Cheesy Allegories (From France)

Skiing uphill takes a long time, even when a gondola does most of the work. It gives you an opportunity to look around. To take it all in. To think about stuff that you usually wouldn’t think about, because you’re usually up to something more productive than slowly walking uphill just to come right back down again.

Sometimes you think about little things like how your boots don’t fit, or the the differences in French and Italian espresso, or how high 4,000 meters is in American and whether that has anything to do with why you’re so tired. But then other times you’re just kind of in awe of the mountains around you and that makes you feel small, and that makes you think about bigger things. And so here we have:

Cheesy Allegories (from France)

  • Ignore Everyone Else – It’s like a ski partner said once: “Ignore everyone else out here. They’re just a bunch of assholes trying to kill you.” It’s not necessarily that they’re bad people, but a lot of them are just out of their element. And when they’re setting skintracks in dangerous places, or kicking rocks on your head, or skiing way too fast for anyone’s good, they’re definitely trying to kill you, whether they know it or not.

    DSC09881
    Here we have someone speedflying through a sea of English tourists. Seems legit.

    The same goes for real life. Sure, outside of texting motorists most people won’t go out of their way kill you, but they’re definitely not worried about not killing you. And it extends to everything from business to waiting in the ice cream line. You do you, and think critically about where you’re going and the best way to get there. Who knows what all those other people out there are even up to, anyway?

  • Don’t Waste Your Weather Window – It turns out it’s pretty easy to burn a few days sipping coffee, booking lodging, and comparing foreign McDonald’s to home. When you touch down for two weeks and you’re graced with warm, sunny days and freezing, starry nights, it’s hard to imagine that changing. “High pressure is stable! We’ll get the lay of the land today, ski that stuff tomorrow!”But then a storm rolls in and you’re stuck in town, forced to choke down espresso drinks and anise liqueur and strange cheeses. You blew it. Ski when it’s time to ski, screw off when it’s time to screw off*. It’s easy to think that you’ve got more time than you do, whether you’re trying to ski corn, write that screenplay, or make all that money in the stock market.
    If you don't go skiing when you're supposed to but go later on instead it looks like this.
    If you don’t go skiing when you’re supposed to but then go later on instead it sometimes looks like this.

    Chances are, the best you can probably rely on is about 30 more winters of skiing hard, and that’s assuming you don’t get pasted later on this week by some distracted driver. How many places do you want to ski? Are you going to make it?

  • Know What You Want To Ski – Of course the other way to blow a weather window (or your irreplaceable youth, in case I’m not laying it on thick enough), is not having any idea what you want to ski. While just showing up and picking ski lines from a terrace while you sip espresso does, actually, kind of work in Chamonix, it’s not a great plan for getting the most out of a short trip. Maybe do a little research before you get on the plane.

    And it’d be silly to seize the day and get to work on that novel you’ve been rolling around in your head if you have absolutely zero interest in writing a novel. The idea that we each have a linear path to happiness is kind of ridiculous, at some level most of us are kind of just bumbling our way through life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an idea of what you’d like to get mixed up in. You might only have 30 good winters left in your knees, but that doesn’t mean you’re dead yet and it’s not too late to pivot. What are you doing with yourself, anyway? Do you actually like it?

  • If You’re Going To Screw Off, Enjoy It – Sometimes you miss weather windows. Other times you get off a plane in Guatemala City and your only plan is to hope that some guy who’s name you don’t know and whom you cannot contact will pick you up from baggage claim before you get murdered. That’s fine too! Know when you’re beat (or when you blew it), and just let it ride.Good weather in Chamonix is for skiing objectives, but sometimes it doesn’t come together. If that means you’re sipping espresso while you should definitely be skiing, then, well, shit. Roll a cigarette while you’re at it. If it means you got laid off from work, maybe take those unemployment checks and go to Canada. Or Mexico. Read a long book, drop into a steep line, and remember that skiing isn’t so different from life.
  • Not Everyone Likes Hawaiian Music – Ok so this one is not one of the cheesy allegories. This is just the hard, straight, truth. As much as you and I know that the soothing vocals and hypnotizing ukulele of Isreal Kamakawiwo’ole is, like, real fucking relaxing, not everyone will always see it that way. Don’t ask me how I know. You’ve been warned.

 

 

*This logic built on the premise that skiing is somehow different from screwing off.

