Exercising Demons

What happens when a hockey player with an injured groin heads into the depths of hot yoga? By Mark D. Miller

 

The instructor actually convinced me that leaving was an option.

“It’s your first time? Just get a spot in the back and sit out some of the poses if you need to. Make your goal just staying in the room.”

I already knew that Bikram’s Yoga was like a Merry Prankster’s bus mentality, ‘you’re either on the bus or you’re off’, but instead of an acid trip, it was a sweat-induced mind-and-body altering transcendence. From what I had learned from friends that no longer go, once class starts, no one leaves, ever. It seemed that walking out of the 90 minute 105 degree session was akin to jumping off the bus barreling down the interstate. But psychologically, I needed an escape plan for my first hot yoga class and it was simple; I would just march right out of there, ignoring everyone and everything. No worries. I even brought my old truck in anticipation of a slippery, sweaty and disgusting retreat. The problem now though was that I knew the instructor. She was an old neighbor of mine. My plan was strictly under the pretense of anonymity.

My fear and flight mode was now off the radar. With my escape plan shot and nervous about whether I could stay in a sauna for an hour and a half, I decided I needed an edge. Instead of paying fifteen dollars for one class, I signed up for a thirty dollar, one month unlimited trial period offered to first timers.  The advantage to this, more than any mental resolve, is that I am a cheapskate; they would have to drag my dehydrated, mummified body out of there before I quit without getting my money’s worth.

I refocused my mind, deciding that three dollars a class would make me feel better about the suffering and vowed to come 10 times over the next month. With renewed purpose, I found the last spot in the back corner of the studio, a perfect hiding place for me. When I saw the other men were not wearing shirts, I pulled mine off and lay down on my mat and towel, the moist heat filling my lungs. Maybe I jinxed myself, but I remember thinking, it’s not that hot.

The instructor entered the room, turned on the lights and we all stood. The room was completely full with 30 students staring forward into a mirror spanning the entirety of the front wall. Skimpy would be modest to describe the lack of clothing being worn in the room. Between us all, we could have made one good outfit. For the most part, it was like a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot was taking a yoga break and the mirror only doubled my sensory overload of sexy, toned skin.

Even the guys, a few in snug fitting short shorts, looked like chiseled underwear models. A quick scan of the room would unconsciously result in a game of who does not belong here: the chubby guy near me, the chubby at the other side of the room, the 70 year old lady and me, a novice yogi at best, perpetual beginner at worst.

After straining my groin in a beer league hockey game at the beginning of the winter I vowed to come back stronger and more flexible. Hockey was my last competitive outlet and approaching middle aged I just wanted a few more years at a shot of glory while playing the highest level of mediocre beer-league hockey that I could, one last chance of being able to keep up, one more opportunity at winning an adult rec league championship with my buddies and one more chance of roping some sweet goals.  Hot yoga, I hoped, was going to be my fountain of youth.

With my hockey mentality, I decided to break the yoga class down into three manageable periods, thirty minutes each. Through the mirror, I could see a clock on the wall near the opposite corner of the room and could barely make out the minute hand. We started with a breathing routine. “Hands interlocked and all eight knuckles touching your chin and thumbs on your throat. Breathe in and let your elbows rise up, head looking back, fill your lungs, deeper, deeper, inhale and then exhale….”

As soon as the instructor said the word ‘exhale’, the class collectively turned into the world’s largest tire letting its air out. I was slightly startled and could not help smiling a little bit as the hissing reverberated through the room, just as the first bead of sweat ran down my flushed forehead.

As we went through the first series of poses, I concentrated on looking in the mirror at myself, focusing on my body positioning and trying to ignore the beautiful and increasingly glistening skin illuminating from my peripheral vision. The mirror did not lie and I forlornly realized that my poses sucked. This was nothing like I imagined myself looking when I did yoga on a rug in my basement. Instead of straight, elegant, smooth lines, I was discombobulated, clumsy and rough-edged. Every joint in my body was angled awkwardly at dozens of different angles. My hips had the grace of an anvil, my shoulders were never parallel to the ground and my jaw jammed uncomfortably into my chest creating a fold of chins. For all of my struggling though, the bald dude in the front was nailing it. He looked to be a least fifty but was built like a Greek god, sculpted from head to toe and holding the poses with power and grace while wearing some sort of European bathing suit. I could not help but hate him like I hated the popular kids in high school.

Just four poses of the twenty six that make up the class and I was dripping freely now. Half of my shorts were completely soaked and my cheeks were rosy red. It was here that I first noticed a pungent smell steaming up. It was fleeting and I could not be sure what it was or where, exactly, it had come from. Although it was disconcerting, my focus was on my racing heart and laboring breath. A few poses later, I looked at the clock just briefly enough to see that the minute hand was straight down. It had been thirty minutes, one period over.

As the second period began, every pore in my body was engage in the extraction of sweat. Beads that had dripped singularly now came off in bunches, then in long steady steams, landing on my towel or splattering on the rubber floor beside me. I could see everyone was steadily dripping and pools of sweat formed on each side and the in front of towels, picture exercising in a steam room using a bucket full of sweat to pour over the hot rocks. But I could not worry about that, my heart was racing out of control from trying to hold difficult postures for a minute at a time. I had to stay focused, conserve energy as much as possible. I knew I should sit some poses out, but I’ll be damned if a couple of chubby guys were going to outstretch me in a hot room.

About half way through class, we were then instructed to lie on our backs in shavasana, which is the rest phase or alternatively and appropriately to my case, the corpse pose. It is the first time we actually lie down on our mats and towels. I realized immediately the nasty smell wafting around was coming directly from my towel, which was spread on top of my mat. I concluded that it had not been washed and there was also a high probability that it had spent some time in my hockey bag, which is more disgusting than a room full of adults freely dripping sweat into puddles on the floor. When we stood up again, there was no doubt that each drop, stream and barrage rolling off my body  and onto the towel, are causing rank stink particles to exploded and radiated in the air from my corner position. I glanced at my neighbor and gave her my best sorry-about-the-smell look, but she ignored me.

When I looked back to the mirror, my face was candy apple red, while the pale skin of my chest and shoulders were now tinted a bright pink. My heart felt like it was beating on the outside of my chest and spiraling out of control. We went into more standing poses and when I dipped my head low below my waist, my eye sockets would fill with sweat. When I tucked my head to my knee, streams would rush down the small of my back, over my shoulders, falling to the floor and bombing stink from my towel, which held in the stale air like a pungent inversion.

When we stood up again, I glanced at the clock and the hand was pointing up. I was into the third period. My face was now plum red and I was wet like I was taking a shower and had just turned the water off. I could count my heart beats through the throbbing in my brain. I should have taken a break, but I am too competitive. I had gone into survival mode, using my breath to keep my brain from imploding. I could not tell you what happened most of the last 30 minutes, but I was very near to heaven or hell. When I finally left the room, I felt like a spiny puffer fish had been shoved inside my throbbing brain and  I also noticed while walking out that the clock I had used to keep time only had a second hand on it.

