Dateline Europe: Norway’s Snowmobile Laws Headed to Court

Dateline: Europe

A battle is brewing over the increasing use of snowmobiles in Norway’s Arctic lands.

By M. Michael Brady

Like a character behind the scenes in a drama, Norway has long played an unheralded role on the snowmobile scene. Arguably the first-ever snowmobile was a motorized sledge designed and built by English carmaker Wolseley Motors for Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expedition of 1910-1913. At the advice of Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, in March 1910 Scott took his team to train for the expedition and test its gear, including the Wolseley motorized sledge, to the Fefor mountain hotel near Vinstra, Norway.

On its first test run at Fefor, the motorized sledge functioned for about 15 minutes before its drive axle fractured. The incident was an ominous forecast of what was to come. Scott took three sledges to Antarctica. One fell overboard through the ice as it was unloaded from the Terra Nova expedition ship. The other two broke down and were abandoned after the first 50 miles of the march to the Pole. In retrospect, the motorized sledges had been a risky solution, as steel made with the technology of the time was ill suited to extremely cold weather.

Three decades later, early in World War II, English inventor Geoffrey Pyke proposed a tracked snow vehicle to be used by the Devil’s Brigade, an elite American-Canadian commando unit in attacking German forces in occupied Norway. The proposed vehicle became the M29 Weasel, designed and built by Studebaker. Logistics changed and Weasels were not used on commando missions in Norway. But the more than 15,000 that were made saw widespread service on snow.

Meanwhile, in Valcourt, Québec, in 1926 at age 19, Joseph-Armand Bombardier opened his own garage. At the time, owners stored their cars in winter, because small-town roads were not plowed. With few cars to repair, garage-owner mechanic Bombardier spent his time developing a tracked vehicle that would facilitate winter travel. The result was a seven-passenger snow vehicle, with B for Bombardier, designated the B7, first sold in the winter of 1937-37. The next development was a 12 passenger snowbus, designated the B12 that was rolled out in 1941. Most sales thereafter were of military versions, as Canada had entered Word War II in September 1939. Yet during the war years, more than 200 civilian versions were sold to special permit holders.

After the War, civilian sales resumed. But in 1948, the government of Québec decided to plow small-town roads in winter. Local demand for the B12 declined, but sales elsewhere went up. The B12 and its subsequent improved versions served as an ambulance, a bus, a post office mail van, a delivery van, and a school bus. It also was exported, significantly to Scandinavia, where the climate was similar and many rural roads were not (and still are not) plowed in winter. One of the first customers was JVB of Norway, a bus owner-operator that provided over-snow services on routes on winter-closed roads in the Jotunheimen cordillera (Further reading).

Today, JVB has twelve meticulously-maintained B12 snowbusses in operation, the largest fleet in Norway, if not the world. The oldest vehicle was made in 1952, the newest in 1976, two years before production of the B12 was discontinued. The fleet has become a tourist attraction in its own right, drawing veteran vehicle enthusiasts from near and far to enjoy the thrill of speeding across a snowscape accompanied by the deep roar of a 5.7-liter V8 motor.

As the B12 snowbus was carving its niche in the history of the snowmobile, Mr. Bombardier correctly envisioned a demand for a smaller, lighter snow vehicle that could carry one or two people. Many designs were tried and tested with the result in 1959 of mass production of the Ski-doo, a true snowmobile in today’s sense of the word. The appearance of the Ski-doo created a demand for snowmobiles that in turn encouraged other companies to make them. By the early 1960s, there were half a dozen snowmobile makers in Scandinavia, and by the 1970s there were more than 140 makers in North America. The expanding market was cut short by the oil crisis of 1973-74 and by low snow winters in the mid 1970s in North America as well as Europe. Company closures and mergers followed. Today five large snowmobile producers remain: Arctic Cat (USA / Japan), Lynx (Finland), Polaris (USA), Ski-doo (Canada) and Yamaha (Japan / USA). Bombardier, the parent company of Lynx as well as of Ski-doo, no longer makes snowmobiles but has become a major transportation products company that makes both planes and trains.

From their first introduction, snowmobiles found utilitarian uses in Norway, as by high-tension line and telecommunications line maintenance crews, emergency services, and by the Sámi*, the traditional nomadic reindeer herders of the far north who saw the snowmobile as a key to combining the comforts of modern living with their otherwise tough lives. And just as the JVB bus company had bought snowbusses to serve routes closed by snow in winter, snowmobiles became winter taxis, delivery vans and transport shuttles to remote cabins and lodges.

beltebil_1338The influx of snowmobiles across the country alarmed environmentalists with good reason. Save for the agricultural lands of its south, the ecology of Norway is fragile. Timberline varies from an elevation of about 4,000 feet above sea level in the Jotunheimen Mountains of the middle of the country down to sea level itself in the far north. The flora and fauna above timberline are susceptible to damage from human intrusions and accordingly are threatened by the increasing numbers of snowmobiles as well as ATVs and other motorized vehicles. So in 1977 a national law was enacted to restrict the recreational uses of snowmobiles and other mechanized transport in wildlands. Utilitarian, work-related uses including snowbus transport on winter-closed roads and Sámi in reindeer herding are excepted from the law (see further reading).

Nonetheless, local and now national political pressure is being exerted to amend the 1977 law. In 2014, the present progressive-conservative Government (Parliamentary system of Norway, a constitutional monarchy) recommended that the law be changed to allow local authorities to permit the building of trails and facilities for recreational snowmobiling. Environmentalists were aghast. The Norwegian Trekking Association, equivalent to the Sierra Club in the U.S., funded a transport study of the impact of recreational snowmobiling. It forecast an increase of more than 80 percent in the number of snowmobiles in use, from 74,000 today to 130,000 or more by the year 2021. Search and rescue services were equally alarmed. According to Ministry of Finance figures, to date the 38 deaths in snowmobile accidents have cost the country more than a billion Norwegian Kroner ($ 140 million).

