Mountain West News: Reporting on the Rockies

Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.
Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.

Where do you go for daily-breaking news from the mountains, besides our brain-dead local TV news outlets, with their vacuous cops/sports/weather formats and abhorrence for crossing state borders?

Mountain Gazette and the Paonia-based High Country News are among the small handful of print media that specifically address themselves to the American Rocky Mountain region. Both are largely literary and investigative efforts that require long lead times and long shelf life.

But there are a lot of people doing good reporting on the Rockies every single day that most people never become aware of. They write for the few city dailies in the region, for scores of small town weeklies and sometimes for prominent national publications.

On any given day there might be a great story in the Casper Star-Tribune about fracking, a story in the Santa Fe Reporter about living wage laws, maybe a story from the Salt Lake Tribune about water rights for nuclear power, a story from the Crested Butte News about High-Country global warming research, a story from the Silverton Standard on the current avalanche danger, a story in the New York Times about the “red snow” phenomenon in ski country and a report from the Aspen Times on a newly released forest plan.

Such a daily reading regimen would contribute greatly to one’s sense of neighborhood, and to, borrowing a Tom Wolfe phrase, the “shock of recognition” that comes from realizing that our little far-flung communities have much in common. But what a hassle that would be! Imagine the hours it would take to pore over 50 or 60 publications every day and winnow out what is important and interesting to Rockies dwellers.

In fact, Shellie Nelson, up in Missoula, is paid to do exactly that, and she says it’s “the best job I ever had.” For five years now, Nelson has been the sole editor and sole employee of Mountain West News (mountainwestnews.org), which has since 1999 been the only website that presents a daily aggregation of news from across the Rockies.

Nelson’s workday starts at 4 a.m. in her living room, where she begins scanning headlines, speed-reading stories from all over the Mountain West and finally deciding which ones will get a link on today’s Mountain West News edition. She also has to rewrite headlines, fashion story summaries and intros and somehow marshal it all into a coherent presentation. To that end, there are sections that offer both a guide and a tip-off to the Mountain West News editorial agenda: Community, Environment, Western Perspective (regional essays), Tribes, Public Lands and Opinion. The end result is obviously the work of a seasoned and thoughtful editor, and it illustrates how even a modest human staff can easily outperform the notorious algorithms that govern sites like Google News. Nelson has noticed that “When you Google ‘grizzlies’ or ‘wolverines,’ you get sports stories.”

Mountain West News gets about 200,000 hits a month and has a subscriber list of 4,000. These are small numbers by internet standards, but the subscribers include a lot of influential regional decision-makers, from both government and industry.

These days, this kind of journalistic effort rarely comes from the private sector. In this case, the enabling benefactor is the O’Connor Center For The Rocky Mountain West, a regional humanities/education think tank based at the University of Montana. The Center came to be in 1992, thanks to a large endowment from actor Carroll O’Connor (“Archie Bunker”) and his wife Nancy, both U. of M. alums. Most Mountain Gazette readers would resonate with language from the guiding principles that were declared: “ … this mountainous, trans-national region of North America is unique … and requires special attention and study.”  News is the Center’s longest-running continuous program because it addresses that notion squarely, simply and effectively, and on a daily deadline to boot. The website is friendly to occasional visitors, but a daily visit is considered mandatory by many who just want or need to know stuff: journalists, teachers, environmental and social activists, civil servants, local office holders, CEOs and small business owners.

Funding comes from the University, grants and individual contributors. Nelson says in response to “staff compression” at the region’s larger newspapers, she has had to depend more on the smaller weeklies. In the future, she hopes that grants will be found to pay freelancers and regional reporters for longer, investigative pieces.

Senior correspondent Jon Kovash once produced the award-winning syndicated radio show, “Thin Air,” which was produced at KOTO in Telluride. His blog, “Mountain Architecture,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Jail Time In Cell 4 In The Coconino County Jail

Jail Time in the Coconino County JailThe jail cell door clangs shut. I am in a tiny concrete room with a concrete bench and a concrete wall that shields the stainless steel toilet from a viewer’s eyes. The only viewers that will peer in through the thick window for the next long hours will be the detention officers of the Coconino County Jail. I am here on purpose. I am here alone.

The first thing I do is scan the room for something, anything I can write with. The officers have taken my jewelry, wallet, pens and notebook. They have left me my hearing aids and partial dentures. I’m grateful for that. At 71, my hearing is fading. I need to hear every sound and word that echo outside. And I might be able to use my dentures to scratch a message into the wall. Protect the Sacred Mountains. Stop Spiritual Genocide.