I was told that it is best to return in the next 48 hours to reduce the amount of soreness. Two days later I came back with a clean towel and mat. It was more of the same, a walk through hell. At one point, with maybe twenty minutes left in class, an overweight guy started to crack. It was his second class too.  I knew he had been suffering greatly but that was part of it, right? I was freaking dying myself.

Suddenly he stood up, looked pleadingly at the instructor and pointed to the door. She told him to lie down on his back and he would feel better. A few minutes later he stood again and looked at the door. “You need to concentrate,” the instructor told him. “Don’t be selfish. Think about the other people in class. You are disturbing the other students that have come to class today and are working towards a goal.” Humiliated, and seemingly to fulfill the ultimate irony, he got back into corpse pose.

A female student stood up, then took the guy by the arm, apologizing to the instructor as she led him out of the studio. He was fine and this was the only time out of 30 classes over the winter that I ever saw anyone leave or a teacher treat a student that way.  After class, another chubby male who seemed totally unbothered by the heat, claimed that not everyone has the mind power and will to make it through. My head throbbed for the rest of the day again, enough so that I believed I had discovered something vitally wrong with my brain, maybe a tumor or something.

I vowed to never return but after a few days, it kept eating at me; thirty dollars for two classes is full price and I was not raised like that. I had to suck it up and literally, that is what I did. I drank liters of water before my third class, convinced that this would solve my headache problem, but it did not. The thing I most learned on this third day of practice is that there is fine line between being well hydrated and peeing yourself.

My fourth session was about one goal, not getting a headache. In class, when I felt my heart racing, I sat out poses and concentrated on my breath pushing oxygen to my brain. I was still soaked head to toe by the end of class, but for the first time, my head did not feel as if it would pop right off my shoulders.

On my fifth trip to the studio, it was starting to seem more underground, more like a fight club. In the reception area and in the locker rooms, there was not much talk, we just acknowledged each other with a glance and a look that said ‘let’s fucking do this’.  On the sixth day, I realized I could judge how much I would suffer by when my toes started sweating. During class seven, I witnessed a student whose super power must have been sweating. By the end of class, he is almost swimming in puddles around him. When he rolls his towel up and walks out, sweat comes out as if it was being poured from a pitcher.

You want your pee to be clear, but mine is a little yellow before class eight. No worries, I remember thinking, I got this hot yoga down. The reality though, I get my ass handed to me. I barely make half way through class before having to lie down on my mat. I try several times to join back in the poses but finally give up, finishing the class on my back. At some point, I either fell asleep or passed out for a few moments. At the next class, my ninth, I pee clear beforehand and enjoy just the normal sufferings, not the mortal ones. After class, I learn, as powder snow bonds skiers and guns bond cops, electrolytes bond hot yogis.

For my final class of the thirty day trail period, I felt strong, body and mind, even slightly pliable. I now enjoyed seeing the newbies suffer and sticking it to some of the seasoned students in one of the balance poses that I was surprisingly really good at, Standing Bow. I had also found some self-control that was demanded in this yoga, exploring and expanding my boundaries carefully

After that month, I finally made it back on the ice. I got a break away in the first game and was grateful my groin held up as I sprinted down the ice surprised by my slightly above-average beer-league speed towards the goalie. I faked a forehand shot, pulled it to my backhand and put a shot that any rec hockey player would have been proud of over the goalie’s shoulder and into the upper corner of the goal. It’s a shot I practice in my two-bay garage where I skate on roller blades while shooting pucks into a mattress with a goal spray painted on it because I am competitive and I love scoring sweet goals. So I could not give all the credit to hot yoga, but for the first game back in a month, I was feeling as good as I ever had on the ice.

As I continued through the season playing hockey and doing hot yoga twice a week, it brought my fitness to a new level. My teammates even commented that I was faster than I ever have been. It was true; I had gained a step, one of two or three that I had lost over the decades. I also noticed that I recovered faster, was fresher in the third periods, had better mental sharpness and was even more conscious about eating a healthier diet. I was taking care of myself and felt great. Ponce de Leon may not have agreed, but I had taken a sip from the fountain youth. And then I promptly sweated it out of every pore of my body.

Eye in the Sky

A hike up the mountain Hawaiians refer to as the House of the Sun. By Lara Dunning

The signs on Kuihelani highway said “U Turn OK.” It was almost as if Paka‘a was warning us six early morning risers that he’d be sure to display his power of winds at the summit of Haleakalā. But, we couldn’t turn back now. We’d all gone to bed early in preparation for our long drive to the mountain known to Hawai‘ians as the “House of the Sun.” Sleepy-eyed and coffee fueled we could see Haleakalā shrouded in clouds in front of us. Up there, at 10,023 feet above sea level, we’d be the first on the island to lay eyes on the glowing orb we all worshipped during the day. A sight, Mark Twain said was “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.”

The sun, we’d basked in it every day since our arrival to Maui. It penetrated the sun tan lotion we slathered on our bodies. It created freckles and golden hues on our skin. We lay on Kaanapali beaches, snorkeled in Molokini Crater, watched humpback whales and breathtaking sunsets all under the watchful eye this powerful sphere. Now, at three a.m. the sun lay beyond the black blanket of the ocean that stretched to the horizon. Off in the distance the big island of Hawai‘i blended in with the dark waters that surrounded it. It’s from there, Hawai‘ian legend says, the demi-god Maui traveled to the top of Haleakalā to lasso the sun so his mother’s bark clothing, called kapa, would dry faster.  At the top he braved the frigid air and waited for the first rays of sunlight to appear. Then, he lassoed the orb with a twisted coconut fiber rope and made the sun promise to “move more slowly across the sky.” The sun agreed and from that day forward Maui’s mother’s kapa dried in one day.

The road to the Pu‘u‘ula‘ula summit parking lot consists of twenty-nine switchbacks; the signage for most of the curves warns drivers to take them at fifteen mph.  Once visitors enter the park no food or gas is available. Right before the turn onto Crater Road we stopped at a coffee shop rightly named “Last Chance.” Here, we filled our stomachs with another kind of fuel, hot chocolate for me, and coffee for everyone else. I, the only person to suffer from motion sickness, became the designated driver. After paying our ten dollar entrance fee we began our hour long ascent on a two lane road with no shoulders, no guard rails and a 5 to 6 percent grade. Our car would be one of a millions that drove the road this year, one of twenty thousand that came for the sunrise this month, and one of one hundred and thirty that would visit the park for sunrise today.

