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.
Some wilderness is too vast to even consider getting to know all of its territory. There are too many big basins with no trails. Too many peaks and ridges to navigate. Too much wild, in a way. The Holy Cross Wilderness in Colorado is one of those places. After a brief foray last week, I felt a tug to return the moment I left.
Photo by Devon O’Neil
If we’re being honest, summer is pretty much over in a lot of towns around America. Winter is a mere fall away. Scenes like this here in Summit County are numbered. T-minus … a month to ski season?
Photo by Devon O’Neil
Mountain men still thrive and photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been documenting them in stunning portraits at rendezvous and the places where they live and work across the West.
The mountain man has been an integral part of the West since before the Louisiana Purchase. (Hey, and when it comes down to it, that individual in-step with the natural world and wanting nothing to do with the regulations of normal society is also the atypical Mountain Gazette reader.) Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been traveling across the West and attending gatherings such as the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous getting to know present-day mountain men and taking haunting portraits that feel vintage and yet transcend time. She took the time to share some of her best work with us and let us know what it has been like to get under the skin of mountain men.
Tell us about this project. Mountain men? They still exist?
“As with any other group/ subculture, there are different levels of commitment. Most of the mountain men I know are teachers, have a wife, a few kids and two cars in the garage. These folks enjoy the history and often camp in a primitive way. Very few of the mountain men I know live the life here in 2015. Oliver is the only one I’ve met that sleeps in a shelter with no electricity or running water; under a buffalo hide and works as a tanner.”
How do you achieve the quality in these photos that makes them feel as if they came from the 19th century, not just technically speaking but also in the personalities you have captured?
“Honestly, it’s all right there—teepees in huge fields of sage, people in deerskin wearing old trade beads, dogs on hemp ropes. I feel as a documentary photographer, I am good at sniffing out characters. I’m very outgoing, so if someone looks interesting, I just approach them and nine out of ten people are happy to participate in my project, and tell me how they got here.
As for the vintage quality, I look for textures that will sing in Black & White- canvas tents, deerskin, suntanned skin all work well. Sometimes I will manipulate an image for days before it’s where I want it. I love making a good sky a great sky, and making a weathered face look like a topographical map of the Himalyas. I enjoy writing captions too, but want the pictures alone to tell a story.”
You say you don’t like to shoot landscapes? But these men seem part of their landscape. Can you capture the essence of a place through people?
“Great question. I spend most of my free time outside, on a trail. I adore wide open spaces, but always want to stick a human in the landscape if I’m taking a picture. These men are for sure part of the landscape. They rely on it heavily from the animals they hunt for meat and hides, the quills that are used for adornment, and wood used to start fires for warmth and cooking. There are mountain men in almost every state. So far, I’ve stayed close to home, but I think the rendezvous in Texas, Oaklahoma, Virginia would show a similar a very different setting. While camping in Texas or Virginia sounds unpleasant to me, the varied landscape would tell a mountain man of that regions story for sure. Ok, now I kind of want to check one out in a different region.”
Any good stories about hanging out with these characters?
“Um, where to start… There are a lot of marriage proposals. Additionally, I hear about a lot of divorce too. People have divulged about their affairs, tumor on scrotums, you know, the norm. Sometimes I bring beer (othertimes, I drink theirs) and sit and talk to people for an hour or so before taking their picture. I think photographers, hair dressers, massage therapist, bar tenders are all the same in that we are approachable; people are comfy telling me their story. I’ve gone to some tiny rendezvous, where it was pouring rain. All we do is talk. Sometimes I come home with 2,000 pictures other times 20. I’d rather be a friend telling their story than anything. That’s my approach to photography.”
Do you think the West as we imagine it is disappearing?
“Yes. Ground that was once covered in sage is now home to Kohls, Costco, Home Depot. Mountain men and cowboys are on their smart phones, so yeah the west as we imagine it is disappearing. I think a lof of people love the romantic notion of the west, I do. But as land get sold off, there are just less jobs for people that work the land and encompass our picture of life in the west. It isn’t gone, but shrinking for sure.”
Now scroll down and enjoy the stunning, all-mountain-man work of Nicole Morgenthau (click on any photo to enlarge):
“Ron ‘Maddog’ Johnson. He had a tear in his eye as the American flag was being raised. If I could keep my mouth shut I would, but I can’t so I didn’t: I asked him what made him sad. He said he’d lost quite a few friends at war and felt bad that he always dodged the draft. The cogs in my brain were spinning for something better than ‘sorry man.’ As we looked west at a sky so cobalt blue and an afternoon so incredibly beautiful, I said ‘You were meant to be here, to honor the fallen, to stand amongst friends old and brand new in this perfect place.’ We hugged, in a dad-and-daughter kinda way, a human way.”
