In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera, a papal bull that divided the discovered world between Spain and Portugal. That left England, France and the Netherlands with no sea routes to Asia. The ban was much ignored but nonetheless triggered the quest for northern alternatives to voyages south around Africa.
The English, the master navigators of their day, were first to mount expeditions seeking sea passages in Arctic waters. In 1553, Hugh Willoughby went northeast with three ships, and, in 1576, Martin Frobisher went northwest with three barks. Thereafter, there were 40-some expeditions, divided about equally between those seeking the Northeast Passage and those seeking the Northwest Passage. Most were marginally successful. Some were disastrous, such as John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition of 1845 on which almost everything went wrong and 11 of the party died.
Finally, the passages were proven to exist, the Northeast in 1878-79 by the Nordenskiöld expedition, and the Northwest in 1903-1906 by Roald Amundsen. But proving that the passages were there didn’t lead to their immediate navigation. Held back by being blocked in the Arctic ice, the Nordenskiöld expedition had taken a year and Amundsen had taken three years, hardly viable voyage times for commercial shipping.
That was status quo for most of the 20th century. Everyone knew that the Arctic passages were there, but nobody knew how to cope with the ice in them. Some suggestions were put forth to avoid the ice by going under it in cargo-carrying submarines. In World War I, the German navy proved the basic concept of cargo submarines technically feasible, and during the Cold War, nuclear-powered American, British and Russian navy submarines had shown that it was possible to traverse the Arctic under the ice cap. But the submarine solution was found impractical and expensive for civilian applications. Apparently, nobody thought that global warming brought about by human activity would lead to melting the ice, but that now seems to be what is happening.
In the summer of 2008, satellites observed that the Northeast Passage, now known by the Russian name, Northern Sea Route (NSR), and the Northwest Passage both were open for the first time since satellite monitoring of the Arctic began in the 1970s. Records suggested that the event may have signaled a new regime, with the extent of summer sea ice declining year-by-year.
In August 2011, evidence of that trend came literally in a big way. The huge Vladimir Tikhonov tanker, owned by Sovcomflot of Russia, completed a one-week transit of the NSR. It wasn’t the first tanker to complete the passage. In 1997, the Uikku tanker of Finland had been the first. But the Vladimir Tikhonov was by far the biggest yet, at 160,000 deadweight tons, ten times the tonnage of the Uikku. It’s a “Suezmax” tanker, which means that it’s the largest size of vessel that can fit through the Suez Canal.
Some photos of the Vladimir Tikhonov supertanker show it sailing in calm, nearly ice-free waters, accompanied by an icebreaker. That reflects the remaining unknown aspects of polar sea ice. More needs to be known about the thickness as well as the extent of the sea ice, not only for Arctic navigation, but principally to understand how climate change is affecting vulnerable polar regions. In 1998, the European Space Agency (ESA) responded to that challenge by initiating the CryoSat program of satellites designed to measure the thickness of sea ice. In 2005, the first CryoSat satellite was launched, but was lost in a launch failure. Its replacement was launched in April 2010 and achieved its purpose admirably. At the Paris Air and Space Show in June 2011, ESA released the first-ever detailed maps of Arctic sea-ice thickness. In time, the maps will enable scientists to improve the understanding of how much and why Arctic sea ice is thinning due to changing climate.
The thinning of the ice is the most visible change, but other far-reaching changes are underway. Perhaps most significant, the warming of the Arctic also is affecting marine life, as cold-adapted species are moving north. Satellites have recently been used to study the extent of that migration. In August 2010, two bowhead whales, one from waters around Alaska and the other from West Greenland, entered the Northwest Passage from opposite directions and spent ten days in the same area in the Canadian High Arctic. Their movements were precisely known, as they had been tagged with satellite transmitters by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk. As for ships, the opening of passages in Arctic waters may benefit bowheads. But it may be a disaster for walruses that need sea ice on which to breed. In turn, that will affect many Inuits for whom walrus hunting is a mainstay.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.
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.
Thumbs up for “Pee”
Editor: I loved Jen Jackson’s piece on Moab (“When in Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” MG #183). It really captured the spark that makes living here great despite being inundated by goobs most of the year.
Bruce Dissel Moab, UT
Wait, don’t pee on our fire
John: After reading the fine article, “When in Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” by Jen Jackson, I had a few thoughts on that flame of eccentricity burning out in Durango that she was referring to. See, I just moved to Durango within the year, and felt the call to defend, or at least comment on, what I’ve seen here. (I should add Jen’s piece kept me happily occupied as I waited in line at the Durango post office one afternoon.)
I rolled into Durango after living in Gunnison-Crested Butte, Colorado, for over a decade. Like many a mountain town residents, the surroundings of an area are essential to my enjoyment of the place, as well as the culture of the people. In Crested Butte, they have both — great rocks, trails and mountains, as well as frequent townie takeovers (a naked one caused quite a stir this summer, I hear), costumed/themed sporting events nearly every weekend (chainless bike race down Kebler Pass, anyone?) and characters that just wouldn’t quite make it anywhere else besides a funky little mountain town.
With this ingrained in my soul, I wondered if I could love Durango in a similar way. I rolled into town waving my freak flag high, with my 220,000-mile spray-painted red, white and blue Freedom Mobile Mazda MX 6. Much to my delight, Durango seems to have more graffiti’d cars per capita than anywhere else I’ve been in Colorado. “Oh, I’ve seen this car around,” is always an icebreaker when I meet new people out and about. One guy I met from Durango out at Indian Creek described my car as immediate probable cause, but, well, that’s Utah, and, fortunately, Colorado honors freedom more than Utah. (Really, a state that tries to bust people for bringing beer across a border? It’s 2012, people.)
Where do we look for companionship and camaraderie in a new town? We look for those that share our interests. I look to the climbers. One couple I’ve met is incredibly resourceful, and maybe a bit eccentric. They grow plenty of their own food, and even resole their own climbing shoes. The guy fixes his own vehicles (he’s also the new Freedom Mobile mechanic), and the woman knits all sorts of things, most notably a breast-shaped pillow (really impressive … you have to see it to believe it) and a penis-shaped mini-hat, which sits on top of a mini-Christmas tree (year round).
There are others I haven’t met yet, only heard about, for example, a woman who goes on epic hikes on the Colorado Trail, foraging for food along the way. There’s the woman I see all around who always carries hula-hoops (must be for sale?). Then you have the “23 Feet” crew, who embarked from Durango to make a film about “people living simply in order to pursue their passion for the great outdoors.” Check that one out (there’s a review in the last issue of MG).
There are funky bikes and funky cars. This is a town filled with funk. On Halloween, the funk was confirmed, though I didn’t necessarily agree with the winners of the costume contest at Carver’s. Four men dressed as Mennonites beat out the two sexy robot girls (sexy girls should always win over creepy dudes). The best costume of the night, though, one I saw while cruising the streets of downtown, was a trio of guys dressed as the Jabbawockeez dance crew. Challenged to prove their skills, they did, with some dope break dancing.