Besides steep turns, the hazards on the road included grazing cows, rocks, bicyclists, large buses, and unpredictable weather conditions. Curve after curve, the landscape remained shrouded in darkness, only the reflectors lit the way. The further up we went, the more silent we became as we pondered what lay beyond the glare of the headlights. I gripped the steering wheel thinking if I made one wrong move we’d all plummet into the abyss and roll down the mountain. In our tumble we might trample over a Nene, a rare Hawai‘ian Goose that was on the verge of extinction in 1951 or a Peuo, a Hawai‘ian owl which many Hawai‘ians refer to as aumakua, or guardian spirit. I knew one thing for sure, we were driving up the side of a dormant volcano and for every 1000 feet in elevation the temperature would drop about 3°F. In Kahului, the temperature in the early morning was around 55° F. Using this calculation the summit would be around 25° F and that didn’t account for any snow or wind we might encounter at the top. We’d all worn heavier garments and layers, but would it be enough?

In the summit parking lot we easily found a place to park. Paka‘a shook the car and darkness veiled everything within several feet. With the elevation gain and wind the temperature it had to be in the upper teens. We pressed our faces to the car windows and gazed upwards. Thousands of stars twinkled in the clearest sky I’ve ever seen. It didn’t surprise me later to find out that The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy has been conducting research here for over four decades. With their powerful telescopes I can only imagine the solar sights they’ve seen.

As liquids pressed against our bladders the first one went out to search for a bathroom in the darkness. He returned quickly saying there was none within sight. No bathrooms? Surely, at least, there had to be a designated place to view the dawn. The clock said 5:15 a.m. and sunrise according to the “Last Chance” coffee guy was at 6:33 a.m. We had about 45 minutes. Minutes passed and the sky became a lighter shade of blue. With cell phone in hand and flannel buttoned all the way up my partner went to search for a path and found one. He returned several minutes later and between chattering teeth said, “Lordy, lordy, it’s cold out there.”

What the park map doesn’t tell you is that next to the parking lot is short path that leads to a small stone building that faces east with windows that stretch mid-floor to ceiling. In this protected space, sun gazers are the first to lay eyes on the sun rising out of the east. In perfect weather conditions one could see 115 miles out to sea and all five Hawai‘ian Islands. For now, the only thing we could see clearly was stars and the other sunrisers searching inside their cars for warmer clothing. Something, we now wished we’d packed more of.

Paka‘a dissuaded any attempt to go outside until we absolutely had to so I perused the park map. It explained that the park consists of several different ecosystems; coastal, pastoral, rain forest, dry forest, subalpine shrubland and alpine/Aeolian and many plant life and wildlife are endemic to the Hawai‘ian Islands. I was surprised to find out that approximately one third are on the Federal Endangered Species List. ‘Āhinahina, also known as Silversword, is one of these plants and has been on the endangered species list since 1986. Its shallow root system and dagger-like leaves with silvery hairs have adapted to high altitudes and intense sun conditions. These plants live up to 50 years, can grow up to six feet tall and right before they die dozens of purple sunflower-like flowers bloom up the center stalk. In the growing light behind our car I could see a cluster of them standing about four feet tall. As the minutes passed, the sky brightened. I zipped up my sweater, tied the hood together with a hair clip and exited the car. The moment my eyes landed eastward shades of pink painted the sky. Sunrise had begun.

“It’s starting,” I called out.  Everyone piled out of the car and took the path up to the overlook.

At the top of the path dozens of people gathered inside or huddled outside of the small circular observation building. My eyes roved over bodies, large and small, wrapped in sleeping bags, hotel blankets and beach towels. Inside, bodies pressed close to the windows refusing to give up their view. No matter where we stood, all eyes turned one direction, east. I was amazed that every single one of us had gotten up in the wee hours of the morning to come here. In our group the reasons intertwined with one another. We’d wanted to experience a sunrise at 10,000 feet; a third of the way up to Mt. Everest. We wanted to share it with friends and family; our group consisted of sisters, couples and friends. We wanted to experience an event we’d heard so much about and see if the Haleakalā sunrise should really be on your “bucket list.” But, what drew everyone else here? Was it because Twain thought it sublime?

As these thoughts crossed my mind the display of light and color created a mesmerizing effect over everyone. It painted our skin, like a Monet painting. Whispers filled the room and families and friends huddled close together as this sacred moment took hold of us. Native Hawai‘ians call this place wao akua which means “wilderness of the gods.” Purplish-grey clouds hovered over the lunar-like landscape and rays of orange-pink sunshine bended across the sky. Seeing that I could believe the gods resided here and they had something to tell me. What were they saying? In this moment, this sunrise, anything felt possible. Maybe here, at the top of the world, I could hear them. Twain hadn’t been wrong.

My friend with her cinched white windbreaker came inside and told us about an almost wind-free spot to the left of the building. I headed out to investigate. She was right; this spot was the place to be outside. Six steps to the left or right and the fierce wind chilled your bones, but where we stood it blew gently. Out here, the vibe was jollier. People knew they were freezing, but laughed about it. Four young girls huddled under a hotel blanket, lovers kept each other warm with layers of beach towels and mothers and fathers nestled their children close to them. Everyone took pictures and two young Asian men filmed it all. In anticipation we all watched the colors of the sky began to change and glimmers of green and bright orange hit the clouds. All of us awaited the rising of the sun from this very spot; 3,055 miles above sea level on the coldest and one of the most beautiful spots on Maui. My partner and I huddled against each other shoving hands under each other’s armpits to warm our fingers. Every few minutes we checked the time. The sun was coming.

Within moments the colors became more intense. Then, a pulsating ball of light glared into our eyes almost blinding us. Shades of pinks, oranges, yellows, and greens burst across the clouds and onto the clouded crater landscape. Outside, we all gasped at the ceremonial display of light, snapping pictures and smiling at the barren beauty we had come up to experience first-hand. In that moment, my chest swelled with pride. I had made the journey up here. I belonged to this place and it deserved my admiration.

It wasn’t until after sunrise I noticed Park Ranger Keith inside the summit observation building. He wore a floppy eared fur hat, long pants and a winter coat. I chuckled to myself thinking this guy knew how to dress for sunrise. His smooth face bore an expression of serenity as he answered questions about the park. Haleakalā consists of 30,000 acres of public lands with three separate visitor centers and offers camping, hike-in cabins, ranger programs and approximately twenty-seven miles of hiking trails. On any given day there are two to three rangers stationed at sunrise overlooks. Ranger Keith sees at least ten sunrises a month. Each year staff sees hundreds of thousands of people from countries all over the world who come to see the sun rise and explore the park; a number that seems just as vast as fish in the ocean that surrounds Maui.

Almost 300 feet below us at the Visitor Center, Park Ranger Nan, whose seen many sunrises over her twenty-five years at the park, sang a traditional Hawai‘ian prayer. As a Native Hawai‘ian, the moment of sunrise is “extremely special” and in the prayer Nan asks for “the knowledge of the environment to come and sit with her so she may learn its knowledge and use it correctly.” Nan told me that seeking earthly wisdom and protecting the planet, especially for those generations yet to come, are part of Hawai‘ian philosophy and this idea reverberates throughout different cultures and peoples all over the world. Now I wondered if that been the inaudible whispers I’d heard earlier? Had I missed my chance to listen? Really listen.

