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
In this life there are some risks worth taking and there are some risks to be avoided. It is only by careful analysis and investigation that these risks can be properly evaluated.
It is a fine spring day and to celebrate the season I sit down at a well-worn stool in my favorite mountain bar and order a Margarita, without salt.
Gunner, my regular barkeep, slides a frosty glass at me with a couple of wedges of lime that have brown spots all over them. I pick-out the lime wedges and on closer examination, the brown is probably some sort of rot. I carefully squeeze the juice out of them and put the limes aside.
The ‘rita is fine, it will head me in the direction I want to go.
The next time Gunner comes by I ask, “So how did you manage to get brown spots on the limes?”
“Whut?” he asks. Gunner has a GI Bill degree from CU in something esoteric like that odd place between physics and biology, so he’s not as dumb as he pretends to be, but I think he reads lips because he doesn’t hear worth a damn. He also says “Whut?” when he doesn’t have a smart-assed response to a question. He claims that it gives him time to think.
The bar isn’t crowded. Gunner is thinking.
“The brown spots on the limes Gunner? Where did they come from?”
Gunner looks at me like he probably looks at anyone who tracks mud into his bar or leaves the door open to the just marginal John. He avoids the question by reaching for a bottle of whiskey with a long silver cap on it and a really odd label.
He plunks two shot glasses down on the bar and pours Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.
We make eye contact and he says, “Gunships.”
We click the glasses and I say, “Welcome Home.”
We smile—a grunt and a draft-dodger can be friends.
“About those gnarly-looking limes?”
Gunner was a crew chief and door-gunner for two tours. His methods of handling adversity have significantly improved since then. He moves over real close and sort of whispers to me, “They coulda come from the bottom of the garnish tray.”
“The what?” I ask.
“The garnish tray, that thing on the bar where we keep the fruit and olives for drinks. The thing with the plastic top on it.”
“So let me see if I’ve got this right. My limes had brown spots on them because they spent too much time in the garnish tray?”
“Yeah, that’s possible, look, after last call I put it in the fridge,” he says sort of apologetically.
“Great, so the garnish tray comes out for first shift at about 11 AM, sits on the bar unrefrigerated for maybe 14 or 15 hours until you serve last call?”
“Right,” says Gunner, “some refrigeration is better than no refrigeration.”
I walk over to the garnish tray and carefully lift the scuffed plastic lid. In front of me are recently cut pieces of lime on top, some lemon and orange rounds, candied cherries and green olives. As I look in the box Gunner hacks up another couple limes and tosses them in on top of the pile.
“So you were mad at me for something and got down to the bottom and found a brownish lime for me, right?”
“No, there just weren’t many limes left when you ordered,” he said.”
Gunner wanders down to the other end of the bar and I stick my finger in the limes. The bottom of the lime section is as I expected—soft, mushy and slimy. You would not be wanting anything in your drink from the bottom of the garnish tray.
Gunner comes back down the bar.
“I saw you stick your finger in the limes. That’s unsanitary,” he suggests.
It’s my turn to look at him as if he came from someplace where Moms and Dads are often brothers and sisters.
“So when was the last time your garnish tray got cleaned?” I ask.
“Dunno,” says Gunner, “The help is supposed to clean everything.”
“Same help that cleans the Johns?”
“Ah, yeah, them.”
Alan Stark is a Boulder-based freelance writer and a recovering book publisher.
We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.
Setting The North Face history straight
Dear Editor, Just for the record, I noticed an error in regards to the founding of The North Face in the 40th-anniversary edition of Mountain Gazette that I should point out. Not that this was an earth-shaking
mistake, but I was the sole founder of The North Face in 1963 and I sold the company in or around 1970. Hap Klopp was never a partner of mine and entered the company’s activities long after the company was founded, and I had sold it to two brothers from the East Bay who owned a ski shop in Concord or Lafayette (don’t remember now just exactly where they were from, but one of those two places). Klopp happened onto the scene if I remember correctly as he was going to or related in some manner with the Stanford Business School and was doing
a case study of TNF as an entrepreneurial small business. He hung around our offices for a bit while he gathered his information and then that was more or less the last we saw of him. Later, and I do not remember
the circumstances, he somehow bought out the brothers who had bought the company from me.
Anyway, no big deal, but I had heard a number of times over the years that Klopp has posed as the founder and this simply is far from the fact of the matter and I wanted to set the record straight. As I said above, this is not earth-shaking news!
Best regards, Doug Tompkins
‘Dateline: Europe’ will be missed
Dear Mr. Fayhee: Not sure who made the decision to drop Michael Brady’s “Dateline: Europe” column, but I want to register my disappointment over this decision. Brady’s column was a major reason that I subscribe to your magazine. Although I enjoy the regional nature of MG, I also enjoyed, at least as much, if not more, the cosmopolitan atmosphere that “Dateline: Europe” provided. It’s unfortunate that you don’t feel this way. The Rocky Mountain West can be very parochial and self-centered and I find it a healthy change to read about other regions.
Please reconsider your decision. You’ll probably lose at least one subscriber if you don’t, as the magazine is very much diminished without Mr. Brady’s articles. In fact, I suggest you add more writers like him. I wouldn’t mind reading about other mountainous regions of the world than just the Rocky Mountains.
Kind regards, Ted Johnson Belgrade MT
Dear MJF: I was disappointed you wouldn’t allow any of your own comments from the past to be posted in the “Mountain Gazette’s 60 Best Excerpts” section of your 40th Anniversary issue (MG #191).
I have read Abbey, I have read Thompson and, for my reading time, I would rather have some MJF on hand.
I like Abbey and etc. Yeah you have had other good writers, yeah the best-of section had some good stuff — but still — I always read your stuff, whereas I don’t have the same drive, desire or need to read all the others. For whatever reason, your writing hits the spot, so please suspend the modesty for the next anniversary issue and allow your comments to appear in the best-of section. (I/we may not be around for another 40th anniversary — so why don’t you pull off a 45th or a 48th or some such, and allow your words to appear in big and bold print in the MG 43rd Anniversary Issue?)
So long. Kevin A. Yuan
John: I’m not a climber, but enjoyed MG #189 about those who do — dog issue is still the best — but, thinking about topical issues, have you ever considered one on guns? I’ve lived in the Colorado mountains most of my life. I own guns and I used to hunt. But, ever since I was a Boy Scout in the 1950s, it has never occurred to me to carry a gun when I camp, fish or hike. Lately, I have become aware of several acquaintances who do carry weapons in their backpacks, even on short day hikes. Is this becoming the norm these days? It might make an interesting issue just to try to find out how your readers feel, experiences they’ve had, etc. You have at least one reader who’d be interested.Cheers.
Roger Miller, Nathrop, CO
John: When I first read the “Rumble in Hawai’i” story by Craig Childs in #187, I thought it was well-done and useful, a cautionary tale of how easy it is to get on the wrong side of the locals even in your own country and with the best of intentions. But I have to give credit where it’s due. Robert Shepherd’s parody of the “ugly Coloradan” in #189 — booted, backpacked and obtuse — is brilliant. I especially loved the conceit that if a natural disaster — fire? flood? windstorm? — wipes out your gazebo, your land becomes everybody’s. A perfect expression of cultural arrogance. (I’m just glad he didn’t identify himself as a Californian. We already have a bad enough reputation!) OK, kinda mean but definitely funny.
