Friday, March 28, 2014

the Wasatch Interconnect

Last weekend I had the interesting opportunity to be invited on the famous "Wasatch Interconnect" tour from Deer Valley to Alta/Snowbird with Ski Utah as the representative from The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance with other VIP's to get an up close and personal look at the terrain that was at stake in the recently unveiled ONE Wasatch "concept" (  One can probably guess what I think of this idea, but I was determined to keep not only an open mind but also act as civil and nice as possible to keep this discourse professional.  If you'd like to read the slightly more-sterile, shorter, and less-opinionated version of what went down I generated another post on the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance's website:

We started out in fine Deer Valley style, being toted around in a special van:

And were then given our 'credentials':
worth $300.....
Worth A LOT more.  I am not sure why this is not made more widely known; it IS the ONE Wasatch pass....
After a decent breakfast (interestingly, the cooks had an average age of about 68; all the better to identify with DV's core consumers?) we were introduced to our guides who gave us the lowdown on our day. We took a handful of lifts through DV to get to the top of….some chair, went under the ropeline at the patrol shack, and proceeded down a PCMR run that literally is adjacent to DV run, with a 20 yard DMZ between the ropelines.  We took a couple of chairs and ended up on top of Jupiter chair, where we descended then booted up to the top of Jupiter Peak.  It was here that Nathan started on what was the two recurring themes throughout the day:  “Look at how beautiful it is” and “Look at how convenient this lift interconnect would be“. 
The first "warmup" sidestep, to make sure that we were worthy of the arduous day to come, where we would ascend - gasp - almost 200 vertical feet under our own power!  

"Lifts going here, there, and everywhere!"

I asked what the PCMR/Canyons connection would be, and he said it would come across from the new Iron Mt chair (that quietly took out what I understand to be the last sliver of b/c skiing out of PC) across the pine cone ridge to meet up in the Scott’s pass/Jupiter area.  It was here that he made some disparaging remark about Ski Link and how that was such a bad idea; no doubt for my edification about how sensitive they’ve become.  I also asked why the three PC resorts hadn’t been connected in the past themselves, since if 7 resorts is The Best then certainly connecting those three resorts – which I believe collectively would be the biggest ski resort in North America – would at least be Good.  He went on and on about how they are such different cultures and they just have never really had the incentive to and they are wary of each other and oh by the way PCMR and Talisker/Vail are at each other’s throats but with the incentive of the Other Guys being in to help them along they might put that aside.  Basically, I got the impression that the GM’s of each of the resorts just didn’t really want to join forces with their nearby neighbors out of ego; they all think they are good enough without them. But with the LCC/BCC resorts?  Now we’re talkin’! 

It was here that I asked him about plowing Guardsman, and I got a bit of a barrage of answers that had to do with how steep the road was (I pointed out that the Powder Mt road was super steep also, but I was told that was ‘different”) and how difficult/dangerous it would be to have plows on it due to avy danger (more so than LCC with 20-some-odd 3000’ avy paths?!  I didn’t point that out…).  Ralph said that Park City is very fearful of the traffic implications on Marsac ave, and that they would see G-man plowed “over their dead bodies”.  Interesting. 

We skied down towards the road that people use in the summer to ride up to Scotts Pass from the Gman road, then down below that to the road that is used to access USA bowl, and on out to Solitude.  We rode up through the ‘tude to the top, took the Sol-Bright trail down to the Milly chair at Brighton, up that, then down the lower Sol Bright back to the ‘tude for a sumptuous lunch. 
Our gang near the top of the Milly chair
Back up to the top of Solitude, across the “highway to heaven” traverse to Twin Lakes pass, 

where the ever-grinning Ono 

was there to whisk us in the Alta cat up to the top of Black Bess where we were able to partake in the glory of Grizzly Gulch.  