A few like me, despite frozen noses and hands were determined to stay as long as we could muster. In the valley, the sunlight transformed the clouds from light purple to blue. With each passing moment the veil of darkness lifted to reveal the astral like wonder of this divine place. At the top, with the ocean thousands of feet below and nothing but sky above, it truly felt like I was standing at the top of the world. Afterwards, I decided next time I do this I’ll be better prepared. I’ll put on a layer of clothes, and then another until I could pass for the abominable snowman. I’ll use the detached restrooms at the Haleakalā Visitor Center and bring a chair and a blanket so I can be comfortable. Then I’ll ask and listen. Really listen.

Later, I found out that Park Ranger Keith likes the sunrise because it gives us “a moment outside our rushed world to appreciate and study the environment” and “reflect on the possibilities of a new day.” I thought back to look of contentment on his face and wondered if over the years Haleakalā had shared its knowledge with him. Inside, when the sun’s glimmer rose above the clouds he thanked everyone for “starting their day at Haleakalā National Park on March 8th, 2013.” When my friend said his heart-felt declaration made her teary-eyed, I knew for sure, that even to someone who’s seen the dawn hundreds of times, this wasn’t just another sunrise, some might even call it “sublime.”

Mountain Gazette’s Best Stories of 2015

Mountain Gazette has been known for its ability to capture the essence of mountain life since its beginning, and 2015 was no different. From hairy avalanche scares to essays on nature and wildlife, these are some of the best stories from Mountain Gazette this past year.

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Stories of adventures and misadventures led the way this year, and Pete Takeda started us off with “Epic Luck“, illustrating just how thin the line can be between an epic story and a near-death experience. Cam Burns climbed the Grand Teton woefully underprepared in “The Grand Teton with Heidegger and Hegel“, ate brains and eggs at a Missoula saloon in “A Night at the Ox“, and eventually wandered into Guidebook authorship as a broke climber in “Confessions of a Non-Wannabe Guidebook Writer“.

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On a more reflective note, Chris Chesak recalled the birth of his daughter and his newfound fatherhood during his year-long deployment to Iraq in “Daddy, the War and the Webcam“. Jane Koerner found a dog in a latrine that became a lifelong friend in “The Beast in the Latrine“. Alan Stark pulled on his Yaktrax and found some perspective with the help of the local wildlife in “Mountain Passages: Coyote“.

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Mike Medberry took us to the Sawtooth Wilderness and meditated on nature in “Spangle Lake: Why We Come to Wilderness“, and guided us through the complex political process at work at Boulder-White Clouds in “Monumental Wilderness in Idaho“. Brooke Williams rebuilt cairns, hiked naked and reflected on youth in “Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park“. Alan Stark traveled to Cuba and smoked hand-rolled cigars, giving us pointers along the way in “Mountain Passages: Insider Info on Travel to Cuba“.

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In our photo series In Focus, Greg Von Doersten showcased his photography in “The Big Picture of Adventure Photography“, and Nicole Morgenthau showed us her work and walked us through her process in “The Mountain Men“.

On top of all that, we featured weekly postcards from writer Devon O’Neil as he traveled both across the globe and close to home.

Author John P. O’Grady pondered the Catskills. literature, and his collie in his Land in the Sky column.

Ex-pat and wordsmith Michael Brady reported from Europe.

And poetry editor Michael Henry of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop brought us new verse from established and up-and-coming writers.

You can keep track of Mountain Gazette stories all year at mountaingazette.com.

 

 

 

Becoming a Guide

Or how a heli-ski run at five years old changed a life. By Nina Hance

My parents’ fridge is plastered with many pictures of family adventures. There is one snapshot in the clutter of images that always catches my attention and makes me smile. I’m standing on the top of a ridgeline holding my skis, looking content, my head tilted to the side, leaning against my poles. The leg straps on my full-body harness stick out below my puffy, red down jacket. My goggles cover most of my face, but my expression is still visible. I’m grinning from ear to ear and my five-year-old figure is tiny against the backdrop of the spectacular, snow-covered Chugach Mountain Range of Alaska, stretching into the distance.

Alaska 6My mom took this picture on top of a mountain called Cracked Ice. We had just been dropped off by the helicopter on what was to be my first heli-ski run ever. There had been a split second opportunity that day. It was my mom’s day off and the two of us were hanging out at the Alaska Backcountry Adventures heli base on Thompson Pass in Valdez, Alaska. I had just finished my schoolwork for the morning and was making my daily round of the parking lot, wandering from door to door of the parked RVs selling my hand-woven potholders to the heli-skiing clients and film athletes, when my mom came to tell me that my dad had two seats available for us in his group. Next thing I knew, my mom was helping me into my ski gear, and we were loading into the heli with my dad and his guests. At a mere 60 pounds, I was light enough to sit in the front seat between my dad and the pilot.

At 5,000 vertical feet long, the length of Cracked Ice would be the longest run I had ever skied in my five years of existence. The flight from the base to the top of Cracked Ice happened so fast that I could barely comprehend what I was seeing out of the window. From high above, I looked down onto glaciers and crevasses, things I had never seen before. We were flying into a world of snow and ice, a world of ski terrain that was daunting yet exciting.

Looking back on that day, I can still clearly remember skiing the run. The powder was knee-high on the adults, and waist-high on me. The run felt never-ending and my thighs burned so intensely that I had to take several breaks. The tracks that I made on my skinny, little skis looked itty-bitty compared to the adults’ big swooping turns. By the time we reached the bottom, my legs were so fried that I just plopped down into the snow, exhausted, but very excited. From that point on, the years passed by as I traveled to Alaska every spring with my parents on their yearly commute to Valdez to work as heli-ski guides.

While my parents were out in the field guiding, I entertained my days at the heli base doing schoolwork, playing in the parking lot, or weaving potholders. My potholder craft turned into a thriving little business. People began seeking me out, hoping to buy my potholders. Word about the nifty, colorful potholders spread, and soon most everyone on Thompson Pass, locals and international guests alike, were buying potholders as fast as I could make them. I had to start making potholders in the early winter, a few months before we went to Alaska, so that I wouldn’t sell out before the season was over. Phatz Ski Rental, the shop at the heli base, began carrying and selling my potholders. Doug and Emily Coombs, friends of my parent’s and fellow guides, were my biggest customers, ordering large quantities from me every year.

Alaska 3Fifteen years have passed since my first heli-ski run. I am continuing my annual commute to Valdez, just like my parents. My income no longer comes from selling potholders, but from working as an apprentice guide for Black Ops Valdez, a heli and cat-skiing operation based in Valdez.

During my first two years of college at Montana State University, I missed the heli-ski seasons in Alaska. Given my certainty about wanting to be a ski guide, and my indecisiveness about choosing a major, I decided to take the spring semester off and go back to Valdez. After applying at several heli-ski operations, I landed a job with Black Ops.

