Postcard: The power of big peaks


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

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Becoming a Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When God Spoke English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book:

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


The Beast in the Latrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Land in the Sky: The Poetry Trail

I was driving along a rutted dirt road on the far side of the river, through a landscape of scruffy pastures and second-growth woods. I saw a sign that said “Poetry Trail.” This was unexpected. No mention of it occurs in any trail guide I’m familiar with. I decided to investigate the matter. Parking at the trailhead was limited. Luckily nobody else was there.

I got out of the car and looked around. Affixed to a ragged maple was a wooden box with a hinged lid. Inscribed on the box were the words “Guide to the Poetry Trail.” I lifted the lid and looked inside. The box was empty. I peered down the trail and considered my options. The woods were swaying in the quickening gusts of a late December afternoon. I could hear the snapping of large branches from senescent trees and the crashes they made when hitting the ground. Daylight was waning. I chose to proceed.

Before long I encountered the first poem. It was posted on a sign next to the trail, a pleasant little nature lyric that rhymed. I read it aloud to no one in particular and continued on my way. Soon enough I arrived at the next poem, an ode to a wheelbarrow. It did not rhyme, but that was okay. I enjoyed it and resumed the journey. Next up was a love poem by an Episcopal priest. It was alright. After that, I was getting deeper in the woods. The poems started getting metaphysical. One was by an analytical philosopher. It was titled “Is Touching Possible?” I was having a hard time making sense of it. I feared becoming benighted. And that’s when the Poetry Trail took a lugubrious turn.

Next I knew, a decrepit iron fence blocked the way. It traced the bounds of what appeared to be a grave. No marker to explain what might be going on here, just a ragged shrub of mountain laurel, a few fallen leaves, and the dragon-roar of wind in the naked trees. I looked—oh did I look—but I found no further signs of the Poetry Trail. This was end of the line.



Land in the Sky: Aubade

It had been a season of sun and sweat: clearing trees, hauling brush, piling it high to let it all dry. Then waiting for the right time. Months passed. A prolonged autumn arrived and departed. Days grew shorter. Finally, a December afternoon, moist and calm. It took only a bit of newspaper and a single match. For a few minutes then, a furious glory. Followed by a long night of slow smoldering. Dawn broke. And all was ash.

Postcard: Arapahoe Basin, Colorado

Few ski experiences soothe the soul like skiing an empty afternoon at Arapahoe Basin in Colorado. The area’s ski patrollers, bless their hearts, opened the steep Pallavicini face for about 90 minutes in the late afternoons this week, and only a couple dozen people were there to partake. With no bumps and a soft wind buff on the north-facing 1,300-vertical-foot pitch, it is probably the best inbounds skiing in the nation right now.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Earn Your Face

Mountain Passages: Bear self-analyzes via his grizzled visage. By Alan Stark

This is your face.

You have earned it.

Much of your mountain history is etched on your face. Other mountain people can look at your face and tell a good deal about you. Some flatlanders can understand your face, particularly those flatlanders who have lived out in the open, away from cities. But most flatlanders won’t understand your face. They’ll just think you have an attitude, or maybe not enough sense to get out of the weather.

The flatlanders could be right on both counts.

Let’s start with the early morning view of your face in the bathroom mirror; it can be a religious experience.

“Jesus Christ, that’s a frightening face,” you mumble to yourself.

Sometimes, the one nearest and dearest to you, who is also standing at the sink may comment.

“Nice face,” Blue Eyes says.

“It’s the best I can do at 7am.”

“Damned scary,”

“And I can’t comment on your face?”


The moment passes and you realize that this is the worst face moment for the entire day, unless of course, you walk into a pole on Main Street because you weren’t paying attention.

The steam from the shower softens some of the hard edges on your morning face. If you are male, the shaving routine gives you several moments to reconsider your

first impressions of the morning. Your second thoughts about your face are considerably more positive than your first. If you are female, there is the hair-drying and maybe a makeup routine that allows you a second opinion. In either case, reality is a little less glaring after some careful consideration, rationalization, and self-delusion.

So there is this mythical character who stares at himself in a pool of water and turns into a Republican or a heartless stone. I’m not suggesting that you spend so much time staring at your face that you’ll turn into a Republican, but I do want you to consider your face, component by component. Besides—you don’t have much chance of turning into a Republican, given your bank account balance.

