Friends try not to stare, but they can’t help it. Stop with them at the garage to pick up some motor oil or lag screws — floaty toys in summer or cider jars in fall — and they stop cold in their tracks. They did not see it coming, this descent. You did not seem so obsessive, like a hoarder, like those addle-eyed freaks on TV. But it’s hard not to notice. The paint cans, the fire pump, the beer fridge, the rubber boots, the broke-down saws all turn, apparently, invisible. Skis are all they see.
Skis tucked in cinder blocks. Skis leaning on stovepipe. Skis hanging, properly, from a ceiling rack scabbed together with rough-cut scraps: tips in two-by-twos, tails in plastic six-pack holders, scissored in thirds. Skis with spiders. Skis with dust. Skis with bindings that look like paper clips and hold like a vice, bindings that were only available for two seasons in the mid-1980s, which have lasted against all odds, like Madonna or Prince. Side-cut skis that don’t edge on ice. Straight long skis that slide fast in slush and turn poorly in slop, though god knows you tried. For years, for decades.
Which ones do you use? your friends ask.
All of them, you say.
Then they know they are in for it. The stories. Skis you stuck like a cage into the crust to keep your bivvy from sliding down the ridge. Skis you held like swords to fight off coyotes encircling the tent. Skis you wear every Tuesday, no-whining day, to slog with friends up this same untracked road and back down. Once you saw wolverine tracks; often you see elk. Not the skis you wore when you fell — those like the ligament are long gone — but the ones you wore after surgery, inching back, sliding through hoar frost tinkling like glass, tentative but stubborn. Stubborn, too, on the lifts in your leather, in your three pins, shrugging off the sneers at resorts or near-resorts — Targhee, Bachelor, Bridger Bowl, Purgatory — splitting a half-day pass with a friend and switching jackets after each run, eating jerky from the pocket of your anorak with the dirty Kleenex and the slushy cans of Pabst or Rainier. Sometimes, when you were learning, you skied with these pink Minnie Mouse poles to keep your arms low. Then later: for the hell of it.
You can’t show your friends the ones that didn’t make it. Skis you shredded on cinders, red stone rooster tails spewed behind each sunlit turn. Skis that delaminated in the woods. Bindings epoxied then heli-coiled until screw holes grew wide as dimes then nickels, until wood puddled to rot. And you don’t show them the tool kit with steel wool and zip ties, screwdriver and wood screws, matchsticks, duct tape, candles, wax.
Time is getting scarce. There are other things to do: hiking, biking, kayaking. Your friends fidget, check a watch, gaze out the open door.
You show them the snowshoes you use to take the nephews to the gravel pit to sled, the ones you used to carry for emergencies, like the time you got lost on a trail you’d skied a thousand times before and ended up in a canyon bottom and had to climb back up and …
Why don’t you carry them anymore?
Because we’re dumb?
But it’s not true. You’re older; you’re wiser; you have more discretion. You are a better skier, a more balanced person. You know that it is time to leave this musty hole. Get on with life. But you’re not ready; you’re not even really in the garage anymore; you’re thinking ahead to the day, not too far from now, when you’ll haul them out, one pair at a time, and not put them back. By mid-winter, they’ll be stacked on the porch, strewn in the woodshed, stuck in the shed-side berm, the full selection in full view, in case you have to decide fast before dark to head out in blue jeans with no cap into the dusk, onto the snow, because what the hell else is there to do? Just slide.
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus,” “Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw” and, most recently, “ “Potluck: Community on the Edge of wilderness.” You can eyeball her blog, “Wet Wool,” at mountaingazette.com. Spagna lives in Stehekin, Wash.
A ski boot sits on the floor of my bedroom, next to the box where its mate resides. It’s new — a Tecnica. The “foot” part is black, the sides white. Orange swirls splash across its surface. I was told the names of these boot parts (and a lot of other technical information) when I bought them at Flat Iron Sports. But I was too distracted by the feel of the boots on my feet to remember the details: last year’s women’s model — ladies,’ as Larry called it — strangling my right foot and calf, and this year’s men’s model cradling my left. Snug. Warm. Full of promise.
“What do you think?” Larry asked me.
I leaned my back against the carpeted riser where I sat and stalled. I’d already promised Larry that buying a men’s model didn’t bother me. Two years ago, I bought a men’s road bike because I have long legs, but mostly because all the women’s bikes were pink or pale blue. But a brand-new ski boot wasn’t a purchase I expected to make.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl,” I said, “or because I’m from Minnesota. But I worry about having too much boot for my skill level.”
Larry and his coworker Peter laughed. I’ve only known them for an hour, but Larry feels like my own personal buyer, and Peter reminds me of Santa Claus. Together, their laughter makes me relax.
“That’s human nature,” Peter said, shaking his head.
The last time I skied, I was at Grand Targhee, over the pass from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The first day, the clouds were so thick I couldn’t see more than a few feet past the tips of my skis. My then-boyfriend disappeared ahead of me while I snowplowed through the fog and talked to myself: “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.” I longed for clear blue skies so I could see where I was going, until the second day, when the winter sun illuminated the mountain. I looked down from the chairlift and swore. The mountain dropped away from under me, more of a snow-covered cliff than a hill. That’s what I’ve been skiing? I thought. But by the end of the trip, I followed my then-boyfriend down most slopes without checking the color of the run; I was loosening up on my feet, bending forward instead of leaning back. Wishing I lived out West so I could do this some more.
I told Larry and Peter that was eight years ago; they said no problem.
“You look pretty athletic, and you’ll be out with your friends,” Larry said, gesturing at the empty space where my roommate stood before she left the fitting to head to work. “They’ll push you. It’ll be a quick learning curve.”
I smiled at being called athletic. But it was probably more like nine or 10 years ago, enough time for the then-boyfriend to become the husband and then the ex-husband. Enough time to live out — and unravel — what felt like a lifetime of dreams, until I felt out of place sitting in the bar in a ski town. Prior to Targhee, my downhill experience was limited to Afton Alps in Minnesota, an ice bomb smaller than Targhee’s bunny hill. I have two vivid memories from Afton, both from junior high. In the first, I am sliding down a black diamond on my back, head first, resisting the urge to wave at the skiers on the chairlift as they stare down at me with mouths agape. In the second, I am unable to stop. At the bottom of the run, I take out an entire rack of skis with the tips of mine and then slide over a snow bank, once again on my back, skidding to a stop in the parking lot. I rarely tell that story; I can’t get the words out around my laughter. And I’m not sure how I can tell a story like that and then say, “I just moved to Crested Butte. It’s a backcountry-skiing mecca, and the birthplace of mountain biking. I don’t do either.”
Before my roommate and I went to Flat Iron Sports, we walked up the rec path toward Mt. Crested Butte, killing time during the off-season. We walked quietly while my small black herding dog ran to the end of her leash and barked at the empty horse corrals. Then Laura asked: “Do you know if you want to shop for skis or a snowboard yet?”
I smiled down at the brown grasses on the edge of the path, the way the sun lit them up from behind. Snow is late this year.
“No,” I said. “I always assumed I’d learn to ski, but the idea of snowboarding makes me smile.”