Anywho, I gotta go now, with some deadlines to attend to. Just thought I’d represent my new ’hood.
Luke Mehall, Durango, CO
Following some sketchy tracks
Dear John: Just a quick note in the spirit of the week to say thank you for keeping it real. I have been a reader, nay, a worshiper, of the Mountain Gazette for as long as I can remember. I ran away from my home in Tennessee to come to Colorado as soon as I graduated high school, and have been living the dream you write about for 22 years. I’ve even tried to follow in your proverbial ski tracks so to speak. In fact, my girlfriend and I are even now living in Frisco. I’ve done stints in Steamboat Springs, Nederland and on the dreaded Front Range.
Regardless, I was inspired to write this morning after reading the current issue cover to cover, as is my practice, and stumbling upon the lamentations of the article entitled “Resurrection,” by B. Frank. “This place was once my hometown. It was one of the first destination ski resorts in North America, and like most last best towns betrayed by travel mags out to make a buck” … (the truth hurts) … “it suffers the afflictions common to other pick-your-poison elite retreat, real estate development zones that now dot the Mountain West. The streets are familiar but the stores are up-scale and mostly empty of shoppers, seasonal-worker safehouses I once hung out in are gingerbread restoration projects geared to flip on the next boom cycle, dogs are on leashes, and so are most of the people I meet. I’ve had about enough nostalgia for one walk and am heading back to my truck to get the hell out of town …”
The dogs are on leashes and so are most of the people I meet. Not that I’m all that bitter, just sometimes, but thankfully the Mountain Gazette still exists to remind me of how good it was, how good it can be, and that there are still some folks out there who get it. Take care, John, hope to see you out there some time.
Aaron Bible, Frisco CO
Choking on Chile
Most Precious Fayhee, oh man, just gotta say… you are a national treasure. serious. I can’t even believe how many years/decades you’ve been making me crack up from a very real, gut-deep, high-mountain-zeal-for-living place inside. your Smoke Signals — The Discovered — in your November, 2011 issue had me choking on my green chile burrito and wiping laughter-based tears by paragraph three. and here is the thing … i haven’t even read past paragraph ten cuz, like, it’s such a glittery jewel of writing so far, it’s like I’m compelled toward delaying self-gratification in case the next fourteen (yeah, i counted) paragraphs don’t meet the standard set by the first ten (it should be noted, however, that this is tendency of ilgs …like, for instance, the fact that i haven’t been back to Yosemite in over 20 years because, well, we used just drive our little sport pick-up with a camper shell on it, right up to the base of New Dimensions wall and camp … it’s like, the present can’t compete with my imprint of the past, so why ruin it?).
honestly, i don’t know how you sustain the health of your creativity (or your liver and lungs!) … even as a two-time cover athlete of that tragic mag, OUTSIDE, ilg just bows to you as low as my paltry padmasana allows for your loving perseverance and stalwart support of deep-fiber mountain journalism. feeble ilg cannot even imagine sharing this plane(t) without Fayhee somewhere on it (or hovering near it, at least). dat’s all. now that i’ve finished my 2,000’ vert of snowshoe hill repeats in La Plata Canyon’s fresh November pow? i’m feeling ready to take on those next fourteen paragraphs of yours. but first, i need to grab me a local brew …
coach steve ilg durango, CO
ps: LOVED the Bar Issue cover, ’cept that the Scarpa tele boots were too shiny and new … i coulda loaned you my beat up pair … just ask! ;-)
Uncle John’s Band
John, I read your write-up on your story about 9/11 (“North by Northwest,” Smoke Signals, MG #182). Well, tonight I wrote mine about my trip up the Grand Teton on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with Veterans Expeditions. I am not an English major, but here it is. I hope you read it. Edit the hell out of it and please share it with others. I will attach a picture of Uncle John.
For 30 years I had wondered what it would be like to stand on top of Grand Teton. As a little boy, I daydreamed of my father’s own experience as a young 20-something atop the mountain as he told his story time and time again. He told me one day I too could reach the summit and behold all of what Wyoming stood for the vast freedom of our land.
Thirty years later, I awoke early. Steve at my side, ever ready, shot out of our tent into darkness fully prepared for what lay ahead and disappeared into morning that was still night. I moved quickly. Did I have what I needed? Headlamp throwing shadows as I placed this and that into my bag and took this and that out of my bag.
Into the cool night air I arose. My stomach calling, I headed toward voices below. Water for coffee was heating as quiet chatter emerged. Tents stirred as more people entered for caffeine and food. I sat with my thoughts of what was to come. My father’s stories turning in my head no longer daydreams, but a reality to come.
We set out into night with headlamps exposing a maze of boulders heading for the saddle like giant stirrups occasionally misplacing feet. We talked. I sang. It was not pleasing, but when I asked what I could sing, the guide only replied, “Make it the blues.” GNR Welcome to the Jungle, Blues, misquoted, but satisfying to my anxiety and fear.
I told them I was feeling anxiety. You know how you tell the party you’re with where you’re at. Well I did. Erica America stated that we could rope up. Now not a bad idea, but I have kids and a wife back home. However, I should not have said no. Next thing I knew, our lead guide Scott says, “Nick! Aaron! You two follow me.” “Follow you where?” I thought. “It is fucking dark out here and why are we leaving the group?“ “We are going through the Key Hole. You guys are going to love this.” In the darkness, I could feel his grin.
My headlamp immediately noticed the ledge and watched as Scott left center stage and disappeared behind stage left. “Put your hand here,” a voice said. “It is a good hold. Just grab on and swing around.” I looked down, down and down some more until my light petered out into the darkness. “Hell, yeah,” I thought to myself. Dad would be proud. We continued this way along the ledge, unroped, and as a key entered Key Hole. My inner soul had been unlocked and my anxiety lifted. I was ready to climb.
After that, it was like time flew by. Twilight began to embrace us as the dawn signaled a new day. There across the valley floor, a shadow stretched out with the new day. It was grand and as I moved the shadow grew. I stood atop the mountain. Our summit time was 8:03 Mountain Time. Ten years earlier, a same time for flight 93. Here we all were. Seven Veterans from different time periods and different life experiences shared that day on the summit of the Grand Teton. It had been a long time since I had held an American flag as first call to colors rang out in my head. It had been a long time.
We all had our reasons to climb that day. I chose to climb for my Uncle John. He didn’t die in the Vietnam War or receive the bronze star. He was young like the rest of us when he joined the military — Steve the Army, Nick the Army, Stacy the Army, Chad the Army, Jared the Air Force, Dana the Navy and I the Navy. He changed like the rest of us when we come home. However, he became really sick with schizophrenia and coped by drinking. I remember driving for hours with my mom and dad out looking for him as he wandered the streets, another homeless vet. He never came home and we left to our new home in Wyoming without him.
Here on the Grand Teton, I took out his picture that I carried with me on so many of the trips leading up to this one. I took one last photo of my uncle with the shadow of the mountain behind him. The shadow he and I were no longer in.
I’m running through a high pasture north of Nederland and east of the Indian Peaks. There are thirty or forty brown cows up here for the summer. If I were of an agricultural bent, I could name this type of cow, but to be truthful, one cow is pretty much the same as another; they are simply ambulatory meat delivery systems to me. These aren’t exactly “show-quality” cows or even “companion-quality” cows. You know what I mean, like those insufferable light brown bovines in Switzerland with absolutely clean coats and brass bells hanging from their necks. These are just a bunch of scruffy, raggedy-looking cows.
This brute with a line of drool hanging out of his mouth is standing next to the trail. He stares directly at me and asks: “What you looking at?”
“Who’s asking?” I counter.
“That’s your name?”
“Yeah, what of it?” asked the cow.
“That can’t be your name. Fred Praeger was a self-proclaimed genius book publisher. Besides that, how did you learn to talk?”
“It is possible that you are simply imagining that I am talking,” suggested the cow.
It is at moments like this when I carefully review my mental and chemical state. There are a good number of benefits to trail running. In my case, sanity is one of those benefits. Should I not run for a week, I tend to get grouchy. A clear indication that I need to go for a trail run is when Blue Eyes moves my moccasins up close to the front door so that she doesn’t have to look around when she wants to toss them out into the front yard.
I’ve been running for an hour or so. I had a full charge of oatmeal with maple syrup and fruit for breakfast. I’m well-hydrated and most of my parts are painless. So I pass the mental checklist.
The chemical checklist is a tad bit more vague. Endorphins from running can do some fairly strange things to my chemical makeup. They tend to make me smile and act unreasonably cheerful. However, they don’t usually tend to allow me to hear a cow talking.
Full disclosure requires an admission of youthful experimentation with known controlled substances. There is the possibility that this talking cow is due to some level of flashback. And then again, this is a mountain cow, he could actually be talking to me. Stranger things have happened up here.
Not one to ignore the possibility of a new experience, I stop running and talk to the brute,
“I can’t believe you are the same Fred Praeger. He would have at least come back as a bull.”
“How about Ambrose Bierce?”
“No way, he had to come back as an eagle. You are just a steer.”
“Great, you don’t even know me and you’re making fun of my sexual orientation,” he says and starts to walk away.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, “So who are you really? And how did you end up as a steer?”
“Okay, so my real name is unimportant. I’m here because I invented the Master of Business Administration degree.”
“Wow, tell me more.”
“It’s not a pretty story.”
“So how did you come up with the idea?”
“There were these moderately smart kids at the university, not smart enough to be engineers or dentists, even though they thought they knew everything. We needed to do something with them to increase our enrollments in the business school.”
“Yeah, that sort of makes sense.”
“We knew that we had to put their arrogance to work, so we started telling them that they could become masters of the universe if they would apply a few simple principles to their work.”
“Yeah, let me guess what the principles were?”
“OK, give it a try.”
“You taught them that optimizing profit at any cost was their sole reason for existence.”
“Right, you are almost smart enough to have an MBA,” said the steer.
“You taught them that that lowering the quality of a product, demanding greater productivity from the workers and thinking only of short-term gain were all roads to success.”
“You got it,” said the steer.
“And you taught them to treat all their colleagues with sarcastic contempt, as if their ideas were useless.”
“You could have been a dentist.”
“Wow, that’s amazing. And for developing the MBA, God turned you into steer?
“Yup, she did.”
“What about all these other cows? They are just cows, aren’t they?”
“Nope,” he said looking around. “They were all professionals at one time or another.”
“Nope. See the cow over there with the really short legs?”
“Yeah, he’s a weird-looking cow.”
“That’s Steven Nordski from Seattle. He was the engineer for Boeing who invented the middle seat.”
“Wow, and who was that cow over there who looks like he has lost most of his hair?”
“Oh that’s Sam. God gave him a permanent lice infection.”
“What did he do?”
“I think he was the insurance executive who came up with preexisting conditions, but he might have been in charge of policy cancellations,” said the steer.
“What about the cow with particularly big ears and eyes?”
“That’s Darryl, who came up with playing three-minute ads in movie theaters. I could go on and on.”
“Okay, the cow over there with the really big tongue, he got here for his work on industrial tomatoes. The cow who looks like a pig and has really ratty looking ears used to be a Senator.”
“You’d better explain,” I say.
“Earmarks,” said the cow.
“And the cow who is sitting down and doing nothing?” I asked, “Let me guess.”
“Go for it.”
“Okay, I’d bet he had something to do with starting public employee unions.”
“Good” said the cow. “Take another guess. How about the cow who is moving his hooves all over his own body?”
“Easy,” I said, “he obviously invented TSA screeners.”
“And the cow who is on fire? What did he do?” the steer asked.
“Piece of cake, he invented suicide bombers.”
“More?” asked the steer.
“Yeah, who is cow up to his neck in a huge puddle of his own shit?”
“He was a partner at Goldman Sachs,” said the steer. “Any other questions?”
“No, I get the picture. What profession is most represented in this herd?”
“I was mistaken,” said the steer, “You’re not smart enough to be a dentist. Any fool would know that most of these cows were lawyers.”
“Oh, yeah, right. How could I forget that? What about women? This herd is all steers from what I can see.”
“God doesn’t turn professional women into cows,” said the steer.
“But there are a good number of professional women doing dumb stuff.”
“Professional courtesy,” said the steer, who then ambled off.
Senior correspondent Alan Stark is a principal of Boulder Bookworks. His blog, “Mountain Passages,” can be viewed on mountaingazette.com.
You won’t admit it, even though your bluegrass friends might be more understanding, but you are secretly amused by the emoto-schlock lyrics served up by classic country music. Country music vocalists are basically soul singers, but what is it that makes country lament in ways that are deeply rooted in the same stuff as the blues? Hardship … hard luck in life, love and unfulfilled expectations. Traditional country is a romance novel rolled into a reality show and set to music. Clever, vengeful, heartfelt and notoriously comical, the lyrics span content ranging from d-i-v-o-r-c-e and the habitually jilted to countrified patriotism and redneck validation. There are love songs about pickup trucks, philosophy for raising children, memorials for grandmothers and odes to dogs.
No other music genre does love songs, splitsville and misery better than country, except maybe Italian opera, where someone is always betrayed, lied to, murdered or foreclosed on, with spectacular flair. La Scala’s country cousin is in Nashville and called the Grand Ole Opry. Achy-Breaky as it is for diehards, the old genre morphed into mainstream Americana acoustic rock and the lyric writers of the three-minute joke became noticeably more poetic a decade or so ago.
Craig McManus, a knowledgeable country DJ of both camps, explains the transformation of the music. “What you’re not hearing anymore are the silly lyrics that country music was known for. It wasn’t catchy, it was just silly and contrived. Most of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson stuff was that way during that time. What it’s evolved into is from the real heart of soul.” Craig still sees two factions. “It’s almost split into one wing that’s God, country and family and the other has gone into actual human feelings that are more honest, more down to earth. What they used to call down to earth back then was a little lofty and not down to earth at all. In country, folk and rock today, some of the music is so similar, you can segue between all of those styles. The genres have blended so much that alternative root is alternative country, which is now a combo of folk country and acoustic rock.”
This month, you can witness the contrast of both modern and classic country up at the end of the road in Crested Butte. Although they’re calling it an inaugural event and even changed its name to the Crested Butte Songwriters Festival, the town hosted the wild hootenanny called Country in the Rockies for well over a decade. In 2008, during a remodel of the main accommodations for the performers, the hoedown was moved to the champagne snow slopes of Steamboat Springs and then to Nashville for 2009. However, by 2010, the clamoring arose to bring it back to CB with much of the hooting coming from the musicians themselves … perhaps it was all the local ladies unabashedly gyrating on the bar tops, coaxing donations into their collective cleavage to help the stars raise upwards of $50k in a single evening for the fundraising breast cancer research sponsor T.J. Martell. The newly renamed Crested Butte Songwriters Festival will stir up the sequins and glitter in a sea of cowboy hats, January 13 and 14, 2012, and build on the popularity of its former self without sacrificing the caliber of talent or fun, and still continue to raise big bucks for breast cancer research.
Country in the Rockies brought hundreds of visiting big spenders and jovial locals out to cruise the many different acts throughout the liver of Crested Butte. There were songwriting seminars with the stars, celebrity bartenders and concerts in the round for almost a full week. The stars got to shred the slopes alongside the town clan. The new event is starting out smaller for its first year, but will undoubtedly expand back into a party of extended workshops and concerts in the coming years as it gets rolling again.
The entourage starts at 8 p.m. on Friday the 13th at the rowdy Kochevar’s bar and moves to the Eldo Brewery at 10 p.m., with the admission a reasonable pay-what-you-can. If you prefer the less boisterous, Saturday night will feature a real concert ($50, crestedbuttearts.org). It’s just fine if you only have a few bucks to toss into Friday’s kitty because others will toss several thousand into the hat. So get on up and take an honest look at the real country music of dirt roads and hollow body guitars through its singers and songwriters. And the locals will even invite you up to dance on the bar.
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living in Crested Butte. She can infamously shake it dancing on the bar. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Look at the line one more time, get that sick little smile on my face, click my poles behind me a couple of times, exhale and shove off. Keep breathing. As a coach used to tell me, if you can’t hear yourself breathe, you probably aren’t. Work the fall-line where it rolls over and feel the sheer pitch of the slope, like someone too close behind me. Try not to cackle and choke on the powder billowing around my face. Don’t get sloppy or forget where I am. Breathe. Cut across the fall-line and set hard, release the slough, then flow with it off the cliff, stay tight, drop, drop and whoof! Hip-check into the hill, disappear in the powder then spring up out of it and bound on down the mountain, still charging, still breathing, the blood pumping in my head, a lunatic light in my eyes and wild laughter in my heart. If it sounds a lot like sex, you understand the feeling.
Why not? Those two words may be the essence of freeriding. “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” That hard-used George Bernard Shaw quote can define a way of looking at mountains as well as general human endeavor. For those snowboarders and skiers who spend a lot of their lives seeking and riding beautiful, exciting lines, the question they ask themselves most often is, Why not?
Why not enlarge the possibilities, the way any athlete does with any sport, looking at what’s never been done? With serious focus, preparation and passion, big new lines are being carved daily by the mad poets of the mountains. Especially around the Roaring Fork Valley where I live, which has become one of the country’s freeride capitals. Sometimes, with all of the other distractions in Aspen, people forget that it still has big-time slopes and riders.
“This valley has such an athletic population,” says 33-year-old native Kiffor Berg, “that there’s a huge talent pool to draw from. Combine that with the world-class terrain here and you get a very large and strong freeride community.” One that counts Berg among its headliners.
Will Cardamone, 25, grew up here as a third-generation local who knows his home-slopes. “This valley has become such a big freeride center for two reasons,” he says. “First, because it has the goods. The Elk Mountains are absolutely amazing and hold some of the best terrain in the country. Now, we do deal with a continental snowpack, which means the consistency throughout the snow is always changing and snow stability is a very serious factor. But when the snowpack is solid, there is so much potential and most of it is untapped. The other reason is due to the transformation that skiing and snowboarding have taken over the last ten years or so. It used to be that most kids like myself went to AVSC [the Aspen Valley Ski Club] to learn how to ski fast around gates. Now they’re going to the club to learn how to throw a cork 9 over a table or rip a steep line.”
Instead of the rigid discipline of ski racing, there have been options. “I am definitely independent,” notes Cardamone. “And the freedom associated with big-mountain telemark skiing hooked me pretty quickly. Plus, the feeling of fear mixed with adrenaline that hits when you’re about to drop in on a big line is as alive as I have ever felt and when it is directly followed by the feeling of flying and then that overwhelming joy after it all comes to a perfect ending, there is nothing that I have done yet in my life that is more fun than that.”
When you grow up in the circus, the rest of life can seem a little tame. Aspen has a long history of pushing all kinds of boundaries, especially in the mountains. Freeriding locally is just a product of our surroundings, mentored and godfathered by the likes of Lou Dawson and Chris Davenport, who have helped inspire the whole scene.
“This valley established its community long before skiing became its most paramount commodity,” says freeskier and photographer Frank Shine. “The passion that grew from within the town as the sport became more popular still remains. I ski with people who range in age from 16 to 50, all equally motivated by finding that perfect run through the trees, down the bowl or during the quiet of a deep-winter storm.” And, as Shine points out, “Every run is an unknown with endless possibilities around each corner, allowing for continuous chances to be creative.”
Onna Konicek, a 30-year-old family doctor from Vermont who works full-time in the winter at the Snowmass Mountain Urgent Care Clinic and who took second in the women’s snowboard division of the Colorado Freeride series in 2008, agrees. “Aspen has become synonymous with ripping. It’s a great gathering of the vibes, so to speak, for exceptional skiers and snowboarders. Skiers and riders are drawn here by one love and the strong sense of community.”
What draws people to freeriding itself isn’t too complicated, either. As U2 sings, “You don’t know if its fear or desire. Danger’s the drug that takes you higher.” Fear, adrenaline and the rush are all components of the freeriding package that’s rooted in doing what you love and loving what you do.
“It reminds me of skiing on Prospect Mountain when I was a kid,” explains Konicek. “We would tear around like little maniacs, dodging trees and skiing off of boulders. On the mountain, I’m excited and happy. I’m living in the now, flying down the mountain on the ever-breaking wave of the present. I am surrounded by the most miraculous substance — snow! I am alive with every cell. Freeriding is about the rush, fitness, camaraderie, challenging oneself, excelling, conquering fears, pushing limits … and just being out there, surrounded by the glorious beauty of the mountains.”