As we awaited the snowcat to haul us the extra 300 vertical feet to the top of Grizzly, we heard some voices and saw some skiers coming down, which was pretty normal on a sunny Saturday, but the abnormal part about it was that some of the voices sounded...quite small.  And indeed, the people the voices were coming from were quite small:

These kids had hiked up to the top of Grizzly Gulch/Michigan City with their parents to do a bit of backcountry skiing. They were 5, 7, and 9 years old!  I was so psyched to point out that if five year olds could go backcountry skiing, anyone can, and what the hell were we doing taking a snowcat up??!!  (fyi - the kids did NOT have AT/tele gear; they were on alpine stuff  - just like most of our crew - and just marched up in their ski boots carrying their skis....)

Before we skied down, they pointed out that the Solitude-Alta connection was going to be some sort of chair/gondola going across the high expanse from near the top of the Honeycomb chair to the top of the couloir running down from where the cat stops.  We marveled at a couple of notable freeride gals as they handily fired a pretty spicy line, and people ogled at the famous gap-jump kickers that people had built in Grizzly.  I pointed out that if the Grizzly chairlift - which Onno and Nathan talked about as if it were a foregone conclusion - were indeed to go in, that those jumps that are featured in every ski magazine would very likely no longer exist.  

Cast of Characters:
Bob Wheaton is the GM of DV who I believe is a famously-nice guy, and he certainly seemed to be so.    He welcomed us, but he did not join us on the tour. 

Nathan Rafferty – very much the ringleader, and as I expected, he’s a guy you really want to dislike but he makes it quite difficult to do so.  Smart, articulate, friendly, and makes you think that “he gets it”.  He admitted to me that the whole plan was simply a marketing scheme to appeal to people’s aspirational vacation desires; ie the reality of waking up in the DV St. Regis, skiing over to the ‘Bird to fire down Great Scott and have a chili dog at the Birdfeeder before zipping back over to ski the Honeycomb chutes and before having a cocktail at Silver Lake to round out the day is not realistic at all, but that doesn’t mean that the appeal of possibly being able to do that doesn’t have a huge effect on their vacation decisions.
Singing the praises of ONE Wasatch
He also admitted that this interconnect deal will be of little benefit to locals, since they typically support one resort and recognize the time wasted of going between resorts vs nailing the good lines. 

Mayor Ralph Becker – famously underspoken, I tried to get a sense for what he was thinking, and it was hard. He did tell me that SLC had fairly recently quietly bought land in the bottom of Silver Fork, which infuriated Solitude because it effectively cut them off from Meadow Chutes forever.  This was right before we sat down to lunch where the end of one table held Ralph, myself, and Dave DeSeelhorst.
the Mayor surveying his watershed, and beloved b/c terrain.  
Dave DeSeelhorst – owner of Solitude.  He has a lot to say, and a few were actually interesting:
The new fancy Montage hotel in DV has averaged 40% occupancy since it opened, but at least the original budget of $250M finally settled at nearly $600M
Solitude also has 40% occupancy of their hotels
He had just returned from Telluride, and it’s pretty clear to me that this interconnect thing is mostly spawned from all the Utah resort GM’s being tired of 30 years of getting “beaten” by Colorado, despite the latter being more crowded and having worse snow and terrain.  He also spent a bunch of time in Europe and loves it there, so he’s a big proponent of the chairs-all-over-yonder-and-back concept, and he thinks it’ll take him and his dinky little resort into the big time.  He also loves Whistler Blackcomb and what they’ve done. 
DeSeelhorst in the center
Both he and Nathan fully admitted that the ski industry has stagnated, but I get the feeling that they think that they have tons of potential to grow by stealing those folks who go to CO and-  importantly – SoCal, which supposedly has far more skiers than you might think, and these guys know that it’d be easier for SoCalians to go to the Wasatch than to Mammoth. 

They also think that the variety of cultures that the resorts represent would be a welcome change from the cookie-cutter resorts of – for example – CO and CA.  I was tempted to argue this point a little, saying that sort of flies in the face of the generification of…..nearly everything, but part of this day reminded me that it’s easy to look at this from a marketing or economic standpoint and say “that doesn’t make sense”, but I think it’s important to note that what we think of their business decisions doesn’t matter.  If they think that it’s a good investment – and, if you think of it, the only investment that each of the 7 resorts has to make is the cost of less than one chairlift, it actually is a decent investment, by their standards – then it is.  So we need to hit them on our points, not theirs. 

