Thursday, January 31, 2013

Michele Update

Not that it's news to many folks who might read this since the great email updates from Jeanne have been spread far and wide, but I'm super happy to report that Michele is in great shape after her super weird heart attack.  It was indeed SCAD, and it sounds about as random and indiscriminate as any ailment:  strikes women more often and doesn't have much to do with "regular" heart disease things like cholesterol, arteriosclerosis, family history, etc.  And she was quite fortunate in many ways:  she had gone for a solo run that morning (so if it'd happened then it would have had a very different outcome) but then was at a health club not only with trained CPR-ers right there to keep the blood moving as her heart lay dormant but a defibrillator as well that restarted her heart, and she was halfway between one hospital with a renowned cardiologist and another with Oregon's best trauma department (which I've been able to take advantage of myself back in the day).  Said cardiologist was not only there and available but was about to walk out the door for two weeks, so literally she went from floor to post-op in 70 minutes!  (with the ambulance standing by to rush her to the trauma center in case things went awry). 

The ensuing days were tense as they cooled her down to lessen the stress on her heart (down to 90 degrees!) and had her so heavily sedated for the same reason that she was more or less unconscious/oblivious, so there wasn't much of a sense of how her brain had fared (due to potential loss of oxygen).  But slowly she started coming around, and on Monday she went right from ICU to home.  Apparently the heart team was a bit befuddled, because they likely sorta over-sedated her because her heart beat so slowly naturally, and for once instead of telling a heart attack victim that they needed a lifestyle that incorporated more fitness, they realized they needed to tell her to take it easy for a while! 

Michele's own words, from her long email that in its entirety pretty much made us all melt:

"I am truly honored and humbled to walk among your
ranks, and for so many other unbelievable gestures of support from across
the country and across the street, my heart is so full.  I wish I could
thank each of you individually and I know that I will someday, but please
know that this, my first night back at home, would not be possible without
each of you.  I am typing though tears of gratitude, and if I wasn¹t as
spiritual as I could have been yesterday, I will be tomorrow."

Hear Hear Michele.  We love you, and are very glad to have you back.
With mom Annette and Thomas Higgins
And also from her email, as a postscript:

Oh, and if you think about it, get a refresher on your CPR certification.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A heart attack?!!?

This week has been a social and business frenzy with the Outdoor Retailer show in town; as always, it’s a great opportunity to connect with not only new and old clients but also a lot of great friends that I’ve had a lot of great adventures and yucks with who - despite their better judgement! – still have their careers pinned to this quixotic – but fortunately somewhat recession-proof, fortunately – industry (apparently people will always spend money on recreation).  However, it’s been somewhat muted this week by the shocking news that our great friend Michelle Grey had a heart attack in Portland. 

Even in a social group that values gettin' after it and staying fit over a lot of things, Michelle stands out:  she was the leader of an ultimate frisbee team that battled consistently for the national and world championships for over a decade (and still plays at the ripe young age of 45), runs daily, is one of the most graceful skiers I know, and has become an avid tennis player.  So our entire community was stunned to hear that in the middle of a match on Tuesday she suddenly collapsed on the court, and though I don’t know all the details, apparently was “dead” and only quick, decisive action by people at the club kept her alive with CPR and a defibrillator.  She had gone for a morning run that day as well with no problems, but if it had happened then – by herself – it’s likely the outcome would not have been good. 

Michelle and Ryan toasting Michelle's parents at their 50th anniversary this summer. 

As it is, it’s still a little scary; from the updates we’ve been receiving she’s on a ventilator (one of the most brilliant, yet brutally uncomfortable devices ever invented) and has been kept heavily sedated and can barely communicate, and I’m sure that it’s a bit intimidating – especially to her kids - to see such a vital person in the visually-vulnerable position of an ICU patient,  but in true Michelle form she’s doing her best via hand squeezes and eye contact to reassure those who are hovering around that she plans on coming back. 