I looked up at the mountains around me, stoic and removed and covered in snow. I tried to imagine winter — snow banks taller than my car, ski tracks down Red Lady’s bowl. But I couldn’t quite picture it. Couldn’t conjure the feel of getting onto a ski lift, winter wind pinching my cheeks as I flexed my fingers to keep them warm.
“I don’t really know how to decide,” I said instead. “I think I need to go learn about both so I can get smart about buying gear. I doubt I’ll buy anything today.”
“So, where does this pair fall in the general price range for boots?” I asked Larry.
He wandered over to the wall of boots in front of me, picking them up one at a time. High-end boots two and three hundred dollars more than mine.
“We don’t really carry anything less than five,” he said, which is less than the pair on my feet. I know what he is really telling me: they only sell quality boots. “I could take 15 percent off for you.”
I debated putting the purchase off for a week — going home and having Laura tell me once more it’s okay. That I can go from not knowing if I wanted to ski or snowboard to buying ski boots. Expensive ski boots. But the shop keys were hanging in the door, the florescent lights overhead bouncing off the darkening windows. Somewhere, the sun was setting, and Larry and Peter had stayed past closing time for me. Had looked at my feet and measured them, addressed the way they are long and narrow and prone to falling asleep in ski boots. Had carefully fitted each boot until I settled on the Tecnica. Had treated me like I was for real, not some kid falling down a slope. And before Laura left, she had coached me: “If you find something you like, go for it. You’ve been saving for this, and you’re ready. Go for it.”
So I did.
For a week now, the ski boot has sat on my floor. I glance at it periodically and then out the window, wondering when snow will arrive for good. Marveling at the way snow means everything here: the start of my job, the return of people to town, the beginning of learning to ski. I wonder how long I will have to wait until my new life truly begins, and that is when I understand why I bought those boots. When Larry told me to stand on the riser and slip my foot into the boot, he told me to push against the front of my calf — to really crank it down.
“I don’t worry about selling you a man’s boot, even though they’re stiffer,” he said, kneeling in front of me. “You have long legs so they won’t pinch your calves and you’ve got some strength there.”
And standing there, I could feel it, too. I could see me, strong legged and upright, skiing down a mountain. Sometimes that is the power of a material thing — a simple piece of gear. It gives us the vision of where we are going, something to believe in before we have fully arrived.
If you live in the Mountain West, chances are you are a transplant, and if you’re not, your parents are/were. While the occasional mountain dweller arrived here to work a legitimate 9 to 5, there is overwhelming evidence that skiing initially lured a high percentage of us here (and, cliché time here — summer seduced us into staying). And even if your knees, lungs and bank account have given out, plenty of people have stepped in to take your place. The National Ski Areas Association announced a record 60.4 million skiers and riders nationwide for the 2010-2011 season.
1) Cheap turns
If you’re paying more than a hundred bucks for a lift ticket or haven’t made your arrangements until you get to the ticket window, you haven’t done your homework and probably don’t have it together enough to ski or ride safely anyway. If you ski more than five days a year at any given area, look at a season pass. The Tahoe Value Pass (as of August) was a scant $379 for both Heavenly and Northstar. Plus, many of the pass programs include huge deals at related ski areas and discount companion tickets (so if you don’t ski enough to buy a pass, suck up to someone who does). If you’re scouting out smaller resorts that hearken to days of yore, check out Badger Pass in Yosemite, where a mid-week ticket will put you back a mere $35. In Montana, there’s Lost Trail Powder Mountain, where 2010-11 rates were a scant $36. And in Colorado, there is always Ski Cooper. An adult ticket is just 44 bucks this year, and there are abundant cheap eats and real bars in nearby Leadville. Meanwhile, the steep and deep is available at Wolf Creek for $54. And if you’re still looking for cheap skiing, simply join the U.S. military, which will usually get you the best daily rate on the mountain — and get you fit enough to ski or ride the whole day — thereby increasing the value.
2) Got GNAR?
Inspired by Robb Gaffney and the very-missed Shane McConkey, GNAR is Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Raddness, which assigns points to your actions based on the level of discomfort and your attitude toward conquering it. For 500 points, you can do the entry-level PC, or Pro Call out: “Hey (name of pro)! I can’t believe you’re a pro. I’m totally better than you!” Then there’s the EH, or Employee Housing. This is when a non-employee spends the night in employee housing for 5,000 points, PLUS a bonus 15,000 points if you successfully score with one of the occupants. Vomiting (YP, or Young Gun Puke) sets you back a whopping 5,000. Similarly, a gaper gap (GG) will cost you 1,000, and the TT is a devastating minus 20,000 if you wear a tall T-shirt on the mountain or around town. A $25,000 GNAR contest was underway at Squaw Valley in March 2010, but not surprisingly, company officials put the kibosh on it after the general manager personally caught one of the participants buck naked (BN). The pulled pass was a 5,000-point deduction.
3) Nix on Global Warming?
Gasbags who still don’t believe in climate change used last season’s record snows on the East Coast and much of the West’s ski country to inflate their arguments against global warming. While Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) built an igloo on Capitol Hill and invited Al Gore to live there, some more intelligent discourse linked a warmer planet to bigger, more frequent weather events. That said, skiers and riders had some of the best snow anyone can remember. Vail, for example, had its snowiest season in its 48-year history, marking 511 inches (nearly 43 feet) mid-mountain between the opening and closing dates. Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail was closed 31 times due to bad weather for a total of 84 hours — compared to 12 closures the previous season. There were 159 weather-related accidents on that much-used section of Interstate, compared to 63 in 2009-2010. And, this year, 12 ski areas in the West had enough snow to still be open for the Fourth of July.
4) The National Brotherhood of Skiers
celebrates 39 years this season with its annual Summit at Sun Valley. Boasting about 3,000 members, the group’s aim is to promote athletes of color with the goal of having them on the podium in the Olympics and other major competitions. The group started in Aspen as the Black Ski Summit with 350 participants. While the numbers of black skiers and riders has grown, people of color still comprise a seriously small percentage of those who ski. Blacks are roughly 2 percent of the downhill skiing population, with Latinos at 3 percent, Asians at 4 percent and Native Americans at a scant 1 percent.
5) Get scared. Really scared
Corbet’s Couloir (named after one-time frequent Mountain Gazette correspondent, the late-Barry Corbet) at Jackson Hole consistently ranks among the scariest ski runs in the world, and tops many a domestic list for white-knuckle experiences in which you’re best to check your insurance policy and don a Depends beforehand. The entrance is a 10-to-30-foot free fall off a cornice, followed by a 60-degree slope. If you fall, that’s it. You’re pretty much committed to falling the remainder of the run. Crested Butte’s Body Bag gets considerable bragging rights, boasting a 275-foot vertical drop at 55 degrees. If you survive these, head over to the Silver King Runs at Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in Washington, where you can experience why Pin Ball, Brain Damage and Lobotomy are so named. Indeed, a good day is any day you finish with the same number of bones you started with, and all the ligaments attached.