On March 6, I flew from Bozeman northbound to Anchorage. The sun, illuminating the peaks in a deep, red glow, was beginning to set when I drove over Thompson Pass and into Valdez on the Richardson Highway. I remember when I was young, thinking of how massive the peaks looked. Everything seemed bigger when I was little. These peaks are an exception, though. They still look just as gigantic and magnificent. Their size, magnified by the flat waters of the ocean meeting the bases of the mountains, never ceases to impress, even now as I look at them as an adult.

Driving into town, the moist, salty sea air triggers nostalgia of childhood days spent playing on the rocky beach. Large snow mounds piled high by the plows stand taller than most if the buildings. The port, snow covered and full of boats, reminds me of the walks we used to take along the docks in search of otters. Bald eagles, perched high in the trees next to the grocery store, prune their feathers and gaze down at the town’s activities. Pulling into the driveway of the guides’ house, my home for the next two months, I gawk at the six feet of snow covering the front yard.

Black Ops Valdez, owned by Josh and Tabatha Swierk, was established in 2008. The Swierks began offering snowcat and snowmobile skiing a few years back, building up their cliental and experience before adding the heli this last season.

Alaska 3 I was thrilled to join the BOV crew, knowing that I would be learning from a team of some of the most experienced guides in Valdez. I mainly worked as the dispatcher, also attending guide meetings and cat-ski guiding on stormy days. Alongside that I worked in the office, gave safety briefings, and occasionally tail-guided for the heli-skiing. At the beginning and end of each day, I sat in on the guide meetings listening to the guides plan and discuss their day. I felt overwhelmed once I realized how much learning lay ahead of me.

During the meetings, I observed how the guides planned out a day based on the weather, group dynamics, snow conditions, and any other factors that could affect daily operations. Barry “The Blade”, our cheery and talkative pilot, gave me mini lessons on weather forecasting and flying mechanics of the helicopter.

When I wasn’t cat-ski guiding or working in the office, I got to tail-guide for the heli-skiing. Even though I grew up in this terrain, I continue to marvel at its beauty and expanse. Everything is bigger here; the runs are longer, the snow is deeper, the slopes are steeper. In every direction, big peaks with aesthetic lines stretch endlessly into the distance. Glacier valleys, separating one mountain range from another, look like vast, white rivers, frozen mid rapid. Occasionally they shift position, sending spooky growls and grumbles echoing across the valley. The skiing is so incredible that is almost feels surreal; dense enough to carve, yet light enough to smear a turn and get face shots. The thought of taking a three-minute heli lift to a peak that would otherwise take an entire day to climb becomes a profound reality.

I have always been slightly intimidated by the sum of skills and responsibilities that an aspiring guide needs to learn. There are many little, yet important details that need to be taken into account, from picking a line to ski to timing your rotation in the field with the heli’s fuel run. Each time I tail-guided, I was given one specific skill to work on, whether it was loading and unloading the ski basket, shoveling out a landing zone, or communicating with the other guides over the radio. For the instances when I didn’t have enough time to dig a full snow pit, I learned to make quick assessments based on hasty pits, ski cuts, and terrain observation. The details extend even further within each task. Whenever I landed the heli I had to find an area that was flat, size up the proper spacing to land the heli next to the group, and chose the best direction to land based on wind speed and direction. As the season went on, I began to feel less intimidated by the extent of responsibilities as I fell into a routine and logged more hours of practice.

Alaska 2On my last night in Valdez a family friend and Valdez local invited me over to her house for a salmon dinner. Walking into the kitchen of her cluttered, yet cozy cabin tucked back into a thick forest, I inhaled the scents of spices and freshly chopped wood. Looking out of the window past the pines, I admired the pink tinge of the evening alpenglow on the Chugach. While pouring glasses of wine, I noticed two potholders hanging on a hook above the stove. They were well used, burned and faded, but I immediately recognized them as a set that I had made many years ago when I was a little girl. Seeing them hanging in her kitchen made me smile and think of the first time I came to Valdez as a five-year-old. Who would have guessed that I would end up back in Valdez fifteen years later working as a ski guide. I didn’t simply spend this season working for a ski-guiding company in Alaska—I continued a lifestyle that started as a little girl and is now becoming the same profession as my parents’. I love guiding for many reasons. Developing a partnership with these intrinsically beautiful, yet potentially unforgiving mountains is challenging and inspiring. The reward of giving people one of the best ski days of their lives is fulfilling. Reflecting on the past fifteen years, I realize that I am most passionate about guiding because of the connection it has to my childhood and the lifestyle that evolved from it—thanks to my hand-woven potholders.

When God Spoke English

When God Spoke English: A review of Adam Nicolson’s in depth history of the King James’ Bible. By M. Michael Brady

Of all the great books of the English language, the King James Bible stands out. Not even the collected works of William Shakespeare, who was alive when the King James Bible was published in 1611, can match its influence on the growth and scope of the language. Through the centuries, this book speaks to the mind as no other.

How this came about is the theme of English historian Adam Nicolson’s in-depth account, first published in 2003 by Harper Collins in England under the title Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible. The political background is historical record. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England as King James I. At the time, religion and politics were entwined, and strife between religious factions was commonplace throughout Europe. James immediately set out to stem the strife and thereby unite England.

He was the right man for the task. Baptized Catholic but raised by Scottish Presbyterians, he had been trained from birth to deal with rival political factions. He was an accomplished scholar and the author of works such as Daemonologie, published in 1597. One of his first initiatives as the King of England was to initiate a project to make a new translation of the Bible. His structuring of the project is the first known example of rhetorical teamwork. It assembled a task force from across a quarreling clergy, from the established Church of England to the Puritans.

The goal was not merely the book, as there had been two previous translations into the vernacular, that of 1382 by Oxford scholar John Wycliffe and his followers and that of 1525-1535 by cleric William Tyndale, who had been inspired to the task after visiting Martin Luther at Wittenberg in 1524. This new translation was to uplift and unite. That it did, with phrasings of beauty and godliness that had never before been heard in the street.

The newness was a result of the teamwork that James had initiated. The translators worked in six translation companies, two each at Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster. Their editorial routine comprised working in ledgers, in which drafts were written on the left and comments and revisions on the right. A draft would be read aloud, and a team would listen and comment. That was another first and perhaps the key to the enduring power of the book that still reads like no other.

Aside from the work itself, the translator-writers left few records of their doings. Yet the remnant records might ring true if written today. One translation company quarreled incessantly about language. Samuel Ward, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge and a member of the Second Cambridge Company that translated the Apocrypha, left a 95-page, 5 by 6 inch diary, written not about his work, but rather of his penchant for earthly delights. Others left tidbits that have been reconstructed to depict the era and the monumental scope of the task.