“Oliver McCloskey of Cedar City, Utah. Brain tanner of deer skin and other game since he was 10 years old. Tanning and the hunting shirts and mosassins he makes from the hide has been his soul source of income for 15 years.”
“This is Dr. Scott Olsen aka ‘Doc Ivory.’ He’s a dentist three days a week, mountain man the rest of the time. Doc commutes into the small town of Dillon, Mont., to keep people’s mouths in top shape.”
A Salt Lake City based photographer documenting life in the west from cowboys to climbers, Nicole takes pictures because that is what she loves and knows how to do. Nicole contributes growing up in one of the most Uninspiring Town in America (a category she created) to her creativity. “We had to dream big; flat, suburban New Jersey was not inspiring,” she says, adding that, she would not trade that experience for anything in the world. Suburbia gave her the desire to travel and meet people of all walks of life– with camera in hand. Nicole has a keen ability to connect with her subjects regardless of age, race, or status and believes, “We are all unique and that alone is worth documenting.” See more of Morgenthau’s work at www.nicolemorgenthau.com.
Intro photo at top of page: Oliver McCloskey & Scott “Doc Ivory” Olsen. These two have ridden long distances on horseback to primitive rendezvous together for 10 years.
In the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Nobody here but me. The walls are thin. I can hear the unwelcome sounds of the dentist at work. It’s like a muffled tree full of angry cicadas. I look around for something to read. All I find are news magazines, thinner than ever, and an Omaha Steaks catalog. I should have brought a book. I spot a pamphlet for the local rail trail. I pick it up and read.
On the cover it says, “Four miles of paved adventure through time and nature!” I open the pamphlet and learn that the rail trail is a “passage of varied terrain and experiences that you will not soon forget.” Somewhere along the way, the rail trail visitor enters “a deep canopy of trees.” Each rock cut is “a reminder that this was once a major thoroughfare for moving goods and materials on rails.” Eventually the rail trail visitor arrives at a bridge that spans a considerable river. Nobody knows what’s on the other side. The pamphlet doesn’t say.
Meanwhile, here in the waiting room things have gone painfully quiet. Save for the faint and faraway groaning on the other side of the wall, the stillness of the waiting room is undisturbed. Then a door opens, and a voice on the other side says “Next.”
A group of Icelanders decide to hike along the ancient remains of Hadrian’s Wall in England to connect to the deep history of ancient Romans, Britons and Viking. By Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson as told to MG correspondent M. Michael Brady
Last spring, longtime Mountain Gazette correspondent and Oslo area resident M. Michael Brady learned that Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson, a member of the Icelandic diaspora prominent in Norway (as well as in the USA and Canada), was planning a summer hike along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, just south of the Scottish border. As the hike is one of the classics of Europe that he has long wanted to do, but never has done, he asked Sævarsson to make notes and take photos that via an interview after his return could become a Dateline: Europe column. This is the result. As suits the venue of an activity that has been going on for a few centuries, the terminology is British. What we call a hike in North America is called a walk in Britain.
Thorarinn Ørn Sævarsson: This story starts in the summer of 2014, when my wife Moa and I were surfing in Portugal. There we met an Englishman, Stuart McFayden, who upon learning that we are Icelanders with a penchant for rambling the outdoors, suggested that we “walk Hadrian’s Wall.”
Stuart’s suggestion was well aimed. For we Icelanders, Britain has a fascinating niche in our cultural history. The Icelandic Sagas remain the earliest documentation of the Viking Age, in which Vikings often interacted with the peoples of the British Isles. That all happened a Millennium or so after Roman Emperor Hadrain had the Wall built starting in 122 AD. The chance to tramp through the landscape prominent in the pre-history of our culture was irresistible.
That opportunity is relatively new. People have walked the many paths to, from and along the Wall for centuries. True long-distance walking of the Wall came in 2003, when the paths along it were joined and signposted to become the 15th National Trail of England and Wales. It stretches 84 miles from Wallsend on the East Coasts to Bowness-on-Solway on the West Coast. It’s mostly flat, starting and ending near sea level and reaching a high point of 1132 ft elevation near Whinshields Crags at its midpoint. Most of the Wall and the path run trough open country, but there are sections that pass through the cities and suburbs of Carlisle and Newcastle. Hadrian’s Wall now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which ensures protection for it and the path.
Stuart’s suggestion also came at the right time. Moa and I had been thinking about activities that we might propose for the next quasi-annual gathering of our circle of thirty some friends, brought together by its women, who had first met in the 1980s, when they spent their summer vacations as seasonal workers at a small hotel in the village of Laugarvatn in southern Iceland. A happening in the UK was just the thing. In 2006, at full strength our circle had rented a castle in Scotland. Rambling the landscape near Scotland resonated well for 2015. Over the next few months, in corresponding with Stuart and visiting him once in London, we opted for a “Walk of the Wall” in July.
Planning the walk was easy, as a Net search brought up several companies that provide services for visitors to the Wall. At Stuart’s suggestion we contacted Hadrian’s Wall Ltd. (http://www.hadrianswall.ltd.uk/) a small local company headed by Gary Reed, a former Royal Marines Officer, outdoor life instructor, expedition leader, lecturer in geography and heritage studies, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He’s a native of Northumberland, the northernmost county of England through which the eastern part of the Wall runs. So for him, it’s home turf. And as we discovered later, he’s a convivial entertainer on all matters concerning the Wall and its surroundings.
We opted for a top-of-the-range four-day, part guided walk of a 50 mile stretch of the Wall. At a price of 475 British Pounds (about $743) per person, it included five overnight stays at country inns, baggage transfer between overnight stops, path pick-up and drop-off service at each inn, and one day of walking with Gary Reed as a guide. We booked for five couples and one pre-teen boy.
The eleven of us started our walk of the Wall with an overnight stay in Carlisle, a city with an urban area population of about 107,000, located ten miles south of the Scottish border. From there, we walked eastward for four days, to Walton, Newton, Saughy Rigg, and finally past the path highpoint to Chester’s Fort. From the walking point of view, covering 50 miles in four days is tame. Yet our walk had its memorable surprises.
At one point, we went astray and didn’t know which direction to go to get back on course. So we asked a local native passing by. He pointed out a direction that we then followed. After about two hours, we noticed that the river alongside the path seemed to be flowing in the wrong direction. Or were we going the wrong way? Out with the maps. The error was ours. We turned around and retraced our steps for another two hours. Fortunately, the day was long.
On a lunch break one day, we were joined by a friendly white horse. What does one do when an uninvited horse shows up at lunchtime? Talk to it; give it a nibble; this is England.
One of the benefits of walking the Wall is that the landscape it traverses has so many cultural history sites that visiting them all would take months. We had only four days. So we selected. Our two most memorable visits were to two museums dedicated to Roman themes. The Roman Army Museum near Walltown Quary is the place to go to gain an appreciation of how advanced the Romans were in armaments, then as now the underpinnings of military power.
The Chesterholm Museum in the village of Bardon Mill features artifacts excavated from nearby Vindolanda, a Roman fort just south of the Wall. Vindolanda is most famed for the 1978 archeological find there of what are now known as the Vindolanda Tablets dating from the first and second centuries AD. They are thin, post-card sized limewood sheets that bear writing of messages in carbon-based ink, the earliest known communication of their sort in Britain. Otherwise at Vindolanda we viewed the remains of a public bath and of buildings with toilets and heated floors, conveniences otherwise unknown in Europe until centuries thereafter.
By the time we parted with the other nine of our walk the Wall party, we realized that we had come to share Stuart’s enthusiasm for it. And like him, we now recommend it to others.
Frontiers of the Roman Empire, a transnational property including Hadrian’s Wall listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hadrian’s Wall Country, official visitor information.
National trails, the panoply organization of 15 national long-distance walking, cycling, and horse riding routes through England and Wales.
English Heritage, a Trust dedicated to enabling people to experience the story of England where it really happened.
Go North East, the largest bus company in North East England, whose route AD122 serves Hadrian’s Wall in summer.
I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I ever come across a more majestic music venue than Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. Every year I tell myself to be sure and see at least one concert there. It doesn’t always happen. Summers are short, and dates fill up fast with other obligations. But my two brothers and I made it happen this past Saturday for Reggae on the Rocks, the venerable, all-day festival that spits you out feeling like you ran 50 miles, instead of just watched reggae all afternoon and evening. Sunday morning was no different from any of the prior years I attended, nor was the confirmation that it had been worth it.
Photo by Devon O’Neil
Where are we headed when the most climbed mountain on the planet has free WiFi at the summit? By M. Michael Brady
Mount Fuji, 60 miles southwest of Tokyo, is the world’s most-climbed mountain. It now is the world’s most wired by wireless one, with Wi-Fi coverage at eight hotspots, including the summit.
Fujisan (the transliteration of its name in Japanese) has a summit elevation of 12,388 feet, the highest in Japan. It’s a stratovolcano, which means that it’s built up of alternate layers of lava and ash. It erupted last in 1707-1708 and now is dormant and snow-capped for eight months or more a year. Fujisan is not on public land, but is privately owned by the Sengentaisha Shinto Shrine, which acquired the mountain in 1609 and owns its summit in perpetuity. Despite that title, the Shinto priests regard Fujisan as being a world treasure, not belonging to any one person or group.
The mountain and its beautiful surroundings are well-known symbols of Japan. The UNESCO World Heritage List recognizes 25 sites of cultural interest within the locality, including the mountain itself, shrines, lodging houses, lakes, hot springs, caves and wooded areas.
The first ascent of the summit was made in 663 by an anonymous monk. The first ascent by a foreigner was made in 1868 by Ratherford Alcock (1809-1897), the first British diplomat to live in Japan. Today, the annual two-month climbing season is in summer when the peak is snow-free. It attracts record numbers of hikers, some 285,000 in the summer of 2014, according to official statistics. In climbing terms, it’s a walk-up, on the four trails to the summit, named for their lowest elevation trailheads: Yoshida, Subshiri, Gotemba, and Fujinomiya. Along the trails there are huts that provide food services and overnight lodgings, which are popular with hikers who want to view sunrise from the summit.
The mountain is divided into ten stations, of which the first is at its foot and the tenth at its summit. There are paved roads to the four 5th stations, from which most people start their hikes to the summit. Compared to ascents of mountains elsewhere, those of Mount Fuji are well served by public transport. For instance, the Fujinomiya 5th station is closest to the summit and is easily accessible from the railway stations of the Tokaido Shinkansen high-speed rail line.
Mount Fuji was first made known in the USA by University of Chicago professor and populist educator Frederick Starr (1858-1903), who gave several lectures on his ascents of its summit at assemblies of the Chautauqua (adult educational movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
Today, NTTdomco, a telecommunications company, has teamed up with the Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures (districts) in which the mountain is located, to offer Wi-Fi service, as part of an incentive to attract more foreign visitors, that in turn is part of Japan’s expansion of its Wi-Fi coverage ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. During the summer climbing season, users may access the Wi-Fi by entering a user ID and password provided in fliers in English, Chinese, and Korean that are distributed at trailheads. The service is available for 72 hours from the time a user first logs in.
Wi-fi coverage by NTTdomco.
Fujisan on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Official Mount Fuji website.
Japan guide (tourism) on Mount Fuji.
What happens when your body starts to break down? When trail running is no longer an option? It’s time to simply accept the downhill run. By Alan Stark
For Oliver Sachs
Raging against the dying of the light, while somewhat gratifying, is nonetheless pounding sand and about as useful. In my case, the “dying light” is trail running, a life sport I can’t do anymore. The low-level knee pain afterward is not worth it. Losing sleep because of knee ache makes me grumpy, and too much ibuprofen has the potential to turn my liver into goo.
The bike route from Breckenridge to Frisco starts in town at the gondola and winds along the Blue River. Over to the left heavy gray clouds pour over the peaks and down to the ski area. The sky is lighter toward Frisco. The bet I am making with myself is that I can outrun the storm. This is not the first time I have made this bet. I seem to not learn much from previous experience, as I often let my enthusiasm override observable facts.
Most of this route to Frisco is slightly downhill giving me the illusion that I might be the strongest person on a road bike today, when in fact, the physics associated with being twenty pounds overweight makes the carbon fiber bike go faster. I am one speed on a bike far superior to my skills…tubby speed.
The short-term answer is to see an orthopedic surgeon at the end of the month. He’s the same guy who stitched my quad to my patella. The operation was slick. He drilled holes laterally through the patella, laced sutures through the holes, and then stitched the sutures into the tendon and quad muscles. Then he tightened the sutures and pulled the disengaged quad ligament up against the proximal side of the patella that had been roughed up.
Not so slick was the way I busted the quad running downhill on mud and ice, slipped with the knee under me, and hyper-flexed it, causing a complete separation of the quad tendon from the bone. Ouch! I love it when I look at my medical record and see the phrase “nontraumatic tear of left quadriceps tendon.” I don’t know who wrote that. It may have been the surgeon who obviously has a well-formed sense of humor.
I’m moving past the Flight for Life hanger at the hospital and along the bike trail south of Frisco. It’s raining now and I turn into town for some shelter. One of their choppers went down just before the Fourth of July. I couldn’t stop thinking of the crew as I watched the parade in Breckenridge. Med-evac crews risk everything to save a life. We must always keep moving on but sometimes it is moving on with sadness.
The streets of Frisco are filled with flatlanders, many of whom make me, with my modest pot-belly, look skinny in comparison. The rain slow downs, I pull off a rain jacket and decide I can get to Copper Mountain and if the weather keeps going south, take a shot at Vail Pass for a forty-fvie mile out-and-back ride.
The route from Frisco goes slightly uphill along Ten Mile Creek and is filled with bikes. I like the folks on rental bikes who are indomitably going uphill grimacing at the triple whammy of uphill, rain, and altitude but pushing on with an occasional shout of encouragement to one another. I live hree part-time. Altitude, rain, and steeps are all part of the game. I try to be gracious and almost always say something encouraging as I pass, “looking strong or looking good.” Inane words, but I think they appreciate the thought.
This failure of a body part is most likely due to the earlier injury, but I know the knee problem is indicative of things to come as I get older. I am slowing down. My parts are clearly out of warranty and there are a number of failures looming. This isn’t ominous to me for a number of reasons: I have a good marriage and have finished an interesting career. I have been able to live a number of years doing exactly what I wanted to do in the backcountry and never really had any long-term injuries or parts failures. Add to this a genuine thankfulness to be alive given the early death of some friends and a number of backcountry incidents that could have gone badly.
Sure, just like you, I’ve had some minor injuries. There was a broken wrist when I came unglued from a tree as a kid, a cracked radius and ulna while skiing patches of snow between the sheet ice in Vermont, and a mashed scapula from doing airtime over the handle bar of a commuter bike in the Port of Seattle complex. The dumbest and long-term painful injury came when I was trail running with my dog with his leash looped around my chest. Mac ran around one side of a tree and I ran around the other. I crashed to the ground and broke two ribs. My PCP taped me up and said, “don’t laugh for eight weeks,” Thanks Doc, not helpful.
The sky is grey and angry looking. I’ve beat the storm this far, what the hell, I’ll keep going. The route up Vail Pass from the south is surprisingly easy gaining less than 1,000 feet over four miles. There are several slight pitches that get me out of the saddle and sucking wind but it is mostly a moderate uphill crank. The danger is the tourists who ride to the top of Vail Pass in a van. Then they ride their rental bikes the twelve miles down to Frisco, usually in control. They are not exactly experienced bike handlers. I smile a good deal, but I watch them carefully as they cruise downhill.
The downhill run is always amazing. I’m slower going uphill than I used to be but getting better at managing the speed on the downhill, daring myself to not use the brakes and let the bike just freewheel. I water up in Frisco, munch on some energy food, and head home on the slightly uphill ride back to Breckenridge.
I’m a Boomer and have lost friends to some bad luck, really asinine wars, sullied drugs, excessive alcohol, and now some god-awful diseases. In the middle of the night I can see their young faces, and remember good times and laughter and exactly where I was when I heard they were gone. There is no good reason that some of them are dead and I am still here.
Did she forget to check the belay point? Did he know it was his last patrol? Would a reasonable person put something down their throat without knowing its provenance? There was always alcohol, there will always be alcohol, often too much alcohol. I never listened when I was taught that the immune system can also kill slowly and exceedingly painfully.
When I was serious about trail running I did the Pikes Peak half-marathon. I started up the Manitou Incline with a guy who said he was seventy. I was in my mid-thirties. I never saw him again until I reached the top. He told me I’d get better with age. My goal was to be able to run Pikes Peak when I was seventy. That doesn’t look like it will happen. I’ll be happy to do Vail Pass on my bike. When the riding, and skiing end the way trail running apparently has ended there is ongoing reading, writing, and gardening. I plan to learn fly-fishing, maybe try golf, and get better at backgammon. I hope to end up sitting in the mountain sun enjoying the passage of time with an old friend or dog or both, for as long as life goes on, until I stop breathing.
Alan Stark is recovering from a career in book publishing and a now a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest. He lives in Breckenridge and Boulder.
Burro racing might be the greatest sport the world has never heard of. I covered some races back when I worked for a newspaper (the sport’s epicenter is in Colorado), and always found the scene to be hilarious. Last month, I got involved firsthand in Idaho Springs, during the annual Tommyknocker Mining Days festival. A power-hungry donkey named Marsha and I ran five miles through the hills above Clear Creek, fighting for control the whole time, before finishing back in town and rewarding ourselves with carrots (her) and beer (me). There is nothing else like it. In this photo, taken shortly before the start, a handful of our foes readied themselves for the race to come.