Postcard: Alma, Colorado

It’s not easy to be creative week in, week out when you run a marquee. But the chance of a boring person running a marquee becomes much lower when said marquee exists in Alma, Colorado—the highest incorporated town in America at 10,578 feet. Creative people (but not necessarily perfect spellers; one can only be so awesome) tend to live at high altitude. Seriously, you can look it up. Or just go talk to some folks in Alma. Start with the person who runs the marquee at the South Park Saloon.

South Park Saloon Alma Colorado
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Report an Electrical Emergency

Snowshoeing along the power line right-of-way through our woods, I notice a couple of overladen hemlocks tilting toward the wires. With all the wet heavy snow that fell in the recent storm, trees have been snapping and toppling everywhere, at all hours. I hear it happening in the middle of the night when usually the only sounds are the hoot of an owl or the howl of a big coyote.

So when I return to the house I call the power company and get their automated “Report an Electrical Emergency” department. Mine is not an emergency—not yet anyway—so I at once feel guilty. But I stay on the line. A recorded voice, freshly unsealed from its digital crypt, starts talking. It sounds like it’s coming out of one of those  “spirit trumpets” old-time mediums used.

“If your lights are completely out, press 1. If your lights are flickering, press 2. If your lights are brighter than usual, press 3. If your lights are dimmer than usual, press 4. If none of these conditions apply, press 5.”

Our lights are still on, and conditions 2, 3, and 4 sound like a haunted house, which is not our problem, so I press 5—and the line goes dead.

I redial the Electrical Emergency number and get the voice back. By this time I have forgotten the choices offered by the voice, so I listen to them again and again press 5. Same thing happens: the line goes dead. Again I redial and again get the voice. This time I don’t bother listening to it. Instead I press 6, just to see what happens. I’m feeling lucky, in a Google kind of way.

I get another voice. This one is vexed. It might be a live person, or not. Hard to tell. “How did you get this number?” it growls. I’m no longer feeling lucky.

I hang up and go to the power company’s web page, where there are no voices, and make my report.

Spirit Trumpet

The God of Skiing is HERE

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… We have been publishing excerpts of his new novel, The God of Skiing, which is now at long last published and ready to order. Enjoy one more excerpt and buy this book.

Chapter 27

The Downhillers

Crows count telephone poles. The long distance truckers drive by high and methamphetamines and the Holy Grail. And the liquor doesn’t matter anymore for the downhill racer at the bar. Everything else feels like being sober after the naked pull of the vertical white road. The world feels like water and you start to feel seasick standing still, as if gravity itself, oxygen and hope would disappear if you ever left the trail.

Half of them are crazy. Half of all the downhill racers you know. They blow up at press conferences like slapshots into the back of the net, or burst into flames in the cars and bars. And the other half all have something to prove to their father, God or some green-eyed girl. They race with some memory they want to numb so the first pain isn’t real, for when the slope drops off in your stomach and every distraction is boiled down to one single idea: Pray Jesus you don’t fall.

The Crazy Canucks—Ken Read, Dave Irwin, Cary Mullen and Steve Podborski—burst onto the World Cup scene like a band of barbarians from the wastelands of Canada; cocky longhairs into the tea party like a bunch of bikers scaring people who had never been scared before. They raced with bandages and concussions and black eyes, and went so fast sometimes it seemed as if sparks would fly from the snow.

Behind the madness was a simple idea: create a national ski program around the craziest skiers. Build the skills later, but first, find a bunch of brave boys willing to drop down the slopes like stones. So that the lies became legend, how they had been hypnotized, or trained for the big European courses on paratrooper missions, jumping in the dark to embrace the unknown. Especially from 1980-83 when they did the unthinkable, and between Read, Podborski and Todd Brooker, won the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuehel for four straight years.

To the Europeans, anyone who goes that fast down the gut wrenching corkscrews of the Steilhang is a brother. The Austrians still cheer. And the Canadians forgot to breath as they dropped off the screen and waved the maple leaf like a friendly fuck-you.

But it was already over by the time Brian Stemmle tore himself apart in the fencing, right after Rob Boyd broke his thumb fighting his way to second down the Streif. I was sitting next to Boyd in a hotel bar after the Hahnenkamm in 2000 when the Austrian Eberharter won, and Boyd told me, “Flight is born on the horizon,” staring into his beer.

The Austrian Patrick Ortlieb won the Olympic Downhill in Albertville and wore the same golden smile drinking Obstler in Oberlech in his family hotel with the long polished bar. There was a gondola from Lech and beautiful European families dressed for dinner, the same families every year. They wore handsome suede jackets with stiff white shirts and pulled back hair. A young mother kept watching us after Ortlieb came to the table. She had black eyelashes and dark eyes like something growing outdoors.

We sat eating venison, nuts and cheese, talking later in the bar when Ortlieb showed me how CO2 cartridges would inflate his pack like a buoy in an avalanche so he could float above the snow. He told me about the Americans killed in an avalanche when they went to ski powder with a German couple. One of the Germans kicked off the slide that killed the other three, and Ortlieb said, “At the end of the day, the American kids were the only ones left at the ski school corral.”