This account of the seven-year-long efforts of a group of 47 nearly anonymous, pedantic, self-serving, often drunk divines in creating the King James Bible, Adam Nicolsen has provided a clue as to why English, the vernacular of tribes of quarrelsome peasants living on islands off the west coast of Europe, became a world language.

The book:

When God Spoke English by Adam Nicolson, London, Harper Press 2011, 282 page paperback, ISBN 978-0-00-743100-7

 

The Beast in the Latrine

The dog a woman finds in a latrine becomes her lifetime companion. By Jane Koerner

Aging seems less daunting with Beast as my companion. We’re not aging gracefully as much as we’re adapting. After ten years of mountaineering together, we have to take our joints into consideration. Beast used to disappear without a trace. I would give him ten minutes to reappear. At 15 minutes, I would shout his name at the top of my lungs, cupping my hands around my mouth to amplify my calls over the wind. Eventually he would show up, a mostly black speck racing across the basin below or bounding from rock to rock down the mountainside opposite, a hurtling marvel of strength and coordination. I failed to appreciate the effort until he flopped at my feet, panting heavily, begging for an edible compliment.

Nowadays he stays in sight, looking back occasionally to gauge the distance between us, then waiting for me to catch up. This is his opportunity to squat and take a rest break. On the return trip, we stick so close together, I have to shove him aside with my knee occasionally so we don’t trip over one another and tumble down the mountainside together. He seems content with my Granny gait, as I lower myself down with a tight grip on my hiking poles and a cautious placement of each foot. He didn’t used to be this patient.

Our second summer of hiking together, he vanished as I was making my way down the interminable switchbacks to the parking lot. He was trotting along behind me, his progress interrupted by prey worthy of a chase or shrubs in need of his scent, and then he was gone. I shouted and shouted until I went hoarse. I finally heard him barking hundreds of feet below the trail, in dense scrub oak. I was still feeling the effects of the ascent in 90-degree-plus heat. Fearing he might have caught his collar on a branch, I abandoned my route for his.

Hours later, I arrived at the parking lot as the sun was setting, bloodied from shoulders to shins, my knees throbbing from the steep, gravely descent. I would never find him. He would die up there of dehydration or predation, trapped and invisible in the treacherous jungle. He was probably unconscious by now, or half-eaten to death. Weeping in despair, I knelt and reached behind the rear tire for my key.

A wet nose grazed my hand. Smart dog, I thought. Smarter than me. His shortcut worked out fine for him, and now he was cooling off in the shade while I opened the trunk so I could revive myself with the spare water bottle I always kept there.

I should have known that he had better route-finding skills as an adolescent than I did after 35 years of mountaineering. I found him in a latrine in April 2004. Opened the door, and there he was, poised to exploit this unexpected good fortune. A tour of the adjacent campground produced no owners, only a few theories. “He barked all night, tied up to that tree over there. Someone must have cut him free.” “No, he chewed his way out. Look at what’s left of that mangled rope around his neck.” The campground was within earshot of the highway. My theory: someone shut him up in the latrine so he wouldn’t get run over.

If he was grateful to be liberated, he didn’t show it. He wouldn’t come near me, but he was more than willing to follow me up the trail at a safe distance. Close enough to take advantage of the snacks that dribbled from my sandwich bag and mouth, yet far enough to elude capture. Back at the car, he watched me warily, retreating to the forest on the other side of the creek every time I tried to collar him. Two men in a pickup helped me catch him and wrestle him into the car. I couldn’t leave him behind. I was living in northern Utah at the time, where dogs are kept for hunting, not as a surrogate child-rearing experience. My neighbors caged them in the backyard and fed them scraps from the dinner table. When the number of pups in a litter exceeded the number of households available, the excess was dumped in the mountains. Spayed dogs were a rarity. The next hiker tempted to rescue him might treat him the same.

The vet said he was at least a year old. “A rock chewer,” he surmised after inspecting his mouth. How long he had been living in the mountains, I could only surmise. Was he an abandoned pup who managed to outwit the coyotes and mountain lions? A run-away? Or did he tumble out of the back of a pickup, a common occurrence, according to the vet. From my perspective, his chipped teeth demonstrated an impressive set of survival skills.

I named him Beast, hoping to transforming him into a Beauty once he was neutered and trained. The neutering didn’t make much difference. He still mounted every dog in sight. But he had made peace with my house. It was no longer a prison to be fled before I could drag him in, squirming and tugging in the opposite direction, but a restaurant that served two meals a day and a motel with a more comfortable mattress than his previous lodging in a cage or the underbrush.

For a dog that had interacted with few, if any, humans indoors, he was surprisingly trustworthy. The local newspaper dubbed him the Pied Piper of our town for his remarkable ability to lure children out of their yards without parents protesting. On walks to the park two blocks from my house, a growing chorus of “can we pet him? can we pet him?” trailed us to our destination. Then the fun began as the squealing abductees took their turn trying their luck at stroking and poking every conceivable body part. Not once did he bare his teeth or growl.

To this day, in town or on the trail, adults stop us to pose the same questions. “Has your dog had a stroke?” “Does your dog have epilepsy?” A reference to the tongue that dangles out the right side of his mouth. “No,” I patiently explain. “He was born that way. He’s missing a part of his jaw and his tongue sticks out whether he’s awake or asleep.”

Then a mystified look. “What kind of dog is he? He certainly isn’t a pedigree.”

“The first vet said husky-shepherd-lab. The second one said malamute-Australian-cattle-dog-lab.”

After numerous encounters of this nature, Beast’s routine is as refined as a burglar’s for breaking into a safe. He hypnotizes his target with his big brown unblinking eyes. Immobilized by his steadfast gaze, Target notices the tongue that swivels to the corner of Beast’s mouth, further contorting his lop-sided grin. “How adorable! What a cutey-pie!” No longer in command, his hands respond to Houdini’s every movement—from raised head to wagging behind. The head is patted, the butt rigorously scratched, relieving the incessant itching of Beast’s skin allergies. (“He’s the most allergic dog I’ve ever seen. He’s allergic to everything,” the vet said.) Treats are rewarded with a drooling grin. Target programmed for completion of Pavlovian experiment. Rolling over on his back, Beast spreads his legs and straightens his tail, exposing maximum square footage for a satisfying belly rub.

“It’s an insult to call him Beast,” my hiking companion, Babs, complained the fifth time he sucked her into his magnetic field for hours on end. She has never owned a pet, will never own a pet. Too much trouble.

“You should call him Bushwack,” my other hiking companion, Barb, said. A speed demon herself, she was jealous of his round-trip marathons up and down the mountain, three ascents for our one. He always makes the summit first. If we take an unintentional detour, he waits by the summit cairn until we correct our error. In his younger years he could bash his way through anything: willows so thick we wished for machetes, marshes the size of golf courses, piles of rock as mobile as a battalion on the march.

Beast’s inner beaver collected fallen aspens, which in transit became an unintentional crowd control device, clearing the trail of large hiking parties. Since losing a molar, a canine and half an incisor to unknown causes, he has downsized to sticks.