Despite these figures, the pro-repeal forces are vociferous. Understandably, the snowmobile business sector argues to promote its growth. Likewise, local authorities may see snowmobiling as a means of increasing tourism income. The Norwegian Trekking Association study also included a local opinion poll of the country’s 428 municipalities which indicated that more than a third of them were prepared to permit facilities for recreational snowmobiling.

In December 2014, just before this article is posted online, a significant legal complication has come to light. In an amendment of 1992 that added article 112 to the Norwegian Constitution of 1814, environmental aspects have priority in evaluating uses of the outdoors. So the ongoing debate on recreational snowmobiling may be decided by a legal interpretation of constitutional law. Whatever the outcome, Norway may well become the only country in which recreational snowmobiling has been debated before high court.

Further reading:

English translation of  Norwegian law of 1977 regulating snowmobile use.

Regulations and guidelines on snowmobile use, most in Norwegian but many in English, published by the  Norwegian Environmental Agency, the government entity responsible for information to the public on environmental matters.

Lineage of Bombardier snowmobiles and vehicles, including the B12 snowbus, exhibited at  Musée J. Armand Bombardier (Website selectable in English or in French), 1001, avenue J.A. Bombardier, Valcourt, Québec JOE 2LO, Canada, Tel: 450 532-5300.

JVB bus company (pages in English) and  videos of snowbusses on Jotunheimen mountain routes (Norwegian text only; no voice in soundtracks)

Arctic Review on Law and Politics, a professional journal publishing articles on topics related to the Circumpolar Northern societies, including the Sámi of Norway.

* The name Lapp, first used in English in 1859, is also applied to the Sámi, who regard it as pejorative, perhaps because it is derived from the Middle High German Lappe meaning “simpleton.”

Photo of Reindeer herding on the Varanger Peninsula of Finnmark County, northern Norway by Øyvind Ravna. Used by permission of the photographer.

Photo of Bombardier B12 Snowbus on Jotunheimen mountain route along shore of Lake Tyin, Uranos Peak and Uranos Glacier in background by JVB staff, used by permission of JVB.


Epic Luck

You take a lot of risks when you climb the biggest, deadliest terrain on Earth. So what, exactly, keeps you coming back?

By Pete Takeda

The soft crunch of breakable crust on a crisp bluebird day.

My tracks traverse the slope back for 100 feet of steep snow to a belay. A molded snow fin blocks easy passage into a couloir. A tinny mental alarm buzzes in my brain as I whack and stomp my way through the heavy congealed mass sitting at a 50 degree tilt. The flute protrudes from the slope like a fat tapered surfboard. I feel the tension in the flute as I bust through and finally straddle the thing.

I’m almost across, and I know the clock is ticking. I quickly plunge both my ice tools into the firm, creamy snow of the leeward slope. Then, just like that, a crack splits the snow right below my tools. The fracture is perfectly horizontal. It shoots out in both directions. Tons of snow start sucking me down.

As usual in these situations, time slows down and a million calculations race through my brain… a one-hundred foot runout… no intermediate gear… a 40-foot cliff lurking below. The rumble of debris builds below as the slide rips down the couloir. Once more, I’ve crossed that line where climbing becomes more than a game. This is gonna hurt.

Climbing’s beautiful modes of expression, levels of physical challenge and requisite mental gyrations are enough to calm the most obsessive. My climbing career, though organic, bears all the hallmarks of mania. I started out as a boulderer, moving through the various disciplines—top-roping, cragging, multi-pitch climbs. I got to play a tiny part in the advent of bolted rock in what later became known as sport climbing. The path widened—big walls, hard aid, ice, mixed climbing—the path ever driving me to the big mountains.

At first, the organizing principle for me was technical difficulty, but over time I felt like too much of a technician. Beauty, aestheitcs interested me more. The aspect of risk, a thing most people work to avoid, jumped from incidental to compulsory. But the bigger the undertaking, the greater the commitment, the objective hazards and the corresponding risk. The mountains hold no monopoly—a high ball or a mandatory 40-foot runout on desperate climb each present their own unique and deadly hazards.

The first time I nearly died was on El Cap. My partner, a veteran of countless epics, and I got stranded in a storm at the worst possible place imaginable. We had just two ropes—insufficient to escape the huge overhang below our bivy ledge. I sat for two days huddled, soaked in snow and freezing water. My bivy sack reeked of ammonia—I didn’t want to piss myself, and I later found out that that this was the smell of muscle breakdown in lieu of other fuel. A day into the ordeal, I asked my partner, Are we going to be okay? His reply, How the hell should I know.

Hemingway once famously stated that mountaineering was a sport and not a game. I consoled myself with that bit of wisdom and some intense prayers to an as-then-undefined deity.

Most climbers would prudently quit or at least learn enough to never get in the same predicament. Not me. And similar things kept happening. Epics—fated, pre-ordained, subconscious fulfillment… I figured that each instance was a rarefied set of events, that they would be transformative after the scare. Perhaps, the point. If you survive, the experience dwarfs the memory of the mere act of climbing.

The next episode happened so fast that there was little time for contemplation. I was struck by falling rock one morning on a new route on Half Dome. That accident predated the convention of wearing helmets. I only had time to watch as a tourist-trundled boulder mercifully exploded on the wall 20 feet above, while I huddled in aiders, head wrapped in my arms. A chunk of shrapnel cut my face and arm. I bear the scars to this day.