She apparently had this:    It’s frustrating to have friends who keep getting these “rare” health events (Fast Jimmy’s “Urachus” literally strikes something like 30 people a year) but I guess if you live long enough and are blessed with knowing a lot of people that the odds of weird things happening to your friends increases. Yet despite the presence of a zillion “rare” maladies, most of us blissfully charge through life just fine.  What we demand from our bodies is extraordinary; whether it’s working aerobically too hard for too long, not getting too hurt despite decent accidents that "should" hurt us worse, not eating/sleeping right, engaging in odd activities that involve moving incorrectly, etc.  But then we get these reminders that we are at the same time super frail and vulnerable little beings.  I have had this reminder myself the last couple of weeks with a recurrence of a herniated disc – which manifests itself in agonizing nerve pain in my calf – that came as the result of…..nothing, really, but it pales in comparison to a life-changing heart attack. 

As always, events like this remind me that our lives and relationships are fleeting and it’s always super important to get after it  whilst you can and foster and appreciate your relationships as much as possible.  Michelle has already spent a lifetime doing this with unusual passion and grace, and I’m sure that she will approach her healing process – and, realistically, her changed life – with equal zest.  I'm looking forward to seeing that famously-brilliant smile again soon. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

New Float Pack

Today we received two new BCA Float 32 Avy Airbag Packs.  This decision was a long time coming, but I knew that ultimately I'd get one (and, of course, get one for Ash too; I'm no dummy!) and I was waiting for a backcountry ski pack to be introduced that would fulfill my desires, and this seems like the best one.  While this one isn't perfect, it's quite good. 

First, why an airbag pack....
The theory has been floated (so to speak) for a long time that airbags go a long ways to keeping people who are caught in avalanches on top of the fast-moving debris, for two reasons:  the compressed air of the balloon is provides more lift in an already-aerated avalanche, and also because - as anyone who consistently does as I do and put things like sunflower seeds in gorp knows - smaller objects tend to get sifted to the bottom, so an airbag creates a far-bigger object (an M&M) that stays on the surface.  I'm no physicist, but these two concepts - which may be one and the same, for all I know - seem pretty plausible.  And hearing of the studies done in Europe and Canada where they put dummies with airbag packs on in big avalanches and they almost always stay on top was convincing as well.  And watching this video:
Is a pretty compelling reason. 

I've been a BD avalung user for years, and the one significant ride I've taken I ended up on the surface with the mouthpiece in my mouth, without recalling that I had popped it in during my violent ride. I never ski with it in my mouth, however, and think this is a bit of a liability, though I have put a hanger inside it to put the mouthpiece right in front of my mouth. Basically, I decided that I'd prefer to use gear that has the goal of keeping me on top versus hanging out 4 feet deep hoping my friends are able to get me.  And our friend Evan started out his run last week with his mouthpiece in, let it go when he thought it was "safe" got caught, and then couldn't get it back in. 

In my muse about the Stevens Pass avy I said that it was unrealistic to say that the woman who employed her airbag lived  - and the other guys died - because of her airbag; that was heavily treed terrain and the fatalities were badly beaten, and the airbag means that you'll still hit the tree at 60mph, you'll just be able to see it first. And if/once the bag tears - when you go through a tree/bush - the airbag will deflate instantly since it's a one-shot deal (vs a continuous air feed that could maintain some inflation even with a tear).  And I think it's notable that many of the publicized or dummy-test airbag "saves" have been on big, open slopes.  So like every piece of gear, it's not foolproof, and it's important to keep understand the limitations of all the gear you have. 

First.....Why not to get it.... 
Reason one:  it's heavy.  Yes, it feels a little heavy.  It weighs 3 pounds more than my avalung pack.  But the truth is, it doesn't feel like that much, and  I anticipate that as these become more popular, people will start looking for other areas to cut some weight to compensate.  I think the irony of willingness to haul around 15-20 pounds of skis, boots, bindings, and skins to enhance skiing - which is already the funnest thing we do - and being unwilling to haul 3 extra pounds to give us a 50% better chance of ending up on top will sink in.

Reason two:  it's spendy.  Yep, it's a lot of money.  And it seems like a bit of a weird deal to have to spend a bunch more $$ for the cannister on top of the pack.  But if you were able to do a Wile E. Coyote-like, stop-action moment as you are getting rolled in a big-ass avalanche and someone could stick a microphone in your face and say "so, NOW how much would you pay to be on top of this thing?!?!?!"  I think what I'd come up with would make the $700-$1000 seem like nuthin'. 