Walt Read Fresno, CA
John: Charles Clayton’s “Jesus and the Joshua Tree, or How I Almost Became a Climber” (MG #189) reminded me of J-Tree’s effect on this non-climber. While not a religious experience per se, I certainly thanked Gawd for that place during my visit. It’s a park that always held some level of enchanting curiosity for me. If I had to place an objective attraction on it, it’s the desert Seussical landscape, groves of goofy-looking lily relatives resembling toy poodle arbors, the botanical reincarnate of the Muppets’ “Animal” in the hugantic desert palms, and, of course, the rock formations, some literally appearing as vertical geological jigsaw puzzles or even ice cream cones. I recall one that was a perfect V cut into the cliff with a perfect sphere cradled perfectly in the top! J-Tree was all I’d hoped for.
What I didn’t expect was the climbing-friendly rocks! I am not a climber and have little, if any, interest in (though appreciate the skill involved) scaling up walls and back down when I could be coursing in and out of canyons seeking oases and staking out austere mountain passes looking for desert bighorns. However, by the amount of climbing one sees there, you can’t help but feel some sort of tacit peer pressure, and the fact that the large-grit sandpaper rock surfaces make for fairly easy jaunts up 89-degree surfaces made me a dilettante free climber for that week.
In the mornings and after dinner, all I’d have to do is put a boot up and lean forward and upwards to start my way to some outcropping 100 feet above me. It was on some of these perched rock jumbles I have some of my fondest J-Tree recollections. The friendly free-climbing allowed me to scale up to vantage points to see the solar carpet and purple shadows see-saw with each other across this fantastic landscape — a religious experience of its own kind.
Tony Smith East Longmeadow, MA
Editor’s note: Given the fact that our snail mail address is two states away from where our editor lives, handwritten, typed and scrawled Letters to the Editor often take a while to reach the Official Desk. These next three letters were sent our way last spring. The stagecoach to Gila Country is running slower than ever.
Even More Colorado Songs
Hi, Mr. Fayhee: The Colorado Songs article was wonderful. (Smoke Signals, “Colorado Songs,” MG #185.) It was surprising how many songs exist referencing Colorado. Many of those listed are new to me. And you are right, in that this reader and others can come up with more. Here’s one: A group called Grubstake has a folk-oriented tune that might be called “The Colorado Song”. Harry Tuft, a local folk legend, is one of Grubstake’s musicians, along with three or so others. He runs the Folklore Center in Denver.
The song deals with visitors to CO that stay, thereby adding to the population.
I recall one stanza running something like: “Now we’re having trouble with the jet set/Them lazy no good bastards love to ski/ And they all want fly to Colorado and buy up all our mountain scenery.”
The chorus is roughly: “Oh you can visit now and then/Bring your money and your friends/Just don’t forget to leave when you get through.”
I suppose other Western states enduring an influx of folks have similar songs and sentiments.
Thanks again for a fun article,
Rainer (Said Ry’-ner) Hantschel Denver, CO
Hello: I live in Colorado. I know all these Colorado songs and like them, but let me make a suggestion for the finest song about our neighbor to the West. “Utah,” by the Osmonds, off of their hard-rockin’ 1972 album “Crazy Horses.” It is one of the most amazingly non-specific songs ever written … no references to anything that might make Utah a special place, except that the Osmonds live there, and they are going back there because it’s home and “the place to be.” (The least they could have done is make a pro-Mormon pitch like they did on their follow-up album, “The Plan”). That said, it’s a good solid rocker by a truly astounding and underrated group of young men.
Dan Groth Durango, CO
Shouldn’t have got that MBA
Dear John, Hey — I figured I could call you John as 1) I love the Mountain Gazette, 2) Sometime in the ’80s, my ex-wife & I were just coming down from hiking Greys Peak ( I believe … at 57 now I can barely remember my name, much less which 14ers we hiked) and you were hitchhiking down the road + we gave you a ride, 3) I’m re-reading your book, “Up At Altitude” 4) I pick up this great copy of MG at Ken Sanders’ Rare Books — EARTH FIRST!
Hey — great magazine — A. Stark’s article, “Cosmic Justice” (MG #185) strikes a cord — in 1975 myself + ex brother in law + other best friend camped up the rock north of Nederland + hiked Arapahoe Peak — then, as the road was too tough to drive a fucking Ford Fairlane back down to Boulder to get booze (before Pearl Street was rebuilt), my pal + I hiked from Rainbow Lakes to Nederland to hitch to Boulder. I too noticed these cows, all smarter than me — all trying to deter me from
getting my MBA.
I should have listened.
Anyway, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your publication — like Bowden’s “Tucson City Weekly” in the ’80s — like Jim Stile’s Moab Rants — like DeVere Hinkley’s ’80s single-spaced typed eight-page missives from Cowley, Wyoming — “The Cowley Progress” — the must-read “A Man Can Believe Anything.”
Take Care — keep it going!
In the Service of Her Majesty — Mother Earth! EF!
Dave Naslund SLC, UT
Loving life behind the ZION CURTAIN
A Sport That Encourages Drinking & Smoking!
Hi! Well March did come in like a lion in these parts — but it sure seems way to lamb-ish too soon! Snow is certainly fading fast — faster than ever I’d bet! Some would claim it’s been mud season all winter. Of course, we’re spoiled here with our geographic advantage — skiing’s been fine to great — alpine @ Wolf Creek and nordic all over our little corner of the state. I don’t mind the mud — it goes away on ground and shoes —eventually. I only hate the wind — the Chinese claim it’s evil — I won’t argue that. I am looking forward to hiking now, I must admit, though, I suspect the beetle-killed pines may pose a real danger when the winds rip!
In the meantime, there’s disc golf — I think you’d really like it, M. John F. You can smoke & drink before, during & after and throwing things at a target satisfies the primal urge — hunting?
Anyway, I wanted to send in a decorated envelope, haven’t gotten to fully digest the dog issue of MG and didn’t want to wait for the next issue. Love ’em all — only wish they were LONGER — with more info, fotos, etc.
If you want to play Pagosa’s sweet disc golf course, look me up and I’ll get you discs & show you around the course — it’s truly a sweet one! Won’t be ready for a bit of course, got to dry up the ice, snow & mud!
Happy Spring! Addi G. Pagosa Springs
Editor’s note: The following two Letters were addressed to long-rime MG contributor George Sibley in response to his article, “The Colorado: The First River of the Anthropocene,” which appeared in MG #188.
Hi George: Greetings from Silverton, where the aspens in my yard finally popped their buds just yesterday …
Really enjoyed your piece in MG and the turning two-by-four studs back into trees analogy! Thanks for injecting this much more useful perspective into the mind-numbing litany of “woe is us” literature on the River.
FYI — CSAS, in discussing our organizing premise, talks about the “anthroposphere” and the “music of the spheres” (atmos-, litho-,cryo-, and anthropo-spheres) … the anthropocene is the context for all this!
Cheers, Chris Landry, Executive Director, Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies
George: Beer or wine? I want to know what to buy you in appreciation of your latest work. In fact, whiskey is not out of the question.
I thoroughly enjoyed this essay each time I read it and only curse the Gazette’s format for the difficulty of scanning it so I can distribute it to my fellow members on the Grand Mesa Water Conservancy District board — even if it’s to watch them choke on the word Anthropocene. Congratulations on another fine job.
BOOKS: “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan
During every Himalayan expedition, the behind-the-scenes work of hauling gear, setting up camps, scouting routes and fixing rope lines falls on the backs of high-altitude workers, or Sherpa climbers, as they’re commonly known. But who are the Sherpa people? What compels some to become high-altitude workers? And on K2, the world’s second-highest peak, does the mountain goddess Takar Dolsangma answer their prayers?
In their new book, “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan answer these questions while telling a gripping story of the August 2008 disaster. Instead of the usual glorified gush from surviving sponsored mountaineers, the story centers on the Sherpas, giving a cultural context to their perilous work amid their most sacred places.
