A Skier’s Journey

Film: “A Skier’s Journey,” by Jordan Manley
I thought I’d get in one last ski movie before Mud Season starts, and Jordan Manley’s is a good one (or three) to end on. This isn’t the standard hyper-expensive, multi-sponsor, mega-star affairs that are released every fall — it’s a series of three short films on Vimeo, sponsored by Arcteryx and Gore. Photographer Jordan Manley sought to tell stories about traveling and skiing some of the world’s most interesting places all in one trip, including the Gulmarg Gondola, the highest operating cable car in the world, in Kashmir; lift-served ski mountaineering via the Téléphérique La Grave in La Grave, France; and Banff and the Freshfield Icefield in the Canadian Rockies. The cinematography here is great; better than you might expect from someone whose day job is still photography. Manley uses his eye for still shots to compose some great footage, which definitely doesn’t spend the entire time capturing dudes ripping the gnar — although there is some of that. This series is art, not ski porn — no let’s-get-a-shot-of-our-helicopter-from-our-other-helicopter stuff; it emphasizes travel, culture, nature and danger as well as high-level skiing. Jordan Manley deserves big-money cameras and big-money sponsorship for this kind of work, and the world would be a better place if saw more films from him in the future.

Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings

1. Unmooring
On some days, you sit and look at the computer. Your fingers touch the keys and go nowhere. Your mind numbs as symbols collide on the screen. On some days, this all makes perfect sense. You have things to do. You are bound, chained. But on other days, there’s that cold wet black nose that nudges your elbow as you drone on. That nose is never wrong. It calls you from complacency: “I need to go out, to roam! This nose must hunt, must cover new territory! This is what I must do.”

The nose is attached to Riley, 75 pounds of four-legged tawny brawn. For this beautiful canine eunuch, ranging, roaming and alarmingly indiscriminate eating are the only patterns worth repeating. Patterns like the awkward totter of bipedal motion, the curse of obsessive cognition and the maze of symbols spewed across a computer screen are of no use to him.

At 2 p.m., you will be knee-deep still in work, but the nose will prevail. It will cause an awakening, a resurgence of the hunter-gatherer within. Prompted by sidekick, modern man goes mini-paleolithic, shuts down computer and leaves warm house, bent on Winter Solstice hike.

2. Ascending
At 8,300 feet above sea level, Grandeur Peak’s height is much more attainable than that of its loftier sister mountains that jut skyward east of Salt Lake City. Most days, it’s a pretty good choice for roaming with Riley. During the winter, snowshoers’ tracks make the path easily negotiable with simple hiking boots. Dog paws work great too. And the view is outstanding at sunset, particularly when the haze of particulate matter that favors the valley broadens the typical palette of dull reds and oranges. Seemed like the right destination, given the few hours we had until darkness.

Bound for Grandeur, Riley and I loaded up and went to pick up his cousin Sandy. Sandy is my brother’s dog, a labweiler (Labrador Retriever meets Rottweiler; the two fall in love; they make labweilers). Sandy and Riley’s relationship unfolds along distinctly canine lines. Riley’s the upstart male, heckling, herding and worrying the larger, stronger Sandy until she corrects him decisively. This cycle repeats.

On the car radio, the announcer prated on about snow: snow tonight, snow impending, three inches of snow, snow in the valley, snow warning, snow advisory, winter storm watch. The forecast had featured snow for days, and never once had reality reflected the forecast. So I paid no mind to this sober warning, though the wind had been gusting all day. I had heard the swamp cooler cover twisting in the wind, I had felt the raw push of the wind shake the wood frame of the house, yet I had remained skeptical.

The line between skeptical and ill-advised is sometimes a thin one. But we nevertheless entered the V-shaped confines of Mill Creek Canyon, home of the Grandeur Peak trailhead. We piled out. Riley and Sandy, unconcerned about the pitch of the terrain, bounded ahead, working as a pair, negotiating a maze of scrub oak, nipping, charging full tilt. I stomped up the trail, watching carefully to see where they would relieve themselves so I could make things right with a plastic doggie dookie bag.

Wind was strangely absent from the canyon. The air was stirring only lazily, its torpor a sharp contrast to the fury of wind scouring the valley. As we rose upward, leaving the initial canyon of Church Fork for a series of switchbacks up a sort of hanging valley, I looked southward at Olympus, at Raymond and at Twin Peaks, masses of stone and earth. Cirrocumulus clouds skittered across their faces, sucked inevitably northward into the looming low pressure.

No matter. I was sure the storm was taking its sweet time, and I still didn’t believe it would produce snow. We pressed upward, zigzagging our way up the mountain’s south flank. The dogs had not yet begun to scrub off the excess energy that fueled their frenetic play, now pouncing, now dodging, now bolting down the trail to a place I had been fifteen minutes before in a tenth of the time, only to return to me, tongues lolling.

Just under an hour, and I had huffed my way to a ridge that overlooks Parley’s Canyon, named for Parley Pratt, an Mormon pioneer with a capitalist knack for creating toll roads through eponymous landforms. The peak was maybe twenty minutes away, and the view into Parley’s Canyon was pretty clear. So we might as well continue on. The dogs charged ahead, live wires still, and I began booting up the steepening — and deepening — snow.

I wallowed (and the dogs frolicked) southwest up the ridge that meanders to the summit. As the ridge curves southward, hikers are generally treated with a commanding view of the Salt Lake Valley. Not so today. The wind, in its implacable persistence, had eventually succeeded in ushering into the valley a cloud whose proportions defied my sense of measurement. In place of the valley
was an immense blackness, a nightmare cloud.

The cloud looked to be contained in the valley, hugging its floor and enveloping its inhabitants, content with disrupting the impending rush hour traffic rather than ascending to the aerie from which I watched its menacing — but apparently slow — progress.  So of course we continued upward. Ten minutes later, within 200 meters of the summit, I was corrected. A gust of wind, the velocity of which was unmistakably north of 60 miles per hour, sent me reeling. And I realized that this wind, being sucked into the vortex of cloud into the valley, would exercise a return pull on the low pressure, which translated to this place being enveloped in cloud. And soon. The wind had finally pierced through to my deeply buried common sense, playing Sandy to my Riley: You’re pushing my limits. Knock it off already.

So we turned around. Suddenly, the top of the mountain seemed a profoundly stupid place to be spending any length of time. Couch, hot tub, Afghanistan, all began to seem like better alternatives. I tromped downward, soon reaching the spot where I had moments before seen the black cloud. It had been replaced by a rush of oncoming white, a wall of wind and snow.

I couldn’t ignore a certain fascination with the approaching blanket of wind-whipped snow. I knew by now I was not going to outrun this storm, so I let it overtake me. Standing on the ridge, I whooped with a visceral excitement as I was engulfed by the storm. I had never witnessed a frontal passage this defined. The swirling mass of white poured over the ridge, over me and the wholly unconcerned dogs, and spilled into the canyon below. Visibility: zero.

3. Of moths and flames
Traveling in the Sierra Nevada on a crust of bread and a prayer, writer and adventurer John Muir once climbed a tree to get closer to one of the sublimely powerful electrical storms that often besieged his mountain retreat. When the first lightning strike came, I realized just how peculiarly unconcerned with life and limb Muir was — and therefore how unlike me he was. While I had reveled in the mildly Muirish moment of having the storm pass before my eyes and immediately cloud my perspective, I unequivocally drew the line at lightning. What was lightning doing in a snowstorm, anyway?

The strike had happened, I thought, somewhere toward the Parley’s Canyon side of the ridge. Too close.  I ran. The dogs were in front of me, but were stalling, tentatively looking back, wondering why I had become a madman. I shouted at them, “up, up, up,” thinking they might understand this to mean hey-we-need-to-get-the-hell-off-this-mountain-and-fast. But they still lagged, concerned by my sudden lack of sanity. I hurtled down the trail, post-holing at times to mid-thigh, flopping back onto the snow, flounder-like, getting up, running again, falling again.

Again lightning struck. Again too close. I looked like Hawkeye in the television show “M*A*S*H”, ducking low to avoid a chopper’s rotors. Ridiculous — I was still the highest, most conductive thing on this ridge, and lightning would not pass me by on account of this half-assed slouching. I hadn’t noticed it on the climb up, but much of the last mile or so of the trail is exposed, the only trailside flora stubby, leafless Gambel Oak, no buffer whatsoever. Images of Ben Franklin’s ill-advised but ground-breaking experiments with lightning flashed through my mind. But in my frightened mind’s eye, I was the electrified kite, not the flier.