The hairline is either about where it was when you were eighteen or it is not. Mine has gotten somewhat shallow above both temples, but in general, my hairline is about the same. The problem is that there is considerably less hair above the hairline than when I was essentially a hair machine at eighteen. Male patterned baldness is a totally different issue. My friend Yardman was probably born bald. He’s been hair-challenged since I met him in his early thirties. However, the lack of hair seems to have had no appreciable effect on him. He has a kid who has been a real trial but may turn into someone special. He runs a mountain not-for-profit that rebuilds trails on Fourteeners and he’s married to Povy the Shooter, who can make just about anything look interesting, if not beautiful. They live in a house in Golden that used to be a whorehouse, or so he claims, probably another lie like the lie he tells about having hair when he was twenty.

Unlike men, women tend to take hair seriously. I think of trying to describe women’s hair like walking into a frame shop with a print and looking at all the possible frames on the wall—and then standing there dumbfounded because there were too many choices. So I’ll break women’s hair down into good hair and bad hair—and that depends on the sort of day you are having. And that may depend on more variables than any male can ever process with his brain—ever. So I’ll stand on the comparison that hair frames the face but suggest that a mountain woman has earned her face and should show as much of it as possible—it helps tell us who you are.

The forehead, to be a great forehead, needs a couple of confounded wrinkles in it. You know what I mean—when your boss asks a question that indicates she has been off the planet for a significant period of time and you don’t really want to spoil the day by saying, “Are you kidding me?” But then again her question was so stupid and out of context that you need to make some gesture to indicate displeasure—obviously, that gesture is the wrinkled forehead. Those permanent lines indicate incredulity at ongoing stupidities and are usually well-earned. There are a good number of people in this world who are “managers” but are nonetheless just about useful as bowling ball handles. All sexes should take pride in their confounded wrinkles.

Eyebrows are an important indicator of mountainess. You need to have eyebrows to keep the sweat out of your eyes. There are eyebrows that go from the color of snow to the color of walnuts shells in late fall. There are eyebrows that turn up and turn down and unibrows that just ignore convention and worm above a nose. There black eyebrows on brown people who took the chance to come across the border for a better life. There are eyebrows like mine that look like jungles and cause barbers to whack at them as soon as I sit down in the chair.

“Mind if I trim the brows?”

“No, not at all”

“Whack. Whack. Whack. … Whew, that’s better.”

“Than what?” you ask.

“Than looking like a lower primate,” she answers.

Eyes sometimes tell the whole story in an instant. Just a second of eye contact between two human beings can have magical qualities. It’s like two Viet Nam vets whose eyes meet and they instantly say to each other, “Welcome home.” They just know at that moment of contact who the other person is, and it makes them smile to still be alive and able to send that message with their eyes. It’s seeing a set of eyes across the room, and feeling your mouth smile in recognition of someone you want to talk to.  It’s looking at this person you share your life with and knowing exactly what that person is thinking—mostly.

There are three general levels of eye contact, (1) full-on, (2) glancing, and (3) not-at-all.

Full-on eye contact is a tad aggressive and invasive. There are times when you can see all the way to my heart, in my eyes, if I hold your stare. There aren’t a lot of people in this world that I trust with that vision. Full-on eye contact is something to be used judiciously, for a good reason, and certainly not just to see if the other person will blink. That’s meaningless cow-person bullshit.

Glancing is the way most of us communicate with our eyes. We don’t invade another person’s privacy with a full-on stare, but we do make sure to make eye contact as we move about, and particularly when we are conversing. It is nothing more than a quick glance to make sure your words are being heard, and an acknowledgement with a quick meeting of eyes that their words are being heard.

No eye contact can mean a number of things starting with, “you are a complete waste of a human being,” and ending with, “you scare the shit out of me and the last thing in the world that I’m going to do is make eye contact.” But mostly no eye contact means that the person doesn’t give a shit, you don’t count, and they aren’t listening.

Ears are particular and maybe the most unattractive parts our faces. There are several curious phenomenon about my ears. I’ve noticed that my ears are the cause of a recurring speech pattern particularly in situations where there is a good deal of ambient noise. Life partners tend to describe this phenomenon as “selective hearing” or “programmed inattention” or “spouse listening.” The phenomenon manifests itself in a variety of phrases,



“I didn’t hear you.”

“No, I’m not ignoring you.”

The other really odd thing about my ears is counterintuitive. There is a hair challenged spot on the back of my head that will absolutely turn into fire if I neglect to slather it with sunscreen when spring skiing. But why is it that I can’t buy hair for the top of my head, hair seems to sprout from just about all over my ears? If I let it go, I could grow my own earmuffs.