R1001374The difference between an epic and a near-death experience is that near-death requires the hand of fate or chance to save you. Epics tend to be inconveniences played out over time—more a test of will and patience than fate.

Years later, I was treated to a combination of both. I was stuck on a mountainside for hours bracketed by wet snowslides as a storm raged and my partner fought through a sparsely protected mixed pitch. He’d chosen to carry on despite my urging that we take shelter on a ledge below. I was afraid the belay would rip in a fall or that we’d be swept away at the whim of an avalanche. Better him than me was my thought. It’s hard to admit, but that’s the truth of it.

Looking back, I can see a progression, a sequential unfolding of events and an indisputable revelation. To the outsider it all looks foolhardy, a death wish, an addiction. Those definitions are merely attempts to describe something unfathomable and frightening—the conscious acceptance of mortality.

To accept is not to acquiesce. And it can promote compassion. A few years back, three climbers and I took shelter in a crevasse during a massive storm in the Himalayas. Our first night, we were struck by an avalanche. In the instant following the slide, I pulled my partner from the flood of debris. Blind luck allowed me to grab his hand before he was sucked under. He’d gotten snow in his trachea. Even bigger slides followed. One effectively sealed us—tomb-like—in the crevasse. I had to dig a 25-foot tunnel, only to emerge greeted by the sound of continual snow slides. This went on for three days, long enough to ponder mortality and be given up for dead by our basecamp team.

Though it was another one of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures. But the true takeaway was my impulse when, even as the avalanche was sucking me down I distinctly recall thinking of my partner as I groped in the darkness, “His life is more important than mine. Best be sure he makes it.”

The notion of heroism is another casualty of the near-death experience. Such monikers belong in press clippings and adolescent fantasy. They are eventually replaced by an objective acceptance of what might be. Alpine climbing is defined by its aesthetic and a good part of that is risk. To choose to continue is to choose mortal risk. One who does not acknowledge this brings a fool’s paradise to the mountains. The real tragedy in this business is the loss of those who didn’t accept what they were getting into.

I took a nasty fall in the Peruvian Andes in 2012 and upon return a friend said, “Now you’ve used up six of your nine lives.” She might have been right. Regardless, I take comfort in a strange certainty that I don’t need this type of experience to gain insight. Complete awareness might not play to my advantage. A wise character in Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram notes, “The fully mature man or woman has about two seconds to live.”

Back to my slide at the beginning of this story. My life doesn’t flash before my eyes. My heart rate barely lifts above the baseline exertion. There’s a clinical detachment, any fear lost in the savage joy of the moment. I’m not afraid of what’s going to happen. I’ve been here enough to accept that this is what I signed up for.

My feet are swept out from under me. My ice tools shift under my body weight. At the same time, the ropes come tight, cutting into the exposed snow below the crown. I lean into the slope as the slab slides by. I don’t even make a sound. The slide picks up speed, but, as the couloir opens up, it slows and hisses to a stop.

I call for slack and finish the pitch. Looking down now, the slide is small enough to discount as a true near-death incident. The event feels almost incidental—as if nothing important happened. I carry on—three of my nine lives intact and ready for what comes next.

Pete Takeda is a Colorado-based climber and screenwriter.

Mountain Passages: Solstice

Portland, Old Friends in the Rain, and the Shortest Day of the Year

By Alan Stark

It’s the winter solstice. A couple minutes ago I was thinking about a friend I lost a long time ago. It wasn’t a warm, fuzzy thought. But I’m in Portland and seeing stuff that makes me smile. There is a sad/happy thing going on in my head. I blame this yin-yang thinking on the holiday season.

The rain is running down my neck, the sort of annoying Pacific Northwest rain that’s not intense enough for an umbrella, but given time, will soak through my allegedly waterproof jacket and polypro pullover. Not that I’d be carrying an umbrella on a run anyhow. It would be an obvious wardrobe blunder in this fashion capitol of Oregon.

I’m running through the burbs near Portland. I turn a corner and see a guy washing his car in the light rain. He’s on the driveway of a normal looking suburban ranch house with a two-car garage. The yard is well kept up, he’s washing a late model Japanese sedan, and there are Christmas lights along the eves of the house. He doesn’t look up as I trundle by. My first thought is that this guy is just nuts. There is much in the Pacific Northwest, and particularly the Portland area, that is weird.

But as I continue running I reconsider. Maybe he’s highly structured and always washes his car on this day of the week. Or maybe he’s unemployed and keeping himself busy or maybe he just had a fight with his mate and had to get out of the house. And maybe I’m getting weird because I’m running in the rain in this strange town and just making stuff up as the miles go by.

Yesterday my older sister and I were walking through the Pearl District at dusk and saw a shopping cart person staring into a store window. The cart was filled with bags of junk, and he looked like he had on four layers of heavy clothing. I wondered what he was looking at. When I passed by I saw he was watching a large screen TV showing tropical images. I’m sure that if I were barely surviving on a rainy Portland street, I might be standing there wet and transfixed by pictures of beaches and palm trees.

There are way too many people like him out in the rain in this country.

I’ve known a good number of people in this life and drifted away from some of them. The drifting away was almost always about alcohol and drugs. Sure—guilty as charged—but I never dropped in to anything without knowing where and how I would land. They made their choices. They dropped in and crashed; time and again.

I can name names but won’t. If they are still alive, the naming would embarrass them. But when I saw that guy watching TV in the rain I thought of an old friend that I lost. I whispered for her “if the fates allowed” in this holiday season.