The authors neatly lay out each of the characters’ backgrounds, personalities and philosophies as if laying out gear before an assault on the mountain. As they push for the summit, the story degenerates into a tangled mass of rope, ice, rock and dead or dying climbers. Despite multiple storylines, this book clearly communicates the imperceptible Death Zone logic and impossible language gaps that led to the deaths of eleven climbers, Sherpa or not. The story’s flow receives help from the book’s many maps, color photos and notes.
Shocked by the death of her friend Karim Meherban in the accident, fellow climber Amanda Padoan sought to uncover how such a tragedy could happen. With help from her cousin, Peter Zuckerman, the authors thoroughly researched the story, but also pioneered a new, exciting perspective that raises the bar for all mountaineering literature. Sure, it still implies the age-old question: why climb? But when asked in the context of Sherpa climbers, the answers reverberate deeper and reveal more than ever before. $26.95, www.wwnorton.com
— Jeff Miesbauer
BOOKS: “Utah’s Wasatch Range: Four Season Refuge,” by Howie Garber
Abruptly rising thousands of feet above Salt Lake City, Utah’s Wasatch Range forms a stark boundary between the western edge of the Rocky Mountains and the eastern front of the Great Basin. And, with 85% of the state’s population living within 20 miles, the range’s constant battle between conservation and development is just as stark.
Photographer Howie Garber has been exploring and taking photos in and of the Wasatch for 40 years, but his first book, “Utah’s Wasatch Range: Four Season Refuge,” is much more than just a photographic retrospective of his career in these mountains. Garber’s expansive collection of landscape, wildlife and outdoor sports photos are paired with essays from conservationists, business leaders, scientists and government officials that detail the intricacies, beauty and fragility of this cherished range. The result is both a tribute to the home of the “Greatest Snow on Earth” and a cautionary message of the many threats faced by these craggy peaks.
The book’s essays, written by everyone from skier Andrew McLean to U.S. Congressman Jim Matheson, run the gamut of subjects from geological history to watershed stewardship to the contentious nature of the Wasatch’s unparalleled ski
terrain. For those looking for reason to believe in preserving the Wasatch’s endless recreation opportunities, pure water and accessible wilderness, Garber’s beautiful images of golden aspen stands, craggy quartzite summits, diverse wildlife and powdery ski descents make the perfect companion for the words of so many important local voices.
Collectively, the book’s photographs and words make for many things — a visual tribute, a case for conservation, and most of all, something that anyone who has ever spent time in the Wasatch will find a deep appreciation for. $39.95, www.utahswasatchrangehowiegarberphotography.com
— Andy Anderson
SHORT FILMS: “The Old Breed,” by Cowboy Bear Ninja
In 2011, climber and filmmaker Freddie Wilkinson received an invite to go and climb the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world, Saser Kangri II, in Asia’s Karakoram Mountains. The invite came from Mark Richey and Steve Swenson — two men with careers, families and lengthy lists of successful climbing expeditions under their belts. Eager to pull out one more major first ascent before retiring from big-mountain expeditions, the pair recruited Wilkinson — 25 years younger than both men — as the third member of the team.
In “The Old Breed,” Wilkinson documents the trio’s climb while also exploring what compels a pair of men in their mid-50s to travel halfway around the world and risk their lives in pursuit of an unclimbed mountain. For Richey and Swenson, the trip to climb Saser Kangri II represents what might be one of the final chapters in a long and illustrious mountaineering career. For Wilkinson, it represents a chance to share in one of a dwindling number of major unclimbed summits with two climbers he had long admired.
Due to the complex nature of what Wilkinson refers to as oropolitics, many sections of the Karakoram have been closed due to tensions between the bordering nations of India, Pakistan and China. When these areas are finally opened, it presents a bounty of first ascent potential for alpinists. And it’s such a political sea change that allows these three climbers to venture in pursuit of Saser Kangri II’s unclaimed summit.
But when Swenson falls ill on the mountain with a dangerous lung infection, the film delves into the age-old mountaineering struggle between the magnetic pull of the summit and a climber’s capacity for self-preservation. The film dabbles with the oft-discussed reasons why we go to the mountains in the first place, but it’s ultimately about how even as we age, the raw, wild spaces and expansive summits of the world offer something we can’t get anywhere else. www.theoldbreedmovie.com
Photo by Chris Segal, Crested Butte Mountain Resort
It’s here, it’s finally here… the month we’ve all been waiting through the off-season brown, beefing up with pot lucks, brews and conditioning classes in anticipation of burning quadriceps and lifts cranking up to take us to the magnificent white glory. It’s cause for celebration. Opening day costumes, copious brews, facial hair encrusted in icy splendor and music to help drown out the deafening sound of your lungs as you huck yourself down the slopes.
That means you’d better revisit your iPod, like, now, and get some new favorite tunes loaded up, whatever your preferences run, because a decent playlist is as essential as good ski equipment. Music makes the inexperienced more confident as it glides them into a rhythmic schussing of their very own beat and makes the seasoned shredder immortal. No one genre is going to suit every snow condition or style, so you may want something less challenging on your initial ride up (some classic Dead or Marley, perhaps?), only to switch gears to something to rip by (kick in the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Pow days might require a bit of Led Zep (“Immigrant Song” is a good one to have snow nuking non-stop into your face.) Modest Mouse to Beatles tossed with Widespread Panic and seasoned with a touch of Drew Emmitt could be sunny daze cruising happily ever after choices.
You’ll certainly want your personal listening device as Thanksgiving nears and the incessant, repetitive holiday music starts crankin’ on your nerves from blaring outdoor speakers. Having a headset on is also a legitimately recognized means to ignore annoying conversationalists who take up precious time yammering away when you could be making another run. Less talk equals more gravity enhanced slope action.
If you want to slam to the same beat as the pros in your favorite ski movies, but don’t have the time to seek out every song, you’re in luck … someone’s already done the task for you. A whitewater raft guide named Jesse Lakes realized there wasn’t a site anywhere to be found with a comprehensive list of all those fabulous tunes featured in the dramatic drops those extreme sick birds take to, so he created skimoviemusic.com, where you can search by movie name or its maker, skier or company, and then download it through just one click into iTunes. He’s also created ridertunes.com for snowboard tracks and, when the lifts close and you grab your other board, you can download your faves from surfertunes.com. Pretty damn brilliant and convenient … search less, ski more is the motto here.
It’s also worth noting is that most of the opening-day celebrations at many of our favorite snow-farming resorts include music to stomp your ski and board boots to. Not wanting to give up a good party, some mountains carry on the revelry throughout the month and into the next. Vail is kicking off its 50th anniversary on November 16 with a new gondola and continuing their mezzo centenarian birthday with an impressive concert line-up for their Snow Daze, December 13 through 15, which includes The Shins, Michael Franti & Spearhead and Wilco. Get yourself tickets and info at www.vail.com/snowdaze.
Out in Crested Butte, the drive to the end of the road is definitely worthwhile for their opening Free Ski Day November 21 and the wrap of their half-century celebration as they head into their 51st year (www.skicb.com). You can also ski free on your own birthday (hopefully, it falls sometime during winter lift operations and may it scream snow like a banshee for your special day). There’s live music slopeside on the deck of Butte 66 with the return of a much-loved surprise band that can’t be named at this time, and thrown in for fun is local community radio KBUT (www.kbut.org), which will also be spinning tunes between the lifts .
Aspen opens its slopes November 22 with the amazing Reverend Horton Heat funking up a free concert on the Upper Gondola Plaza on the 24th and, since no one knows what time this shindig kicks off, you’ll have to check in at www.aspensnowmass.com.