More flashes, the cloud above me glowing orange, hair standing on end quite literally, and running at a faster clip than I have since, well, ever, are my trauma-scattered memories of the rest of the trip down. I stumbled over dogs; I cursed; I struck a prayerful bargain with god/buddha/universe/to whom it may concern; I twisted my knee and didn’t care; and finally I made it to lower ground. The succor might have been psychological only, as I knew a grove of tall trees wasn’t a great place to be, but at least the lightning would have options — other life forms to snuff out on its way to the ground.

Fifty minutes from turnaround point to parking area. Fifty of the most intensely felt minutes I have experienced on this earth — the drive back into the valley coming in a close second, the road having been covered by four inches of snow and made virtually un-navigable. Looking back, I know that Franklin and Muir were both madmen, if geniuses. And I know why we fear and yet still seek out lightning, with its alien power and effortless mastery of humans and our frail ingenuity. There is something in nature, in its deadly power, we must come closer to if we are to understand the audacious tenuousness of life. We are drawn to its truth.

4. Home, awake, recharged
You will realize that those near-misses, those jolts of unknowable energy that writer and strike survivor Gretel Ehrlich calls “a match to the heart,” had the power — terawatts of it — to scare you into a heightened sense of the unmitigated beauty of being alive as opposed to dead. You will be thankful for the lightning’s way of recharging your vitality, delivering a surge of power to scare you out of, and back into, your animal skin.

But you will not climb that mountain in a storm again. Ever.

Aaron Phillips is based in Salt Lake City, where he teaches writing at the University of Utah. He flees to — and from — high elevations with his canine guide whenever possible.

Kara Oke Dokie

“Everybody is a star …”  — Sly Stone

Photo by Dawne Belloise

If you’ve ever fronted a real live band with the screaming energy of a stack of Marshalls, a kick-ass drummer and a funkengruven bass, then singing karaoke is flat-out going to fall short of that experience. However, if you haven’t experienced the joy of having your eardrums vibrated out of your head trying to project over amplified instruments, then canned stardom might just move it for you. At the very least, if you actually know you can’t carry a tune and choose to watch safely from your barstool, karaoke participants can thrill, amuse and be that comedic relief you’ve long sought after a hard day on the slopes or the trail. They can also grind on your aesthetic sense like fingernails raking down a chalkboard.

You might have sworn you’d never be seen on stage mimicking Steve Perry, only to find yourself with mic in hand under the spotlight lured by ill-meaning friends and plied with brews crooning about small-town girls and believing. There are the willing wannabe glamour girls who are convinced that they may serendipitously get discovered as the next Lady Gaga by the celebrity tourist as they’re crooning out an off-key version of “Star Struck.”

Whatever the extent you find yourself involved in karaoke rituals, somewhere in a small bar in Japan, where the term and practice is rumored to have originated in the 1970s, the locals are still waiting for the band to show up. The literal translation of “Kara” means “missing,” and “Oke” means “band” or “orchestra.” If the band didn’t show up, they had a pre-recorded tape of their music and the singer would belt out the songs in front of an empty orchestra. At some point, a savvy singer must have figured out they could make far more money at a gig if they didn’t have to pay the band and karaoke took flight and stopped waiting for the band to roll out of bed.

Up here in the thin air, sometimes all it takes to get people up and chirping is the promise of free booze offered by the bars hosting the sing-along. Kyleena Graceffa, co-owner of the Lobar in Crested Butte, has witnessed the transformation in people once they hit the stage. “People say ‘No way! We’re not singing!’ or ‘I can’t get up and sing,’ but as soon as they have a couple of cocktails, I can’t get the mic away from them. Liquor makes people sing,” she notes. “It makes them stars and oh yeah, it’s like America Idol down here some nights.”

Free sake makes it easier for courage to blossom, as well as making it easier on the ears of listeners. During the summer season, when the Crested Butte Music Festival goes into full swing, Kyleena watches the vocal talent go up a few notches. “It’s really entertaining, because they’re really good, so, between the not-so-good, there’s the relief of the experts,” she says. “Those operatic voices aren’t singing Puccini and Mimi isn’t diving into her tailspin swan song … when the opera people are here they want to sing Def Leppard, not opera.”

It doesn’t seem to matter which side of the Divide you’re on, there’s a commonality of music that mountain folk want to warble. Anything by Journey and songs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” — all the classic rock and cheesy love songs. “Depends on the age in the club and the demographics,” says veteran karaoke jockey (KJ) Sandman in Vail. “There’s not much difference between Aspen and Vail unless I get a Filipino group in that loves Elvis. I get a lot of rap in a younger bar, like the Hunter Bar in Aspen, but the Red Onion is probably my most eclectic, longest established show and the oldest bar in Aspen,” Sandman says of the 150-year-old place. “These are resort towns, so my winter crowds are far different than summer … a lot of winter tourism as opposed to summer when more locals show up because they’re not working as hard.”

And there are memorable nights like when the entire touring cast of the musical “Stomp” came in to bang on pizza boxes, chairs, garbage cans and anything that would raise a joyous noise to play rhythm to all the karaoke songs.

Attesting to karaoke’s popularity, Sandman is kept busy with his velvet voice and comic charm, enticing would-be stars to take the stage six nights a week in six different bars from Aspen to Vail, and he claims that, “It is never the same show twice. Like snowflakes, no two are alike. I get visitors and locals, and there’s a difference between each mountain town and venue.” And, he chortles victoriously, “I still get to play for a living — my band is never late, never out of tune, never shows up drunk, their equipment always works and they don’t fight with each other.”

While it’s obvious there’s a loyal following for the art of interpretive musical imitation, way up in the northern ski country of champagne snow, close to the Wyoming border, I asked my Steamboat Springs buddy if the town sported any karaoke bars, to which he snorted, “This is cowboy country. We shoot people who only pretend they can sing. It spooks the horses.”

Just as we suspected …

Life on the Mountain Music Road

Playing chicken
Split Lip Rayfield, a “thrash-grass trio,” quickly learned that taking a live bantam hen from their farm in Kansas to mountain-town gigs ranging from Vail and Steamboat Springs to Jackson Hole and Utah resorts wasn’t such a good idea after all.

They originally thought the chicken might drum up T-shirt and CD sales during their aggressive acoustic bluegrass gigs. It sounded logical: Take a hen from mom’s farm, place it on a grid with hundreds of numbers, install chicken wire around the contraption, and sell tickets so fans could bet on which number the chicken would shit. Call it “chicken-drop bingo,” and it’s just like Cow-pie Bingo or Hillbilly Bingo — though we’ve never heard of cows or hillbillies cooped up on a number grid, with people watching and waiting for them to dump a big one.

“We were looking for something fun for the crowd,” said banjo player Eric Mardif. “But some people have never seen a live chicken before, and they’d freak out and want to touch it … people just wanted to constantly fuck with the chicken, like a kid banging on the glass of a fish tank.”

Luckily for Henrietta the hen, the boys in the band felt quite protective of her, but their compassion wasn’t the only reason they returned her to mom’s farm.

After carting her around in their van for two weeks, they discovered chickens are messy: They smell up a van much worse than touring musicians do (which is saying a mouthful), and they kick their water and woodchips all over the place (unlike the musicians, who normally just spill their beer on the van floor).

“It was fun, but traveling with a live chicken sucks,” Mardif said.


A Blue Ribbon night
Bay-area rapper Lyrics Born is used to crazy incidents in mountain towns; his signature funk sound, which, with his new album leans toward a more ’80s vibe, has brought him coast to coast, with plenty of high-elevation stops in-between, including Breckenridge, Durango, Telluride, Steamboat Springs, Vail and Flagstaff just last month.

“I don’t know if it’s the cold or the people who come up to party — maybe it’s so cold everybody tries to get excited to stay warm,” he said of the peculiarities he regularly experiences during mountain shows.

But one particular gig in Montana really sticks with him. He was playing for a Pabst Blue Ribbon-sponsored event — a beer he thinks is the “worst in the world.” Apparently, the hip-hop fans weren’t too attached to their brews either. Lyrics Born’s concert turned into a scene out of “Animal House.”

“The crowd started chanting with the song I was playing, and suddenly everybody started throwing PBRs all over each other,” he said. “All I saw were these red, white and blue cans, and they only were one size: big and cheap,” he said. “It was so much fun because it was so wild.”