Ask anyone who does it, and he or she will tell you the same essential thing. They all get it. “It just seems that the ultimate pleasure is to float through pow arcing big fast turns,” says one of the guys I ride with whenever I get the chance. Snowmass mega-boarder Dave Watson has competed all over the world, won the 2008 North American Snowboard Freeride Tour and is helping promote various freeriding comps and projects in Colorado. “Big air usually goes hand in hand with deep pow,” he points out. And so does every run Watson makes. Why? “It’s like coming up on Gowdy’s at Snowmass — you can’t see the run because it’s pretty flat before the cornice. I cut some speed as I approach the cornice and send a slow 360 into the gnar. After dropping 20 feet into a 50-degree chute, it’s just one big toeside turn out into a wide open pow field spraying snow with every turn,” he explains as his eyes go a little wide and he flashes a big grin just thinking about it.
At its finest, freeriding doesn’t involve any competition or filming. “The thing that pumps me up is the atmosphere freeriding creates,” says Aspen native Jesse Hoffman who, at 16, rocked the 2008 North American Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte before blowing up, has appeared in several movies and coaches in Portillo. But what he likes most is going big with friends all over the West and the world. “You’re out in the mountains with your buddies skiing sick lines all day, and you all share the same passion for skiing. I’m not sure about competing … For me, it’s more fun to just go freeskiing with my friends. There are no scores, no judges, just me and my friends ripping it up.”
Essentially, freeriding gives a name to something people have been doing forever: seeking the limits of what’s possible on snow and within themselves. I did it 30 years ago with my friends all over these same mountains: throwing flips off the old mining roads in Little Annie Basin, poaching dangerous lines down Highland Bowl years before it was officially “opened,” launching large air off backcountry cornices in Lenado and generally behaving like invincible idiots when there were no cheering crowds and no cameras rolling. It’s always been about finding the right way to flow down a slope, working with a mountain to make something nearly impossible into something almost hysterically easy, blasting through deep snow at high speeds, rolling over whatever comes up — big drops, cul-de-sacs, death cookies, the last shreds of a sane restraint. One of the best skiers I knew, who died driving a snowmobile off Mount Sopris, used to compare our early freeriding to his specialty of dirt-biking, where you just cruised over everything out there as fast as you could and learned how to handle it. None of that has changed much.
As Jacqui Edgerly, another Aspen native now in her early-20s, observes about her peers, “We all grew up skiing on the same mountain, jumping off the same cliffs and skiing deep pow. There’s quite a range of ages, but since everyone is always up on the hill cruising around, it’s hard not to have a laugh!”
One of her good friends is another birthright local, 25-year-old Nick Devore, the winner of the 2008 World Freeride Telemark Championships and widely considered the best big-mountain telemarker in the world. “Now, for me, freeriding’s a way of expression and prayer, it’s something to keep my mind on and something to dream about,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful, ever-evolving art form that brings out all sorts of emotions. Really, there’s just nothing more fun that gives me a greater sense of freedom than skiing. It’s a great way to explore the mountains and nature and myself.” Devore has discussed with Will Cardamone that “We didn’t really have a cultural background or know much about it, but then we realized that our mountain lifestyle and skiing was our culture, it is a new culture, it is our way of life and I hope to have kids to continue this culture and help it evolve.”
Cardamone’s sister Kate, 28, is also one of what some have called the Aspen Ripper Factory. She’s a free-heeler who won the women’s ski division of the Colorado Freeride Championships in 2008 and sums up things for many of their crew. “Appreciation for the outdoors and adventure in wild places was instilled in me at a young age. Our parents are definitely worried about what we do, especially because we’ve both taken falls. They also understand that the environment they raised us in and the activities we grew up doing feed straight into the love we both have for skiing. We were cut out to find this type of skiing fun.”
For many people of all ages, fun in the mountains involves a certain amount of risk. It turns you on and it can turn on you. Aspen has long nurtured dangerous pursuits, including mountain climbing, bicycle racing, hang-gliding, rodeoing, motocrossing, kayaking, hard-drugging and, not incidentally, ski racing, which has claimed lives and limbs from its inception. The season of 2008 was a big one for a lot of locals as they swept through various competitions with top podium performances. But that same year, three different skiers with strong ties to the local freeriding scene all died in bad accidents and suddenly there was great hue and cry about it.
On January 22, 2008, former local Billy Poole, 28, was skiing for a Warren Miller film crew in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, when he cartwheeled through a rock field and died. April 4th, Aspen native and triplet Wallace Westfeldt, 22, landed on a concealed rock and perished after airing out a cliff band in Tonar Bowl off of Aspen Highlands for local filmmakers. April 11th, John Nicoletta, 27, hooked a rock while skiing an exposed line at the Alyeska Freeskiing World Championships and tumbled brutally to his death. Three bright lights extinguished in less than three months.
Jacqui Edgerly was there when both Westfeldt and Nicoletta died within a week of each other. “I was present while Wallace gasped for his last breaths as we tried to lend him our own. Continuing on the World Tour Finals in Alaska, I cheered for John as he dropped from above skiing his best, but was snagged by a rock along the way. My body and mind were weak, tired, sad and confused. I was empty and drained. I just needed some time to settle myself and now I couldn’t be more stoked to get after it again,” she told me in November of that year. “I have realized in the past year that people and friends come and go. We cannot do anything about that except love them and laugh with them while they are with us.”
Kate Cardamone, whose dangerous header off the Burnside Cliffs at Snowmass the same winter was photographed by the Aspen Times and horrified everyone, including her parents, reflected about others who said they’d slowed down and started thinking about things. “The tragedies and falls we have experienced in the sport have been wake-up calls and made me very nervous,” she admitted. When columnist Paul Andersen and newspaper letter writers questioned the motivations of the freeriders following Wallace Westfeldt’s death, it caused the surviving riders and their parents to take stock.
Andersen, the father of a 15-year-old son who probably cringed at being evoked in his father’s stories, insisted the Westfeldt death, and others, were avoidable. “Why did Wallace jump off that cliff?” wrote Andersen soon after the fact. “I see a multitude of reasons — peer pressure, excitement, validation, reward, challenge. The culmination was a soaring moment of immortality, a modern-day Icarus parable spurred by a culture of titillation and thrill-worship that fuels part of the ski industry … ‘He died doing what he loved’ is an unacceptable epitaph for sacrificial youth. It’s time to reevaluate the direction of the ski industry — and soon — before more deaths and injuries shock us into the grim awareness that the cost of selling risk is way too high.” Andersen suggested one of Westfeldt’s primary motivations may have been fame.
“I didn’t like the column one bit,” says Kate Cardamone, “but I had to figure out why. Well, I don’t have a death wish and I have learned that if you are in it for fame, go to Hollywood instead. I can’t deny it feels good to do well and accomplish your goals and be recognized for it. But I do it because I have been able to test my own limits, and knowing myself, skiing has helped me open up and gain confidence that I have been able to carry into other parts of my life. I know my limits, but I do it for me and when/if I ever feel otherwise, I will do something else.”
