The God of Skiing: South America

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

 

THE GOD OF SKIING

By Peter Kray

SOUTH AMERICA

The second time he disappeared everyone said he ran off to Argentina with Marc-Andre, that lanky grinning badger, the reckless French Canadian. The two of them talked about it like a dark green dream at the bottom of the world filled with fields of super skinny cigarette smoking licorice-haired girls who got plastic surgery for bigger lips and bigger butts but wanted tinier tits and had reductions. In Buenos Aires they met up with Marc- Andre’s friends who ran a tour DSC04605operation. They took a train through the Lake District and hired a car to the grasslands. They went to Las Lenas, above the treeline where everyone keeps their goggles on. To Chile, eating fried guinea pigs and washing them down with wooden cups of wine. They found work in the bars, or on the hill as avalanche control in La Parva or Portillo, the tiny private village where the World Cup racers come in August and September to train for the season.

But then they said that he fell in love with the little New England girl with short-black hair and sharp granite eyes who skied like a loping deer and spent her summers teaching skiing in Australia at Thredbo, or Hotham. So he had stopped in Australia then went to New Zealand. He dropped acid every day, living on beer and water, on trekking skis where the slopes echo tree-less as beaches, white and blue and beyond. He was in the saddle of some perfect ridge with just his sleeping bag, a pot for coffee and two bunks, and outside his hut was a crown of mountains.

“You follow the season.”

Other skiers were there though, and no one had seen him. So they said he left me the dog to drive south with Miller, through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, down broken roads with bad weather and bandits to the brown-white sands of Nicaragua where they would surf through August and come back in the Avocado, Miller’s old green Ford truck with the weather-beaten white camper and more than 100 pounds of marijuana to smoke and sell so they wouldn’t have to work all season. He was cutting trees in British Columbia. Guiding rivers in Alaska. And I was just borrowing the dog.

Someday, I would have to give Toby back to him.

 

***

 

The God of Skiing — Chapter 1

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

THE GOD OF SKIING

Chapter 1

By Peter Kray

The Sports Illustrated story was called, “In Search of Strau: What’s become of the daredevil king of collegiate skiing?” I was in high school when it ran. The photo on the page was the first time I ever saw him, standing on the stage at the NCAA Championships on the top podium.

DSC02530-1(1)He was golden and glowing like a statue in the sun. Like a movie star with his broad Swiss face, his white crooked smile and his wheat white hair blowing in the wind. His eyes were as blue as deep water and he stood out from the crowd like a sunflower he was so tall and tan.

He was the quarterback just come off the bench to win the game, except with something tattered and about to be broken. In the scar that cut from his right temple to his cheek. In the careless way he raised the silver trophy in his right hand. You wanted to be there to catch it for him. To tell him that his red speed suit was torn and his biceps showed through at the arm. To show him how his long black skis were both bent at the tips, and how the two other skiers on the stage, the posters, green, red and blue banners and people in the crowd were all falling out of focus in a swirl of color behind him.

The story counted up the long list of come-from-behind victories and heartbreaking wrecks in two columns right beside each other until they began to seem like the same thing: the stunning wins where he careened down the course and everybody forgot to breathe as he zipped by, or the quiet after the crash before the blood hits the snow and the skis are still sliding. From triumph to tragedy, one after another, they read like the made up rumors of some distant, crazy cousin.

His fluid, aggressive style in the downhill and Super G was described as ‘angry,’ ‘feral,’ and even ‘pathologically transcendent.’ It shocked collegiate racing. He skied so close to the gates that they would explode from their moorings. They were left flopping in his wake. Sometimes it seemed he skied right through them.

For two years at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York—where Bob Parker of the 10th Mountain Division had gone to college, and where I would go too—he built his own East Coast legend. He won races from way back in the field when the spectators were starting home and the courses were rutted and rotten. He ran from the top of the mountain all the way to the bottom on icy blue pavement like tilted frozen lakes through the trees where it’s only glory or ruin; where only because of their balls, their fear or their fuck-it-all skiers first see if they can survive, then win. And Tack won downhills by a whole second sometimes, which is good as a mile in skiing. Or he crashed so spectacularly that a hush ran up the hill.