She was one of my best friends. We hung out together. What I remember and cherish was the laughter. She eventually married another friend of mine and moved to Colorado long before I did. They had a kid and then a really ugly divorce. By that time I’d moved to Boulder. I had one of those civilized divorces at about the same time. You might know what I mean…As the divorce proceeded I often had my teeth clenched down hard when all I really wanted to do was scream.

My friend and I hung out together again. There was always way too much drinking and doping; too much for me. She found someone else, I found Blue Eyes. My friend and I drifted apart.

Several years later she called at three in the morning. She was stranded at some ratty old house with her kid, too strung out to do anything else but call for help. I picked them up and took them to her place. That was 20 years ago. A couple years ago I ran into her at Liquor Mart. I didn’t know what to say. Still don’t.

My taller sister and I walked all over Portland stopping once for an Irish coffee. I live in Boulder most of the time, a town that has somewhat of a reputation, so I’m real careful about making fun of other places for fear of cosmic retribution.

“So Sis, I don’t mean to be insulting but is Portland just weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“ For starters, how about folks milling about in the rain wearing butt ugly stocking caps, huge lumber shirts, pierced nostrils, and clunky boots.”

“Oh that…that’s nothing. Weird is the Facebook page for the airport carpet.”

This is a true fact. Look it up. The Portland locals have a thing for the aquamarine carpet at the airport. Seems about four acres of it were designed by some person who mimicked the runway layout—clever, in a penny loafer sort of way. But now the carpet needs replacement and the locals have dropped in with no idea of where they are going to land. My sister claimed that some of the carpet will be salvaged and made into doormats for the true Portland airport carpet aficionados. This is a true fact.

This run needs to come to an end, my left knee is talking to me and it’s not talking about old friends or Portland. It’s still raining as I slow up and stop. I fly home on this shortest day of the year.

Portland signIt’s the winter solstice; a magical time of year that can be both sad and happy. For me it is a time to remember lost friends and maybe mumble some hopeful words for them. A time to make sure my family and friends know how much I love them. And maybe a time to say a nice thing or two about Portland…they have a really great looking mountain northeast of town…and when the weather breaks, two or three times a year, you can see it.

In a week or so most of us will get back to our routines and maybe our 423rd weight loss plan. We’ll have most of the ski season in front of us and some amazing days with powder up to our noses. And then it could be down to the islands for mud season and then on to summer in the mountains when we look up and think that maybe the blue sky goes on forever in all directions.

But on this shortest day of the year, it is time to gather friends arm-in-arm around a huge fire somewhere in the woods…a time to dance around the fire and howl like wolves in the pure joy of being alive together.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and freelance writer. He lives in Boulder with this Blue Eyed person and her dog.

Postcard: Alma, Colorado

It’s not easy to be creative week in, week out when you run a marquee. But the chance of a boring person running a marquee becomes much lower when said marquee exists in Alma, Colorado—the highest incorporated town in America at 10,578 feet. Creative people (but not necessarily perfect spellers; one can only be so awesome) tend to live at high altitude. Seriously, you can look it up. Or just go talk to some folks in Alma. Start with the person who runs the marquee at the South Park Saloon.

South Park Saloon Alma Colorado
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Report an Electrical Emergency

Snowshoeing along the power line right-of-way through our woods, I notice a couple of overladen hemlocks tilting toward the wires. With all the wet heavy snow that fell in the recent storm, trees have been snapping and toppling everywhere, at all hours. I hear it happening in the middle of the night when usually the only sounds are the hoot of an owl or the howl of a big coyote.

So when I return to the house I call the power company and get their automated “Report an Electrical Emergency” department. Mine is not an emergency—not yet anyway—so I at once feel guilty. But I stay on the line. A recorded voice, freshly unsealed from its digital crypt, starts talking. It sounds like it’s coming out of one of those  “spirit trumpets” old-time mediums used.

“If your lights are completely out, press 1. If your lights are flickering, press 2. If your lights are brighter than usual, press 3. If your lights are dimmer than usual, press 4. If none of these conditions apply, press 5.”

Our lights are still on, and conditions 2, 3, and 4 sound like a haunted house, which is not our problem, so I press 5—and the line goes dead.

I redial the Electrical Emergency number and get the voice back. By this time I have forgotten the choices offered by the voice, so I listen to them again and again press 5. Same thing happens: the line goes dead. Again I redial and again get the voice. This time I don’t bother listening to it. Instead I press 6, just to see what happens. I’m feeling lucky, in a Google kind of way.

I get another voice. This one is vexed. It might be a live person, or not. Hard to tell. “How did you get this number?” it growls. I’m no longer feeling lucky.

I hang up and go to the power company’s web page, where there are no voices, and make my report.

Spirit Trumpet

The God of Skiing is HERE

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… We have been publishing excerpts of his new novel, The God of Skiing, which is now at long last published and ready to order. Enjoy one more excerpt and buy this book.

Chapter 27

The Downhillers

Crows count telephone poles. The long distance truckers drive by high and methamphetamines and the Holy Grail. And the liquor doesn’t matter anymore for the downhill racer at the bar. Everything else feels like being sober after the naked pull of the vertical white road. The world feels like water and you start to feel seasick standing still, as if gravity itself, oxygen and hope would disappear if you ever left the trail.

Half of them are crazy. Half of all the downhill racers you know. They blow up at press conferences like slapshots into the back of the net, or burst into flames in the cars and bars. And the other half all have something to prove to their father, God or some green-eyed girl. They race with some memory they want to numb so the first pain isn’t real, for when the slope drops off in your stomach and every distraction is boiled down to one single idea: Pray Jesus you don’t fall.