His husky genes proved indispensable on cross-country ski outings. Until the stiff hind legs and cloudy lenses of senior citizenship slowed him down, he could haul me, by his end of the leash, more than a mile uphill. As the most successful toy thief in my county, he has accumulated a yard full of pockmarked Frisbees, and deflated tennis balls, footballs and soccer balls to be deployed on behalf of his favorite game, Toss the Toy until Mistress Can’t Take It Anymore. Repeated thuds against the side of the house signal, “It’s time for the game to begin.”

At the first sign of fatigue—I’m human, after all—he switches balls, booting it with his nose into the air and perilously close to the patio door. This trick dates to the lessons in my backyard, when I rewarded him with dog biscuits for dribbling and bunting the soccer ball he found in my neighbor’s front yard.

Once he learns a trick, he never forgets it. I was teaching at a university, and every time I took him to campus, I had to keep him on a tight leash to prevent him from participating in the soccer and Frisbee matches on the Quad. Once, he snuck out of my building to snatch the Frisbee away from the final match of the university’s annual Frisbee tournament. Setting aside the intense rivalry of such a high-stakes match, both teams deserted their posts to give chase. The Pakistanis, whose soccer ball was redirected toward the net of their arch-rival, our graduate students from India, shook their fists as they pursued him. They were on the verge of scoring the winning goal. I apologized profusely as I handed them their slobber-soaked ball.

My next-door neighbor sent his son over to retrieve their missing toys. He accused me of stealing. “Why do you take our toys?” he asked, pointing at the pyramid of miniature plastic tables and chairs and delimbed dolls that Beast had arranged while no one was paying attention. That pyramid was located in the front yard next to the garbage can, as if Beast were taunting them. Toss the Toy balls stayed inside the garage, tucked away in the dog dish each night before bedtime—biggest, flattest ball on the bottom, smallest one on top.

I didn’t know what to say to the boy. “Don’t ask me,” I mumbled, pointing at the dog. “Ask him.”

When my students learned of my impending departure from the university, they grieved over the loss of their therapist. Twice a week he would walk with me to work and lounge in my office until it was time for class to start. Students with a history of skipping classes and little interest in the subject matter arrived early to play with him in the hallway and stayed the entire class period. On test days they would line up outside my office door, awaiting their appointment with Dr. Beast, whose undivided attention compensated for the absence of their beloved Fido at home. During class their canine psychologist would roam from student to student, offering unconditional affection, especially to those with acute performance anxiety. Classes routinely visited by him enjoyed higher rates of attendance and higher test scores on average.

Three years after my departure, former students still email to inquire about his health. They never ask about me. At age 12, my best estimate, Beast limps for days if he gets his way with Toss the Toy. After ten minutes I hide the football, then the Frisbee as he yips in frustration at my retreating heels. On hikes with friends, he still patrols the line, making certain the rabbit up front is not pulling too far ahead of the tortoise—at age 64, me. Last summer we had to adjust to recently diagnosed conditions: bone on bone in my right kneecap; arthritis in his hips, shoulders and knees. If we overdo it, I recline on the sofa afterward, icing my swollen knee while he snores like a locomotive at my feet. I have to shake him sometimes to wake him up. His eyes open, and in their mirrors I catch a glimpse of my tenderized face as I help him up.

No matter how our day goes, we follow the same routine at bedtime. I call him, keep calling him if need be, until a thunk announces his awkward exit from the living room chair. Like my sideways steps on staircases to spare my knee, he is accommodating the undeniable limitations of aging. I suspect his cataracts are worse than mine. Nuzzling my calf so he won’t lose me in the dim light, we slowly climb the stairs and shuffle down the carpeted hallway to the bedroom. He curls up on the cushion on the floor, his former nest on the bed out of reach now.

One of these days one of us might not wake up. The actuarial tables stack the odds in favor of my outliving him. But, as with so much of life—from marriage to job prospects to unforeseen accidents—it’s best to take nothing for granted. This realization has inspired another routine; before switching off the lamp on my nightstand, I listen to the lullaby of his snorts, sneezes and sighs, its melody steeped in eleven years’ worth of memories. Then it occurs to me; I should have named him Heart Thief.

beasttongueflower

 

My Friend, Skip Yowell

51HlaoPjadL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ed’s Note: Skip Yowell, a co-founder of Jansport, author of The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder and Other Mountains, and leading voice in the outdoor industry for decades, passed away yesterday at 69. There has been an outpouring of sadness, love and remembrance from the many who knew him. We asked his longtime friend Larry Harrison, who is currently the director of sales for adidas Outdoor, to write  about Skip, how he changed the outdoors and how he loved life.

My friend Skip Yowell will be remembered by many names:  Icon, Legend, Founder, Father, Adventurer, Teller of Tales, Husband, Writer, Philanthropist, Gardener and Surfer. And that’s just a few. To me he will be forever my friend.

I met Skip in the dawn of the 70’s. I had heard he and his cousin Murray were absolute animals; swinging from the rafters of restaurants, cutting a wide swath as the founders of JanSport (along with the more demure Jan) through the outdoor business. He was my competition though. I was with a small pack company Mountain People and later on Wilderness Experience. We battled one another but became friends.

Skip hired me in 1985 and I worked for him for 23 years. It was a remarkable time in which we brought backpacking/camping to a broad audience and daypacks to every student in America. Along the way Skip helped found the Outdoor Industry Association, assisted the development of Big City Mountaineers, and was on an Everest Climb with Lou Whittaker.

I was born in Illinois, Skip in Kansas and when together artifice slid away, we were just some Midwestern boys who spent so much time together that he would say, “I spend more time with him than I do my wife.” But everyone was Skip’s friend, there was always time for a conversation, or the familiar greeting, “Hey buddy, how the heck are you?”

Preaching the gospel of JanSport took us on an endless series of sales, promotions and clinics–retail the way it used to be, down in the trenches with customers. The JanSport Mt. Rainier climbs were another way Skip passed on his love of the mountains and the camaraderie of climbing. Thirty years ago I married my bride with Skip at my side on Rainier.

Catch this man late at night and you were apt to enjoy some great stories of adventures past, but you also would hear what his wife Winnie was up to, their plans for upcoming trips, or tales of the grandkids. There was always a special look in his eye when he spoke of his brilliant daughter Quinn. He was a man grounded in family with a heart open to all.

I will remain forever jealous of Skip’s green thumb. When you receive enough bottles of hot sauce, popcorn and gorgeous pictures of sunflowers, peppers and tomatoes you start to wonder does he have more hours in the day than me? Is it fertilizer, water, sun or love that makes his plants grow so well?

One the best known Skipperism’s has to be “The best is barely good enough.” Maybe it began as a JanSport meme but took on greater meaning through the years. I always viewed it as his commitment to others that was evidenced in the traditions he created, the institutions he founded, and the caring heart selflessly offered.

