Denver

Farmers pray for clouds, with dirt beneath their nails as they watch the sky and wish for rain. Sailors feel their hearts beat in time with the tides, and the saltwater flowing through their veins. And in Denver, the mountains stand at the end of every westbound street like a neighboring magic kingdom, succeeding blue waves that never break along the horizon.

Winter turns them into white castles. The weather and seasons come through them; the gold at the end of the day at the house by the airport when the jets were over the roof and there was a drawer filled with plastic-wrapped butterflies that my brother and I spread out on the table in the kitchen. The older kids married me to the French girl down the street in a soda-pop wedding. Minot was her name. I drank water from the gutter to stay out and play. And upstairs in my bed, I thought about Betty Rubble until a thrill went through my waist like lightning.

“The dogs pee in that water,” my mother called from the den. She had blonde hair like cotton candy; big blue eyes like ice cubes in a glass of gin. She had big round tits on a tiny frame, so small sometimes it seemed as if she was just those tits, that hair, and a little squeak of a voice like air escaping. “It’ll make you blind.”

She was from Minnesota, the Dairy Queen. And she arched her back and watched my father with those big blue eyes like he had just carried her into the room.

He was a handsome man. He had high broad shoulders and long swimmer’s arms, a thick black mustache and the mean look of a friendly policeman. There were pictures of him in his flight suit beside his silver jet, in black wraparound sunglasses beside his green Austin Healy and in his officer’s uniform standing at attention. He was a captain in the Air Force before the migraines grounded him. He would vomit all over the control panels on flights out of Texas. It was always someplace over New Mexico where the holes in his vision would open.

“There were parties at the Officer’s Club,” my mother said, with her eyes as big and wide as if a camera were rolling. “And everybody smoked, and drank beer. We didn’t know it was just speed in all the diet pills we were on. Oh, you should have seen him.”

I remember how he whispered in my ear, “You’re standing still,” when I was two, when he first took me skiing. Then he held me between his legs and tilted us over the hill until the wind was on my face and the sky was set in motion. “But you’re flying.”

I leaned into his red down parka, looking up at the icicles on his mustache and thinking he looked like a walrus with a tall red hat on. I watched his clear goggles, and his gaze so still and serious that I felt like we were levitating. With his hands out front and his legs coming close together, we went looking for the softest snow on the side of the runs.

“In the shadows. Away from the sun.”

He grew up in Syracuse, New York, where winter is like a mini Ice Age with some of the biggest blizzards of the year and the wet constant cold that seeps

into your skin. Only broken little slopes like Song and Labrador sprout up in weather-beaten remnants of the Adirondacks to the north, and that first day on the golf course, on the white wooden pair of Army Surplus skis he bought for $15, he knew there must be something better. He could feel it in his toes like a tingling sensation. He could see it in the pinned-up pictures of the Obermeyer girls of Colorado, the beautiful blonde skier Gretchen Fraser, the beautiful blonde skater Sonja Heinie, and the Sun Valley brunettes with the cold apple cheeks staring into black peaks in the distance as if they were windows in his room.

“It’s like you’re king,” he said about standing on top of his first Colorado mountain. “Like what you see is what you own.”

He read us “Hamlet” when we were too little to understand, except for the slings and arrows, the ghost on the wall and his voice like a soft wind. To train for the winter, he ran up the stairs with a backpack full of sand. In the early ’70s, he worked at Vail every weekend as a volunteer ski patrolman.

Every Friday night, we drove up out of Denver in our Volkswagen station wagon. It was before Eisenhower Tunnel was blown through the mountain. Over the icy switchbacks of Loveland Pass to the top of the world with snowflakes like schools of fish against the glass, white whales past the headlights, big bare winter moons and the orange-lit faces of men beside jackknifed trucks; the skeletal aspen. Ghost stories on the radio: The Beach Boys and The Beatles, and only because I say it now, Gram Parsons.

Copper Mountain was like a truck stop where we never stopped. Vail Pass was like a haunted forest of deep secrets in its bunched-up black trees and empty frozen meadows, the heater against our hands and the lights in the valley below like we were coming down in a covered wagon. The waterfalls were as blue as rock candy against the cliffs and there were so many stars that your head would swirl to see them.

“There, with the golden belt, is Orion.”

His friends owned a house in East Vail. Then it was called Big Horn. It was like a Swiss chalet with indigo shutters and white walls into the trees where we hunted raspberries in the spring. We built a fort in the boulders above the house with realty signs and dead aspen. Two ski instructors rented the downstairs and kept a greenhouse in the woods. They played guitars and rolled cigar-sized joints that the adults would smoke in the living room. We were there when they said Elvis was dead on the news. It didn’t make me sad until I really started to listen.

We slept swaddled in sleeping bags on the floor and woke up with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches already packed in the pockets of our parkas. Ice on the beaver pond. “It’s like they’re on fire,” my brother said as the sun smoked snow from the tops of the trees. But I was already dreaming.

“You have your father’s eye.”

Vail is built on the idea of beautiful women. In the showers and saunas where Spanish-speaking girls sweat away the chill like chocolate melting. In the wood-carved doors that lead away to restaurants with candles on the table, fireplace bars, stringed white lights and bright European ski clothes like presents waiting to be opened; green-eyed girls from Cherry Creek with red hair and perfect crooked teeth, freckles and big brothers in letter jackets that want to drink Coors with you and chew Copenhagen. How it feels to be cold, then warm again. The way the sunlight falls into the condominiums. And the best blondes in the best restaurant windows as sudden as white ponies in the streets, in fur coats and cowboy hats when you turn around to see who is laughing. Brunettes from Boston, as indifferent as an away game, with Christmas card lists that they learn to turn into weapons, Rossignols and fuzzy mittens. The smell of woodsmoke like sex on the wind. The slopes into town like falling ribbons. And in everyone’s breath, the smoke signal surety of human warmth held up against itself; under all those puffy parkas, long-knit scarves, tight turtlenecks and black stretch pants with the promise of secret skin.

“I think about it with my legs,” my brother said. The memory. The anticipation. In the drum of our boots as they would sound through town, carrying our skis over our shoulders by the tips like off to the cool war, as if just by walking to the lifts we were capable of a greater something. “The way it feels to have people stop and watch you come past them.”

The preceding is an excerpt from Kray’s book, “The God of Skiing,” scheduled to be released next year by Shred White and Blue Media. Kray lives in Santa Fe.

Ski Bumming and Other Lies

Editor’s note: In our March 2010 issue (MG #165), we ran an obituary, penned by Dave Baldridge (who has gained a certain amount of recent notoriety in our pages as the now-famous “List Guy,” whose words, and the consequent responses to his words, have been gracing our Letters page for several months now) of a man named Richard Barnum-Reece as part of a loosely aggregated feature package titled “Mentors.” Baldridge managed to dig up a piece that Barnum-Reece wrote for the Monday, April 5, 1976, issue of the Daily Utah Chronicle, which is justified, as Baldridge is a key character in the tale that follows. I liked it so much that I decided to re-print it herein.


We called it “playing the crease.” The Indian was an eternally naïve one-eighth Cherokee-Honkie mix and I, a professional sociopath, was his partner in the Ski Bum Trade.

The tale is ongoing. He is still in the racket and so am I. The crease has closed — or the crease is closing. Who knows? Maybe the crease was never there, perhaps it was an ephemeral dream as destructive as the green light that flashed, glinted and burned in Gatsby’s eye as he sought out the Great Blonde American Valkyrie.

This was at the time, mind you, when people came to college to address pressing existential questions. Those who thought of jobs and the “real world” were at the very least dullards. Ultimately, as the noose of self-investigation presented itself, we became queasy about college. What could we do and make a small living (nothing exorbitant to be sure) and still maintain our “integrity” (i.e. not working for the Los Alamos labs making A-bombs, in his case, and, in my case, not working for an evil father-in-law at the family car lot)?

The answer hit one day like a metaphorical bolt of lightning: become ski patrolmen! The problem was that we couldn’t ski. Still, we were jocks: college football players who had made the traveling squad but didn’t play in games. We thought we could pick up skiing easy.

“Let’s just get a season pass and ski our ass off for a year,” the Indian said. He supposed it would be enough to get us on a ski patrol somewhere. The idea was that we, as God’s own natural athletes, could mortgage our lives and then, miraculously, come up with a job as professional skiers.

So we became “Ski Bums.”

The term is invidious. It says nothing for the eternal optimism of youth. This is not to say that optimism isn’t justified for young, hungry, take-on-the-world crazies. It’s just, I suppose, that the battle had just begun.

But where was I? Yes. We were going to become ski patrolmen. Someone told us they made $500 a month. We figured $500 was a fortune. It would be enough to support our other, more vicious dream of becoming a consummate mixture of Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. At least we thought so.

The advertising con had a lot to do with it. There’s nothing like a stacked blonde in front of a crackling fireplace with a jar of hot buttered rum in her hand to convince you that skiing is your sport. Nothing.

Don’t misunderstand me. I happen to believe in skiing as a lifestyle. It’s just that I tire of the skiing-as-a-sex-substitute mentality. It may be true — in fact it is true: the ski resort is an ersatz singles bar.

But it’s also a nice place to take the family after you transcend the Great Stud of the North business. Later, I was to learn that skiing is a great place to get rid of a hangover that came from the evil brew you consumed each night to relieve your memory of the day you spent on the slopes teaching middle-aged women, who had trouble ascending a flight of stairs, how to “Ski like Stein.”

So we hustled our parents, sold our football jerseys. And went skiing. Each day, we hitched up to Big Cottonwood Canyon, and, each day, we hitched down. It was fun for awhile, and then it wasn’t fun, so we stopped doing it every day. We did it every other day.

That’s when we started selling our blood to buy Vino da Tavola. A gallon jug just cost $1.25. I’ll never forget that. It was okay after the first three or four glasses. The best way to drink it was over a tall glass of cracked ice. That way, you couldn’t taste the faint sawdust bouquet of the wine. After the fourth glass, nothing mattered. Then you could drink it warm. The problem (we later discovered) was the purple vomit. Dave (that’s the Indian’s name) started the whole thing.