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Hut Trip Basics

You did it. You signed up for your first hut trip. Whether you’re heading into an old Forest Service cabin for a night or two, or taking a helicopter into the middle of Alberta, you’re in for a good time.

You’ve gone through the packing list three times and you’re ready to go. Your skis are waxed, you’ve got extra batteries for your gadgets, and you’ve been wearing those little down booties all over the house because, well, they’re the best. But are you ready? Do you know what to expect? If you’ve never been on a hut trip before, probably not.

Here’s a few pointers:

The Skiing Will be Terrible – Which, obviously I hope it’s not. But chances are, that for much of the time you’re out there the avalanche danger will be high, or visibility will be poor, or the snow will be crummy. I hope every turn you make is the stuff of Instagram heroics, but you’ll have a better time if you measure your expectations and don’t plan on blower face shots all day every day. And in the end this won’t really bother you, because of the next point:

This Is Not a Ski Trip – Again, this is clearly not the case. You just got your skis tuned, after all. But if it was really a ski trip, you’d be sleeping in a tent and cut your toothbrush in half and packed the unabridged Moby Dick to help you through the storm cycles. This is better than a ski trip. This is a hut trip.

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A few minutes from the front door.

And yeah, you’re going to ski your face off. But when you hike from the front door, you can get a solid 6-8 hours of touring in and still have pretty much the entire day to screw off. Relish that. Bring board games and strange cheeses, good whiskey and bad beer. The hut is your bastion of gaiety against a twisted world. A long weekend in Valhalla. Savor it.

Bring Worse Beer – This is a common trap that even seasoned hut trippers fall into. In an effort to save space and be efficient with weight, folks always seem to bring big ‘ol 11% double IPAs and the like. Those big beers are great, sure, but not what you’re actually going to want while you sit in the hot tub for 5 hours after skiing all day. Bring Schlitz, or Modelos and lime,  or hell – even a wine cooler or two. Your friends will mock you on the approach and beg you for a Rainier on day two.

pioneertrip-8
Hut trip essentials.

Dinner is Competitive – A communal meal around a roaring fire is the most basic, beautiful, truly human experience. It was the first thing we did to separate ourselves from the rest of God’s critters, and meal time in a yurt is a direct connection with hundreds of thousands of years of human ancestry.

It’s also an opportunity to vanquish your friends and loved ones. Dinnertime in a hut is, whether anyone will admit it or not, competitive. It must be filling, delicious, and copious. Canned tomato sauce and spaghetti will not be tolerated. You will be judged by your efforts – be sure to bring enough butter.

Beware the Groupthink – Hut time on a hut trip is for telling jokes and eating butter. Ski time is real. You’re going to be secluded in the middle of nowhere, probably with no cell reception, perhaps a helicopter ride away from the nearest help. Do try not to get hurt.

It's easy to do.
It’s easy to do.

The good times and cohesion of mealtime at base camp is great, but it’s better to keep it there. Don’t be afraid to peel off in 3’s and 4’s to go find your own adventures on the skintrack. Even people who do this for a living get into trouble when group sizes swell and the stoke gets too high. High fives are for the hot tub – you have to make it there alive.

Book the Next One Now – Hut trips are so hot right now. The best ones are booked two years out. So pick a date and get it on the calendar, it’s the best thing you’ll do all winter.

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My Public Land

A colleague posed the question once what right we have, as writers and photographers, to publish our experiences in the mountains. I told him that there is no question, really: that our experiences are our own to do with as we please.

But then I think the question that he asked was not the question that he meant. I suppose now that he was probing the pangs of guilt he felt for somehow spoiling a secret that wasn’t his to share, say, the relative position of cats and bags with respect to top-secret fishing holes, hunting camps, and powder stashes.

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Public lands are, to be sure, ours to enjoy and to share. The notion of a private fishing spot  or family hunting camp are categorically at odds with America’s best idea. We don’t need to ask permission to go skiing, or hiking, or hunting, and that’s what separates the American West as a bastion of democratic ideals: I own 640 million acres of public land. (Hey! So do you!)

An essential part of the backcountry landscape is its capacity for solitude. If every single American was spread evenly across our public land, we would have a hard time seeing the next nearest human. Time in the mountains gives us the opportunity to feel small and vulnerable and disconnected from what feels increasingly like an irrevocably chaotic modern world, and as we spend time in these places we forge personal relationships with them. Seeing your favorite backcountry haunt on some college sophomore’s Instagram feed is infuriating. Violating.