With all the sacrifices and dances to honor and implore Ullr, this year is sure to be big and deep, so don’t wait until the last minute to recrank the iPod, because you don’t want to waste any time getting to the slopes for your dance of vertical kinetics.
Dawne Belloise is a freelance journalist, photographer and vocalist happily entrenched back in the Shire of Crested Butte fully amped for really deep winter with new helmet speakers and a large stash of downloaded tunes. Give her a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently, the Craft Brewers Association of America held a contest to try and find the “Best Beer Bar in America.” Members of the beer-drinking public were invited to vote through a website, and, not surprisingly, the winning institution is located in a place where the population within a 20-mile radius of the bar easily exceeds the total resident headcount of several Western states. More people equals more votes, and the numbers behind the math make perfect sense. But perhaps the calculus behind the concept is more intriguing — what makes a bar “the best?” It is a fascinating question: What makes a certain bar great, and another average? A question elusive enough that it has been ruminated upon in many MG Bar Issues. The subject is even lofty enough as to warrant treatment in a film of the same name as this column, currently in post-production/pre-release (see MG #154).
The theme is similar to the lifelong pursuit of the American dream that the good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson, undertook and used as a recurring motif throughout his writings — his mad search for any sign of the Aquarian-tinted, utopian hippie dream of the ’60s that captivated his imagination so, as reflected through the twisted lens of Las Vegas, or the alternate reality of a presidential campaign.
After reading most of what was published, it is unclear to this writer whether Thompson ever found what he was after, but what is clear is that much of the research was conducted in a wide variety of drinking establishments. And why not? For certainly, it is in the best bars in America where the elusive truth about our reality often appears, and wherein some of the finest that this country has to offer can be found …
For instance, take the Millsite Inn, located on the Peak-to-Peak Highway up above Ward, Colorado. Time was when an aspiring beer writer might take to the hills on a Saturday evening with his best girl, in search of some of that high-lonesome sound they kept talkin’ ’bout on the volunteer radio station each and every Saturday morning down in Boulder, and find himself and twenty other revelers in the company of local legends like Buck Buckner, Pete Wernick, the boys from Leftover Salmon and international prodigies like Radim Zenkel, the Czech virtuoso of all things mandolin. Long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men sat in the shadows of the bar taking long tokes from cheap cigars and long pulls of rail whiskey while shooting dark looks from deepening brows at us long-haired, long-bearded, ne’er-do-wells as we asked the barmaid what was on tap other than Currs, a shame worth enduring to score a tall pitcher of Lefthand Brewing Co.’s Sawtooth or Odell’s 90 Schilling Ale (we still had to share our smaller but not-so-cheap cigars furtively outside between the vans, however).
Or take, perhaps, Alma’s Only Bar (aptly named, as the other drinking establishment in North America’s highest-elevationed incorporated town is a saloon), which was at this same time, as we found out, a great place to meet long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men that were wacked out of their minds on LSD on a Saturday evening. A chance run-in with space cowboys is always disconcerting when oneself is not also trippin’, and, after a day spent learning to drop a knee at the hands of two “friends,” who also happened to be working ski patrol at Loveland that season, and subsequently in uber-physical shape from patrolling on tele for the two previous months, my beat-to-shit muscular and cardiovascular systems weighed with such force on my mental capabilities that the beguiling dudes in the corner talking excitedly about a string of completely unrelated abstractions just about threw me over the edge. ’Twas on this night that Alma’s Only Bar happened to have a new beer on tap, the now-august Hazed and Infused pale ale from Boulder Brewing Co. At the time, this was one of the most hopped-up beers on the market, and let’s just say that this experience did for hops and I what Burt Reynold’s mustache did in “Smokey and the Bandit” for D-bag dudes and the Pontiac Trans-Am. Yes, it was love at first sip, and the rest is history.
But to get back to my point … all the while he searched for his notion of the American dream, it seems to me that the good doctor was constantly looking for a twinkling reflection of his own vibrant “madness” in the twisted misshapen mirrors of the people he encountered. I don’t know if he ever saw it (perhaps in the strange moment that he relates where he is sitting for a few minutes alone with Nixon in the back of a limo talking football), but, if it happened elsewhere, it was not
mentioned, or I am remiss in my recollections. What I do know is this: While good beer on tap helps, the best bar in America is determined by the patrons. It’s you, and me, and the other freaks that sit and converse and share our wild dreams in these spaces and places about the matters and times that concern us that can make any bar the best bar in America, even if just for an evening.
Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, where he spends his leisure time brewing his own beer. Got your own thoughts about the best bar in America? Drop him a line at email@example.com.
In the course of auditing my tax account, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that I was allowed to take a deduction for one pair of skis a year, but could not deduct my boots. As they saw the matter, the boots could be conceivably be used for purposes other than skiing. What those other purposes were was not clear. My attorney made the analogy with his three-piece suit, which he was required to wear in the courtroom, even through he only appeared in court only about once a year. It was necessary for his profession, but could be worn places other than in the courtroom, so was not deductible.
I can hardly see myself clomping into a courtroom in my Lange boots, or being able to sit comfortably as a juror for any considerable length of time. Or wearing a three-piece suit in a snowstorm, for that matter, although it may already have been done. So there you are, ski boots are not deductible.
If “skiing” is not a sport, but a “way of life,” then ski boots are not sporting goods, but life-supporting goods, so they should be chosen with care, and made to last. Which is how they were originally made — leather starched over a last — until Hans Heierling’s hands were no longer enough to sew the elephant hide he used in his last boots. Thus began, by default, the era of plastic. At last, or so we thought.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
Winter has some serious competition this year in the form of The Shift, which is slated around the date of Dec. 21, and at which time, as you very well know, the world will split into higher and lower dimensional realities. We’re not exactly sure how winter is going to play out in the new scenario, so we’re using our current Third Dimension, where other people’s bad luck/decisions/situations make for fun things for the rest of us lowlifes to talk about. Those of us who move on to the Fifth Dimension won’t be doing this kind of crap anymore.
1) Winter You Gotta Wonderland
We got to wondering if there were any real, sanctioned Winter Wonderlands out there. What we were looking for were places that are so goddamned wonderful that you almost can’t stand it. Instead, we found a story about allegedly great wintry places to retire because, if you don’t have to work, you don’t have to go outside in the towns’ really repulsive weather. Places like South Bend, Indiana. What the hell? Anyway, according to U.S. News,there are lots of great crappy wintry places to go if you don’t plan to go outside and deal with the fact that you’re in such a crappy situation. On the list: Juneau, Alaska; Syracuse, N.Y.; South Bend; Marquette, Michigan (where, in winter, you can usually saw off your own limbs without anesthesia after 20 minutes of being outside); Minneapolis (a relatively okay place due to a bunch of skyway tunnels to run around in, sort of like a gerbil habitat) and Aurora, Colorado (Aurora doesn’t necessarily have hideous weather, but if you’re moving to Colorado, you might as well take all your retirement money and spend three weeks in Aspen instead). There also were a few places where you might actually want to go outside: Burlington, Vermont, Salt Lake City and Portland, Maine.
2) Action-packed winter sports
It’s never too early to start getting all lathered up over the next Winter Olympics. If you want to get your sport listed for competition, a good place to start is by petitioning the International Olympic Committee via sites like Change.org or GoPetition.com. Really, it’s that easy; otherwise there’s no way they’d have curling or biathlon. That said, it’s anyone’s guess why the maniacs who race their cars on the partially frozen lake at Georgetown, Colorado, for example, have not had some sort of Olympic invitation/recognition. We digress (and to be fair, we should mention that they often place orange cones somewhere near the place where ice becomes water). You can plan to see women’s ski jumping added to the 2014 lineup at Sochi, in addition to a figure skating team event, a luge team relay, ski halfpipe for men and women AND the long-awaited biathlon mixed relay, which pretty much has everyone at the Mountain Gazette foaming at the mouth and/or experiencing bowel failure. Evidently, the XGames have had some influence on the addition of more extreme sports. Wielding his usual rapier wit, IOC president Jacques Rogge had this to say: “Such events provide great entertainment for the spectators and add further youthful appeal to our already action-packed lineup of Olympic winter sports.”
3) The winter of our discontent
While zillions of people attempt to escape the winter cold every year and thaw out in Arizona, we’ve got some real bad news. Both the Kingman/Lake Havasu City and Prescott areas apparently suck the good vibes out of people, or perhaps people with bad vibes are attracted to these locales, creating a vibrational suckhole that puts these spots among the top-10 saddest places in the United States, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. It goes without
saying that Boulder took the top billing as the happiest place in the country (see Olympic sports entry for MG staff reaction to Boulder’s inherent perkiness). Conversely, out of 188 MSA’s (metropolitan statistical areas), Huntington-Ashland
WV-KY-OH took top billing as the saddest place in the country, followed by places like Youngstown, Ohio, and Beaumont, Texas. Coming in at No. 9, Prescott has a bunch of firecrackers who predominantly rank low in their feelings about their physical health and life in general. At No. 8, the folks in the Kingman/Lake Havasu City area ranked 52nd for emotional health, but completely fell apart on physical health and overall life evaluation.
4) Precision research on winter clothes
Operating on the assumption that colder, more-wintry places force people to buy warm clothes that are more expensive by nature, we learned many things in our extensive investigation. First of all, and no surprise here — folks in Jackson buy a lot of clothes — an average of $361 a month, according to Bundle. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s sartorial average is $121, with places like Sheridan ($119) and Rawlins ($97) holding the numbers and fashion down. If you seriously don’t want to dress to impress, Montana and Idaho are where you need to be. Montana has a scratchy $85 monthly average, with Livingston coming in at a paltry $81. Idaho’s average is $86, and if you really want to scrimp on style, Caldwell is your place at $53. We checked out Silver City, N.M., home of the Gazette’s esteemed editor, and folks there are parting with $91 a month on clothes.
5) Dirtbags, all
We were looking for some fun, weird-ish winter festivals to talk about here, and encountered the usual ice-water plunges, and, naturally, the après-Christmas fruitcake toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado. But ranking among the World’s Top-10 Winter Festivals, according to MSN Travel, is Dirtbag Day at Big Sky Resort. Held in March, it’s not so much about douchebags, although there is some statistical crossover here. It’s more about hardcore skiers and riders who hit the bars at night, with hygiene as a distant consideration. Anyway, on Dirtbag Day, the dirtbags get to dress up in whatever they want. “This is our Halloween, New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras all in one,” one of the participants told The New York Times.
Elections are over. Time to let go the human drama. And dig into the spirit of place where you live. Awake to what lives beneath your feet … Two poets from Ridgway this month — must be the several hot springs there (Orvis, Wiesbaden, Ouray) that makes for such good poets …
— Art Goodtimes, Cloud Acre
47 km North of Squamish
Wet silence of flakes
To the heavy rush of falls
And I’m drawn
Sneakers like slippers
Into the soft powder of
The muffled white woods
— Bryan Shuman Laramie
The Old Barn
the old barn
stands open to the sky
and the steaming breath
of black horses searching for grass
in the muted gold of winter
— Cathy Casper Eagle
What was thicker
than a man and
a thousand times
at the waist from
the breath of what
consumed a gorge we
labored all day to traverse
— Kevin Patrick McCarthy Locuto.com Boulder
My wish is for eighteen more of you in the world, says
to his big sister,
and we sit back
into the sum total
of what we
— Erika Moss Gordon Ridgway
Along Cottonwood Pass
the loggers’ road
covered in deep snow
becomes a skier’s delight
winding through pines
— David Reynolds Fountain Valley
Ice Verse 3
Our girls red cheeked
tasting this evening’s snow
Coldplay in the background
trying to capture Satie
The mad Frenchman’s “Gymnopedie”
plays us out
only notes fading into dark
credits rolling and blame
— Kierstin Bridger Ridgway
Coming Back from a Moonlight Ski
when i am
coyotes will leave
tracks in fresh snow
and stars will shine
at night, then
will be watching
— Carl Marcus Wilson Mesa
Bear? Me? Both?
— Joseph Van Nurden Gunnison
Old Haiku Chair
old haiku chair
just off the trail
has 4 legs and half an arm
— Jimi Bernath from “Weathering” (Porcupine Books) Englewood
First view of Machu Picchu before sunrise from Intipunku. By Colegota
Author’s note: Several years ago, I was given an assignment by a glossy outdoor magazine to pen a story about hiking Peru’s famed Inca Trail. After I completed the hike, but before the article appeared in print, there was an editorial coup d’état at the magazine and my Inca Trail piece was a casualty. I have long wanted to nudge the story into print and decided — what the hell? — now’s as good a time as any. Please note that, even though this installation of Smoke Signals is longer than usual, this is still a truncated version of what turned out to be a very long example of Fayhee bullshit.
For my entire adult life, I had fantasized about this, the moment I was about to embark upon the train ride that would take me to and deposit me at Kilometer 88, a skanky trackside cluster of shacks so dismal it deserves a pedestrian name like K-88, which marks the beginning of the 55-mile Inca Trail. I had wanted to hike the Inca Trail for so long that I can’t remember when or why that particular dream began. Its lack of palpable paternity aside, the dream consisted of many rational components: Trekking along an arduous route through the heart of the Andes. World-class mountain scenery combined with the colorful Quechua Indian culture, which is descended directly from the Incas. A cobbled pathway that pre-dates the “discovery” of the “New” World. And, most importantly, Machu Picchu, the famed “lost” (and found) city of the Incas uncovered (if not discovered — a little etymological two-step, there) by the American archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911.
For many years, political circumstances (read: the Sendero Luminoso unpleasantness, which often specifically targeted tourists) convinced my wife Gay and me to give Peru a wide berth (call me a pussy). Things have changed enough in the past few years (though they are slowly changing back, from what I hear) that we finally decided to pack our packs and make the long-anticipated journey to the heart of Inca-land.
The train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 huffs and puffs its way up several switchbacks as it climbs up the mountainside out of Cuzco, a city of 300,000 that is located at almost 12,000 feet. After it crests out, we begin our descent into the Sacred Valley of the Rio Urubamba, which we will follow all the way to the trailhead.
It’s wonderful, though stark, countryside, more arid than alpine, despite the elevation and despite the fact that we are only 16 degrees south of the Equator and less than 100 miles west of the Amazon Basin. The kilometer signs slowly tick by as we make our way through small towns I’ve been reading about for decades: Izcuchaca, Zurite, Ollantaytambo, the lyrical Inca names flowing into the each other like the swift water of the river we are following. (Translated, those lovely names probably mean things like “Snarling, Rabid Dog-ville” and “Place Where All the Seething Displaced Senderos Now Reside.”)
Halfway between Cuzco and Kilometer 88, the snow-covered peaks of the high Andes begin to appear in the distance. It is both sobering and frightening to realize the mountains we are now eyeballing are almost 9,000 feet higher than the loftiest peaks of Colorado.
We stop briefly at Kilometer 82, an alternative starting point for the Inca Trail. A few members on the teeming backpacker masses with whom we are sharing the train shoulder their packs and get off. Fifteen minutes later, we’re there: Kilometer 88, one of the most-famous trailheads on the planet. Much to our delight, “only” about 200 other hikers disembark. The rest of the pack-toting hordes stay on the train, which goes all the way to the town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. (I should note here that you are only allowed to hike the Inca Trail in one direction — toward Machu Picchu.) Gay and I dilly-dally on the side of the tracks, re-organizing our packs and preparing for a hike that, though famous and well-trod, is, by all accounts, pretty damned difficult.