Those who are connoisseurs of cheap wine know that, when it becomes potable, it’s time to stop drinking. It’s just when it starts trickling down your throat without any trouble like an innocent soft drink that the danger is extreme.

As the wine worked its magic, we cranked up the stereo and started the ritual of self and counter accusations. It was a healthy purging of the bourgeois roots, we thought. We talked, yelled at each other, cried like babies in our acute wine melancholia. It was important to go beyond the middle-class bullshit. We wanted to sit at the foot of the Buddha. Perhaps drink some wine with him. Talk as equals, smoke a number even. We had taken a much-needed break for New Mexico, where the Indian had an adobe house and many equally crazy friends, who also sold their blood and replaced it with cheap wine. The wine had done its work, and I was there in the kitchen trying to seduce a doe-eyed beauty, when the mood which I was working for was destroyed from outside. We heard an incredibly huge blowing sound. It was the Indian doing his cheap wine St. Vitus dance in the night.

“That’s it, Indian, you can do it!”

“Thanks, pal,” the Indian said.

Of course it was inane, but we didn’t care. Life was fine and there was more blood where that last pint came from. In fact, we discovered that with the proper lies to the questions put by the blood people that we could sell our blood every other week. We could convince others on the odd weeks. We had it made.

Or so we thought. We fancied ourselves hipsters in the manner of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. At the same time, we were the American embodiment of Stein Eriksen, in our minds deftly unleashing the bra strap of every eligible young girl who came across our path.

That was right before the Indian’s assignation with the nun on the plane. It’s a story that will offend the entire university community. Out of a proper sense of decorum, I won’t go into it. Suffice it to say that it happened at night on a return flight from Albuquerque to Salt Lake and they took the arms out of the chairs to get enough room.

It says something about ski bums. Pagans. Pure and simple.

Soon we were back in Salt Lake and, to continue the tale, we finally got jobs. He’s a Sun Valley corporation cop now and I’m walking around in a trench coat as a ski instructor at Park West. Still trying, in my way, to catch hold of that ineffable light that glints steadily in Gatsby’s cataract-covered eyeball. Groucho Marx as a ski instructor searching diligently for the secret word.

The Etiquette of Nacho Hill

Nachos. For outdoor lovers in Mountain Country, nachos (with beer of course) are an essential, must-have after a long day spent rock climbing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, river rafting, fort building, naked mandolin-playing in the woods, whatever-it-is-you-do-outside-with-your-buddies tradition. In fact, there is nothing better than working up a hunger by playing in the sun, then sitting down at a table in the local bar/grill/hole-in-the-wall, when a giant plate of nachos is carefully placed in the middle of you and your friends.



Here lies the problem with this scenario. Let’s say, for example, you spent the last eight hours mountain biking with three of your cohorts and everyone is as ravenous as a wolf in a meat locker. So, picture these four people sitting around a pub table, and a mountain of chips, cheese, beef, shredded chicken, sour cream, guacamole and salsa is slowly lowered by a pretty waitress into the middle of the pack. Feeding frenzy is a downright polite way of phrasing what happens next.

Darwin would find ample proof of evolution in the mountain bar, as survival-of-the-fittest materializes among the primitive instinct of the hungry, when the fastest of the bunch does everything in his power to ensure smothered-chip consumption at a higher ratio than everyone else. Inevitably, the slow and weak of the group is soon left with nothing but scraps of dry, broken chips and bits of cheddar baked onto plate’s edge.

To ensure everyone gets a fair share of nachos, or to at least level the playing field, a list of nacho-eating rules must be put into effect. You see, proper nacho etiquette begins with the understanding that the plate is divided into sections based on the number of nacho-eaters. Four people means the nacho mound is divided into quarters, three people equals thirds, two splits the hill in half, and so on. It should also be understood that the aspect of the nacho mountain facing you is your side. This means that you may only eat what’s in front of you and never stray into the established territory of your bros/lady friends.

With this is mind, here are five, set-in-stone laws that return civility to our post-recreation watering holes known as “The Etiquette of Nacho Hill.”

Thou Shalt Not “Reach Over.”

The “Reach Over” occurs when you see a fully loaded tortilla chip covered in cheese, beans and guac, but it’s on the other side of Nacho Hill. Resist the temptation, even if you’re stuck with desert-dry corn chips on your side of the plate. If you do “Reach Over,” you’re likely to have your hand bit off by your bud if he catches you.

Thou Shalt Not “Double Dip.”

Usually, Nacho Hill is accompanied by its good friend, Salsa Pond. This lovely lake of pureed tomatoes, peppers and Mexican spices exists to yummy up those chips that escaped baptism-by-Holy-cheese. However, a mindless person lost in conversation about that “sick drop-off that almost caused an endo,” is a perfect candidate to absentmindedly “Double Dip” a half-eaten chip into Salsa Pond. Watch out for this blunder and don’t become a Double Dipper yourself.

Thou Shalt Not “Strip Mine.”

“Strip Mining” is a sneaky little maneuver that takes advantage of a loophole in the divided plate rule, even if you’re technically eating from your side of Nacho Hill. Here’s how it works: As casually as possible, begin eating chips from the bottom of the pile. As you “mine” deeper into the mountain, eventually the top of Nacho Hill collapses onto your side of the plate. This supposedly gives you property rights to the “mine tailings.” Much debate and legal wrangling will probably ensue once Nacho Hill collapses and you stake your claim. Avoid this technique unless you don’t mind enduring the wrath of your “friends.”

Thou Shalt Not “Perform The Plate Turn.”

When Nacho Hill is finally consumed down to a sad plain of soggy chips, a little bit of precious gold is uncovered. Hard bits of baked-on cheese, stuck to the edges of the plate, reveal themselves. These commodities, in an otherwise barren landscape, are like a discovery of buried treasure, and a race to claim them goes off like a gunshot. However, the divided plate rule still applies. Some sneaky fellows may try and circumvent this by employing “The Plate Turn” until the leftover cheddar is on their side. This trick only works if your partners’ attention is on the television, or they’re in the bathroom. Otherwise, it’s a risk and a tactic best avoided.

Thou Shalt Not “Call a Showdown at Lone Chip.”

Imagine if you will, that Nacho Hill is destroyed and only one chip remains in the middle of the plate. It’s an unlikely event, and, at best, the chip is a moist, broken, pathetic-looking thing devoid of anything worth tasting. And yet, knowing mountain-dwellers after a few beers, that final, nasty chip is the most desirable thing on earth. In this scenario, a showdown ensues. However, the showdown, unfortunately, is nothing like the climax of a Spaghetti Western film, but instead devolves into a boring, “you take it,” “no you can have it” debate that ends when “Mr. Quickdraw” snatches the chip from under the verbal gunslingers. Instead of creating this embarrassment, etiquette dictates that it is best to just leave the last chip alone.

Follow the simple “Etiquette of Nacho Hill,” and your post-recreation, nacho-eating experience will be fulfilling, enjoyable, and everyone will get his or her fair share — except for your waitress who, if anything, will be left with the sad, leftover chip as the only tip you dirtbags will leave her.

Jared Hargrave writes about outdoor recreation (and nacho consumption) from his home in Salt Lake City. You can read his work in the Outdoor Utah Adventure Journal and at www.utahoutside.com.

Head Games

From: Powder Queen

To: Rocky Mountain Stead

Drought breaking. Snow on way. Answer to your question: We were married for 15 years. A long time ago, before I moved to Utah. He’s still in Colorado. We talk on holidays. Not friends exactly, more like big brother, kid sister, although that relationship seems to be reversing as we age. Do you get along with your ex?


From: Dr. Stead Hayward Ph.D.

To: Jane

Which one?

From: Mountain Mama

To: Ironman Stead

Skis tuned and in trunk of car. Is there anything else you’d like to know before the big rendezvous?

From: Dr. Stead Hayward, Ph.D.

To: Jane

Let’s trust that we will have each other’s best interests at heart.

I can’t find the keys to my Honda and Stead is waiting outside in the cold with his skis. He drove all the way from Montana to see me. His first trip to Utah, our first meeting since exchanging emails for months.

Stead lives in a tipi. His hands smell of sawed logs and aged smoke. His hair is longer than in the photo on his website. A hint of mountain-man ponytail at the nape of his neck, surfer-boy bronzed curls. A voice like Charles Bronson in his prime. It took the better part of a summer to satisfy Stead’s standards for the tipi. He consulted an artist, a redhead, he said, whom he had treated for depression after a near-fatal car accident. She accompanied him to Montana last summer — the same summer we met on the Internet. He had just sold his private practice in Oregon and his cabin in the redwoods and most of his furniture, except for the memory-foam mattress, so he could move to another, less-populated forest at the foot of a ski hill.

I call it a ski “hill” because it is dwarfed by the mountain he will be skiing with me. Alta has steeps, stashed within thick rock bands, and if you’re not paying attention, you might enter the wrong chute and sail off a cliff. I avoid the high-anxiety terrain in storms and carry two pairs of lenses for my goggles. Yellow for whiteouts, amber for cloud cover with powder potential. The micro-fiber cloth in the pocket of my ski pants is for wiping my lenses clean so I don’t go blind and hit something. My helmet would provide little protection in a head-on collision with a tree.

Michael Lucero, American, born 1953

Discontent with the cipher-like drawing of his contemporaries, the artist prefers figures, which he pieces together from a variety of traditions. This portrait platter, with its mask-like features, disconnected images, and bright colors, dissolves boundaries into a dizzying array of meanings.

— Artist’s bio, Nora Eccles Harrison Art Museum, Utah State University

The white hat looks like it suffers from a severe case of arrested development in comparison to the size of the head. The sun-burnt skin is pitted as if struck by meteorites. The ears and nose are misaligned. Black tears drip from one eye. I missed some of the details the first time I saw it, or

misunderstood. During my second viewing, I notice the brain. It is partially exposed, revealing the upper lobe of the left hemisphere, which has been tapped by a tree. I assume its roots are embedded in logic. If only it were that straightforward. The right hemisphere manufactures musical notes and splotches of dim memory. In my experience, the right hemisphere causes the most trouble. It is the source of fear and rage, sorrow and confusion and all the other unacknowledged emotions that alter perception. I name Lucero’s untitled work, “Head Games.”

