Friday, March 21, 2014

Better to burn out than to fade away . . .


On an original J-rig in the Grand Canyon, around 1972.
Mark was a great skier and river rat and followed an inner voice that wouldn't allow for hedging ideals. He skied the back-country on skinny skis and leather boots, before back-country skiing was mainstream, and he did so on that old gear with more style, finesse and power than most of today's plastic, carbon fiber crowd.  Twenty years is a long time to miss a brother.

Come As You Are

The spring of 1994 was a bad season. The bad started two days after the equinox when Mark drove up the canyon at midnight, drank a pint of whiskey, stepped out of his truck and put a bullet through his head.

Two weeks later, on my 32ND birthday, Kurt did the same.

The sheriff found Mark an hour later. He was laying face-down, the blood streaming 20-feet down the slope of new asphalt. The door of his truck open, his heart barely beating. He was in a new development, where luxury homes would soon be built, in neighborhoods where everything would seem perfect and the children would run free without worries. Three decades earlier Mark lived in a similar neighborhood, where he ran free, where life was fresh and when euphoria was not a lost memory.

In 1991 I went to a small club to watch a new band. The audience was small, not unusual for unknowns in Salt Lake City of 1991, but the band was on the threshold of enormous fame.  We were innocent naivet├ęs, witnessing greatness in infancy. Afterward Kurt shook my hand and thanked me for coming. His eyes were clear, translucent blue, full of excitement; as if living in an age of discovery, as if entering an unknown wilderness.

Mom called me early the next morning. Not a crier or talker, all she could say was, “Mark shot himself, he doesn’t have much time”. Conversation over. I drive to the University and find him in the ICU. I see a small entrance wound in his left temple - he’s the only lefty in the family - and his nose is packed with gauze, “to control the cerebral fluids leaking through his blown sinuses”, the nurse explains. The exit wound is a fleshy explosion from his right temple. Oddly, the bullet wounds are not nearly as shocking as his eyes: wide open, fixed, dilated shark eyes. Dark. No response. No life.

Mark is a year older and the center of my earliest memories. When young he was bold and fearless with a street-tough exterior. We roamed the neighborhood, amid the building of new homes and he quickly sized up the rich kids who moved in almost daily. Mark quickly rose to the top of the pecking order. I tagged along and was left alone by the bullies; they did not want trouble from him. Mark’s eyes were full of excitement, like he lived on the threshold of discovery, like he lived on the edge of a paradise, a land just waiting to be explored by the first humans.

My parents are Mormon, and, despite their best efforts, Mark found a love of alcohol. In Junior High, the toughs of the school didn’t know we were brothers. If they did they left me alone. My small-size and reticence seemed to attract those looking for an easy fight. One big kid always picked on me, but I’d run away without a word. One night, after prolonged harassment, Mark told me he wouldn’t fight my fights but shared his secret, “Punch first, square in the nose or throat, with all your rage, then stand ready for more.” “Most will run away,” he said. The next day I took his word, bloodied my knuckles on the ass-hole’s teeth . . . I stood my ground, and sure enough the kid ran away. Not good enough for Mark, he went after that kid and put an exclamation point on the situation. The next day Mark was expelled from school for savagely beating that nose-picker. Against his word, he fought my fight, sending a loud message to anyone thinking of messing with his brother.

In 1993 I saw Kurt on TV. His eyes were still translucent blue, but they were now heavy and troubled. Life was leaving him. 

By the end of high school Mark was an alcoholic. He became an electrician, but drank too much, couldn’t hold a job and his wife finally kicked him out. He went back home to live with our parents, back to the old neighborhood in the foothills, at the edge of the wilderness of our youth. My parents loved him despite his trouble, but somehow that could not ease his suffering mind. He soon ended his life. Two decades later, I still wonder what I might have done to help.