“Is he dead?” “Will he ski again?”

They would rush back to the orange fencing when they heard his split-time come over the PA system. Those early East Coast drunks, leaving their beers on the bar as they ran outside for that glimpse of a shooting star—the vapor trail of snow as he was passing. Shouts erupted from the finish line as the adrenaline went through someone. Or there was a collective gasp as he sailed into the woods like a car off the road and everybody waited for the explosion; the blue and red fiberglass poles burst like fireworks, the horse breaking its stable and the raceworkers standing dumbstruck as it happened.

“Tack ‘Tornado’ Strau,” the announcer would say. “Let’s hope he’s not hurt too bad, ladies and gentlemen.”

But he never missed a race. No matter how badly hurt he was, he was always back the next weekend. He hid the bulk of tape around his fractured ribs with an extra turtleneck and told his coaches he was cold. His broken wrist with bigger gloves. He took off an eye patch on the lift and stayed off the drugs to pass the piss test, choosing alcohol over Percodan.

Between his ribs, his arms, his legs and hands he broke 17 bones. But it said you would have to look to see where it slowed him. It said, “He smiles like a joke he shouldn’t tell, with perfect white teeth and thick Swiss lips that are always burned and cracking. He laughs like coffee, like some party or fistfight about to happen.”

He drank after races with his growing legion of fans, the “Scarecrows,” who took to making phony casts, wrapping themselves like mummies in toilet paper and blacking their teeth with markers and charcoal to cheer him. At the NCAA championships in Lake Placid, he annihilated the field in both his disciplines. Then, almost as a joke, he entered and won the slalom. In the post-race interviews he revealed to a reporter that a week before he had torn the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during a training run. He said the doctor told him he needed surgery and at least four months off before he could ski again.

“Why risk it?”

“It’s like being pocket rich,” he said. “You spend it when you can.”

And then that immortal quote: “If it weren’t for gravity, I’d probably be in Nebraska building engines.”

***

Photo by Chris Denny

Postcard: Iguaçu Falls, western Brazil

Iguaçu Falls in western Brazil is probably the most powerful sight I’ve ever seen. No photo can communicate the thunderous noise made by this 1.67-mile horseshoe of massive waterfalls, which peaks at 269 feet from top to bottom. Standing right underneath them, as I was when I took this shot on Thursday, makes it hard to think. Which is kind of the best part.

Photo: Devon O’Neil

 

DEEP READ: The Storms of Denali

Seattle based author and writing teacher Nicholas O’Connell has been exploring the high country and writing about mountaineering for national magazines for decades. But his latest book The Storms of Denali is no wonky service column on how to bag the highest peaks in Washington. It’s a page-turner of a novel that draws on O’Connel’s climbing experience. That combination of big-mountain authenticity and literary wit has earned him a wide range of praise, including kudos from author David Guterson, guide book legend Fred Beckey and famed mountaineer Lou Whittaker. 

See Nick read from the book tonight April 10 at the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colorado, at 7 p.m. and tomorrow night April 11 at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder at 8 p.m. Check for more readings and sign up to hone skills in travel, climbing and wine writing at O’Connell’s The Writer’s Workshop. Look for future readings across the West here.

Now read the start of The Storms of Denali here and buy the book through the link at the bottom of the page to continue and support Nick and independent book sellers.

 

 

 

THE STORMS OF DENALI

BY NICK O’CONNELL

PROLOGUE

The storm caught us in the open, halfway down the southeast ridge of Denali, the highest and coldest mountain in North America. The wind gusted furiously, sandblasting my face with ice pellets and knocking me to my knees. I hunched against the slope and watched our 9 mm red Perlon rope levitate off the snow as if it were obeying a conjurer’s trick. Then the gust subsided and the rope returned to the ground.