He said the powder stays fresh for days, but the crowds follow as soon as someone breaks trail. “We all want the blank slope,” he said as we clinked glasses. “It’s not because of me that I worry anymore.”

I had heard another story about him but didn’t care. I liked him because we were just two skiers talking about the snow. It was the same with Hermann Maier, the former bricklayer who worked his way up from the Austrian instructors’ ranks where the dream lives on for so many skiers, who tore apart every run on the World Cup circuit—Bormio, Wengen, Alta Badia—like Hercules trying to rip the earth into the air. He won more points for first place finishes than anyone ever. And even upside down, heading for the fence at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano he looked impenetrable, like a gust-tossed chunk of steel.

It was the image of the Games, the pilot ejecting from his plane and nothing but blue air. Anyone else would have shattered his pelvis. But Maier came back to win two gold medals. He told Austrian journalist Heinz Pruller, “After such a crash, I thought, If I can win gold now, I must be immortal!

The summer before the Salt Lake Games, in the Alps on his motorcycle, a red Mercedes tossed Maier into the grass so he was suddenly looking at his right leg beside his ear. In The Race of My Life, he recalled with relief how the gigantic ambulance would be big enough to hold his massive frame. “Very nice,” he wrote. “I should fit into this thing!”

The doctors wanted to amputate. They fought to keep his kidneys from quitting. With plates, pins and screws they built a new version of his leg like from a drawing on the wall.

It looks like a pretzel now. He says it is maybe 70 percent, so even standing on it going 80 miles per hour, you know sometimes he can’t feel it at all. When he returned in Sestriere—where he later won bronze in the Olympic Super G in 2006—he said about his skis, “I felt like I was skiing on two Coke bottles.”

The Swiss saint of speed Pirmin Zurbriggen was always the most beautiful skier to me, coming around the turn with his high hands like a leaping puma and his pious face gazing up at the peaks like a prayer. Only he and Bode Miller, Kjetil Andre-Aamodt, Marc Giradelli and Guenther Mader won in all five disciplines: slalom, GS, combined, Super G and downhill. Zurbriggen won gold and bronze in ’88 at Sarajevo, as well as the Hahnenkamm. But Franz Klammer was the king of them all.

Klammer won the Downhill title five times and skied the most famous run ever in Innsbruck at the 1976 Olympics on his home field. He was the favorite but started 15th on the drought-scarred snow, leaping down the hill. He ran those ridiculous steeps taking stupid chances at every turn as his legs dropped off the jumps like broken landing gear. Bob Beattie who called it for NBC sounded like he was going to be sick for Klammer, then turned ecstatic as “the Kaiser” crossed the finish line a half-second ahead of the field.

“I thought I was going to crash all the way. I gave myself terrible frights,” the “Austrian Astronaut” told the papers.

Four times Klammer won the Hahnenkamm—as many as all the Canadians together and twice as many times as anyone before. Drinking scotch at a Kitzbuehel Hotel years after he retired the whole town still waited on every word. “It’s the fear that motivates you. You’re a fool if you’re not scared.”

There was a photo of him waiting for the race, lying on a couch reading the paper with the proud nose and shaggy black hair like one of the Beatles; a young god without a worry in the world. I wanted to pry it off the wall. To have him sign it, and talk about Jackson where he set the course record for the only World Cup downhill ever held there, and how it feels running 4,000 vertical feet from the top of Rendezvous Peak to Teton Village until your body begins to clear with the feeling of how you fall.

I wanted to ask him about those mornings when it’s cold and you’re alone and there’s only history to hold; to say I saw his race on TV from a living room in Denver—we all did—as if that gold medal reel was America’s as well. And I wanted to see his sun-browned face turn toward me as I leaned closer to whisper the name, “Tack Strau,” in his ear.

His brown eyes would slit with the secret, the wink and the welcome. He would blow a great wreath of smoke from the cigars we were smoking and quickly wave it away with his great strong hands, his great strong face as he would laugh and say, “So you know?”


Order your copy of The God of Skiing HERE.

Mountain Passages: Japan, the Tour

I’ve been traveling Japan with Blue Eyes for two weeks, first on an art-and-crafts tour, and now here in Kyoto with friends. The tour included 16 boomers, and two guides, one of whom spoke fluent Japanese, and who also had a firm grasp of art, history, culture, and group dynamics. If you remember the kung fu movies, he is like the counselor monk in the background who advises the principal monk and who gets all the important stuff done… food, housing, laundry, transportation, sword sharpening, etc.

This is only the second time I’ve been on a tour. The first was several years ago on the White Rim Trail out of Moab, an easy, leisurely mountain bike ride through some magnificent red rock country. That tour was for four days with six riders and two guides. Eighteen people on this trip seems like a crowd, a nice crowd, but a crowd nonetheless.

