Crass Consumerism: Finding hope in the halls of Outdoor Retailer

We sent MG reporter Mike Medberry into the belly of the beast. Sort of. As in we sort of sent him and he sort of wandered down to Salt Lake City from Idaho and then sent us his thoughts on the best stuff in the world of stuff.

By Mike Medberry

Now I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m a writer who dislikes the brand of hype and quotable material that is offered to give writers words to print. And I’m not a journalist. I’ve got forbidden opinions. And when it comes to gear… frankly, there are too many superb outdoor products even to name them all, but show me what you’ve got, give me the price, and prove to me that it will last for a significant portion of my life. That’s the name of the game for me—sustainability and quality.

I went down to the Outdoor Retailer winter show in Salt Lake City because I wanted to hear writer Terry Tempest Williams and the National Park Service Chief, Jon Jarvis, say good things. And they did. Jarvis celebrated the 100th anniversary of the NPS and Williams asked the 1,000-plus listeners to do more than sell their product: They should aim to save a piece of earth and wildlife that their businesses thrive on.

After that I walked through the numbingly beautiful displays publicized by tough, studly men and tough, shapely women offering their wares and samples to potential purchasers. I felt more vulnerable than a Chinook salmon swimming up a headwater creek, as all kinds of sweet, sweet chum was thrown out to hook me. Some business offered superb value and creativity, some counted on the charming (or grating) personalities of salespeople. Some were start-ups with teeny budgets while others dominated a large piece of property in the Salt Palace and had monumental billboard advertisements. Some gave away beer and some coffee, some hired bands, others shared chocolate bon-bons as a conversation breaker, or had huge slabs of ice to show off their superior brands of footware. All sought attention of potential customers, friends, and competitors. Times were agreed upon for business meetings and meetings were had as you’d expect for a trade show.

12636845_10207089202522749_1245843440_oMore than 1,200 companies had displays. Thousands of people wandered from business to business to see what they could see, they sought out moneymaking opportunities, looked at fashions and new devices, but mostly they walked, drank, telephoned friends, met with other workers, chit-chatted, and just hung out. I was wearied just watching all of this happen and naturally I helped myself to their free alcoholic drinks and food.

Nonetheless, I found something to write about. Out of all of the businesses I chose six that appealed to me right away. All six had chutzspah. I did plenty of walking and listening. Then I talked with each of the managers or spokespersons of the audacious six about what they were selling and what drives them to sell their product. I admit that my search was quirky and each business was based on my oddball tastes. But, here ya go with all of my stinking prejudices.

ONE

Patagonia is one of the best companies when it comes to protecting the environment, selling first-rate clothing, encouraging recycling, and championing environmental organizations (and its heroes). One of the clearest commitments that Patagonia has made to protect the environment is that the independently owned business has become a B-Corporation. This Benefit Corporation allows the business to create a “general public benefit” which legally requires it to make a positive impact on society and the environment. Additionally since 2014, Patagonia has made a commitment to recycling the fluffy feathers, the down, in manufacturing their new garments. Within that commitment is what I see as the protection of thousands of ducks and geese every year. In 2016, they are instituting an accountability system for determining the source of down. Eider ducks no longer will be killed for their feathers to keep me warm! Thanks.

Patagonia spokesman, Corey Simpson said, “We’ve done the legwork knowing that other brands can promote down and provide the best product for advocating animal welfare. We’re just saying to other manufacturers that you can build good products and do it in a good way.”

I asked Simpson how Patagonia remains on the cutting edge of their business and environmental protection.

He replied: “Each of “Patagonia’s employees is committed to their passions, although they may be cut of different cloth. They all are passionate, and when they talk about making changes that makes a difference.” In my words, the management listens to what their workers say and believe. That, I thought, gives employees a say in managing their company and gives them a chance to be innovative without being criticized merely for having an opinion.