The Crazy Canucks—Ken Read, Dave Irwin, Cary Mullen and Steve Podborski—burst onto the World Cup scene like a band of barbarians from the wastelands of Canada; cocky longhairs into the tea party like a bunch of bikers scaring people who had never been scared before. They raced with bandages and concussions and black eyes, and went so fast sometimes it seemed as if sparks would fly from the snow.

Behind the madness was a simple idea: create a national ski program around the craziest skiers. Build the skills later, but first, find a bunch of brave boys willing to drop down the slopes like stones. So that the lies became legend, how they had been hypnotized, or trained for the big European courses on paratrooper missions, jumping in the dark to embrace the unknown. Especially from 1980-83 when they did the unthinkable, and between Read, Podborski and Todd Brooker, won the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel for four straight years.

To the Europeans, anyone who goes that fast down the gut wrenching corkscrews of the Steilhang is a brother. The Austrians still cheer. And the Canadians forgot to breath as they dropped off the screen and waved the maple leaf like a friendly fuck-you.

But it was already over by the time Brian Stemmle tore himself apart in the fencing, right after Rob Boyd broke his thumb fighting his way to second down the Streif. I was sitting next to Boyd in a hotel bar after the Hahnenkamm in 2000 when the Austrian Eberharter won, and Boyd told me, “Flight is born on the horizon,” staring into his beer.

The Austrian Patrick Ortlieb won the Olympic Downhill in Albertville and wore the same golden smile drinking Obstler in Oberlech in his family hotel with the long polished bar. There was a gondola from Lech and beautiful European families dressed for dinner, the same families every year. They wore handsome suede jackets with stiff white shirts and pulled back hair. A young mother kept watching us after Ortlieb came to the table. She had black eyelashes and dark eyes like something growing outdoors.

We sat eating venison, nuts and cheese, talking later in the bar when Ortlieb showed me how CO2 cartridges would inflate his pack like a buoy in an avalanche so he could float above the snow. He told me about the Americans killed in an avalanche when they went to ski powder with a German couple. One of the Germans kicked off the slide that killed the other three, and Ortlieb said, “At the end of the day, the American kids were the only ones left at the ski school corral.”

He said the powder stays fresh for days, but the crowds follow as soon as someone breaks trail. “We all want the blank slope,” he said as we clinked glasses. “It’s not because of me that I worry anymore.”

I had heard another story about him but didn’t care. I liked him because we were just two skiers talking about the snow. It was the same with Hermann Maier, the former bricklayer who worked his way up from the Austrian instructors’ ranks where the dream lives on for so many skiers, who tore apart every run on the World Cup circuit—Bormio, Wengen, Alta Badia—like Hercules trying to rip the earth into the air. He won more points for first place finishes than anyone ever. And even upside down, heading for the fence at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano he looked impenetrable, like a gust-tossed chunk of steel.

It was the image of the Games, the pilot ejecting from his plane and nothing but blue air. Anyone else would have shattered his pelvis. But Maier came back to win two gold medals. He told Austrian journalist Heinz Pruller, “After such a crash, I thought, If I can win gold now, I must be immortal!

The summer before the Salt Lake Games, in the Alps on his motorcycle, a red Mercedes tossed Maier into the grass so he was suddenly looking at his right leg beside his ear. In The Race of My Life, he recalled with relief how the gigantic ambulance would be big enough to hold his massive frame. “Very nice,” he wrote. “I should fit into this thing!”

The doctors wanted to amputate. They fought to keep his kidneys from quitting. With plates, pins and screws they built a new version of his leg like from a drawing on the wall.

It looks like a pretzel now. He says it is maybe 70 percent, so even standing on it going 80 miles per hour, you know sometimes he can’t feel it at all. When he returned in Sestriere—where he later won bronze in the Olympic Super G in 2006—he said about his skis, “I felt like I was skiing on two Coke bottles.”

The Swiss saint of speed Pirmin Zurbriggen was always the most beautiful skier to me, coming around the turn with his high hands like a leaping puma and his pious face gazing up at the peaks like a prayer. Only he and Bode Miller, Kjetil Andre-Aamodt, Marc Giradelli and Guenther Mader won in all five disciplines: slalom, GS, combined, Super G and downhill. Zurbriggen won gold and bronze in ’88 at Sarajevo, as well as the Hahnenkamm. But Franz Klammer was the king of them all.

Klammer won the Downhill title five times and skied the most famous run ever in Innsbruck at the 1976 Olympics on his home field. He was the favorite but started 15th on the drought-scarred snow, leaping down the hill. He ran those ridiculous steeps taking stupid chances at every turn as his legs dropped off the jumps like broken landing gear. Bob Beattie who called it for NBC sounded like he was going to be sick for Klammer, then turned ecstatic as “the Kaiser” crossed the finish line a half-second ahead of the field.

“I thought I was going to crash all the way. I gave myself terrible frights,” the “Austrian Astronaut” told the papers.

Four times Klammer won the Hahnenkamm—as many as all the Canadians together and twice as many times as anyone before. Drinking scotch at a Kitzbuehel Hotel years after he retired the whole town still waited on every word. “It’s the fear that motivates you. You’re a fool if you’re not scared.”

There was a photo of him waiting for the race, lying on a couch reading the paper with the proud nose and shaggy black hair like one of the Beatles; a young god without a worry in the world. I wanted to pry it off the wall. To have him sign it, and talk about Jackson where he set the course record for the only World Cup downhill ever held there, and how it feels running 4,000 vertical feet from the top of Rendezvous Peak to Teton Village until your body begins to clear with the feeling of how you fall.