12170056_10153755032464309_1718555302_oSkip worked tirelessly to make the outdoor industry what it is today, a thriving business that takes the time to share the lessons of wilderness with all that will listen. The marginalized, the young, the handicapped, and more have a voice because he stood up for them in Washington, labored in not-for-profit board rooms and backed them with cash from JanSport. People were Skip Yowell’s full time job, that and the knowledge that the outdoors opened a pathway to personal fulfillment for everyone.

Do not canonize my friend. His great beauty was his humanity. You can take a man out of Kansas, but you can’t take the simple beauty of Kansas out of the man. That humanity, that kindness of spirit, was his gift to each of us.

I am really going to miss you Skipper.

In Focus: Nicole Morgenthau and the Mountain Men

Mountain men still thrive and photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been documenting them in stunning portraits at rendezvous and the places where they live and work across the West.

The mountain man has been an integral part of the West since before the Louisiana Purchase. (Hey, and when it comes down to it, that individual in-step with the natural world and wanting nothing to do with the regulations of normal society is also the atypical Mountain Gazette reader.) Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been traveling across the West and attending gatherings such as the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous getting to know present-day mountain men and taking haunting portraits that feel vintage and yet transcend time. She took the time to share some of her best work with us and let us know what it has been like to get under the skin of mountain men.

Tell us about this project.  Mountain men?  They still exist?

“As with any other group/ subculture, there are different levels of commitment.  Most of the mountain men I know are teachers, have a wife, a few kids and two cars in the garage.  These folks enjoy the history and often camp in a primitive way.  Very few of the mountain men I know live the life here in 2015.  Oliver is the only one I’ve met that sleeps in a shelter with no electricity or running water; under a buffalo hide and works as a tanner.”

How do you achieve the quality in these photos that makes them feel as if they came from the 19th century, not just technically speaking but also in the personalities you have captured?

“Honestly, it’s all right there—teepees in huge fields of sage, people in deerskin wearing old trade beads, dogs on hemp ropes.  I feel as a documentary photographer, I am good at sniffing out characters.  I’m very outgoing, so if someone looks interesting, I just approach them and nine out of ten people are happy to participate in my project, and tell me how they got here.

As for the vintage quality, I look for textures that will sing in Black & White- canvas tents, deerskin, suntanned skin all work well.  Sometimes I will manipulate an image for days before it’s where I want it.  I love making a good sky a great sky, and making a weathered face look like a topographical map of the Himalyas.  I enjoy writing captions too, but want the pictures alone to tell a story.”

You say you don’t like to shoot landscapes?  But these men seem part of their landscape.  Can you capture the essence of a place through people?

“Great question.  I spend most of my free time outside, on a trail.  I adore wide open spaces, but always want to stick a human in the landscape if I’m taking a picture.  These men are for sure part of the landscape.  They rely on it heavily from the animals they hunt for meat and hides, the quills that are used for adornment, and wood used to start fires for warmth and cooking.  There are mountain men in almost every state.  So far,  I’ve stayed close to home, but I think the rendezvous in Texas, Oaklahoma, Virginia would show a similar a very different setting.  While camping in Texas or Virginia sounds unpleasant to me, the varied landscape would tell a mountain man of that regions story for sure.  Ok, now I kind of want to check one out in a different region.”

Any good stories about hanging out with these characters?

“Um, where to start… There are a lot of marriage proposals.  Additionally, I hear about a lot of divorce too.  People have divulged about their affairs, tumor on scrotums, you know, the norm.  Sometimes I bring beer (othertimes, I drink theirs) and sit and talk to people for an hour or so before taking their picture.  I think photographers, hair dressers, massage therapist, bar tenders are all the same in that we are approachable; people are comfy telling me their story.  I’ve gone to some tiny rendezvous, where it was pouring rain.  All we do is talk.  Sometimes I come home with 2,000 pictures other times 20.  I’d rather be a friend telling their story than anything.  That’s my approach to photography.”

Do you think the West as we imagine it is disappearing?

“Yes.  Ground that was once covered in sage is now home to Kohls, Costco, Home Depot.  Mountain men and cowboys are on their smart phones, so yeah the west as we imagine it is disappearing.  I think a lof of people love the romantic notion of the west, I do.  But as land get sold off, there are just less jobs for people that work the land and encompass our picture of life in the west.  It isn’t gone, but shrinking for sure.”

Now scroll down and enjoy the stunning, all-mountain-man work of Nicole Morgenthau (click on any photo to enlarge):

 

Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. Lone Tree, WY“At the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous (RMNR). Two German bookends and a buddy/ brother from Vernal, Utah.”

 

Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. Lone Tree, WY“This is Concho. We spent about an hour talking about taxes, divorce, beer, tumors & working dogs. Nice guy. Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous (RMNR)”

 

Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. Lone Tree, WY

“Ron ‘Maddog’ Johnson. He had a tear in his eye as the American flag was being raised. If I could keep my mouth shut I would, but I can’t so I didn’t: I asked him what made him sad. He said he’d lost quite a few friends at war and felt bad that he always dodged the draft. The cogs in my brain were spinning for something better than ‘sorry man.’ As we looked west at a sky so cobalt blue and an afternoon so incredibly beautiful, I said ‘You were meant to be here, to honor the fallen, to stand amongst friends old and brand new in this perfect place.’ We hugged, in a dad-and-daughter kinda way, a human way.”

 

Mountain Man Rendezvous. Ft Bridger, WY 2014

“Oliver McCloskey of Cedar City, Utah.  Brain tanner of deer skin and other game since he was 10 years old.  Tanning and the hunting shirts and mosassins he makes from the hide has been his soul source of income for 15 years.”

 

Scott Olsen aka "Doc Ivory"

“This is Dr. Scott Olsen aka ‘Doc Ivory.’ He’s a dentist three days a week, mountain man the rest of the time. Doc commutes into the small town of Dillon, Mont., to keep people’s mouths in top shape.”

 

Mountain Man Rendezvous. Ft Bridger, WY 2014“Father and son- Curtis and Rio.  Rio is now 17 and has been attending rendezvous since he was two years old.  They are from central Utah.”

morgenthau.profile.picA Salt Lake City based photographer documenting life in the west from cowboys to climbers, Nicole takes pictures because that is what she loves and knows how to do.  Nicole contributes growing up in one of the most Uninspiring Town in America (a category she created) to her creativity.  “We had to dream big; flat, suburban New Jersey was not inspiring,” she says, adding that, she would not trade that experience for anything in the world.  Suburbia gave her the desire to travel and meet people of all walks of life– with camera in hand.  Nicole has a keen ability to connect with her subjects regardless of age, race, or status and believes, “We are all unique and that alone is worth documenting.” See more of Morgenthau’s work at www.nicolemorgenthau.com.

Intro photo at top of page: Oliver McCloskey & Scott “Doc Ivory” Olsen.  These two have ridden long distances on horseback to primitive rendezvous together for 10 years.