Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Death Valley Bike Tour

What do you do – and where do you go – when you haven’t made any plans for Christmas, can’t book flights to anywhere, the skiing isn’t great and you’re a little injured anyway (Ash), you feel like doing a bike tour, but it’s 20 degrees and polluted in Salt Lake? How about a bike tour in the hottest place on earth?! 

I have long been acutely aware that not only have I lived not only a half-day’s drive from Death Valley but also – for a few years - only a few hours from it (in Ventura, CA) and that not only was it the biggest national park in the country but also arguably one of the wildest and most interesting places in the country and…… I’ve never been there.  Looking at a map showing the vastness of the place (about the same size as Connecticut), the many mountain ranges that soar out of the low valleys, and the fact that it’s 95% wilderness is a good start to understanding how nutty that place is.  Add in the fact that it gets a grand total of two inches of rain a year  and this summer hit 130 degrees and it adds up to a pretty unusual area.    So without giving it too much thought, we loaded up the touring steeds and headed back to the desert. 

We started in Shoshone, CA, about an hour west of Las Vegas, and a thriving community of 10 people.  Our plan for the first day was to ride to Furnace Creek, the general hub of Death Valley, and a very reasonable 55-72 mile ride, depending on your route.  There are three ways; the most common that is a state highway, the park paved route that goes over a 3000 foot pass, and another gravel road that goes between them.  In order to dive headfirst into one part of the Death Valley experience that scrabbly roads, high passes, and no chance for water we decided to take the third option, blithely assuming all would be fine. However, several hours into a climb that was slowed to a crawl by too-deep gravel, we were second guessing our call and were anticipating a thirsty night, since there were no cars on the road to poach water from.  

But we hit pavement at just the right time, and a 20 mile descent whisked us into Furnace Creek just as the 5pm lights out sunset hit.

Furnace Creek and its 23 mile-distant neighbor, Stovepipe Wells are the two outposts in an otherwise unusually-harsh landscape, and they are very good at serving the national park goers well.  Fancy hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, stores, visitor centers, gas stations, etc. all create these oases that tourists understandably flock to, not really thinking about how weird it is to have such amenities and comfort in a place that is so harsh and unforgiving that even plants don’t really live there.  But of course, all there needs to be is one decently-flowing spring – which apparently both places have - and Water begets all. 

From Furnace Creek we wanted to do the one-way ride through Titus Canyon, which first required a climb over 4200-foot Daylight Pass.  Years of living in the intermountain West a 4200 foot pass has come to seem fairly small, but when starting at a couple of hundred feet below sea level – which we seemed to be reminded of constantly!  I’m not sure why people are so fascinated with that fact? - it becomes a healthy grunt, and this time – anticipating a water-less night of camping – we were toting a healthy amount of water.  We were back on gravel to get up and over Red Pass 

to drop down into Titus Canyon, but this far more popular drive meant that the gravel had gotten pounded down into a very rideable surface, and the 5000 foot descent through Titus Canyon was indeed quite worthy; it’s the closest thing to a slot canyon road that I’ve seen. 

Note that the devious "Indians" "Deny any knowledge"......I see!  They actually, probably do know, but they deny it!  Fortunately we have the politically-correct NPS around to clarify things like that for us White People.  