The people on this tour come from essentially the same demographic and age group; both of these factors tend to lessen the potential for conflict. But we’ve been together for a long while and I’m not good at it. Add to that a tightly packed schedule, plus travel by bus, train, and taxi, plus a number of group meals, and the conversation starts to go round and round.

There isn’t a whole lot of central heating in Japan and we thought the houses we visited looked like they’d be cold in the winter.

“The human body generates 400 BTU in a day,” Thomas said.

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Yes, it’s important in calculating heating for a building.”

“Of course.”

“I’ve been wanting to use that fact for years.”

“Thank you for sharing that information.”

Blue Eyes is my life friend and mate. There is no one else one else on the planet I’d rather spend extended periods of time with, but—and it’s a big but—being alone for a while is often a good thing. I need to walkabout solo. The aloneness gives me time to sort through all the ideas running through my small brain and toss the thoughts that are dumb, wrongheaded, or useless, and maybe write down the thoughts that may lead somewhere interesting.

Blue Eyes and friends head off for another site that will no doubt include iconic Japanese structures and, because it is late autumn, brilliant red maple trees. I turn left at the front door of the hotel and start walking north toward the Imperial Palace. I know a reservation is needed for the tour. If I had an Imperial Palace I wouldn’t let just anyone come gawk either, particularly me. While I don’t have a reservation, I think I’ll go anyhow. Who knows what I’ll discover?

Being on your own in an unknown city is pure adventure in the sense that what you see and do are absolutely driven by your curiosity and timing. At one intersection, a bike rider crossing the street passes too close in front of a car. The car nips her back tire throwing her off balance for a moment. She regains her balance and rides on, not looking back… as if that sort of thing happens all the time in Japan. In North America, that same encounter would involve some hand gestures and an exchange of opinions. And if there were any lawyers around, and they are always loitering at busy intersections (sometimes with cardboard signs), they would be falling over each other handing out their cards.

Kyoto gets in your brain the way Paris does. On this trip I’ve only seen two big cities, Osaka and Nagoya and both seemed a jumble of buildings and warehouses, many on narrow streets. The first thing that stuck me about Kyoto was the wide boulevards, just like Paris. Looking at the map it became clear Kyoto was built on a grid. The buildings are still a jumble of sizes and styles like the other two cities, but Kyoto is elegant.

I’m hungry, so I start looking for a place to eat. A number of less expensive restaurants hang a red lantern outside and either post pictures of their food or put out actual plates of food, or at least realistic models, in the windows. As a patron, you simply point at the picture of the food you want or you haul the waiter outside and point at the displayed food that you want. It’s a struggle to covey the diversity of appearances and tastes in Japanese food. Last night, we had Shabu Shabu, where you dip thinly cut meat in boiling water and watch it turn gray. Then you boil vegetables until they get soft. While the process and resulting meal sounds slightly dreadful to western tastes, the meat and veggies were superb.

But I’ve had enough Japanese food. Checking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being observed by anyone on the tour, I duck into McDonalds for an Egg McMuffin with Sausage. Wonderful, and only 450 calories and about half of my daily recommended consumption of salt.

As I walk, I note a propensity to avoid eye contact by both the bicyclists on the sidewalk and my fellow pedestrians. I don’t see any bike lanes in Kyoto even though I’d guess that Japanese have been commuting by bike for a good deal longer than North Americans. They simply weave through sidewalk pedestrians on cruiser bikes that are a tad thinner and thus more maneuverable than our cruiser bikes.

Like all cyclists everywhere, the riders watch everything happening in front of them and to their sides with a constant, sweeping eye movement. The riders see my eyes but there is no recognition in their eyes other than that I am an object to be avoided. I’m amazed that pedestrians aren’t routinely run down but it never appears to happen.

I’m not big on eye contact, or at least I don’t have that weird compulsion to look everyone in the eye. I think my feeling about eye contact is born of a sense of privacy. Eyes convey a good deal, often eyes convey what a person is thinking. I’m not sure I want anyone to know what I’m thinking. Not that what I’m thinking is particularly unique, it’s just that they are my thoughts that I don’t choose to share. That’s what writing is for.

So for a non-eye contact person like me to note a lack of eye contact in another nationality is indicative of a cultural aversion, something innate in the Japanese. It could be shyness, it could be superiority, after all I am clearly not Japanese, or maybe it’s just fear that I’m going to ask them something that they will be unable to answer because they don’t understand my mountain patois.

When you walk a major city street in North America it is absolutely clear that we, as a people, came from everywhere. In a sense we are all mongrels and that’s a very good thing, one of our many strengths as North Americans. Japan is a heterogeneous society. It’s a good bet a researcher could trace most Japanese back to five hundred families 10,000 years ago. Point is, you don’t see many other nationalities in Japan, Japan doesn’t take in refugees, emigrating to Japan is difficult, and Japan has a long history of subjugating other nationalities with great prejudice…ask the Koreans or Chinese.