Tara Flanagan splits here time between Boulder and Breckenridge, where she works as an equine massage therapist. Her blog, “Out There,” can be found on mountaingazette.com.
It’s hard to get anyone to ski with you when you first start carrying a camera, because they think it slows them down, and makes them do things right, which it does.
Deiter was the only one in the ski school willing to give up his morning coffee break with the other instructors in order to ski the last of the powder on Bell Mountain with me, and have his picture taken doing so, as well.
Anyone who aspires to be a ski instructor needs to know how to do this, and what it looks like, in order to understand what he or she is trying to teach, and how to realize it on film. Otherwise, he is left in the realm of the “New School,” with nothing to teach, and nothing to learn. Too easy.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
I caught a news story on 774 ABC Melbourne’s website: “A Queensland man who is believed to be the first Australian to conquer Afghanistan’s highest mountain says parts of the war-torn country are ready for a tourism revival.” I read this and realized that the United States is going about this whole Afghanistan problem all ass-backwards. Afghanistan needs less explosive, lead-projectile-type power and more pretty-picture, flowery-language persuasion. You know, promotional brochures racked up in local visitors’ centers, where friendly, knowledgeable staff keeps the coffee fresh and the restrooms clean.
For 10 years, the Pentagon has managed to maintain a low-intensity conflict that seems to kill just enough soldiers so that the people back home feel obligated to continue supplying replacements but not so many soldiers that people become fed up with the whole shootin’ match and pull their support. It’s a tricky balance, and you have to hand it to our military leaders, forced into ending one conflict, yet still able to maintain their operational tempo by having an Afghanistan up their sleeve.
While the generals and those who sell them giant mine-resistant trucks with bullet-proof windows and curtains designed to emasculate the shaped-charge energy of a rocket propelled grenade embrace no-win military quagmires, one must accept the possibility that mine-resistant trucks with their jingling drapery and bullet-sprayers have proven ineffective at winning the heart and mind of the average Afghani. In fact, the United States Army just doesn’t have the people skills to lead illiterate subsistence farmers onto the path good, Christian military men expect them to tread.
Many young military men, and many old ones, hold Afghanis in contempt, calling them “hajji” with disdain and disrespect. Military men are xenophobic and possess undeserved superiority complexes. I can hear them singing “America! Fuck yeah!” They possess simple and narrow minds. I have no confidence that any soldier can win a heart or mind of any Afghani.
The Army kills people and destroys buildings. If it’s not killing people and exploding stuff, the Army becomes a big shoulder-shrugging, head-scratching lummox. Friendly persuasion is not its cup of black Afghan tea. The Army is all tactics and no tact. My unit has been in the Stan for a month, and other than displaying our strength in numbers, our main contribution has been to add a considerable amount of money to the national debt. The Army does not quite know what to do with us. We sit in a stack of converted shipping containers, staying out of the heat and killing time. I imagine myself an insider-trading convict serving a minimum-security prison sentence.
I’ll take my air-conditioned shipping container over supplying some ax-grinding Afghani with an American infidel to kill any day. The order “draw fire” is one I hope never to hear. But shouldn’t we have something to do? Are we going to get out here and do our part to win this bitch so we can get home? The sedentary nature of our deployment causes me to doubt the Army’s stated goals and to wonder whether there may be a more-effective corps for winning the war and promoting a warm, fuzzy feeling toward American citizens. This is, after all, what we want.
The United States Army, the most bad-ass killing organization on the face of the Earth, cannot win this war. The Army lacks the deft touch required to win hearts and minds. The United States needs to put the Army away and make Afghan service compulsory for every cheerful soul — be they volunteer or paid — behind the counter at every visitor bureau and chamber of commerce within 50 miles of the Continental Divide. United States policy should be aimed at undermining Afghani resistance by fomenting a tourism revival.
Afghanistan needs less armed, armored Americans and more rich, rugged Americans wearing stuff from REI and The North Face. Afghanistan needs to position its mountains as alternatives to the over-crowded and over-priced peaks in the Himalaya farther to the east, and it is going to need help. Who better than some eager booster with years of experience flogging some desolate, economically desperate county in Wyoming? On their tours of duty, these boosters will not only promote American tourism in Afghanistan, they will promote American tourists to Afghanis.
Ten years of shooting and killing and surging has failed to transform Afghanistan into an American-friendly democracy. What a surprise! What human would befriend another human carrying a loaded weapon and dressed in a crab suit of bullet-proof armor? But put a guy in a Patagonia pullover and a pair of Merrells with a wad of cash in a village at the base of some 7,500-meter peak, and the Afghanis just might change their tune.
Once a journalist, Sgt. Mike serves in the Army and has a hard time thinking of himself as a legitimate military target. Dateline: Afghanistan appears monthly in the MG.
October is one of the most celebrated months of the year throughout Europe. Aside from national and religious holidays, there are more festive tributes to the harvest season than to any other annual happening. The cause for expressing thanks once a year for a harvest that would sustain life through winter has long since been forgotten. But vestiges of it remain in celebrations so old that even historians fail to agree on exactly when and where they started. Most notable today are the October festivals for beer and for wine.
By far, the biggest beer blast is the Oktoberfest, a two-week plus festival held in Munich from late September through the first weekend in October. It has grown to be one of the most-famed events in Germany and to be the world’s largest festival, drawing more than five million people each year. Many other beer festivals are held each year in Germany, but none match Munich’s Oktoberfest for size and attendance.
In comparison with the beer festivals, the celebrations of wine harvests are more subdued. But they make up for what they lack in glitter and draw by venerability and number. The oldest known wine festivals were the ancient Greek celebrations in honor of Dionysus, the god of the wine harvest. Nobody knows how many wine festivals are held each year, but all wine-growing countries hold them, ranging in size from small local gatherings to modest regional events, in the tradition of harvest festivals.
Though Italy now is the world’s leading wine-producing country in tons of wine produced per year (yes, the statistics are compiled by weight, not volume), second-place France retains a viable claim to being the country most associated with wine. The reasons are entwined in history, as reflected in an etymological stroll through the vocabulary of the wine harvest. The word for the season of harvest, “autumn,” comes from the Latin autumnus via the French automne. The word for the location and year of production of a wine, “vintage,” comes from the French vendange, the word for “grape harvest.”
The French affection for the vendange is long standing. After the Revolution that started on July 14, 1789, and swept away the monarchy, the new republican government sought many reforms, including a new calendar. The first month of it started on the autumn equinox and was named Vendémiaire after the vendange. Clearly, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the grape harvest was the right time to start a new year. Some of the republican reforms, such as the system of weights and measures that became the metric system, were lastingly successful. Others, including the republican calendar, were not; it was used for just 12 years, from 1793 to 1805.
There now are many vendanges in France, each of distinctive character, in part reflecting the variations of terroir (soil character) much discussed by wine experts. But, as readers of this magazine know, geography and topography shape the character of terrain. Geography enters because the most-southerly vineyards in France are five degrees of latitude farther north than their most-northerly equivalents in the USA. That difference is partly offset by an advantage of European topography for vineyards. Most mountain chains in North America run north-south. Between the Gulf of Mexico and the North Pole, there are few significant terrain barriers, a feature that contributes to the ferocious weather that astonished the early settlers. But in Europe, most mountain chains run east-west, blocking awful weather and providing many southern slopes for cultivating grapes in mountainous regions.