Right now the crucial pieces of equipment that you "can't" go into the backcountry without are shovel, probe, and beacon.  However, given - supposedly - that an airbag pack can increase your odds of survival by 50%, I anticipate that eventually there will be four pieces of crucial equipment, with the exploding packs being the fourth. 

Because if you ski in the backcountry enough, for long enough, the odds are almost certain that you will get caught in an avalanche. I literally don't know anyone who has been skiing for over 10 years who has not had one.  So forward this post to your mother and tell her you need one of these packs but can't afford it! 

I'll do a pack-specific review after I've used it a few days. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

An unusual skiing weekend

 As most Salt Lakers now know, we had strange storm happen late last week.  It started to snow hard in the valley on Thursday afternoon and didn’t stop until Friday afternoon, and while not quite a Snowmageddon (a term applied to a big storm that totally fizzled a couple of years ago) it still put nearly two feet of snow in the valley.  Ironically, however, according to the Utah Avalanche Center the cold temps limited “dendrite development” up at the higher elevations so the totals in the cottonwoods were substantially less.  We have the below poster of a “snowflake thermometer” framed in our living room that shows this lack of dendrites (the little fingers, which add more "poof" to snow) on the lower left:

Like everyone, we are lured by the prospect of deep powder and as such we purposely stayed low and headed up our oft-visited West Porter fork.  Despite the fact that we knew it had snowed “more” low, we were still stunned at the depth; the trail breaking was full-on trench warfare through thigh deep snow, and it took us nearly 3 hours to do get as high as we normally do in 1.5.  Given the dramatic change in the snowpack we played it conservative and rode the mellowist lines in a relatively mellow area, which pretty much relegated us to breaking trail back downhill!  But it was pretty fun in the blower-over-the-head kind of way. 

As it turns out, our wariness of the dramatic change in the snowpack was warranted.  The next day a couple pushed on a few hundred feet higher than where we had stopped the day previously and triggered a major avalanche that caught and carried them both and completely buried one.  Here is the report by the UAC.

The “friend of the UAC” who came upon the couple was our venerable friend Peter Donner, he of Riding The Brink fame (from an earlier post).  Peter haunts “Peter Fork” in the winter as much as he rides The Brink in the summer, and while Peter was not mentioned in the local and national press accounts of this accident, I think it’s safe to say that these two folks are super fortunate that he happened upon them.  They were still pretty shaken up when he arrived and hadn’t called for a rescue despite temps near zero, being 2000 feet up, and darkness on the immediate nigh, and his presence rallied them into action (important note:  Brother Paul reminded me that emergency calls for backcountry ski accidents in the Wasatch should go to Alta Central Dispatch -  801.742.2033 – and NOT 911).  Peter broke trail downhill while the victim – who had lost poles, skis, AND a boot , and also had a head injury – rode on the tails of her partner’s skis (awkward at best, even on groomers, much less 2.5 feet of cold, slow snow).  The police heli flew over and Peter thought that perhaps it missed them (but was actually going to Brighton to pick up a couple of key Search and Rescue guys) so he left the couple and skied out quickly in the dark (which is quite common for Peter anyway!) to give the upcoming Search and Rescue team the exact location of the couple, who were then quickly scooped up in the helicopter.  Nicely done Saint Peter!  I think I’m going to find one of these and put it on his truck next time I see it parked at the Peter Fork trailhead:

It sounded like the rescue was done by multiple agencies and executed like clockwork, which is encouraging, and the police lieutenant's quote in the SL Tribune: something along the lines of "when the snowpack changes it's important to be prepared for avalanches" vs the historically-more-common "these lunatics should not be skiing in the backcountry!" is a clear indication that the UAC's message has been getting through to everyone.

The “spatial variability” (a commonly-used Utah Avy Center term) of the snowpack at different elevations and aspects was striking: on Saturday we were skiing a foot of nice powder on big, exposed, south-facing shots, yet we were only a couple miles from the deepness in Porter Fork and only about a quarter mile from some friends who also triggered another avalanche on a north-facing slope.  Sunday morning was the coldest yet, but we stayed in the Sun and in full view of Alta we shredded tons of great untracked lines. 

