The joy of sliding: Why our feet make skiing feel so sexy

It’s long been a cliché among skiers that a good day on the slopes, especially a good powder day, is as good as sex. Maybe skiers who think so are simply better at skiing than they are at sex. Or perhaps the sport is flush with shameless pervs. (It is frickin’ freezing out there and streaking the spring splash is considered normal.)

Skiing’s sexy mojo might just be a marketing ploy combined with a sharky singles scene and Hollywood hype, but a close look at the neurological relationship of the feet and the brain suggests that skiing and sex may be more intimately related than we might suspect.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman, found scientific evidence that stroking, sliding and caressing motions are therapeutic. “The touching can’t be light, or it will tickle…, nor rough, or it will agitate …, but firm and steady, as if one were smoothing a crease from heavy fabric.” Great advice for the execution of the ideal ski turn: not too light; not too rough.

Firm and steady. Keep it smooth and it feels good.

Applied to skiing, the most important touch points are obviously our feet. Feet are already sexy, of course. No fetish is more famous than the foot fetish. A Google of “Feet & Sex” returns 1,480,000 listings. Says one on-line advisor, “If you keep your feet in good shape and looking nice, it makes for much more erotic sex.” This alone may be the reason women care what color ski boots are. And why you should demand that your girlfriend’s ski boots are warm. Dr. Louann Brizedine, author of “The Female Brain,” claims “women need to have their feet warm before they feel like having sex.”

The obvious issues of appearances and comfort aside, it turns out there probably is a visceral, sexy connection between our heels, arches, toes and skiing.

The soles of the feet host two types of nerves with a flair for sexuality. Meissner’s corpuscles are hyper-sensitive, especially to perpendicular pressure. They respond to gentle sensations — caresses, kisses and tickles. Sharp sensations, like a pebble stuck inside a shoe, or a poke, also send them into a tizzy.

Interestingly, Meissner’s are found in a select few sexy places in the body: the lips, clitoris, penis, nipples and the feet. When you slide and your feet feel undulating pressure passing under them, the Meissner’s get busy. “The slightest distortion of a Meissner’s corpuscle will create sexual sensation,” writes Kristin O’Hara in “Sex As Nature Intended It.” Even inside a tight, hard-shelled boot, the soles of our feet become amplifiers of pushing, twisting, bouncing sensations, sensations that get fed to the brain via very sexy channels.

There just happens to be oodles of Meissners in the toes (which help monitor forward lean), and at the back of the foot (where subtle heel pressure allows the finish of a carved turn).

Pacinian corpuscles, according to the reference “Anatomy, Descriptive & Surgical,” are “found chiefly on the nerves of the fingers and toes…and in the genital organs.” “The Science of Orgasm” identifies the Pacinian as “specialized to respond to pressure and vibration,” and the “densest nerve supply in the body” occurs in the clitoris. Men have them too, in the glans, where O’Hara assures us they are “densely packed nerves excited by pressure.”

Every skier knows that, despite those clunky, heavy boots, there’s a whole lot of vibrating going on — not just those Julie Andrews the-hills-are-alive psychic vibes, but literally the vibration of the skis. Skis thrum powerfully as they turn. Amidst this constant vibrating, the Pacinian corpuscles wiggle their sexy messages to the brain, and what is the brain to do except enjoy the ride?

Luckily for skiers, it doesn’t take much to get a touch receptor’s attention. Ackerman explains that, “Any first time touch, or change in touch (from gentle to stinging, say) sends the brain into a flurry of activity.” The nerves wake up. “A little pressure produces a flurry of excitement, then fades, and a stronger pressure extends the burst of activity.” She explains that the excitement of touch is all about change — as in novelty, variety and intensity.

Like sex, the joy of skiing resonates with touch’s craving for nuanced, diverse experience. The texture and consistency of snow changes, often. Dozens of companies afford us thousands of novel combinations of equipment. Edges tune to various degrees of sharpness and bevel. A range of base structures combined with a rainbow of waxes respond to arrays of snow temperatures. Varying intensity is as easy as skiing steeper or flatter or bumpier runs. Ski fast. Ski slowly. Like the snowflakes we ski on, no two skiing experiences are ever exactly the same.

This is a good thing for touch receptors. Our sense of touch knows exactly how to challenge and reward valuable activities — like sex and skiing. As a touch sport that demands so much from the feet, there’s almost no denying that (provided your boots fit and they are warm) skiing is inherently sexy. Dr. Daniel Amen may not have had skiing in mind when he wrote, “What a lot of people don’t know is that the foot area in the brain — the area of the brain that feels your feet — is right next door to the area of the brain that feels your genitals,” in his book, “Sex on the Brain: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life.”

Or maybe he did.

There’s more. Our footy fetish with skiing may be a nod to our evolutionary success. Ackerman reminds us that the sense of touch evolved before all other senses. The earliest blind organisms literally felt their way to survival. Whether found in our genitalia or our feet, the Meissners and the Pacinian are nerves retained from primordial sliding in epochs when slithering and sliding meant the success of species.

Experimental neurologist Saul Schanberg, interviewed by Ackerman, asserts that, from the standpoint of sexuality within species, “Those animals who did more touching instinctively produced more offspring which survived, and their genes were passed on and the tendency to touch became even stronger.” He says, “Touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it.”

In other words, sliding has been the key to sentience for more than 600 million years. The fittest were those that were best at it, and liked it, and kept doing it.