Stead is looking forward to Alta as much as I am. It is renowned for the abundance and purity of its crystalline powder. If our timing is right, and the storms lined up in the Pacific coincide with an increasingly favorable jet stream, we’ll have to wear snorkels.

The waves arrive in perfectly timed intervals that iron the mountainside flat, wipe the slate clean. By early afternoon, Stead is dunking himself in repeated butt plants and separating himself from his skis. To retrieve them, he has to swim uphill through quad-deep slash-and-burn. We take a break at the restaurant mid-mountain. He isn’t the only tourist who has done himself in. Their turquoise, silver and chartreuse jackets intermingle with the imitation Army camo-fatigues of the season-passers also camped out on the deck, blurring the distinctions between novices and pros. The restaurant is the one place on the mountain where the two remain unsegregated. From here, several hundred feet below the cliffs, it doesn’t matter how good you are; everyone on the deck is a spectator. Skis are parked at the bottom of the steps in a jungle of rabbit ears (I conquered my fear of heights!), pancaked skis (I give up) and skis propped against the railing as if they haven’t decided quite where they belong. Rather disoriented myself, I dump mine at the foot of the indecisive stack.

Sitting on the deck, sucking the last drops out of our water bottles, we listen to the swooshing and whispering of skis on Mount Baldy, admiring the vertical contrails of snow in their wake. The contrails descend in puffs of smoke, eliminating every figure-eight and semi-figure-eight. Next powder shot, virgin, theirs, all theirs. Limber pines grip the edges of the cliffs, their outstretched arms nailed to the cross of the sky.

All morning long, I have been playing mountain guide to a tentative Jeremiah Johnson. Now my head is spinning in the clouds nosing the ridge to the west. The next wave is approaching. I don’t need no pills. I toss my unopened bottle of ibuprofen in my pack and nudge Stead with my ski boot. I can hear the Hallelujah Chorus in my head and I’m singing along off-key, out-of-sync with my ski buddy, whose rendezvous has been disrupted by reverie. He looks at me with alarm. I hardly know this man. We’ve spent one weekend together.

I zip up my pack and point at Mount Baldy. “Ready for another shot?” Stead has to go to the bathroom. On powder days, I never take a rest break. I piss in the trees with the men.

As efficient in a restroom as I am in the trees, I beat Stead to the ski rack and hunt in vain for my pair. My vision has clouded over, and each pile looks exactly like all the others. Panic rises to my throat, cresting in an unbreakable wave that crashes through my brain, jolting it with an electrical shock and a flash, as if a camera temporarily resided there. I hear a faint shout and whip around, jostling the skis propped behind me. I grab the most endangered pair before it topples. I hope it doesn’t belong to Stead.

“Jane, watch out! You’re going to knock someone’s skis over.”

The skis I dumped at the foot of the rack closest to the staircase are impeding the mass exodus from the restaurant. If I don’t get out of the way, I may be trampled to death.

“Your behavior is unacceptable, totally unacceptable,” Stead yells. My windblown face burns. Our reflections stare back at us from the lenses of startled sunglasses.

A month later he emails, “I think we are stylistically incompatible.”

I don’t remember what awakened me: the coal-powered locomotive of my sister’s snoring or the soft wail of the moonlight-serenading saxophone on the car radio. Their heads are silhouetted by the dashboard light. My mother’s head rests on my father’s shoulder. I am eight years old. This is my only memory of her leaning on him. I suspect there were other times. Despite the passage of time, or perhaps because of it, memory conforms to the childhood narrative rather than the actual events.

As they left the house for the fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration at their church, my father asked me to take a photo of them. Mother objected. She didn’t want to be late. Caught in the middle as usual, I took his side for once and posed them on the front steps. In the photo, his arm is draped around her shoulders and he is gazing down at her, his Jerry Lewis mad scientist glasses poised on the tip of his Teutonic nose. She looks up at him, shrinking the one-foot disadvantage in height with shriveled lips and bared teeth.

X

“You don’t know me. You just think you do,” Stead says. I’m on his turf now. He hasn’t sent the “stylistically incompatible” email yet. We’re lying next to each other in his tipi, and he has turned his back on me. Shut his eyes, rolled over and curled up in fetal position, the artificially deep breath of his feigned sleep muffled by the crackling of the woodstove he lit before lying down beside me. The flames spit and dance in the glass window of the stove. The ponderosa poles moan in protest as the wind whips the white canvas walls of the tipi, scattering snowflakes through the eyelets.

I’ve been probing, asking questions, too many questions, and maybe he feels like I am psychoanalyzing him. He is the therapist, not me.

What drove her to it? The second wife, the one he diagnosed as bulimic after noticing the contradiction. She was a runner. Skinny as a POW, with the appetite of a combat-fatigued platoon. I don’t ask about her. He says he still loves her. So I ask about the gypsy. “A gypsy in Oregon? How do you meet a gypsy in Oregon?” That marriage ended in six weeks, when he learned of his emptied bank account. His eldest son lives in Tahiti. They haven’t spoken in years. Stead volunteers that information. I keep the next question to myself. Why did the mother, the first wife, from the marriage that lasted the longest, fifteen years, as long as mine, demand full custody with no paternal visitation rights?

That was the question I cared about most but by then I had checked out, Alta all over again. Middle-aged mountain men are hard to come by in northern Utah, and my Honda is parked a half-mile away, at the bottom of a steep, snowed-in hill.

Stead’s diagnosis? Attention deficit disorder, and even though I disagree (my therapist of 20 years ago likened it to a flooded engine), I don’t try to set Stead straight. He has already made up his mind. Maybe his Dear Jane two weeks later is his way of avoiding a scene.

What was his diagnosis for Loretta, the artist redhead? I don’t ask that question either. He is her therapist, her healer. Her painted buffaloes stampede across the canvas, the Indians in hot pursuit with bows drawn.

“You’re my Pocahontas. I want you to be my Pocahontas,” he whispered in my ear after crawling in beside me and draping his fleece blanket over both of us. He stroked my hair with his fingers, which smelled of burnt matches. He gazed into my eyes, his fire-lit irises inflated into identical North Stars, and whispered, “I’m your Captain John.”

X

The heartbeats detonate, muted and remote, as if launched from a submarine. I hear a thin whistle, shriller but also distant. The heartbeats have surfaced. Or is this just another misperception?

“See your murmur?” the technician says. He points at a swirling galaxy of gray dots on the screen.

“The mitral valve? My father has that problem.”

“You inherited it then. Sixty percent of us are born with this murmur. It would be hard to hear with a stethoscope. You’d have to place it over the exact spot.” He rotates his chair so he can look me in the eye. “Nothing to worry about. Yours is very minor.”

“Miraculous.” I mean the pump, not the defect.

He nods in agreement. “The heart beats 100,000 times a day, 30 million times a year.”

“And the number over a lifetime?” I ask, incredulous.

“Three billion beats pumping one million and 56,000 liters of blood.”

The atria do their job quietly, in the background, pulling in the oxygen-saturated blood, detoxifying it, passing it on. At each exchange, the ventricles withdraw from the atria in a violent thrust. And just as rapidly, in the blink of an eye, they collapse and re-engage. Between the right and left ventricle, a wall of muscle separates the replenished blood from the unpurified blood. The muscle is the strongest muscle in the chest cavity. It must withstand all the forces of human nature.

Jane Koerner teaches journalism at Utah State University and is working on a book of essays set in the Colorado Rockies. This is her first story for the Gazette.

In Pursuit of Pure Speed

(Author’s note: This essay is composed of three sections taken from “The Straight Course,” a book I wrote in the late summer and fall of 1969 while recovering from an injury. The book is about the three years I was a speed skier in Portillo, Chile, and Cervinia, Italy, and has never been published. I made these into a single essay in the early 1970s.)


Portillo, 1963: The Record

The process of detachment — of viewing myself abstractly — had reached an astonishingly intricate, fragile state. I was in an incredible state of mind. Fear, desire, frustration, the scope of our attempt, and pure physical and mental exhaustion had combined to wind me up so tight, so fast, that the contest was not as much with time as whether the record or the human mechanism would fall first.

The next day, the twenty-ninth of September, was the last day Portillo would be open for the season, the last possible chance for the record. Accordingly, we decided to go up early in the morning and run while the track was still ice. We were sure ice would make the difference. With one day, perhaps only one run left in us, it was necessary to extend ourselves. Sleep the night of the twenty-eighth was restless and unfulfilling. Fatigue sleep of a job undone.

We rose early, ate, and were out on the hill while most of the hotel slept. It was cold and clear. The shaded track was rock hard. Springtime frozen corn; it would remain firm for several hours. We had prepared the track perfectly at the end of the previous day. For the first time, every condition was in our favor.

We took a practice run to test the timing from 20 yards above the measured area. We averaged more than 100 kilometers per hour, and I knew in the center of my spine our track was as ready as we. I would not allow the thought that it was more ready. I remembered what Reddish had told me many months before.

The sun began to climb the track. C.B. Vaughan and I went with it. Because of the steepness, 400 meters takes great amounts of time and energy, and I was very tired. We climbed slowly, planning to reach the top before the sun exposed the entire track. I felt C.B. had more energy than I, but that may have been hypersensitivity to my own state.

We talked and joked, but the next day, we could not remember any of it. When we got to the top, the sun was on the track. Portillo was awake. Far below — an impassable distance — people came out to watch. On the hotel porch, many had binoculars. Skiers came down the plateau and stood off to one side near the bottom of the track. Spectators of a play in which the actors had not learned their parts, an audience removed, but only on the surface of action. They feared and hoped as did we. Difficult to realize at that moment, but we needed and used their positive energy, for it is true that each is a part of the main.