I saw Mark and Kurt the other night. Mark was high on a mountain, on a peak we often hiked in our youth, where I ski or hike each week as an aging man. Kurt was on a small stage alone, playing a guitar, singing with his raspy voice. Their eyes were clear and full of excitement, like they were entering an unknown wilderness. I woke up happy.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

Cardiac Arrest in Crescent Bowl, Bountiful Ridge, 02-28-2014

Cardiac Arrest on Bountiful Ridge, February 28, 2014
Winter 2013-14 is in cardiac arrest. If it were human it'd be close to death. The winter has been marked by little weather with weeks between storms, and then February comes in like a lamb, the weather warm, acting more like May than winter. Yesterday we finally get heavy precipitation, but the temps are again more like late spring than late winter. While at work I scanned the radar maps to track the storm, and the news was not good for late February; it rained hard most of the day with the snow line hovering between 7,000 and 8,000 feet. In the evening the temps started to drop, but only as the storm's energy was nearly spent, with the snow line briefly dropping to 5,200. Based on the temps, even above 7,500 feet the snow would be wet, dense and sloppy. A code red for sure.
Rudy's Flat under 43 inches of snow; greatest depth all winter, but still pretty thin compared to the norm. This was the last of the sun for the day.
If you had to rescue someone from an avalanche could you remember how to search under the stress of the moment? Could you keep a clear head and make the right decisions? Could you perform CPR and save a life? I’ve taken multiple courses in first aid and CPR, so I’m comfortable with the basics, yet when I rehearse it in my mind my thought s quickly devolve from chest compressions to “I hope this guy didn’t eat an onion bagel for breakfast.” Yeah, I'd do it if I had to, but only if I had to. I’m kind of a clean-freak, so I was relieved when the God’s of CPR announced that rescue breathing is no longer necessary. They reason that if the victim is that far gone chest compressions are plenty. That said, today I was the one who should have avoided that onion bagel; I had zero energy and was working harder than ever to hike up a mountainside that I usually run up. Some days you have it, some days you don’t.

I’ve been working on some big projects and I’m carrying a serious sleep deficit. Today it finally caught up to me. My lungs seemed half-sized; it felt like an elephant was standing on my chest. About 3 miles up the mountain I mention this to Brett and he asks, “Just where do you keep your phone?” With a laugh he says, “When your heart goes, there’s not much I can do for you other than call 911.” I wasn’t having a heart attack; I was just exhausted and needed a long nap.

I didn’t get to bed last night until after 2AM. I tried to sleep late, but by 7am I was wide awake, so I texted Brett to get down here, and started packing for the day. A mile up North Canyon I was dragging, and not because of the wet, thin snow cover - and mud! (This is February?) Seeing a bare tree well at Rudy’s Flat I just wanted to sit and sleep. I seriously thought about sitting on that dry ground, back-to-trunk, and take a nap. The five or so inches of new snow at Rudy’s was dense, with wet sloppy layers below, making for about 43 inches total coverage. As we climbed, the new snow quickly became less dense, not exactly blower, but conditions were getting better. At the top of Rectangle Peak the wind was raging and I was freezing, so we quickly found some shelter in the lee of a cornice building in the wind. We opted to ski Crescent Bowl, which is a protected NW facing drainage, sheltered from the wind by parallel ridglets, the northern ridge forming a half-moon against the straight line of the southern ridge, hence the name ‘Crescent Bowl’. The snow was awesome, light powder down the gut of the drainage, but we were forced to skier’s right by the brush exposed through the thin coverage, and the more rightward we skied, the more morning-sun-crusted snow was found. That, plus we were crossing the line into yesterday’s rain/snow line. In short, conditions were variable: light, powdery snow up high on northern aspect, wet and heavy lower and southerly. That said, it was all fun skiing, courtesy of today’s fat, surfy skis.

I had no energy for multiple runs. Plus the second wave of the storm was upon us, so we bailed after one run. As we descended the wind dropped and big, fluffy fakes were falling in classis winter fashions, so we were encouraged for future ski days, but, sadly, those fluffy flakes quickly turned wet, then, a bit lower, to a nasty rain. Just one of those days.  I never went into Cardiac arrest. Wish I could say the same for winter.   

I've been watching the progress of this Chickadee nest all winter; it gets a little bigger each time I pass through. Makes me wonder if it's working on multiple sites. this one seems too low to the ground (5 feet once the snow melts), just inviting predators (raccoons, snakes) but what do I know, I'm not as smart as a Chickadee. Maybe it's just looking for a meal, not a house?  

The famed Mueller Park trail near Rudy's Flat is emerging again through the snow. Up close you can see a mountain bike  tread left last fall. Given that April came in February this year, and after a very weak winter, in another month I'm sure someone will get their bike up here. Makes me sad to see winter come to an end, seems like we just got started.

Skiing up Rectangle Bowl, B-Town below.

Brett breaking trail. This is at 8,000 feet and the snow is starting to lighten. Below here it rained most of the day yesterday. The ski conditions were a mix of dense powder on the northerly aspects, above 7,500 feet, and wet cement below. We need a couple more COLD snow storms, with me making turns in 3% blower snow, to help finish off this winter in style.  

The wind was raging as we neared Bountiful Ridge and Rectangle Peak. Brett here doing his best 'Flying Nun' impersonation. For all you young bucks, do a search to see what that even means.

Brett, almost on the ridge.

Brett coming across Rectangle Peak. I was searching for protection from the raging wind when I took this shot, then quickly dropped off the cornice to my back and instantly felt 20 degrees warmer in a safe harbor from the wind.  

Me skiing out. Kara knitted that hat; I always feel her strength with her handy work protecting my bald

The descent, at Mid North Canyon. Last winter was pathetic in terms of snow, yet this time last year this bridge crossing was kind of dicey given the six-foot high drop-off on either side into the pond.
This year is pathetic X's 2!

More of the mountain bike trail emerging from winter hibernation; North Canyon, 1/4 mile a up the single track.

Too warm for February! It is raining during our descent down North Canyon. This is where the snow turns to rain at about 6,200 feet.

Next week the snow will be gone and I'll be booting out.

Double track in North Canyon. During our ascent we skinned over that spot, now muddy. Real hard-men of the back-country would've skinned back across that mud.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bountiful Ridge, February 7, 2014

Typical North Canyon: brush, stream crossings and brush. Did I say brush? Brush to the power of 100. I love skiing Bountiful Ridge, I have it to myself (except for Brett, John and Shara). The skiing is great, but there's a reason why people don't partake. Did I mention brush? Beware, I tore my brand new B.D. pants today on the grabby, Gamble Oak. 

Bird feeder.

35 inches at Rudy's Flat. A year ago (2-25-13) there was 39 inches here. By my count this is the third 'sucky' snow year in a row (see my core shot photo below).

Bird house? Chickadee's dig tree houses and, based on the size, I'm guessing this is the work of a chickadee.

45 inches midway up Rectangle Bowl. Three years ago I measured 85 inches here in February. This winter sucks (see core shot photo below).


Meager snow doesn't even cover the mahogany (brush not the trees). Normally this is buried 4 feet deep. Several years ago when I saw this stuff still exposed (binoculars from the valley) I wouldn't even bother. This year I do a 'work around'.

Approaching storm front with Antelope Island beyond.

Red zone. 33 degree slope in mid Rectangle Bowl. This slope is a SE aspect, low elevation (8,000 feet) and gets a ton of sun, especially this year, and some spots were nearly melted off before last weeks storm, so, based on the above, it's a relatively safe ski run, slide wise.

Looking up Rectangle Bowl, my preferred local for a skin track because it's safe, and makes for nice turns when the N-NE slopes are unstable.

More storm shots. It was windy and kind of cold, but the snow was excellent. Today's avalanche report made is sound like the snow was wet and heavy. It wasn't classic Utah fluff (9 parts air, 1 part snow), but the conditions made for excellent turning conditions.

Rectangle Peak and cornices. I got most of these cornices to fall but they ran only about 50 feet, and did not cause any avalanching. A good sign for me, it meant it was safe to ski, slide wise. About five years ago I skied this slope then, on run number two, this slope cracked, shooting about 75 feet along the drifts, displacing about 5 inches, but never releasing into a full avalanche. It was scary to see my first-run tracks about to get swallowed by a slide. I aborted my second run and billy-goated the ridge back to flat (safe) ground. Today the snow was welded - it seemed bomb proof. I skied with full confidence.   

Cornice drop #1.

Skin track, going back up for another run.  

Skin track from the POV of my Garmont Radium's.

Mt. Mahogany (tree's this time not the brush variety), looking up Rectangle Bowl. These trees are just below the summit of Rectangle Peak.

A grey day but my turns are kind of visible. Great turning conditions!!

Headlamp descent. I got away way too late - again! It'd be nice to just ski the whole day, but you make it fit where and when you can.

Old man looks even older from below. Look at all that saggy skin! Anyone know a good plastic guy?

Core short! Damn!!! In lean years any storm is welcome, but it also creates hazards by hiding rocks.   

Dang GoPro was shooting photo's and I hadn't a clue. Killed the memory on my card. This one was the only keeper, just for the stupid look on my face. 

Running out of daylight! "To old to rock and roll, too young to die." Guess the group and the song and I'll give you the year-old Snickers I found in my pack.   

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Voices: Bountiful Ridge, Rectangle Bowl, Friday, January 31, 2014

Summit of Rectangle Peak, the clouds briefly parted just as I topped-out. View SW, toward City Creek Canyon and SLC. 

BC Skiing, Bountiful Ridge, Rectangle Bowl, Friday, January 31, 2014
I often hear voices in my head. They tell what direction to follow. Some days just don’t flow. Some days nothing goes as planned, and on those days that voice is often screaming. The more scattered the day, the louder the voice. Friday was one of those days.

The Wasatch Mountains are experiencing another bad snow year, the third in a row, but I’m determined to ski at least once a week come hell, work or no snow. So far I’ve done just that, but it has meant nighttime descents under headlamp; skiing thin, weedy, rocky slopes (news skis next year?); an irritated wife for my single-mindedness; and an irritated boss for my absence each Friday. He really can’t complain though. The job gets done, and very well I might add.

It’s almost February and the Wasatch Mountain have only 50% normal snow coverage. This winter we get a moderate storm (10-15 inches) about once every three weeks, whereas in a normal winter we see storms about once week.  Yesterday’s (Thursday’s)  storm was a much need refresher and my local hill (Bountiful Ridge) received six or seven inches. Not great but I’ll take it.

I went to work in the morning to complete a small project, hoping I could get away by ten, but I didn’t get away until afternoon. I should have know better. When I get home to grab my gear it’s almost 1PM. I feel exhausted from a week of little sleep (another story) and when I walk in the warm house and see the couch have the strongest urge to just lie down and sleep. But I fight the urge and start grabbing gear, but at one point I give in, I sit on the soft sofa and it feels so good to just sit, but as my eyes start to close that monster in my head starts screaming; “You pussy! Go ski! One day you’ll be in a wheel chair you bald-headed freak”! The voice is right, if I don’t go now it’ll be another lost opportunity. I may have squandered my career, but I can’t drop my passion to ski for a few hours of sleep. I head back to the garage, fire up the truck and head up to North Canyon before the temptation returns. The voice is now silent.

The sky is heavy and at the trail head the clouds close in and I’m in thick fog. Visibility is nil. After three weeks of no snow the double track was a nightmare, a product of sun complicated by high school kids in their Daddy’s Range Rovers, and a few stupid adults in rusty Fords, trying to drive the un-plowed double track up North Canyon. The result is an ice-rink consistency on the old road, like an ice-fall to the end of the double track which ends a mile from the pavement. Now, with six inches of new snow, the ice-road of North Canyon is only slightly less slick. The high-schoolers (or stupid adults) have only managed to navigate the first half mile on this new snow, so I’m breaking trail the rest of the way to the top of Rectangle Peak, about 4 miles and 3,000 vertical away.

I like breaking trail. It tells the story of the snow pack, plus I know I'll have first turns. Breaking trail allows one to feel the snow and know the structure. Other than digging a pit, there is no better way than breaking trail to understand the snow. Pushing skis through unblemished snow offers volumes of data. You hear collapsing and see shooting cracks if it’s unstable, a sensual experience that is lost if you are following an established skin track.

A mile up the road I leave the trail and enter the forest at the start of my short-cut. Fighting through brush up steep angles in new snow is tough work, and I’m sweating heavily. I reach up to wipe the sweat off my brow and the resulting tension on my eye ejects my right contact lens. SHIT! With my one good eye I search the snow below me, but find nothing. I scan my shirt and various straps (pack, camera, beacon), hoping it is stuck, but I see nothing. So there I am, a mile from my truck, exhausted, racing daylight and I have only one contact lens. Yeah, I can still see, but with only one good eye there is zero depth perception. Can I ski a steep, powdery slope with no ability to gauge depth? My answer is no and, thinking my day is done, turn and start for home, but then that monster voice starts rattling my head: “You pussy! Anyone can ski with one eye! You lazy sack of crap, you only have a few days to ski in this life, take them before you die”! I turn back up hill. The screaming in my head goes silent.

Up the approach gully, through nasty Gamble Oak, the old snow is totally unsupportable and I continually sink to the ground. The six-inches of new snow just complicates to process and I’m breaking trail through 24 inches of soft sugary snow. I question whether it’s smart to ski on such unconsolidated crap, and I consider turning back, but the voice starting murmuring. I continue up. I reason the stability is worse down low in the trees, in the thickets that never see sun. Once on the ridge where I plan to ski, the SW aspects should be sun-crusted under the new snow. It should be a recipe for perfect turning conditions. If it’s not stable then I’ll billy-goat the ridge back to the flats. I continue up and the voice remains silent.

Up through the scrub-oak, across to Rudy’s Flat, then up through the Douglas Fir to Rectangle Bowl, and my instincts prove correct, I find great conditions: a firm base of a sun-crust under six or so inches of nice powder. My gamble was right, the ski conditions are perfect, the sugar-snow of the lower approach is gone and I climb up the north side of Rectangle Bowl through soft powder on a firm base. Before the storm the old snow had melted off in spots, the rocks and weeds only covered by the new snow, but in the main gut of the bowl I find two to three feet of great coverage. I have found my run: steep, safe and decent coverage, not another ski track for miles.

I finish the ascent to the top of Rectangle Peak and, just as I top-out, the fog and clouds briefly part and I get a glimpse of blue sky. Then, out of nowhere, I feel a pressure on my eye and realize it’s my contact lens - not lost after all! - it reemerges from the depths of my eye. I rub and work my eye-lid to get it into place and, like a New Testament miracle, my sight is restored! I can see with both eyes! I rip skins; change into a dry shirt and then push off the ridge and ski perfect conditions on a steep, continuous line down the gut of Rectangle Bowl. The clouds still parted, the snow turning orange with alpenglo, I stop half way down and look back up at my tracks, my turns are like poetry in snow.  I wish I had time for another run, but the sun is sinking, the clouds again closing. The fog below me is turning black, so I head down through the forest for home.

Down and down, almost to the truck, the sun is setting behind the fog and thick clouds, my headlamp in my pocket if needed, and I again hear a voice in my head, but now it is singing, no longer a screaming monster, more like an angel in heaven.

Sorry, the battery in my "still" camera died so I had to revert to the GoPro on the POV mount. This was taken on Rectangle Ridge, nearing the summit. Rectangle Bowl, site of today's ski run, is to my right.

Rectangle Ridge with Rectangle Peak straight ahead. Crescent Bowl is to my left, Rectangle Bowl to my right.

Planning my run down Rectangle Bowl.
On Rectangle Peak, looking SW toward City Creek Canyon.

From Rectangle Peak, view NE toward 'Black's Peak' and the Burro Mine. Sessions Mountain is to my left hidden in the clouds.

Session's Mountain straight ahead, behind the clouds.

OOOPS!  The camera went off and caught me in a compromised position. Just changing into a dry shirt. It may look cold, and it was for a minute, but much warmer once in a dry layer. I sweat way too much. 

Fully dressed and again proper. Ready to ski. View NE toward 'Black's Peak' and Burro Mine. Session's is now visible across Millcreek (aka Mueller) Canyon.

View east, over a branch of City Creek Canyon.

Looking at turns about half way down Rectangle Bowl.

18 inches total snow at Rudy's Flat. I'm admiring my handy work; a message to the local heli-dude to keep away, who keeps landing here. Yeah, I know, he has the right, but it's damn annoying to get buzzed and  hear him do touch-and-goes for hours and hours in upper North Canyon and Rudy's Flat while I'm skiing. Is nothing sacred?  I wouldn't dump my garbage on the front lawn of the Bountiful LDS Temple, he shouldn't practice his mind-rattling flying lessons on my mountain. 

Barriers of access. Most folks don't like the long, Gamble Oak approach to Bountiful Ridge. I can't blame them, it is nasty. Inexplicably I keep going back.