I wanted to ask him about those mornings when it’s cold and you’re alone and there’s only history to hold; to say I saw his race on TV from a living room in Denver—we all did—as if that gold medal reel was America’s as well. And I wanted to see his sun-browned face turn toward me as I leaned closer to whisper the name, “Tack Strau,” in his ear.

His brown eyes would slit with the secret, the wink and the welcome. He would blow a great wreath of smoke from the cigars we were smoking and quickly wave it away with his great strong hands, his great strong face as he would laugh and say, “So you know?”


Order your copy of The God of Skiing HERE.

Mountain Passages: Japan, the Tour

I’ve been traveling Japan with Blue Eyes for two weeks, first on an art-and-crafts tour, and now here in Kyoto with friends. The tour included 16 boomers, and two guides, one of whom spoke fluent Japanese, and who also had a firm grasp of art, history, culture, and group dynamics. If you remember the kung fu movies, he is like the counselor monk in the background who advises the principal monk and who gets all the important stuff done… food, housing, laundry, transportation, sword sharpening, etc.

This is only the second time I’ve been on a tour. The first was several years ago on the White Rim Trail out of Moab, an easy, leisurely mountain bike ride through some magnificent red rock country. That tour was for four days with six riders and two guides. Eighteen people on this trip seems like a crowd, a nice crowd, but a crowd nonetheless.

The people on this tour come from essentially the same demographic and age group; both of these factors tend to lessen the potential for conflict. But we’ve been together for a long while and I’m not good at it. Add to that a tightly packed schedule, plus travel by bus, train, and taxi, plus a number of group meals, and the conversation starts to go round and round.

There isn’t a whole lot of central heating in Japan and we thought the houses we visited looked like they’d be cold in the winter.

“The human body generates 400 BTU in a day,” Thomas said.

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Yes, it’s important in calculating heating for a building.”

“Of course.”

“I’ve been wanting to use that fact for years.”

“Thank you for sharing that information.”

Blue Eyes is my life friend and mate. There is no one else one else on the planet I’d rather spend extended periods of time with, but—and it’s a big but—being alone for a while is often a good thing. I need to walkabout solo. The aloneness gives me time to sort through all the ideas running through my small brain and toss the thoughts that are dumb, wrongheaded, or useless, and maybe write down the thoughts that may lead somewhere interesting.

Blue Eyes and friends head off for another site that will no doubt include iconic Japanese structures and, because it is late autumn, brilliant red maple trees. I turn left at the front door of the hotel and start walking north toward the Imperial Palace. I know a reservation is needed for the tour. If I had an Imperial Palace I wouldn’t let just anyone come gawk either, particularly me. While I don’t have a reservation, I think I’ll go anyhow. Who knows what I’ll discover?

Being on your own in an unknown city is pure adventure in the sense that what you see and do are absolutely driven by your curiosity and timing. At one intersection, a bike rider crossing the street passes too close in front of a car. The car nips her back tire throwing her off balance for a moment. She regains her balance and rides on, not looking back… as if that sort of thing happens all the time in Japan. In North America, that same encounter would involve some hand gestures and an exchange of opinions. And if there were any lawyers around, and they are always loitering at busy intersections (sometimes with cardboard signs), they would be falling over each other handing out their cards.

Kyoto gets in your brain the way Paris does. On this trip I’ve only seen two big cities, Osaka and Nagoya and both seemed a jumble of buildings and warehouses, many on narrow streets. The first thing that stuck me about Kyoto was the wide boulevards, just like Paris. Looking at the map it became clear Kyoto was built on a grid. The buildings are still a jumble of sizes and styles like the other two cities, but Kyoto is elegant.

I’m hungry, so I start looking for a place to eat. A number of less expensive restaurants hang a red lantern outside and either post pictures of their food or put out actual plates of food, or at least realistic models, in the windows. As a patron, you simply point at the picture of the food you want or you haul the waiter outside and point at the displayed food that you want. It’s a struggle to covey the diversity of appearances and tastes in Japanese food. Last night, we had Shabu Shabu, where you dip thinly cut meat in boiling water and watch it turn gray. Then you boil vegetables until they get soft. While the process and resulting meal sounds slightly dreadful to western tastes, the meat and veggies were superb.

But I’ve had enough Japanese food. Checking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being observed by anyone on the tour, I duck into McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin with Sausage. Wonderful, and only 450 calories and about half of my daily recommended consumption of salt.

As I walk, I note a propensity to avoid eye contact by both the bicyclists on the sidewalk and my fellow pedestrians. I don’t see any bike lanes in Kyoto even though I’d guess that Japanese have been commuting by bike for a good deal longer than North Americans. They simply weave through sidewalk pedestrians on cruiser bikes that are a tad thinner and thus more maneuverable than our cruiser bikes.

Like all cyclists everywhere, the riders watch everything happening in front of them and to their sides with a constant, sweeping eye movement. The riders see my eyes but there is no recognition in their eyes other than that I am an object to be avoided. I’m amazed that pedestrians aren’t routinely run down but it never appears to happen.

I’m not big on eye contact, or at least I don’t have that weird compulsion to look everyone in the eye. I think my feeling about eye contact is born of a sense of privacy. Eyes convey a good deal, often eyes convey what a person is thinking. I’m not sure I want anyone to know what I’m thinking. Not that what I’m thinking is particularly unique, it’s just that they are my thoughts that I don’t choose to share. That’s what writing is for.

So for a non-eye contact person like me to note a lack of eye contact in another nationality is indicative of a cultural aversion, something innate in the Japanese. It could be shyness, it could be superiority, after all I am clearly not Japanese, or maybe it’s just fear that I’m going to ask them something that they will be unable to answer because they don’t understand my mountain patois.