Once we hit the valley floor we anticipated an easy cruise to a small campground that we confirmed prior had water (or at least, RV’s with poachable water and – hopefully – beer) but we got a good reminder that distances, hills, and elevations in such a vast area are easily misunderestimated, and we didn’t quite anticipate the 10 mile climb that awaited us at the end of the day and again gave rise to some concern that we’d be still grinding away after lights out (though with very little traffic that wasn’t a big concern) but again, true to form we coasted in to the campground with the all-important spigot, and the camp hosts (who were doing 6 months at this little scrappy campground in the middle of nowhere as their initial foray into retirement) immediately asked “do you guys need any beer?!” Yes, yes we do.  Merry Christmas indeed. 
A chilly breeze came through in the morning.  Note the camper in the left side with the associated towable SUV; the owner drove the 200 yards to go socialize with the camp hosts the night before.  These parks attract some rugged individuals.  
It seems like many interesting public places have had their quirky historical zillionaires who created monuments to/for themselves and ultimately for the people:  Acadia and Grand Teton National Parks have the Rockefellers, California has a couple of Hearst Castles, Portland has its Pittock Mansion, and Death Valley is no different:  it has Scotty’s Castle, with its own quirky characters.  Back around the turn of the century a fast talking guy named Walter Scott visited Death Valley and thought it looked like a great place for a gold mine, and started telling people how much gold there was.  He racked up a pretty good fortune talking people into “investing” in his venture (he was out-Ponzi-ing the soon-to-come Ponzi himself) but one of his investors decided to go out and check it out for himself, much to “Scotty’s” chagrin.  Long story, but Alfred Johnson made it to DV, realized there was no such mine or gold, but loved it so much that he built a pretty extraordinary castle near one of the few consistent springs, and then hired Scotty to simply hang out at the castle and essentially be the castle’s minstrel for the many notable guests who came and stayed there.  It’s now owned by the National Park Service, and not only is it a great ride to get there, the tour of the castle is worthy. 
the castle looms, along with palm trees, the telltale sign of water in these parts

I couldn't resist this shot of our fellow castle-goer....

pretty luxurious place for built a long time ago in a remote, bleak area

despite the fact that our tour guide looks like some sort of weird Tim Burton character here, she was very interesting and knowledgeable and seemed authentic in her "period attire"

a micro-hydro plant that the owner himself designed 
posterity in an austere region

We bought a comprehensive book called “Hiking Death Valley” and it’s quite full of awesome hikes, mild to wild.  Given that our trip was bike-based and more of an overview we didn’t do any of the bigger outings that the book offered, but we did do the “classics” that are quite worthy.  Most of them are into cool canyons; as jaded Utah desert folks the “slots” were not quite as mind-blowing to us as they seemed to be to our fellow parkers, but still all really worthy, beautiful hikes. Here are a handful of hiking pics:
the aptly-named Golden Canyon

the aptly-named Red Cathedral
Mosaic Canyon
Even a bit of slot-groveling.  An english couple we met decided not to let their kids do this because "the boulder might fall"....

Ash doing her best Katy Lee impersonation
A huge bridge in....Natural Bridge Canyon.  
Inspiration for the "Indian" petroglyphs?  
We met some jnteresting folks on our hiking forays.  Here are a few:
She was going big on this hike

I was impressed with these hiking boots; who needs Merrells?!
These guys just decided to hang at the trail head, skip the hike, and go right to the post-hike beer

these guys thought about actually getting out of their rugged desert-ready Samurai, but then thought the better of it... and left. 
this guy figured, "why hike into a canyon when I can just take a picture looking up into it?"
I think it's important to follow the rules in National Parks.  
an 800 foot deep crater from a notso-old (2000 years) volcano
we kept seeing this car at trailheads off some of the best road riding we'd ever seen, and couldn't figure out why the bikes were on top of the car!
Near Stovepipe Wells are some amazing soft sand dunes (that were used as the scenes for the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars movies). 
Lawrence of Arabia and undoubtedly a Bedouin tribesman.
recklessly heading over the 38 degree rollover....
I think these were the dune-specific Uggs
Why bother hiking the dunes?  just sit and take a picture of them! 
Since all roads in DV seem to converge on Furnace Creek, we found ourselves there yet again as we made our way back south, and afterwards with a combination of hikes and riding, worked our way back to Shoshone, climbing over one last 3000+ foot pass for good measure. 

On our way we went past Badwater, which apparently has some notoriety of being a few feet lower than other places in the valley.  Apparently walking out on the concrete pathway into the "pan" is one of the "things you do" in DV
I asked a ranger why the "park off pavement" sign was with the many "sea level" signs, and it's because so many people stop to take pictures of the signs.....I guess, like I did! 
We got a great overview of the Valley with some super high quality riding:

and some quirky characters:
I love coyotes and "know" that they are benign to humans, but this was one of three that sort of surrounded me?
So I hid.....
Is a shadow of a selfie still a selfie?  or is a selfie of a shadow still just a shadow?  

 and while we weren’t quite prepared for the numbers of people who converge on any given national park during “the season” (we should have known) and were ready to exit the NPS scene,  our taste of the incredible austere nature of DV and the glimpse of the potential adventures that DV has to offer will likely be fodder for future, farther-flung forays.  
Telescope peak is over 11k, the "pan" below is at -280; that's a big line.....
We are stoked because we just got some water from a coupla jeepers!  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sugar Shack Skiing

This past weekend we had the pleasure of hosting our old buddy Jon Jamieson, who hails from Vermont and – fortunately for us – has not only his parents spending their winters in Park City but also an annual insurance industry conference in downtown Salt Lake City that puts him in perfect position to spend the weekend either skiing or heading down to the desert.  Jon was pretty much born on skis, and it’s always a pleasure to march about the mountains with him, and he’s always game for anything.
Jon, clearly a little confused by the sun and the lack of brush and blue ice....
Okay, now he's feeling a little more at home!
As we tromped around we reminisced a bit about a ski experience we had together eons ago that may be worthy of a written tale.  The tables were turned, and I was the one skiing in Vermont…..

It was March, the “peak” of what I was told was a pretty lean year, and “lean” in New England means the thwacking through the brush is even meaner than normal.   The skiing was truly awful: there was barely any snow, barely any pitch, and barely any room to turn, but at least the snow was awful as well.  Perfect New England skiing!  However, this completely fulfilled my expectations, so that was good.  However, one thing that I didn’t anticipate was having to navigate the web of hoses that snaked down out of the maple trees and down the slopes.  “What the hell are those?” I asked of my host, who was quite proud to proclaim “syrup!”  Really?  I guess it made sense; just like the aspen groves of the Wasatch, they have maple groves in Vermont, and being from Oregon I hadn’t ever given much thought to how maple syrup was harvested. But there they were; little catheters sucking those trees of their sap to make that liquid gold. 

My experience of trying to keep from getting clotheslined or tripped by the maple lines as we skied (not really a big concern; we could barely get above a walking pace!) was just the beginning of my “sugarin’” experience, however.  As we (mercifully) exited the woods and staggered into a field (with sticks stuck in our boots, hair, etc) we saw, off in the distance, a small cabin with smoke barreling out of its smokestack.  And tellingly, all the lines coming out of the woods were heading right towards the “Sugar Shack”.  We headed over, and upon entering took on the scene:  dominating the shack was a huge “tray” that had a little canal that went down to one end, around a 90 degree corner, down to the other end, around a corner, etc in a sort of orderly maze, and this tray was the top of a wood burning stove that was blasting away boiling up the “sap”, which was the color, consistency, and taste of…..water?  But as the sap made its merry way through the maze – burning off tons of vapor en route – it was making its transformation into syrup. 

Monitoring this process was the Sugarmaster himself, who of course was a big booming character who had known Jon since he was just a lad, and it became clear that once the sap taps were turned on and the fire started, there wasn’t much to do besides stoke the fire and chat!  And, of course eat and drink.  As such, the sugar shacks become social hubs in March (the harvest month; in order for the sap to flow, the temps have to go below freezing at night and above during the day, which typically happens for….about 13 days a season!), where there’s lots of eatin’, socializin’, and drinkin’. 

One of our fellow shackers was this old lady who was of course a piece of work, telling us all her skiing and sugarin’ stories of yore, and when I asked her some pretty innocent questions about the process she looked at me as if I was from…..Oregon, or something!  She just took a big slug off her whiskey bottle and said: “son, go put your nose over there”, gesturing towards the end of the maze where the sap was heading for the bottles.  Remarkably, even though that steam had no scent going back and forth across that great tray, I put my head into the vapor of the last tray and…..magic.  I was engulfed in maple!  It was like a maple bar (one of my childhood faves) had been stuffed into each of my nostrils, only way better!  Somehow that “water” had  - at the critical end of it’s journey through the maze – transformed into the miracle of maple syrup.  I kinda went into a trance…..

We spent most of the afternoon in the shack, and I remember the Sugarmaster (that’s my term; I’m sure there’s a more endearing moniker) telling me that due to the steaming that the ratio is something like 32 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup.  “It’s a labor of love!  I figger I make about 45 cents an hour!” though he clearly appreciated that the “labor” involved a lot of socializing and whisky-drinkin. Interestingly, the "grade" of the syrup was determined simply by nature; each shack has vials of Grade A, Grade B, Amber, etc. that are used as visual comparisons to determine that day's grade (which has nothing to do with quality; just a hue and some taste differences that the cogniscenti can discern).  

That evening we had dinner and soon enough it was time for dessert, which was clearly a highly-anticipated course.  One of the bottles of syrup from the day was produced, and it was poured into a pan on the stove and cooked yet more.  Someone went outside and produced a heaping salad bowl of snow from the yard, and soon enough I had a bowl of snow in front of me.  I felt like I was in Kazakhstan or something with how little I knew about what was going on with my meal!  Soon enough the bowl of heated syrup came around, and I was instructed to dribble it on my bowl o’ snow, which I dutifully did.  It quickly coagulated into a taffy-like consistency, and watching others I realized I was to peel it up off the snow and drop it into my mouth as if it was a worms.  I did so and…..yowza!  Again, I got the delicious bang of maple flavor, only this time it was pretty much the sweetest thing ever; almost too much so.  But then the crux; about the time I had taken my first taste of “sugar snow” a big jar of pickles – yes, pickles – got plunked down on the table.  And Granny – the same one who was in the shack – yelled at me to “chase” the sugar snow with the pickle!  Huh?  Ok, when in Kazakhstan…..and it was great!  The salty dill pickle perfectly offset the wild sweetness of the syrup that had been intensified by the final cookage.  I was tempted to ask “who thought of that?” but I realized that it was something that had been done for generations in Vermont and my question would likely have just resulted in blank stares; that's how you eat sugar snow! 

I haven’t really been lured back to Vermont to ski, particularly now that I live in Utah, but of the many days I’ve had skiing around the mountains, that one is more memorable than most.  And I was pleased to find out from Jon this weekend that Granny is actually still kickin’, despite being ever so much more ancient than she was then. And come March I’m sure she’ll be back in the Sugar Shack, keeping the Sugarmaster entertained and drinkin her share of whiskey!  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Decisions, Decisions....

Well, it’s very much old news already that we finally got our first “real” storm of the season, and of course that means another winter of avalanche avoidance is upon us.    Which to me also brings me to my annual fixation on the decision making process that always come to bear when….really, doing almost anything. 

I’ve been on a very mellow kick over the last few years of reading books on decision making, since so much of our fate is determined by our decisions, and if we always made the right decisions, our lives would be eversomuch more better.  But fortunately, we can’t see the future, so we make the best decisions we can.  Sometimes that means what to have for breakfast, sometimes it means who are we gonna marry, and sometimes it means do I ski this untouched slope and live….. or die?  What if we could always optimize those decisions? 

The first book I read was aptly titled “How We Decide” by the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer (he plagiarized himself from earlier writings  - is that really plagiarism? - and made up quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his later book “Imagine”; regardless, he’s a good writer and it’s a good book).  It was a bit of a perfunctory look at our decision making process that is a constant struggle between rationalism and emotion.   He talked a lot about the experiences that we have that influence our subconscious state and create the ability to have “hunches” (that Malcolm Gladwell beat into a pulp in “blink”).  Memorably, he included an anecdote about the quarterback Tom Brady, who was asked about the decisions he made in the heat of the plays, and he generally shrugged and simply said “I don’t know”.  Easy enough (for me) to pass this off as just another lunkhead football player, but actually he was acknowledging that he was letting the many years of the highest-level experience guide him into making “the best” decisions to the point where it had become instinctual.  As it turns out, some time later I happened to see a picture of Tom Brady throwing some big TD pass on the front page of the sports section, with the ball just leaving his fingertips.  Interestingly, his eyes were squeezed shut.  Instinct indeed! 

 But the major takeaway from “How We Decide” was this:  regardless of your decision, acknowledge/understand what led you to that decision and why you are going one way or another.   To me this really resonated with travelling in avalanche terrain:  while in the past I’ve said something memorably and painfully trite like “It feels good to me!” in the heat of the moment, the truth is that is that the slope – or the river, or the gust of wind, or the flake – doesn’t really care what feels good to you or not, so be careful to make conscious  - and conscientious - decisions. 

But then I read “The Black Swan” by the  “epistemologist” (I don’t even know what that is) Nassim Nicholas Taleb, where he argued that “Black Swan” -  the impossible-to-predict, yet hugely impactful - events have far-greater impacts in our lives than we acknowledge (think 9/11), yet we position ourselves to be highly vulnerable to them in our decision-making process by talking ourselves into the notion that those events “can’t happen”.  He’s ferociously pompous, but it’s hard to admit he’s anything other than one of The Really Smart Guys and heeding his admonitions to maintain nimbility and minimize vulnerability in our decision-making process is worth keeping in the back of your mind. 

The real-deal tome in this genre to me is “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.  This guy seems to be The Man when it comes to this stuff, having won a Nobel for economics for his studies in why people invest their money the way they do.  He’s considered to be sort of the father of the concept of “heuristics” (according to Wikipedia:  “heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision.”) and his basic premise is that our minds work on two systems:  System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional, and System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.   Both “systems” are super important and remarkable in their own ways, and really provocative in how they interact to create action.  If we were perpetually slow, deliberative, and logical, it’d be a pretty maddening to be around us; and if we were perpetually fast, intuitive, and emotional we’d be burning up valuable resources, buying every bright/interesting thing we saw, doing nutty adrenaline sports all the time, engaging in irrationally exuberant investments…..hey, that sounds sorta familiar?  Clearly, plenty o’ System 2 happening all around us.  

But how to engage even a bit of the safeguarding System 1?  I am not a scientist. I have long admired my scientific-minded friends for their practicality and logic, and when I first started backcountry skiing I was pretty daunted because I thought that my propensity to get cross-eyed when faced with actual “science” would get me kilt when I conveniently ignored The Facts.  But I’ve come to realize that, like everything, an avalanche is an event that is the result of a series of decisions, and trying to stay abreast of the rationale associated with those decisions is as important as the science itself, if not more so. I think that Bruce Tremper, our venerable director of the Utah Avy center and author of what has become the definitive avalanche book, has become fascinated with this aspect as well, and in fact was the one to recommend Kahneman’s book to me in the first place. 

And, of course, no discussion of this is complete without referencing the work of the brilliant Ian McCammon, whose identification of the “heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents” is worth an annual read http://www.avalanche.org/moonstone/DecisionMaking/Heuristics/traps%20reprint.pdf and this one is a bit more readable: http://www.summitpost.org/human-factors-in-avalanche-incidents/188636   (Ian has moved away from the lucrative world of avalanche psychology/sociology to becoming a “risk manager” for the ginormous L3 Communications).  I particularly like the Commitment Heuristic:  “the tendency to believe that a behavior is correct to the extent that it is consistent with a prior commitment we have made. This heuristic is deeply rooted in our desire to be and and appear consistent with our words, beliefs, attitudes and deeds.” 

I take from this three possible commitment foibles: 
1)      I have committed to this before, so I can – or am expected to - commit to it again (regardless of different circumstances)
2)      I decided some time ago that I was committed to something and am therefore committed (summit fever)
3)      We have already committed a lot, so let’s keep on committing (throwing good money after bad). 

All of which can have devastating consequences if not properly addressed somewhat rationally.  To address this, Ian came up with his “lemons” system (ie too many lemons add up to a not-good situation, though it's kind of unfortunate that lemons have this negative connotation; I like lemons!), his ALP TRUTH acronym  to help the less-scientific people such as myself keep tabs on our snowy environment, and the FACETS acronym to remember the socio/psychological gyrations that can happen on our wintertime travels (Our buddy Chad Bracklesberg has done a great summary here:   http://thebrackpack.com/tag/avalanche/ )  

While these are very specifically oriented towards avalanche avoidance, what they represent – very cognitive acknowledgement of the factors that influence our decision making in both our everyday lives and our big decisions – is profound. 

So as we struggle on through life, trying to “do the right thing” by making the right decisions without necessarily knowing the outcomes, thinking about how – but probably, more importantly, why – We Decide will hopefully lead to eminently happy trails.