationship to it. No matter how much we pave, extract from, develop, poison, clear cut, ignore, rape, pillage, plunder and exert our self-anointed, ignorant dominion over the earth, we do not understand the consequences of what we do upon it. We are each part of that inscrutable ignorance.

Nobody knows.

Before we came to Bozeman this spring, our friend Robin, who has stayed in the house for the past year, reported the presence of a loon on the pond for several days. That was exciting news. I had seen but a single loon and heard its lovely, haunting call once in Wisconsin. We had never seen a loon on the Mystic Heights pond and, so far as we knew, none had ever been there. Which only shows how little we knew (know?).

And there he was that first morning, a lone loon on the pond. Rarely did he make his call, but when it came, it was ethereally beautiful. We watched him through binoculars, floating, sometimes paddling, and every so often diving beneath the surface to fish for up to a minute at a time. A bald eagle made a few swooping passes over the pond and loon and then spent a couple of hours in the top of one of the cottonwood trees observing the world and the loon with eagle eye. We watched these things intermittently between chores and work and as distraction from that antithesis of nature tool, the computer, before which I sit writing words about contemplating nature.

While having coffee the next morning, I watched through the front plate-glass windows an interesting exercise by the lone loon of Mystic Heights pond. He (I later determined it was a he) paddled to the east end of the pond without a dive or pause, turned and immediately commenced a furious wing-flapping take-off toward the west end. He quickly built up an impressive rate of speed but rose no more than a foot or two above the water, not nearly enough to clear even the treeless section of the west bank. The loon made an awkward landing in the last stretch of water and paddled immediately back to the east end and repeated the performance with the same result. Something about it didn’t seem in harmony, but I was busy with matters of my own (perhaps no less loony) life and forgot about it. That evening, I timed the loon making a series of fishing dives lasting nearly a minute each. He was good in the water.

The next morning, again drinking coffee and watching the pond as much in procrastination as curiosity, I saw the loon again paddling east. He reached the far end, turned and immediately com

menced a frenzied, wing-flapping effort to take off. His speed was impressive but his height was low and again he made an ungainly landing on the west end. The loon wasted no time paddling like a loon back to the east end and launching another effort resulting in an even more graceless landing, after which he placidly floated as if contemplating his next move and resting. Two take-off attempts seemed his limit.

I retreated to my computer and the internet for some loon research, which quickly revealed that the Mystic Heights loon was a common loon. I learned loons are sometimes known as “the spirits of the wilderness” and have four calls — the tremolo, the hoot, the wail and the yodel. I’d only heard the wail, though Robin had heard a yodel. Adult loons are rarely eaten by other animals, though the young are often taken by raccoons, skunks, turtles and big fish. Adults are sometimes eaten by bald eagles, leading me to surmise that the eagle I watched swoop over the loon and then sit in the tree for several hours was not just whistling “America the Beautiful.” Because their legs are far back on the body, loons are both awkward and vulnerable on land and spend as little time as possible there. Loon bones are denser and heavier than those of most birds and that weight helps them dive for food. Though I was totally impressed that the loon of Mystic Height pond stayed under for nearly a minute, loons can stay down for up to five minutes and dive to 250 feet. One revealing (to my uneducated mind) description read, “Graceful in the water and in flight, they are almost comical on takeoffs and landings. Their size, solid bone structure and weight distribution result in thrashing water takeoffs that can last 100s of feet. The loon’s landing is nothing so much as a controlled crash-glide.” That certainly matched what I had seen, and it pleased me that my bits of research and observation fit so nicely together.

But absence fragments understanding. Because we had never seen a loon on the pond before, and because we had not talked with our seldom-seen neighbors about that loon, we assumed that loons on the pond were a rare occurrence.

“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness,” said Marshall McLuhan.

We observed the loon for the next couple of days and each morning he attempted two takeoffs from the east with the same inelegant landings on the west end so different from those of the graceful geese. By then, my research had taught me enough to realize that the pond might be too short for the loon’s take-off requirements. For sure, I concluded, a loon launch from Mystic Height pond needed a good wind from the west to succeed, and even that was no guarantee. It occurred to me that this loon was trapped in too small a body of water. Far from being one of the spirits of wilderness, he was a prisoner. With this new understanding that he might have screwed up and landed on a pond with too small a runway, I viewed the loon with new eyes. Nature can be cruel.

What to do?

The anthropocentric response, it seems, is to interfere, which enables our addiction to the illusion of control. By the time my knowledge of loon ways had reached this stage of incompleteness, Jeannie had left for a climbing expedition in Alaska, so Robin and I conferred over morning coffee.

What to do with a crazy loon that had landed on a pond too small? He had been there more than a week. We watched him attempt another take-off and perform another clumsy crash-landing. After some discussion, we decided that, even though the fishing was good and he appeared healthy, his morning take-off attempts were reason enough for the anthropomorphic conclusion that he must be missing the company of fellow loons and he needed help to get off he pond. He clearly needed a longer runway. Robin had to go to work, but she thought she knew someone who worked for Fish & Wildlife and maybe we could contact him later in the afternoon. Like everyone who follows the fluctuating fates of wolf and buffalo, we both know that the true headquarters of Fish & Wildlife departments in most Western states are located deep in the folds of the pockets of the local ranching, hunting and real-estate-development industries. Contacting Fish & Wildlife about helping wildlife is not a step to be taken lightly and we would not, but we were conflicted.

But it was our conflict, not nature’s, and like all things left to nature, it took care of itself naturally.

That afternoon when I returned to Mystic Heights from chores in town, the loon was gone from the pond. Whether the loon got a lift from a headwind or from the bald eagle or was hyper-motivated by ESP that we had even considered calling in Fish & Wildlife is unknown, but neither he nor any other loon has been seen after that.

I’ve since learned that a few loons visit Mystic Heights Pond every spring. Whether they get off the pond in the talons of eagles or a headwind is something I hope to determine by further, better-informed observation in another spring. Either way is as natural as the eagle or the wind or the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. I don’t know whether the loons that land on the pond become eagle food or take off in the first strong wind to fly another day, but, anthropocentrically speaking, the loon of Mystic Heights Pond and the more than six and three quarters billion human beings living on this tiny Earth are all in a space that may or may not be large enough to allow take-off into the graceful flight of survival.

Dick Dorworth, who has been writing for Mountain Gazette since before it became Mountain Gazette in 1972, is the author of “Night Driving: Invention of the Wheel and Other Blues” and “The Perfect Turn: Tales of Skiing and Skiers,” soon to be published by Western Eye Press. He is fond of saying that skiing, climbing and writing are the only things he’s ever learned to do.