Anyway, back to the cast of characters:
Dave Whittikend (sp?) – the Wasatch-Cache Ntl Forest Supervisor – a nice guy, big runner/cyclist, and he has a lot on his plate.  Again, a hard guy to read; he was oohing and aahhing with the rest of them at the natural beauty and the proximity and didn’t ask many/any hard questions – and only seemed mildly interested that I had a map that showed the private/public land designations (thanks Brian and Christian). I will follow up and send him digital versions of those maps. 

Mike Allegra, director of UTA – Mike’s been around since the beginning of time and is an old buddy of Ralphs (and Brad Barber’s, who’s the chair of the Mountain Accord’s recreation committee) and a former avid b/c skier.  He had the suggestion that “we should take these guys out for a ski tour” which is a decent one, but I think that might be a bit much. 

Laynee Jones – the director of the Mountain Accord project.  She’s whipsmart and motivated, and knows how this stuff works.  I told her that my theory was that the resort GM’s heard about this Mountain Accord thing and they sort of panicked and threw together this “concept” in an effort to try to trump it, but she said that this project has been in the works for years and it was due to her urging that they include it in the Mountain Accord project because if not then it would have absolutely no chance.  She also said that the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance had the potential to really influence the recreation committee – mostly by very-clearly outlining what “we” wanted, probably via maps – and that the recreation committee was in turn going to have a huge impact on the Accord itself. 

Jeff Heilman – a planner brought in from Portland to help Laynee with this Mountain Accord project, and also quite sharp. He has a presentation of tons of recent ski industry statistics that he can provide, tho again, I’m not sure that saying “but the ski/snowboard industry is in decline” is the right argument for people who want to preserve backcountry terrain.

Drew Clark – Editorial writer for the D-news.   He was sporting some of those cool video-shooting shades, and had no idea that people could actually ski without the use of chairlifts.  I bent his ear quite a bit when I had the chance, and am following up with him  to basically influence his writing and make sure he's not simply a Ski Utah mouthpiece.  If nothing else, I think our involvement in this day is worth this one important aspect. 

There was a DV employee there, Ralph’s new (and young!) communications manager, Laynee’s husband, a city engineer for Cottonwood Heights (who LOVED the concept of hiking uphill for turns!), and a Provo water/landslawyer representing SLC on the Mountain Accord project.  And the GM of Solitude joined us for a bit.    

A couple of notable moments....

At one point mid-morning Jeff Heilman had to whizz, and asked the guide "is there going to be a bathroom soon, or should I just find a tree" (he had just seen me whizzing but was more polite than me and decided to ask).  The guide looked at him and said "well.....this IS watershed..." I pretty much blew my wheaties out my nose at that; here we were talking about how great it was that we had seven ski resorts in proximity and how awesome it would be to have them linked up in one behemoth resort and the guy pulls the "watershed" card out?!?!  I laughed enough to make the guide sheepishly understand the ridiculosity of that. 
The 2nd was even better.....
we were down in Grizzly Gulch and someone asked about the power lines, and Ono said something to the effect of how they get their power from PC but Snowbird gets theirs from the valley (scintillating information!).  Then Nathan says "yeah, it'd be great if those weren't there."  My ears perked up at this and I said "why's that?" and he said, "well, it's just nice not to have power lines everywhere."  I didn't want to make him look like too much of a DB in front of everyone, so I waited a minute til people moved on and I leaned in close and said "Nathan, you are a good enough guy that I'm going to tell you that you gave me a layup there and you should appreciate that I didn't slam dunk you hard.   Power lines may be a bit of an eyesore, but they don't transport people up into the mountains; chairlifts do".  And to his credit, he  - also sheepishly - admitted that I had a point there.....