So maybe when skis start to slide and slither under us, something elemental happens, too. Maybe skiing stimulates nerve receptors that evolved partly to detect and encourage the firm, steady, smooth, not-too-light, not-to-rough flurries and bursts of sex — the touches that send our brains into a tizzy.

And maybe after a great day of skiing — with all the nerve receptors in your feet suggesting to your brain how great all that sliding was — there’s a chance you might find yourself thinking, “Wow, skiing is as good as sex.” Notice as you slip your boots off the therapeutic glow arising from your feet. Notice the distinct feeling that your entire species is destined for success.

Sources Consulted:
“The Female Brain.” Dr. Louann Brezedine. Broadway Books, 2007.
“Sex as Nature Intended It.” Kristin O’Hara and Jeffrey O’Hara. Turning Point Publications, 2002 http://www.sexasnatureintendedit.com/10F/Foreskin_Function.html.
“Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical.” Henry Grey, Thomas Pickering Pick, William Williams Keen. Bounty Books, 1977. p. 75-76.
“The Science of Orgasm.” Barry Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer, Carlos Beyer-Flores, Beverly Whipple. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. p. 231.
“Sex on the Brain: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life.” Dr Daniel G Amen. Three Rivers Press, 2006

http://www.oprah.com/xm/moz/200701/moz_20070124.jhtml.

Wayne Sheldrake is the author of “Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum.” He lives in Del Norte, Colo.

Movie Review: ‘127 Hours’

Aron Ralston? He had to have been an idiot getting stuck in that canyon the way he did. That’s all I could figure at the time. Even if you kick it hard as a test, you don’t put your weight on some chintzy chockstone. Clan of half-naked desert spawn who call this region of southeast Utah home pretty much concluded he must have been some big-dick mountain climber hung with ropes and jangling gear that would never allow him to grasp the heart of this country the way we do. Too much shit to carry. Too much reliance on things that have been machined. We know what we are, trust me, spacemen with our packs and our silent little alcohol stoves made out of Coke cans stuffed with fiberglass insulation. We know how to strip down, but not without comforts, our jammies and chocolates. We go light, but not too light. I figure that’s the best we can do, and, from there on, it’s gravy. A group of us has been soloing and tag-teaming out here for a couple decades, first-class nimrods apprehending this landscape. That’s why this guy rankled us. This was our territory. What was he thinking, leading the bone-headed adventure crowd our direction? Of course he was an idiot, had to be.

I have started this review on the inside of a candy box torn open in a theater, stadium seats and a booming sound system, pen scratching in the dark on waxy-thin cardboard. It’s the movie — “127 Hours” — about Aron Ralston chocked by a boulder in a slot canyon, spending a little more than five days trapped before getting up the mad nerve to cut off his own arm and escape. Right away, I recognize nicks, notches and routes in the landscape. They had filmed high in the drainage of Horseshoe Canyon, a place I’ve been walking all my adult years. It’s studded by red buttes, articulated by countless shadowy drainages, and marched across by eerie rock art of ancient hunters and gatherers. They got the right place. This is where Aron did his brutal Houdini act, leaving his arm behind (later removed by the Park Service*). This also happens to be the very landscape I consider one of my homes. Last year, I worked from multiple points around the globe, and after each trip I came back to Horseshoe Canyon, its circular horizon distantly rimmed by the bat-winged La Sal Mountains, blue dome of Abajos, Henrys and the long, elegant rise of the San Rafael Swell, not to mention proud Book Cliffs and Roans closing the circuit to the north. Here I have chased my two little boys into slots, and sunk into my wife’s arms on sensual, bulbous rims, Navajo sandstone being the most carnal piece of geography on the planet. I come back to this region because it is familiar and grounding for an over-traveled soul.

Those I know who walk hard out here happen to love movies. After just about every wilderness trip, we would come back and pile into the Moab theater for some dazzling CGI flick. Even with such an honored pastime, I couldn’t get any of them to see this dramatization.

Dirk Vaughan, who from the beginning contended that the man’s mistake was not taking desert canyons seriously, blew out one of his usual tirades: “The dude’s a tech-head, solo climbs Fourteeners in winter, carries extreme clothes and extreme gear for extreme conditions. He gets out here in Canyonlands in shirtsleeve weather and a Kelsey guidebook to point the way and he let his guard down.

I heard him say it himself ‘I was on a vacation.’ Well, guess what, Canyonlands can kill you just as quick as a Fourteener in winter. Especially in shirtsleeves when you’re on vacation.”

His brother Devin just shrugged. Sure he’d watch, but he did not want to spend the $7 or spring for the drive.

The list of excuses goes on from person to person. I’m not giving my money to an idiot. I refuse to glorify stupidity.

But you see, I sort of had to watch it. They paid me. I don’t think I would have seen it otherwise, just a shrug. The money I got was not to actually see the movie, but to help with it. They wanted spots with a so-called expert explaining why this landscape exists in the first place. I liked the sound of that. Did I need the money? Sure. But I would have done it for free. I’m a whore when it comes to broadcasting what an awesome and twisted planet we live on, especially in a place where I have a decent grasp on local geomorphology. It was a hired production crew, desert-treading camera-folk, the kind of people I’d happily clamber around with any day. Camped in the upper arms of Horseshoe, we trundled our way across red-sand slopes and magnificent vistas, Island in the Sky brimming to the east as we hiked down toward Aron’s canyon. An excuse to wander about and get paid, I loved this job.

The slot where poor Aron had to butcher his way to survival opens like most of them do: suddenly. A cap-layer undercuts and the drainage falls into erotic bends of Navajo. Just about every slot canyon in this country has some sort of gatekeeper wedged into its entrance, a blown-out car or memorable constellations of chockstones. This one has an S-log jammed into place. Down from the S-log and along the first straightaway are knobby boulders like asteroids fallen in the path, sheaves of flash-flood debris pushed up around them. As we crawled and climbed under and over them, the crew with the cameras wanted to hear about flash floods, sandstone and erosion. Hands waving, I told them how this place came to be: boom, boom, boom.

When we reached the spot where Aron did the deed, we dispersed. Seems nobody even thought to film here. I stuck around for a while. I put my hands on the smooth, bluish rock that had lodged against his arm. It had a little bit of carbonate mixed with local sandstone making it harder than the surrounding substrate. About the size of an old television, it had been dumped in here by flash floods from about 40 feet up. I recognized it as the kind of chockstone I would have put my weight on, testing it first with a kick as Aron did, then a light hop down, giving it a second of full body weight before landing and moving ahead. I would not have expected the boulder to pivot and drop like wedge on top of me.

With fingertips, I traced chip-marks Aron had made with his dull knife blade where he tried to whittle the sandstone around the boulder, only to discover it caused the immovable object to settle more firmly. In the movie, the brave actor spends most of the film’s 94 minutes lodged against this very rock, or one just like it, moving through physical and psychological montages that always bring him back to here. To accomplish this claustrophobic task, film crews worked both in the canyon itself and on a Salt Lake City stage set they built from laser-mapped topography. There are times, sitting with a candy box unfolded on my lap, that I cannot tell canyon from stage set. Close-ups and bedding planes in Navajo sandstone are carefully filmed in situ, the real thing. After so many shittier and shittier movies made in the Southwest, finally, thank you. Even the sound of fingertips idly brushed along a rock wall sound perfect.

Oh, there is some crap in the movie, no doubt. Jumping into a luminous pool of blue water with two hot party chicks? Give me a break. The only women I’ve ever seen at this end of Horseshoe may be beautiful, but they are damn crusty by the time I get to them. Second of all, that kind of blue water you only find at the mouth of the Little Colorado or down Havasu, but not in Utahan hinterlands. Any standing water in one of these canyons would be red like blood and tomato soup, and shadowless, so that if you actually cannonballed into it, you would impale your rectum on the pike of an unseen boulder.

That’s pretty much it for gripes. The rest of the movie is startlingly close to home. There’s not a drumroll for the boulder when it falls; it just happens, like it does when a boulder actually falls. The actor himself displays the confusion, fear and self-ridicule I might expect from the situation. Having drunk my own urine in the past, I found the portrayal of Aron’s experience distastefully similar to my own.

I remember sitting on that boulder of his, looking up at the crack of the sky. It is right where the canyon deepens into dungeon-like shade. You can reach your arm in and feel the coolness pooling down there. Aron stopped by that same day, curious about what the film crew was up to. He sat on the very boulder he had hugged for those desperate days, comfortable on its lumpy top as he talked about his experience, waving his left hand around as his prosthetic claw on the right waved with it. When I asked about the effect of light while he was down here, he commented on how strangely beautiful it had been, unceremoniously describing light pouring down the walls to the bottom where it landed for only 15 minutes a day. He did not talk about discordant terror or the futility that must have seemed crushing. On day three of being trapped, he was still taking scenic pictures; it was that striking down here.

A man with a spiel, no doubt, Aron showed unexpected vulnerability. I was surprised by his candor and attentiveness. He asked many questions about the boulder itself, about its mineral  composition, and queried me repeatedly through the day as to the nature of hydraulics and erosion. His were more or less the same questions I once asked of this place, the ones I continue to ask, watching the sun rise through the La Sals day after day, drinking rain and snowmelt off the rock. Of all the moments and seasons I have witnessed in this country, I was glad this particular episode happened to Aron and not me. It many ways, he was a better man for it than I.

I judge the same from the movie — no tricks or agonizingly false dramatizations, just a man on a mission through a canyon, stupid like I’ve been so many times, not telling anyone where I was going, but in ways better prepared than me. He had a date with a boulder and was fortunate enough to cut his way out from behind it and live to tell the tale. I sit through the entire movie captivated, and eventually stop writing on the candy box, just watching the experience, a new story from an old and familiar landscape.

Craig Childs lives off-grid in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado. He has written several books, the most recent, “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession.”

* The first and most-definitive story about the Park Service’s expedition to retrieve Aron Ralson’s hand was penned by Vince Welch in Mountain Gazette #124.

The Grief Counselor: A Search Concludes in the Gila

For Christmas, I got him this little wooden cross that dangles from his dog collar, only half-jokingly to signify his calling.  I threaten to get him a little black robe with a white collar, but he — with his classic border collie coat — already wears those. I, once his equal partner in search and rescue, am more and more often relegated to being his manager and chauffeur.

The wilderness search is over, the missing hunter found, the Office of the Medical Examiner on the way with a white body bag. As we arrive back at Incident Base, most of us studiously avoid the little knot of people standing slightly to the side, these being relatives of the subject.

They are deep in grief,  silenced by the depth of their loss. All around us, clamor prevails — four-wheeler and ground-pounder search teams returning, radio coms continuing hot and heavy, doors and tailgates slamming on State Police, Forest Service and Border Patrol trucks.

He makes a beeline for the relatives, still wearing his bright orange Search K9 vest. At an almost-but-not-quite hesitant walk, he approaches, drops a stick at their feet.

His eyes seek theirs — seemingly expressing their pain: the senseless Big Question of why it had to happen this way. His body language empathetic, his eyes now implore theirs to set the tragedy aside for a minute,  just for a bit, really, to throw the stick just this once, please. He crouches, belly on the ground, somber as a pallbearer.

He bounds after the stick,  returns it at a gallop, drops it on their feet. He lies down again, imploring.

They end up throwing the stick a dozen times. Then they are talking to each other for the first time since showing up here, six miles up this little wilderness dirt road. When I call him, he doesn’t come right away, but stays with them a little longer, licks a hand, gets a hug.

Their immersion in this somber game validates my dog’s conviction, deeply embedded in his K9 worldview,  that all transactions around this particular stick are very important.  This, he is teaching me, is the unfinished business of search and rescue.

Dave Baldridge’s last piece for the Gazette was “A Rescuer Reflects on Angels and Idiots,” which appeared in #174. Baldridge lives in Albuquerque.

Eating Wolf

I have stopped at the top long enough to rip the skins from my skis, taking breaths more slowly now than the ones I stopped counting on the way up. The even, heavy cadence of my breathing as I lay down a fresh up-track is addictive. The exhale louder, more pronounced, than the inhale. The short, quiet space in between each breath. The solid and unexpectedly slow and deep pound, pound of my heart. Opium.
Shush, click.
Shush, click.
Shush, click.

From pull-off to top. Ski sliding against the micro-topography of snow. Shush. Heel striking down, binding against binding. Click. And then the other ski, shush, and then the other heel, click. Shush, click, back and forth, one and then the other,
all
the
way
up.

From the top, I lock my heels, turn my toes to the tall trees below. If I am lucky, I will float. The snow is better here. Soon the trees will disappear and all that remains will be the narrow spaces in between. And the cold air I am breathing. My exhale louder, more pronounced than my inhale. The short, quiet space in between each breath. My heart now in my ears.

Some of my turns are snaked and some are kicked, as I work my way down through the maze of in-between …

I pop out on the north side, on another mountain, laying fresh tracks with my Wolfdog. Snow makes him high and it is absolutely everywhere. The peaks go on up into Canada from here, and then they keep going on up from there. It is enough to make me dizzy and so we keep on going higher. The Wolfdog is grinning big, his pink tongue extended out long, like his long, long legs. He is running beyond fast, all four paws airborne at once. He is flying.

My heart is pounding and it grows wings and flies right on out of my chest. There is no other way to put this: I am so goddamn, unbelievably happy. And the mountains are so goddamn, unbelievably beautiful. I holler a WAHOO!  And I know, just know, that this is one of the best times of my life, and I do not ever want it to stop.

But it does stop, much later on. This time will roll into the next, and there will be other amazing times, but not one as goddamn, unbelievably beautiful as this one, when I am so unspeakably happy and my heart and my Wolfdog are both flying through the snow straight out ahead of me. Free.

And I was right as rain about all of that …

I snake out one last turn onto an east slope, and a lot of time has passed. Skins are back on my skis and I carry my Wolfdog in an old and battered Nalgene tucked in my pack. We both drank water from that beat-up bottle and it seemed like a good place to keep his ashes.

The puppy keeps right up with me, following close behind in the up-track, without stepping on the backs of my skis. He is a similar mix as my Wolfdog was, but I don’t see my Wolfdog when I look at him, and for this I am grateful. We top out at the frozen lake and find the perfect spot for a handful of my best friend’s ashes. Here, there are three ponderosa pines, a view of the lake and craggy ridgeline.

I pull off my pack and pull out the Nalgene. My heart is breaking, just as it does every day now. I unscrew the lid and pour some of my Wolfdog’s ashes into my naked, outstretched hand. The sun is low, the air still. Gently I shake the ashes from my hand and they land gracefully near the three ponderosas. The puppy, I call him Arrow, bounds over, taking a big bite of snow, and of Wolfie’s ashes.

I am kneeling in the snow, feeling a little stunned. Through my tears, I smile at Arrow, touching my tongue to the palm of my hand where some of Wolfie’s ashes remain.

It is time to ski down, before we lose any more daylight. My long-legged puppy stays just ahead of me and off to the side, keeping his amber eyes on my turns, brilliantly steering clear of my skis, yipping at me to go faster, faster, faster PLEASE! He is a good dog. He has a tough act to follow.

It will not stop hurting, but I will become accustomed to the hurt, the sharp intake of breath, the breath held until I absolutely have to let it go and take another one. Down at the bottom, I squeeze my hands into fists and press them against my chest and then against my eyes. I do not want this good pain to go away. Ever. I will hold onto it as if my life depends on it. I think my life does depend on it. And if I am lucky, I will float …

Tricia M. Cook writes from a wee hamlet snuggled into the eastern toes of the North Cascade Mountains. There, she is accompanied by her two big dogs and two small cats, and various forest creatures.

One More Reason Why SUV’s are Evil

For some reason, when I heard the car door shut, I knew I was screwed. It was 4 a.m., January. I was perched high on the lip of Muley Point, Utah, and the wind was howling. Somewhere in the dark, far below this wind-riven promontory, the San Juan River flowed with ice. I was naked and my car doors were locked tight.

It began with the search for a new car, an SUV. After 20 years of tired, worn-out Subarus, I needed a real four-wheel-drive; something that would get me where I needed to go; and something I could sleep in. With a new job and the regular paycheck that came with it, I went looking for an SUV — not too big, but not too small either.

The car salesman winced when I asked if they came without running boards. “How’s your little lady gonna git in?” he inquired with a wolfish grin. “Well,” I drawled back, not to be outdone, “I don’t know any ladies that can’t pull themselves into a car. Most of ’em drive trucks.” He looked puzzled when I insisted on laying the back seats down and became visibly rattled when I crawled in to lie down. I lay there for several minutes, silently staring at the ceiling, just to fuck with him. He emitted an audible sigh of relief when I finally announced that I’d take it.

That was early fall and I finally got a break in January. It was time to try out my sparkly new SUV with some quality car camping. The best place I knew of for that was Muley Point, high on the southwest rim of Cedar Mesa in the southern part of the Beehive State.

I left Colorado in a blizzard that didn’t let up until Paradox Valley. Upon arriving in the late afternoon, I got out to traverse the rim and sat to watch the play of light across Monument Valley, 50 miles to the south. What a relief to be away from work and family holiday duties! After the final glow faded from Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River canyon was shrouded in darkness, I turned to dinner and the set-up of my new home. As I went through the ritual of spreading my pad and sleeping bag, it dawned on me that I could sit back there and eat! Damn! … no wind and sheltered from the rapidly plunging temperatures. Congratulating myself, I celebrated with another beer and finally, after reading by headlamp through several hours of early-winter darkness, it was time to sleep.

While the car rocked in wind that originated somewhere in Nevada, I slept — and what a cozy, comfortable sleep it was. Until 3:30, when I had to pee. I lay there for what seemed like hours, trying to will it away, but it was inevitable.

I sat up wrapped in my bag. OK — real quick — no screwing around. I threw off the sleeping bag, rolled toward the door, pulled the handle, kicked it open into a bitter wind and stumbled out. In hindsight, I should have paid closer attention to that clicking noise as I got out. But it was a new car and I had yet to appreciate its “features.” As I hurriedly pushed into the wind, trying to gauge which direction to pee, the door blew shut and my learning curve for these “features” steepened. I had rolled over the lock button on the keys and was now, quite literally, out in the cold. 4 a.m. — dark, windy and a temperature far south of 32°.

It was time to think and act quickly.

The frigid wind on my bare ass was disconcerting, as I hastily surveyed my surroundings, quite aware that I could die, or at least become really uncomfortable. The ground all around me was smooth, but I remembered a campfire ring along the rim — surely there were some big rocks, but I couldn’t be certain. I shuffled carefully towards the darkened rim, fearful of sharp rocks and cactus in the night.

There it was — a circle of boulders, each as big as my head, and heavy. I lugged one back to the car where I began to assess the price of SUV windows. Damn! They were all big and, no doubt, expensive. I settled on the back door window, the one that had blown shut. It was, in a certain sense, revenge. It was a difficult (and long) 15 seconds. Shiny new car — great big rock — it just wasn’t right.

But desperate times call for drastic measures.

Determined, I reared back with both hands wrapped firmly around the boulder and hit the window. The rock recoiled violently against my bare, cold chest. Shit! I pulled myself up off the ground as I cursed into the dark. Adrenaline surged as I gripped the rock and again struck the window, more forceful this time. It bounced back again, but this time I was braced. Now I was freezing and pissed. “Fucking windows are rubber!” I screeched into the wind.

Finally, after several more attempts, I wound up and slammed the window, catching it with a sharp edge of the boulder. The window exploded into a million tiny fragments. My arms followed the rock through the jagged hole — hands clamped tightly around it in anticipation of another rebound.

Well, I thought, that was cool. I threw the rock over behind me, reached through the hole to open the door, and realized my hand was wet and sticky. I was bleeding profusely, as a shard had left a long, streak-like slash on my left hand. “A mere flesh wound,” I muttered, smiling at both my wit and success. I recovered the offending key chain, unlocked all the doors and dressed, all while wrapping my hand in an old T-shirt. It was good to realize that I could multi-task when absolutely necessary.

I threw all the front-seat detritus in back with the glass shards, jumped in and pressed on with a cold ride down the seemingly endless switchbacks to the desert floor.

I entered the town of Bluff in growing light. My hand throbbed. Bad news, but I expected as much. No clinic, no doctor — the folks in Recapture Lodge pointed east — go to Montezuma Creek. I snagged a complimentary cup of coffee to ward off dehydration and to make up for the blood loss, rewrapped my hand with fresh paper towels, and headed toward the rising sun.

Upon arriving in Montezuma Creek, a dusty oil town bordering the Navajo Reservation, I pulled in front of the clearly marked clinic, which was just opening for the day. After the basic clinic formalities, a very polite Navajo doctor ushered me into a sterile room and quietly sewed me up. I tried in vain to explain what had happened. He smiled politely and sent me on my way. This trip was over — almost.

The drive home was uneventful, if you can call Lizard Head Pass in a raging blizzard with one window missing uneventful.

The final “bright spot” of the trip didn’t come until a week later, as I sat at my desk on a Monday morning recounting the bizarre sequence of events to the anthropologist from the adjacent office.

“Fillmore, you’re an idiot,” he said, shaking his head. It was time to set the hook … and finish the story.

“Well,” I challenged, “I bet you’ve never been healed by a Navajo medicine man.” His eyes narrowed as I held up my bandaged hand. He peered at it closely, intensely interested as I slowly unwound the bandage. He placed his reading glasses on the end of his nose, and squinted as he bent even closer. I had him.

He snorted. “Those are stitches,” he exclaimed with scorn. “Where did you find this medicine man?”

“The Montezuma Creek Tribal Clinic,” I answered, grinning triumphantly. That single moment damn near made the whole thing worth it.

The deep scars of this experience remain — I don’t mean the physical kind, although there are those. I’m talking mental scars. To this day, even several years later, I feel an involuntary twitch and a cold shiver when I push the “lock” button on the key chain of my well-used and no-longer-so-shiny SUV. I have, however, learned all about those “features.”

Robert Fillmore is a professor of geology at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo.

Bailing: Why, How and When We Do It

Bailing: Why, How and When We Do It

By Brendan Leonard

From inside Kind Coffee in Estes Park, the day looked perfect for climbing, aside from the deep, extending bowing every visible tree was performing in the wind as Mitsu and I comfortably drank coffee.

“Good bail, dude,” I said.

“What? That wasn’t a bail,” he said. “We didn’t even leave the parking lot.” True.

Fifteen minutes before we had ordered coffee, we had been standing at the trailhead at Lumpy Ridge, with the intent of getting on an easy five-pitch climb. We hadn’t gotten our packs out of the back of Mitsu’s car yet, and we were watching wind gusts shove the pine trees around, as if we expected it to suddenly cease so we could proceed with our day.

“I’m not worried about it being dangerous,” Mitsu said. “I’m worried about it not being fun.” Maybe those were 40 mph gusts. Communication beyond rope tugs would be impossible. Getting buffeted while fighting the boredom of belaying would definitely be annoying. Battling wind-induced rope drag, also a pain in the ass. I pictured myself barn-dooring out of a hand crack after a violent wind gust, backpack straps whipping my face. The hell with it.

We got back in the car and drove to the coffee shop to argue about what constitutes a bail.

I believe the origin of the word “bail,” as outdoorsfolk use it, most likely originated from its use in rock climbing. In the event of a storm rolling in, an accident, an injury or lack of sufficient climbing ability to finish a route, a party “bails,” and rappels to the nearest ground. Bailing usually requires leaving a few pieces of gear, at minimum, and can get expensive after that, so it is avoided as much as possible.

You don’t, for example, get partway up a route, decide you’re “just not feeling it today” and build a non-retrievable rappel anchor out of two Camalots ($60 apiece), two slings ($5 apiece) and two carabiners ($6 apiece). Bailing is not chickening out, or quitting because you’re lazy.

There are no hard and fast rules on the proper usage of the word “bail,” but I would submit that if you, at minimum, have left your home or tent with the required gear for your objective and you decide not to follow through with your plan, you are bailing.

I have bailed off climbing routes and peaks because of thunderstorms. I have bailed on winter summit attempts because of numb toes and avalanche danger. I once bailed on a ski day at Copper Mountain after one run because there were 300 people in front of us in the lift line. I bailed on a dayhike once because I saw two mountain lions about a mile from the trailhead, and I was by myself. Bailing, as far as the outdoors is concerned, is using good judgment to avoid certain death, irrational amounts of danger or sometimes just a shitty experience, like trying to climb while being pulled off the rock by 40 mph wind gusts or having your throat ripped out by a cougar.

I would even argue that you can bail on a jog, even if no one else accompanies you, and you tell no one your objective. If you plan to run five miles in the park and you only run three miles, you have bailed. As the tree that falls in the forest even though no one sees or hears it, you have failed to reach a goal, and should admit it instead of letting yourself off the hook so easily.

Which, of course, requires that you had an objective in the first place. If you are someone who just likes to go for a hike and get out in nature, and sets no goals, well, you can never bail. On the other hand, if you set out at the trailhead with a certain lake in mind, and you turn around and walk back to your car without reaching the lake because you’re tired or your boyfriend is whining about blisters or you have a hangover, then you have bailed. Don’t hide behind “It doesn’t matter; it was just nice to get outside in the fresh air.” That’s correct, it is — but you didn’t follow through, and you should own up to it. If you contracted to paint someone’s house and you got three-quarters done and said, “Well the point wasn’t to paint the whole house; the point was to get some new color on it,” the owner of the house would be pissed.

In groups of two or more, bailing is a four-step process:

In Step 1, the group begins to have a less-than-awesome experience: It starts to rain, you can hear multiple avalanches, you realize you don’t want to hike up a 14er with 400 other people after all, you have diarrhea, someone sprains his or her ankle, you realize you’re skinning up into a whiteout, etc.

In Step 2, one member of the party has the good sense to realize that the outing is starting to suck, and says to the group something like, “What do you guys think?” he or she means, “What do you guys think about how not fun this day is becoming?” This, in the business world, is known as “asking for the sale.”