When you walk a major city street in North America it is absolutely clear that we, as a people, came from everywhere. In a sense we are all mongrels and that’s a very good thing, one of our many strengths as North Americans. Japan is a heterogeneous society. It’s a good bet a researcher could trace most Japanese back to five hundred families 10,000 years ago. Point is, you don’t see many other nationalities in Japan, Japan doesn’t take in refugees, emigrating to Japan is difficult, and Japan has a long history of subjugating other nationalities with great prejudice…ask the Koreans or Chinese.

Even when I tried to make eye contact with bike riders or Japanese pedestrians I just couldn’t make it happen. It could be that one of the Japanese outside rules is not to make eye contact with anyone. Later in the day I was walking through food stalls in a covered alleyway and saw a cook in a glass booth frying dumplings. He sensed I was watching him and looked up. I smiled and he smiled back. It was a nice moment across nationalities. But on the street there was a sense of being studiously avoided.

My rambling includes a bookstore. Having spent my entire career in the book business, I’m curious about the bookstores of other countries because I miss being in big North American cities and cruising bookshops. These selfsame independent bookstores have been run out of business, first by corporate, chain-store greedheads and now by internet-discounted sales from another set of megalomaniacs. But it is nice to note a resurgence of sorts in the North American bookselling business. Reading a real book is an all around better experience than reading a book on a screen of any type. Yeah, I know I just bit the hand that feeds me because you are reading this on a screen. But hey, technology is a tool, this technology has probably helped more people read, but to really enjoy the full experience of reading, you need a physical book.

The real difference between North American bookstores and Japanese bookstores is that while Japan is all about esthetics and in many ways is a design-driven country, Japanese book design is pretty rudimentary and most books have plain but readable spines. The racks in a Japanese bookstore look like journal collections in a library. I thought to buy a kid’s book because the interior art was so fine but settle on a finely bound blank notebook and one of those pens with four colors of ink. I look forward to causing trouble with both.

The walk continues to the Imperial Palace that is entirely surrounded by a high wall. I’m a backcountry person. Fences, walls, gated communities all offend me. This wall was built as a military installation, there are 180 degree fields of fire stretching three hundred yards in all directions from the walls of the Palace. I marvel at how imposing the walls must have looked to an attacking foot soldier.  Like an old rock climber looking for a route upward, I look for weaknesses in the walls, places that could be breeched or climbed. I laugh at my neurosis of always being the outsider trying to get inside. I walk all the way around the Palace and then head back in the direction I had come I except that I’m walking side streets back to the hotel instead of on a boulevard.

These streets are about a car and half wide with a white stripe along either side like a bike lane in North America, but in this case, the white line indicates a sidewalk of sorts. I imagine that if a taxi nailed you inside the white line there might be trouble. I like small streets in other countries because that’s where folks live. Amazing what you can see, hear and smell if you pay attention on these streets. I find a number of restaurants worth visiting on the next trip, small shrines, gates to beautiful courtyards, a bike shop, flower shop, soshi screen shop and end up in a covered alleyway filled with food vendors including a number of fishmongers.

Just as I am about to head back to the hotel and the shuttle to Osaka I pass a fish stand where sashimi is being sold and walked on by. I get about a100 yards away and turned around, grumpy at myself for not taking the chance to eat raw fish from a food stand in an alleyway. There are three pieces of fish on a stick with a couple squeezes of lemon that cost 200 yen or about $1.80. I buy two. They are delicious.

Blue Eyes was waiting for me in the lobby.

“Where did you go?”


“What did you see?”

“Many wonderful and curious things.”

“Time for you to go home.”

“Yes, Grasshopper.”

Alan Stark is back from his travels in Japan with this Blue-eyed person. He’ll wrap-up this five part series with the last installment sometime soon. He is a freelance writer and volunteer backcountry ski patroller for the Forest Service who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge.

Postcard: November powder

A few days removed from 85-degree temperatures and white sand wedged inside my ears, I went powder skiing. It was the last week of November, on the tail end of a stretch that brought 93 inches of snow in two weeks to Colorado’s upper Blue River valley. The flakes floated down like weightless pieces of paper as we ascended the mountain and then skied. You didn’t have to try for a face shot; it just happened. Pictured here: Dave Gelhaar.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

A Letter to Ed Abbey

A Letter to Ed Abbey

By Dick Dorworth

Recently found in one of my journals…

May 21, 1989
Aspen, Colorado

Dear Ed Abbey:

Just a few hours ago I returned from a fine three day trip to Moab and its environs, some of your favorite desert land. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about you, your work, your thought, what you meant to me and others and many things about—you—since you died two months ago. That’s not really unusual. I thought a lot about you, and of you, over the years. I even got to tell you something about it in the few exchanges of letters we had several years ago. I’m glad I initiated that exchange and told you how much you helped me and that I was able to recognize and appreciate it. I am grateful that you took the time to reply. I’m sorry we never met and had the chance to get to know each other. I suspect we would not have been in agreement on all things, but I always felt we would have liked each other quite a lot.

What is unusual is that I didn’t know until driving back to Aspen this afternoon that I was going to write this.

I went to Moab on the night of the 18th with my friend Marilyn, who is reading The Monkey Wrench Gang, her first Abbey book, which I gave her a couple of weeks ago. She’s a very sexy woman and a great traveling companion and I thought she could use some time in the vast, open desert that you loved and wrote about so well. She’s a divorce case, and you and I know that one all too well, and we both know how a perspective of wide open spaces can be healing to the perspective of the inner spaces. We slept by the Colorado River at Big Bend and the moon was bright.