As a mountain person, there is a good chance that you have sun, exposure, or wind damage to your ears and they look the worse for wear because of it. And maybe you don’t hear as well as you did before, because you spent unnumbered nights close to the stage dancing like the world was going to end in the morning.

The nose is a special indicator. It can have any shape from pug to full banana to “cute as a button,” but it needs to be a little rough looking. The surface of the nose isn’t exactly smooth like maybe it has been frostbitten at 12,000 feet in a windstorm or scorched on a bike ride out of Moab—little pieces of flaking skin are a good sign. A certain crustiness around the nostrils is normal from an ongoing sniffle from sleeping on the ground or in a really cold room with the dog, two joined-together down bags for a comforter, and one significant other who sleeps naked.

Cheeks start with being well-browned but capable of going pink for a variety of reasons, from embarrassment at being caught reading something serious, to forgetting the sunscreen, to tossing a line in a bar at someone interesting and having the object of interest explain to the surrounding mob that she/he may have just heard the lamest pickup line in the history of the world.

Along with cheeks that we need to discuss beards. There is always the suspicion that the beard is hiding something other than crumbs and dried soup from the last meal. Let’s start with a really scruffy looking untrimmed beard that looks pretty much like a gorilla’s armpit. The question needs to be posed, is this really ugly beard hiding something even more ugly, or is the owner of this beard such a lazy fuck that he doesn’t care? On the other extreme is a beard that is perfectly trimmed. At the very least this beard indicates that the owner has way too much time on his hands or spends way too much time in front of a mirror.

Before we get to the mouth, teeth, and chin, we need to discuss laugh lines between the cheeks and mouth. Laugh lines are a good thing, like waking up to a life partner who sleepily slips a hand across your stomach.

Laugh lines are earned from laughing so hard that tears come to your eyes and the back of your head hurts. They come from a friend who tells a great story, or a slapstick fall on the corduroy that ends in a face plant, or hitting the tongue of the river just right so the boat just slides perfectly into the wave train. There is no way to fake laugh lines, you have them or you don’t. And if you don’t have them—chances are you need to lighten up.

The mouth is almost as special a place as the eyes; it is where all the truth and lies come from, you just need to know the difference. There’s a good chance that if you have spent time in the mountains it’s fairly easy to tell truth from lies. The Mountain Gods teach you that truth just feels right, like an old polypro pullover. But sometimes a person can fool you about the truth, but if you are smart, that only happens once with that person. You can also lie to yourself with predictable results. It’s looking at a rolling, roiling, rampaging grey clouds of a storm front headed your way and telling yourself you are weatherproof. You know you are lying to yourself, and that in a couple minutes you are going to be cold, wet, and miserable.

“Having a good mouth” on you implies that you can hold your own in a shouting match with a drunk, yell loud enough to be heard down canyon, and quick enough that if someone says something profound, silly, tasteless, outrageous, or just plain fun, you can match them instantly. That’s a good mouth.

Teeth are sort of an odd measure of mountainess. In the first place, it is good to have them unless you really like soup. A number of us are not native to the mountains; we came here from other places and lives where straight teeth were some sort of measure of your dad’s financial status. So a good number of us have artificially straight teeth. But some of us have missing teeth due to mechanical mishaps or misunderstandings. The mountain life doesn’t pay enough to have them replaced so we look a little worn. Bruno the ER doc told me about the teeth to tattoo ratio that he used when evaluating a patient. He said that it’s a good bet that if the patient had more tattoos than teeth there was a fair to good chance that this person didn’t see docs very often, and only when they were seriously hurt.

The chin is what most of us have landed on at least once given a life in the mountains. I don’t have any scars on my chin, but I’ve entertained my dentist with the sound my jaw makes when moved from side to side. This is no doubt due to a face-first encounter with a third compression bump when I could have sworn I only saw two compression bumps as I came flying under the lift towers.

A good chin tucks into the hood of your parka without thinking just as it juts out when someone does or says something really obnoxious and it is always available as place to put your hand when you are leaning on a table and pondering.

I have reviewed the major components of your face and if you are a mountain person, chances are you have recognized parts of your face. There is only one thing you need to remember and then smile.

This is your face.

You have earned it.

Finding Hermitage

Dateline Europe: A visit to France’s L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roc. By M. Michael Brady

44 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaOne of the distinguishing features of Mediterranean France is its profusion of ecclesiastical buildings. Each village, each town has its own church. Away from the more populous places there are chapels, built in centuries past, when people traveled mostly on foot or hoof. In the Pyrénées-Orientales Department along the northwest coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there are 127 chapels, considerable for its area of 1589 square miles (about the size of the State of Rhode Island). Today there are roads to or near many of the Chapels. But most are accessible only by hiking, along dirt roads or marked trails.

The favorite chapel hike of this correspondent is to L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (or San Marti de la Roca in Catalan) in the foothills of the Pyrenees above the small village of Camélas (population 417), about 17 miles by road southwest of Perpignan, the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales Department. It’s perched on a hilltop, with a panoramic view of the encompassing hills and valleys. Here the vegetation is sparse; it stands like a beacon, visible from afar.

43 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaAs its name implies, in the 13th century L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (“Saint Martin of the Rock”) originally was built as a hermitage, where one or more monks lived in seclusion from the world about. In the 14th century it was expanded to a trapezoidal church measuring 21 by 31 feet, including housing. In 1644, Honoré Ciuro, the local Abbot, decreed that the hermitage should become a chapel, a move typical of the 17th century, as the Church sought to give new life to ecclesiastical buildings that had been abandoned as families moved to other hamlets of the region.

Anti-clerical laws enacted in 1790 restricted the uses of ecclesiastical buildings that were not parishes, so the hermitage closed. But in 1801 the laws were moderated, and in 1838 the hermitage was restored. Thereafter it was well maintained, with further restoration in 1969 and 1977.

47 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaToday, “Saint Martin of the Rock” no longer is inhabited. But it is a popular hike destination, about a three hour round trip up from and back down to Camélas. The elevation gain is modest, from Camélas at an elevation of 1082 ft. to the hermitage at an elevation of 1699 ft., and the hiking easy, more than half of it on roads maintained by the local forest service for fire protection and woodland maintenance. The surrounding valleys and their winds also have made “Saint Martin of the Rock” a prominent site for paragliding; info here (selectable in French or English).

Getting to the starting point at the large, free public parking lot in Camélas is easiest by car, as it’s south of the N116 motorway and north of the D615 highway west of Perpignan. But there’s also inexpensive bus service at 1 Euro a ticket (about $1.12) throughout the Department. From Perpignan you can go by bus to Camélas with a transfer midway at Thuir; schedules here (French only), Perpignan-Thuir route 390 and Thuir-Camélas route 391.

Map: The French IGN (“National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information”) Carte de Randonnée (“Hiking Map”) series map “Thuir/Ille-Sur-Têt map, No. 2448OT”, shows Camélas and the trails around it. You can order it online from IGN here (French only, prices in Euros), or from map shops in other countries, such as Maps Worldwide in the UK here (in English, prices in British pounds).

A Night at the OX

Head, Shoulders, and Brains Above the Rest: Reflections on Missoula’s Oxford Saloon. By Cameron M. Burns

12319598_10206573767195747_2116353641_nIn 1990, after spending two summers in the Sierra Nevada, climbing with fellow sadomasochist Steve Porcella and a few other wayward grovelers, I returned to my parents’ basement in New Mexico while Steve headed back to Montana and graduate school.

Our two Sierra summers had led us to the notion that someone ought to write a guide to California’s fourteeners. I corresponded with Galen Rowell about the idea (he’d been up on Whitney with us in early 1990 when he and Dave Wilson finished off Galen’s and Kike Arnal’s abortive attempt on Left Wing Extremist). Both Steve Roper and Galen were supportive, so Steve (P.) and I hunkered down, 1,000 miles from each other, and, when time allowed, began writing. Within a few days, it was pretty apparent that we needed to be nearer each other in order to get the thing done. I was broke (as usual—how come after a 30-year and somewhat successful writing career I’m still broke? Maybe not as successful as I thought, huh?)), so my father offered me the job of sanding the entire exterior of his Los Alamos house, and staining it. He said he’d give me $1,000, which sounded like a fortune to me.

The job was brutal. The paint was like concrete, and it took hours just to do a few square feet.

Two weeks later, after several accidents, one of which included my right index finger getting caught in the belt sander I was using (you ever see one of those applied to flesh?), I moved on to the thrill of staining. At least the stain had some nice, mind-bending fumes whereas the sander just ate through any human meat it could connect with.

In the spring of 1991, I had enough money to head north. I invited a woman I knew from college, Ann, to go with me. She jumped at the idea. Like everyone who’s ever lived in Boulder, she was in a rut. And here I was—some young Romantic suggesting we were headed to paradise. It must’ve been the fumes from the stain. Or maybe she’d had a bad knock on her head as a child. Anyway, she agreed, and we shimmied north in my old, hand-me-down Toyota, camping along the way because that was all we could afford. We eventually got to Missoula, and moved in with Steve and his new bride, Sandy, who was pregnant. This arrangement was not to last, as Ann had already lined up a gig radio-tracking moose in Glacier National Park, and I was simply an easily rejectable third wheel in a situation that did not call for a tricycle. So Ann departed for Glacier within a few days, and I stayed with Steve and Sandy for a couple of weeks.

Each morning, for sanity reasons, I went and drank coffee at a place called the Oxford Saloon.

The Oxford Saloon was established in 1883 and has been continuously operated 24 hours a day since then. It’s not an easy place to describe, as it’s not just a saloon. It’s a saloon, keno lounge, diner, strip joint, casino, and liquor store all rolled into one. The old menu summed it up nicely: “Good old-fashioned eatin’, drinkin’ and gambling.” Think amusement park of adult vices and you get the idea.

After a couple of weeks in Missoula, Steve convinced Sandy that we needed to do a bit more on-the-ground research for the book.

How climbing Half Dome had anything to do with a book we were writing in Missoula, Montana on peaks mostly in the high Sierra has been lost on me ever since, but Steve somehow got out of the responsible would-be parent role, and we jetted south in his truck for a couple of weeks.

Half Dome was a bust. We got up a dozen pitches before some ne’er do well got in trouble up at Big Sandy (I think). The rescue gang came out and started blaring commands at the wall. That was all well and fine, but lingering out to the west was a massive storm. Massive, massive storm. We descended. Everyone descended before we were power-hosed off the wall.

Back in Missoula, we licked our wounds. And I spent more and more time at the Ox. Ann was out cavorting with moose, and my partner in crime was having a baby, doing his studies, and generally unavailable. The Ox it was.

As my visits there went on (typically in search of as much caffeine as I could hold down), it became apparent this was no ordinary … um, establishment.

Let’s take a quick tour—or a tour of it as I came to know it in 1990.

Walk in the front door of the Ox and you would be presented with a large hall-like space. Nothing out of the ordinary except that in that space there were three very distinct areas. Immediately to your right was a large, dark, heavy wooden bar—the kind of thing that could’ve done duty as a support pier for an interstate highway. People had worn sections of the bar with their elbows, carved initials in it, and generally abused it, although it was the kind of bar you could never demolish because it was just so darn solid. There were likely a few bullet holes in the wood, although I never saw any. Certainly there were several stains that I’m convinced were dried human blood.

Behind the bar was a great big mirror. Along the bottom of the mirror was a neat line of bottles—liquor of all manner and sundry. A few grizzled and genuinely rough types were always on the stools—morning, noon, and night—but there was never more than three or four of them. And, though they looked like something out a zombie apocalypse / western / hard crime / Rikers Island documentary, they were always cheerful and showed us their missing teeth, or rather, the gaps where said teeth might’ve gone.

Above the bar’s mirror was a sizeable collection of rifles and shotguns in glass cases, each with a placard describing the weapon and, I assumed, the kinds of flora, fauna, and road signs the piece had blown to smithereens.

I remember one morning, 8 am or so, when Ann was down from Polebridge. A huge man with eyeballs that pointed in different directions and wearing, it seemed, nothing more than a pair of dirty blue overalls and black boots wandered in. He looked like he’d been rejected by a mental health facility for being too crazy. He sat down at the bar, ordered six shots of whiskey, downed them, and walked out. Curious as all get-out, Ann and I stealthily followed him outside and watched as he climbed on the biggest, nicest-looking Honda Gold Wing I’ve ever seen, cranked it up, and chugged off down the street.

“Another day in paradise?” Ann suggested.

Off to the left side when you came in the front door was a pool table and, when I was there, a keno board on the wall. The temperament of the rough types at the bar was complemented by the elderly folks who seem to congregate for keno at all hours of the day. When the keno gang wasn’t in residence, the pool table was used for poker, and a dark and crusty collection of old men would gamble for hours on end.

Walk farther in—the bar ends and there’s an ugly Formica counter. This is the diner part of the Ox. Behind the diner were several refrigerated pastry display cases with pies of various flavors. The kitchen equipment—griddle, blenders, toaster ovens, etc.—all looked to be at least fifty years old, but they were kept miraculously clean and seem to work without incident.