Wallace Westfeldt’s father Weems is a long-time honcho in the Snowmass Ski School, a veteran of the sport and the industry, and an eloquent writer. He responded forcefully and passionately to Andersen’s pieces. “Paul’s ponderings of why Wallace jumped off the cliff are fair questions. It is extremely sad, though, that other reasons were not available to Paul’s imagination. So I will add some, which I think are more accurate: Joy! Art! Expression! Adventure! Exploring the limits! Being in exquisite harmony with the mountain, gravity, the snow and the snowboard! Quest for excellence! Transcendence! Was he killed by the camera-glory? I’ve got two answers to that. The first one is ‘no.’ Wallace was not a heedless person. He took responsibility for his actions… My other answer is that, if yes, then so what? If one builds a career on pushing limits and living the adventure, then filming is a natural and beautiful part of it.”
If you talk to serious freeriders these days, as I do all the time, most are articulate, mature beyond their years and extremely self-aware in the most positive way. Many people who are critical of what freeriders do or their motives for it have never spoken to them. Still, it’s not easy for people who love them, especially parents. It wasn’t for mine. I didn’t particularly think about getting hurt or dying. And when I did get hurt (four knee injuries, mostly from jumping), it didn’t change me much. Hell, I accidentally went upside down and backwards off some rocks at Snowmass just a couple of years ago and I wasn’t even doing anything that tricky or stupid. When friends die (or sometimes worse) doing these things, we mourn and we do it in the mountains as they would have wanted us to. But it’s hard on everyone. My parents were great skiers, but my mother didn’t care to watch when I was in big gelande contests. On the other hand, my dad liked them because he was a jumper once himself.
For the Cardamone’s parents, Tom and Jody, there is the same “mixture of pride and fear,” as Tom puts it. “Kate and Will go into the mountains in all seasons as comfortably and competently as if they were going across town to visit a friend. We’re immensely pleased to have given them lives in which they find such deep enjoyment and fulfillment.” They also note that the level of risk for what Kate and Will do is something they “are not particularly comfortable with.” Kate’s header could have had far worse consequences and Will smashed a kidney several years ago. However, “Our discomfort doesn’t translate into holding them back. They know life is wonderful and fragile and they are seeking that balance point between the regret of not drinking fully from the cup and the other extreme.” Then he pauses and chuckles softly. “Jody and I don’t worry that they’re not drinking fully enough.”
Nick Devore’s mother Karinjo says people come up to her on the street and ask why she lets him do it. “And I say, well, first of all, he’s in his 20s, I don’t have a lot to say about it. And even though it sounds weird, within the realm of what he does, which is definitely not safe, he’s really kind of safe. He’s done his avalanche training and his CPR, he doesn’t take chances when he doesn’t feel good about them, he does yoga and he stays in unbelievable shape. These kids are all such mountain kids and such naturals that you can’t say they don’t know what they’re doing.” Especially when a big part of what they’re doing, says Will Cardamone, is focusing on “respect for and a connection with the natural world.”
As Nick Devore put it, “It has been very sad and challenging losing friends to skiing, but I have grown tremendously as a person and as a skier from these losses. They have definitely made me rethink why I ski at the level I do and have slowed me down and helped me rethink my decisions.” After a summer of reflection, he told me, “I am ready to continue pushing myself and my skiing. I would rather die skiing than never experience the sense of freedom and joy that it brings.” Devore had a bad avalanche accident the winter of 2010, but hasn’t changed what he does because of it.
John Nicoletta’s good friend, photographer Zach Ornitz, wrote about him, “John was the most solid skier I’ve ever seen and I know he carefully weighed his decision before plunging down the fall line [the day he died]. He aspired to making a life out of the activity that he loved most. Who wouldn’t want to achieve the dream of a life filled with turns in champagne powder, travel to exotic locations and days spent with true friends? I think John’s advice would have been simple: ‘Ski it because you love it. Ski it because it makes you happy’.”
While questions would continue to be raised about each of the three deaths — the reasons, the preparedness, the culpability of film-makers and so on — many in the mountain community agreed with a letter written to the Aspen papers by long-time local ski patrol person Roine St. Andre, who said, “Myself, I’m so happy they died in sacred places rather than in a war zone or a nursing home.”
Obviously, freeriding will never be safe. It would lose much of its appeal if it was. And there are bozos all over the mountains that will huck themselves off or down anything without a moment’s thought if there’s a camera involved or just some bragging rights. It’s the “Jackass” syndrome, another form of gene-pool thinning in a process that’s been with us a lot longer than freeriding.
Onna Konicek, through her work at the Snowmass clinic, sees what she does from both sides. “It is a calculated risk we all take based on our riding ability, but it is important to realize no one is exempt, no matter the level of expertise. Nature rules and the mountains must be approached with humility and respect. We should all ride to live another day, as well as live to ride.”
Smart riders do all they can to improve their odds. On a daily basis, Dave Watson wears a girdle with plastic hip and tailbone pads, foam quad and hamstring pads and a Leedom helmet. “During comps, I always wear the Mack Daddy body armor with foam and plastic shoulder, elbow and forearm pads, a chest pad and an armadillo back protector,” he says. “If the venue is particularly sketchy, I wear my full-face Giro Helmet.” And he’s not doing it for the money or glory. He competes as one of the top American boarders on the World Freeride Tour in the U.S., Austria, Norway, Russia and France with minimal sponsorship. Prize money is scant and, underneath the gladiator garb, there aren’t many who even know who he is. Others do better with films and travel expenses, but it isn’t X Games glory or dough. Freeriding, even competitively, is really just a labor of love. And we’re all addicted to love.
Jay Cowan writes for a variety of magazines and has books on Hunter Thompson and the Alps in publication. “In The Land of Living Dangerously,” about the Indonesian region, will come out as an ebook this winter.
The single’s line is a place where dirtbags rub elbows with millionaires and conversations unfold with ease. Yet during the winter of 2005, these conversations often took an awkward turn for me. After small talk about the snow and life in Summit County, the same question inevitably surfaced: “So, where are you living?” No matter how many times I answered this inquiry, I stumbled in my efforts to explain that I lived in my Jeep Wrangler in the free parking lot at Breckenridge. The reactions were varied, ranging from “Doesn’t it get cold?” to “I didn’t think there were real ski bums anymore.” Kindly, a handful of people suggested I find a girlfriend with a living arrangement better than my own.
This was my life in Breckenridge. In order to construct my winter residence, I had removed the passenger and rear bench seat from my Jeep. There was then just enough room to sleep with my feet against the tailgate and my head beneath the glove box. In the midst of such luxury, the days proceeded with a repetition matched only by that of boot-camp recruits and the chronically drunk. In the morning, the water once contained in my lungs melted from the hardtop of the Jeep, creating a reliable alarm calibrated with the sunrise. If, on rare occasion, the water falling on my face or delicately thumping on my sleeping bags did not wake me, tires crunching through the snow and car doors slamming did.
With a little finesse, I wiggled out of my mess of sleeping bags each morning. This pile of bags formed a makeshift nest constructed around the center console and wheel well of the Jeep. I would peel my condensation-crisp pants and down jacket from the tailgate, where they prevented my sleeping bag from freezing to the exposed sheet metal. Awkwardly, I would then slip on my snowboard gear and open the passenger door to lace my boots.