The morning of the 19th Marilyn and my young climbing friend Joel and I hiked up to Castleton Tower. Joel and I climbed the North Chimney and it was a beautiful climb on a lovely day. The 19th is my youngest son Jason’s birthday. He was 18 and in California and though you are gone and I am going Jason is still coming, and I often wonder about the sort and quality of life that will be his. After the climb Joel, Marilyn and I went to the Pizza Hut in Moab for the salad bar and garlic bread after showering under the leak in the water pipe just off the Castle Valley Road. When we got back to the camp at Big Bend the Mormons had invaded. About 200 BYU students, the rudest, most brain dead, spiritless people sort of alive on earth. The same thing happened to us last year and I wrote a column about them that I called “Locusts in the Desert.” I wish you could have read it. I think you would have laughed and I certainly owe you a few of those. We broke camp and slept on a road near the bridge over the Colorado just north of town. We could hear the trucks and other traffic and it was not a restful night.

Still, we got up early and made it to the May 20th sunrise memorial for Ed Abbey held north of town up a dirt road. I don’t have to tell you what went on there. You were there. I’d never heard of Terry Tempest Williams before, but she is very impressive and her love for you and grief at losing you were powerful reminders of the durability, fragility and uniqueness of each human. She drew up to the surface some deep grief and sorrows and lost loves of my own. She reminded us of the importance of keeping in touch with one another, with those we love and care about. She got that from you and passed it on to us at a memorial gathering for you. Keep in touch.

Ken Slight and Doug Peacock must have been wonderful friends for you to have. They were lucky men to be your friends and they knew it. You were lucky too, and I bet you knew it.

Dave Foreman says Earth First the same way Adolph Hitler said “Lebensraum.” Germany First. I met Foreman a few summers ago up Trail Creek outside Sun Valley in Idaho at an Earth First gathering. He was talking about how his friend Ed Abbey might show up for the meeting, but I didn’t believe him and you never showed up. I don’t know if Foreman and you were friends. I don’t think Earth First represents your spirit or thoughts, but Foreman tried to make of the memorial service for you a rallying call for Earth First. I did not like it, a discordant note to a fitting morning in memory of Ed Abbey. But maybe any proper and loving memorial to you needs to include a discordant note. A part of you enjoyed the fart in polite company. Foreman filled that role, but he smells bad to me.

Ann Zwinger was sweet and bright.

Wendell Berry, like you, is a man of honesty and integrity. He is a model and great artist.

Barry Lopez said it best and I think you would have approved. He has been out and about in the world, listening, observing and talking to people. He said, “The news is heavy, but we are heavier.”

My friend, Burnie Arndt, was there, stopping by on his way back from California where he had buried his sister. After the memorial he said that a lot of feelings were still real close to the surface and the morning was hard for him. Humans can only take so much grief and pain, as you know. I haven’t lost anyone lately, but I had to wipe tears from my eyes and hold back many more (for reasons that are for another writing another time) and the memorial for Ed Abbey was hard, poignant and moving for me as well.

While driving back to Colorado today Marilyn asked me why the memorial service for you touched me so deeply. I didn’t know until she asked me but I knew when she did, and I told her I have a lot of old sorrows that are still in there, and Ed Abbey was a bigger influence and closer to my thought and heart and work than I had realized. I didn’t really feel your death and how much I have lost in your passing until the gathering of your friends and admirers north of Moab yesterday. I know you understand the interconnectedness of all love, all joy, all sorrow. You were a big man, Ed Abbey. Thanks for what I will miss. Thanks for what remains.

Go in peace.



Photo by Jim Stiles/NPS

A Game-changer: Martin Litton

The passionate and fierce environmentalist and conservationist Martin Litton passed away quietly in his sleep at his home in Portola Valley, Calif. on the last day of November 2014. His wife, Esther, was by his side. He was 97.

Known more recently for his work running wooden dories down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, he started his career at the LA Times writing about environmental issues and then became an editor for Sunset Magazine. But his legacy resides in the monumental effort he put into saving the Grand Canyon from the proposed dams in Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon. He was part of saving and preserving a number of other wilderness areas as well through his work with the Sierra Club.

It was the summer of 1969 when Litton started running wooden dories down the Grand Canyon to form his guiding company Grand Canyon Dories. The little wooden boats were immediately immensely popular with river runners for guides and clients alike. In 1988 Grand Canyon Dories joined the OARS family of companies and, per Litton’s conditions, continues to only run dories exclusively under oar power.

Litton’s life and legacy around his conservation work and dories in the Grand Canyon was documented in the 2013 book The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko about the fastest run down the Grand Canyon. This record run was completed in 1983 in one of Litton’s wooden dories. In fact, it was the first wooden dory, after many iterations, Litton determined was the perfect shape for running the roaring waters of the Grand Canyon and it was the boat from which he modeled the rest of his fleet since. The boat was called The Emerald Mile.

Here’s an excerpt from Fedarko’s Book describing part of what Litton achieved:
Historians often minimize or discount the impact that any one individual can have on human destiny—and for good reason. Given the broad tides in the affairs of men, and the complexity of the forces that shape and change history, it is almost always a mistake to ascribe too much significance to the actions of a single person. But even the most jaded observer can concede that, every now and then, a man or woman steps up to the plate and takes a mighty swing that clears the bases and fundamentally changes the game.

Litton is survived by his wife, Esther, his four children, John, Donald, Kathleen and Helen as well as five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Not to mention the many friends, guides and river lovers Litton inspired across the world.

Litton in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Jon Blaustein.
Litton in the Grand Canyon. Photos by Jon Blaustein.