When we’ve got our ducks in a huddle, we walk down toward the trailhead. Much to our dismay, we see before us a line of hikers 50 yards long. Since the Inca Trail is part of the massive Machu Picchu Cultural Park, there is paperwork to be filled out and money to be handed over. It takes more than an hour to buy our entry permits and fill out the requisite forms, which are stamped and handed back to us by a couple of no-nonsense-looking (and well-armed) gendarmes whose demeanor can best be described as desultory, like, shit, I joined the Peruvian Army to see the world, and here I am issuing hiking permits to gringos and Eurotrash.
The trail starts out at 7,500 feet, following the Rio Urubamba through a wonderfully shady eucalyptus grove. It’s very easy going at first, and we are both beaming. After all these years of planning and, more importantly, dreaming, I am finally beating feet upon the Inca Trail.
Our orientational arsenal consists of one pleasantly outdated guidebook, “The Inca Trail,” by Richard Danbury, and one non-topographic map that looks more like a placemat you’d find at Denny’s than it does a useful trail tool. It’s the best we could find in Cuzco, though, as there don’t appear to be any “real” maps of this area.
It becomes obvious from the get-go that we will need neither a map nor a guidebook to stay on the trail. This is tread that has been used as a fundamental transportation artery for so many millennia by so many uncountable gabillions of people that you could near-bouts navigate it drunk with your eyes closed in the dark. At this point, the trail is actually just that: a trail — good ol’ dirt and rock — rather than the Inca-crafted stonework “highway” we will walk upon for the last two-thirds of the hike.
It is almost 1 p.m. before we leave the river bottom and begin our first ascent, into the valley of the Rio Cusichaca. Though it is hot, I press Gay — who only enjoys hiking if she can do so at a pace that borders on — how to say this tactfully? — deliberate — to push on without a break. As much as I am trying to deal non-negatively with the numbers of people on the trail, truth be known, I am worried about getting a campsite. That’s another little gem that our guidebook has laid on us: In a land with this much severely vertical terrain, level turf is a rarity. There are only a handful of decent camping areas on the entire trail, and many of them are taken early in the day by employees of the tour companies.
The overwhelming majority of the people who hike the Inca Trail sign on with these companies, which employ local Quechuas to do the dirty work, such as carrying everyone’s packs, running ahead to lay claim to entire valleys and having tea and crumpets prepared when the customers arrive.
It’s not like we did not have the opportunity to sign on with a guided tour company. You can’t swing a dead cat in downtown Cuzco without hitting someone who’s trying mightily to sell you an all-inclusive, deluxe, guided, provisioned, portered journey along the Inca Trail. And the cost is certainly not prohibitive, anywhere from $50 per person per day to $200, depending on quality of food, gear and guides.
Much to the chagrin of my wife, I have never liked the idea of being guided along a trail, especially one as obvious as this, and I certainly can’t abide the notion of having someone else carrying my pack. It’s cheating, and my purist glands can’t handle it. Many people argue that, by hiring guides and porters, you are mitigating your visitation impact by putting money directly into the local economy. That’s a perfectly valid perception, but just one that I personally prefer not to buy into for selfish reasons that might karmically catch up with me at some point, like when my aching right Achilles tendon finally gives out for good.
Temptation along the Inca Trail does not just take the form of the pre-paid, pre-arranged guided tour companies. For the first day and a half, we pass dozens of freelance porters, locals who sit alongside the trail, offering to carry the packs of any gringos whose tongues are clearly dragging in the dust. Since these sturdy men only charge a few bucks a day, it’s not long before Gay is seriously considering making the freelance porter leap, with or without spousal approval. I am married to a woman who loves hiking and camping about as much as a person can. But she viscerally hates carrying a full pack, and she can’t, for the life of her, understand why she married a fool so stupid/egotistical/stupid that he won’t consider even for a moment giving in to good sense when opportunity knocks as loudly and as inexpensively as it does with these trailside freelance porters, all of whom smirk as we approach.
Just before the village of Huayllabamba, we pass the first decent-looking campsite, right on the banks of the Cusichaca. Good thing it’s too early to even contemplate parking it for the night, as it has been completely commandeered by a tour company that, judging from the scale of the operation, seems to have the entire population of Germany as its clientele. Rows and rows of identical tents are set up side-by-side, making it look like a massive 19th-century cavalry encampment. Though we have been assured that these companies have no legal right to dibbs entire camping areas, the fact that they get there first and take up every available inch of level land means they, de facto, do dibbs these areas. My concern for finding a satisfactory place to pitch my tent this evening grows.
Within the modest city limits of Huayllabamba, we pass two more guided-tour-dominated camping areas, each with surly looking Quechua men scowling at any passersby who so much as cast a fleeting glance at “their” heavily tented domains. Several customers are in the camps, sitting in cushy lawn chairs and sipping refreshing beverages. They cast furtive glances at those of us humping our way up the steep hill under the burden of full packs. But they don’t glance long, before returning to their conversations about, I’m sure, this season’s most intriguing interior tent decorating schemes.
Real backpackers carry their own stuff, I tell Gay, and they are the only ones who have any right to say they’ve “hiked” the Inca Trail. Gay glances over at the reposed, comfortable beverage-sippers and sighs.
We are now following the lovely little Rio Llulluchapampa through a tight canyon. The hiking wheat is beginning to get separated from the hiking chaff, as one-by-one, our trail brethren begin to get hit head-on by the double whammy of altitude combined with the severity of the terrain. Gay and I find ourselves passing just about every person we saw in line back at the trailhead, and we don’t even feel as though we’re pushing it too hard. Guess that’s one of the advantages of living for multiple decades at altitude.
We cross the Rio Llulluchapampa on a small footbridge at about 3 p.m. Just past the bridge is a wide-open field with numerous tent-sized flat spots. This close to the Equator, it’s dark by 6, so we run over and lay claim to what ends up being a wonderful and fairly private site. Over the course of the next few hours, a fair number of other hikers straggle in, and we lose any sense of privacy, but we’re still off pretty much by ourselves in a place that boasts the two most important components of camping: astounding vistas and a secluded spot for the wife to piss.
For most of the day, mist has been mixing with fog and clouds off in the distance. Just before dark, all visible atmospheric gas dissipates and we are facing one of the most awesome sights I have ever witnessed. On the other side of the Llulluchapampa Valley, the mountains are eye-popping: Several thousand feet straight up and covered with luxuriant, cliff-hanging vegetation. If that one wall of mountains was the only scenery we saw on the entire trip, we would have reported back to our chums in the Mountain Time Zone that we had witnessed one of the most astounding mountain vistas on the planet. But, as the puffy white clouds parted in the distance, we came to realize that most of what we were seeing were not puffy white clouds at all, but, rather, the snow-covered summits of the Salcantay Range — the highest mountains in the area, which make Elbert and Massive look like gentle hills.
Most people take four days and three nights to hike the Inca Trail, though it can certainly be done in three days, and, more importantly, it can be done in five. Or six. No matter how many days you take to hike from Kilometer 88 to Machu Picchu, there is one day that stands by its high lonesome self on a pedestal built atop a base of reverence, awe and dread. That day is called, well, “The Second Day.”
The crux of The Second Day is a pass called Abra Huarmiwañusca, which translates to “Dead Woman’s Pass.” There are three passes on the Inca Trail, each lower than the prior. Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the trail, is a respectable 13,776 feet — higher than I’ve ever carried a full pack in my life. The statistics alone certainly had Gay’s undivided attention. More than that, though, she found the nomenclature captivating.
“Bet the woman who the pass was named after had a husband who wouldn’t hire a porter to carry his poor wife’s pack,” the love of my life stated as we shouldered our loads and hit the trail.
Since the exact nanosecond we got out of the tent, the freelance porters started arriving, assuming that a long night of sleeping on the ground would convince a fair number of gringos to utilize their services. And those porters were right, as many of the people we crossed paths with the first day hit the trail pack-less. All seemed a bit embarrassed when that point was raised by my hyper-sensitive self.
The trail immediately shot skyward through one of the most intense sections of cloud forest in the area. Cloud forest — bosque nublado in Spanish — is one of those biomes that many people lump under the generic heading of “jungle.” It is hyper-dense forest, usually at 6,000 feet or higher, that collects most of its moisture from the air, rather than from the soil. Cloud forest is always thick with bromeliads and vines, and it’s always cool and shady. The cloud forest through which the Inca Trail passes is heavily laden with many species of orchids, making the walk a favorite among flower-o-philes.
It is also home to numerous exotic species of animals, including the Andean (speckled) bear, the puma, the colpeo fox and the pygmy deer. And, for those who pay attention to this sort of minutiae, there are supposed to be a couple species of venomous snakes hereabouts. Though, truth be known, Godzilla could be standing in a patch of cloud forest three inches from your face and you wouldn’t see him; the vegetation is that thick and impenetrable.
Soon we pass out of the bosque nublado and into the sun-scorched open. Far ahead, we could make out Dead Woman’s Pass, still three hours away. It is was hot and dry, and scores of red-faced backpackers looked like they could, and probably would, pass out at any moment as they made their lead-footed way upward. The freelance porters who had stationed themselves along this section of trail had more business acumen than an entire university full of MBA candidates. Their services at this point were so much in demand that they could pretty much name their price. In addition to negotiating pecuniary remuneration, they were also demanding food, gear and, for all I knew, blow jobs. Weary backpackers were having arguments over who was going to hire which porter.
I felt good, at least partially because, unlike most of my fellow hikers, the altitude was not affecting my long-time mountain-dwelling self. And I’m a good uphill hiker. So I was able muster a modicum of physical dignity when I reached the summit, where the teeming masses were all lying flat on their backs, near death, tongues lolling out of their mouths. My trail brethren could not have been more sprawled out had they been dropped en masse from an airplane. While I stood on the pass, saying things like, “I can’t believe we’re here already,” I got a sobering visit from the little devil that often pops up on my shoulder and whispers unsweet somethings into my ear.
“Your time is coming, asshole,” he said. Then the little devil grabbed my head and faced it downhill. I hate long steep downs, and they hate me. And we were about to embark upon the first of three nasty, quad-killing Inca Trail descents.
Unbelievably beautiful though it was on the pass, it was also very windy. Gay and I dropped down a few hundred feet on the other side, and ate lunch behind some huge boulders with a jovial group from England, who, despite the fact that we were only two days out, were already fantasizing out loud about food. “Hey, mate,” one of the Brits said to me, after learning my nationality, “you don’t happen to have any American cheeseburgers with you, do you?”
“No,” I replied, “but I did bring some freeze-dried steak-and-kidney pie and a few pints of Bass.”
“Ah, steak-and-kidney pie … I’d kill for steak-and-kidney pie,” he replied. (Author’s note: Even though I was born in the U.K., and even though most of my family continues to reside there, I disavow any cultural connection to a food item known as “steak-and-kidney pie.”)
Everyone was in good spirits, despite the fact that many people on the Inca Trail were obviously having trouble with the physical part of the hike. Gay and I both noticed that there were good vibes all along the trail, the lack of solitude notwithstanding. Part of that could have been because most of our fellow hikers were from Europe, where crowds in the backcountry are the norm. There was more to it, though: We had all come halfway across the world to experience this experience, and that gave us some significant common ground with each other, a feeling of on-trail camaraderie that you don’t often find along the human-dense footpaths of, say, Rocky Mountain National Park or the Presidential Range, where every other hiker is viewed by most people as a solitude-killing interloper.
The toe-scrunching 2,000-foot, two-mile descent into the Rio Pacamayo Valley took only an hour, but it provided a sign of things to come. By now, more and more of the “trail” consisted of perfectly placed, almost cobblestone-like rocks and steps, all laid together with expert precision by the Incas millennia ago. Though the engineering was worthy of all of the intellectual appreciation I could muster, it was not the sort of perambulation venue that my corpus delecti liked. The stone steps determined the length of my stride, and my footfalls were not exactly softened by the granite. Toward the bottom of the valley, I began to wonder if I would be the only Inca Trail hiker in history to hire a freelance porter to carry his pack on the downhills.
The scenery was astounding enough that, every once in a while, I forgot about the fact that my knees and feet were starting to send more and more red alert-type messages to my cerebral cortex. This was bonafide Andean alpine country, with lush meadows, waterfalls and towering rock faces that framed the entire valley.
Grim reality, Inca Trail-style, reared its head at the bottom, though. Every square millimeter of ground that was even remotely level was taken over by the guided tour companies, the employees of which were scurrying around like butlers on speed preparing lunch for their non-pack-carrying customers, all of whom were probably so damned parched that, if they didn’t get a spot of tea within two minutes of their arrival, they’d lie down and die. The guides were running down to the river to fetch water, setting up tables and chairs and hunkering over propane stoves cooking all manner of chow that smelled far better than, as a random example, our energy bars. We stopped only long enough to fill our water bottles, before heading up to the Second Pass, two miles and 1,000 vertical feet away.
It felt wonderful to be hiking uphill again.
For the first time since we arrived in the Andes, serious, rather than decorative, clouds moved in. The wind kicked up and, with the sun blocked, it was chilly going up the Second Pass, located at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet. Halfway up the pass lie the ruins of Runquraqay, where there are numerous potential campsites. We were early enough that no tour groups were on the scene, but it was cold enough that we opted to move on, but not until we checked the ruins out. Though by Inca Trail standards, it’s fairly small taters, we spent 45 minutes marveling at the intricate engineering, running our fingers along the seamless, mortarless stonework.
Then we hump it up to the crest of the Second Pass, where there are a couple of alpine lakes and several primo campsites. Again, the misty-chilled weather chases us down, into the valley of Sayac Marca, the most amazing set of ruins between Kilometer 88 and Machu Picchu.
On the way down, we noticed something startling: We are completely alone. The crowds have finally thinned out. Me and the missus have dusted the masses. We be bad.
Once again, the descent took place primarily on bone-jarring stone steps built by Inca craftsmen well before Christopher Columbus set sail, and, by the time we reached the trail intersection for Sayac Marca — which, like Machu Picchu, was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham — our thighs hurt so badly, we were ready to camp right there in the middle of the trail. We pay a short visit to the ruins before walking stiff-legged off to Chaquicocha, a campsite visible from Sayac Marca a half-mile away. Once more, we find a great place to pitch our Clip-3, with views that are ball grabbing in every direction. To the southwest, we can see Sayac Marca, with sheer mountain walls behind the ruins and the glaciated giants of the Andes behind that. To the north and east are waterfalls, and in every direction are cloud-forest-covered cliffs.
Chaquicocha itself has a small building that boasts flush toilets and running water, with a nice pipe spring outside. Like most of the campsites along the Inca Trail, there’s a little more trash than one would ordinarily find in American national parks, but, all told, we’ve been pretty impressed by the cleanliness of the trail, despite its high amount of use.
We get to the 11,742-foot Third Pass just as the sun is rising above the Urubamba Valley, many thousand feet below us and just as the porters working for a guided tour company are in the process of disassembling their massive, Raj-esque camps and packing up. From the looks of things, there were a lot of people here last night, but they have already departed. The porters go about their work with precision and speed borne of uncountable such camp-breakings.
These porters are almost otherworldly with regards to their on-trail abilities. They remind me very much of Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, a tribe with which I’ve spent a lot of trail time. For the entire hike, we’ve been passed by long lines of porters carrying 50-kilogram loads on rudimentary wooden packframes. They literally run up and down the trails wearing nothing more than flip-flops or ratty old running shoes. Their legs look more like gnarly tree trunks than human appendages. I do notice that there don’t seem to be many old porters, though. It doesn’t matter who you are, you carry enough weight enough times at a fast rate up and down a rock trail, and your knees are going to eventually give out. (Just ask long-time hutmasters in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, most of whom have nicknames like “Gimpy” and “Shuffles.”)
All for a couple bucks a day. And my guess is workman’s comp is not real big here.
Just before we begin the last — and by far the longest (5,000-plus vertical feet) — descent of the hike, I find myself standing next to a group of Dutch people who are part of a guided tour. They are having some pertinent skinny laid on them by their Peruvian guide, who’s orienting them to the surrounding territory. If there is one reason I would choose to hire a guide, it would be this: The constant barrage of information and interpretation along the trail. Several times, we’ve overheard lectures about the flora and fauna and the local history, and we have been envious.
Just below the Third Pass are the intricate, stone-step-thick ruins of Phuyupatamarca, through which the trail passes. This is a good warm-up for what we now face: Something like 3,000 steps from the Third Pass to the Trekker’s Hotel, where we plan to camp on our last night on the Inca Trail. The trail here passes through cloud forest as lovely as anything we have seen so far. Orchids in full bloom line the way, and several species of hallucinogenic hummingbirds flit around, sucking nectar from brightly colored bromeliads. I absolutely cannot believe I don’t have any pot or acid with me.
Yet, I can scarcely concentrate on the surrounding beauty, and the excitement of being spitting distance from Machu Picchu has dissipated into a torrent of pain covering every corpuscle from my quads to my tootsies. Gay, likewise, is one hurting unit. As a matter of fact, everyone on the trail by this point is wincing with every step. It has been more than a day since our last piece of dirt tread; everything since the Second Pass has been rock solid. And the sheer verticality of the descent is brutal. No switchbacks. Straight down, step after step after step. It’s like the stairway to Cirith Ungol that Gollum leads Frodo and Sam on. And here’s the main thing: These Incas must have been some short-legged people, because these steps are less than one-hiking-boot’s-worth deep and about four inches high. So, a man of regular gringo height has to choose between taking baby steps hour after hour or taking the steps two or three at a time, risking an ass-over-teakettle kinda slip that likely wouldn’t reach its logical conclusion for several captivating minutes.
By the time we reach the Trekker’s Hotel, our quads and calves are so shot, we are having trouble even lifting our feet. The descent into the Trekker’s Hotel ruined me, even more than my many descents into Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Grand Canyon. I would kill for just one fucking switchback.
The hotel complex is a borderline civilized amenity. There’s a restaurant that serves decent food and more importantly, beer. Lots and lots of beer. There are indoor restrooms, some dingy dorm rooms, pay showers and several dozen terraced campsites. The one we picked out necessitated a stroll through a campsite already dibbsed by a tour company. It had the benefit of being close to the restaurant, should thirst require multiple journeys to and from camp (which ended up being the case). The resident guide scowled and said we couldn’t camp there. I scowled back and invited the diminutive lad to try and stop me. I thought his goddamned head was going to explode from anger, but he said nothing. Later, I bought him a beer and, from that moment on, I was his best friend. He even courteously pointed out to me the place located, sad to report, behind a rock scant feet from the front of our tent, where all the guides like to squat (despite the proximate indoor plumbing) when they pass through. And I thought it was my funky hiking socks that were befouling the air. Man, was I ever relieved to learn it was piles of nearby guide caca instead!
Gay and I did muster the energy to stiff-leggedly stroll down to the nearby ruins of Wiñay Wayna, which were only partially excavated and which looked like a giant, terraced baseball stadium. Despite our leg pain, we were overcome, for about the 200th time since we left Kilometer 88, with the unrivalled, multi-tiered grandeur of this place. I mean, these Incas could build some shit. How on earth could folks as dialed-in as the Incas seemed to be lose a home game to a couple hundred conquistadores? And, more importantly, how can we import some of this construction consciousness into the States, where a high percentage of new construction looks like it was built with the specific intent of turning into compost within about 15 minutes of the last nail being driven in? Planned obsolescence did not seem to be part of the Incas’ building code.
Soon after hitting the hay, my stomach knotted up at the thought that we were now only a few hiking hours away from a place I had waited my adult whole life to visit. Shortly after that thought dissipated, I realized that it wasn’t the notion of finally visiting Machu Picchu that caused my stomach to knot up. I was getting sick. Fast. My belches tasted very much like the fake bacon bits that 1) had been “aging” in my food bag since the previous summer (or maybe it was the summer before that) and 2) I had sprinkled liberally upon my delectable freeze-dried dinner.
There’s a locked gate just past the Trekker’s Hotel, which the local constabulary doesn’t open till 5 a.m. It’s every Inca Trail hiker’s plan to arrive at Intipuncu, a small ruin with a perfect view of Machu Picchu, at dawn. It was still dark when we arrived at the gate, which was good, as I found myself having to run off the trail several times to befoul the turf. In my condition, I hiked slowly — too slowly to make it to Intipuncu by dawn, which we likely wouldn’t have done anyhow, given the fact that our legs couldn’t have been any stiffer had we strapped two-by-fours to them.
Then, there it was, two miles away, just like we had seen in hundreds of photos over the years: Machu Picchu, the only abandoned city in the Western Hemisphere that can rival Guatemala’s Tikal, which Gay and I have visited twice. The large tribe of Inca Trail hikers gathered at Intipuncu all agreed: Seems a lot smaller than we expected! Indeed, Machu Picchu looked tiny, even inconsequential from this distance. Just as we were prepared for the kind of let-down that often arrives at the seminal moment of any dream trip, the overcast sky opened up and a large stream of sunlight hit the ruins directly, and the entirety of South America’s most-famous archeological site glowed orange and yellow, like it was spiritually radioactive. The tribe gasped as one. It was like, “OK, we’ll all just shut the fuck up right now and feel humbled.”
It took 45 minutes to reach the outskirts of metro Machu Picchu. It got larger and more grandiose and more powerful-feeling with each step. We arrived at 8 a.m., by which time I was feeling very, very poorly. Unlike most of our trail brethren, who only planned to stay half a day at the ruins before returning to their long, windy journeys to wherever, we had planned to spend three or four days exploring Machu Picchu. There’s only one hotel at the ruins, which costs about a million dollars a night. So, we hopped one of the frequent buses for the 30-minute ride down (way, way down) to the aforementioned hamlet of Aguas Calientes. We got a nice room for about $5 a night and I basically slept the rest of the day away. By evening, the rotten fake bacon bits had enthusiastically egressed my premises (much to the chagrin of the local plumbing, which was up to general Latin American standards), and I was feeling fit.
We spent the next three days, 12 hours a day, savoring every molecule, every nook and cranny, every nuance of Machu Picchu, flat-out one of the world’s best backpacking destinations. Just about all of our fellow trail hikers had moved on, but, every day, a new batch of hikers came in, dirty, limping and with the kind of gleam in their eyes that only comes from taking the hard way to a cool place. There was definitely a hierarchy within those indescribable ruins: There were those who had walked there and those who did not. That’s exactly the way it should be.