But the walls are flecked with brown spots and I am squeamish. I take notes in my mind. The choked howls coming from the cell next door. The thud of a body slamming against a thick door. The carving in my cell door, an Indian in a feathered head-dress and the letters NDN. My friend in a cell across the hall, tracing the words Protect the Peaks on his window; and the fact that he and I are the only white people I see in the tiny windows or being taken into a cell. Those not-so-subtle demographics are the same as the last time I was arrested twenty-five years ago to protest a breccia pipe uranium mine being drilled into sacred Havasupai land thirteen miles south of the Grand Canyon.

I am in this barren room because I’ve committed civil disobedience to protest a local ski resort’s plan to make snow with inadequately treated wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, a high-desert mountain sacred to thirteen tribes. Because I have friends from five of those tribes, I refused to step away from the huge excavator that was gouging a pipeline trench in the living rock. I stood fast also because I am forty years older than the next oldest of my companions. Look, I wanted my action to say, you do not have to be young to be filled with passion. You do not have to be young to act. 

The howls next door have faded. Hours stretch ahead. With no pen, no paper. There is nothing but the dirty walls and locked door — and the knowledge that outside this county jail, my friends are collecting bail. They know I am in here. I’ve never in my life felt less alone. In that, it is more than my white skin that makes me different from the others locked behind these heavy doors.

I trace words with a fingernail on my forearm. I am here. I will remember every detail. And I will write.

Sojourner is the author of “Bonelight: Ruin and Grace and the New Southwest,” “Delicate: Stories,” “Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire,” “Going Through Ghosts” and, most recently, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction.” She lives in Flagstaff. Her blog, “Hoodoo,” can be found at mountaingazette.com

Ice Castle Imaginings

Ice Castles. Photo: Mark FoxThis water, frozen yet shape shifting in time, transforms into anything you want it to be. It is dangerous, sensual, magical, psychedelic, opulent, gruesome, cold, hard, melting, warm. The longer you look, feel into it, the more it becomes.

I enter through the thick archway, shards of hanging icicles dangle over my head, glass glistening, calling me deeper into its mystery. It becomes a place where I lose myself for hours, watching the clouds sift over Buffalo Mountain and darken this man-made ice castle in Silverthorne, Colorado. Shadows shift among the nine towers of 20-foot ice columns, which will continue to grow throughout the season, until they stand 40 to 50 feet high by April, leaning into one another and forming tunnels through their deep turquoise colors. Until then, I witness streaks of thin cloud mist play in perpendicular shapes with upper icicles reaching to form ceilings — and eventually caves — and I look up to the icicle-dotted sky and spin around, until I’m dizzy with diamonds.

Then, I regain footing as my boots sink into the 2-3-inch depth of ice cubes as castle co-creator Brent Christensen explains how he and his crew manually pick or jackhammer the few inches of ice buildup throughout the castle’s walkways every day. Each night, as they enlarge the nine towers by funneling more water out of 90 sprinkler heads spouting out of PVC piping that measures about a mile in length as it coils through the acre-sized castle, the overspill freezes on the pathway. They chop the walls back 2-3 inches a day, but, eventually, the castle will become a matrix of tunnels without daylight shining through, so it will feel like you’re in the middle of a glacier, within a honeycomb of eight entrances and exits, surrounded by glossy, layered ice patterns feathered, flocked and daggered upon one another.

“It’s not to where you’ll get lost, but you may feel like it,” Christensen said.

Christensen and his partner, Ryan Davis, have never constructed a castle of this magnitude, but they’ve built two in their hometown of Midway, Utah (just on the backside of Deer Valley). Christensen began playing with the idea, building ice forts with his kids, a few years ago and he got hooked. He started with a wooden structure that became a springtime mess to clean up, which led him to PVC pipes.

On the outer edge of the Silverthorne castle lies an extensive “ice farm,” where employees harvest 3,000-5,000 icicles every 24 hours. Every night, they step into crampons, squeeze into the belly of the towers, climb icy “stairs” and meticulously place long, thick icicles, first horizontally, building structural hangers on which to hang vertical icicles. The horizontal ice pieces literally become scaffolding, able to support someone after about a day, Davis said. As water softly spouts out of the 90 sprinkler heads, it fuses with the horizontal and vertical icicles, creating strong tower walls, which eventually will morph into the ice-castle cave.

The castle opened Dec. 8, and as of mid-December, Christensen was working 12-16 hour days (or more accurately, nights, due to unseasonable warm weather), and his team had placed about 65,000 individually farmed icicles and used 2 million gallons of town water.

Ice Castles. Photo: Mark Fox

At night, 100 white lights, frozen in the towers, illuminate the natural colors within the formations. The thicker the ice, the more aquamarine the color. While the pure light brings a crispness to some of the columns, highlighting the swirls in long, thin posts, reminiscent of barbershop poles stripped of color, other configurations take on eerie, nether-world appearances: suddenly, it seems as though hoards of bloated jellyfish encapsulate the towers, their long tentacles hanging loosely down the 20-foot rises, and surrounding the perimeter of the “castle,” ghostly ships sit frozen, their masts dripping with icicles that threaten to unleash themselves in a fury if a stranger dares set foot upon this haunted territory. In the land of the living, two five-year-old boys stay up past their bedtime, wielding frozen swords they pilfered from the icicle farm.

I hear muffled voices in another passageway as I lean back against a wavy wall, surprised at how it feels like a muscular being, only more solid. I begin to rub my trapezius muscle against one of its protruding, icy spines as it penetrates my coat, relaxing my body.

As I listen to the droplets of water tinkle down windows of the caverns, it’s impossible to think this grand structure will sink into the ground. But I know nothing remains frozen in time, especially not a kaleidoscope of turquoise — a fantastical temporal world, living and evolving.

INFO

Castle hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Adults $10, 12 and younger $7.50 (under 3, free), adult season pass, $30, family season pass $50 (includes 2 adults; add $10 for each child 18 and younger) www.icecastles.com

From the time Kimberly Nicoletti first stepped onto the frozen swamp in her backyard with double-bladed ice skates at age two, she has been fascinated with all things ice and snow, even though she abhors cold weather. As an ex-competitive skater, she doesn’t think the 1978 version of “Ice Castles” is cheesy and might just have to buy a bumpersticker that says, “I love ice castles” from the guys who have created this ice castle in Silverthorne. She lives and writes professionally in Summit County, Colo.

Harvey Edwards, Eclectic Filmaker and Author, Died on October 10, Aged 82

Harvey Edwards (autumn 2011). Credit: Peter Miller (www.petermillerphotography.com)
Harvey Edwards (autumn 2011). Credit: Peter Miller (www.petermillerphotography.com)

Curiosity was Harvey Edwards’ mainspring. As his college-educated postwar generation settled into conventional lives, he went to Europe in the mid-1950s. There he witnessed the rebuilding of the war-torn continent, including its ski areas and Alpine resort towns, to which he felt drawn. He reported what he saw, in dispatches to the New York Herald-Tribune and in articles for SKI Magazine.

A chance encounter in the winter of 1963 prolonged his stay. In the cabin of the precipitous Brévent cable car in Chamonix, he struck up a conversation with Suzanne Rahmat, a Parisian engineer. She was bilingual, French and English, and well educated, a graduate of École polytechnique féminine. Harvey had met his challenge. He responded. They were married in Paris in June 1965, settled in Chamonix soon thereafter and had two sons, Freddy, born in 1966, and Stanley in 1969.

Their home in Chamonix reflected the history of the agrarian valley. It was a solid masonry farmhouse, built ca. 1750, originally with two stables in the back, one for a donkey and one for a cow, and a hay loft above. It was within walking distance of the center of the city, and in it Harvey set up a small office with a view of Mont Blanc. At first he wrote books, six in all. Three of them were on Scandinavian topics, as he had travelled in Scandinavia and had come to respect the ways that the Scandinavian social democracies care for their citizens. He also started writing for Skier’s Gazette, the predecessor of this magazine. He continued after it became Mountain Gazette; his first article, “To Be Elite, Or Not To Be,” appeared in issue #3 (November 1972 — recently posted in Flashback). His next story for MG, “A Rescue on the Eiger,” appeared in #5 (Jan. 1973), followed by “Running for the Marcialonga” in #7 (March 1973). He had by then also seen a new challenge. Surrounded by mountains and near the Valée Blanche glacier, he expanded into film.

Filming is more demanding of resources than book or magazine writing, so, in 1973, he set up Edwards Films to do it properly. Though a capable photographer himself, he knew that professionals were better, and, thus, brought in some of the best, including Fletcher Manley, Fletcher Andersen (both one-time MG contributors) and Pierre Boulat (known for his photography for LIFE magazine). Other audiovisual experts filled in other skills. Within a decade, he had produced 15 films on skiing and backpacking themes.

But another challenge arose. Despite its status as mountaineering and skiing center, Chamonix remained a provincial city. Harvey felt that his two teenage sons should benefit from better educational opportunities back in the USA. So, in July 1982, the family resettled in upstate New York. Edwards Films then refocused on softer themes, though the humor that lurked in all his films remained. “The Rabbi’s Dilemma” looked at the Jewish faith in the chainsaw culture, and “The Biologist, The Poet, and The Funeral Director” dealt with the fundamental questions of life and death. In all, he produced more than 30 films. His last effort was his first novel, “Road Show,” finished the week before he died last October 10.

M. Michael Brady writes MG’s Dateline: Europe column.