In that critical state and time, reality was C.B., the gigantic track below, the feeling of vertigo, and the hard knowledge that the next few minutes were the culmination of all that was behind, the determinant of much of what lay ahead. Funk, Purcell, the timers, other racers and many friends were down there watching with varying degrees of interest and involvement; our friends; warm human beings with whom we had formed close and not-so-close relationships, laughed, danced, drank, gotten angry, forgave and were forgiven; our immediate companions in eating, sleeping, working, relaxing — life; but at the top of the Portillo speed track, those people might as well have been on another planet. All living, except my reality, was suspended. They could not really understand the high degree of control we had made from the chaos of our feelings, nor our predicament, nor the mind, which equates self-abstraction with being near God. They could only see us as tiny figures on a white wall of snow, but even the least thoughtful could not help but realize our commitment.

I was nearly sick with vertigo and fear. We did warm-up exercises (a delicate task on a slope of 80-percent steepness), and in those last minutes, I discovered a bit of the structure of action. The months of discipline, work, self-abstraction and the winding-up process, honed to a fine, sharp edge by the last run on the last day under the iciest, most difficult, most perfect conditions enabled me to see myself marvelously clear.

I nearly laughed and would have but for physical fear. A great calm and confidence (not in success, but in my self) filled me. “Duped again,” I would say at a later time. I was at the precipice of the fastest skiing ever done, the fastest a human body had moved without free-falling or mechanical aids, hanging on the side of a snow-blasted cliff, stinking with fear and the stubbornness not to be beaten by it, when I saw the absurdity of my position. Many things had put me up to where I was — whatever it was in my inherent personality that caused me to recognize skiing as my form of expression when a young boy had put me there, and a racing potential that eluded my best efforts. And a public school education with its accent on grade rather than content. And the power of the great yellow lie called journalism, which warps the world’s mind with its pretension and shallowness. And the Hollywood ethic upon which I was weaned, an ethic preaching that what matters is coming through in the end — a barely disguised belief in a better life after death, which makes light-headed excuses for lifetimes of misery. And people like Number 7, who wage war on the past with inverted minds. And all the sweet experiences that had gone to hell. And Beattie with his clumsy feet and blind assurance. And all the teams I and others would never make. And all the old racer friends like Marvin Moriarity and Gardner Smith and Jim Gaddis, who had been caught by the sharp, sly, double-edged axe of politics, wielded by the universal soldiers of my particular way of life; but there was also the strength that learning about those kinds of things gives. And there were the good examples of how a man should be; I had once categorized them according to three fine competitors — Werner, Miller and Buek. There was Funk down there taking pictures; broken leg and all his hopes. There was Marcelle, dying the hard way. And Barnes, Lieder and Tiger, already gone. And my parents, who never understood but took pleasure when it reached newsprint. There was the good life and people of La Parva. And there were all the friends right there at Portillo. Somewhere in the world was a guy I didn’t know named Plangger, and he had something I wanted. And with me was my comrade, C.B. Vaughan. All the people and times and places I had known, and all the shades of emotions I had ever felt, and all the work I had ever accomplished came with me to Portillo. Pushed, pulled, or just came along as disinterested observers. Hard to know, but assuredly there.

And every one of them copped out at the last minute, leaving me entirely, flat alone. Duped again. Abandoned by my own illusions, leaving just me to do whatever was necessary.

The essential education.

The territory my mind had chosen as its battling ground — my place to wage war on all the inequity, hypocrisy, stupidity and frustration I had ever known; and my time to justify myself for Marcelle, Ken, Tiger, Brett, Brunetto, Funk, Lewellen and to my particular friends in Reno, Ron the Mustache and Joan the Potter, and to a few others for their faith, friendship and a smile at the right time, was an icy precipitous piece of snow on the side of an Andean mountain, useful in nature only for the tiny bit of water it would hold a little longer. Absurd. Pathetic in its attempt. Yet, something would be saved. Something communicated all around. Duped again, but not entirely for nothing.

I could have laughed.

Inside, where action begins, I was peaceful, confident and supremely happy. Calm, because preparation gives self-control, and I had come prepared. Confident, because confidence is the only possible state of mind under such circumstances; to be where we were without believing in ourselves would be suicidal, and, while life is richer and more poignant when it is risked (an effect carrying over and preceding the act of risking), it is so through a deep desire to

go on living. And happy, supremely so, to discover in that structure mentioned earlier, that life was okay, and so was I; the important thing was commitment, and I found in myself the ability to give everything, to lay the whole show on the line. In that ability is hidden happiness, and all men have it, lurking somewhere amidst neuroses, education, experience and belief, centered in the heart. Success, while certainly not unimportant, is a problematical (mathematical?) afterthought.

While in that delicate, beautiful state, I adjusted my goggles one more time and signaled my readiness to the timers, feeling more-than-usual action in the center of things. Far below (like looking through the wrong end of a telescope), the signal pole waggled back and forth. I wished C.B. luck, said I’d see him at the bottom. I felt a sentimental reluctance to leave the big redhead up there alone.

“Good luck, Boy,” he said. C.B. called his friends “Boy.”

I planted my left pole below and to the back of my skis, the right above and to the front, executed a quick jump turn, pulled my poles out in midair, and landed in a full tuck, headin’ down.

Acceleration like a rocket launched in the wrong direction. The sound of endless cannons, moving closer. Irreversible commitment.

The soles of my feet said this was the one. My eyes saw the transition and peaceful flat, far, far away. My body, appalled at the danger in which it had been placed, acted automatically, reluctantly perhaps, but with an instinct and precision that preceded the mind that put it there. My naked mind had finally gotten hold of the big one that had always gotten away.

Jesus, it is fast.

After 100 meters, I estimate the speed at over 150 kph. That left 200 meters to the timing and 100 meters in the trap before the longed-for landing. Never have I wanted more to be finished with something. A few seconds — less than ten — a long way, more than time can record. More than anything, I wanted not to fall. Probably there is little difference in the end result of a fall at 150 kph and one at 170 kph, but the ice that morning accentuated everything that was happening. Acceleration. Sound. The beating against the legs. The texture feeling. The thin line of error.

In big speeds, the skis make peculiar movements. On ice, they make them faster, harder. Tremendous air pressure pushes the tips up; the skis want to become airborne. You push forward with everything you have. The air pushes up the tips; you push forward; there is a continuous change of pressure from tip to tail of the skis. Continuous and violent. On a good run, your body absorbs both change and violence. On a bad run, your body demonstrates them. The tips tend to make a curious, fishtail motion, which, combined with the tip-to-tail pressure change, cause the ski to pivot slightly underneath the foot. These things are happening to the skis you are riding. Happening as fast as a vibration and with as much power as the speed you are carrying.

While this is happening at the feet, the rest of the body is trying to hold a stable, compact, tuck position. Air pressure tries to push you over backward with a continuous, ever-mounting force. If you break the tuck, the pressure tries to rip your arm off. If you stood up at those speeds, your back would hit the snow before the thought could come of what a mistake you had just made.

About a hundred yards above the trap, my right arm, as it had the previous day, flew out to the side for some inexplicable reason of balance. It is tremendously unsettling. (The next time you are ripping along one of America’s scenic highways at 100 miles per hour, stick an arm out the window.) I jammed both hands forward and down — a high-speed version of what, in another age, was known as the “Sailer crouch,” the most-stable position in skiing —and rocketed through the trap and into the transition.

Each mile per hour after 95 feels like a difference of 10 miles per hour at half that speed. When I reached the transition, I felt more like a Ferrari than a human, and I knew before the timers that no one had skied that fast before. The run-out was easy — gradually extending the arms and raising the body for air drag, and a long left turn entered at about 60 mph, until I was able to stop. It took a couple hundred more feet than any previous run.

I stopped. I took off my helmet and goggles. I was alive. The most alive I had been in my twenty-four years. I felt the sun and saw the beauty of Portillo in the Andes as never before. My spirit was clean. My mind could rest content. I had discovered my own structure of action, and I had acted. For the time, the illusions had been stripped away, and I was completely alive. Also, successful.

I walked back around the corner and halfway up the flat. Up on the hill,

Funk was jumping up and down with his cast like a club-foot chimpanzee.

“One-seven-one,” he yelled. “Wahoooo,” hopping about like mad, arms waving.

I stood in the flat waiting for C.B. The calm joy I was experiencing was tempered by anxiety for the big redhead. I was safe in a giant, flat expanse of snow; I was alive; I was happy; I was tuned to a very high plane; but it wasn’t over until C.B. was safely down, so I waited a little longer.

Despite fatigue, the after-effects of hyper-adrenalation, anxiety and realization of the world record with all its attendant hoopla, those few minutes were the most peaceful, satisfying moments I had ever known. I knew they would be few, and I knew they were enough.

In ten minutes, the diplomatic “Bobby” Muller and Chalo Dominquez, the timers, had reset the watches. The pole waved for “Ceb.” He came in his yellow-black racing tights like a tiger falling off a white cliff. The sound — skis rattling against ice, wind rippling skin-tight clothes, and the impact of a body moving through air at 100 mph — carried clear to the flat; a unique sound impossible to forget, and not a reassuring one. C.B. rode a tight but high tuck. Twice his arms broke position, flashing out to his sides and immediately returned. Then, quite literally, he thundered into the transition and past me on the flat and around the corner to a stop.

It was all over.

I stood within my peace wondering about C.B.’s time and looking to see if it was in me to go up again that day, in case his time was faster than mine. Almost two years later, I was to remember that moment; I remembered it because it took that long to understand what that moment, that question, that impetus in myself was. As luck would have, it was a catechism I was not to face that day.

C.B. was still around the corner, experiencing, discovering and questioning on his own when Tito Beladone, the Grand Ambassador of Chilean skiing and friend of several years, skied down the outrun to me. “You and C.B. have the same time,” he said. The moment was inordinately formal to Tito’s vision of skiing, but he gave me a hug, a pat on the back, a kiss on the check, Chilean fashion, and his congratulations. He was elated and proud; I felt humble to have a part in giving him that moment.

I thanked Tito and skied down to C.B. I told him what had happened and we had a few minutes together. During those minutes, we knew what we had accomplished, and it was a fine time.

