Caution And the Wind

March 6, 2009

             A low whumph rumbles beneath your feat and it feels as if the mountain has groaned. A creepy feeling shoots up your neck and down through your frozen toes. Then shooting cracks and you can’t tell yet, but it feels as if the mountain is moving upward while you are standing still. Then you accelerate and you are moving with the avalanche. The next few minutes will decide a lot about your life, and the life of your friends. Maybe they are there watching you and they dig you out safely after you swim carefully down a river, staying on the surface, not hitting any trees, and avoiding bumping your head or bones on any rocks that you might be moving over/through. Or maybe they won’t be able to dig you out in time because you were buried in a terrain trap, or got ripped away from your beacon. Or the beacon saved you from a sharp rock in the gut, but it was shattered and ineffective. You must receive a passageway for air within 15 minutes or else you will start to suffer brain damage from suffocation, regardless of the probable trauma your body has incurred with bent knees, broken ribs, or worse. Your best way to live longer: don’t panic. Slow down your breathing and try to relax…as you watch your life slowly, very very slowly, flash before your eyes. Soon you will freeze and go into hypothermia, so that will be nice. Just fall asleep.

 

            Getting caught in an avalanche is a realistic fear in the mountains no matter where you are. Typically, more people die of avalanches in resorts than in the backcountry, although snowmobiles and greater accessibility have increased the numbers of people dying the backcountry, not to mention the slack-country danger zones where people venture without effective training and knowledge, both of the snow-pack and their rescue gear. Each beacon must be used in a certain way to be most effective. You must be practiced. Your probing and shoveling require proper technique as well. Think of an outward spiral with your probe, and a V shape for shoveling with multiple people.

            In the end, wherever you put more people, more people will die of something, no matter how much you protect against it. Resorts presuppose a certain rate of accidents. NARSID (Non-Avalanche-Related-Snow-Immersion-Deaths) are a frequent occurrence at resorts, as are small but deadly avalanches and ski-patrol fatalities. Hence the astronomical insurance rates for resorts.

 

            Sitting in class, talking about death, it felt a lot like driving school, but more sciencey. The real reasons that people die in avalanches has everything to do about the science, and nothing to do with it at all. Technically, there was a situation created over time by nature underneath where you ventured to go. But you went there. Why? That is the real question. A sense of belonging, where only a very few species have been able to survive. And what a survival.

 

            After class, which was an ordeal because it took so much time over so few days, and kept me from climbing or skiing anything, we made a stab at the backcountry. We charged in and were chased back out by a coming storm. We spotted no less than 5 large (R1-R3, D2-D3) avalanches off of Ralston and rode on only mellow slopes that were only occasionally as steep as 35 or 40 degrees. We survived to tell the tale…tomorrow.

           

Just Being There

February 11, 2009

This world is full of light. In some sense, we are all conglomerations of light, gathered by plants, consumed by animals, and concentrated into this physical mass of muscle, bones, and brain matter that I call my human existence. This past weekend was the celebration of my corporeal anniversary marking 32 years of not dying. To celebrate, the full moon was arranged. I also ordered a winter storm to blow through Tahoe and dump a foot and a half of snow, just for me.

I led a small contingency of the Clausen Clan 5 miles out and 1,500 ft. up to a backcountry hut in the Sierra Mountains. Endorphins where absolutely necessary to propel us up the final 2 mile slog up Pole Creek to the Bradley Hut. Built in 1997, it is a lot less rustic than the other huts that I have stayed at in the Sierras.

Upon arrival we met doctors and emergency technicians chasing their powder addictions. We skinned up just before dark and slew some powder before retiring to our dinner packets. I went a little powder crazy and hogged some of the lower slopes after snow stability had been established higher up on the mountain. I worry that jealousy might morph into grudges, but someone has to go first, and I don’t like waiting around.

As we slept, the moon shone. The clouds opened up and let fall light fluffy snow that refracted the light from the moon into a diffuse illumination of a pale blue-white wonderland all night long.

I never sleep well when the snow is falling and I always crawl out of my sleeping bag before the sun shows itself. Is it excitement? Anticipation? Or am I energized by the falling snow? A solar panel draws energy form the sun and turns it into electricity. Perhaps I draw energy from the falling snow and turn it into vivid dreams of powder lips and lines. Pure flight. But I am not asleep. I have awoken and am on the top of a mountain, getting ready to drop a chute into a powder field.

It’s just being here. Moving through this winter wonderland and watching the snow change. Listening to the bombs explode at a resort nearby, I notice that the snow is more powdery and fluffy at 7am than it has ever been for me at 9am when they open the lifts at a resort. For a moment I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude, an expansion of my self, a diffusion of my being into the crystalline mixture of frozen water crystals and crisp air. My light and the light from the sun refract and coalesce and the imagination settles softly into a new and wonderful reality.

This new reality follows me down the mountain. I feel altered, but I know that it is my perception of the world around me that has changed.

Mountain Cats

February 5, 2009

When the snow falls, only the bunnys, the coyotes, and the mountain lions refuse to come down off the mountain. I stash my pack on the top of the mountain and make some laps in the morning glow of a shady north facing slope. I come across fresh animal tracks. Too big to be a coyote. Paw prints without claws. Bobcat or mountain lion? I don’t know, but I hope it can’t smell the jerky in my pack. From tree to tree the tracks proceed. Two big mammals searching for something in the snow. The cat searches for food. I search for… that which has no words. We are not friends, nor are we enemies. We are shadows of each other, and I’m thrilled by the fear I should be feeling. But it isn’t fear. And this isn’t a dream.

compuphobia

February 4, 2009

The fear of becoming more computer like do to prolonged exposure to the exigences of computerized living. The outdoors await. Away from the flourescent green flu symptoms of economical lighting.