Even when I tried to make eye contact with bike riders or Japanese pedestrians I just couldn’t make it happen. It could be that one of the Japanese outside rules is not to make eye contact with anyone. Later in the day I was walking through food stalls in a covered alleyway and saw a cook in a glass booth frying dumplings. He sensed I was watching him and looked up. I smiled and he smiled back. It was a nice moment across nationalities. But on the street there was a sense of being studiously avoided.

My rambling includes a bookstore. Having spent my entire career in the book business, I’m curious about the bookstores of other countries because I miss being in big North American cities and cruising bookshops. These selfsame independent bookstores have been run out of business, first by corporate, chain-store greedheads and now by internet-discounted sales from another set of megalomaniacs. But it is nice to note a resurgence of sorts in the North American bookselling business. Reading a real book is an all around better experience than reading a book on a screen of any type. Yeah, I know I just bit the hand that feeds me because you are reading this on a screen. But hey, technology is a tool, this technology has probably helped more people read, but to really enjoy the full experience of reading, you need a physical book.

The real difference between North American bookstores and Japanese bookstores is that while Japan is all about esthetics and in many ways is a design-driven country, Japanese book design is pretty rudimentary and most books have plain but readable spines. The racks in a Japanese bookstore look like journal collections in a library. I thought to buy a kid’s book because the interior art was so fine but settle on a finely bound blank notebook and one of those pens with four colors of ink. I look forward to causing trouble with both.

The walk continues to the Imperial Palace that is entirely surrounded by a high wall. I’m a backcountry person. Fences, walls, gated communities all offend me. This wall was built as a military installation, there are 180 degree fields of fire stretching three hundred yards in all directions from the walls of the Palace. I marvel at how imposing the walls must have looked to an attacking foot soldier.  Like an old rock climber looking for a route upward, I look for weaknesses in the walls, places that could be breeched or climbed. I laugh at my neurosis of always being the outsider trying to get inside. I walk all the way around the Palace and then head back in the direction I had come I except that I’m walking side streets back to the hotel instead of on a boulevard.

These streets are about a car and half wide with a white stripe along either side like a bike lane in North America, but in this case, the white line indicates a sidewalk of sorts. I imagine that if a taxi nailed you inside the white line there might be trouble. I like small streets in other countries because that’s where folks live. Amazing what you can see, hear and smell if you pay attention on these streets. I find a number of restaurants worth visiting on the next trip, small shrines, gates to beautiful courtyards, a bike shop, flower shop, soshi screen shop and end up in a covered alleyway filled with food vendors including a number of fishmongers.

Just as I am about to head back to the hotel and the shuttle to Osaka I pass a fish stand where sashimi is being sold and walked on by. I get about a100 yards away and turned around, grumpy at myself for not taking the chance to eat raw fish from a food stand in an alleyway. There are three pieces of fish on a stick with a couple squeezes of lemon that cost 200 yen or about $1.80. I buy two. They are delicious.

Blue Eyes was waiting for me in the lobby.

“Where did you go?”


“What did you see?”

“Many wonderful and curious things.”

“Time for you to go home.”

“Yes, Grasshopper.”

Alan Stark is back from his travels in Japan with this Blue-eyed person. He’ll wrap-up this five part series with the last installment sometime soon. He is a freelance writer and volunteer backcountry ski patroller for the Forest Service who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge.

Postcard: November powder

A few days removed from 85-degree temperatures and white sand wedged inside my ears, I went powder skiing. It was the last week of November, on the tail end of a stretch that brought 93 inches of snow in two weeks to Colorado’s upper Blue River valley. The flakes floated down like weightless pieces of paper as we ascended the mountain and then skied. You didn’t have to try for a face shot; it just happened. Pictured here: Dave Gelhaar.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

A Letter to Ed Abbey

A Letter to Ed Abbey

By Dick Dorworth

Recently found in one of my journals…

May 21, 1989
Aspen, Colorado

Dear Ed Abbey:

Just a few hours ago I returned from a fine three day trip to Moab and its environs, some of your favorite desert land. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about you, your work, your thought, what you meant to me and others and many things about—you—since you died two months ago. That’s not really unusual. I thought a lot about you, and of you, over the years. I even got to tell you something about it in the few exchanges of letters we had several years ago. I’m glad I initiated that exchange and told you how much you helped me and that I was able to recognize and appreciate it. I am grateful that you took the time to reply. I’m sorry we never met and had the chance to get to know each other. I suspect we would not have been in agreement on all things, but I always felt we would have liked each other quite a lot.

What is unusual is that I didn’t know until driving back to Aspen this afternoon that I was going to write this.

I went to Moab on the night of the 18th with my friend Marilyn, who is reading The Monkey Wrench Gang, her first Abbey book, which I gave her a couple of weeks ago. She’s a very sexy woman and a great traveling companion and I thought she could use some time in the vast, open desert that you loved and wrote about so well. She’s a divorce case, and you and I know that one all too well, and we both know how a perspective of wide open spaces can be healing to the perspective of the inner spaces. We slept by the Colorado River at Big Bend and the moon was bright.

