Land in the Sky: Dwelling Anew

Last Christmas Eve down at Pandora’s Tavern, while everybody else was watching a bowl game on the bar’s big screen, I found myself re-reading some Heidegger. One does things like that down at Pandora’s Tavern. I first read this philosopher in the early 80s, under what might be called peculiar conditions. You could say that reading philosophy under peculiar conditions only serves to thicken the peculiarities, and you’d be right. Even under the most normal of circumstances, all it takes is a few minutes of casual browsing in a volume of philosophy—and everything takes an odd turn. But what did I know, I was a young, enthusiastic scholar pursuing my studies in the wild woolly-wags of eastern Maine, far removed from the lures of Wall Street where some of my old chums were already raking in the big bucks and had not yet been busted for insider trading.

In one of his less formidable essays, Heidegger makes a distinction between “building” and “dwelling.” Not all buildings, says the philosopher, are dwellings. “Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings.” That may seem pretty obvious. But when it comes to philosophy, the obvious is preferable to having a ding an sich shoved in your face. Anyway, by Heidegger’s lights the house I grew up in in suburban North Jersey counted as a dwelling. That’s because my family actually lived there. Whereas the nearby Pulaski Skyway—though certainly a building in the technical sense—was no dwelling. Nor was the giant stadium they built in the Hackensack Meadows, which opened in 1976 (the year I graduated from high school) and has since been torn down. Nor was the big mall— put up on what had been the wooded edge of our town—a dwelling, though it now teeters on the verge of bankruptcy and may soon be shuttered and become a haunted house of sorts.

To complete this picture, it should be noted that, in the New Jersey landscape of my youth, genuine dwellings were rapidly giving way to mere buildings—to the point where a peculiar kind of human-fashioned wilderness emerged, one distinguished by car dealerships, fast food joints, gardening centers, Kinney Shoes, pawn shops, dry cleaners, National Guard armories, bowling alleys, Entenmann’s outlets, lumber yards, drive-in theaters, donut shops, Robert Hall, and pet stores. And that’s just a partial inventory of the terrain. Yes, a peculiar kind of wilderness, which—in keeping with Federal law—is a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I for one could not remain in New Jersey, so I lit out, as soon as I could, for the wilds of eastern Maine, where I misspent what was left of my youth.

And that’s where I first read Heidegger. The peculiar conditions were these.

I was a struggling graduate student in literature. The monthly stipend I received was just enough to cover the rent for my cheap digs, the cases of ramen noodles and beer that provided my sustenance, and the gas for my 1973 VW Beetle, which more often than not was out of commission so I mostly didn’t have to worry about filling the tank. I was assigned an office, which I shared with three other people. It was located on the fourth floor of what was then called the English-Math Building. A large portion of this unattractive structure remained unfinished on the inside because the university ran out of money to finish the project, so the place felt more like a parking garage or roller rink than an ivory tower. By no means would this echo of a Bauhaus blunder ever be considered a dwelling in the Heideggerian sense. Hell, it didn’t even have a proper name.

As fate would have it, I was forced one day to abandon my meager lodgings—in a snug trailer in a vintage mobile home park out near the town dump—due to a flea infestation. Having nowhere else to go, I moved—temporarily, or so I told myself—into my office in the English-Math Building. All my books were already there and a padded bench dragged in from the hallway provided a fine place to lay out a sleeping bag each night. My officemates didn’t mind. Nor did the kindly department secretary, who brought me coffee each morning and let me keep my beer in the department refrigerator. And my various friends, who were dwelling under more secure circumstances, regularly invited me over to their places for a meal and a shower. In the evenings, after the last classes were dismissed, a tomblike quiet would descend upon the English-Math Building, which proved a perfect environment for getting some serious reading done—reading that included works by Heidegger. Because rent was no longer a worry, I had more money than ever before. I was able to buy more books, including nice hardbound editions of Walden and The Maine Woods, both published by Princeton. I soon realized that I actually enjoyed living in my office. Things were simple and complete. The English-Math Building—at least my little corner of it—had become a dwelling. My dwelling.

I did harbor a few doubts about this place—this situation—that I was now calling home. After all, what kind of person lives in his office? (Think Bartleby, or Ted Kaczynski, or a Washington politician.) What would people think? What if I took ill and needed to be confined to bed? More than anything else, I worried about becoming lonely. Happily, those doubts were driven out when I discovered that another grad student—in math—had also moved into his office, on the same floor as me but on the other side of the building. I was no longer alone! I stopped by one evening to introduce myself—“Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall”—and he invited me in. Unlike my office, which indeed looked like an office because I rolled up and put away my sleeping bag each morning, this guy’s looked like somebody lived there. He had a big cushy chair, a gray tufted-back sofa sleeper with a couple kilim throw pillows, a girlfriend’s painting hanging on the wall, a color TV, a fancy microwave, and a hot-plate. The shelves around the room were packed not with books but canned goods. It was the most posh graduate student dwelling I had ever seen. And it got me to thinking, maybe I should spruce up my place.

Alas, that never happened. A few nights later I was at my desk, working late as usual, when a disruption occurred. I always left the door open so the night janitor wouldn’t be surprised to find somebody in there. When he made his rounds, I’d chat with him as he’d empty the trash buckets, then we’d bid each other a neighborly goodnight. Once he had passed through, I knew it would be safe to unroll the sleeping bag and bed down. On that night, the janitor had already made his rounds. I was just about to call it quits, when this great commotion erupted out in the hall. I heard the bang of the stairwell door bursting open, then the clomping of boots on the tile floor. I looked up from my desk to see a line of campus policemen charging past my door and down the hall. Whatever could be the matter? A few minutes later they filed back the way they had come, but now escorting my neighbor—in handcuffs. The cops never even bothered to peek in on what I was doing, but my neighbor did. The look on his face said: “Get the hell outta here, buddy, as fast as you can!”

And I did. I grabbed my sleeping bag, headed out into the snow, and trudged off to a friend’s—a grad student in geology—who was living in a homemade teepee deep in the university forest. I stayed with him till things cooled off back at the English-Math Building. Then I resumed my cozy office dwelling. I figured if I continued to live in such a way as not to call undue attention to myself, I’d be okay. And I was. But I never saw that math grad student again. When I stopped by to see how he had fared with the cops, I found his office stripped bare. Empty. As if nobody had ever dwelled there. It was forlorn as an abandoned mental hospital.

As for me, I continued to dwell in my own office for another couple months—till I somehow contracted salmonella and had to go in to the hospital for a few days. After that I didn’t go back to my office. I moved on to other lodgings—and many others in the years since. Yet each time learning how to dwell anew.

Five Reasons Why Valley Uprising Rocks



Yosemite is high on the radar of everyone from NBC News to Rock and Ice but something else big happened when it comes to the history of America’s favorite big wall playground this week. Sender Films released “Valley Uprising,” it’s film about the history of big wall climbing in the park on demand on Vimeo. If you care about climbing, or are even just a casual observer, you’ll want to check this out. Here’s why:

It’s not just for climbers. Since its inception, REEL Rock Film Tour has featured an epic mix of short films highlighting the latest climbing porn laden with stories and characters that only hold significance among the climbing community. However, in its 9th year, Sender Films and Big UP Productions decided to showcase Valley Uprising, a full-length documentary that explores the 60-year climbing history of Yosemite National Park. You don’t need to come from a climbing background to appreciate the stories of 60s counter-culture, drug-smuggling plane crashes or the breathtaking views of the Valley itself. In fact, it’s even narrated by Hollywood actor Peter Sarsgaard.

It’s a work of art. This 90-minute film was indeed a labor of love, taking seven years, 50 interviews and dozens of trips to Yosemite to complete. The historic, never-before-seen photos are revamped with a 2.5-D animation twist and the soundtrack features . The cinematography within the first five minutes alone will have you questioning why you’re not in the Valley at that very moment.

It pays tribute to the legends. It’s rare to be involved in a sport where the majority of the men and women who brought it into the forefront are still alive today. Many modern-day climbers start out by pulling plastic in the gym, removing them from the rich history and culture that once dominated the community. This film allows the newest generation of climbers to cultivate a deep sense of respect for the founders who made it all possible.

It will make you feel like you were born in the wrong generation. You will leave the theater feeling nostalgic for events that happened before you were even born. Valley Uprising does such a great job at glorifying the dirtbag days of Camp 4 that you’d do anything to go back in time to live like an elective refugee and eat expired cat food with Yvon Chouinard. Well, maybe some of you Mountain Gazette readers were born in this generation…

It gets you psyched for the future of climbing.
 Before Warren Harding made the first ascent of The Nose in 1958, climbing El Capitan was considered impossible. Just a few decades later, climbers are free-soloing the same route in a matter of hours and BASE-jumping from the summit. It’s really amazing to see how much the sport and its culture have come, and the possibilities are endless for future generations. The free ascent of the Dawn Wall is just the beginning.

Postcard: Ptarmigan on a Fourteener

You have to wonder if the ptarmigan knows how cool of an animal it is. To turn snow white when you need to hide in snow for seven months of winter is not just a sign of evolution but also a boon to the rest of us. I like seeing a ptarmigan on my ski tour. I’ve seen up to nine at a time scurrying around on the side of a mountain, almost invisible but for their eyes and beaks. This dude or dudette was hanging out next to an abandoned gold mine on 14,265-foot Quandary Peak yesterday. Did he mind if I took his photo to put it on the Internet? I guess I’ll never know.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: A Walk Down Memory Trail

Once upon a time in the Gunks, I lived at this very spot. On the shore of bucolic Duck Pond. For a whole summer. In a diminutive shack. I fetched my water from a spring. I cooked my meals on a little Coleman stove. I wrote letters at night by candlelight. Few wrote back. The other day I took the collie puppy for a walk down Memory Trail. We visited the scenes of my fond remembrance. He peed on some trees.



Postcard: Crazy Mountains, Montana

You know how you can drive and drive and drive without seeing anything other than vast flatness and sky, then suddenly a giant mountain range appears and you exhale like you’ve not exhaled in days, because you know everything is going to work out after all? The relief comes from finally seeing some relief—in last week’s case, it was the Crazy Mountains in southwestern Montana that returned our minds to a point of equilibrium. Fun was only a matter of time from there.

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Spangle Lake: Why we come to Wilderness

The Hike to Spangle Lake

A meditation on why we leave the order of the human world for the chaos of Wilderness

By Mike Medberry

I can’t believe I forgot my sleeping bag.

I had planned to hike sixteen miles from Atlanta, Idaho to see the ultimate headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Boise River at Spangle Lake in the highest, most stunning country in the Sawtooth Wilderness. It would be the conclusion of a hike from the Snake River to the top of the Boise River drainage. The whole river would be below me. But now I just sat on the tailgate of my pickup, drank another afternoon beer, and watched this gorgeous, cool, day, aiming toward the end of summer.

Spangle photo so-so-2Spangle Lake sparkles, glitters, and gleams! I just know it does. It’s an exotic place in my mind.  I tried to conjure up the weather report to determine if the temperature would be too cold for me to go on up to Spangle without a sleeping bag, but my cellphone had no reception and the weather looked stormy. But a guy can have his dreams, right?

I  contemplated going back the 130 miles to Boise to get it—down the Atlanta Road (bumpity-bumpity- bump all the daylong stinkin’ way), back past Queens River, downriver to Dutch Creek Station (boor-ing!) , on to the North Fork (oh, that would be pretty… for the fourth time), up and over to Idaho City (through all of the cheerless mine tailings), down to Lucky Peak Reservoir (which was the grand apotheosis of I-don’t- know-what, maybe the unflooded city of Boise), but at least I would miss Arrowrock Reservoir on the way down, which might be some consolation.

I get cynical when things don’t work just right for me and… well I just didn’t want to go back without hiking in the Wilderness.  So instead, I drank another beer, trying to gain some sort of lousy consolation.  I just can’t believe I forgot my sleeping bag.

trailcrew!Then three guys pulled up on my right in a carryall-rig and unloaded their backpacks while I sat thinking about what to do. Cheer and energy was on their side.  I drank from the bottle and pulled out some raisins-and-peanuts and sat chewing and listening to old music. We exchanged pleasant salutations and talked about their plan to work on trails within the Sawtooth Wilderness as they loaded their packs. The men were paid by a consultant who contracted with the US Forest Service, like what the old CCC had done.  The Civilian Conservation Corps was a federally funded program that was part of the New Deal, supported by President Franklin Roosevelt. The program hired young, unemployed people in the 1930s and early 40s after the Great Depression. The CCC had created many of the superb trails on the Sawtooth National Forest and their legacy still lived in the current funding of Forest Service trail projects.

“I can’t believe that I forgot to bring my most excellent, new, delightful, down sleeping bag,” I muttered mostly to myself, and tried to take another glug out of the now empty bottle. I threw it in the back of my pickup.

“That’s pretty bad,” one man said.  They laughed a little as two of them donned their packs. “You ever backpacked before?”

I shrugged and grimaced. The third man laid a sleeping bag on the tailgate beside me and said that he didn’t think that his dog would miss it. It was his dog’s sleeping bag. “Just leave it in the truck when you return,” he said.

“Hey thanks!” I said brightly, abandoning all pride.

I listened to another of Sinatra’s whines on his CD. Frank sang something about living a dog’s life. I reached for another bottle of beer in the back of my truck. Walking around to the driver’s seat I noticed a flattening tire.  I closed my eyes for a second and inhaled deeply. “OK, go flat, you damned shit!” I said. “I’ll fix you on my way out.”  I left the truck, poured the half beer into the dirt, put on my pack, and headed out behind those young men.

Into the Wilderness

The trail crew launched like rockets down the trail, and I didn’t think that I’d see them again, but they were sitting at the entry point to the Sawtooth Wilderness about two miles up. They sat and smoked a bowl beside a sign at the edge of Wilderness.  I said “Hey” trying to sound enormously cool, and talked with them a bit. They told me that their goal for the day was beyond mine; they were going to Plummer Peak, a 9,900 foot mountain, roughly 15 miles up the trail. The altitude where we began the trip was 5,400 feet. It was 4 o’clock.

“That’s ambitious!” I said. But I was thinking: that’s impossible. “Good luck!” I signed into the ledger as proof of my passage and walked by. Soon they marched beyond me, but their dog, call him Young Labrador, hung back to bark ferociously, apparently wanting to regain his sleeping bag. “You lose, Buckwheat!” I whispered to him. “It’s all mine now!” He showed me his rapier-sharp teeth.

I walked five miles and stopped by a grove of turning aspen and Douglas fir trees which made an otherwise parched spot shady and cool.

Emerald pool in the Boise RivierThe nearby river flowed the width of a softball pitch, and just now it had the personality of a chatty creek. Its banks were granite and they squeezed into a serpentine-green slide. The river begged me to stop. So I did. It begged me to fish. So I did. I found it as productive as it was pretty, and I simply had to keep three small fish. Among the trees, not far from the river, I set up my tent and threw my gear inside.  This was a very fine spot to be camping and I took in all of the air with a deep breath.

However, the too-short sleeping bag smelled like wet dog and the sudden pitter-pat of rain on the tent lulled me to sleep, but watered me from below. The smell soon led me into half-waking dreams of a dog howling at my feet and grabbing them in its mouth, growling, shaking madly: The Beast! That mad dog moved through my dreams like swamp gas.

In the morning, after a fish breakfast and drying out the wet tent, I looked up at 9,900 foot Mattingly Peak which rose out of gauzy clouds.  It was as high as Plummer Peak, a dramatic 4,000 feet above me. I watched it for a few moments with the cotton wandering across the wide peak and then I packed up and headed out.

The Middle Fork flowed wildly, cascading out of the high mountains. Now it slowed in a Chokecherriesmeadow. Now columbine and chokecherries grew along the path beside it as the drainage ripened with the changing colors of Autumn. Beavers had been there a few days ago and might come again. Deer, bear, elk, wolves, wolverine were out there somewhere. I knew they were out there somewhere out in these kind woods, but I never saw a single one of them.


One More Confession

Now I have to make a second confession, to bring this trip into a proper perspective: I also forgot my knife. I know, I know, you’re saying: “Your sleeping bag and your knife? Uh, Mike, did you remember your stove, your underpants, socks, food, and your jacket?”  I proudly say “yes” to those and anyway, I didn’t necessarily need underpants, did I?

You ask: “How did you clean the fish and cut the rope to set up that tent?”  Well, you already know that I didn’t forget my tent, right? It was on the far side of damp though. I searched through my backpack for the knife and then sat searching for inspiration. Nothing. I looked for sharp sticks, jagged rocks, arrowheads, and other more primitive things lying about that would allow me to perform tasks like gutting fish. Not a truly sharp thing came to mind or hand so I grumbled and went out fishing and thought: something will rise!

Yes indeed.  Of course, as I already mentioned, the fish did.  Now I had three fish to clean, maybe a decent meal, right?  Maybe. And that’s the way I’ve written it, right?  But there was nothing to clean them with. Did I mention that? No. So I went through my backpack again looking for something that might slice the fish from asshole to gills without ripping the fish apart: corkscrew—naw;  bottle opener, fork—too messy; fishhooks—possible in a pinch; fingers, pencil, pen?—ick, no way, what a mess!

Ah hah, I found my First Aid kit—maybe a razor blade?  Noooo.  Rock, paper, scissors?  I thought about that. Ah yes, there are scissors in the First Aid kit. They would cut bandages or fish and rope—that’s it!  It felt good to be back in the 21th century once again where scissors could beat rocks as a tool. I made a note to myself: make a list of things to bring on every backpacking trip that might be helpful.  Think of TP for instance. Please remember to refill the fuel container once in a while. Bring matches too. On other solo trips I had forgotten each of these. Quit going solo.

Mountains of Gold

A redtail hawk screamed at me from her perch.  “Shaddup. smarty wings,” I screamed. She had none of the needs that I had. I soldiered on and thought about the drive up to Atlanta.  On that drive, I saw mining and landslides and buildings and forest fire scars. This land was changing beside the town, but the river endured.  It cleaned up every mess given time.

mining near AtlantaMining surrounds Atlanta. Naked rocks stacked in piles, defined placer mining from years past. Roads climbed just about every tributary of the Middle Fork near Atlanta giving access to gold and silver mines. They were mostly holes pick-axed and dynamited into the ground.  However, the Atlanta Gold Company, headquartered in Canada, proposed in 2006 to mine two open pits and put $40 million into a cyanide heap-leach project on their patented land. Faced with lawsuits from the Idaho Conservation League and others about that plan, the company backed off and chose to mine underground. So far Atlanta Gold hasn’t produced high quantities of gold in years.

In addition, small-time miners scour streams for gold with lawnmower-sized suction devices and in the process make a mess of fish habitat. Of course not the habitat for steelhead or salmon or lamprey–those had been eliminated years ago by downstream dams on the Snake River–but for the native threatened bull trout (which had been isolated by dams from swmming to the ocean) and rare, uncommonly lovely cutthroat trout. A few of the mines are ragged holes in the ground or have reservoirs to block the flow of tailings downstream–this might work for a few years but not forever.  It will take the diligence on the part of conservationists to block mining in the region and to gain effective protection for fish habitat.

The future of mining in Atlanta will depend upon the price of gold and silver and the price of cleaning up the mines, like the Tolache, Minerva, Atlanta Gold, and Monarch Mines.  The miners must maintain the high quality of water entering the Boise River which affects the safety of human populations and rare species in and around this river. It will also depend upon the price of that most useless of elements, gold, and the desire, the motivation, the greed, and conniving politics from hardrock miners to get to the gold in competition with ardent conservationists fighting for water, plants and animals, as well as their own health. The system of use and protection is defined by competition among advocates, which changes the way the whole world works.

Spangle Lake Beckons

Everywhere change is in process: the leaves fall from aspens, the water grows less forceful day-by-day, the air feels cooler.  Somehow beauty grows.  I felt good to be above mining and human manipulations on the land. It was good to have a nice trail and fish to catch, but upon consideration the trail had to be constructed and maintained by people, people had transplanted fish into the river; the joy of my many gizmos and maps that REI had sold me—all of the things that I had forgotten–and coffee, ah yes, coffee from Costa Rica or Kona or Kenya heated up on my metallic stove fueled by gasoline; these all came from other places: boots were crafted in China, my backpack and aluminum pans originated in some faraway unknown place.

It felt as if all the trappings were loaded on my back and I realized that I couldn’t get away from the production, consumption, and practicality of living in the United States. But here in wilderness I felt free to walk wherever I wanted. Freedom at a price. I guess that’s the price of awareness. I denied the importance of what I didn’t want to see and discounted the privilege of my being here.

No, actually, I’ve never discounted the value in wild places—it is always a privilege to be in this undisturbed and wild land. I’ve seen the price of maintaining places as untrammeled, maintaining all of its birds, mammals, and reptiles, all of the trees and vegetation, all of the insects. A miner once told me that mining will always win when the price of mining an ore goes high enough—“We will get it when the population wants it,” he said.  But today the mountains and streams and trees and wildlife felt eternal, the place sublime and more golden than any ore.

Hiking gave me time to think about what the world is doing to us and we to it: pollution, population growth, fighting for things (fighting, always fighting, always), wanting all of life’s pleasures, seeking youth, time, strength, immortality. Maybe that miner was right. But when I turned around I saw the beauty right there: a sudden Shangra-La, a worldly paradise far away from the hassles of modern life: a gift to all who took the trouble to see, enjoy, and to preserve it. What person could say that the land has less value than the minerals beneath it? Not me.

In the late afternoon I arrived at Spangle Lake.  In the perfect campsite I found my hiking and working friends and Young Labrador laying low. Their presence was marked only by the absence of impacts of other people on the land, an absence that seemed a presence. The three men had cleaned up all of the other the campsites.   I hooted hello to them and went searching for the second best campsite.  I never found that campsite but I found a nice place above Spangle Lake and settled in to mess it up a little.  I caught another few fish and watched the lake darken into night. Spangle Lake delivered what I had thought it might—fish, solitude, fine scenery, reflection, and a natural place to sit in and read and write.  It was alive with sparkles, sparks, in the morning and I guess that is all I wanted: a way to look at our world that pleases my heart and soothes my soul. Bad Assfish

On the next day I caught a 20-inch cutthroat trout in a nearby lake and a dozen or more in lakes beyond the tallest mountains. This cutthroat laid still for me to take one picture before she swished her tail and swam away, annoyed by the shallow water. Her girth was greater than my grip and I felt a fool for letting her go free.  But why had I captured her to begin with?


Spangling Dreams 

Hills are aliveWalking around at the top of the world took me to a place where whitebark pines were lined on a ridge like grave markers. These pines had lived for so many years, hundreds at least, maybe a thousand, that their forms defined their lives: wind and deep snow bent some and they had adapted by growing low. Others appeared to have lived only on the sunny side of the trunk.  A few were stout and straight-growing and seemed to have lived most fully. These whitebarks were sheltered by the environment, protected by boulders, and their fate had deposited them on a warmer, more protected spot in this otherwise harsh environment. At long last, however, drought or disease, or both, brought them to an end.

Another few seemed to be on their last breath with their lives contained in thin strips of bark that barber-poled up the trunk. All of the deaths and near deaths began to settle-in, but as I walked over the ridge, I saw a more remarkable thing: seedlings of whitebark pines grew, toiling from soil with pure happenstance. They were young and didn’t know where they were growing.

Upon returning to Spangle Lake, a pair of ospreys flew above the lake. Quickly, far gone in a spiral updraft, headed out beyond the next ridge with no roughness in the climb. The climb had seemed so endless to me yesterday—the hike was up and up and relentlessly up—so flying looked good at the moment. I also had some notion, however, that climbing in the air might be just as tough as climbing on the ground, but the theory of finding a thermal sounded good. I wanted to glide.

I took the time to move my camp to the best space that the trail crew had last night and the view was stupendous. I slept beautifully, awoke, sucked-up a tank of coffee, packed up, and took out gliding. The same columbine grew in the cool, moist forest in the “V” of the rivercourse and when the view was good it was incomparable.  Maybe, just maybe, my friends would clear the broken, tangled trees, and those nasty, thorny blackberry vines to clear that avalanche run.  Or perhaps they might have my flat tire off and put the new tire on my car when I got back. But if wishes were facts, even hikers could fly like ospreys! I saw the men and their nifty dog on the way down. The men worked hard to clear the path ahead of me and even that damned dog was civil.

The river sashays through what was solid land, rages under weather-making peaks, dodders in an autumn-colored meadow, whispers out of the Wilderness beside predictable humdrum roads, villages, towns, and cities, into reservoirs, canals, laterals, and drains then, eventually, into the Snake River. You ask me what made me come into this bloody Wilderness when there is all of that well-ordered life to enjoy in our human world?

You kidding? Maybe it’s chaos. Maybe it is the inhuman aspect of the place. But I remember the goodness in my new friends (and their damp dog); the disordered brutality and beauty in this disobedient landscape; the stark, blinkless views of Spangle Lake; the silence and vastness of the sky and its blue, blue, saphire-blue, blueness; the hints and tracks of wildlife somewhere out there living in the boondocks that left me wondering about their present existence; there is the inspiration of whitebark pines, fabulous constellations, crags and stalwart mountains, and the river that flows forever, but never runs away.

It’s not chaos that I liked, but the random piece-by-piece connectedness of the wilds, the thinking about, and finding, surprisingly unpredictable but acceptable natural things—hot springs, uplifted mountains, beaver dams and the freakin’ ants–moments of silent inspiration all these seduced me to get out beyond civilization and live for a few days to walk in respect in its beauty.  And I suggest that it may do you good to go there as well. Find some humility. This wilderness is an old friend who always recognizes, welcomes, and judges me simply by what I am.

But soon, as the trail gave way to road, my one flat tire–impossibly unround it remained–waited for me to replace it with a less flawed model, and then the long road unwound, eventually back to scathing civilization to my home in calm, happy, and equivocal Boise.

Mike Medberry is the author of On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey to Recovery.

An Ode to Eric Bjørnstad (and his trailer)

With Eric, the Trailer Was the Real Show

Eric Bjørnstad (1934–2014)

Cameron M. Burns

We first met Eric Bjørnstad in 1987, after Benny Bach and I had spent a night out on Big Bend Butte. We were driving back into Moab—tired, dehydrated, hungry, and generally frazzled—when we passed a huge rock shop of the north end of town (no longer there). We decided to stop and look around. Inside, rocks were stacked every which way on dozens of shelves, tables, and racks. Hundreds of thousands of rocks. Enough to rebuild the earth.

There was an old guy behind the counter (Lin Ottinger) and we got to chatting (after he asked why we looked like used dish towels on an Alaskan crab boat).

“If you boys have been climbing, you ought to talk to my roommate Eric.”


“Yeah, he’s writing something about desert climbing.”

With directions from Lin, we found Eric and Lin’s trailer a block west of Main Street in Moab, nearly opposite a well-known eatery called the Poplar Place. We knocked on the door and a gruff voice commanded, “Come in.”

We opened the thin metal door and stepped inside.

If you’ve ever seen the television show Sanford and Son, then consider this: Sanford and his young spawn Lamont had the neatest, cleanest establishment for the commerce of junk that the world has ever seen. That is, if you’re standing in Eric and Lin’s mid-1980s trailer.

Inside were books, clothing, blankets, appliances, and a huge range of weird … um, I guess you’d call them “collectibles”—stuff like deer antlers, china tea sets, a javalina skull, a leather-bound flask, a brass trumpet, insulators from electric lines, and a 1930s box camera. You name it, it was there. Plus a few dogs.

And, apparently, a middle-aged man in the back, behind a desk piled high with books. Eric Bjørnstad was coming off a ten-year stint working for Harvard University on an air quality study, and he was busy lacing up a few reports.

We told him Lin had sent us, and we got to talking about climbing, even though we had no idea who he was or what he was doing. After an hour, we left with a promise to meet him—after we’d set up a camp—at the Poplar Place.

We showed up a few hours later.

Eric was at a table in the middle of the room. We immediately recognized the guy sitting to his right as Charlie Fowler (over the years, one of Eric’s closest friends) because we knew Charlie from the People’s Fake Left-wing Republic (Boulder). The other two we didn’t know, but we were soon introduced to Jimmy Dunn and Maureen Gallagher.

Then we started drinking beer. There’s not really much else to report from that evening because—as far as we know—nothing else happened. I do recall that no climbing got done the following day. In fact, no sitting up in the sleeping bags got done….


Then it started. 

Dozens and dozens of, maybe more than a hundred, trips to the desert, nearly all of which involved a visit to Eric’s in one of the five or six places he lived during the last 30-odd years—with Luke, Jon, Jesse, James, Benny, Baker, Takei, Sugarbush (Ann), Leslie, Mel, Bryan, Smith, El Jefe (Widen), Deucey, Singer, Schillaci, Fehlau, Ramro the Skiing Action Figure (JC), Porchdawg (Steve), Rab, Doorish, The Fred, and Charlie and Wee “Jumar” Joe (so called not because he was good with jumars). And a guy we called “Tourist Meat” because he wasn’t a climber (but every trip needs a non-climber to push the action toward the edge).

The best visits came once he got the trailer down on Powerhouse Lane, in which he lived for about 18 years. It was the bomb. The times in it were the bomb. And, in reality, it looked as if someone had bombed it. Sorry to say, when we arrived each weekend, it was basically the same thing.


The trailer, a long, full-sized job, was pure Eric. The front “room,” so to speak, was lined on both sides with shelves and books. The middle of the front room was a square area covered with vomit-yellow shag carpet. In the middle of the shag was a wood-burning fireplace—which in winter was always cranked to a level that would’ve put Guy Fawkes to shame. Windows on that end were those slatted rectangular things, which you can crank open and closed. The glass was, of course, that weird translucent stuff you can’t quite see through.

Step a few feet back, towards the middle of the trailer, and you’d enter Eric’s office. He had a desk propped up against the wall, stacked high with a classic Mac computer (at least 25 years out of date) and dozens of books and articles about desert flora and fauna, desert soils, desert history, Native American beliefs and traditions, poetry, 4WD trails (yup, he consulted a lot of those books because motorheads really do get around), geology, music, and philosophy—there were even a few books about climbing.

To the right of his desk was a two-seater couch (my back told me it was a two-seater after the first of dozens of nights on it). On a ledge above said couch was the TV, a 19-inch color job, continually cranked to Channel 39, also known as the Playboy Channel. (I’d never seen that channel before and after a few visits became convinced that I was a lesbian.)

That was the main front room (about half the trailer).

Walk down the hall going the other way and on your right you’d pass a bathroom, a bedroom that looked like it had been in an avalanche (there was a huge poster in there of a woman’s naked chest with a hexcentric nut holding fast against the cleavage), then the final room, Eric’s, which wasn’t anything to write home about (…but maybe a quick note to OSHA might’ve been in order).


Bjornstad with the author at his wedding in 1994.
Bjornstad with the author at his wedding in 1994.

Eric wouldn’t mind me giving him a bit of a hard time about his quarters. He and I were tight. Over the past 25 years, we’d nearly always call each other before a Mountainfilm or an AAC meeting or an OR Show, just to see if the other was going. “I know who my allies are,” he used say, followed by a small chuckle.

Truth is, Eric was one of the shyest people you could ever meet. It took him 15 years before he started offering a few quips on the idiotic route names I’d come up with. And as we knew each other longer, the franker we became with each other. We knew our own faults, but backed up by observations from the other, it was a good dressing down into an honest state of humility. I lay prostrate in the desert.


The funny thing about Eric and his trailers (and other homes) was this: they might’ve seemed like the lairs of deranged hermits, and they might’ve needed a good cleaning, but Eric’s ideals and values were anything but aligned with his housing units.

Sure, he had the Playboy Channel on 99 percent of the time, but I rarely saw him look at it (a few buddies and I would stare for days on end—many climbing objectives dropped for a few hours of sun-tanned exercise on the tube). Rather, when interesting sounds issued forth from said device, Eric would crank up the classical music on his Bose radio to try and drown out the heavy breathing. Then he’d dig out a quote by Goethe or Rilke or Heidegger to stick in the end of a chapter on some area of the desert.

I must’ve camped outside the Powerhouse Lane trailer 30 times. Another 20 nights or so were spent on the couch or the shag carpet inside, in a sleeping bag (the shag carpet was filled with slivers of glass from the ornaments Eric used to make; one night, a couple I know even skronked on that carpet!).

Often, on the coldest nights, with the stove blaring heat, Eric would start chopping wood on the carpet next to the stove. It was a sight to behold. Wood chips flying every which way, snapping into old European climbing books worth, I’m guessing, hundreds of dollars.

One day, in about 1992, Eric pulled out a huge collection of aluminum bongs. He handed them to me: “Here. We used these for the Eiger Sanction.”

Eric and Ken Wyrick had rigged the Totem Pole in Monument Valley for the filming of the Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood. He told me the story several times.

I had two take aways: one, Eric and Ken were hanging just out of sight (i.e., over the edge of the summit) during the summit scene with Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy sharing beer, and, two, Clint apparently did most of his own stunts. “If I had $10 million in the bank, I probably wouldn’t have,” Eric noted.

I had no idea what to do with the bongs, but I think they’ll make nice earrings for my youngest daughter when her ears get big enough to support two pounds of aluminum.


Eric might’ve have spent a few nights in his trailer, but his heart and soul were on the road. During the nearly three decades I knew him, he went through a series of vehicles (anyone remember the gray VW truck in the 1980s?), all of which had a common denominator: enough room to kip in the back.

We’d meet him in Arches and camp. Canyonlands, and camp. Mexican Hat, and camp. The Swell. The Fishers. Rover Road. Indian Creek. Colorado National Monument (not to be confused the un-national monument).

Sometimes he’d be making notes for one of his books on desert climbing. Other times he was just looking for company.

When he came to my and Ann’s Boulder wedding in 1994, he slept in the back of his truck, in the Boulderado parking garage. In the morning, he combed his hair, washed his face, and was ready to dance all day with Ann’s Aunt Dolores. They both had shock white hair and made a terrific sight, wheeling about the dance floor like two powdered figures from Marie Antoinette’s court. (Eric never commented on the fact that we’d hired an Elvis impersonator for the gig, but he did smile when I pointed that out.)


In the mid-2000s, Eric moved again, to a pretty bland house in the middle of Moab. He was slowing down, that was obvious. I made several visits to him there, to try and interview him, but the interviews became more and more jumbled, more and more confusing.

Most afternoons he’d drive out to the Colorado River and take up a space on the north side of the river (east of the bridge) on his folding lawn chair while his dogs went swimming. A few years ago, he was taken to a hospice in Moab. He called me several times, and made plans with James Garrett to go visit him, but work and family cancelled those plans. We talked a few times, and just a few days ago, I learned he’d passed.


A lot will be written about Eric in the coming weeks and months. And yes, he was one of the most amazing record-keepers the U.S. climbing scene will likely ever see (Roper was pretty unbelievable, too).  And, yes, his climbs were impressive: Mt Seattle first ascent, Mt Robson first winter ascent, all sorts of interesting routes in the PacNW, and, of course, a dozen big, very cool towers in the desert southwest.

But I submit that a man should be judged by the dogs he keeps.

And Eric always had a dog with him. Often two. Often others, loaners or dogs that needed sitting. I got to know many of them. They had names like Harvard, Queequeg, and Rilke. Thoughtful names, colorful names. Names that had meaning, like Eric himself.

His dogs were all very friendly and all, generally, well behaved. Not one of them ever snarled at a visitor (that I saw), and not one of them barked incessantly. And certainly, none of them ever coiled down a turtle-head indoors.

Eric didn’t feed them exactly the best diet, but they were all clearly happy and healthy, and very well adjusted. I remember using Rilke as a pillow one night at Powerhouse Lane. She didn’t budge all night.

I like to think Eric is with his dogs now, especially Rilke. She seemed to go everywhere with him for years and years, including our wedding. I miss seeing her jump up on the couch next to Eric, get a good scratch behind the ears, then flop down in his lap, totally contented.

Simply put, they are the most fabulous Moab couple I’ve ever known.




Cam Burns is a Colorado-based writer and editor. His latest book is Adventure at High Risk (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). He is currently working on several other books, including a record of his father’s five traverses of the Andes between latitudes 50 and 56 during 1967–68.

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.