Part of the reason we may not have had quite as much competition for untracked up high was the lure of the elusive foothill skiing.   Even in our big 2010-11 season many of the storms were pretty warm, which precluded our ability to ski much lower than about 7500 feet and last year we had almost no snow in the valley, so this storm provided the opportunity to ski within minutes of downtown for the first time in years (and given global warming, may become even scarcer yet?).  And people took advantage of the opportunity.  This is from our friend Colin who was up above the Shoreline Trail near the Bobsled:

This morning Ash and I couldn’t resist that opportunity either so we did a 5 minute drive to Carrigan Canyon (I’m ok with divulging the location, since it’s probably not going to be a huge destination!) to catch nice sunrise alpenglow on the Oquirrhs:

and were able to “shred” (very gently) about 1300 feet of nice turns above the awakening city:
It’s ironic that we had been struggling with early season conditions until Christmas, and now that it has finally filled in we purposely go ski an area with two feet of fluff on top of rocks, but the novelty of skiing a nice line we had never done before within view of the yard was quite so.   

With another foot of snow  - which is not even remotely on the horizon, unfortunately - this would actually be pretty decent skiing!  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Practice saying……a lot

Recently our friend Mark – who’s got no shortage of opinions and articulates them quite well – put up a post indicating that he’s trying to “practice saying no” when it comes to getting into positions where his safety and/or comfort level with the outing feels compromised (   I am a big fan of taking responsibility for your own safety and  - as I alluded to in an earlier post about the Stevens Pass avalanche – I think it takes a lot of courage to go against the tide of popular opinion. 

Would you follow "this guy" on his mission? 
However, I think that there’s an important tangent to Mark’s point:  it’s not simply an individual decision. 

Early on in our relationship, if Ash felt that a (typically backcountry ski/avy terrain) decision that I was making was unsafe or she was uncomfortable with it, she would say “that’s fine, go ahead and do that, I’m going to go do this.”.  Her point was “I’m not comfortable with that, but I don’t want to rain on your parade, so I’m going my own way.”  However, I took it as “I think that’s dumb, we’re not really a team but a couple of individuals making our own decisions, and whatever happens to you, well, I don’t want to be nearby when the shit goes down.”  Which was – as stated above – NOT the case. 

Over time as we discussed it, we realized that we were indeed a “team”, that I respected her opinion, and that our collective thoughts and resulting discussions resulted in safer/happier outings.  So now what ensues at decision making time is a discussion, bantering around ideas/thoughts as to what are the best options for our team.  And the option of “do whatever you want, I’m uncomfortable with that, I’m outta here” is rarely/never an option.  This kind of communication typically comes with time as we get to know our partners better and understand their strengths/limitations, but we’ve been finding it works pretty well even with new partners.  Everyone appreciates candid, open conversations – especially when it comes to safety – and these can(though not always, if there’s a large gap between skills, risk tolerance, and/or expectations of the participants) lead to better experiences. 

Did we talk about the wisdom of this? 
As I also mentioned in that post about the Stevens Pass avy, group size is super critical, because those kinds of candid conversations get way more difficult when the group gets much larger than around 4 people.  With 5, 6, or more I’ve seen that individuals’ propensity to speak up is squashed somewhat, or there’s the equally-incapacitating “I don’t care, what does everybody else want to do?” both of which occur because people seem to naturally become more reluctant to exercise their opinion as the group size increases.   

So perhaps instead instead of simply “saying no” we should practice saying “What’s our plan?  What’s our goal?  How do we feel about this?  Are we sure this is what we want to do?  Are you ok with this?  I’m not altogether comfortable with this.  What are our other options? Why do we feel that this is safe?  What are we doing next?” etc. 

It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well as “practice saying no” or “practice saying yes” but it might lead to more fulfilling outings for everybody. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Of Avalanches and Mailboxes

I saw this message on our avy forecast during our big snow cycle during the holiday week:

An intentional cornice drop yesterday triggered a hard slab to the ground, 3' deep by 50', on a very steep, north facing slope at 10,000.

And that one came on the heels of this, a couple of days before:

Yesterday, it appeared that someone kicking a cornice at the top of Days Fork triggered a large cornice that subsequently triggered a sizable hard slab below, which ran to the bottom of the bowl.