Ski Utah and the resorts underestimated the backlash that their Ski Link proposal had a couple of years ago, and they are being far more strategic this time in their rollout of this new/old idea, but their new proposal has far greater implications than Ski Link did.  It's no secret that the central Wasatch needs some transportation "solutions" to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of users, but ONE Wasatch is most definitely NOT a transportation solution; it's a marketing scheme to try to one-up Colorado in order to lure visitors here vs there to account for previous investments in too much capacity - and, for example, The Canyons is still planning on over 50% more hotel rooms! - with no proof that it will actually work, but at least valued areas like Michigan City, Patsy Marley, Wolverine, Snake Creek, and virtually all of upper Silver Fork will be compromised forever and there's very little benefit to local SLC valley resort skiers.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

ONE least, for a few

It's been rumored now for months, and Ski Utah finally came out with it:  their plan to connect all seven of the central Wasatch's ski resorts via chairlifts, that they boldly called "ONE Wasatch".  If we thought that connecting The Canyons and Solitude via Ski Link was a bad idea, this is approximately seven times worse!  Since this is my blawg and not anything where I need to be tactful, I'm going to forego that nicety and call it like it is.

Recently a very ambitious project was started called the "Mountain Accord" that is essentially the final and most comprehensive plan yet to coalesce the needs, desires, and demands of all the Central Wasatch "users": summer and winter recreators, canyon residents, business interests, animals, plants, etc.  The large committee has city mayors and managers, water managers (almost the entire water supply for nearly 2M people is ensconced above 8000 feet in the Wasatch), transportation engineers, wildlife/environmental activists, the US Forest Service, user group advocates (Salt Lake Climber's Alliance, Save Our Canyons, the Wasatch Mountain Club, and the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance) and others, and is really trying to take into account ALL of the perspectives into essentially managing the burgeoning population and associated (over) popularity of the already-most-heavily-used national forest in the country.  When we first got wind that Ski Utah was pondering a proposal to try to singlehandedly trump all of that by superimposing a comprehensive Euro-style lift system to criss-cross the ridges after their public relations debacle of the failed Ski Link my first thought was "there is no way they would have the hubris to propose something like that".  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Here is an article on the press conference:

I am super-psyched that Wasatch Backcountry Alliance's Jamie Kent got so much ink in it; Jamie is such a nice guy that no one can get annoyed by him, yet he's got a quiet and powerful passion that makes him a great person to have in that role.

Ironically, Ski Utah is sponsoring a ski tour this weekend to show various people who deign to show up some good untracked powd......I mean, all the great terrain that's going to be carved up so that people can ski.....a couple of resorts in one day.  Years ago Whistler and Blackcomb decided to merge and become one big resort and it was a huge.......non event.  Skier days did not increase.  Ironically, because Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and the Canyons have already taken over essentially the entire Park City ridgeline, those resorts are basically already interconnected, but the famous sniping  -and beyond - that has gone on between them ( apparently has made formalizing that impossible?  Not to mention the fact that those resorts are all rightly concerned about their ability to thrive and even survive as global warming puts pressure on their already-weak snowpack.  So they resort to connecting over the ridgelines to their brethren of bigger snow and let Ski Utah do their talking for them, even as rumors abound that Vail - which has taken over management of The Canyons - is snooping around both Alta and Snowbird, looking to buy.

Some years ago I read a book called "Downhill Slide: Why the corporate ski industry is bad for skiing, ski towns, and the environment" ( and it outlined in detail what we all inherently know:  the business model of ski resorts is to make audacious claims about ski acreage and numbers of runs in order to entice people to come and spend exorbitant amounts of money to ski for about 4 hours a day, and hopefully sell a ton of overpriced adjacent real estate.  It generally works.....until it doesn't.  Tamarack resort near McCall, ID went big on that model, and is now just a hillside with a bunch of cut runs for local backcountry skiers and people like Andre Agassi shrug off their investment loss.  Rumor has it that the huge megahotels in the Canyons are mostly empty, which is why owner Talisker and manager Vail are trying to figure out "what else" to do with that lame resort (but at least lift tickets are $105/day!)