Then the backwash of success arrived. The friends, the ones with faith, the interested, the incredulous, and even the cynical and weak doubters, came to say what we already knew. And it was wonderful to hear.

Cervinia, 1964: The Wreck

The Cervinia speed run is both objectively and subjectively different from Portillo’s. The Chilean track measures 400 meters to the transition and up to 80-percent steepness. Italy’s is a kilometer long and 62 percent at the steepest point. It starts nearly flat and falls off to about 20 percent for 400 meters. On a good run, the competitor is traveling about 60-70 mph at the end of this relative flat, then the contour changes abruptly and drastically and the rest of the track is a consistent 60 percent. This contour change coincides with a crevasse that is boarded over and covered with snow to allow a crossing. It is impossible to resist being thrown in the air where the track changes. Depending on the individual run, conditions of the track, and, of course, the competitor, seekers of speed fly anywhere from 20 to 120 feet. How the racer masters that obstacle will have an appreciable effect on his time. As in downhill racing, it is faster to be in the air 20 feet than 100 feet; but the most important factor is one’s ability to hold the extremely low, tight, body position before the bump, in flight and after landing. Opening the arms slightly for balance will cost you the race. A serious alienation from the thread of balance at this point results in one of those struggling runs that bring awareness of the depth of the will to survive, a realization that casts a glow of understanding on the terror and struggle of rising from the swamp to open air. After landing, the big speeds commence. Up to then, speed is acquired gradually; the racer has time to get into a comfortable, compact position, time to

get accustomed to speed, time to get acquainted with the muscles he will need, time to think. In elapsed time, measured in seconds, the racer is on the Cervinia track three to four times longer than in Portillo; they are tracks of different temperaments arriving at the same conclusion. Commitment. Concentration. Freedom. Or the struggle of terror.

There is another crucial difference between Cervinia and Portillo: the transition, in terms of safety the most important part of a speed run. In the transition, speed begins to diminish. The transition is like the first touchdown of a jet, except this jet lands at full speed. It is where the potency of speed, the consequence of commitment, the gyroscope of balance show their hands. It is where gravity, always tiptoeing in your shadow, adds its weight to your passing. As if to see that your legs are as strong as you have committed them to be.

The transition in Portillo goes from a 52-percent slope to a 15-percent slope. You must accept and adapt to a 37-percent change in grade. Gravity does not hit you very hard; it tiptoes slightly behind.

In Cervinia, the transition holds you the way a jet taking off forces you into your seat; except this jet reaches top speed much faster. The transition is from a 60-percent slope to a 15-yard flat to a 12-percent slope, but the 12 percent is in the other direction. Uphill. You are confronted with a 72-percent change at over 100 mph. It is a transition that would like to suck you down and break you into a million pieces and spit them out in China. Gravity romps upon your head.

There is a difference between Cervinia and Portillo that manifests itself more in psychology than objective reality. After the racer in Cervinia has gone 200 meters, he disappears from the vision of the competitors on top. More than thirty seconds pass before an impersonal loudspeaker on a post at the start announces the racer’s time and “La Piste e Libre,” the track is free. Sometimes the track is not free. This can mean several things, including a fallen racer. But you do not know because you cannot see; and the starters, in radio contact with the bottom, are arbitrary about what they tell you. Aside from his announced time, you do not know how it went for the previous racer. This can weigh heavy upon the mind.

July 15, 1964. A day I must always remember. A day that expanded the horizons of my experience, showing me something of myself that only such a day could reveal.

Good weather. The best track we had seen. C.B. had a good run the day before and was hungry for more. I, too, had banished my discouragement and felt confident. I remember, distinctly, abundant happiness; to be in Cervinia doing this was, as I told the Peace Corps girl, the best thing I could do with myself. Nothing was so important to my progress as a man than getting my body down a mountain on a pair of skis, just as fast as I could go. I don’t know why, but I know it was so.

But that superb bitch, Fate, had a fickle lesson I hadn’t learned. We were all at the top. The first run began. The timing was not functioning perfectly, and the times of several racers had been missed. C.B. was growling about the timers not missing him. Alberti and I posed for photographs. DiMarco had an early starting number; mine was several numbers later; he went, but I was not watching. Bruno and I were talking when the starters and the speaker on a post simultaneously silenced us and changed the mood of the day.

DiMarco had gone 173.493 kph. The record was his, once again.

I felt empty; I did not want to talk or look anyone in the eye. It was a private moment. I think it was a private moment for every competitor who was consciously and seriously ready to win. The others, the Italians, cheered and shouted for their countryman’s success; it was not a good position for the Americans.

I went to C.B. We encouraged each other and readied ourselves to get the record back. He had served his apprenticeship, and, when he went a few minutes later, he was prepared. He went 168.145, a run beaten only by DiMarco, Plangger, and he and I in all of skiing history, but far short of what was necessary.

Then came my turn. I moved out to the track, acutely aware of that interpersonal pressure I have always hated. What had once been an attempt on my

part was now expected of me. That was my feeling, as if a heavier load than I ever intended to carry was, suddenly, mine. But I knew the work well, and I had faith in my will.

“La piste e libre.”

I began. In relative terms, it does not seem much to build up to 20-30-40 and 50 mph when, in a few seconds, you will be hurtling along at more than 100 mph. But you must pay close attention at those relatively slow speeds; your mind is absorbed in technical details, and there can be no abstract thoughts like records or the game. Your attention must be total.

Perhaps, on that run, my attention was strained.

I rolled my body into the most aerodynamic cone I knew how to make, working the terrain changes with a flat ski to get every wave of speed before the jumps and the steep hill, velocity at the jumps helping determine the eventual speed through the timing trap. I focused down, doing my best.

I flew off the jump but held position and landed with no problem. The big speeds rolled in upon me and I aimed along the right side, the fastest line.

About a hundred yards above the trap, the inexpressible happened. That thing you must never dwell upon, that point in space and time to which Perillat referred — “You must not think too much” — had coincided with my run. The thread of balance had broken. It was apparent and inescapable that I was going to fall. I was convinced. There was no fear, only a clinical, sure knowledge. All the time I was trying to avoid the inevitable fall, and all the while I was falling, there was no fear. Only a (detached?) cool observation of the fastest flow of events I had ever witnessed. There is an infinitely fragile line of balance at 100 mph because you are more like a projectile than a skier, and once that line is broken, it does not mend easily. About 200 yards remained to the transition; it takes slightly over four seconds to travel that far that fast. It seemed like five minutes, and I tried every conceivable adaptation to regain balance — and the line is so thin that spectators didn’t know I was in trouble until I actually fell. Even C.B., watching closely, didn’t know, but only a forgiving God could have saved me and the forgiving gods were busy elsewhere that day. I knew it would expose me defenselessly once I fell, but I was not scared. I tried a hundred positions and a thousand thoughts, but I would not be forgiven inattention. Experience breeds a slight contempt for the forces in speed. When I reached the transition, it sucked me down just like I knew it would, but I thought I’d try for Iraq in two or three pieces rather than China in a million. As I went down, I tried to get on my back and bottom. Perhaps I could ride it out in a long skid. I’d seen ski jumpers do that. Now I know that strange things happen to your body when it meets the snow at 100 mph, no matter what the position. In the twinkling of hitting the snow, I regained a proper respect for speed. If you are inattentive, as well as somewhat stupid, you may breed a contempt for big speeds, forgetting respect through the grace of being atop your skis each run. No one on his back at 100 mph will ever after have contempt for speed. Something caught — a hand, perhaps — and then came one of those falls skiers have bad dreams about. Eighty yards up that hill, rising out of the transition, in every conceivable body position, including upside down and backward and five feet off the snow. A memorable fall. Visually a blur of snow and sky and an occasional form moving faster than focus. Too fast for the eye, but not for the mind. The films of the fall pass much more quickly than the memory impression left with my mind, for the mind registers feelings, the eye only illusion. The left ski went away as the binding meant it to, and was last seen on the way to Zermatt. The right ski loyally stayed, and, halfway through the fall, the leg broke. The fall and I finished our relationship and it left me in a pile. Alone. I hurt everywhere and I began to review my scant knowledge of physiology. Not until then did I fear (feel fear) that I may have destroyed my body.

I once broke a leg that took two years to put back in shape. I flashed on those years. Bad years. I knew my good leg was broken, and my body was a pulsing pain. I undid the binding, which meant I could move, and fear gave way to the objective mind. My fall deposited me apart from people, and it took a little time for them to arrive. My left ski, poles, gloves, goggles and glasses were no longer with me, and the sleeves of the ultra-tight Japanese speed suit were somehow shoved up and over my elbows in a wad. C.B. was the first person to reach me. I was happy for that and grateful that he came so fast. He supervised the first-aid men and I was touched by his concern.

Italians are really prepared for accidents; I was fascinated by the first air splint I had seen, used on my own leg. People were swarming around, and by then it was decided that, in the relative world of injuries, I was all right. There were the smiles and relief of the silence of disaster giving way to the movement of life.

There was no fear, only a clinical, sure knowledge all the time I was trying to avoid the inevitable fall, and all the time I was falling there was no fear. Only a (detached?) cool observation of the fastest flow of events I had ever witnessed.

A few years later, I came to realize what it is to have your mind and the rest of your existence so far out of harmony. It is one thing to be intelligent, objective, aware, hip to your surroundings. It is something else entirely to observe your own impending destruction with the clinical eye of a research technologist in his laboratory, with no more feeling than the scalpel of a Dachau bone surgeon.

The mind was designed to keep body and soul (and mind) together. It was not intended to be so powerful as to block out the natural emotion of fear. If the mind can obliterate fear when there is every reason to feel fear, then what can the mind not obliterate? Love? Compassion? The sight of blood? If you are not afraid when you should be afraid, then you stand accused of stupidity. Your mind has sold you down a stream flowing nowhere.

In time, that fall gave to me a fear — not fear of broken bones or the impact after speed stops or even death, for you accept those possibilities in the act of commitment. No, not that, but fear of a mind so delighted with its own capabilities and power that it has neglected the basics of doing what it is supposed to do — keeping body and soul and mind together.