When I lived in Missoula there was one waitress there with the most mannish of faces. She had a massive hooked nose, large beady eyes, a flat forehead big enough to mount a billboard on, and a strange tube-shaped body clad in what appeared to be left over worsted from the reupholstering of a couch. She looked remarkably like the Monty Python guys when they dressed up as little old ladies and reenacted famous military scenes. Her nametag said Francine or something, but behind her back we called her Frank.

Her sidekick, the cook, was a young man with an outgoing demeanor who both danced and sang Elvis Presley songs while he cooked eggs, sausages, ham, pancakes, grits, toast, and whatever else got ordered up. We labeled him, not surprisingly, Elvis.

There was a strange symbiosis between Frank and Elvis. Frank never smiled or said much and looked as if she / he might be in some kind of pain. Meanwhile, Elvis danced around and cracked jokes, laughed a lot, and was genuinely amusing.

“This guy’s pretty funny, huh?” Frank would snort sternly while thrusting a sloshing pot of coffee at Elvis. (Elvis would then blow Frank a kiss behind Frank’s back.)

The most notable thing about the diner, however, was the Ox’s most famous dish: brains and eggs. It was listed at the top of the menu on the wall, like some kind of gastrointestinal challenge. Our small collection of friends often joked about ordering it, but none of us really had the cojones.

Behind the diner, the Ox narrowed down into a wide, dark hallway of sorts. Each side of the hallway was lined with slot machines (one-armed bandits), where you could gamble away any money you might’ve saved by dining at the Ox. Behind the slot machines was a strip club.

Of course, when you’re sitting down to a breakfast omelette and a quite unclothed stripper leans over the counter next to you to order dry white toast and a Budweiser so she can keep her energy up … well, that works a mite better than coffee in the attention-span department. None of the strippers was particularly pretty, but they were all nice. The thing I hated was the fact they all smoked, even when standing at the Formica counter eating their toast and drinking their beer.

The other very noticeable aspect of the Ox was the “decoration” on the walls. There were excruciatingly rough portraits of longtime Oxford patrons. Dozens of these images were nailed to the walls, all the way up to the ceiling. The portraits looked like a cross between a fourth grader’s artwork and police suspect sketches.

Still, in 1990, while I lived in Missoula for six months, the Ox was a home away from home. Certainly it had an air of good down-home dysfunction. I fit in the way a glove fits in the bed of a pickup truck.


12348370_10206573771635858_45635775_nIn 1996, Ann and I returned to Missoula for a wedding. Our trip included a visit, with much of the wedding party, to the Ox. After some raucous taunting and teasing—and me considering that I might never see the Ox again—I ordered the brains and eggs. This brought me a round of applause from the gang, but it also meant I was committed.

After considerable time, the dish arrived. The meal was $5.99, according to the menu, but when it arrived it looked to be enough food to nourish a small Montana town. The scrambled eggs, of which there must’ve been about six, sat in one corner of the massive round plate. The rest of the dish was piled high with an opaque, gray Jello-like substance. There must’ve been five pounds of the stuff.

I pushed it with my fork, which slid easily into the gelatinous lump. I cut a piece off with my knife and put the soft gray Jello lump in my mouth. It didn’t taste like much. It was sort of tasteless. It was the consistency that disturbed me. Like some kind of soft pudding that you could probably snort through a straw. A violent shiver went down my spine. But I kept on.

I must’ve eaten about a third of the brains before I was forced to retire. The texture and color were making me exceptional queasy and the barrage of jokes from people rumored to be my friends was getting to me. I pulled up shy by several lobes and switched to coffee. Remarkably, everything stayed down.

In recent months I’ve read that the Ox no longer serves brains and eggs—the meal canned by one of the public health agencies. I’ve read the walls are no longer covered with the portraits of Oxford regulars (but, rather, with scenic images of logging, mining and railroads). And I’m sure Frank and Elvis are long gone. And as far as the liquor store, I never knew there was one until I read it online the other day—no clue if it’s still there or ever really was.

There are certain dining and drinking establishments that loom large in your youth. Places where you met your first girlfriend or ate your first Mezcal worm or tried steak tartare for the first time. Places that loom larger in your mind than they really were.

El Chapultepec in Denver, Evangelo’s in Santa Fe, the Purple Pig in Alamosa, Michael’s Kitchen in Taos, Laughing Ladies in Salida, Mother’s Café in Boulder (RIP), the Golden Burro in Leadville, Tacqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs—are among my dozens of loomers.

But the Ox stands head, shoulders—and, of course, brains—above the rest on my list for its sheer quirkiness, its colorful denizens, and the strange intersections of vice, humanity, food, and of course, beverages. I’ve never seen a finer collision.