In Step 3, however, the partner, or other group member, does not have to fully commit to “buying” in response to someone asking for the sale. He, she or they just have to commit to the possibility of bailing. Once, in very high winds, blowing snow and cold temperatures during a dayhike up Mount Audubon in the Indian Peaks, my underdressed friend Aaron completed Step 3 by saying, “Well, if one of you guys were to say you didn’t think that we should keep going, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.” Very diplomatic. Two hours later, we were stuffing our faces at Big City Burrito.

Step 4 is agreement from the rest of the party, which is usually a given after Step 3 has been satisfied. Mountain folk will suffer in silence indefinitely until they realize someone, or everyone else, is hating life as much as they are. You will notice a substantial uptick in morale at this point. Once the possibility of bailing is realized, the gravity of beer, or cheeseburgers, or whatever, takes hold and pulls the group back to the trailhead, where everyone will say to each other things like, “I think we made the right decision,” and “That mountain will be there for another day.”

Bailing is an important virtue in mountain people. It sacrifices one outdoor experience in order to make possible all the infinite future outdoor (and other) experiences you’ll have because you didn’t push onward and die on this one. In that way, it’s kind of like Jesus dying on the cross for all those Christians.

Get comfortable with it. The archives of The Denver Post are littered with stories of the dead people who didn’t have the good judgment to bail when they should have, and sometimes the selfless folks who died trying to rescue those people. True, you will never know what happened if you hadn’t turned around, but the regret of a bail hurts a lot less than freezing to death in a whiteout or getting hit by a bolt of lightning. If you took a survey, I think you’d find that at least four out of five of the world’s toughest mountaineers would prefer drinking beer and eating burritos over freezing to death.

Brendan Leonard is the Gazette’s Mountain Media editor. He lives in Denver.

The archives of The Denver Post are littered with stories of the dead people who didn’t have the good judgment to bail when they should have

Re-Entry

We hiked that winter morning from the river to the rim, from sun-soaked beach through deep red mud to dry cold snow. From a grubby two weeks camping, past Europeans in city shoes, to the visitor center pub where Jim Croce played on the jukebox and ski jumpers launched on flat screens over the heads of Midwesterners sipping toddies. All of it, every detail, felt new and alive, nearly foreign, and snagged our attention like raingear on mesquite.

Re-entry is like the space between waking and rising, a dream-place, a passageway. People who travel overseas call it culture shock. People who work outdoors, as we used to do, camping for weeks at a time, know the familiar shock of sudsing shampoo under warm water — warm! — or easing a gas pedal up to sixty or marveling at the grocery produce section. There’s overwhelm in it, but there’s also magic: the sense of being remade.

Sometimes, of course, you’ve been made new so often it becomes blasé. You go into the woods, you come back out. Big whoop. But, this time, we’d been made really new. We’re backpackers, Laurie and I, skiers, sometimes bikers. We are not river runners. Especially not in February in the Grand Canyon. To be in your forties and cede control of nearly everything to someone else, even dear old friends, is unnerving.

We’d known our river-running friends many years earlier when we’d all toiled at a lodge on the North Rim doing lousy work for lousy pay in a gorgeous setting. We hadn’t seen them much in-between. But, as is so often the case, the kind of people they’d been was the kind of people they’d become: sun-weathered and silly, cautious and reliable, wild and gentle in equal parts.

“The Grand Canyon still has something to offer us,” the email invitation read.

So we headed off. Were we out of our element? Yes. Were we cold? Yes. Were we scared? Very. When we hit the rapids, and our boatman-friend said “hold on,” by god, I held. After two weeks, only half the river days the rest of the group would spend, I had new palm calluses. Then, in no time, the trip was done. We were back in the realm of the familiar: in well-worn boots, hiking with packs, preparing to re-enter.

I crave it. Who doesn’t? It’s like Joseph Campbell said: the call to adventure runs full circle to the triumphant return. Only this triumph comes with a heavy dose of humility. And aloneness. No one, it seems, can understand what you’ve been through, what you’ve learned, lessons so obvious as to seem mundane: how little we need for happiness, how much we have to be grateful for, the plain wonder of the world we live in and the deep responsibility we have for it. How can you explain that? You can’t.

Even as you try, as you leave the rim and drive to town, it’s slipping away like the effects of high-altitude training leeching off at sea level. You stop for groceries. You nudge the speedometer toward eighty. Pretty soon, you’re boarding a jet for home. An airplane! For this kind of shock, I’m not ashamed to admit, I require Xanax.

I’d just taken my middle seat and half a pill when I looked up at my seat mate. She was a talker. A giddy one, grinning wildly, eager, nearly desperate, to tell the story of her travels. I pocketed my headphones and tried not to sigh.

Turns out, she’d celebrated her 50th birthday with her first trip ever to the Grand Canyon. She’d planned the trip for months, but by the time she arrived in Arizona, yet another El Niño storm looked likely to keep her away. Then it happened: the snow cleared, her father took the wheel, and they showed up at the snowy edge.

“We could see the river,” she said.

I did not want to fess up. I didn’t want to one-up her for one thing, but also it suddenly seemed very private — my changed-ness, my quest — something I ought to hoard like Halloween candy or piety. But there was no way out of it now except to lie. So I came clean, and we swapped stories as we ascended. She’d seen a sunrise and a sunset, the same as me. She’d walked an icy trail gripping the handrail, the way I’d gripped webbing.

Now the plane banked, and there it was below us, the geography of our remaking, the Grand Canyon in its wholeness, end to end, as though you can digest it this way, in three minutes or six. You can’t, of course. We both knew that, my seatmate and I. You come, you stay, you arise made new. If you’re lucky, you can share it.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her new book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” will be published in spring 2011.

Parallel Universe of Mountain Memory Seasonal Themes

Editor’s note: A few months ago, I fired off a group email to all our usual suspects/regular contributors apprising them of our 2011 editorial calendar/themes, so they can plan ahead and not be late with stories for goddamned once. Most just responded by saying something on the order of “Gracias for the heads up.” But not long-time senior correspondent Vince Welch — a man who’s obviously well versed in mountain-town sociology — who opted to add his usual skewed spin to what had seemed to me to be a fairly banal communiqué. Real themes, as communicated by me to the usual suspects, are in bold type. Welch’s reactions to those themes are in italics.

January — Deep Winter
January — Random Encounters/Sleeping with all the Wrong People
February/March — Dog Issue
February/March — Bar Fights and Car Wrecks
April — Spring Travel
April — Ski Town Empties Out/What’s Left Behind
May — Rivers Issue
May — Pot Lucks I have Crashed
June — Climbing
June — How to Avoid Offers of Work on the Mountain and Not feel Guilty
July — High Summer
July — New Arrivals in Town/Returning Hero Syndrome/Big Fish, Small Bowl
August/September — On Foot in the Mountains
August/September — Identity Crisis at 7,500 feet, Bastille Day Parade
October — Skiing
October — Partner Switch Time
November — Bar Issue
November — Recreational Drinking Begins; Potholes, Detours, Black Ice
December — Holiday Season
December — Naked Winter Street Olympics (c1973)

Vince Welch lives in Portland, OR, where he’s currently working diligently on his latest book, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West.”

In Remembrance of “Boy”

I was driving home last night listening to CommieLiberalRadio (NPR), when the announcer said that the actor Johnny Sheffield had died the day before.

I would suppose that name is not exactly household, but I listened to the finish of the short synopsis on CLR after I had parked at the house. You see, I was best friends with “Boy” for a day.

It was late summer 1978. I had been employed for a half-year as a “Field Engineer” for an oilfield services company, and had just spent a week at a company training session/morale-raiser/“group hoot” at the corporate offices in Houston. I would have flown directly from home to there and back, but I asked if I could, instead, fly partway home and rent a car in Denver, so I could attend the wedding of some friends. I couldn’t rent the expected sub-compact for a oneway trip, and instead ended up with a large cruise-mobile (I think it was a Ford Thunderbird). Many other wedding attendees noted the car and said I “must be doing well” at work.

I drove home the following day. I did something I never do anymore, but was still in the habit of doing back then. I picked up two young hitchhikers outside of Denver and dropped them off in Glenwood Springs. Leaving Glenwood, into the intensifying west Colorado desert heat, I spotted a lonely bedraggled figure 10 or so miles down the road. I stopped and let him in.

He appeared to be at least 20 years older than I, and, as you’d expect, not very presentable. Many hard years. He was parched and asked if I had anything to drink. Having just been in Texas, and not being the beer-snob I now pretend to be, I had a couple very warm six-packs of such carbonated delights as Lone Star and Pearl in the back seat. It was obvious that he was extremely thirsty when he drained the first can in a few seconds, then lingered perhaps a minute over the second. His mood brightened and we talked the rest of the way to where I let him off near my home.

He was on his way from New Jersey and was going to move in with his daughter in California. Obviously, he had no money to get there and was “going to start life over.” We talked about this, and that, and he was interested in what I was doing and aspired to in this life.

Midway through our drive, after a measured intense pause, he said, “Look at me.” My hands gripped the wheel a bit tighter, and I managed a sideways glance at his expectant face.

You recognize me, don’t you?” he asked. I was a little nervous at the “lookat- me” remark, and I worried a little more as to how this encounter might turn. I humored him, taking a slightly longer sideways glance. “Why, yes,” I replied. “You do look somewhat familiar.”

A short but intense pause. His next words, softly spoken, nevertheless were like gunshots. (Gunshots through a silencer). “I’m Boy.”

I was stunned. I had been off-balance since the look-at-me request, and things were spinning more and more off-kilter. “Boy,” I wondered to myself. This could be esoteric, maybe it’s a test, uh …

“From Tarzan,” he explained.

Oh … Well, this really was weird. A pantheon of unremembered almost-famous people and heroes and villains and almost-somebodies presented themselves in my mind, and “Boy” was certainly one of them.

I relaxed some, and he told me of his life with the other Johnny (Weissmuller, who played Tarzan), who “was like a second father to” him. I didn’t ask what had happened in the intervening years, but here he was, out on the road, living life, such as it was, and our paths intertwined for part of a day.

I let him off on the interstate exchange nearest my house and we, as friendlily as our short-term relationship warranted, said our good-byes.

I told Betty of this when I came through the door. She summarized that “he really had to be ‘Boy’ — what skid-row bum would make up a story like that?”

Except that, I don’t think he was a “skid-row bum” for much longer. After hearing yesterday’s news (he died Oct. 15), I checked his bio on IMDB and read the L.A. Times obituary. He must have re-connected with his family. He died at home, suffering a heart attack while up in a tree (how appropriate!) trying to trim some branches.

Rosco Betunada lives and writes in the stinking desert of far-western Colorado.