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But like that Woodie Gurthrie song goes, we don’t own that land alone. Sharing photographs, stories, and maps celebrates the places that make us whole and inspire others to get out, and it risks ruining the mystery for those to come. We walk a line between inspiration and exploitation; these places are ours to enjoy but not to diminish.

Whether publicizing these rare places diminishes them is up for debate. I doubt that anyone who’s visited Yellowstone or Zion National Parks in recent years would argue that their wilderness experience was unsullied, and a recent proposal to build a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon rightly faced furious dissent. But people have to know something to care about it, and we are at risk now of losing our public land.

Make no mistake that western public land is under attack. The Republican National Committee adopted as a tenet of its platform to “urge the transfer of [Federal] lands … to all willing states.” A bill is before Congress now (HR 621) to compel the sale of Federal lands across the west. The American Lands Council is hard at work to bypass voters and decentralize public land management.

UpperBasin-1

Public land transfers cannot be undone, and their protection relies on the attention and care of every American. In the face of real economic and political uncertainty, exposure to wild places wanes as people work to stay at work and keep food on the table. In times of prosperity, free time and disposable income not everyone thinks of a frigid 12-hour slog through the mountains as “fun,” but appreciates the value inherent to such places being free.

So sure, tweeting the coordinates of the last place you caught a 25 lb. brown trout is probably going to get you some dirty looks at the bar. But never feel shame for promoting the wild places you love. They need the attention.

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Do you work for a living? Or are you in the outdoor industry?

Somewhere in New York a ball is waiting to drop. In a couple of days, they’ll hoist that gaudy thing to the top of 1 Times Square before they let it back down again and we’ll all sing Auld Lang Syne and strangers will kiss in the street and then they’ll pack the whole thing up in styrofoam peanuts and wait for the next year to do it all again. It’s a tradition.

New Year’s is a holiday fraught with tradition, after all, with the songs, and the hats, and the terrible champagne, and the resolutions, and the ruminating on just what happened over the last twelve months. It’s pageantry for the sake of pageantry, mostly, and I would never suggest that you make a New Year’s Resolution.  But in the long nights and bloated post-Christmas stupor one can’t help but reflect, for a moment, on the highs and lows of the year before.

To me, 2016 felt old. It was a relic. Somehow we are standing on the cusp of a robot revolution and using the vocabulary of the Civil War. We each carry an inconceivably powerful computer in our pocket and we’ve cured the most devastating diseases in history. Yet the national dialogue seems inclined to fire up the Cold War for old time’s sake and cast aside the lessons from the 20th Century so we can do it all again. Even Siri and Alexa sound a bit like HAL, if you think about it.

Take, for instance, the jobs conversation (you remember the election, yes?). As far as I can tell, our new administration’s plan for economic prosperity evokes the tenor of Reconstruction, and rests on coal mining, assembly line labor, and condemning immigrants.

When we talk about the economy we still use the parlance of the Industrial Revolution, when factory output and factory jobs correlated one to one and energy was free. We ignore the fact that 85% of manufacturing jobs were lost to automation and improvements in technology, not lowly paid currency manipulators.

I mean, good god people – we live in the age of self-driving cars, but the national dialogue on job creation is still built on Henry Ford’s assembly line. A manufacturing-based economy is lost, not to trade and immigrants, but to the unflinching wheel of progress. The south fought a war to preserve a slave-based economy only to see it rendered moot by the mechanization of the cotton harvest. Our current president-elect has promised a trade war over jobs that began fading to obsolescence in the 80s.

(NB: If we’re actually interested in putting people to work, it’s hard to imagine a more labor and investment intensive project that redesigning the entire power grid for renewables. Hell, Exxon and Phillips can have the contracts for all I care.)

But the tendency to look to assembly lines and strip mines for jobs ignores a quiet industry giant. Starting in 2017, the impacts of outdoor recreation (you know it as “playing”) will be included in the US GDP calculations.  A 2012 Economic Impact Study of the sector reports that the number will be somewhere around $650 billion in the US alone. (That’s bigger than the pharmaceutical industry, btw.)

And so when we talk about jobs, it’s time to start talking about real jobs. Not imaginary jobs that your grandfather had after he came home from killing Nazis but that haven’t existed since I Love Lucy got cancelled.

workingforfree
PC: @bbrunsvold, working for free

We’re talking about real careers that support real families and buy real houses. It’s hunting guides and trailbuilders and bike mechanics and ski lodge operators. It’s the guy at the Patagonia store, or who shows you where the big fish are.

This is a segment of the economy that relies on government assistance, but not in a traditional way. The outdoor industry doesn’t rely on subsidies and tax breaks. It doesn’t shelter profits in Ireland. It doesn’t ask regulators to look the other way during an oil spill to keep people at work. The outdoor industry only asks that open and wild spaces are protected (we’ve got, like, five year budget forecasts and stuff and it’ll really do us a solid if we can count on us not, like, damming the Grand Canyon or something).

For generations, conversations about the economy have pitted conservation against prosperity. This was probably about right when “prosperity” meant clear cutting and cyanide leach mining. It doesn’t have to mean that anymore.

In the west we have a tradition of, like Wallace Stegner said, approaching “land, water, grass, timber, mineral resources, and scenery as grave robbers might approach the tomb of a pharaoh.” We have the Berkeley Pits and stump towns to prove it.

But Stegner was also hopeful that a newfound western community would “work out some sort of compromise between what must be done to earn a living and what must be done to restore health to the earth, air and water… to control corporate power and to dampen the excess that has always marked the region, and will arrive at a degree of stability and a reasonably sustainable economy based on resources that they will know how to cherish and renew.”

And we’re on the right track. Wild places are now scarcer than energy and we need to ascribe value appropriately. Not only out of sentimentality and a liberal arts degree, but out of good business sense. It’s time to get our thinking out of the 19th century and into the 21st.

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How to be a Skier

The topics covered here frequently assume a certain level of familiarity with skiing and ski culture, and I understand that this can be alienating for some readers in southern California, Texas, and New Jersey. This is not my intention. To appeal to a larger cross section of our Obviously-The-Best-Ever-But-About-To-Be-Made-Much-More-Greaterer Nation, I’d like to offer a few pointers on how to be a skier in the hopes that moving forward we can enjoy the best season of the year together.

Step 1. Talk Loud

The principle responsibility of any skier is to inform the people around him of his intentions. To do this most effectively, I suggest speaking clearly and audibly at all times, and especially when discussing the epic-sicky pow and how much gnar you will definitely shred this coming weekend. This is most effective in public trains, baggage claim areas, and bars with PBR specials, but is also applicable for fancy restaurants, wedding receptions, and first dates. Be sure to focus on what you’re definitely about to do, not what you have actually done.

Step 2. Dress Like an Aquarium Fish

Sometimes simply speaking loudly isn’t enough, or you’re too busy on the shot ski to state your shredding intentions. When this happens your clothing should speak on your behalf. When you dress yourself in the morning, avoid blacks, browns and understated patterns. Mauve is out. Earth tones are only allowable if they are actually digital camouflage. Goggles should be mirrored and imposing. When in doubt, leave the helmet at home.

Step 3. Go Fast; Huck Your Meat

It used to be there was a time way back in the day when skiing was difficult. The hard men and women of mountain towns across the world would tie themselves to a couple of old floor joists with leather straps, take a nip of schnapps, and point ’em downhill – damn the torpedoes. Simply surviving the run from top to bottom was a feat of strength, finesse, and emotional fortitude. A very few people on earth had the technique to make it look good.

tonimatt
Toni Matt knew how to be a skier.

These times are no more. With all the newfangled shaped skis and powerful boots, the equipment pretty much just does its thing. The skier is just along for the ride – no technique required. And so to demonstrate your superiority, it’s important to go as fast as possible and jump off the highest cliff you can find. Remember, no one cares if you land it. Disregard other, slower mountain users. If they were real skiers they would be going faster.

Step 4. Make Fun of Snowboarders

While you’re out sliding over snow with a board strapped to each foot, you may notice some jobless Communists out there sliding over snow with both feet strapped to a single board. Be sure to ridicule these people, they are of a lesser class. Everyone knows the only way to really enjoy sliding over snow is with two different boards. It is well documented in the that when people slide over snow with only one board it means their parents were siblings and they are of substandard intelligence and really they should feel lucky they’re allowed outside at all. You can’t argue with science.

Step 5. Drink Enough Booze

You can’t always be the best skier on the mountain, but that shouldn’t stop you from being the best drinker in the bar. To be clear- as soon as you’ve put on ski boots, you’ve gone skiing. There is no need to actually go outside. So take that shot of Fireball. Order up another bucket of PBR. Just be sure to talk loud while you’re drinking.

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