My mind failed in allowing no fear to me as I was falling up a hill at 100 mph, but valuable lessons are locked up within your failures. I learned that my natural feelings are friends, not enemies to be crushed and avoided and suppressed by a mind gone mad with power. I learned that from my fall, but I didn’t learn immediately.

1965: Second Year at Cervinia: The Death

(From my journal) The morning of July twenty-sixth the track was ice down to the blue disc (the one Gasperl hit), about 100 meters above the trap. Solid, wind-blown ice. Below that, the track was covered with soft, new snow, about 8 inches deep, blown there by the laws of terrain and wind. Those in charge prepared it in the same, masterly fashion. We were two days without skiing and this day was added to the schedule; it was an extension of our time. We went up to the Plateau Rosa early. The weather was beautiful, a slight bit cold.

At the top we joked, wished each other luck, did warm-up exercises, adjusted equipment — just like always. I was completely absorbed in what had to be done. The two days off skis were noticeable.

Mussner went first. His time came back up as 172.084. I was really excited when I heard that. The first time over 170 this year! The record was in sight! I ran fifth or sixth and held my position. It was a wonderful, free run; but I felt the change going off the ice onto soft snow. My time was 170.373, but I, and everyone else on the outrun, thought they announced 173. I hurried back up thinking I had the best run of the round, and I was full of getting the record back. I don’t know what it is about that bloody record.

When I got to the top Ninni told me I was fourth behind Mussner, Siorpaes, and Leitner. That seemed logical because I had been surprised to hear my time as 173. It hadn’t felt so fast. The slight disappointment filled me even more with desire for the record. I kept saying to myself — “I’m gonna get that bastard back.” I talked a little with Mussner and congratulated him for his fine first run. I spoke to Siorpaes. I observed the rituals. I remember grinning because I was sure Mussner and Siorpaes were as full of the record as I.

Then there came a time when no one wanted to go. There was no particular reason. One hadn’t finished waxing. Another was cold. Still another was tuning his mind. I was

Skiing

still tired from climbing up too fast. Mussner appeared ready, but he didn’t want to go. I don’t know why — nerves probably. (I’m sure now that he had a premonition.) I jumped into the breach and said I was ready. Actually I was still tired, but I was so excited and anxious about finally breaking into the 170s that it didn’t matter. I went anyway, and I held my position over both jumps. I put my head down just before the soft part of the track and immediately pulled it back up. The track was a monstrous mess. It hadn’t even been side slipped between rounds. I lost my position. It was like driving a car across a furrowed field at 100 mph.

I didn’t know how fast I was, but I knew it wasn’t very good. Now I know that my time was 168.539 kph. I was mad about the track and I skied to a stop in front of Egon. I said, “The track is really bad, Egon, why don’t they work on it?” He knew what I meant and felt just about like I did, and he said something like, “I don’t know, you can’t talk to these fucking Italians.Then I said, quote, “Well, someone’s going to get hurt up there.” Unquote.

Egon took my skis and began waxing them. A few were still getting into the 170s, and I was full of — with luck — the record.

Then Mussner came.

On Sunday night, the twenty fifth, Mussner saw a photo of Luigi taken on the first day. In this photograph Luigi’s head is completely down and all you can see is the top of his helmet. It is the most fantastic Lanciato photo I’ve seen. Walter studied the photograph for a few minutes. “Tomorrow I will do that,” he told Luigi. Luigi grinned, as any champion will whose disciples are trying to imitate him. It is the grin of pride and of being flattered, but it is also a grin of awareness of the difficulties in the refinements of any champion’s technique, the refinements which all disciples try for and hardly any ever achieve. In this case, the refinement of putting one’s head between one’s knees and skiing blind at more than 105 mph.

Mussner came and his head was down. I have the impression that when I was on top and Walter didn’t want to go he was forcing himself to be able to put his head down. (Perhaps also fighting a premonition.) This is what I think, but there is no way to know. Later, Franca told me that Mussner nearly didn’t go again; I don’t know why, nor does anybody. Then he said something like, “Well, there’s still the record.” And he left the top.

He came and I saw him from above the blue disc, just before where the track was bad. His head was already down, his position was good, and he held it like that all the way. Many things went into the sequence of what happened then, and no one will ever know exactly what they were, but this is what I think:

At the top of the timing area he began to veer right. I saw immediately that he was on his way off the track. A cold electric shock passed through me like a tidal wave of fear. My heart went numb and my blood disappeared. Walter went off the track just at the end of the timing, just missing the electric eye pillar. He went through a little post and that ridiculous net they had fanned out on each side. When he hit that post the world changed.

At that speed many things could cause a slight deviation of direction. It is impossible to have more than an opinion as to why he went off the course. It was obvious from watching how he held this position and from what he said afterward that he was unaware he was off course until he had already fallen. I believe two things killed Walter Mussner, not one more than the other. I think the bad track caused him to veer to one side against the natural slope of the track, and I think Walter’s head being down made him unaware of what was happening, and, therefore, unable to correct it. I think if the track had been properly groomed he wouldn’t have veered off course, and if he had kept his head up he would have known what was happening and he would have been able to correct it. But — and Walter Mussner is dead.

What happened when Walter hit that post and fell is something I don’t think I will forget as long as I live; and it will be more than a few days before the image leaves my mind, allowing me easy sleep at night and to write and read and be naturally of this life the rest of the time. He clocked a time of 170.132 kph just as he fell; but to the naked eye, it appears that the racers in the last 30 meters of the 100-meter trap accelerate to a much greater speed. I would not be surprised if the racer who clocks 170 for 100 meters is traveling at 190 for the last 10 or 20 meters. Right there, where there is that little boost of acceleration that anyone can observe, Walter fell. With incredible force and speed he went end over end, feet and then head hitting the snow, and each turn wrenching his body unbelievably. Afterwards, eleven holes were counted in the snow, feet, head, feet, head, feet, head, and, at the end, everything. It was difficult to believe it was a human body undergoing such gyrations, such speed, such force. The only thing I have ever seen like it were movies of Bill Vukovich’s car at Indianapolis when he was killed in 1955. It was similar to that.

For a few seconds that seemed like minutes after he stopped in a motionless pile in the transition, everyone was frozen still with astonishment and fear. There was — I am sure in everyone because it was there in me — the hope of a miracle that Walter Mussner would get up and that no one would have to go pick him up. At the same

time, I don’t think there was a doubt in anyone’s mind that he wasn’t going to move by himself. I have seen some bad falls, and I have even had a few myself; but this wasn’t like a skiing fall anyone had ever seen before. No one has ever fallen like that.

Then Rico was screaming over the loudspeaker. That snapped people out of their trance. Dozens of people were suddenly all around Walter, about 30 yards from where I stood. I started to go, but instinct told me not to; and I am glad I didn’t. Ivo (Mahlknecht) and Felice (DeNicolo) were there, and they were closer comrades than I; so he wasn’t alone when he shouldn’t be alone.

It took about half an hour to get him off the hill. During that time not one person even side-slipped the track, though competition was obviously to continue as soon as possible. I was mad and sick with the knowledgeable suspicion that if Walter wasn’t dead he was an agonizing pile of broken bones. Egon was furious, the way the German temperament gets furious when unhappy.

I stared at the group around Walter. Egon finished waxing my skis. I was, however, finished psychologically and spiritually, and I knew it. I told Egon I would run again if the track began to be fast enough for a record. I would go up and wait and listen to the times. If they got close I would go; if not, not. Egon said it was finished, but I went up and waited anyway; but I never came down on the track.

Just before I went up to wait, Hans Berger broke away from the group around Walter and came my way. Hans, who lives in Kufstein, is small, with tiny, delicate features and an expressive face. He usually looks about eighteen years old, though he is thirty. When he came up to me, he looked a hundred years old and there were tears in his eyes.

Ist es schlecht?” I asked.

“Ja,” he said in a strange way.

Sehr schlecht?“

“Sehr schlecht,” he answered in a way that made me know it was.

I went up to the top and waited with that in the pit of my stomach. Probably, it was best the track never got fast enough to make me think a record was possible.

They took Walter to Aosta and he lived a little more than five hours. Unfortunately, he was conscious most of that time. He fractured his skull, broke two vertebrae in his neck, pulverized his entire pelvic region, broke one femur and tore loose the femoral artery, and he tore himself open from the anus to the navel. He had acute hemorrhages of the brain, stomach, and leg. Toward the end he went blind. If he had lived he would have lost one leg, he wouldn’t have been a man any longer, and he probably would have been paralyzed. Kiki went with him to Aosta and held his hand until he died. She is only twenty and has never seen a dead person before, and she was still in shock and sometimes hysterics the next night when she and her mother told me about it.

The Italian and Swiss papers are full of stupid things about it. The people of Cervinia all say that the track was “perfetto,” and they put the whole blame on a mistake of Walter’s. They’ve gone on at some length why it’s not the fault of the Lanciato committee, the organization, or anyone’s. That is not quite true. Some say there is nothing dangerous about the Lanciato. That, too, is not quite true. Others call the Lanciato stupidly insane. Nor is that true. If I uttered to the press what I think about the track, they would interpret it as blaming those responsible for track maintenance for Walter’s death. That, also, is not the truth; and it would do infinitely more harm than good. And it would not help Walter. There is no prevention (except abstention, which is ridiculous) for such accidents, and there is no blame. It is part of skiing that fast.

I was the only one competing that day who saw Walter fall, and I returned to the top with a different perspective on our endeavors. The racers and officials asked about the delay. Why was the track closed so long? I said Walter had a bad fall that tore up the track a bit; the delay was necessary for repairs. I had neither desire nor right to elaborate. I sat at the top for a long time. Some racers got in six runs, nearly everyone got four or five. Only Mussner and I ran just twice. Visions of his fall tumbled through my brain. I could not make them leave. (They entered my dreams and woke me in the night for the next two years.) It was the same clear day, but a grainy, colorless filter had descended on the world.