In turn, vineyards on slopes have preserved traditions. In them, grapes are still hand picked, as they have been for centuries. The mechanical harvesters now so efficient in flatland vineyards cannot cope with slopes laboriously terraced through the centuries. Yet there are concessions to modernity, insofar as trucks have replaced donkeys for transporting picked grapes to a winery or to a communal cooperative cave (wine cellar).
Yet the gist of harvesting lingers in some languages. The word “harvest,” from the Old English “hærfest,” was, until the 16th century, the name of the season now known as “autumn.” That denotation disappeared in English, and “harvest” now is an event that takes place in autumn. But it remained in the words for autumn in other languages, as Herbst in German and höst in the Scandinavian languages.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. He takes his vacations in France. By education, Brady is a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.
It’s exciting to see the Western Slope of Colorado hosting its second regional poetry festival of 2011. After this spring’s greatly successful Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival in Carbondale (honoring a former poetry editor here at MG and presented by the Thunder River Theatre Company), Sandra Dorr and the Western Colorado Writers Forum is featuring The Language of This Land in Grand Junction, Oct. 7-9. Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason will be one of the lead performers.
Robert King has been an important voice for poetry throughout Colorado. His on-line directory of state poets — the Colorado Poets Center — is an essential listing of over 140 poets, bios, photos, contact info, poem samples and more recently a quarterly newsletter that keeps poets in touch with publications and poetry happenings around the state www.coloradopoetscenter.org
King is also a very fine poet, and his latest work was this year’s winner of the Grayson Books Chapbook Competition. “Rodin & Co.” is an outgrowth of King’s fascination with the famous sculptor after a visit to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. Included herein is a poem from the new book. For more info, visit King’s personal website: http://robertkingpoet.com — Art Goodtimes Cloud Acre
Western Slope Poet Laureate Art Goodtimes is a 4th-term San Miguel County Commissioner, co-chair of the Colorado Green Party, fungophile, basketweaver and spud farmer. http://goodtimespoetlaureate.blogspot.com/
Deep in my heart there is a party barn.
The band has run a cable from the dorm
And now everyone is dancing, drinking,
Laughing, flirting, yelling, not really thinking
About Monday’s classes or graduation.
And why not? Most real sadness is yet to come.
Which is why cocky boys pour beer down the stairs
Then surf the suds on their bare chests in February,
For this is Carnival, and there are girls to impress…
And what did you expect? A city on a hill?
— David Rothman Poetry Director, Western State College MFA in Creative Writing Boulder/Crested Butte
Surfaces Only innumerable surfaces, undulations without end. — Rilke
He’d execute a contour of the body
sometimes by candlelight, each muscle’s edge
found as light flamed up around the flesh
rolling through dark, a series of horizons,
a single planet always arriving,
the human form with its “infinite
number of outlines” he loved, who watched these men,
these women, move in the light, their darkness
slowly lost, one shadow at a time.
— Robert King Greeley, Colorado
Light seeps in
one red leaf
in the road
omen of fall
in the garden
belie season’s finale
I give you this:
and go on
— Linda Keller Denver
it steps armored out of the head
and commits itself
itself and teaches us to prize
the self-made wound
by displaying its purple bruise
— Dan Beachy-Quick Fort Collins
In my red bowl, last fall’s
Hawkswing mushrooms (Hydnum imbricatum)
Gathered with whistling kids
Nudge beet greens I plucked yesterday
From my garden in the hailstorm
Which explains the store-bought yellow squash
And miso for stock; nothing ever
Tasted so good.
— Ellen Metrick San Miguel County Poet Laureate Norwood, Colorado
Podcast: Off Belay Podcast with Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller
Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller have a lot to say about climbing, and almost none of it is about sponsored athletes, the newest, flashiest gear, or news in the world of climbing, The Off Belay Podcast is a candid discussion of the important stuff. How candid? Well, maybe your dog doesn’t belong at the crag. Or your kid. Maybe you should stop bitching when you show up at Indian Creek, the most-famous crag in Colorado (oh, it’s in Utah?), and there are dozens of other people there. Chris and Jamie have had a few guests on the show, but the highlight is their own banter — whether it’s about online climbing forums, guns, hung draws or whatever. Between the two of them, Chris and Jamie have written for Climbing, Rock and Ice, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, 303 Magazine, Men’s Health, the Snowmass Sun and others. And oh yeah, the Mountain Gazette, where Chris was the gear editor for a number of years. Jamie Lynn is also an on-air personality at Aspen Public Radio’s Sonic Byways. The Off Belay Podcast might be the most fun you’ll have listening to two people you don’t know talk about climbing you haven’t done. offbelaypodcast.com
Hi, John: I read your article about scars, and since you asked, I’ve got a tale to tell (or maybe a “tail” to tell?).
I was around 12 years old as well, and it was summertime in Pennsylvania. Three Saturdays in a row, I found myself in Allentown General Hospital’s emergency room.
The first Saturday, I was building a model rocket and got a fin on my rocket that wasn’t quite straight. As I cut the fin off, I managed to slice myself between my thumb and forefinger. Three stitches, and a scar.
The next Saturday, I was playing catch at a neighbor’s house. As I slid across the grass trying to catch a ball, missed, and I rammed my knee into a flagpole base hiding in the grass and cut my knee. No stitches this time, no fracture, but a lovely set of X-rays to accompany the second scar.
On the third Saturday, my other neighbors had a truck full of topsoil and a 2×10 as a ramp off the back of the truck for wheelbarrows. It looked like a slide to me. It was a painful slide, followed by an odd limping run up the hill to my house. Determined not to make a third trip to the ER, mom got out the pliers and tried to pull out the “splinter.” That wasn’t happening. On closer inspection, she realized it was bigger than it first appeared. It was sticking out above and BELOW the back pocket of my jeans. Off to the ER. My pants were cut off me. I was given Novocaine to ease the pain before they tried to remove the “splinter.” News travels fast in a hospital. I remember lying on my stomach waiting for the Novocaine to kick in, and a nonstop parade of nurses, who all wanted to see the biggest splinter they’ve ever seen in a kid’s ass.
I just wanted to disappear.
The doctors put a tube in my butt cheek for drainage. I still remember going on a field trip that week, with a special pillow to make the ride more comfortable. The scars are still pretty impressive, since they are about six inches apart.
I saved the splinter for several years, as a trophy of sorts. Chicks dig scars, right?
On the 4th Saturday, my parents wrapped me in bubble wrap and left me in the basement. ;-)
Summit County, CO
Scar Tissue #2
Hi John, Your terrific tale in the June Mountain Gazette (“Scar Tissue,” Smoke Signals, MG #179) put me in mind of a similar incident and since you invited your readers to share their stories …
I lived on a steep hill in West L.A. back in the fall of 1959. I was 13 and, although this may come as a surprise to your younger readers, many of us now-ancients were deep into skateboarding some 50-plus years ago. Of course, our boards were significantly less sophisticated than the current crop of polypropylene-propelled rides. We used metal shoe skates split apart and nailed to the underside of a six-inch-wide sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood.
In any case, it was early Saturday morning and I had climbed out of bed to get in some turns before breakfast. Swooping down our street, I reveled in my newfound sense of vehicular freedom. Coming up against a rather significant curve in the concrete, I leaned into the bend just as I had watched countless contemporaries do the same. Only my turn had tragic consequences. I spun off the board and landed hard on the sidewalk, falling knee, elbow, noggin first.
Of course, my initial response was to instantly sit up and check to see if anyone witnessed my in-line ineptitude. Luckily, no one was around. I soon realized however that it was also unlucky no one was around. My left leg was twisted underneath me in a manner decidedly not as nature intended. I tried to move, but simply couldn’t. I worried over what to do next, when I happened to look up the hill to my house and saw my dear mother standing beside our kitchen sink and framed by the large kitchen window.
I was saved! Mom would see me and come rushing to my side. Mom would soon be comforting me in my condition and rushing me off to the hospital. Oh, dear, dear mother! How could I have mistreated you so terribly? Leaving my room a mess, lying about my homework, ignoring your entreaties to eat my sprouts … what kind of son was I? And there she now was before my tear-filled eyes, beatifically preparing our morning meal, still unaware of her tragically fallen progeny lying prostrate on the pavement.
“Mom! Mom!” I called out doing my best to get her attention by weakly waving my one unscathed arm. “Mom! I’m down here at the corner. I think I broke my leg! There’s blood everywhere! Come quick, Mom, and save me!”
I don’t know for sure if it was my desperate cry for help or some innate parental perception that had her looking up from the sink and out the window directly at me. But just seeing her kindly, compassionate face looking in my direction was balm enough for this wounded soul and comfort for my fractured body. I was to be rescued!
I smiled up at her as our eyes met. She saw my plight. She felt my pain. And then she fainted dead away, falling sideways and straight like a tree slowly toppled by an incessant wind. I knew I was screwed.
Twenty minutes later, a neighbor drove by and stopped to help. He bandaged me up, put a splint on my leg and rushed me to the hospital. En route, I remembered about my Mom lying out cold on the kitchen floor. It was a passing thought, nothing more. I was too eager to see my suture-driven scar.
Summit County, CO
Scar Tissue #3
M. John: Just finished your scar story and am inspired to write. Once, long ago, I was riding my bike to my first youth football practice with two of my better friends. I grew up in a small town in upstate NY, in a world that is rapidly approaching sepia tone in my memory — lots of free time to get up to navigational hijinks via bike. My town had one road with one big hill at the northern edge of my 7th-grade cosmology — always a good thrill to drop in. This particular chain of events marked one of the first times where I had an out-of-body experience unfold: in a separate, yet parallel, universe, I made different decisions — I did not cross on the crosswalk on the wrong side of the road, and if I did (further interspatial tear), a car was not coming up the hill at exactly the right point to preclude me from sliding out across the road to maximize the angle of descent on the correct side of the road.
Regardless, in this world, I stuck to the wrong side and was soon whistling merrily downhill on the sidewalk. In another spatial-temporal rift, I decided that this sort of magic day required an extra element — riding no handed.
As I assumed the full-on arm-extension Christ pose of gravitational glory, a car swiftly backed out of its driveway too close to me to allow for brake engagement. I crashed full on into the poor driver’s back left rear quarter panel, bending my frame and tacoing my front tire. I folded up, over and across her sedan’s trunk onto the utility strip outside her home, looked down and saw the fat tissue of my upper left knee for the first time. I remember this professional-looking woman shooting out of the car that I just T-boned totally distraught. Then, ambulance — me put on a backboard with head restraints for first time.
At this point, my mom shows up — holding it together well, but I can imagine she was not enthused to see me boarded up. I remembered, years later in a WFR course, that she asked me to squeeze her finger, I guess to ensure I was not paralyzed! Two levels of stitches later — 60+ total — and I was gimping around. Was unable to fully participate in training camp, but football is for others anyway — mostly wanted to hang with my friends, I guess.
Several years later, I was called in to testify in an insurance settlement case and stated the facts and feelings clearly. I was apparently awarded a not-inconsiderable sum, which paid for half of my college tuition at the U of M in Missoula — a move to the West I would not have been able to make in the 1990s without this incident, this outcome and the support of my folks to send their last kid out West on the train.
Still here and loving it, now with a perpendicular ACL scar on the other knee.
Sam Fox, Ft. Collins, CO
Scar Tissue #4
John: On snowy winter weekends in Brooklyn, my 12-year-old buddies and I would drag our sleds to the park and test our nerve against “Ball Buster Mountain.” Thinking back on it, it was more of a tiny hill with a big dip toward the bottom, which caused your sled to go airborne and land with a thud, driving an atomic shock right into your groin — hence the name.
One particular Saturday, my pal Jeffrey and I hauled our wooden Flexible Flyers to the aforementioned nut crusher and, finding it too crowded with masochistic thrill seekers, we spent the afternoon trudging up and down every other hill we could find, until it had become too dark to sled. The temperature had dropped considerably and, late as it was, we decided to take a short cut to get home. In our youthful bravado, teetering at the top of a hill thick with trees, we determined it would be the fastest way out. Standing there, our sleds held by clothesline threaded through steering handles; we worried aloud about the treachery of the ride down.
“You go first,” I said. I could barely see Jeff’s face, but I heard him clearly. “I’ll choose you for it. Odds or evens?” Quick to take the advantage, I said, “Evens. Ready?”
We thrust fingers into the air. He won. I shrugged and lay face down on my sled and pointed it into the abyss. Careening into the darkness, I swerved this way and that, around trees, bushes and rocks, and somehow made it to within yards of the bottom before I spotted the silhouette of a tree rapidly approaching. I jerked the sled to the right and instinctively moved my head just a split second before my left shoulder made violent contact with the trunk. “Thwok!”
Jeff, on hearing the sickening crash and then my agonized scream, yelled out into the darkness, “You okay?”
By the time he returned with police in tow, and an ambulance on the way, I was shivering and numb. Scared more of what my parents might say, I pleadingly said to Jeff, “Please don’t say anything to anybody. If you see my brother, don’t tell him.”
As I suspected, my mother sent my brother to look for me. Jeffrey came face to face with him in front of the apartment house.
“You see Stewie?”
By the time I reached the ER, my fingers had turned blue from lack of circulation. The mild frostbite however was no match for the shattered bone protruding through torn skin and the compound fracture of my left clavicle. The cops were kind enough to bring my damaged sled to the ER and called my parents. By the time they arrived, I was lying on a gurney and wrapped in bandages, mildly sedated and very apologetic, but otherwise okay and they sympathetically forgave my recklessness.
After all these years, with every winter chill that comes my way, my shoulder clicks and grumbles and I sometimes cringe whenever I pass too close to a tree. Oh … mom threw away what remained of my Flexible Flyer.
Stew Mosberg, Bayfield, CO
Scar tissue #5
John: Just finished reading the “injury stories bar confab” piece in the new MG and wanted to heartily commend you. Mainly I want to commend you for the large-scale format of MG. Not only does it aid middle-aged eyes control reading glass costs and serve as an ideal supply of ready-to-hand paper for sudden spills, but it is difficult to eat AND read while holding such a hefty periodical. I say that because had I been eating something with one hand while reading that description of a jutting femur and a viscera-smeared tree stump with the other, I might have returned some foodstuffs to nature more quickly than I usually do. I’m glad you don’t see many tree stumps in Silver — I would not want that imagery “bleeding” through my mind every time I saw one. You have a commendable Hemingwayesque economy of expression when you want to use it — sometimes …
Oh, by the way, it was well written.
Silver City, NM
You’re most welcome
Dear John, Dave Baldridge just sent me the piece by Richard Barnum Reece that you published in the MG #180. I just wanted to say thank you and that I’m proud and honored for all involved, especially Richard, for that refreshing reprint. It fits right in with your great tradition. I’m happy that you have Dave on board. I’ve been missing the MG, so I’ll get my sub in without delay. “It’s astonishing how high and far we can climb into the mountains that we love.” John Muir. Keep it up.
All the Best,
Ex-publisher, Powder magazine
35 Mugs of Beer on the Wall
Dear MJ: By my reckoning Big Bob’s calculations (“Big Bob and the Beer Math Saga,” Smoke Signals, MG #180) that it would take 55 pints of Dam Straight Lager for you to realize full payback on your $35 mug investment means you were paying $2.55 per pint back in those days (that’s actually rounded up from a precise calculation of $2.5454544 per pint). That sounds about right for a local microbrew. Adjusting for inflation, it would take maybe an even 35 pints for payback. Then again the damn mug would cost more …
We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.
It was cold in those days. Bitterly cold. Long before global warming had even dawned as a concept. Your breath escaped in small white puffballs and instantly froze in a snow-white haze onto your neck gaiter, moustache, the top edge of your parka, and anything else it came in contact with before vanishing into the thin alpine air. One thing to be thankful for was that the wind hadn’t kicked up, at least not yet. Frostbite was a constant unwanted companion, and you had to be continually vigilant for it on yourself, and on your compadres as well.
Last night’s storm had left us with one to two feet of Colorado’s finest dry champagne powder. As professional ski patrollers, we were up on the mountain early making it safe for everyone to enjoy. We were eager to get our work done, as it was going to be one of those Colorado “blue bird” days that grace the covers of many ski magazines. The 12,000-to-14,000-foot craggy Rocky Mountain peaks that formed the perimeter of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area stood solemnly like silent sentinels. They appeared even more majestic this morning, adorned in their new white cloaks projecting up into a cerulean blue sky. Though it’s cliché to say the words, the beauty of the surroundings was breathtaking. We didn’t speak of it though, as we had more-pressing matters at hand.
The sun had just barely poked above Grizzly Peak, albeit still low, as it began its slow, inexorable arc over the East Wall. When the first glints of sunlight found us, we were evenly spaced in a line, one behind the other, preparing to kick off the snow cornice extending over the edge of the West Wall. As we approached the cornice, it became obvious that the storm had whipped it into a thick, creamy texture, like icing dripping off the top of a layer cake. Our entire pro patrol was present. All five of us marching in line like frozen stick-figure marionettes that seemed to be transported from some ancient Himalayan trek in search of the Yeti. The rising sun offered no real warmth, but somehow it provided a psychological comfort just knowing it was there. As my mind shifted gears, it struck me that, with our backpacks on, we were casting long, eerie shadows against the top of the cornice, making us appear like five Kokopellis inching our way across a great white desert. I kept those thoughts to myself.
Conversation was minimal this morning, as cold as it was. Occasionally T.R., the patrol director, would caution someone not to get too close to the edge of the cornice.
We were all aware of that, though. “Kicking cornice” was an acquired technique. The trick was to cautiously work your way out toward the overhang, taking considerable care not to commit your full body weight as you approached the edge. It was a delicate dance, but, to survive, you had to learn it quickly. You would begin by extending your ski poles out toward the edge of the cornice like remote antennae, and then start poking around and feeling for instability. When your senses told you that you were in a good position, you would firmly set your uphill ski toward the body of the cornice and then lift your other ski up as high as you could and slam it down just back from the protruding edge of the cornice. If you hit it just right, a big chunk of cornice would break loose and go cascading down the mountain. With the snow being cold and tender as it was that day, it was not uncommon to kick off a Volkswagen-sized chunk of snow from the cornice and see it crash like a tsunami into the snowfield below, immediately triggering an avalanche. Then, with kegs of adrenalin coursing through our veins, and to delirious hoots and hollers, we would all watch excitedly and with unrestrained pleasure as the avalanche went smoking, boiling and thundering its way 1,000 feet down the slope, finally coming to rest in a dusty white pile of debris at the base of Dercum’s Gulch. It was pure exhilaration doing this work … but somebody had to do it!
It required both luck and experience, however, to hit the cornice in the sweet spot, and the danger was real. If you were too far back when you slammed your ski down on the cornice, it was like landing on a slab of concrete, and painful vibrations would reverberate up through your entire body and shake your fillings loose. On the other hand, if you were too close to the edge, you risked the chance of dislodging the chunk of snow you were standing on and you could end up going ass over teakettle over the edge of the cornice yourself. If that happened and you were lucky … you might end up somewhere near the bottom of the cornice and somehow manage to stop yourself. However, your avalanche route was over at that point. There was no way to get back up onto the sheer cornice wall 10 to 15 feet above you. What was worse … you had to buy beer for the whole patrol that night after work. You also had to suffer the additional ignominy of having the rest of the patrol still standing atop the cornice eyeball you as you picked your way down the Rocky Knolls until you made it safely down to Dercum’s Gulch. Being unlucky wasn’t much better. Landing in the snowfield below the cornice, you might easily become the catalyst/trigger for an avalanche yourself and end up at the bottom of West Wall buried under 20 feet of snow. Well, the good news was … in that case, you didn’t have to buy beer!
We were leapfrogging one another every 10 to 20 feet in order to efficiently dispatch the task at hand. When it was finally completed, I turned to look behind us as we began to move off. The cornice now had a neat, manicured and defined edge to it. It was odd seeing such a neatly trimmed section of the cornice juxtaposed against the wild, unfettered mountain backdrop. At the same time, there was a sense of accomplishment and the unspoken feeling of a job well done.
We worked our way down to the top of Slalom Slope and reconvened. After kicking off some more cornice on top of Slalom Slope, it was time again to move on. The team subsequently skied down one at a time to the next avalanche path on the route.
I watched intently as my fellow patrollers descended through the picture-postcard landscape, leaving a signature of distinctive powder tracks in their wake. Skiing through virgin powder was one of the perks of the job. After all, the snow had to be tested. We sacrificed ourselves!
The magnetic allure of standing atop Slalom Slope was overpowering. This was my favorite ski run and there it was before me a clean palette of fresh powder. Being a powder skier was like an addiction. At that time, and having little to no knowledge of the principles and dynamics of snow physics, I would dive into anything that was steep and deep, regardless of any inherent danger. Ignorance has its ownrewards! This was a lesson I would be learning all too soon.
In the distance, Iheard T.R.’s voice break the silence. “Hey, Josh, are you going to join us?” My reverie broken, I resignedly poled myself over the edge of the upper shoulder of the cornice and into the wide-open, expansive snowfield below it. In an instant, I was immersed in the deep and luxurious powder where I felt most at home. By the third turn, my rhythm was synched in and the white fluffy champagne powder was now smoking and billowing all around me. Beneath me, I could feel the soft yet forgiving resistance of the snow as my skis sank deep down into its womb. Ultimately, my skis platformed out at an immeasurable depth and then immediately began making their ascent back up toward the surface. A face shot of snow cleared from my goggles and I caught a brief glimpse of my ski tips finally breaching the upper surface of the snow. A split-second later, my skis and entire body erupted forcefully from the snow pack bursting out into the pristine alpine air in a poised carved arc before plunging back down into the soft depths. After paying your dues, it’s no longer necessary to think about planting your poles, weighting your skis, completing your turns under the snow, etc. As your body gracefully glides through the snowy milieu, everything happens seamlessly, rhythmically and without thought. Once you get it down, it’s one of the most sensual and orgasmic experiences on the planet. Moreover, when conditions are just right, you can find yourself imperceptibly transported into that quiet, timeless, spiritual Zen space. It was what I lived for!
Approaching the other patrollers, I sank down into a controlled stop. As I stopped, my mind raced back to a time not long ago when I was learning the subtle art of powder skiing. I remembered seeing more inexperienced powder tyros who would tend to overweight their downhill ski when attempting to stop in deep powder. They would immediately go into a downward, spiraling tumble, typically blowing a knee out in the process if their skis didn’t release. If they were fortunate enough to have their skis release, they would then have to search for them in the snow and, if found, subsequently attempt to put them back on again, not an easy task in deep powder. We didn’t worry about those concerns, though, as we were all experienced powder skiers and we all had our bindings cranked down to the “workmen’s comp” setting.
Looking back up, it was a pleasure to see the fresh sets of tracks emblazoned in the powder. A discerning eye would even be able to distinguish who had laid down each set of tracks. Jeff’s were a series of lazy arcs casually meandering across the fall line. Kirk’s were strong, deep set and straight down. T.R.’s were wide, round and balanced. Mine were immediately distinguishable as a tight-carved ribbon straight down the fall line in perfect symmetry. You could learn a lot about skiing by evaluating your tracks.
We regrouped in the relative protection of a flattened-out tree-lined bench just above Lover’s Leap. The procedure on an avalanche route was straightforward. Each patroller skied down one at a time across any potential slide path and everyone else kept eyes on until you reached your predetermined safe destination.
It struck me as almost comical as I watched each patrolman ski down dragging about 20 feet of red avalanche cord behind him. Those were the days just prior to avalanche beacons and, at that time, avy cord was considered state-of-the-art protection. It was made of quarter-inch-wide red nylon cord that you tied off to your patrol belt. Remarkably, it also had an uncanny propensity for knotting itself up around any bush, root, stick, rock, snow snake or whatever you happened to be traveling through. Then this stuff that was supposed to be protecting you would invariably lodge itself around the object and stop you dead in your tracks. The theory was: if you got caught in a slide, the cord would float on the surface of the snow and quickly lead the rescuers to the buried, frozen, patrolman below. It wasn’t much in the way of safety, but it was all we had.
Lover’s Leap was a ski run that had a real pucker factor to it. Narrow and steep, it definitely wasn’t for the uninitiated. Later in the season, thigh-high moguls would replace the smooth white blanket of snow that now lay before us and it would no longer be a danger, but now it needed to be controlled. As T.R. moved closer to the edge, I sensed what he was going to do. The same recurring thought visited me again as it had been all morning. Why weren’t we using explosives? We had them with us in our packs. Were we just carrying them for ballast?
As a first-year patroller, it was my “quiet year.” Innately, I knew that it was best to remain relatively quiet and just absorb as much information as possible. As I was blessed and/or cursed with a keen wit, this was proving to be a challenge for me. I desperately wanted to ask “why don’t we throw a charge in here?” But, somehow, I knew it would be out of place for me to suggest it. As T.R. took another step closer to the edge, the answer began to form in my mind. Patrollers, I think it’s fair to say, are endowed with a full tank of testosterone. These guys, however, seemed to be topped off with an Imperial gallon of machismo. Taken individually, these qualities could be dealt with. Mixed together, however, and laced with a generous dose of hubris, this olio becomes a highly volatile substance and it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way to explode. It was becoming evident that this dangerous dynamic was playing itself out now right before my eyes.
Huddled together now, the rest of us looked on with heightened anticipation as T.R. sliced his ski into the upper edge of Lover’s Leap. Instantaneously, the entire slope began moving as an ephemeral, undulating wave, until its entire contents were deposited in a billowy white berm in the transition at the bottom. Once again, riotous cheers and gleeful shouts ripped through the frozen air. Collectively, we moved forward and were all poised on the edge, peering down at the rocks and frozen ground left exposed from the avalanche as T.R. scooped up a gloveful of snow from the fracture line. “Depth hoar,” he announced decisively! “Depth hoar,” I said to myself. It was a relatively new term to me and I knew it to be the bane of powder skiers and avalanche forecasters worldwide. It presented as the sugary, unconsolidated, ball-bearing-looking snow layer that could readily be found in cold climates just above the ground at the bottom of the snow pack. It served as an unseen lubricating layer for the more consolidated snow pack above to slide on. I thought to myself it should be called “death hoar,” as it would silently lay in wait for the unsuspecting skier to ski upon, triggering avalanche, and, in the process, very likely chalking up another avalanche statistic. It could be controlled, however, with explosives and continual avalanche control techniques.
As exciting as this all was, there was also something disquieting about it for me. I feared that something was inherently wrong. As I looked into the faces of my companions, they almost looked deranged in their excitement. The group dynamic had taken another dramatic turn. Without any discussion, it seems we had opted for kicking off avalanches rather than using the explosives that we had readily at hand. Machismo had replaced reason!
Still feeding on the excitement of the last avalanche, the group was in an ebullient mood as we skied up to The Finger, the final avalanche path on the route. All eyes fell on me and, without a word, I knew it was my turn to do the honors. If you were to rate Lover’s Leap as a “10” relative to the pucker-factor scale, The Finger would be completely off the chart. To be fair, it would be an injustice to call it a ski run at all. It was simply a super-steep, super-narrow avalanche chute that funneled straight down about 80-100 yards, culminating in a thick spruce forest configured with trees at the bottom arranged like pins at the end of a bowling alley. Unlike Lover’s Leap, however, you could not stand at the top and attempt to kick off an avalanche. The upper part of the path was a concave dish, so you would have to jump into it to gain access to the starting zone. If there was ever a place to use an explosive, this was it.
The peer pressure was thick and pervasive. For some reason, I didn’t want my comrades to know that I had missed out on my gallon of machismo. Even though I was a first-year patroller, every fiber in my being was telling me that this was an unsafe situation. The time was at hand and I comforted myself … “surely the patrol director and the other experienced patrollers wouldn’t willfully put one of their own in mortal danger … ”
I took a deep breath, then dutifully, and with some trepidation, leapt out and into the top of The Finger. There was no turning back now. For a brief moment, I was suspended in mid-air before finally landing with my full weight in the starting zone of The Finger with my skis perpendicular to the fall line. Initially, all was well, as I felt the snow settle and crush under my weight. I looked up quickly to bask in the approval of my comrades. Suddenly a loud crack broke the silence, and, as I was looking up, I saw that a large fracture line had propagated up and around me in the shape of an arc. Oddly, my friends appeared to be moving uphill away from me, and, as they were receding in the distance, I perceived the looks on their faces change dramatically from excitement and machismo to shock, horror and even a hint of guilt.
In an instant, I realized that it was me that was moving downhill. Instinctively, I turned to face the direction I was going, leaving all my earthly thoughts behind me. To my shock and horror, I’d been sucked into the vortex of a white tornado traveling at warp speed heading straight down the mountain into the bowels of the earth. The sound was overpowering … crunching … breaking … rumbling … howling. Time seemed to be compressed and irrelevant. Initially, my arms were outstretched in a feeble attempt to ride the storm. In a nanosecond, I felt a wrenching, breaking sensation and, without thinking, I somehow knew that my skis were gone as I involuntarily rolled forward into my first summersault into oblivion. I was spinning out of control now in the white swirling tumble dryer of snow. Out of the corner of my eye, part of a ski flew past me on a tangent traveling at an even higher speed … it seemed to be heading out to another planet. No thinking now … just a pure sense of being. Abruptly … all stop! The rumbling faded in the distance.
Death was quiet … reflective … upside-down … the other side of the mirror … a left-handed world … drifting … drifting … drifting … soft white light … deep silence … drifting.
After an interminable amount of time, and from an unimaginable distance, something began pulling at me, pulling me back from my quiet peaceful retreat. “What is it?” I asked myself from some unknown place. “Leave me alone!” my mind screamed without speaking. Imperceptibly at first, I felt my eyelids begin to move … trying to open. Then I felt an odd sensation on my cheek. My eyelids finally became unstuck. Incredibly, as my eyes began to find their focus, there appeared to be some giant guy positioned there in front of me … standing upside-down. It was patrolman Jeff. Big macho Jeff! He was upside-down and he had just kissed my cheek??? “This must be hell,” I said to myself. “Yuck!” “I can’t believe you’re alive!” Jeff exclaimed, beside himself now. “Nobody could survive that,” he spurted out loudly and excitedly.
My thoughts began streaming now in staccato bursts like a slide carousel in fast-forward, out of control. “Where am I?” ”What’s happened?” ”Am I dead or alive?” Questions seemed to pour out simultaneously. Slowly, my senses began drifting back and I started to feel pine needles, snowflake dust and bark particles raining down on me. Suddenly I realized that it was me who was upside-down. The avalanche had apparently spit me out halfway up a tree, and I was now suspended from a large branch that managed to get hooked around the backside of one of my knees. Dangling down from the branch by one leg, I must have looked like a broken, twisted Christmas tree ornament.
And Jeff was right. This had to be a miracle. Nobody could survive that. As I looked up into the branches above me, I thought to myself, “This must be the Tree of Life.” I said a quick prayer of thankfulness with a promise for more prayers later. As Jeff was anxious to get me down, I quickly did a self-assessment and I was amazed to discover that everything appeared to be working. It didn’t seem possible. Jeff was almost twice my size and he had no trouble reaching up over his head to lift me out of my precarious perch. By now, the other patrollers had worked their way down the now-barren slide path and they were showering me with hugs and expressing their disbelief that I was alive. Temporarily, the cold was no longer a factor for me, as adrenalin was churning inside me like a dynamo.
The avalanche had literally devoured all of my equipment. My equipment assessment went as follows: skis: broken in half; poles: broken in half; goggles: destroyed; company radio: destroyed; bottom of one ski boot: completely torn off with my bare-socked foot protruding from the end.
As bewilderment and shock had set in, it is still unclear to me how they managed to get me out of there. When we finally made our way back to the base area, the adrenalin was wearing off and I began to feel a throbbing pain in my left arm. Upon further inspection, I discovered some significant deformity in my lower left arm and realized that I had broken my wrist. I shrugged it off. It was a small price to pay for surviving such a traumatic ordeal.
Jeff volunteered to drive me to the medical clinic in the company vehicle. He talked excitedly the whole way down there, but I didn’t hear a thing.
It was late afternoon and the resort had already closed when we returned from the medical clinic to A-Basin. Darkness had descended and the cold had settled in completely, now unchallenged by even a hint of sunlight. When it was this cold, the snow was unforgiving underfoot and it made loud creaking sounds as you walked across it. Kweek … kweek … kweek. Jeff and I fell into a rhythm as we made our way to The Pub, the local watering hole at A-Basin, where virtually all of the employees congregated after work.
A question lit up in my mind: “Shouldn’t I be going to church?” My legs kept moving forward toward The Pub, providing my unspoken answer. There would be time for church later. At that point, I felt obligated to buy some beer.
Several lessons from the day began sifting down like new-fallen snow as we made our way over to The Pub. First of all, I was determined to enroll in the next available avalanche school. Apparently, there was a lot more I could learn about snow physics. A-Basin had also taught me a profound lesson: RESPECT! A half-drunk, late-night conversation scudded back to me as I recalled something that Remle (Elmer spelled backward), an itinerant old patroller, used to say. “Ya gotta know mountains, man.” I also had a strong suspicion that there was going to be a dramatic shift in patrol protocol. Patrollers would no longer be using themselves as human explosives.
When we got to The Pub, Jeff opened the door for me, and I must admit that I felt a bit awkward and somewhat self-conscious walking in, sporting a sling and cast.
When the door opened, a welcome blast of warm air immediately embraced me, and a collective cheer erupted from the crowd inside. This was something I always loved about A-Basin in those days. No matter what you did on the mountain — ski patrol, ski instructor, lifts, maintenance, restaurant workers, etc. — when you stepped into The Pub after work, everyone was an equal, and we were all friends. It was family!
That first beer was going to taste good, and I looked forward to buying. Everyone started to gather round, and there were plenty of hugs, kisses, handshakes, high fives and embraces to go around as the A-Basin family welcomed one of their own back to life. News travels fast on the mountain, and everyone was eager to hear about the ordeal first hand. It felt good to finally be able to shake off the cold and revel in the warmth of the family. And, apparently, there was another unwritten rule that I was unaware of. When you returned from the dead, you weren’t allowed to buy beer! It was going to be a long night. Life was good. Very good!
Josh Galvin is a professional ski patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and a singer/songwriter/performing artist who has released an all-original CD, “Ten Mile Ranger.” He is also a past winner of the Colorado Powder 8 Skiing Championships. This is his first story for the Gazette.