I stood up and stumbled forward, following Wyn as he staggered down the curving, heavily-corniced ramp of crusty, wind-scoured snow with patches of blue bulletproof ice. The descent presented no great technical difficulties other than dizzying exposure but it took an enormous act of will to keep walking. Last night’s bivouac at 19,000 feet had completely fried my brain.

Placing my feet carefully, I reminded myself that most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent. One slip, one screw up, and that would be it. I thought of my wife and son back in Seattle. I remembered them standing in the doorway of our home, Jill’s eyes dark and angry, Andy clutching his stuffed frog. I tried to fix this image in my mind, but their faces blurred, expanded and contracted like the figures in a fun house mirror. The rope tugged against my harness.

“Sorry!” I yelled and kept moving. It was about a mile to the end of the southeast ridge, but the snow was maddeningly unpredictable, sometimes offering a stable platform, other times collapsing beneath my plastic boots.

Wyn broke trail 150 feet ahead. Like a bird dog on a leash, he tugged constantly at the rope, urging me forward. Despite his impatience, it was a relief to have him leading. As on so many other climbs, I depended on his strength to pull us through. Nothing seemed to stop him.

As I watched his yellow parka bobbing hypnotically down the ridge, my right crampon caught on a chunk of ice. I tripped and tried to jam my ice axe into the slope, but my frostbitten hands couldn’t apply any pressure. Picking up speed, I rocketed headfirst down the slope.

The rope jerked tight against my waist. I flipped over, hit a patch of soft snow, and came to rest on my side. I lay there for a full minute, panting. Slowly, I got to my knees, looked around and brushed the snow off my face. Other than ripping the elbow out of my parka, I was okay. I sucked the thin, bitter air through my compressed lips and tried to regain my composure. Blood pounded in my temples. My heart hammered wildly. I waved up at Wyn. He was still in self-arrest position, his legs spread-eagled against the slope, the pick of his axe buried into the ice.

We exchanged a long look; neither one of us had to say anything. I owed him. Step by exhausting step, I regained the top of the ridge, expending energy I would desperately need later. Then I fell in behind him, riveting my attention on the snow in front of me. Every step brought us closer to base camp. We crouched against the slope when the wind threatened to knock us over. Stood up when it died down. I tried not to think about the danger, or the condition of our partners behind us. I simply put one foot in front of the other, over and over again. After what seemed an eternity, we reached the end of the ridge. Clouds soared up the south face, obscuring our descent route. The storm was building.

Scraps of mist sailed by, lowering the visibility to several hundred feet. I got compass bearings on the jagged white pyramids of Mount Hunter and Mount Huntington to the south. Clouds gathered behind them like an enormous anvil.

Clutching the map with my frostbitten hands, I used the edge of the compass to sight a line from each summit to the southeast ridge. The intersection of the lines was our present position, if my calculations were correct. By the time I glanced up to double-check the bearings, clouds had already covered their summits. I’d always prided myself on my route-finding ability. Now it would be put to the test.

I looked back up the slope to where Al and Lane descended behind us. Their progress was agonizingly slow. Al went first, walking pigeon-toed, taking a few steps and then stopping. Lane followed behind, keeping Al on a short leash.“C’mon!” Wyn shouted up at them. I looked at my altimeter watch: 8:35 a.m. Precious minutes were ticking by. I was frantic to keep moving, but we had to wait for Al and Lane. It was a cardinal rule of climbing: keep the group together. An invisible rope bound us to them.

I tried to unbuckle my pack, but my hands felt like blocks of wood. Using my knuckles, I managed to release the buckles, lowered the pack to the ground and collapsed on top of it. A toxic cocktail of chemicals churned in my gut. For the past few hours, I’d been fantasizing about eating my last square of chocolate. Now I took it out of my pack, turned it over in my black insulated mittens, and popped it into my mouth. It was as hard and brittle as shale, but it softened on my tongue. I ate it slowly, savoring every bit. It soothed my stomach, but now I had no food left. We had to get back to base camp soon.

Wyn sat down next to me. The last few weeks had taken a toll on him. His face was creased and sunburned, his lips scabbed, his breathing fast and shallow. His food was gone; he’d eaten his last lemon drop for breakfast. He took a swig from his water bottle and handed it to me. I drank deeply; we had to keep hydrated. Food was optional. Water was essential.

“Which way?” Wyn asked, pointing ahead.

I carefully unfolded the map, making sure that the wind didn’t rip it out of my hands. The blue topographic lines gathered in a knot, indicating the steepness of our descent route. I studied the dark patches of rock and the white patches of ice, looking for a way through it. Right or left or straight? A simple decision, but our lives hung in the balance.

“Straight,” I said finally, “keeping to the snow.”

He looked at the map. “Are you sure we’re here?” He pointed to the spot on the summit ridge where the lines met.

“Yes,” I said, nodding. “Got a compass bearing on Hunter and Huntington.”

“How could you triangulate?” he asked, looking toward the summits now obscured by clouds as gray and thick as wool.

“I took bearings before the clouds moved in.”

He nodded and handed the map back to me. “Look. They’re almost here.”

Turning around, I watched Al and Lane stagger toward us. When they arrived, Al bent over his ice axe and tried to catch his breath. His lips were blue and trembling, his breathing labored and erratic.

Wyn went over to help him.

“I got him,” Lane said, keeping a tight grip on the rope. His blond mustache was caked with ice, his skin red with cold, his large back stooped from the effort of short-roping. As a fire fighter and mountain rescue volunteer, he was used to dealing with emergencies, but he was acting increasingly irrational. Perhaps he had altitude sickness, too.

“Which way?” he asked.

“Straight,” I yelled.

He shook his head. “Right. We need to go right.”

I took out the map. “The map says straight.”

He seemed to have trouble focusing on it. “Need to get down fast. South Face.”

“No way,” Wyn shouted. “It’s way too steep.”

“Rescue operation.” Lane’s speech was becoming garbled, his judgment questionable.

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“Have to try,” Lane said. “Helicopter. Air-vac.”

“There’s no helicopter!” I shouted. “No air evacuation. Remember?” We’d radioed at the bivouac. Kim, the base camp manager, had made it very clear. No helicopters would fly in this weather. I beckoned him forward. “This way.”

Lane looked at Al and motioned to the right.

“Straight!” I shouted, but the wind snatched the words away.

Lane moved off to the right. Al followed behind him. They stumbled off into the mist, heading toward the sheer South Face of Denali.

To purchase a copy of The Storms of Denali, go to:(http://www.alaska.edu/uapress/browse/detail/index.xml?id=463 )

 

 

 

 

Postcards: Chugach kicker session

<Ed’s Note: Welcome to a new department here at Mountain Gazette—Postcards. Each week, MG contributing editor and Breckenridge local Devon O’Neil will tease us with an image and a few choice words from his travels across the West, the globe and his backyard. Wish we were here.>

Last month, two days into a 96-hour deluge of Chugachian powder in Alaska, we were stranded. I was there to write about a new kind of backcountry skiing experience run by Points North Heli Adventures, and a storm that had been forecast to drop two feet of snow was in the process of dropping 10 feet instead. What to do? Revisit our roots and build a kicker, of course. With ski guide Brennan Lagasse looking on and splitboard mountaineer Julian Hanna cheering on the side, Jeff Dostie threw the day’s first and only front flip. After that, it was back to shoveling.

 

Photo: Devon O’Neil

Mountain Media #193

Buried in the sky

BOOKS: “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan

During every Himalayan expedition, the behind-the-scenes work of hauling gear, setting up camps, scouting routes and fixing rope lines falls on the backs of high-altitude workers, or Sherpa climbers, as they’re commonly known. But who are the Sherpa people? What compels some to become high-altitude workers? And on K2, the world’s second-highest peak, does the mountain goddess Takar Dolsangma answer their prayers?

In their new book, “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan answer these questions while telling a gripping story of the August 2008 disaster. Instead of the usual glorified gush from surviving sponsored mountaineers, the story centers on the Sherpas, giving a cultural context to their perilous work amid their most sacred places.

The authors neatly lay out each of the characters’ backgrounds, personalities and philosophies as if laying out gear before an assault on the mountain. As they push for the summit, the story degenerates into a tangled mass of rope, ice, rock and dead or dying climbers. Despite multiple storylines, this book clearly communicates the imperceptible Death Zone logic and impossible language gaps that led to the deaths of eleven climbers, Sherpa or not. The story’s flow receives help from the book’s many maps, color photos and notes.

Shocked by the death of her friend Karim Meherban in the accident, fellow climber Amanda Padoan sought to uncover how such a tragedy could happen. With help from her cousin, Peter Zuckerman, the authors thoroughly researched the story, but also pioneered a new, exciting perspective that raises the bar for all mountaineering literature. Sure, it still implies the age-old question: why climb? But when asked in the context of Sherpa climbers, the answers reverberate deeper and reveal more than ever before. $26.95, www.wwnorton.com

— Jeff Miesbauer

Utah Wasatch Cover

BOOKS: “Utah’s Wasatch Range: Four Season Refuge,” by Howie Garber

Abruptly rising thousands of feet above Salt Lake City, Utah’s Wasatch Range forms a stark boundary between the western edge of the Rocky Mountains and the eastern front of the Great Basin. And, with 85% of the state’s population living within 20 miles, the range’s constant battle between conservation and development is just as stark.

Photographer Howie Garber has been exploring and taking photos in and of the Wasatch for 40 years, but his first book, “Utah’s Wasatch Range: Four Season Refuge,” is much more than just a photographic retrospective of his career in these mountains. Garber’s expansive collection of landscape, wildlife and outdoor sports photos are paired with essays from conservationists, business leaders, scientists and government officials that detail the intricacies, beauty and fragility of this cherished range. The result is both a tribute to the home of the “Greatest Snow on Earth” and a cautionary message of the many threats faced by these craggy peaks.

The book’s essays, written by everyone from skier Andrew McLean to U.S. Congressman Jim Matheson, run the gamut of subjects from geological history to watershed stewardship to the contentious nature of the Wasatch’s unparalleled ski
terrain. For those looking for reason to believe in preserving the Wasatch’s endless recreation opportunities, pure water and accessible wilderness, Garber’s beautiful images of golden aspen stands, craggy quartzite summits, diverse wildlife and powdery ski descents make the perfect companion for the words of so many important local voices.

Collectively, the book’s photographs and words make for many things — a visual tribute, a case for conservation, and most of all, something that anyone who has ever spent time in the Wasatch will find a deep appreciation for. $39.95, www.utahswasatchrangehowiegarberphotography.com

— Andy Anderson

The Old Breed

SHORT FILMS: “The Old Breed,” by Cowboy Bear Ninja

In 2011, climber and filmmaker Freddie Wilkinson received an invite to go and climb the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world, Saser Kangri II, in Asia’s Karakoram Mountains. The invite came from Mark Richey and Steve Swenson — two men with careers, families and lengthy lists of successful climbing expeditions under their belts. Eager to pull out one more major first ascent before retiring from big-mountain expeditions, the pair recruited Wilkinson — 25 years younger than both men — as the third member of the team.

In “The Old Breed,” Wilkinson documents the trio’s climb while also exploring what compels a pair of men in their mid-50s to travel halfway around the world and risk their lives in pursuit of an unclimbed mountain. For Richey and Swenson, the trip to climb Saser Kangri II represents what might be one of the final chapters in a long and illustrious mountaineering career. For Wilkinson, it represents a chance to share in one of a dwindling number of major unclimbed summits with two climbers he had long admired.

Due to the complex nature of what Wilkinson refers to as oropolitics, many sections of the Karakoram have been closed due to tensions between the bordering nations of India, Pakistan and China. When these areas are finally opened, it presents a bounty of first ascent potential for alpinists. And it’s such a political sea change that allows these three climbers to venture in pursuit of Saser Kangri II’s unclaimed summit.

But when Swenson falls ill on the mountain with a dangerous lung infection, the film delves into the age-old mountaineering struggle between the magnetic pull of the summit and a climber’s capacity for self-preservation. The film dabbles with the oft-discussed reasons why we go to the mountains in the first place, but it’s ultimately about how even as we age, the raw, wild spaces and expansive summits of the world offer something we can’t get anywhere else. www.theoldbreedmovie.com

— Andy Anderson

It’s all in your head: Shred music

geoff snow-face

Photo by Chris Segal, Crested Butte Mountain Resort

It’s here, it’s finally here… the month we’ve all been waiting through the off-season brown, beefing up with pot lucks, brews and conditioning classes in anticipation of burning quadriceps and lifts cranking up to take us to the magnificent white glory. It’s cause for celebration. Opening day costumes, copious brews, facial hair encrusted in icy splendor and music to help drown out the deafening sound of your lungs as you huck yourself down the slopes.

That means you’d better revisit your iPod, like, now, and get some new favorite tunes loaded up, whatever your preferences run, because a decent playlist is as essential as good ski equipment. Music makes the inexperienced more confident as it glides them into a rhythmic schussing of their very own beat and makes the seasoned shredder immortal. No one genre is going to suit every snow condition or style, so you may want something less challenging on your initial ride up (some classic Dead or Marley, perhaps?), only to switch gears to something to rip by (kick in the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Pow days might require a bit of Led Zep (“Immigrant Song” is a good one to have snow nuking non-stop into your face.) Modest Mouse to Beatles tossed with Widespread Panic and seasoned with a touch of Drew Emmitt could be sunny daze cruising happily ever after choices.

You’ll certainly want your personal listening device as Thanksgiving nears and the incessant, repetitive holiday music starts crankin’ on your nerves from blaring outdoor speakers. Having a headset on is also a legitimately recognized means to ignore annoying conversationalists who take up precious time yammering away when you could be making another run. Less talk equals more gravity enhanced slope action.

If you want to slam to the same beat as the pros in your favorite ski movies, but don’t have the time to seek out every song, you’re in luck … someone’s already done the task for you. A whitewater raft guide named Jesse Lakes realized there wasn’t a site anywhere to be found with a comprehensive list of all those fabulous tunes featured in the dramatic drops those extreme sick birds take to, so he created skimoviemusic.com, where you can search by movie name or its maker, skier or company, and then download it through just one click into iTunes. He’s also created ridertunes.com for snowboard tracks and, when the lifts close and you grab your other board, you can download your faves from surfertunes.com. Pretty damn brilliant and convenient … search less, ski more is the motto here.

It’s also worth noting is that most of the opening-day celebrations at many of our favorite snow-farming resorts include music to stomp your ski and board boots to. Not wanting to give up a good party, some mountains carry on the revelry throughout the month and into the next. Vail is kicking off its 50th anniversary on November 16 with a new gondola and continuing their mezzo centenarian birthday with an impressive concert line-up for their Snow Daze, December 13 through 15, which includes The Shins, Michael Franti & Spearhead and Wilco. Get yourself tickets and info at www.vail.com/snowdaze.

Out in Crested Butte, the drive to the end of the road is definitely worthwhile for their opening Free Ski Day November 21 and the wrap of their half-century celebration as they head into their 51st year (www.skicb.com). You can also ski free on your own birthday (hopefully, it falls sometime during winter lift operations and may it scream snow like a banshee for your special day). There’s live music slopeside on the deck of Butte 66 with the return of a much-loved surprise band that can’t be named at this time, and thrown in for fun is local community radio KBUT (www.kbut.org), which will also be spinning tunes between the lifts .

Aspen opens its slopes November 22 with the amazing Reverend Horton Heat funking up a free concert on the Upper Gondola Plaza on the 24th and, since no one knows what time this shindig kicks off, you’ll have to check in at www.aspensnowmass.com.

With all the sacrifices and dances to honor and implore Ullr, this year is sure to be big and deep, so don’t wait until the last minute to recrank the iPod, because you don’t want to waste any time getting to the slopes for your dance of vertical kinetics.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance journalist, photographer and vocalist happily entrenched back in the Shire of Crested Butte fully amped for really deep winter with new helmet speakers and a large stash of downloaded tunes. Give her a shout at dbelloise@gmail.com  

The Best Bar in America

Recently, the Craft Brewers Association of America held a contest to try and find the “Best Beer Bar in America.” Members of the beer-drinking public were invited to vote through a website, and, not surprisingly, the winning institution is located in a place where the population within a 20-mile radius of the bar easily exceeds the total resident headcount of several Western states. More people equals more votes, and the numbers behind the math make perfect sense. But perhaps the calculus behind the concept is more intriguing — what makes a bar “the best?” It is a fascinating question: What makes a certain bar great, and another average? A question elusive enough that it has been ruminated upon in many MG Bar Issues. The subject is even lofty enough as to warrant treatment in a film of the same name as this column, currently in post-production/pre-release (see MG #154).

The theme is similar to the lifelong pursuit of the American dream that the good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson, undertook and used as a recurring motif throughout his writings — his mad search for any sign of the Aquarian-tinted, utopian hippie dream of the ’60s that captivated his imagination so, as reflected through the twisted lens of Las Vegas, or the alternate reality of a presidential campaign.

After reading most of what was published, it is unclear to this writer whether Thompson ever found what he was after, but what is clear is that much of the research was conducted in a wide variety of drinking establishments. And why not? For certainly, it is in the best bars in America where the elusive truth about our reality often appears, and wherein some of the finest that this country has to offer can be found …

For instance, take the Millsite Inn, located on the Peak-to-Peak Highway up above Ward, Colorado. Time was when an aspiring beer writer might take to the hills on a Saturday evening with his best girl, in search of some of that high-lonesome sound they kept talkin’ ’bout on the volunteer radio station each and every Saturday morning down in Boulder, and find himself and twenty other revelers in the company of local legends like Buck Buckner, Pete Wernick, the boys from Leftover Salmon and international prodigies like Radim Zenkel, the Czech virtuoso of all things mandolin. Long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men sat in the shadows of the bar taking long tokes from cheap cigars and long pulls of rail whiskey while shooting dark looks from deepening brows at us long-haired, long-bearded, ne’er-do-wells as we asked the barmaid what was on tap other than Currs, a shame worth enduring to score a tall pitcher of Lefthand Brewing Co.’s Sawtooth or Odell’s 90 Schilling Ale (we still had to share our smaller but not-so-cheap cigars furtively outside between the vans, however).

Or take, perhaps, Alma’s Only Bar (aptly named, as the other drinking establishment in North America’s highest-elevationed incorporated town is a saloon), which was at this same time, as we found out, a great place to meet long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men that were wacked out of their minds on LSD on a Saturday evening. A chance run-in with space cowboys is always disconcerting when oneself is not also trippin’, and, after a day spent learning to drop a knee at the hands of two “friends,” who also happened to be working ski patrol at Loveland that season, and subsequently in uber-physical shape from patrolling on tele for the two previous months, my beat-to-shit muscular and cardiovascular systems weighed with such force on my mental capabilities that the beguiling dudes in the corner talking excitedly about a string of completely unrelated abstractions just about threw me over the edge. ’Twas on this night that Alma’s Only Bar happened to have a new beer on tap, the now-august Hazed and Infused pale ale from Boulder Brewing Co. At the time, this was one of the most hopped-up beers on the market, and let’s just say that this experience did for hops and I what Burt Reynold’s mustache did in “Smokey and the Bandit” for D-bag dudes and the Pontiac Trans-Am. Yes, it was love at first sip, and the rest is history.

But to get back to my point … all the while he searched for his notion of the American dream, it seems to me that the good doctor was constantly looking for a twinkling reflection of his own vibrant “madness” in the twisted misshapen mirrors of the people he encountered. I don’t know if he ever saw it (perhaps in the strange moment that he relates where he is sitting for a few minutes alone with Nixon in the back of a limo talking football), but, if it happened elsewhere, it was not
mentioned, or I am remiss in my recollections. What I do know is this: While good beer on tap helps, the best bar in America is determined by the patrons. It’s you, and me, and the other freaks that sit and converse and share our wild dreams in these spaces and places about the matters and times that concern us that can make any bar the best bar in America, even if just for an evening.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, where he spends his leisure time brewing his own beer. Got your own thoughts about the best bar in America? Drop him a line at beer@mountaingazette.com. 

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #193

San Francisco Ski Show

Used Shoes, San Francisco Ski Show 1976

In the course of auditing my tax account, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that I was allowed to take a deduction for one pair of skis a year, but could not deduct my boots. As they saw the matter, the boots could be conceivably be used for purposes other than skiing. What those other purposes were was not clear. My attorney made the analogy with his three-piece suit, which he was required to wear in the courtroom, even through he only appeared in court only about once a year. It was necessary for his profession, but could be worn places other than in the courtroom, so was not deductible.

I can hardly see myself clomping into a courtroom in my Lange boots, or being able to sit comfortably as a juror for any considerable length of time. Or wearing a three-piece suit in a snowstorm, for that matter, although it may already have been done. So there you are, ski boots are not deductible.

If “skiing” is not a sport, but a “way of life,” then ski boots are not sporting goods, but life-supporting goods, so they should be chosen with care, and made to last. Which is how they were originally made — leather starched over a last — until Hans Heierling’s hands were no longer enough to sew the elephant hide he used in his last boots. Thus began, by default, the era of plastic. At last, or so we thought.

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. 

Way of the Mountain #193

Elections are over. Time to let go the human drama. And dig into the spirit of place where you live. Awake to what lives beneath your feet … Two poets from Ridgway this month — must be the several hot springs there (Orvis, Wiesbaden, Ouray) that makes for such good poets …

— Art Goodtimes, Cloud Acre

47 km North of Squamish

Wet silence of flakes
Gives way
To the heavy rush of falls
And I’m drawn
Sneakers like slippers
Into the soft powder of
The muffled white woods

— Bryan Shuman
Laramie

The Old Barn

the old barn
stands open to the sky
and the steaming breath
of black horses searching for grass
in the muted gold of winter

— Cathy Casper
Eagle

Avalanche

What was thicker
than a man and
a thousand times
stronger snapped
at the waist from
the breath of what
consumed a gorge we
labored all day to traverse

— Kevin Patrick McCarthy
Locuto.com
Boulder

Driving. Blizzard.

My wish is for
eighteen more
of you in the
world, says
the five-year-old
to his big sister,
and we sit back
into the sum total
of what we
know.

— Erika Moss Gordon
Ridgway

Snowy Woods

Along Cottonwood Pass
the loggers’ road
covered in deep snow
becomes a skier’s delight
winding through pines

— David Reynolds
Fountain Valley

Ice Verse 3

Our girls red cheeked
tasting this evening’s snow

Coldplay in the background
trying to capture Satie
The mad Frenchman’s “Gymnopedie”
plays us out

No lyrics
only notes fading into dark
credits rolling and blame

— Kierstin Bridger
Ridgway

Coming Back from a Moonlight Ski

when i am
dead
dead
dead
coyotes will leave
tracks in fresh snow
and stars will shine
at night, then
who
who
will be watching

— Carl Marcus
Wilson Mesa

Summerville Trail

Talus slope
Chirping marmot
Bear? Me? Both?

— Joseph Van Nurden
Gunnison

Old Haiku Chair

old haiku chair
just off the trail
has 4 legs and half an arm

— Jimi Bernath
from “Weathering” 
(Porcupine Books)
Englewood