Leitner, leading with 172.744, decided not to run again unless his time was beaten. It never was. My time dropped from fourth best to eighth. Luigi, suffering badly from a strep throat and cold, took five runs before breaking into the first ten. My place on the result sheets, the race itself, winning or losing, no longer mattered. What importance was the race alongside life itself? What game do we play in which the loser forfeits life? What type of men play this game? For it was obvious from the beginning that one of us would die because of some human failing, neglecting for a billionth of eternity the rules of the game. Is human failure cause to die? If it is, are we not playing with the rules and stakes of Neanderthal man? I never meant to play a game in which one of the players would inevitably, through mathematical laws as sure as those governing Russian roulette, smash his body beyond repair; yet I played and watched it happen and I felt deep in my innards that I had always known it was going to happen. I remembered waiting for C.B. at the bottom of Portillo’s track, wondering about the game’s next move if he beat my time. The questions would not disappear. I had no answers.

My friend Franca Simondetti gave Leitner and me some Sangria. We drank it over small talk and silence. Strange to drink the sweet Sangria, to feel its wonderful vapors fill your body and your brain, exploding your taste buds as you sit in the sun — sweet Sangria — all the while trapped with death in a vision of the boyish face of Walter Mussner and a fall unlike any other. Strange to sit like that with Ludwig Leitner, the big German who exudes toughness and confidence and plays the game hard, drinking and healthy. Life’s mysteries unfold through everyday functions.

Tiring of Sangria, small talk, and waiting for a run I neither wanted nor would ever make, I skied down alongside the track. Racers were still coming, about one a minute. As a competitor, I was allowed to stand close to the track, and I watched the big speeds from about 30 feet away. For the first time in three years of playing with eternity, I viewed it with a new realization of flesh-and-blood men, mere mortals, at play with the forces of the universe; it was wondrous that we dared, but never again would I view another man as a rival whose mistakes or refinements I must note and use to my advantage. I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew these men. We had joked, laughed, eaten, drunk and skied together. We had entered into freedom and struggled with terror, and together we had ignored our common reality. Walter Mussner reminded us of our negligence. I watched my friends like children in a play yard; proud, arrogant, innocent. We had accomplished great things, but, when all was done and spoken, we were just men; probably we could be better men, for we had not put away childish things.

When I got down to Cervinia, the word was around that Mussner was badly hurt. Only those who saw him fall had any idea what that meant. Most of the racers didn’t think that Walter would not be back with them. I returned to my hotel, changed clothes and packed my ski bag for Egon to take to Kufstein. Walter was in Aosta and I had heard he was alive when he reached the hospital; that is usually a good sign for the chances of survival. I put my thoughts with Walter Mussner and packed my bag.

After, I was carrying the heavy bag of skis up the street to Egon’s hotel when something happened I cannot define but only describe. It came in what I have come to know as a “flash.” Suddenly I knew Walter Mussner was dead. It was sure; it was something I knew. Walter was dead, and I no longer felt the hard sadness that had been with me since the fall. What I felt was something like intense peace and joy and relief, all together. I do not know if that feeling arose because Waller was out of his suffering, or because what had happened had happened to him and not to me, or if there was another reason. I set down my big, red Kneissl ski bag and rested. I did not question the fact of his death nor the quality or means of my knowledge, but I wasn’t supposed to feel what I felt. For I felt better and more alive than I had since Walter began veering right. An hour later, Kalevi told me Walter Mussner was dead.

Diary, July 4, 1965

From now on every man who tries seriously and truly for a record carries death in his hind pocket. I think that this year everyone will make it, but after this it will get too fast, too tough, and eventually someone will buy the farm no one ever wants but everyone gets.

Author’s note: At this writing (April 2010), the fastest skiers in history are an Italian man and a Swedish woman who set their records in Les Arcs in 2006. Simone Origone has gone 251.410 kph, and Sanna Tidstrand has traveled 242.590 kph.

Senior correspondent Dick Dorworth’s last story for MG was “The Loon of Mystic Heights Pond,” which appeared in #172. “In Pursuit of Speed” will appear Dorworth’s next book, “The Perfect Turn,” the title essay of which was previously published in the MG.

Trout Streak Revival

Sometime just before the pilot turned our plane around over Wyoming and headed back to DIA and rang the death knell on any chance of my flight to Portland getting in within five hours of its advertised arrival time, Travis, the guy sitting next to me mentioned that he was in a band. Nice guy, but everyone’s in a band, right? Whatever. I managed to scrawl the name of the band, Trout Steak Revival, down in a notebook, and managed to hold onto the notebook until I got home, and I looked them up. Fayhee has always pressured me to put some music in this column, and I’ve never been confident enough in anything to recommend it to readers of a mountain magazine. What’s mountain music, anyway? Well, this is, and it is great. I downloaded the seven songs the band had on its web site, and rolled them through my iPod for three straight days. Trout Steak Revival was founded on a backpacking trip to Mystic Island Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness. It rained the entire trip, and the guys had one mandolin they passed from tent to tent, playing songs the whole time. They subsisted on trout caught by the band’s eventual guitar player, Kirk, and thusly, a Trout Steak Revival was born. Bluegrass, hippiegrass, newgrass, whatever. TSR calls the songs it plays “Bluegrass-inspired mountain music.” I call it music that makes me want to drive around Colorado with the windows down. The band’s first album, self-titled, comes out this month.

www.troutsteak.com

Facing The Storm

I’ve liked the work of the folks at High Plains Films ever since I was a grad student at the University of Montana and saw “This Is Nowhere,” their documentary about the RVers who travel around the country, only “camping” in Wal-Mart parking lots. Their documentaries have covered a range of topics, from the asbestos-caused health problems in Libby, Montana, and profiled MG pal and Canyon Country Zephyr publisher Jim Stiles. Their newest documentary, “Facing The Storm,” covers another Western issue: the wild bison. Or not so wild anymore, depending who you ask. “Facing the Storm,” co-produced with The Independent Television Service and Montana Public Television, is historical, political, environmental and damned interesting. There’s footage of bison being herded back into Yellowstone Park (so Montana cattle ranchers can tout their state as “brucellosis-free”) with snowmobiles, helicopters and police cars; footage of bison being shot at close range; footage of bison being killed in slaughterhouses; interviews with cattle ranchers, native Americans who are building the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, bison ranch owners, wildlife biologists, historians and animal rights activists like John Lilburn, the man who was convicted of “hunter harassment” when he stood between a hunter and a bison in 1990. We’ve had a long relationship with this Western icon, from hunting it to near extinction in the 19th century, brought it back, but artificially try to keep it in the perfect square that is Yellowstone National Park, and now, as one of the interviewees in the film says, “The great Wild West of the migrating bison herds, I think is a thing of the past. There’s just no place for that to happen anymore.”

www.highplainsfilms.org

Soundtracker

One of my favorite stories from the nonprofit I work at is about the city kid on his first trip into the wilderness, who kept telling one of our adult volunteers to “listen” for a noise he was hearing. After a few minutes, the adult figured out that the teenager had never heard the sound of silence before that experience. Gordon Hempton has taken it upon himself, over the past three decades, to get to those “quiet” places in nature and capture those sounds. “Soundtracker” is a profile of his quest, taking 20 trips a year in his VW van, capturing “sound portraits” with his business partner, Fritz, who is a human head-shaped microphone that Hempton can place on top of a boom or a tripod as he walks the earth looking for unique sounds that may be disappearing from our landscape, like a breeze blowing through a field of tall grass. In one scene, Hempton parks his van in an empty field, walks out of the van to listen and see if he can find a good sound to record, and is visibly irritated by the low hum coming from a power transformer. He says that sound, coming from computer fans, light sockets and everywhere else, is “the American mantra.” He might have a point.

www.soundtrackerthemovie.com

Letters

Praising Mystery & Beer

Juan: Can you please pass along congrats to Jen Jackson for her piece in MG #169? (“In Praise of Mystery and Beer.”)

Just read it. Really good.

Best,

Cam Burns,
Basalt, CO

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Wildness and Coming Home

John: I took a trip across the country recently. I drove from my state of primordial origin (Colorado) to the states of my finding-myself-early-to-mid-twenties-reckless-years (Massachusetts and New York) and back. I got home yesterday. It was a long drive. I’m 25 at the moment and re-discovering how wildly important and ontologically vital this mountain-strewn state has been to the youngish person I always was here, to the now adult-ish, silliness-seeking, view-finding, often-lost “grown-up” I’ve become.

I made a choice to come back here because I missed the wilderness mostly. I missed knowing myself the way the snow and the breeze and the Arkansas River know me. The messy city crunch of Boston and New York City were important steps for me/myself/my becoming myself/etc, but when I went out to visit my college friends (now making names for themselves either in the film industry or the industry of Alcoholics Anonymous — or both), I found that I was, to put it bluntly, over it. I’d always felt a little off-kilter out there. Living without the mountains felt like what living without the ocean must feel like to my coastal-born buds: off-putting and vaguely, persistently, unreal.

It was like I’d been turning in little circles for five years, never quite sure which way west was. At any rate, I’m glad to be back, both from my ill-advised cross-country visit and my longer-term collegial stay.

All of this brings me to Molly Murfee and the fact that her three-column mini-epic wryly and joyously summed up exactly why I found myself called to this unbelievable state again and exactly why it is I feel so damned BLESSED and EXCITED to keep waking up as a human being 10 days out of 10 (“The Wild Within, MG #169). “We are wild as we thrash around in bed. Wild as we fight and love. Wild as we eat and drink … It is a question of whether the wild lives inherently in us, or is fostered by living within its parameters.”

Molly, you’re a wild one. Keep thrashing. I promise to do the same.

Stephanie Berry

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Not all gun-toters are crazy

To Whom It May Concern: I’m writing in regards to Laura Pritchett’s article “Death: Germ vs. Bear” (MG #169.). Though overall it was a good article, I take issue with the author painting people who carry guns as “off.” As someone who has guided and led trips in areas with large grizzly bear populations, I can tell you that I’d take a .45 over a can of bear spray any day of the week. Though statistically speaking, your chances of getting attacked by a bear are small, painting people as “crazy” because they are carrying guns for peace of mind not only stereotypes people, it gives all gun owners a bad name. In my case, I’ve known plenty of backcountry users that carry a firearm and 99.999% were cordial and just wanted to be left alone. Now maybe I wasn’t there. Maybe the people Pritchett wrote about actually were crazies just released from a big white building with padded walls. The fact they are carrying guns doesn’t make them crazy, just like the fact that a magazine based out of Boulder, CO doesn’t necessarily make it a liberal propaganda machine bent on taking away guns from law-abiding citizens and creating a socialist state … anyhow.

Another issue I have with the article is her contention that she’d rather die by bear then MRSA. If Laura wants to know how “fun” it is to be eaten by a bear, all she needs to do is go to her local DVD rental shop and rent “Grizzly Man.” That movie will give her first hand insight into how much fun playing with bears can be.

Jeremy Park

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20 Cool Things I Have Done

Hi, John: I saw some of the other reader’s lists (inspired by your Smoke Signals, “Listing Who We Are,” MG # 166) and got inspired to send in mine.

1. Climbed Mt. Copeland with one of my sons and Hagues Peak with the other one.

2. Biked 300 miles in 24 hours.

3. Carried water by hand to my borrowed Steamboat Springs cabin for three weeks after the truck with the water tank got stuck.

4. Climbed the Snazz with my wife.

5. Worked, ate, slept and drank at the Red Onion.

6. Climbed in the Calanque near Marseilles as a student in the late John Harlin’s climbing school.

7. Guided my blind friend in a 10-mile running race.

8. Flew around the Grand Teton in hopes of seeing Bill Briggs make the first ski descent. (Didn’t happen that day.)

9. Led the 3rd Flatiron so my brother could carry a cardboard submarine to the summit.

10. Saw Aspen’s first hot dog ski contest and wet T-shirt contest on the same day.

11. Got lost running in Venice.

12. I might be the worst skier to get down Corbett’s Couloir in one piece.

13. Rescued a lost hiker after he had bivouacked 200 feet below the summit of Mt. Owen.

14. Air dried at zero degrees after a hot sauna

15. Lost three teeth when a squirrel tried to run through my bike’s front wheel.

16. Snuck into Sky Top and climbed a route I’d pumped out on 30 years previously. We got lost on the descent despite being in the company of two local climbing guides.

17. Had pizza and beer brought to me on a descent in the dark.

18. Ran in the Madison-to-Chicago relay.

19. Celebrated the New Year in the Glenwood Springs pool.

20. Played sheep’s head with my wife and kids on the summit of Mt. Lady Washington.

Dave Erickson
Madison, WI

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10 Cool Things I Have Done

Hey John: We’ve never met, but here’s my list, in no particular ranking.

1. Slept under a tarp next to my bicycle for three straight nights waiting out a late New Mexico snowstorm.

2. Won the 13.1-mile “Run thru Hell” half-marathon in Hell, Michigan.

3. Watched my son be born.

4. Won the Green Mountain 200-mile relay foot race in Vermont with a group of high school runners from small towns in Colorado.

5. Crossed the finish line of the Detroit Free Press Marathon in 25th place and promptly threw up.

6. Sat in my one-man tent for 36 hours watching the rain in the middle of the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

7. Sat on the rim of the Grand Canyon from sun-up to sunset watching tourists unload and reload from the buses, among other things, like shadows moving across the canyon, a fox and a lot of ravens.

8. Sat on a dock on the coast of Maine for a complete tide cycle.

9. Cried during my wedding vows.

10. Gave a bum on the street 20 bucks.

Thanks for your great magazine!

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Mick Rule

Whither art thou, MG poetry?

Hi John: Love reading the MG. As an old lady of almost 60 and not having known the West till 1998 — well I’m still figuring it out … and a working person at that … sooooo … Missed the poetry in River Issue!!!!! Yes, it is the first thing I turn to and then to Smoke Signals (have not figured out Morse code… but thoroughly enjoy your mind) and feeling more connected to this amazing place. Drinking coffee from new independent coffee shop in Summit Cove, looking at Elbert. FYI: My son was one of the firemen at JT’s beautiful purple house! (“Up in Smoke,” Smoke Signals, MG #167.)

I am working on my list of amazing things. This winter, I went to the top of Chicago Ridge, but, better yet was the place about 100 feet below in a small grove of willows where the ptarmigans nest, where the brown branches turned blood red.

For now,

KT

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What not to do: Glissading without knowledge

M. John: This is in reference to your call for stories titled, “What Not To Do” (“Stories of Us,” Smoke Signals,” MG #169). I needed fresh air and that meant getting out of Greeley, so I decided on a climb of Mount Lady Washington (13,281 ft.), just east of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a very windy March day. Conditions were so bad, in fact, that every person I encountered as I started to pull the grade was retreating early and heading back to the trailhead. I witnessed several “snow devils” whirl across the east face as I worked my way to the top, scrambling the 3,880-foot gain in elevation.

On the summit, the full force of the westerly winds found me clambering like a spider to keep from getting blown off my feet. I looked for a summit register to sign and found it in inside a capped length of pipe along with a tip-less pencil. I sharpened the pencil on a rock, then took my glove off to offer my information. By the time I was done, I could barely move my hand. My eyelashes were freezing together, though I could still force them apart. A little voice inside said: “You need to get off this summit.”

As I left the dome of the mountain, the Diamond of Longs Peak was barely visible through the veil of blowing snow. Soon I encountered a snowfield, and the idea of a quick, fun way down the mountain was irresistible. I got on my butt and slid more than halfway, digging my heels in and enjoying the ride. What I wasn’t expecting was the bottom third of the snowy belt being solid ice! The boot heels didn’t do a thing to slow me and I took off like a luge racer. I didn’t have an ice axe. As I hurtled to the edge of the ice, I imagined breaking my legs and being stuck up there, helpless, with no one around. I hit the rocks amongst the patches of grass and tumbled forward wildly. I slowly got to my feet and I felt nothing … but the exhilaration of being alive! I stood and yelled out: Thank you, God!

I had no injuries whatsoever. The ass was torn out of my acrylic thrift-store sweats and my underwear was hanging out. No one was around to razz me about it, and my VW bug was the only car in the lot.

I guess if I’m going to go glissading down mountain snowfields, I’ll do a little investigating on the way up, so I know what I’m in for.

Kevin Bedard

Pine, CO

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Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@ mountaingazette.com.

Why We Do It

In 1923, English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest the following year. He replied “because it’s there.” Those three words, regarded the most famed in all of mountaineering, might also be the raison d’être for any outdoor activity. The mountain-bike rider traverses a rocky trail because it’s there, just as an evening stroller saunters to a woodland pond because it’s there.

Yet the being of outdoor venues doesn’t fully account for their attraction. Indoor activities clamor more for our attention. This may be why outdoor aficionados often speak of the mental benefits of their pursuits. The mountain-bike rider may boast of the adrenaline kick of a precipitous trail, just as the philosopher may praise the tranquility of a silent shore. And as readers of this magazine know, outdoor life is said to be good for you.

So, we are active outdoors for many reasons. Or are we? Might there be a single unifying reason that explains it all? Moreover, in the ongoing environmental enlightenment, might outdoor activities be part of the Gaia? In 2005, questions such as these were included in a three-year joint initiative by the Nordic countries to probe the interactions between the environment and public health. Together, the Nordic countries are an ideal crucible for such inquiry. Their populations are among the most physically active of the world, which contributes to their consistently high scorings in international comparisons of happiness. They are all social democracies with well-developed welfare systems, so solutions to problems are transferable across borders. And, save for Finnish, their languages are mutually intelligible, so international meetings may be held without interpreters.

The quest was commonsensical; the countries wanted to know where future healthcare spending might be headed. Mental health was singled out as a principal concern, in step with the World Health Organization prediction that, by 2020, mental maladies and depression will be the second-most-prevalent public

health challenge worldwide. That set the agenda for the Outdoor Life and Mental Health project that started in 2006, peaked in an inter-Nordic congress in 2007, finished in 2008, and published its findings in 2009. The findings are largely of interest to welfare administrators and healthcare professionals. But, turned around, they explain why we seek the outdoors, as do three principal findings of interest to those of us attuned to the outdoor experience.

First, regular physical activity is beneficial in the prevention and treatment of many lifestyle illnesses. Yet, to date, it mostly has been prescribed as an antidote for overweight, obesity and cardiovascular maladies. It has been little used in the prevention and treatment of mental maladies. That should change, as physical activity is known to help people overcome angst and depression.

Second, physical activity is most effective when done outdoors. This is because the physiological benefit of physical activity is more or less independent of where it takes place, while the mental benefit can be fully realized only outdoors. In turn, this is because mental benefit depends on the interplay of many stimuli, and only outdoors can we experience the interplay that involves the whole person.

Finally, even in small amounts, natural environments are beneficial. Post-operative patients recover quicker if they can see a bit of green nature through the windows of their hospital rooms. Even short walks in natural surrounds have measurable psychological effects. In urban environments, ready access to green spaces helps improve health, lower mortality and reduce social problems.

The overall conclusion is that the outdoors isn’t just undeveloped landscapes in which some of us romp. It’s where our minds still function, despite the veneer of what we call recorded history. For, 90 percent of the time we humans have existed on Earth, we’ve been hunter-gatherers. In computer terms, we’re still thus hardwired, despite generations of programming to cope with the complexities of our increasingly urban lifestyles.

Most likely, all who have taken to the outdoors for recreation have experienced the truth of that conclusion. I admit to having been aware of it in advance, as the 2007 inter-Nordic congress of the Outdoor Life and Mental health project was held at a course center on the shore of Lake Sem, in the municipality of Asker, the exurb of Oslo where I live. I felt that its findings ought to be boiled down in English and made available to the outdoor world at large. So when the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment asked me to translate an extract of the report, I agreed on the spot. The extract in English was published in April 2010 (see Further Reading box). This Dateline Europe column is based on that enjoyable task.

M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.