The morning of the 19th Marilyn and my young climbing friend Joel and I hiked up to Castleton Tower. Joel and I climbed the North Chimney and it was a beautiful climb on a lovely day. The 19th is my youngest son Jason’s birthday. He was 18 and in California and though you are gone and I am going Jason is still coming, and I often wonder about the sort and quality of life that will be his. After the climb Joel, Marilyn and I went to the Pizza Hut in Moab for the salad bar and garlic bread after showering under the leak in the water pipe just off the Castle Valley Road. When we got back to the camp at Big Bend the Mormons had invaded. About 200 BYU students, the rudest, most brain dead, spiritless people sort of alive on earth. The same thing happened to us last year and I wrote a column about them that I called “Locusts in the Desert.” I wish you could have read it. I think you would have laughed and I certainly owe you a few of those. We broke camp and slept on a road near the bridge over the Colorado just north of town. We could hear the trucks and other traffic and it was not a restful night.

Still, we got up early and made it to the May 20th sunrise memorial for Ed Abbey held north of town up a dirt road. I don’t have to tell you what went on there. You were there. I’d never heard of Terry Tempest Williams before, but she is very impressive and her love for you and grief at losing you were powerful reminders of the durability, fragility and uniqueness of each human. She drew up to the surface some deep grief and sorrows and lost loves of my own. She reminded us of the importance of keeping in touch with one another, with those we love and care about. She got that from you and passed it on to us at a memorial gathering for you. Keep in touch.

Ken Slight and Doug Peacock must have been wonderful friends for you to have. They were lucky men to be your friends and they knew it. You were lucky too, and I bet you knew it.

Dave Foreman says Earth First the same way Adolph Hitler said “Lebensraum.” Germany First. I met Foreman a few summers ago up Trail Creek outside Sun Valley in Idaho at an Earth First gathering. He was talking about how his friend Ed Abbey might show up for the meeting, but I didn’t believe him and you never showed up. I don’t know if Foreman and you were friends. I don’t think Earth First represents your spirit or thoughts, but Foreman tried to make of the memorial service for you a rallying call for Earth First. I did not like it, a discordant note to a fitting morning in memory of Ed Abbey. But maybe any proper and loving memorial to you needs to include a discordant note. A part of you enjoyed the fart in polite company. Foreman filled that role, but he smells bad to me.

Ann Zwinger was sweet and bright.

Wendell Berry, like you, is a man of honesty and integrity. He is a model and great artist.

Barry Lopez said it best and I think you would have approved. He has been out and about in the world, listening, observing and talking to people. He said, “The news is heavy, but we are heavier.”

My friend, Burnie Arndt, was there, stopping by on his way back from California where he had buried his sister. After the memorial he said that a lot of feelings were still real close to the surface and the morning was hard for him. Humans can only take so much grief and pain, as you know. I haven’t lost anyone lately, but I had to wipe tears from my eyes and hold back many more (for reasons that are for another writing another time) and the memorial for Ed Abbey was hard, poignant and moving for me as well.

While driving back to Colorado today Marilyn asked me why the memorial service for you touched me so deeply. I didn’t know until she asked me but I knew when she did, and I told her I have a lot of old sorrows that are still in there, and Ed Abbey was a bigger influence and closer to my thought and heart and work than I had realized. I didn’t really feel your death and how much I have lost in your passing until the gathering of your friends and admirers north of Moab yesterday. I know you understand the interconnectedness of all love, all joy, all sorrow. You were a big man, Ed Abbey. Thanks for what I will miss. Thanks for what remains.

Go in peace.



Photo by Jim Stiles/NPS

A Game-changer: Martin Litton

The passionate and fierce environmentalist and conservationist Martin Litton passed away quietly in his sleep at his home in Portola Valley, Calif. on the last day of November 2014. His wife, Esther, was by his side. He was 97.

Known more recently for his work running wooden dories down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, he started his career at the LA Times writing about environmental issues and then became an editor for Sunset Magazine. But his legacy resides in the monumental effort he put into saving the Grand Canyon from the proposed dams in Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon. He was part of saving and preserving a number of other wilderness areas as well through his work with the Sierra Club.

It was the summer of 1969 when Litton started running wooden dories down the Grand Canyon to form his guiding company Grand Canyon Dories. The little wooden boats were immediately immensely popular with river runners for guides and clients alike. In 1988 Grand Canyon Dories joined the OARS family of companies and, per Litton’s conditions, continues to only run dories exclusively under oar power.

Litton’s life and legacy around his conservation work and dories in the Grand Canyon was documented in the 2013 book The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko about the fastest run down the Grand Canyon. This record run was completed in 1983 in one of Litton’s wooden dories. In fact, it was the first wooden dory, after many iterations, Litton determined was the perfect shape for running the roaring waters of the Grand Canyon and it was the boat from which he modeled the rest of his fleet since. The boat was called The Emerald Mile.

Here’s an excerpt from Fedarko’s Book describing part of what Litton achieved:
Historians often minimize or discount the impact that any one individual can have on human destiny—and for good reason. Given the broad tides in the affairs of men, and the complexity of the forces that shape and change history, it is almost always a mistake to ascribe too much significance to the actions of a single person. But even the most jaded observer can concede that, every now and then, a man or woman steps up to the plate and takes a mighty swing that clears the bases and fundamentally changes the game.

Litton is survived by his wife, Esther, his four children, John, Donald, Kathleen and Helen as well as five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Not to mention the many friends, guides and river lovers Litton inspired across the world.

Litton in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Jon Blaustein.
Litton in the Grand Canyon. Photos by Jon Blaustein.

Mountain Passages: Bear Takes a Japanese Bath

Chances are, I wouldn’t be a very good Japanese person. I understand taking my shoes off outside, but I don’t get the cultural reason behind shoe removal. The communal bath is not something I’d make habit a habit, and there are several bumps on my head from unintended encounters with low beams.

At some homes in Boulder we leave our shoes at the door. It has always seemed to me a good idea for keeping street dirt out of the house. But Willy the dog doesn’t much care about tracking dirt in the house. After a snow or rain, the wood floors look like we are running a dog hotel. Because we have Willy, we don’t bother to remove our shoes at The Creak House.

Apparently the Japanese view the world in terms of inside and outside. Shoes are for outside but not for inside. An extrapolation of this idea of outside and inside is the idea of dirty and clean; or to take the idea further, the profane and the sacred. But now I’m culturally in way over my head. All I can do here is observe and comment in a western context. To understand the Japanese mindset might just take a lifetime.

So I’m fine with the shoes outside thing, but then when I start hearing additional rules about outside things never touching inside things, I start scratching my head and possibly rolling my eyes. For example, I’m carrying a wonderful old Mountainsmith pack that has been with me for more than twenty years. It has been on the ground for hundreds of hours.  I need to bring the pack inside the inn to get to my shaving kit and clean clothes. So where do I put the dirty pack in the clean room? I’m trying not to be a Philistine, so I leave the pack by the door to my room, but it was definitely a dirty thing in a clean place.

The gender-separate communal bath I tried was spotless. It wasn’t that I dislike communal baths, other than the fact that I’m soaking in someone else’s bathwater. It’s just that given the choice, I’d rather be with the girls than the boys.

Remember that in Japan it is about process. So there are these written instructions that tell you how to behave in a communal bath that start with an explanation of how to wash yourself before you get in the bath. I don’t know about you, but I’ve done an okay job of washing myself for about the same number of years as the candles on my birthday cake—less maybe three. That’s a lot of experience washing myself. I don’t need to be told how to do it.

FullSizeRender-4Nonetheless, the instructions tell me to sit down on a stool that is about six inches off the ground. After multiple unintended encounters with the ground, hard snow, or boat gear, there are parts of my body that don’t bend well and are not operating at optimum design standards. This means that squatting on a stool six inches off the ground is awkward for me.  Once down on the stool, I turned on the shower to wet myself down, and then scrubbed top to bottom, rinsed off the soap, shut off the water, and attempted to dry myself with a towel about half the size of a dishtowel. Then I eased myself into a large pool filled with hot water with a couple of other guys, all looking slightly embarrassed. Admittedly, the bath is relaxing; my old parts that were a tad sore from squatting in the shower just mellowed out in the heat. The sign near the pool reminded us that the towel must never touch the water. Rubber duckies and other bath toys are not allowed either. I lasted about fifteen minutes and called the communal bath experience good.

I’m sort of an average-size North American male at barely six feet tall. I’ve spent some wonderful time on small sailboats, and understand crouching in a cabin or ducking in the cockpit when the helmsman yells “Heads!” Here in Japan I bump my head on a beam about four times a day. The first time stuns me and really hurts. The second time is less of a surprise and by the third or fourth time I am mostly feeling glancing blows to my head. None of this does any more damage than has already been done over the years. But I have now developed a sort of sixth sense to be constantly looking up before leaving yet another impression on both an overhead beam and my skull. I suppose that when I get home I’ll spend a week or so watching out for low ceilings.

Someone tried to explain to me the concept of boxes in the Japanese way of thinking. Apparently, everything in life has a box, some quite large such as family, and some quite small such as car keys. So as an example, let’s take getting a cup of coffee at the inn. We’ll call this the coffee box example. There is one coffee machine in the reception area of the inn. The machine grinds the coffee, brews the coffee, and pours it into your cup very quickly when the green light is on and pressed. The red light means the machine needs additional water or coffee or whatever. It is available to guests at 7:00 am. It is 6:50 in the morning and I need a cup of coffee. I go to press the green button and the hotel manager says, ”no, no, no, no,” and points at his watch. Even though the coffee machine is ready, in his mind the coffee is not available until 7:00 am. Those are the rules for the coffee box.


I’ve just spent a couple of hundred words complaining about this country but here is what I have learned. In a highly structured society with rules for just about everything, I have become much more conscious of how my actions are perceived, and more perceptive about what may be an infraction of Japanese rules. In other words, I have become more mindful.

I’ve also learned to duck my head.

Alan Stark is traveling Japan with this Blue Eyed person. He will be sending irregular dispatches for the next several weeks.

Photos by (top) Mark Going/Courtesy Columbia Sportswear, (bottom) Alan Stark

In Memoriam, Mike Moore

I had a friend who drank too much
and played too much guitar – 
and we sure got along. 
Reel-to-reels rolled across the country near and far 
with letters poems and songs…. 
but these days he don’t talk to me 
and he won’t tell me why. 
I miss him every time i say his name. 
I don’t know what he’s doing 
or why our friendship died
while we played the poet game.
– Greg Brown, ‘The Poet Game’


“Why Mountain Gazette? Why not?”

That’s the way Mike Moore introduced the first issue of a new magazine “generally about the mountains” in the fall of 1972. Exactly what Moore had in mind, no one really knew.

For example,  here’s Barry Corbet, a noted mountaineer, skier and filmmaker in the 60s and 70s, sounding puzzled: “I have in hand a letter from Mike Moore, editor and manager of this journal. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, is to write ‘from one to sixteen pages about the mountains….’”

He accepted the assignment, of course, as we all did, all the writers who got that letter—Moore’s stable, writers living above 8,000 feet elevation if only in spirit. Mountain Gazette. Why not?

Now, it’s a long way from 1972, and word just came in a roundabout way that Moore died November 20, in Vermont where he has lived most of the past quarter century. This is not an obituary—he wanted none of that: no funeral, no memorial, no eulogies, said the notice making the rounds. Okay, but he can’t stop old friends, old loves from remembering him. Trying to re-member (sic) him through what he brought to our lives in what was the relatively brief but very intense first five years of the Mountain Gazette.

The Mountain Gazette wasn’t actually a startup; it was an acceleration or expansion, or maybe a digression, from another magazine, Skiers’ Gazette, that had entered the field of ski journalism in 1966, a newsprint gadfly journal that was the Village Voice to the ski industry’s array of earnest four-color Wall Street Journals (the romance of ski capitalism).

I became part of Moore’s SG stable of writers while I was running the Crested Butte Chronicle in the Colorado resort town of same name. He occasionally reprinted something I’d written in my gadfly newspaper; and when I left the newspaper business, where the ratio of business to writing was too high, to try to pursue a career freelancing, he offered me a chance to write a column for the SG.

That was great: I invented a mythic ski town, and over the course of that winter unloaded half a decade of observations that would have lost me all the Chronicle advertisers I hadn’t already lost. Moore made sure we writers didn’t worry about the impact of our biting of the hands of the advertisers that fed the SG and our meagre checks; still, we might have hypothesized that Moore’s motivation for expanding the Skiers’ Gazette to the Mountain Gazette was a need for access to a larger body of advertisers to offend.

But that was not Moore’s motive; he wanted to find, nurture and give voice to the 20th-century literature of the mountains, and the strange post-urban cultures springing up in the mountain towns like new mushroom species. Skiers’ Gazette had made him aware that there were lots of articulate and over-educated misfits, malcontents and de facto expatriates slinking around the mountain towns and beyond, trying to piss a line in the snow—dirtbag hippies, burnt-out suburbanites going exurban, lawyers undergoing a Saul-Paul transformation, Lord Jims in orderly retreat, all of whom knew, sort of, what Robinson Jeffers was trying to say: “When the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” He wasn’t beating the underbrush of the mountain valleys for advertisers but for writers, whom he could lead, push or otherwise nurture or seduce to some greater level…. He didn’t want to just do a Village Voice for the mountain regions; he wanted to do a high-altitude New Yorker: the socio-economo-politico-cultural voice of a place and a time whose writers he believed might have something interesting to say.

Paradoxically, Moore was not a “mountain person” himself. He grew up in Colorado’s Front Range cities— cities that are to the mountains what Boston and San Francisco are to the ocean. He didn’t ski, didn’t climb, didn’t even hike much except on golf courses with a mountain view. As MG editor he mostly came to the mountains to visit his stable of mountain writers, visits that seldom moved beyond the bars of those places.

And by extension, the exemplars he carried in his heart were—I think—the great urban editors and publishers of the mid-20th century – people like Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, the man who “found” and brought to full bloom Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones and others. That was what Moore wanted to do, the life he wanted to live.

I was lucky enough to make it onto the short list in his stable—those not just called but those maybe chosen, after a little serious work and tuning. He was the kind of editor who edited from the front, pre-manuscript, as well as what he called “pissing in the manuscript” after it was in. This often involved 12-to-7 “working lunches” for throwing ideas around that got better as the afternoon deteriorated, in the event that either he or the writer was capable of remembering the ideas – especially since the working lunch usually deteriorated further into just going out and overindulging for the rest of the evening. Moore also worked the phones with writers – and being an insomniac himself, a 3 a.m. call was not unusual.

But most of Moore’s interaction—at least with this writer—came in letters, those things we used for communication before email. I have a whole file drawer of letters from him—and I wrote as many to him. I reread the folder of his letters from the Gazette years the weekend after he died, and some of them would begin, “Responding to your two letters from last week….” What were these letters about? Well, about one to sixteen pages. They might be about a piece I was working on, or he wished I was working on; but they were also ongoing conversations about things he’d read or I’d read or we’d both read (it was Spengler for quite a while), discourses on what was happening in our lives, and –… But that sounds so damn – literary.

I need to downshift and get honest here about re-membering Moore. The letters, the long meetings were a love affair, is what they really were: we were both in love with my potential. That sounds terribly egomaniacal, but I think it is true, and the affair was conducted through this mad blizzard of letters about writing, with a focus on my writing. There was nothing sexual about this love affair – but something he said in one letter about his sex life kind of explains something about his relationship with the writers he worked with.

He said that he took a lot of his self-identity from the woman’s physical satisfaction—“She comes; therefore I am,” was how he put it. So it was with us: if, with his suggestions, support, critique, wheedling, stimulating and stroking, we might finally write something generally about mountains (and what isn’t?) that communicated a little Wright-Brothers-type hopping flight of the soul—then he existed too. I knew of course that he was profligately twelve-timing me with all the other Gazette writers; we all knew that, and jealousy occasionally intruded, but basically we loved him back as profligately: our Max Perkins, shepherd, custodian, editor, lover-of-our-potential.

If you were one of his short-list writers, he would—eventually—publish just about anything you sent him. Even in complete disregard of the “one to sixteen page” parameter stated in that first letter. Between stages in my own life in the summer of 1975, I cranked out a 90-page manuscript in a two-week burst of desperate something-or-other—in many respects, just a longer letter to Moore, but more generally about mountains. I sent it to Moore, with a letter asking him to see if there were any salvageable fragments in it, anything to take out and work up; “I can’t imagine what you could do with the whole mess,” I concluded.

I got a letter back a few days later that began, “We’ll print it, of course; we just have to figure out how and why”—then went into a description of how he had alarmed patrons at the bar where he went to read it, with noisy outbursts of laughter, backtalk, and other manifestations of his tendency to be a very active reader…. We define love too narrowly, too pedestrianly, if it can’t include this – not just “brotherly love,” but loverly love, a kind of shared intimacy involving mutual penetration of each other’s minds and hearts, and the kind of trust that enables that.

Eventually that outpouring became the final part of a four-part series that involved a lot of back-and-forth calls and letters, a couple emergency work days in Denver, and some serious stress on both of us. When done it occupied more than 50 pages of the magazine over four months, and was very well received in the mountain world. For us: how was it for you, did you…? Yes, the peak intensity, climax of our love affair with my potential, through which his potential was realized. We came together on it; therefore we were.

He thought the “Part of a Winter” series should become a book, and started calling in or begging favors from every big leaguer he had ever encountered in the rarified realm of New York publishing. But this was also a time when he was going through a lot of personal trauma—a failing marriage, financial troubles at the magazine, a lot of heavy drinking and the indiscriminate bestowing of random female orgasms. I got a contract eventually, with what turned out to be the wrong publisher—my fault, not Moore’s.

And not long after that, in 1976, Moore left the Mountain Gazette and Denver, to set off on an extended tour of Europe with his family in what even he could see was predestined to be a futile effort to salvage the marriage. The book was edited by a young woman in New York who knew commas but didn’t know what either she or I were doing; suffice it to say that Part of a Winter wasn’t the Look Homeward, Angel or Farewell to Arms that Moore had made us both believe it could be, in the intensity of our affair.

We continued to write letters for a number of years after he left the Gazette, but with increasing infrequency, while he went through a number of editing jobs, and eventually a partnership in a Vermont publishing house. Finally, he stopped writing entirely—not just to me, his partner told me, but to everyone from his “former life”. For almost two decades I heard nothing from him, until out of the blue he called one afternoon a year or so ago—“to say goodbye”: he’d received his death sentence from the doctors.

Well, no eulogy then, Moore, per your instructions, no obit, just this effort to re-member you in my life, keep you a member in my life, and remember how you changed my life, for better or worse. I think we both eventually realized that I lack something—the ego, discipline, drive—to really realize fully whatever potential I have or had in the running for the Next Great American Writer, and that may be why you stopped writing letters. But I thank you from whatever depths I have for your seemingly boundless love for us all during those first intense and exciting Mountain Gazette years, which like all love is given, just given, and not for what we are but for what we might become. Unsustainable, love like that, but how gray life would be without ever having had it.          —George Sibley

Postcard: St. John in fall

I was lucky enough to grow up on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, though at this stage of my life that simply means I have an island to visit where I know the nooks and crannies. Maho Bay is not necessarily one of those nooks, but it still sees less traffic than more famous beaches like Trunk Bay, which is often named one of the top 10 beaches in the world. This was a lazy mid-November day at Maho, in the middle of the pristine VI National Park, which covers about 70 percent of the island, treading water, figuratively and literally, before the winter faucet turned on at home.

Photo by Devon O’Neil