The only downside:
“But it was disgusting,” he said. “My shoes (forever) smelled like PBR.” Stale PBR, that is.

Take A Seat

“Take A Seat,” by Dominic Gill
In June 2006, Dominic Gill pedaled south from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on a tandem bicycle loaded with video equipment and everything he needed to survive, but an empty seat on the back of the bike. He planned to bicycle the longest land route in the world, to the southernmost city in Argentina, picking up riding partners along the way. Gill’s movie documenting the trip, “Take A Seat,” won a special jury award at the Banff Film Festival. His book of the same title is good for those of us who want to spend a few more hours living the journey with him. The book’s strength lies in the adventure itself, with the built-in what-will-happen-next literary tension, rather than Gill’s storytelling — the book is linear, start-to-finish narrative, never straying too far from the daily struggles of an 18,000-mile bike tour with 240 companions, in 15 countries. And it doesn’t have to be. You’ll shake your head with incredulity at Gill’s good luck, getting a spare part just in time, or being offered shelter when a night in a tent might be dangerous, or just dangerously cold. Gill has penned an adventure book about an enormous, singular adventure with a colorful cast of hundreds, and it may leave you thinking about taking on a similar adventure yourself.

Breaking Into the Backcountry

“Breaking Into the Backcountry,” by Steve Edwards
In 2001, Steve Edwards, a 26-year-old Purdue University professor who had “never been much of an outdoorsman,” won a PEN/Northwest writing residency, earning him a seven-month stint as the caretaker of a backcountry homestead on Oregon’s Rogue River. He was a flatlander, a virgin fly-fisherman, 70 miles from the nearest town or friend, and still nursing wounds from his divorce. “Breaking Into the Backcountry” is the story of his time as the caretaker, through the eyes of a writer seeing the West with dew still on it, and his transformation during that period of wild solitude. Edwards paints wonderful scenes of this place, detailing his walks along the Rogue, bears devouring apples on the homestead and the wilderness surrounding him. Even more endearing are the honestly told, personal stories of how he dealt with the solitude — hearing the news of 9/11 on the radio, going days without seeing or talking to another person and experiencing silence in a quantity most of us will never have in our lifetimes. “Breaking Into the Backcountry” is a great vicarious literary escape for the rest of us poor schlubs living with millions of neighbors.

Mountain Dog Photo Contest

Editor’s note: After eyeballing more than 400 submissions to Mountain Gazette’s 4th Annual Dog Photo Contest over the course of six weeks, I made a stern vow, one that pretty much mirrors the vow I made this time last year: “NEVER AGAIN!!!” It’s just too difficult to try to pick a relative handful of shots from the mountain of wonderful material our loyal, faithful readers send us. I say this every year: We want to print every single dog shot that comes our way. But, alas, we can’t even scratch the surface. We go back and forth, sluice-boxing the photos into various sub-files, then moving them into other sub-files, until we totally lose control of whatever semblance of organization we were aiming for. Then we start over. Then we say the hell with it and pop a beer. (There are, of course, worse jobs!) Like 2010, we ended up changing the rules midstream. Last year, after asking readers to send in shots in very specific categories, we ended up dunking those categories and making up a whole new set on the fly, categories that fit the photos rather than vice-versa. Thus, we ended up with categories like “tongues” and “sticks.” This year, we opted to dunk the whole notion of categories and simply pick a variety of photos that covered a wide stylistic spectrum: scenics, portraits, action and dogs having wild sex. (I just made that last one up.) Understanding all that, we still pulled some sorta categories our of our asses so we could give out some prizes. Winners have a “Best In” logo above them, with prizes won listed under the winning photos. Unlike last year, when the judging onus fell entirely to me, I asked our art director, Keith Svihovec, to help pick the final selections. And, like last year, we ask those whose photos did not make it into print to understand that such exclusions were unavoidable. We’ll try to get as many of the submissions on our website as possible. Thanks to Granite Gear for sponsoring Mountain Gazette’s 4th Annual Dog Photo Contest, and thanks a million times over to everyone who took the time to share their images of man’s best friend with us. Though, as I said earlier, it’s mentally taxing, every time a new dog photo con-test submission enters my inbox, it brightens the day of both me and my spouse. Editorially, it’s the highlight of the year. We hope you enjoy eyeballing these photos as much as we did. — MJF

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