With frozen water bottles in one hand and a bag of groceries and toiletries in the other, I would walk across the parking lot to the bus station bathroom. While others were relieving themselves before heading up the hill, I brushed my teeth. Although stares were frequent, few people had the necessary blend of curiosity and courage to ask what the hell I was doing. Now fully awake, I would fill a bowl with water from the bathroom faucet, as it was the perfect temperature for oatmeal. After a bagel, some oatmeal, an overly ripe frozen banana and cold-brewed tea, I returned to the Jeep and grabbed my board. It was time to ride. This was all I needed — and all I had. How I lived, how I slept, how I survived were all subservient to time on the mountain.
I had finally escaped the Midwest after spending a few too many years lapping the icy terrain parks of Iowa and Wisconsin. At the start of January, I hit the road for Summit County. Somewhere in northeastern Colorado, the fifth gear in my Jeep gave out. Nonetheless, I washed ashore in Breckenridge with a handful of dollars. Once in Summit County, I briefly debated getting a job, but knew it would only interfere with riding. I wasn’t sure if I would be in Colorado for a few weeks or a few months. I just knew that, when the money ran low, I needed to save a few dollars for gas back to the flatlands.
Once on the mountain and strapped in, I warmed up playing in the glades and often ice-licked faces of Peak 8. Each morning was a mystery, as the exposed runs could either shine like freshly Zamboni’d ice or be miraculously buried in new snow from an evening of wind loading. These patches of snow were always a pleasant surprise in the midst of a dry winter. To my dismay, the occasional call home confirmed that Iowa was enjoying more powder days than Colorado. Nonetheless, bouts of wind frequently sculpted pillow lines from small cornices tucked among the trees.
Even if the conditions left much to be desired, the T-Bar provided entertainment that made the pilgrimage to the upper mountain worthwhile. To the uninitiated, a T-bar lurks like some mythical beast waiting to slaughter the innocent. In the presence of such a thing, determination presents itself in various — albeit misdirected — guises. The T-bar frequently pulled proud spring breakers up the mountain on their bellies. Equally impressive, however, were the efforts of young riders who refused to be left in the dust of their two plank progenitors — even if this meant the T-bar dragged them like forgotten dogs leashed to the bumper of a truck.
Although Breck boasts varied terrain, much of it comes in the form of the rails in the park rather than the trails carved out of the mountain. Nonetheless, Chair 6 provided reliable amusement. Whether it was little hits along trail edges or lines that snaked through trees to drop wind lips, there were plenty of ways to blend terrain with imagination to forge a new line each lap. By afternoon, however, it was time to ride the lower mountain.
Dropping into the Freeway Terrain Park is akin to walking into a circus tent only to realize you are the main attraction. Breck does a good job shielding the inexperienced from their unbridled enthusiasm by making the park as menacing as possible. Although the jumps are meticulously groomed and the rail approaches manicured with the greatest care, the park simply pushes things to another level. The bar is raised just far enough for vacationing Texans to realize that dropping into a sixty-foot booter is a bad idea. Jeans, cowboy hats and liquid courage do occasionally meet their match. Consequently, the fence that marks the entrance to the Freeway Park gathers lurkers like flypaper. Even with an audience, it did not take long to feel at home in paradise.
A certain camaraderie exists anywhere people wait to drop in — even if the occasional snake session snaps riders out of their patient revelry. Waiting to session a rail or standing on top of the drop-in for the superpipe always brought me back a decade or so to the USASA contests at Tyrol Basin in Wisconsin. Even when the mercury failed to climb above zero, a hundred riders smiled at the top of the pipe in patient anticipation of dropping. This was a time when everything was so new and possible. Still in its infancy, no one knew — or cared to ask — where this thing we loved would take us.
This energy and kinship still existed in the park at Breck. It came in countless forms — watching Todd Richards in awe as he lapped the pipe, the communal wait for clouds to pass in the midst of a spell of flat light or the shared agitation when a family man would fearlessly lead his flock of snowplowing minions down the middle of the stunt ditch. I still smile when I think of the flock of European girls with matching jackets that stood guard over the pipe. They raised hell all over the mountain, insulting the elderly in one-piece suits or chewing out the “big, sexy man” who accidentally plowed into them in the lift line. They could boardslide a box and break a heart in a single move. I wish I knew where they came from — and where they went.
The park never got old, in part because any park in Summit County tends to be populated by fellow flatland expatriates. Countless times in Breck and Keystone, I’ve run into friends from back home — from the Sundown days, as we affectionately refer to them through a filter of nostalgia. Although most days in Summit were spent riding in solitude, days with old friends brought back fond memories of riding twelve hours at a time in Iowa with only pickles, ketchup and crackers from the condiment bar at Sundown as fuel. These were memories marinated in flat landings, ridiculous lines through mud and snow and backcountry sessions at local golf courses. It was impossible to escape the past as we debated whether or not local legends were floating 270s onto rails or spending time behind bars after getting caught bumping rails of another kind. Our friends from back home were just as likely to be pulling 9s off of ten-foot tables as they were to be fixing radiators or laying tile. After these sessions, we always parted, wondering, wondering if we had lost too much of this past or if this thing we loved had simply changed with age, just as we all had.
After the last chair and the final lap through the park, I would climb aboard the bus back to my home in the parking lot, as my time in Breck preceded the gondola that now links the town with the base of Peak 8. Once again, a sense of community surfaced — even in the midst of exhaustion and the wet dog smell that pervaded the cramped bus. Smiles and nods of approval conferred that today, like every day, was a good one. Yet, on Sundays, this sense of community faded, as it became evident that some of us would return to another life. Some of us would go back to a world of careers and obligations and cities, places where the day of the week mattered, while some of us would remain in the mountains to ride another nameless day. For those of us who stayed, our pockets may have been empty, but each day we could work on our goggle tan and assert with authenticity that life was wonderful.
Once back in the parking lot, I would shed my snowboard gear and begin dinner. This occasionally involved firing up a backpacking stove to cook pasta, but more often entailed sitting down in the bus station to a can of cold beef stew and a smashed loaf of bread. Once a week, I would fill a backpack with a change of clothes and set off across town to poach a shower wherever one became available. And then it was night — both a blessing and a burden.
Although some evenings were spent riding at Keystone, most were simply dedicated to loitering. I frequently hunkered down in a chair in the bus station to read and relax. Most nights I would also walk all over, simply enjoying the pulse of the main street in a mountain town. These strolls inevitably led to the Crown Tavern. Here I passed hours sitting by a fireplace and sipping iced tea by the gallon. Although all humans are drawn to fire, the glow of a flame becomes especially magnetic when one is aware of the cold that waits outside. Once I began to yawn and my thoughts returned to riding in the morning, I made my way home.
During my journey to the parking lot, I watched snowcats crawl up the mountain as tiny beacons of light. The late-night silence was only interrupted by the crunch of snow underfoot and the drunken musings of the young erupting from bars. I often walked past the Gold Pan Saloon and saw kids my age talking and hollering, reflecting on the day’s labors or laps in the park. On one level, our paths were parallel — we gave all to that which we loved. Yet, at times, I felt so distant from them. As simple as life was, boundaries still existed. Or I created them as a result of my abode. Although days on the mountain served as membership dues to an unspoken society, the evenings erased any of these fraternal bonds forged in snow and sun. I remained solitary in the night.
A home in the parking lot afforded more than solitude and convenience. I learned how to fall asleep despite the oscillating orange lights and backup beep of snowplows clearing the lot around me. I learned which colors in toothpaste freeze first. I learned that strangers on chairlifts enjoy giving unsolicited dating advice to a kid who lives in his car. The value of many of these lessons washed away with the spring thaw, but I emerged with something greater: the ability to whittle away the layers of life until little remains but passion and survival.
Mike Sudmeier lives in Jackson, Wyoming. He divides his time between writing and riding.
The burled walnut stock of the shotgun feels cool and smooth against my cheek. Flexing my knees slightly, I shout, “Pull!” From behind my right shoulder, Josh releases the spring-loaded trap, and an orange clay disc squirts across the horizon. I track it, swinging the long gray barrel in an arc. At its apex, I squeeze the trigger. The report echoes, but the clay pigeon’s flight continues uninterrupted until it bounces into the dirt.
“You were behind again,” says Josh. “You’re not leading it enough.”
“How can you tell?” I ask as I reload the trap. “Do you have special buckshot vision?”
“Sure do,” he grins, cradling his 20-gauge Ithaca Featherlite in his arms. “Pull!”
Quick as a snake, Josh uncoils, the gun roars, and clay shrapnel drops out of the sky. “It takes a while to get the hang of it,” he says. “Here, try again.” “No thanks,” I reply. “Let Laura or Lexi have a turn.”
Shooting skeet wasn’t our original plan. We had left town that morning intending to meet for a day of rock climbing. But when we arrived, Josh was cleaning his shotgun in preparation for a hunting trip and proposed an alternative expedition. Rock climbing seemed humdrum compared to the novelty of firearms. Now my Subaru, full of unused climbing gear, is parked a few miles up a dirt road at an impromptu firing range in the national forest.
When we pulled up, it was obvious this was a place where people came to shoot guns. The bare ground was littered with spent cartridges, empty shells, broken glass and other shrapnel. Josh gave us a safety briefing and showed us how to load his double-barrel shotgun. Then we popped in earplugs and took turns blazing holes in the sky.
Josh was a crack shot. Even when we filled the trap with two skeet, he brought down both with ease. We three newbies were more hit and miss — with heavy emphasis on the “miss.” After we’d burned through a case of clay pigeons, Josh produced a couple of pistols. While I watched Laura and Lexi merrily plinking away at bottles and cans stacked in a dirt berm, I considered my uneasy relationship with guns.
A couple of years ago, I joined a friend who works in law enforcement at the shooting range. Under his tutelage, I learned how to shoot in various positions — standing, prone, etc. — but I never mastered the essential element of accuracy. For him, firing a gun was a form of yoga: Breathe in … squeeze trigger … BANG! Breathe out. For me, the anticipation of “BANG!” always made me twitch. I reckon the twitch was a result of a childhood experience.
My father owned two firearms — a single-barrel 12-gauge Winchester shotgun that he kept in the back corner of his bedroom closet, and a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver that he stored in his dresser drawer under his T-shirts.
My hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, was pretty tame in the 1970s, so Dad wasn’t worried about nighttime marauders. He didn’t store the guns loaded and he kept the ammunition in his basement workshop. Dad didn’t own guns to dole out vigilante justice; he used the guns at work. Dad wasn’t a police officer or a mercenary. He was a professor of forest science at Oregon State University. Professor Waring used his guns for scientific purposes in the field. The shotgun served as a tree-trimming tool, bringing down branches from the tops of the tall evergreens in the Cascades. He subjected those trimmings to a battery of tests, and the results revealed the overall health of the tree and thus the surrounding forest. Early in his research career, he’d determined a shotgun was the best — and perhaps only — tool for the job of harvesting samples high above the forest floor.
Dad didn’t carry the revolver in the mountains; he only wore the big iron on his hip when he worked on Oregon’s dry eastern slope during the hot summer months when the rattlesnakes were active. The pistol hung in a holster on a heavy leather belt studded with shiny two-tone bullets. As a seven-year-old, I was fascinated. The six-shooter spoke to all my boyish cowboy fantasies. But before I could draw down on the family cat, my father nipped my Wild West dreams in the bud by taking me out shooting.
I was too young to recall now exactly where we went — somewhere deep in the Oregon woods, I know that much. I remember we hiked together for a long while, and Dad’s voice turned very serious when he took the pistol from the holster. He broke open the chamber to show me it was unloaded. He showed me the safety catch and told me never to point a gun at something unless I was ready to destroy it. With those words ringing in my ears, Dad plucked six bullets from the loops in his belt and loaded the pistol. “See if you can hit that tin can on the stump,” he said.
Shooting the gun was easy. Aiming it was not. I finally knocked the can off the stump with a lucky shot. Watching it skitter across the dirt, I felt my young life had reached an apotheosis. I wanted to ride off on a horse named Silver and enlist in the army as a sharpshooter. I felt an unfamiliar surge of power, of strength, of control.
Looking back, I realize that moment was a rite of passage. Holding a loaded gun was the first major responsibility I’d ever been given — one with far more ramifications than remembering to feed the hamster or mowing the yard on a Saturday morning. Handling a gun required gravitas. For the first time, I held the control of a deadly force over all the creatures around me. In return, I had to exert absolute control over myself. Handling a gun forced me to behave like an adult instead of a child.
Dad holstered the pistol and picked up the shotgun. He broke it open to show me the firing mechanism and explained how the red plastic shells were filled with tiny pellets that created an expanding pattern in the air.
“See if you can bring down the highest branch in that Douglas fir,” he said. I lifted the heavy gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. Like a right cross from Mike Tyson, the recoil dropped me to the ground. Slightly concussed, I rubbed my bruised shoulder and decided that guns weren’t so enticing after all. My father, in his wisdom, was probably counting on this outcome.
My relationship with guns has remained distant ever since. I understand their utility, but I want no truck with them in my daily life. Now, whenever I hold a gun, I find myself thinking about Columbine High School, about murder and suicide and war, about the terrible power and life-and-death responsibility a firearm represents. I’m not mentally unstable. I’m absolutely certain that simply holding a gun won’t cause me to lose control and become a homicidal maniac. But I’ve decided my life-and-death decisions should originate from choices made while climbing or skiing instead of from the flash from a grey-blue muzzle. And I’m content with that.
Josh’s voice rouses me from my musings. “Hey, you want to shoot a few rounds with the pistol?” he asks. “No thanks, I’m cool,” I respond. “Everything’s under control.”
Lance Waring is a ski bum with a writing habit. He lives in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.