The backcountry community needs to be careful to stay away from the easy argument of "our recreation is simply better than your recreation!" when talking about ski resorts.  But what's ironic is that Ski Utah's arch rival Colorado actually has a far-higher skier-density ratio than Utah, so the acres-per skier in Utah is already very good, relatively speaking. In fact, Solitude's only marketing message ever since I can remember is how few people are there and how it lives up to its name! (they actually took out a big chunk of their parking a few years add expensive condos).  So why the big push to link all the resorts?  To generate a lot of publicity, not really improve the skiing but create enough of a facade that one actually  can ski Deer Valley and Snowbird in one day that they can indeed entice.....maybe a few more? people to Utah to ski.  Of course, by the time the project will actually happen the lift tickets will be another 20% higher  - to $100-$125 instead of $80-$105, and the resort owners will continue to be asking themselves why their skier day numbers aren't going up.

In the meantime, we human-powered recreationists in the Wasatch have a fight on our hands.  Ski Utah learned enough from their Ski Link failure to know at least some things not to do and now perhaps know what to expect in opposition, but just as their new proposal is that much more audacious, so too must be the fight to maintain the existing balance between ski resort terrain and backcountry terrain.  Keep in mind:  there is not a clarion call from resort skiers to be able to ski all these multiple resorts in a day!  This is a marketing campaign designed to increase profits in a flawed business model, not to dramatically improve the skier experience, tho of course that's what it'll be wrapped as.

So for now, if you haven't already, join, donate money there for their upcoming survey that the U of U is conducting, go to Save Our Canyon's petition page and sign that (, join Save Our Canyons as well, and tell the rest of the people you know who appreciate the Wasatch to do the same.

And then go shred some good spring powder!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hypoxia punctuated by Terror

This past weekend was the much-anticipated Wasatch Powder Keg:  the annual ritual of people who most-often like to hike up untrammeled slopes to ski untracked lines instead finding themselves charging up and down the Brighton ski resort in an effort to crush themselves and each other!  

The first couple years of the Powder Keg were modest affairs with only 40-some odd participants, then the Euros heard about it and it became "a big deal" with the race being a stop on the "Skimo" (short for "Ski Mountaineering"; more on that later) World Cup circuit.  After a couple of years of that it maintained a high level of enthusiasm among some locals and cogniscenti, but the competition level waned a little (I got 2nd one year!).  Over the last couple of years, however, the sport's growing popularity and race director Chad Bracklesberg's incessant efforts and enthusiasm has once again made the Powder Keg the biggest skimo race in North America.  So it was fitting that this year's version also served as the North American Championships.  

The weekend festivities started on Friday night with the Sprints.  Momentarily forgetting that I haven't had a single fast twitch muscle fiber ever detected in my body I registered for it, but fortunately one of those many slow twitch muscles in my back tweaked itself a couple of days before and I opted out of the 4 minute acute sufferfest.  Jason Dorais put his sub-1:50 800 meter track speed to good use in conjunction with his ever-improving ski skills to win it for the locals:

with equally-speedy brother Andy getting literally elbowed off the podium in the final strides

and transplanted local Gemma taking the women's with a blistering climb.  

The "main event" got going early next morning with over 150 people charging off the line to climb and ski over 6000 feet for the "elites" (folks on the lightweight skimo gear) and "heavy metal"-ers (regular AT/tele skis/bindings or split boards) and 3000 feet for the recreational division.  As always, I tried to not go out too hard so as to not blow up immediately, and as always I did anyway, though it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  Atop the first climb I got some heckling by the wacky Elliot Braceilewoskiwitz about how I was about to get schooled by my old skis (that I had sold him in the Fall) and I responded as any testosterone-infected male would:  by charging down the first, super-steep chute way too fast with no regard for my safety and only a vague acknowledgement that I was going stupidly fast enough to not only jeopardize my race but my season as well if I careened into one of the many trees, but fortunately the gods let me go this time and I breathed a latent sigh of relief as we hit a groomer that whisked us to the first transition. 

The rest of the race was pretty straightforward; suffer on the climb, quick transition, and hang on for the descent.  I was going back and forth with the venerable Michael Hagen, who is the US distributor of Hagan skis (coincidence that his name is almost the same) who finally asked me how old I was, since he knew there was a master's division.  I assured him that it was 50+ (he's 51) and I wasn't quite that old, but he still dropped the hammer on me on the last climb!  I thought I could catch him on the final descent, but instead I caught a tip and tumbled down the last steep chute and almost lost my ski, so my 17th place was sealed.  Now that I think about it, I caught a tip on the final descent of the Jackson nationals last year and got passed as I untangled myself and....was also 17th.  At least I'm consistent.  

Sunday brought the "technical teams race", which meant that there was a climb and descent on boots that were both steep and exposed enough that we needed to haul a harness, ascender, and via ferrata system along with us - and know how to efficiently use all this stuff which I found is a lot easier in our basement than it is in a frenzy on a 45 degree slope of sugar snow with numb fingers
You can see racers booting up the center

Here's a view of the booter from the other direction.  We went up through the rocks and into the main chute, then down the left horizon ridge. 
it was nice to know I wasn't the only one clustering around with this gear.  You go Teague!  
using the rope is apparently the "mountaineering" part from which "Skimo" - which typically happens within ski resorts - takes its name!
charging down the ridge

This day was longer, with several more miles and ~9000 feet of vertical, and  - a critical aspect - everyone had a partner.  I had a ringer:  Colter Leys moved to SLC a coupla years ago and his high-end nordic background lends itself to excellent hammerage on the skin track as well, tho he typically uses this telemarketing stuff that is amazingly sometimes still seen in these parts.  But it was clear from the get go that he had no problem transitioning to the lightweight skimo gear, either on the climb or - importantly - on the tricky descents.  

As we approached the "technical" section on the 2nd climb we became aware of a big commotion around us, and I remembered that Chad had been all excited because the Life Flight guy had offered to take one the visiting Italian Skimo Federation dignitaries up in the heli for some birds-eye video footage to show his EU counterparts.  I must say that I don't really envy the many sports that are now using heli footage; having the heli hover above us as we tried to negotiate a challenging skin track, the sugary bootpack, and the unfamiliar gear was a bit unnerving with the deafening noise and rotor-wash spindrift (not to mention the debris being rained down on us from the guys in front of us).  But we dutifully forged ahead, and soon enough found ourselves in a bit of a no-mans land a bit behind the fastest teams and a fair distance ahead of the folks behind us. And despite the fact that we had heard one of the women's teams exhort to each other "we just need to talk a lot!" Colter and I generally just marched along in silence; in my hypoxic state I couldn't think of many clever things to say and didn't want to expend the energy anyway.  

We also used a tow system; when I had mentioned it earlier in the week Colter thought that I was kidding, but it's a pretty common practice.  If we are "even" in fitness, I was tired from the day before and Colter was fresh, so - as I anticipated - the tow system on my harness was just a waste of weight, since Colter literally towed me on every climb!  We had been told to get about 8' of 4mm bungee, and it worked quite well, especially for getting over the many little steep/challenging sections; once Colter got over a bump he got going again and his momentum would give me a little tug right when I needed it.  We had been strongly encouraged to practice towing, but of course we blew that off and did just fine learning on the fly.  
"Tom, you coming?"  Uh....yeah, yeah, I'm coming!"  
The most memorable section of the race was about halfway through when we topped out on a long, south facing shot that had been baking hard in the sun the day before.  Colter shoved off a couple of seconds before me as I gulped a bit of water, and when I looked down he was far below me;  the "shot" was probably a quarter-mile wide and dropped well over a thousand feet, and though it was pretty much bulletproof in the early morning but was butter smooth, so we went from 0-60 in about 2 seconds. As I like to say:  going fast on big skis is pretty fun, but going that fast on little rando skis is really fun!   It then funnelled into a gully where the nice supportable crust went to decidedly punchy, then we ended up on a steepish, bumpy mining road.  By the time we hit the transition our quads were smoking and Colter simply fell over!  But soon enough we were back on the skins for more uphill trudging.  
Happy to be on top of the longggg, 2nd to last climb.  
Then more harrowing descents, then more trudging uphill, then more harrowing descents, etc.  Until we finally finished, in a respectable 8th place.  Overall a silly, exhausting, and fun weekend.  

Thanks again to Mike Hales for loaning me all his nice race gear for Colter and I to use, to Colter for being a stellar pard, all the great volunteers who were so cheerful and supportive despite early mornings and long days, and to Chad and Emily for their tireless efforts in putting on a very impressive event.  

Some additional pics from the Italians, Kevin Buckingham, Willow Toso, and Fred Marmsater.  There's a ton of pics here:
Local boys Jason and Tom putting the wood to the Coloradans
Jason's effort garnered him the silver, which he was clearly happy with (but he's always happy!)
Bruce Tremper showing that former national champ downhiller form
The views were beautiful, tho I never even looked up!  
The only water on the course got frozen, which was a bummer, but these Canucks figured that kissing the spigot might help?  
Mark Christopherson of Voile with his main cheerleader; Mark spearheaded the effort for Voile to do their new "Wasatch Speed Project" Rando ski that the locals - including me - have been snapping up, and Voile was a huge event sponsor
Here's to hoping to evolve into Stand Up Skiers!  
Happy to be done!  Colter wasn't towing quite fast enough so I had to whap him a time or two to get him to speed up.  And of course to make him look all burly.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The meaning of sports

Last week Salt Lake City hosted a tennis tournament that was a bit unusual; instead of the young power players who traipse the world doing Virginia Slims tournaments (where did I get that?) they had….John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Jim Courier.   I’m not a big tennis fan  - in fact, not a fan at all – but this sounded mildly interesting; I mean, who doesn’t know at least McEnroe and Sampras?   It was a “fun” tournament, but it was clear from the articles that these guys took it somewhat seriously and played to win.  McEnroe said something to the effect of “If I’m breathing, I’m competitive” which probably surprises no one. 
At 55 he beat the 42 y/o Sampras
Gordon Monson, the primary Salt Lake Tribune sports columnist, used the match as the topic of one of his daily columns last week.  And in it, he said this about McEnroe:  “aside from the broadcast booth, he’s playing in mostly meaningless exhibitions like the one at ESA on Tuesday night.”   This took me aback for a second.  “Meaningless”?  Using that term assumes that other tennis tournaments are actually “Meaningful?”  As if the definition of an “meaningful” activity is that the participants need to be young, powerful, fast, and – perhaps more importantly - that there’s a lot of money at stake?  What was weird about the column is that his main point was that men’s tennis in the US is very weak.  Some no-name guy is ranked 13th and the 2nd American is 56th, so Monson was moaning about the sorry state of tennis in this country as compared to the glory days of Conners, McEnroe, Sampras, et al.  But apparently the low-ranked guys are playing in “meaningful” tournaments?  I think that if you asked any of the thousands of spectators who showed up at the McEnroe/Sampras “tournament” if they found any “meaning” in it…..I think they did! 

Which brings up the question of what is indeed meaningful, and to whom, and for what reason? This weekend is the Skimo North American Championships; is that really meaningful?  For about 25 people….yes, it has a lot of meaning.  For 300 million other Americans and 35 million Canadians, it has less than zero “meaning”.  Our good buddy Geoff Lane was telling us about an interview with the Dutch speed skating coach who was derisive of American sports, saying that they were “stupid”, to which the American interviewer said something to the effect of “like going around in circles on an ice rink is NOT stupid?” 

Lest we forget, all these activities are contrived: skating in circles, hitting a ball back and forth over a 3-foot high net into a white painted box, pedaling a bicycle quickly, pole vaulting, putting a ball through a hoop, sliding on snow, etc.  And the only meaning that we put on them is the meaning that we as a society put on them, either as competitors or spectators.  And if winning the sport 35 clydesdale mountain bike division at a local mountain bike race is what provides some small bit of “meaning” in your life, so be it!  Or – if as John McEnroe said - perhaps inspiring some kids to pick up a tennis racket instead of an Xbox is what provides some meaning to your existence……indeed, so be it.  And if the vision of a 55 year old former pro smashing a forehand surprisingly hard provides the impetus for a middle-aged, 20-pound overweight, formerly-good tennis player to pick up his racket again and start playing to regain the joy of competition and the benefits of renewed fitness…..that’s meaning. 

But what literal armchair quarterbacks deem as “meaningful” or “meaningless” based on the relative worth of those activities…..pipe down dude, and try to find some meaning in your own patheticism. 

For what it’s worth, here’s the link to the column: