Land in the Sky: Thoroughly

David Rothenberg and I were strolling along a path on the shore of Walden Pond discussing how tired we have grown of literary allusions. As we passed a small cove on the northwest side of the pond, we spotted in the clear, shallow waters what appeared to be a smart phone attached to a selfie stick. How did it get there? How long had it been submerged? Would the phone still work? Let’s find out!

So I extended my arm into the pond and retrieved the curious item. We pressed the button to turn it on. For some reason—perhaps pertaining to the laws governing fiction—it fired up. Should we call somebody? Neither of us had any urgent business to conduct with anybody else at the moment, so we took a picture of ourselves instead, using the selfie stick to hold the phone under the pure waters of Walden Pond.

After posting our selfie to Facebook, we put the phone back where we found it and continued on our not so solitary way, discussing other things.

My Friend, Skip Yowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am really going to miss you Skipper.

Eluding Antarctica

What if we stayed away from Antarctica and left the place to the penguins … and the imagination? Can we simply leave a place free of human beings? By Mike Medberry

I really don’t want to see Antarctica. Imagination is more than all of the rock and ice of that southern continent. More than fire and earthquakes, more than oxygen and water, more than blood and guts and low temperatures that freeze spit as it falls, more than Byrd’s, Shackleton’s, or Amundson’s worthy endeavors, more than a rock star’s bizarre desire to be the first to play there. Disallow scientists from further probing and diagnosing the problems in Antarctica. Imagine Atarctica as the place that no one knows.

In this world of Universal Knowledge where does wisdom begin or end? I have come to know what Antarctica is from pictures of it: beautiful white and transparent blue ice, ragged mountains, colorful southern auroras and wacky, cute penguins, a few colorful birds, and itty-bitty tiny krill. You know about the krill, right? Imagine quirky little shrimp. Antarctica is a big-rock-and-ice island, surrounded by cold, salty water and chips of ice in the drink that are bigger than any ship, with penguins comically waddling along the rocky places. Seabirds and albatrosses whirl in great numbers blacken the sky. Whales pass by now and again, spouting air and water like grand, living geysers while chasing the krill. Or was it plankton that whales come for? Well, I can read about that on the fabulous world-wide-web. No need to prove reality. Neither Narwhals nor unicorns will ever live there nor will any venomous sea snakes churn the waters of Antarctica. Even I know that.

The Ancient Mariner, of Samuel Coleridge fame, lived through a raging hell of vast icebergs, the starving boredom in the doldrums, and defying death riding on a ghostly ship with “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” That is a vision of going to Antarctica that I prefer to live by. It must have been difficult to get there by any means and more difficult to live in for any time.  I think that Coleridge had been to Antarctica of the mind and recorded its life most certainly!

Do whales fall off into the space south of Antarctica? Maybe. But I haven’t seen any. I have gained faith in gravity and expect that nothing falls into the abyss of sky. That’s the scientific mind at work. That’s my reality. But that mind hasn’t done much to protect the planet. (Or does this planet even need our protection?) I know that we have affected all the world with our growing populations and technology: from developing weapons with our many brilliant theories, (lots of oddball weapons: arrows, slings, spears, bullets, fire, lasers, atomic and hydrogen bombs, ad nasuem have been the result) protecting us from people who don’t share our opinions. Destroying societies, plant and animal communities. Protecting us from all of the uncertainties, all of the irrational things in life as they are understood. From the flat world. From darkness. From the plague. From cancer. From death. From aging. From a cult of others: Russians, Chinese, Tibetans, Polynesians, the Religious, or more current villains, from the white and the black races. It is as if understanding will give us knowledge and knowledge will convey safety. Isn’t that right? But where is the dividing line between survival and domination?

We have met the indomitable opponent of own ambition. To eat, drink, and procreate in vast comfort are our birthrights. Why would any one of us want to reduce our standard of living? And so we progress to the edge of the Lemming’s cliff knowing that we will fall and fail. Is it too late to push back? We charm ourselves into believing it is not too late for oil and food and medicines to save humanity. But we only live a day before we die. And then what have we left? Today only 7.3 billion people cover the world with the gifts of humanity.

Could we simply leave Antarctica alone for a change? To have peace where no human beings see, hike on, play concerts for the thrill of it, or fly over? Of course there are already photographs, but they open our imagination more than describe the icy continent. Our survival will depend upon our creativity and using our imaginations.

I hope krill live long and prosper in the Antarctic seawater, in warmth below the icebergs, and in the ecstasy of the warming waters of Antarctica. Let the penguins waddle in peace. Do we need to deal with the fact that their habitat, and ours, is diminishing? Yes, but not particularly in Antarctica. We’ve already seen that even Antarctica has been damaged by our exploits. Food will be less, people will be more, and water will be higher, storms bigger, as many catastrophes swirl. All I ask is to just leave Antarctica alone. As alone as possible. Maybe, like Atlantis, it will sink beneath the sea. However, I need a place to hold my dreams in my time on this bloody, beautiful planet.

There are plenty of facts showing that Antarctica is changing rapidly and that we’re not doing a damn thing about it. Nothing, anyway, that is likely to stop the world from warming. We probe it and pick at it and define the loss, like lepers in the time before antibiotics. We can all take a look at ice coring and see what has happened before we came to power or look at the rising tide and CO2levels. What do we do but say “doggone it?” I’ve heard the message chimed out to the world: the world is warming.

So what? So we may go back to the Ice Age of yesterday. So what? What is the new “antibiotic?”  We need a new drug. And a new respect for this limited planet.

Scientists using the scientific method, make systematic observations, measurements, and define experiments. We form and test our hypotheses before making brash proclamations. Our knowledge is slow moving, unimpeachable, and essential. We have discovered the underlying factors of life, nucleic acid by nucleic acid. We’ve unlocked the secrets of atomic structure. And what has that accomplished? Well, among other things we may be able to reconstruct the life force of the Tyrannosaurus Rex or the passenger pigeon and save other endangered species by analyzing their genetic components. We could extend our lives to, well, perhaps, forever. And make more money to give us each a better life, a happier life, a richer life! But when one gains, another always loses. Or as poet Alexander Pope wrote more succinctly, we are “Created half to rise and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all…” Do we want to be that forever?

What does any of this have to do with leaving Antarctica alone? I suppose not much. But my Antarctica allows mysteries to remain. I will imagine that continent of ice. It is a place, just like all other places, that is—today–being made less mysterious. Is more known of Antarctica today than yesterday? Probably. But why, what has been gained by this expanding knowledge?

doug-enduranceI want to know that Shackleton didn’t make it to the South Pole, that it was unattainable, that human ambition has its limits. Struggling serves its purpose for humanity but I don’t want to know exactly what happened to him. He survived an Odyssian journey is plenty. Must we know everything?  Can we? Failing is our greatest victory; it is the one thing that we cannot fully achieve until the moment of our death when we fail decisively, enormously, and finally. We all fail.

This is the beauty of Antarctica: it is futile, basically useless to me and to you. Sure there are plenty of beauties in Antarctca: the vicious cold, tall mountains, deep crevasses, and all of that. But this is the place where, if you choose to go, you should risk only death and the unknowable. If I go I must go alone—not with a crew of others to support me–and if a small thing goes wrong I won’t return: no heroic flights, no resupplying, no support groups. It should be a place where the world remains flat with our fear of falling off into oblivion. Or we just freeze.

Antarctica embodies the greatest mystery, the only reality that I know that I know. Antarctica, is the place where all my dreams might come true! Tread carefully on this forbidden continent and don’t bother to record its decline. Know that it is receding and there will never be another left like it.  Isn’t it enough to let it be and tell tall tales, Viking tales, of Antarctica? Perhaps you might come back from Antarctica as wise as the Mariner realizing that “He prayeth well who loveth well; both man and bird and beast. He prayest best who loveth best; All thing both great and small.” We should love Antarctica by letting her be herself.

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

Postcard: Inside autumn’s belly

By now maybe you know: I have a thing for loitering inside an aspen grove. If I’m riding by one on my bike, I feel a tug to stop. If I’m driving by, gawking, it’s all I can do to stay on the road. I just love the peace you feel within a grove. And I always feel better about life after I visit one, like this little gem in Colorado’s upper Blue River Valley.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Home Before Dark

I persuaded a couple of friends to follow me on a bushwhack that began in deep obscurity, perhaps somewhere behind Pandora’s Tavern, and led to still deeper obscurity. We plunged into the wild woolly-wags and started up a mountain, only to get beech-whipped and bush-hobbled for mile upon bloody mile, till at last we stumbled upon a vague path that led to a tenebrous prospect, somewhere high above a dusky, slow-moving river. There we encountered other wanderers, bewildered as we, gathered upon a ledge, discussing the options. Arising from the crepuscular woods below came a riddlesome sound, perhaps the snoring of Rip Van Winkle or the growling of Cerberus. Or both. Nobody could explain it. So we kept walking. And found a way home before dark.

Postcard: Fall Backpacking in Northern Colorado

For years I had wanted to visit a particular lake nine miles up this sleepy drainage, dogleg right under the headwall. My brother, a friend, and I finally made it happen this fall. If you could bottle the positive energy one feels at the outset of a backpacking adventure like this, I believe you could solve a lot of the problems damning our society. Not so much the energy you feel when you return to the trailhead the next day … but the front-end vibe is enough to get you through the six-month winter, until you can seek it out again.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Baptism by Whitewater: Running the Middle Fork of the Salmon

One man’s determination to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon in his kayak turns into a story of mermaids, fly fishing, punishment, and camaraderie. By Nicholas O’Connell

It’s a rock dodge. I point the red 9-foot kayak toward Orelano Rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The rapid is rated a III (on a scale of I – VI, from easy to hazardous), putting it at the limit of my abilities as a kayaker. Earlier rapids have boosted my confidence, but I hope they haven’t lulled me into a false sense of security. 

I enter the rapid on the right, weaving past one rock and then another, relishing the feeling of dashing through the whitewater. A boulder looms ahead. I glide past it, but overcompensate, turning my kayak to the side. The current smashes it against a large boulder, high-centering it on the top. I dig on the paddle, trying to free it.

As I try to shove off, the current catches the underside of the kayak, flipping me into the drink. The water is cold, fast, and powerful. I clutch the boat and pin the paddle between my knees. The river surges past me, threatening to knock me over.  I remember the guide’s advice about staying calm, facing down river and releasing the boat if necessary, but I keep fighting and drag it over to the bank. Taking a moment to catch my breath, I assess the situation.

For years, I’ve wanted to run the Middle Fork and experience every riffle and rapid of this wild and scenic river. Despite the spill, I’ve progressed with my paddling and hope to develop some decent chops during the trip. Easing myself back into to the kayak, I shove off and re-enter the current. I steer more decisively, avoiding the last boulders and gliding into the smooth water below.

“Nice job!” says Willi Cannell, owner of Solitude River Trips, as he pulls up next to me in the larger raft. “That’s what we call an unscheduled swim.”

The “unscheduled swim” serves as my baptism by whitewater on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, one of the premier multi-day whitewater trips in the world. It’s the first day of our 77-mile, six-day journey.  My friend, Chris Olsen, an avid river rat, and five others make up our group of seven. With its abundant whitewater, outstanding fishing, and fascinating native pictographs, the trip represents an intact fragment of the American West.

“It never gets old,” says Willi, 28, a calm, bearded guide who has run the river some 70 times. “I notice something new every time.”

0E4A8195_4791The river begins high in the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho, north of Boise, Idaho. It runs fast and hard for its length of some 100 miles, passing through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area which contains one of the deepest canyons in the continental United States. At 7,000 feet of relief, it’s almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. At 2.367 million acres, it’s the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48. Rafting the Middle Fork is the most spectacular way to explore it.

At the end of the first day, my arms ache, but I’m pleased with my progress.  I navigated a number of moderate rapids without taking another “unscheduled swim,” as Willi would put it. An enthusiastic teacher, he coached me through each of them, describing the easiest line and then leading the way with the raft.

Chris and I steer the kayaks into camp and pull them up onto the rocky shore. The guides have set up tents for us on a grassy ledge. All we have to do is assemble our cots and lay out our sleeping bags. I feel guilty about not doing more, but the guides are a cheerful, well-oiled machine, now busy preparing a fried chicken dinner. So I grab a cold beer, sit in a lounge chair and watch the river run by.

We chat with the others about the first day. Charles Gehr, an expert fly fisherman from Ashland, Oregon, swaps fish tales with Orville and Vince Talbert and Katie Peterson, vacationing from Maryland. We have no cell reception. No television. No contact with the outside world. We’re back to the pleasures of storytelling.

 

SWIMMING WITH MERMAIDS

0E4A7873_5390After breakfast the next morning, I shove off, eager to test my paddling skills.  Chris and I warm up on a couple easier rapids before hitting Jackass Rapid (Class III). Willi gives us advice about running it.

“Hug the side along the gravel bar and then go left,” he says, above the roar of the rapid.

He goes first. I watch him maneuver the raft through it and then follow. The current pushes me left and I go with it until I whip past the gravel bar. I dig hard on my right to avoid getting smashed into the ledges.  The kayak pivots left and bursts into the wave train below. Pleased with this accomplishment, I raise my paddle in celebration.

Turning around, I see Chris entering the rapid. He steers toward the gravel bar, but doesn’t paddle quickly enough to clear the rapid on his right. The wave engulfs his kayak, which disappears beneath him. The current spews him into the eddy below.

“The mermaids got me!” he says, grinning. “They pulled me under.”

The mermaids appear to be active today. With his unscheduled swim, Chris and I head downriver, gaining confidence with every rapid. The kayaks travel much faster than the larger rafts, so we wait in an eddy until the rest of the group catches up with us.

“Are you enjoying the kayak?” asks guide Adam Grogan.

“It’s great fun,” I say.

“Watch out for Killer Fang Falls,” he says ominously. “Only one man has survived it. May the force be with you!”

I easily navigate the rest of the rapids and Killer Fang Falls never materializes. The force appears to be with me today.

Later in the evening, I ask Willi for a lesson in fly casting. I have fly fished before, mostly in my teens, and would love to try it again.

Willi demonstrates how to cast. “Remember to take the line back as far as you throw it forward,” he says. “The line will send the fly out.”

He hands me the rod. My first few casts are messy and awkward, the line snaking around and hitting the water in back of me. Then I allow the line to go back far enough to launch it forward. After a few times, I fling the line forward into the current.

0E4A6854_5990I get a couple bites and then—Wham—something grabs the fly. The rod bends double as I madly try to bring in line and keep the rod tip high. The fish works back and forth across the river, trying to throw the barbless hook. I try to bring in line, but the fish keeps fighting. Slowly, I bring it closer.

“Willi, can you help me land it?” I excitedly move it toward the shallows. Willi comes over, takes the line, and guides the fish into the sand. It’s a beautiful 14-inch native cutthroat, a great omen for the trip ahead.

“Nice job!” Willi says as he removes the hook and releases the fish. With a flick of its tail, it disappears into the current. There’s nothing like a catching a large trout to stoke fishing fever.

 

READING THE RIVER

The next day, I trade places with Vince. He wants to try the kayak, while I’m psyched to fly fish, another way of reading and experiencing the river. I hope to avoid hooking Charles or guide Roger Goth and perhaps even catch a fish in the process.

Just watching Charles improves my own casting. His cast is fluid and stylish. Roger rows back and forth across the river to put us on the best fish habitat.

We cast into the banks, landing our flies in the seams alongside the main current where the fish congregate. The idea is to put the fly, a dry attractor pattern, right above the trout’s nose. I sometimes hit and sometimes miss the mark, but either way the trout don’t seem impressed.

 

Charles makes a cast, watches it drift, and then reels in his line. “That fish came up, looked at it, gave me the fin and then swam away,” he says, shaking his head.

We pass through prime fishing water, the river rushing past huge pink granite boulders. I’m expecting a strike but it doesn’t come. Fishing is about belief; you have to believe the fish will take your fly.

Fifteen minutes from camp, I cast again, sending the line out in a curving S-shape, the fly lightly landing on the surface. Bright and buoyant, it rides through the seam. A fish engulfs it. I pull back on the rod, hooking the fish.

“You’re going to have to net it yourself,” Roger says. “I need to steer.”

0E4A6841_5976A small rapid looms ahead. I keep reeling and hold up the rod as we head through the rapid. At the end of it, I reel in the line and feel the fish struggling to throw the hook.  I bring it toward the raft until Roger nets it, a beautiful 14-inch native cutthroat, wriggling and flapping. I take a long look at the fish: its green, black-spotted back, bright red slashes along its jaw, and fierce, surprised eye. Then Roger drops it back in the water.

Late in the afternoon, we pull into Grassy Flat, a wide open field above the river bordered by a grove of ponderosa pine trees. The guides have already set up the tents among the trees.  Like all the other campsites, this one looks as pristine as when Lewis and Clark passed through the region in 1805, avoiding the Salmon River as too tough to navigate. No garbage. No pop cans. Not even a fire ring. The guides bring a portable metal fire box for cooking. It feels like we’re the first ones to visit this place.

“I’m jealous of people who come down the river for the first time,” Willi says over a beer. “I love to hear people say, ‘It’s amazing this place exists in the lower 48.’”

The next day, we take out the kayaks again. The rapids will be challenging, but Willi is confident in our abilities. By this time, my paddling skills have improved, but the volume of water has increased. At the start of the trip it was low and “bony,” but now it’s broad, flat, and powerful, barreling around rocks, making the hydraulics more challenging.

After we run a couple riffles, Willi announces that Waterfall Creek Rapid (Class IV) is coming up. “It’s complicated and technical,” he adds. “You’ll start to the right, go left, and then back to the right.” 

The roar of the rapid is deep and powerful. Chris and I wait in our kayaks until Willi’s raft hits the rapid on the right. Willi skillfully pivots the raft to the left, churning through the whitewater. Then he brings it back to the right, the water surging around him.

Chris is right behind him, fighting his way through the rapid. I back paddle, waiting my turn. I don’t want to enter too soon and crash into Chris. He disappears into the rapid. I can’t wait any longer; I don’t want to lose sight of him. I head for the right side of the rapid, feeling it buffet the kayak. I spot Chris and stroke right, turning my kayak until—Whoa! —I plunge over a drop into the pool below. Cursing, I fight hard to follow him as he bobs and weaves through the waves. The current knocks me around like a bathtub toy, but I keep moving left, following a path through the tumult, the current shoving me toward a large granite boulder, threatening to high-center me like at Orelano Rapid, but I stroke madly, just missing it. I spot a chute amid the spray and go for it, shooting through it like a grapeseed through fingers. Waves smack me from both sides, trying to wrest the paddle from my grasp. I grit my teeth, clench my paddle and take my punishment.

The river releases me into the calm water below. I execute a wide pirouette, catching my breath and feeling the knot in my stomach release.

Chris raises his paddle in the air. I do the same. I let out a yell, jazzed by the jolt of adrenalin.

That evening we camp at Ouzel, a narrow strip of sand on the bank. It’s our last night and everyone’s in a celebratory mood. The guides serve London Broil steak and pop the corks on several bottles of wine. Sitting by the river, I take in the beauty of the surroundings: the broken line of cliffs on the opposite bank, the bright half moon rising in the distance, the chorus of crickets and frogs serenading us. Later that evening, guide Charles Baker takes out his guitar and sings “Old Crow Medicine Show” with the Milky Way overhead, his voice harmonizing with the river murmuring in the background.

 PAGES OF STONE

On the last day, Willi says the rapids are “consequential” and so we put away the kayaks and board the rafts for the final leg of the trip. I’m alternately disappointed and relieved not to be running these rapids in a kayak, but it’s a moot point. Willi has spoken.

0E4A8152_4748Right after breakfast, we pull in at the Stoddard Creek. After a short walk, we reach an extensive series of pictographs drawn by the Sheepeater Indians who lived in the Middle Fork canyon for centuries. The drawings depict deer, elk, and the stick figures of those who preceded us.

Getting back on the rafts, we barrel through some of the biggest rapids on the river­—Rubber, Devil’s Tooth, House of Rock. In between rapids, I stare up at the steep rock walls of the Impassable Canyon, awed by the intricate patterns and whorls of minerals. It’s the history of the Middle Fork written in pages of stone, a history unfathomably long, complex and mysterious, with human life just the last brief page.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that you never experience the same river twice. This has certainly been true of this trip. Every day has brought new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and experiences: the exhilaration of the rapids, the satisfaction of learning to run them, the camaraderie of the group, the graciousness of the guides, all wrapped up in the powerful and haunting rhythms of the river.

As we approach the confluence with the main Salmon, I marvel at how quickly the time has passed. Then I spot a dirt road, the first real sign of development in the last week. As we haul our gear up to the take out, a trio of ORVs roars by, welcoming us back to “civilization.”

0E4A7722_5238

Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and teaches for www.thewritersworkshop.net

TOP PHOTO courtesy Solitude River Trips; ALL OTHER PHOTOS by Kat Smith.

Mountain Passages: Heavy Thoughts

Bear makes a commitment to lose some weight, but after sports, a divorce, running, backcountry ski patrol, and a handful of other scheme have failed, can iPhone photos really do the trick? By Alan Stark

As an adult (a term with infinite definitions) the most I ever weighed was 236 pounds and the least was 175. Right now I weigh 206 pounds and have every intention of getting to 190 pounds.

Fat chance.

Unfortunately, weight loss is all self-delusion and general horse pucky. The real truth is that in spite of the multi-billion dollar weight loss cartel and its various bromides, exercise regimens, supplements and snake oil, group think positivism, nutritional hocus pocus, and even surgical procedures, it is almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off.

The first time I decided to loose weight was as a roly-poly 16-year-old. It had become obvious to me that no one wanted to date Fat Albert; that if I weighed less I might get a date. So I counted calories and wrote down what I ate and lost twenty pounds.

So there I was at five-ten or so and weighing 160 and still dateless. Weight was only part of my dating problem, acne residue, terminal shyness, and no car were contributing factors. By the time I reached my adult height of 6 feet, I weighed 180.

The next plan was to lose weight by playing sports. My Dad stressed a number of practical and philosophical skills and points of view to me and my older sister. One personal philosophy took on more importance than any other—it was an unrestrained and fierce independence. Team sports are all about transcending oneself to become part of a greater whole. No surprise that team sports pretty much eluded me.

My problem was independent thinking. Take football for example. I played guard and had two jobs. First, protect the quarterback and second, make a hole for the running back. But I could see it was usually a linebacker disrupting most of our plays. And it was clear to me that if I knocked down a linebacker repeatedly, our plays would go a good deal better. But I wasn’t doing the team thing, I was free-lancing and spent an inordinate amount of time on the bench as a result.

The afternoon practices made me stronger but no slimmer. I didn’t get to play much.

And then there was lacrosse. I went to junior high and high school in Maryland where lacrosse, like fly fishing in Montana, is sort of a religion. In most states, a five or six-year-old kid gets a baseball glove or bat for his birthday. In Maryland it’s a lacrosse stick. I was late to the game, starting at sixteen.

But I loved lacrosse because it was mostly mayhem and clearing the ball downfield while people were bashing each other with sticks. I played crease defense in front of the goalie. I could watch a play form-up at midfield. I could pick the player most likely to shoot and hope that he came at me because I was bigger, although not as fast, but 100 per cent committed to taking the ball away from him. I did okay in lacrosse but ended up playing club lacrosse because I simply wasn’t good enough to play for the university.

But did I lose weight? Nope, I actually gained weight, possibly muscle. Lacrosse practices usually started with either a slow five mile run or a half hour of intense wind sprints that taught me how to run, something I have done ever since, mostly on trails.

The running continued as I started a career, spent some time as a guest of the military, and got married to a person who became a lawyer. Running was sort of my sanity. I could get all wired-up about the job and then go out and put up some miles and come back not giving much of a shit about the job until I went to work the next day.

Perfect.

My next weight loss scheme came when the lawyer and I split. I had smoked a little since college, maybe half a pack a day and then quit. That didn’t work so well so I took up smoking a pipe in my late twenties. I thought I was pretty sophisticated looking with my pipe when, more likely, I just looked like a dick.

My post-divorce weight loss program was to smoke my pipe and run uphill from Table Mesa to NCAR and back down every day. I was trashed from the hard uphill and pounding downhill, often so trashed that I forgot to eat dinner. I was thirty some years old, and somewhat of a skeleton at 175.

And then I fell in love a couple of times. The second time stuck and I married Blue Eyes. I learned to love to cook. We bought a house and got a dog. Domestic life is rewarding. You have this partner with whom you get to travel through time, often laughing at the dumb stuff like dealing with bankers, and loving the beautiful stuff like a rainy November day in the gardens of Kyoto. Problem is, while my life got better, I managed to go from 175 to 236 over twenty years. All my fault.

Since high school I have always run something 700 to 1,000 miles a year, sometimes more, almost always on trails. As the pounds piled on the running got harder but I was still out there. Then my running partner and I got this wild idea that we’d try the Atkins diet where you could eat just about anything you wanted so long as it wasn’t a carbohydrate. What a great idea. I got down to 205 pounds but I had absolutely no endurance. There was nothing in the tank. A simple five-mile trail run would seem like it went on forever in glue.

I stopped the Atkins diet and gained back twenty pounds in less than a month.

Every since when it was time to take some weight off I just cut back on drinking and sweets and portion sizes and kept things in the 210 to 215 range. But then I started working as a volunteer backcountry ski patroller.

gearLet’s say that last winter I was at 210 and that my AT skis, boots, and clothing added 15 pounds, that’s 225. Add a 20 pound pack that included a shovel, probe, transceiver, bivy bag and liner, air mattress, radio, and first aid gear and I was weighing-in at 245 and trying to move uphill at 10,000 feet. It was hard. I was always the slowest backcountry patroller.

Starting in May my large sister in Vancouver and I agreed to work together using Fitbits to lose weight with a weekly Friday weigh-in that includes iPhone photos of the scale so there can be no cheating. It’s actually worked so far. While we had planned to be down 20 or so pounds by now, we’ve both lost and kept off at least ten pounds in about the same number of weeks. Half good.

But here’s the deal: I’ve got to get to 190 before snowfall if I’m going to make it through the next backcountry patrol season.

Fat Chance.

Alan Stark is a free-lance writer, volunteer backcountry ski patroller, and recovering book publisher who lives with this Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.

Postcard: Como, Colorado

For all the western towns that have grown exponentially in recent decades, a smattering of their peers have remained more or less the same as ever. Como, Colorado, a railroad town founded in 1879, is a good example. I don’t think I could live there, but every fall, I try to visit on my bike and let the mellow vibe wash over me. To get there, you cross the Continental Divide and weave in and out of aspen trees on a long, technical singletrack. There’s no way to know in advance if the aspens have turned, which always provides extra motivation to find out.

como fall scene