12637161_10207089198842657_532767656_oPatagonia also has an environmental grants program which as Simpson said, gives money to “grassroots groups, for on the ground work, and to people who do the real work (of conservation).”  Patagonia has a new book, Tools for Grassroots Activists, with the intention of making environmental organizations more effective in protecting the environment. But in my world it is Patagonia’s catchwords “Don’t buy what you don’t need” provides the last word on their philosophy; championing the legacy of Doug Thomkins as an environmental hero clinches the gold ring.

TWO

12633075_10207089204802806_631390716_oThe artfulness and elegance of sweaters made by Dale of Norway halted me to look at, what?—sweaters? Yeah, sweaters: sleek, comfortable, colorful sweaters, and it wasn’t only the wearers of the wool that stopped me. I swear I am a magpie for the bright, complicated, pretty colors of a sweater!

Come to find out that that company has been in business for 130 years, they use 100 percent natural wool, they have their business in Dalekvam, Norway, hire locally, have sweatered the Norway ski team since 1956, and stand solidly behind their knits. All of this appealed to me, though I own very few sweaters (they’re very old ones with holes in the elbows and armpits…). I’ve seen many corporations compromise their products for sale in the U.S. because of competition from Asia and others that treat workers as mere drones or worse, but Dale of Norway doesn’t happen to be one of them. Part of that is the dedication of workers to the business, the fine quality of the sweaters, and the low cost of production. The factory still lies on the bank of the Dale River and is powered by the inexpensive hydropower from waterfalls.

Mark Bruce, Production and Design Manager for Dale of Norway, spoke in a smooth, understated British accent. “We have a huge wealth of knowledge that we can take from our original designs.” Bruce explained that the bright colors that I saw came from the style of wool spinning and that Dale of Norway sells a high quality, long-lasting garment. “We work in a small village outside of Bergen and have to treat people right.” Two people who have worked there for more than 30 years are quoted in a brochure that “The experienced staff follows every step of the production with their personal touch and attention. This is the secret behind the unique qualities of the Dale of Norway garments.” I thought it was audacious and wholly appropriate in this angst-filled day to brag about your longest serving employees.

THREE

Emergency Essentials caught me with their steaming packets when I was hungry. “What’s this?” I asked Matt Putnam, the sales manager for the business. He said “It’s a Hydroheat.” Say what? “You pour in some water and put in the bottom of a pot and it can cook a meal in 10 minutes.” Cool! “No hot….”

HydroHeat showingI recall a long, solo dayhike on one solstice in Idaho when I was stranded in a lightning storm. Then it snowed, which seemed improbable or impossible, but it certainly was cold and I hunkered down for a night without any appropriate gear. The matches were damp enough and the wood wet enough so that I couldn’t start a fire. My fingers became too cold to work one of those kid-proof lighters that I carried as a backup tool. The upshot is that I lived, but it was a very uncomfortable night with pine boughs stuffed into my wet jacket for warmth and in my teashirt for a pillow. T’was an itchy night, believe me. But one or two of the hydro-heat packets that I could’ve bought for a song and carried in my pocket, would have been more than a God-send. Heat and food were at a premium out in the woods on that cold, stormy day.

It may be that those packets can be dumped out into my garden after they have provided their heat but I’m not sure. I’m told that they are only limestone when they’re spent. Well ok, they’re a damned good thing when needed.  Sold!

FOUR

12620773_10207089197962635_786894970_oThe next grabber was the Steri-PEN. It seemed like some device that could be used to treat a diabetic mishap—it was was, however, an ultraviolet light, a finger-sized water purifier. But what the hell is it? Turns out it kills microbes in water in roughly a minute, as long as the water is vaguely translucent. You just stick the light underwater and turn it on. This baby should work in mountain streams and most sources of water that look slightly palatable. For more turbid water sources the water should be filtered.  I’m figuring that means a paper coffee filter.

“The PENs have been around since 2001,” Kayla Moore, Director of North American Sales for SteriPEN said, “but we haven’t had a budget for advertising until last year when a company invested in our product. We’re here to do bigger and better things with our product. We can help with camping and hiking, but in the end we want to provide safe water for third world countries, so we really need to branch out.”

The SteriPEN beats the heck out of a heavy pump that always has one tube coming into the dirty water and another going out to my water bottle (which I have been known, somehow, to occasionally reverse and spoil the water). It’ll fix up my water on the Payette National Forest, in the fountains in India, in cattle troughs in Ketchum, but I’ll have to experiment in the canyons of southern Utah. I don’t mind living a little dangerously and the PEN would be soooo light to carry!

FIVE

Don Scott at GSI Outdoors saw me fingering the shiny, silver, one-cup expresso maker and eyeing the four-service cook pot. He said, “May I help you.”

“Sure. Is there someone that I can talk to about your pots and coffeemaker?”

“Well, the public information person will be around and….

“Naw, that’s okay. I was looking for a person who could tell me something about the efficiency of your product. That’s ok. I’m just looking around…”

“Would you care to talk with our Research Director?

“Sure.”

“He should be here in about half an hour. Could I respond to your questions in the meantime?”

“Yeah, I guess. Well, I’m interested in the espresso maker and want to take a picture of it. It’s pretty.” It was very shiny and silvery, like the sun.

“Ok, just take it down, set it in the light, and take a picture of it.”

12591857_10207089201282718_1175328780_oI did just that when Kurt Gauss, the Director of Research and Development, came over and guided me to a four-piece cook kit. He explained that everything had an essential purpose and he impressed me that each piece in the kit fit together like a bunch of Russian Dolls. I saw that GSI created a seemingly mundane product that shined and had real beauty, efficiency, and usefulness. They had been well designed and built. That appealed to me but the 4-in-1 pot kit seemed to be a family kit, which was more than I would ever need. However, I thought about pocketing that cute little espresso maker. I looked at it standing there on its little pedestal. GSI was very efficient and careful in their designs; there was little gee-whix glitz and pandering to passers-by, plenty of class, and nothing but damn good products. By God, I want one of those sweet little expresso makers!

SIX

BioLite stoveThe sixth company is BioLite which seems to owe its existence to their study of thermoelectric processes: turning the heat of fire into electricity. Alchemy! Their business is to sell lightweight campstoves that generate electricity while allowing you to cook dinner on that stove. It also provides light, in addition to the fire’s glow. The stove works by burning gathered wood, mostly sticks I guess, and the company diversifies its products by also selling solar panels and batteries. Their mission is to take stoves to sub-Sahara Africa and provide electricity in rural areas.

At 2.1 pounds, a BioLite campstove is an intriguing addition to my backpacking gear, as it could replace my standard gasoline stove.  There are a bewildering number of products that BioLite sells and I thought that the company should work on a few of their best sellers, define and share the best technical information with customers, increase the efficiency of the thermoelectric process, and streamline its offerings. It occurred to me that charging my cellphone may require a lot of time sitting around burning wood, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how much. All I know is that it might take time from fishing. BioLite is operating in a golden glow of optimism and growth for the time being, but they’d better focus on what sells and deliver excellent information on each product or go broke. However, with their enthusiasm for making electricity out of fire, I hope they’ll live long and prosper.

So there you have it: my favorite six products at the 2016 winter OR gathering. I have ignored the oriental fabric making geniuses because they are all changing rapidly; some of these businesses will remain, but some will fail in the recession that China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries are experiencing. Anyone could see that ‘what goes up must come down’ but none would dare predict the future, as the cheap workplaces are diminishing. Or moving. That defines the blindness of Democracy and the arrogance of enterprise, but I expect that the six companies will learn from the Chinese recession, right?

 

Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Backcountry patrollers are good people who have difficult job. And this one particular old Bear is a bit tired of trying to please everyone on the trails in winter. By Alan Stark

The sun is just coming up over the horizon to the far southeast. A red circle blasts through the neighbor’s pine trees as I wait for coffee to drip into the pot on this winter morning. The sun is about as far south as it gets before the long arc northward, as it moves toward the summer solstice. Then it becomes a startlingly bright yellow flare that comes up over Greeley to the far northeast.

Coffee is beginning to drip into the pot. I scratch my scrotum, because that’s what half the population does standing around in jammies watching the sunrise and waiting for their coffee. Sure it’s a time for a scratch, but also a time to reflect. The subject that pops into mind is, “trying to please everybody,” a concept that has totally eluded me for my entire life. And the more I think about the concept, the more I know it’s a waste of time to consider. There are a good number of days when I can’t even please myself, much less anyone else.

I put on water to boil for oatmeal, pour a cup of coffee for Blue Eyes, walk down the hall and put it on her bedside table. Moving to a familiar routine and finished with my reflection of the day, my thoughts now move to the work in front of me.

In an hour, my partner and I will get to the equipment cache at Ned Fire. We’ll sign in, draw radios, a SPOT unit, and whatever other gear we’ll need. The duty firefighter may or may not be up when we get there. But if the firefighter is up, we’ll talk for a moment, usually about the weather or maybe just say, “Have a quiet shift, no fires today.” The firefighter will nod and maybe say, “Have a good patrol, no incidents today.”

IMG_2271At the Brainard Gateway, I park the Highlander, grab my boots and coffee cup and head for the warming hut. After I get my AT boots on, I start working on a fire in the small stove. There is something primal about building a morning fire. I’m not sure what it is, but getting that fire started is all consuming. I think of nothing else but making sure the fire is going. My partner is outside shoveling snow away from the warming hut door and then the doors to the pit toilets.

There are forty or so cars already here. These cars and trucks belong to the hard-core backcountry skiers. Some of them started near dawn and will be coming in, just as the citizenry begins to show up in force around 10:30. The hard-core skiers are worth listening to, because they have been coming here for a hundred years and know all the trails cold, and can accurately tell us where trees are down across the trail. We use their information to pick our route for the day. If one of us is feeling responsible and into trail work, we might go clear the tree, but more often than not, we’re just looking for a good ski route, not additional work. Whether we clear the tree across the trail this week or next doesn’t matter all that much, it’s a long winter.

“Hey, what trails did you do this morning?” I ask.

He’s 50 to 70, silver hair and beard, fit looking, wearing an anorak with tele gear and old Scarpa boots. His skis have seen a number of miles and probably have “omni wax” on the bottoms, a combination of years of waxes and scraping which will help him hold on a pitch and effortlessly glide down a trail.

“Reservoir Road to Little Raven and back on Waldrop. My loop.”

“Anything good?”

“Little Raven.”

“ You been doing this for a hundred years?”

“Just like you.”

“Just thirty years.”

These are good mountain people. But some of them think there is no need for ski patrollers in the backcountry—that if a person is out here, she should be able to take care of herself.

As backcountry patrollers, we understand that. When we first started work up here, at the request of the Forest Service, there were a number of patrollers who wanted to do the work but didn’t want to wear red vests and white crosses, because they thought uniforms might make the hard-core backcountry skiers grumpy. But we worked hard to earn and keep our crosses. The vests have pockets everywhere for our first aid gear, radio, and SPOT unit, so we wear them and we’ve gotten used to the occasional look of surprise or even a frowny face when we pass by.

We have even gotten used to the occasional smart ass…

“Whoa, ski patrol is here, now we’re all safe.”

“Yup, except you.”

“What daya mean?”

“Think about it.”

Or the person of limited observational skills…

“Sorry sir, but your dog isn’t allowed on that trail.”

“Where the hell does it say that?”

“On the Brainard Lake webpage, on the map at the warming hut, and on the sign your dog is peeing on.”

We make an effort to be friendly and helpful and not act like snow cops. The job is service and safety, education and information, and a basic medical response if needed. Unlike ski area patrollers, we don’t do law enforcement. The Forest Service folks make it absolutely clear that we are not to do law enforcement in the backcountry. Alpine patrollers have a much tougher job, and more bosses than anyone needs—both within the patrol and from ski area management.

Backcountry patrollers have an easy job and light-handed supervision from the local Forest Service folks. They are good people with the difficult job of managing the forest and serving the community at the same time; often caught between massively conflicting interests. As good and decent as our local Forest Service people are, I sometimes end up shaking my head at the Forest Service policies handed down from biggies in Washington who have forgotten their field experiences.

With the exception of the smart-mouths and the terminally stupid, most of our interactions with trail users are positive and often interesting, sometimes fun. Some take time to tell me what they are thinking about. The perennial subject is dogs on the trails, the new subject this year is fat tire bikes.

I get it that dog spelled backwards is God. I love my dog. But dogs on the trails can be a problem. We have seen dogs badly hurt by the steel edges on skis. Is this injury the dog owner’s fault or skiers fault? It is usually the dog owner’s fault. And the fat tire bikes…in the summer a hiker can step off the trail to let a mountain bike pass. Not a problem, but in the winter getting off the trail is problematic. Conflicting uses…we tell people to try to get along and cut some slack with each other.

The chores are finished. We go back to the Highlander and pull out skis, poles, and packs and walk to the trailhead to gear-up. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

IMG_2272It’s absolutely true that National Forest belong to all of us, not just elitist backcountry skiers in plastic boots on AT skis. But certain uses are simply incompatible with other uses. A more extreme example than dogs and fat tire bike riders happened last year when we stopped a rabbit hunter on the Middle Saint Vrain Road who was shooting north. He didn’t have any idea that people skied the Buchanan Pass Trail a 100 yards north of the road.

The Forest Service needs to rethink the concept of multi-use trails, particularly in the winter. Trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand. Sure, there are trails where multi-use works. But the Forest Service needs to change their policy and accept the fact that some activities are mutually exclusive; this activity works here and this one works better over there. A good example of specific trails for specific activities is here at Brainard, where there are two trails, CMC and Little Raven that are designated “skier only” in the winter. But most of the trails we patrol are multi-use and a free-for-all. We need more activity specific trails in our National Forests.

Will the multi-use policy, particularly in winter, change? Probably not. Sometimes I wonder what the Forest Service folks in Washington scratch in the morning.

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller and lives with a Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Postcard: Going up?

Going up is hard. Much harder than going down, anyway. It helps to put your head down for some reason … as if putting your head down makes the pain subside. It doesn’t. But it does help. And for the record, it’s hard to put your head down when climbing, because chances are good that your surroundings are worth looking at. In this photo my friend Sam was at 12,800 feet, suffering hard, but stealing a glance whenever possible.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

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.

 

 

 

Postcard: First tracks

 

 

Most first tracks carry an element of danger. It is easy to dismiss this brand of first tracks because the tracks are flat, but I have always been afraid of testing the frozen-ness level on a lake like this. I happened to be driving by at 50 mph recently when these fellows were preparing to ice fish. I couldn’t help but think they deserved a fist pump for their gumption, or at least a blurry photograph on MG.com.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Postcard: The power of big peaks

 

Big peaks transmit a kind of soft, gentle power when you are in their presence. It’s almost like they say, “Shut up and behold, hoser. You’re in our world now.” Such was the feeling I got as we skinned toward the north faces of a pair of peaks in excess of 13,800 feet, pictured above. If you really let them talk to you, and listen to what you think they might be saying (let’s be honest, none of us is able to actually hear their message; we must intuit a certain semblance of takeaway), they can be profound communicators. But it takes your belief to make it real.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

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