While the wisdom of doing this in populated areas has been a hotly-debated topic over the last year or so, the truth is that the reality is that slaying white avalanche dragons is far more deeply embedded in our psyche than we probably care to admit.  The ability to trigger an avalanche from a safe perspective is simply an adult, cold-weather manifestation of mankind’s inherent fascination with blowing things up. 

A few seasons ago, as a typical early Fall of several weak, facet-producing storms gave way to some bigger, windier storms of early winter and the Utah Avalanche Center’s forecasters began to sound more shrill, it became clear that “blowing things up” - that is, triggering avalanches - sounded more appealing than actually skiing windjack.  And sure enough, an early morning trip up to the well-loaded Monitor Bowls for a bit of cornice kicking yielded memorably spectacular results; we dropped a refrigerator-sized block onto the slope that broke 4’ deep, went wall to wall and roared down a thousand vertical feet.  One of best shots of adrenaline I’d had in years.  It was a sensation that I realized had been long-suppressed by responsible adulthood:   the anticipation associated with kicking off cornice blocks and the indescribable view of half-mile wide, tilted-over, white sea of hard slab abruptly shattering and screaming off into a cloudy white hell

reminded me of….blowing up mailboxes. 

The similarities between triggering avalanches and blowing up mailboxes are striking:  both are generally viewed by the general public as inherently dangerous and stupid, the innocence of a beautiful hard slab tenuously clinging to a 38 degree slope is comparable to the exposure of a puglike mailbox precariously perched on a top of a vertical 2x4 so temptingly close to its street, and both the pristine slope and the austere mail receptacle simply beg to be released from their maddeningly-inert state.   The difference, of course, is that one is most effectively done with explosives by the coolest guys in a mountain town, and the other is done with explosives by social outcast punks. However, for many of the male gender, we secretly admire both equally.  In fact, recently when riding around town I saw one flayed open:

The feverish anticipation associated with the planning, the edginess of handling the “goods”, the wild few moments before detonation, and the unbelievable adrenaline rush of the final, glorious explosion is as addictive to a grown man as it is to a 17 year old making his bones. 
It’s probably a good thing for society that the propensity to “blow things up” is generally suppressed as time marches along, but it’s also a good thing for some of us that slaying the white dragon of avalanches resurrects – and partially satiates – that long-suppressed desire under the auspices of endeavoring to make a slope “safe” (if indeed, as noted this past week, doing so doesn’t jeopardize other folks).    

It’s no mailbox in the headlights of Dad’s Impala, but it’s a lot of fun. 

A weekend of Rando Racing

This weekend I went up to the US “Skimo” or “Randonee Racing” national championships.  I realized that even though I feel like I’m all experienced and all, I’ve actually never raced outside of the 10 sq mi radius of Brighton and Alta!  So I took the opportunity of moderate fitness and good timing to head up to tackle the notoriously-difficult course in Jackson, with the bonus of a second race on Sunday at nearby Grand Targhee resort. 

Andy Dorais has a great blow-by-blow of the front of the race here: (and I poached a couple of pics from his site for effect) so I won’t go into that, and talk about the perspective more from the middle of the pack. 

The last couple of races I’ve had tough starts.  At our local Tue night race a few weeks ago I got a pole yanked out of my hand (lesson  one:  put hands through pole straps!) and when brother Paul said it looked like I was going backward he wasn’t kidding.  In Jackson on Saturday as they said “GO!” and the crowd sprinted off the line I promptly stepped into one of my bindings in ski mode.  I literally kept going for a few steps, disbelieving that this actually happened and that maybe I could yank my heel free, until my (very small) voice of reason said “your heel is locked, you must unlock it” so I popped my ski off, changed the binding to walk mode, and clicked back in. (lesson two – check your bindings before the start!   But at least somehow in the melee my other boot totally popped open, and I had to tighten that down or I may have been in danger of pulling out of my boot.  So I was literally DFL coming off the line, and went even more hypoxic than usual in the early sprint trying to regain position, but at least that came right before we were skinning straight up a 35 degree groomer! 

Here I am most definitely NOT at the start; I’m off to the far right (ie off the photo):

Soon enough, however, I had settled into a good pace and things were going along well.  The first climb is something like 2500 feet, which is quite long, and not having skied Jackson since one blower powder day with Trig in nineteen hundred and ninety something the course directions didn’t really mean much to me so I just kept chugging along.  After the first transition I followed the flags to a gap and a quite impressively-steep shot with pretty dang hard pack powder and quite large moguls.  My competitive mogul days of the nineteen hundred and early eighties long-forgotten, I just hung on and tried not to go for a long bumpy slide-for-life, though the latter would likely have been much faster!

After the first booter section of about 10 minutes I got to the top and to my chagrin realized that my little ski attachment system was too tight and I couldn’t get my skis off my pack.  If Bruce and Jared are reading this they are slapping their foreheads because they watched me dunder around with this very same issue a few years ago in the Powder Keg.  After finally yanking my pack off and decoupling I was on my way, but lost some of the valuable time that I had put into some folks behind me. 

The next booter was up the famous Corbett’s Couloir:

and though I had tried to attach the skis mo bettah I again had the same issue, and inexplicably insisted on trying to get the skis off for too long before giving up and yanking the pack off again.  Guys were streaming past me like I was standing still, because I actually was standing still!   (Lesson 3 – when anticipating diddling with diddly gear, actually DO “try this at home”!). 

A full 4000’ of quad-burning descent later put us down near the base for the last climb.  As I charged out of the transition ready to throw it all down on the last "short" climb local SkiMo promoter/enthusiast Chad Bracklesberg kindly yelled after me “Tom, this climb is 1300 feet!” Ah, ok.  Maybe not charge quite so hard. 

I had predicted to my bunkmate Lane the night before that I would be 16th, and as it turned out I went from 15th to 17th in the last few hundred meters as SLC-er Teague Holmes blew by me  - again, like I was standing still, only this time I wasn’t! - in the last mogul field and Chad nicely asked if I was ok as he charged past me after I crashed in the weedy moguls. 

The next day was a slightly-shorter, but still plenty challenging course.  I used to do well at back-to-back bike races so I thought I should be able to climb with the folks I had been with the day prior and with fewer transitions and an enhanced ski attachment “system” maybe do a bit better.  But as I warmed up I immediately realized that this would not be the case; my legs were dead.  After the initial frenzy and everyone settled in I simply watched in vain as the guys I was ahead of the day before (literally) walked away from me.  Of course, everyone else’s legs were dead too, but I think only mostly dead; mine were very definitely dead!  But there was only one thing to do; just keep plugging along knowing that no one cares if I’m 17th or 21st or 42nd or 112th; we are all out there chugging as hard as we can up skin tracks and surviving descents.  And I must say, the 2nd descent rivaled any challenging descent I’ve done.  After flying off an unseen cat track and landing on my ass and then carrying on down nearly 2000 feet of a foot of cut-up crust I was literally letting out bellows like a shotputter due to the pain in my quads!  But at least there was a steep, crushing climb back out of there with nordic pole basket-sucking snow on the sides of the skin track…..

I’m not sure why I was slower the 2nd day. I could say it was due to a bit of back soreness the whole week prior that almost precluded my trip completely, maybe due to some stomach cramps after the Sat race, I didn't have a skinsuit, my pole baskets were 14% smaller than they should have been, my beard was too heavy or too non-aerodynamic, or….perhaps it was due to the fact that I was simply going slower.  And though I’d never admit it, it’s possible my recovery time at the ripe young age of 47 is a bit longer than it was at 27……but it certainly wasn't due to my new get up; it was the first time that I’ve been really able to use my new Hagan skis, Trab bindings, and Scarpa Alien boots, and I gotta say it’s a whole new dimension of going uphill, and the system skis quite well (at least, I think they do once the conditions and my quads aren’t both desperate!).  And I was able to meet Michael Hagen at the race, who’s the US distributor for Hagan skis and a strong competitor.  I’ll do a post later on that stuff. 

In any case, a fun weekend, with a great representation by Wasatchers, with multiple podiums and – if I counted right – 18 Utards firing it up, with both Jason Dorais and Tom Goth qualifying for the team to go to the Worlds (quite a bit more of the deal than the US national champs!  It’s quite popular in EU, not surprisingly) despite the field being deeper and faster than it’s ever been.  Kudos to the Deans of the local SkiMo community – Andy and Chad – for continuing to promote this niche sport here by providing opportunities for us to race (Chad’s perspective on the weekend is here: