Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Grand Trip

Kind of a long post, but it was a two week trip and all....

After having the good fortune to be invited on 7 previous Grand Canyon trips, I was a bit under the impression that I had sorta “done” the Grand Canyon river trip, and was generally of the mind that the big time commitment and the many zillions of things in the world to do meant that I should focus my efforts elsewhere.  But the opportunity to head down in the sometimes-tough-in-SLC month of November, a window of opportunity on the work front, the presence of our great friends Team Hanlon, the late addition of our old friend Jeannie Wall, and the knowledge that the loveable Jonny Adler was bound to have a posse of great family and friends joining him made the decision pretty easy.  And it indeed turned out to be a pretty fab journey. 

After spending a great evening with Joe Hazel and Nancy Evans and fam in Flagstaff (where we were the last of 680 million people be exposed to “Gangam Style”!; it’s good to have 13 year olds around to keep the likes of us up on pop culture) Jeannie, Tom Rossmeisl (who grew up a few miles from Jeannie in Madison, WI; the world’s smallness still never ceases to amaze me) got an early start for the hike down the South Kaibab trail to meet the crew  - who had been floating the river for a week already – at Phantom Ranch.  The storm that walloped the Wasatch with 4 feet of snow that weekend left plenty of cold air in its wake, and I think it was around 20 degrees when we left the rim.  But a quick 2 hr hike to the river got us onto the beach in full sun and warm temps.  A little later than expected the crew emerged from the dark Inner Gorge after camping that night above Hance rapid, and it was pretty clear that they were just as psyched to see the sun as they were us!  It had been a pretty long and chilly morning for them already. 

After the typical Phantom cluster and saying goodbye to Porno Dan (long story; actually, many stories!) and Sam and Dave (who were hiking out to get Sam to a redeye flight out of Phoenix that night) I flopped into the cockpit of the raft and we floated on down to Horn Creek rapid.  Horn is one of the most notorious rapids on the run that likes to bite rowers who show up at Phantom pretty dang rusty (I hadn’t rowed a stroke since our 2008 trip).  Despite my life as a rower being dictated by the venerable Scott Martin’s adage that rafting is all about setting up, then very profoundly taking thumb and inserting it into one’s ass, I had the misperception that I could actually move a fully-loaded 18’ raft in the heart of a rapid, and as such took a good whallop from the big wave at the bottom of Horn Creek.  An inauspicious start to my trip, and I’m glad that my passengers were willing to give me a bit of slack on that one, since they had just met me and were relying on me probably more than they wanted to! 

The crew was made up of a mostly-Middlebury College-centered crew, and because very few of them had done a previous Grand trip – or, for that matter, any  river trips - Greg Hanlon had taken advantage of that opportunity to impress upon them that the cold temps and short days of November were not limiting factors in the quest do all the hikes possible, so they were well-versed in pushing the limits of daylight had already done a lot of awesome hikes and a couple of slots (including one that involved 8 rappels into water, and all were done in the dark; they finished at 8:30 pm!).  And armed with this book:

And the “Hikes from the River” book Greg had put together an ambitious agenda of hikes that all ended up being stellar.  In the first 10 days of my trip we only made it 90 miles down the river; we did 3 layover days and several days were only several miles, going from one awesome adventure to the next, with a little whitewater and a fair bit of drinking/eating/yucking around fires in between. 

After anticlimatic runs of the remaining “big” rapids of Granite, Hermit, and Crystal we got to Bass Camp, which is a much-sought after camp due to the plethora and range of things to do there as well as a lot of winter sun.  The crew that I joined for that first layover day hike was Greg, Tom, and the ladies, and our objective became Dox Castle, a huge limestone block looming a couple thousand feet above camp. 

And once on top the views were sublime:

The next day we moved on to Elve’s Chasm, which is a bit of a funny place for me.  The first time I saw it I declared it The Most Beautiful Place On Earth, but since then I’ve had the fine fortune to see lots of those (and declared them as such as well; I have bit of a short term memory) and I’ve been back into Elve’s 6 more times - including one scary waste of time where we probed as high as we could to see if we could see the elusive and impressive Royal Arch -  so it has lost a little of its draw for me.  However, Greg had identified a great loop (that clearly gets a lot of use) that goes into Elves from the top. It requires some scrambling:

And someone had been bold enough to solo up and put in a fixed/etriere’d line that Jeannie fired up:

To eventually bring us to where the legendary (at least, to me) Royal Arch lies:

This journey isn’t for the faint of heart:
This 180-footer was Tom R’s first ever rappel! 

It got a bit late, so we ended up dropping into Elve’s proper as the light waned:

And then we had to negotiate the Elve’s well-known tricky little sections in the full dark (though by this time the crew had learned that it was best to pack headlamps on all Hanlon adventures!).  It was at this time that my many trips up into Elves paid off somewhat, because many of the little route nuances – which look a lot different in the dark – are a bit unlikely-looking.  

Upon reaching the beach we had a few minutes of consternation because the rafts were not quite where we expected the rest of the crew would leave them.  This caused probably more than a couple of thoughts of “this could be a long night”, but a bit of snooping found the hidden rafts and soon enough our intrepid gang was floating down the inky blackness of the Colorado, with the stars peaking through the gorgy walls above us.  We went three miles like this, and I must say that floating in the dark was some of the coolest time I spent on this trip.  And when we reached camp, the hoots of joy from all and the warm fire was much appreciated; it was nice to know that they were not worried or mad about our late hour, just stoked at the adventure. 

*Note - it was at this point in this post that I cracked at the painfully-awkward lack of ability to paste in photos (even editing is a PIA; what is up with this blogger program?) and I gave up.  I will paste in a link to Picasa photos at the bottom....

And the rowing/hiking/adventuring continued.  We hit up Deer Creek, the Throne Room, and had a rousing game of both Ultimate Frisbee (or as Greg calls it "Mediocre"; according to him, "Ultimate" is a bit presumptuous, and there are a lot of things that are more ultimate than "Ultimate") and a new favorite, nighttime Bocci.  I don't have any pics of them, but Jonny brought along these killer lit up bocci balls, and it was awesome to roam around the beach in the dark with these glowing red, green, yellow, and blue orbs flying around the dark shadowy camps. 

One morning a handful of us got up early and pushed off camp at first light to head down to Matkatamiba Canyon, which is another of the GC classics.  However, we had more ambitious plans than the standard wander up the Matkat gorge; Panametta Canyon was listed in the canyoneering book as a stellar slot that was the pinnacle of a 4-day trip from the south rim combining it with nearby Olo Canyon, but Greg felt like starting from the river might enable a one-day blast.  By 9:30 we had floated 11 miles and were marching up Matkat, and after 3 hours of hiking (that included a couple of funny encounters with the wild burros in that area) we found ourselves staring into the Panametta abyss.   Once in the head of the canyon, we suited up and dropped in, and for the next 3 hours were in an incredibly smooth and beautiful limestone slot that had 8 rappels with plenty of water to navigate.  We found that running water in the GC is pretty warm, but the pools cool down at night and then never warm, so they are quite cold.  Greg and I were a little reluctant to take our drysuits/tops/pants into the slot due to our experience with Utah’s abrasive sandstone, but the polished limestone makes that more or less a non-issue, so Jeannie was feeling pretty snug – and smug - in her drysuit and was amused to watch us do jumping jacks to keep warm. 

 We were able to make it back out of Matkat just before dark, and were able to meet the rest of the crew at the nearby Matkat Hotel camp just downstream, much to our relief, because Upset rapid loomed a mile below.

Upset doesn’t rate highly on the rapid list, but it’s provided plenty of excitement for river runners over the years due to the large wave/hole near the bottom.  I inexplicably forgot the lesson I had learned earlier in the week at Horn Creek, and figured I’d just “move right” from center and miss the hole.  But within seconds of entering the rapid it was clear that we were going to vector straight into the heart of it, so I squared up and in a very calm shriek told the guys to pretty much hurl themselves forward into the wave so it wouldn’t flip us; which they obliged.  We got slammed hard  - the bowsprits got a nice nasal douche - and for a split second I felt the raft almost stop – which generally portends considerable excitement in a fast moving river – but the river gods (whom I’d met in Italy last month!) decided to let us go free.  Apparently our 18’ raft and its occupants completely but briefly disappeared in the maw….

Not far downstream is Tuckup Canyon , which was first referred to me before our 2002 trip as a bit of a sleeper side canyon, and it’s one of the best places in the Canyon.  Once again, Greg had cooked up an awesome loop combining a couple of canyons that we had done as out and backs on previous trips.  We marched up Tuckup to an enormous subway-like section then climbed out of that to the mostly-flat Esplanade layer that allows for quick overland travel (though it’s a land mine of stickery bushes/cactuses) and then dropped into the upper part of the East fork of Tuckup, which in 2002 I had declared as The Coolest Place Ever.  Which may not necessarily be the case, but it’s still way cool.  A few short rappels, some more wading, a nice hike back to camp, and another layover day adventure was done. 

And then came The Flood.  We had found out earlier this fall that the various agencies with jurisdiction in the GC had decided that it was time for another sediment-flushing flood – the last time was when we were on the river in March 2008 – and it was going to happen while we were on the river.  It took a while to reach us since we were – at this point – pretty far down in the canyon, but when it came, it came quick.  The water almost immediately turned brown with the massive (??? That was the idea, at least….) amount of sediment in the water and it went from a relatively placid, steady flow to a huge roiling mess.  The temperature in the canyon actually dropped a fair bit due to the dramatically-increased surface area of the cold water, and the water gobbled up camps and beaches (hopefully to be rebuilt later as the water dropped) and snatched all sorts of debris from the banks and swirled it around in massive boils.  It was pretty exciting to see. 

At Tuckup we shared the beach with a few scientist types who were going to be parked there for a week to monitor the flood; specifically, they were going to be measuring the amount of silt in the water (via sonar; the more silt in the water the less-effective sonar pulses are), since that's the primary reason for the flood.  It seemd pretty dang silty to us, but apparently the river "cleaned up" surprisingly quickly after the gates were closed and there's some speculation that the lack of silt provided by the bigger tribs upstream made this flood not as effective as the 2008 release.  One of the guys is apparently a bit of a GC legend - who, according to Joe Hazel, floated on an overturned raft 60 miles after flipping in the huge '83 flood - and when Greg told him about our agenda he was quite impressed; a nice testament to Greg's creativity and the team's efficient daylight-useage. 

After hiking up the recently-"blown out" (from a big monsoon flash flood this summer) National canyon we had another layover day at Mohawk canyon, which proved to be a well-deserved "rest day" since we got stopped by an unanticipated, unclimbable dryfall/chockstone.  And this shorter day enabled the preparation of an Adler family tradition:  the riverside sauna.  With tarps and tables there was plenty of room for 7-8 folks to be quite cozy, and after heating nice softball-sized rocks in the fire to get them glowing hot they were brought into the sauna to create an impressive amount of heat and steam.  I'm not sure if twelve year old Sawyer fully appreciated the value of the story of sitting next to a bunch of cute naked girls in a sauna would represent to his friends! 

And, of course, downstream loomed……Lava Falls. 

When I first floated Lava in 1990 the scene the night before was positively funereal; I honestly think that some people weren’t sure they were going to make it.  Our 2012 crew had a little more experience and the added bonus of the confidence/exuberance of youth, but as always the talk about Lava fairly well dominated the fireside conversations.  After a nice layover day at Mohawk canyon an hour of floating got us to the object of our dread.  We pulled over nice and high to enable both scouting and those who wanted to walk around the rapid (requiring back and forth shuttles across the fast-moving current above the drop) but a quick scout from on high on the left side showed that the left run - normally a bit of a chunderfest at low flows  -was pretty much a chocolate highway at 40k, and the fearsome ledge hole at center-top was deeply buried.  The oarsmen were confident, and we were all-in. 

Our “safety” strategy changed a bit on this rapid; instead of running it with two rafts at a time as we’d done on the upper rapids, we decided to fire it straightaway with all four rafts one right after the other, with the thinking that it was unlikely that more than 1 would have any problems and the remainder would be available to help in the long, fast tailwaters if there was an issue.  There was a decent-sized lateral wave at the top that enabled a nice half-spin to meet the meat below, and it worked out just fine for all the rafts.  I actually think that running the right side at normal flows is more challenging and bigger-feeling.    

Post-Lava (and it very much felt that way) we had one more good hike that Greg had cooked up:  Indian Canyon has two “difficult” (according to the guidebook) hikes that Greg identified as possibly being connectable.  However, this enabled getting past the “impassable” chockstone at the top of the canyon.  However, our rope gun Jeannie fired the 5.9ish move 20 feet off the deck (no pic; I was too busy spotting and wringing my hands) and enabled us to leave the canyon, go across, and then down a 2000’ scree pile back to camp.  And from there on down it was riding the brown train (at 7mph!) another day or so to the takeout. 

As ever, the short days and cool temps kept the crowds down; in the first week the crew saw only one party of hikers and no other raft parties, and eventually we started leapfrogging with two other raft parties, but we felt like we had the canyon to ourselves, which is such a treat, since I think it can be a bit of a zoo in high summer. 

All in all a great adventure, but what really made it great was a stellar crew who worked and played hard, got along really well, was hilarious, was patient with the likes of Greg, Jeannie and I who had to get our daily adrenaline/endorphin fix, and was game for most anything. 

Many thanks again to Andy for flawless off-the-river logistical organization and to Greg for great captaining on the river.

Here's a link to more photos:


Monday, November 26, 2012

first "ski" day of the season

I returned yesterday from a super-awesome Grand Canyon trip (a great crew, tons of new hikes, a couple of memorable canyoneered slots, and a prescribed flood of 42,000 cfs that included Lava Falls) to some still-lingering-up-high snow in the Wasatch.  Ash and I went out this morn for a quick lap up Snowbird, but it turned out to be an inauspicious start to my 2012-13 ski season:
Something is not quite correct here. 

Despite their use way back in the day as snowboard boots, Sorels don't tend to work so well for skiing, especially with Dynafit bindings.  Them funny plastic ski boots decided that it was still a bit early for this season so they spent the morning safely ensconced in the middle of the nice warm kitchen, where I set them in order not to forget them (and actually drove back to the house from a block away to check on something else, and STILL missed them!).  Once again, I outsmart  - or perhaps this time outdumb - myself. 

In any case, many thanks to Ferg for the borrow of the aforementioned Sorels, because I was able to somewhat salvage the morn by running/walking up the groomers a ways before Ash came roaring back down. 

Tomorrow I'll write up a tale of our Big Ditch exploits with some pics. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Two big rivers

I'm heading out today for a 2 week trip down the Grand Canyon, and will undoubtedly have some good tales from there; if nothing else, we are getting a prescribed flood for a day or two that it appears may reach ind us at Lava Falls, so that'll be good for some yucks.  And my buddy Rocky Contos reached the sea this week in the "First Descent of the Amazon" (you'd have thunk that had been done a hundred years ago, but apparently not so) and he's returning home with his locked-up laptop that has a tale of our river adventures together in Peru in September on his hard drive  - and Rocky's story is a good one as well - so I should have some fodder for this venue after Thanksgiving. 

Election Bloodbath Aftermath

I have not mentioned anything in this blog yet about politics, which is sorta weird because I have pretty strong feelings about politics, I follow that arena probably too closely, and of course, ‘tis the season.  But like a lot of people, I was kinda overdosing on it, partly due to the sheer volume but also because it was depressing.  And I figured anything I wrote would be simply adding to the hyperbole and what other people were already saying. But when my good friends Chris and Rebecca from SoCal pointed out that Utah shared the ignominious badge (along with Oklahoma and W. Virginia) of having no counties vote for Obama and that Salt Lake County was the largest urban area in the country to vote  wholeheartedly for Mittens (as Geoff Lane likes to call him) I was moved to say something. 

Over the last few years I have become more and more interested in economics, probably due to the reason that it affects all of us, and it also is very much affected by all of us when we go to the polls.  Many – if not most – of the major life decisions we make are fundamentally rooted around economics, and as we have seen over the last few months, economics also is inextricably tied to politics, which in turn enacts public policy, which in turn affects us.  And as we kept hearing over and over, this election cycle - from the president to our county mayor and city council – was dominated by economics. 

Which is why I was dismayed by the widespread support of Romney and the rest of the Republican party, because their economic policy/theories are at best hypocritical and insincere and at worst devastating.  Ash and I have been big fans of Paul Krugman; I’ve read a few of his books and read his columns at least once a week, and while his mantra of “more government spending” gets a little old, he always seems to be the only guy who can back up his theories with historical evidence.  I have endeavored to find economists – not polititicians – who can effectively refute the theories proposed by he and other  (Nobel prize-winning) economists, and not only are there few/none, their arguments are weak.  The evidence has proven over time that the fable of Adam Smith’s invisible hand and the resultant supply-side economics popularized by Reagan (though actually started by Carter with his S&L deregulation) and since treated as conservative fiscal doctrine is simply wrong.  When Romney said that he would create 8 million jobs because “he knew how” he implied that he would be putting more money into the hands of either a) the wealthy  - who don’t necessarily invest in jobs, they invest in making more money, or b) entrepeneurship, which is ironic because something like 80-90 percent of new businesses fail within 5 years.  And yet, the conservative base population – currently with a lot of strength in the less-affluent South and, of course, Utah – consistently votes for people who have a proven record of enacting policies that will harm them.   Krugman addressed this paradox directly in his great book “Conscience of a Liberal” (woefully misnamed; it should be “An economic history of the United States”; as it is with that title he’ll never reach the people who should read it) by pointing out that the Republicans strategically adopted emotional values that were important to conservatives (God, guns, babies) and then learned to exploit those emotions, tell their constituents what they wanted to hear, and then quietly enact legislation that would protect their financial suitors and increase the insidious and ever-increasing national wealth discrepancy which would/will ultimately endanger their constituencies’ personal economic conditions. 

Yet ironically, the nation essentially re-elected a moderate Republican, according to this guy’s pretty compelling argument:

And not really the “socialist” demagogue, at least according to this guy:

Which brings me back to Utah.  I rode with Mike Hales the other day, and Mike’s a very good thinker.  And a Mormon.  And based on his knowledge of the Mormon scripture he feels that the LDS churchgoers are practically abandoning their faith by supporting the Republican party.  I don’t know all the details because it’s a complex religion, but fundamentally it’s a faith rooted around keeping good track of everyone in your community and making sure that people don’t slip through the cracks.  But supply-side economics is not about that:  it’s about everyone making money on their own and theoretically everyone will prosper as a result. But here in Utah  - and everywhere else – the leaders tell their consituents what to believe and they use incorrect – but appealing – analogies to shore up their arguments.  And the communities keep whipping themselves into frenzies by repeating/inflating the tales, small minds get influenced by big dollars in this post-Citizen’s United world, and eventually bad policy somehow gets warped into “good” in the minds of the people. 

That said, for all you out-of-staters who only see the big red blotch between Colorado and California and hear the stats of our overwhelming support for Romney, as Ash pointed out, this election went as well as we  Utardian lib’rals could have hoped for.  Yes, our standing ultra-conservative governor crushed a smart retired general who is a solid Mormon himself, and The Most Righteous Man on Earth - Orrin Hatch - won, along with our other Tea Partyin’ representatives (who don’t even drink tea, fer chrissakes!) but we did manage to keep our lone Dem in office.   Jim Matheson, who is arguably the lamest Dem in all of Congress, and even in winning he was more dickhead than gracious (despite the fact that he won by less than 0.5% - and mathematically could still lose after the absentee counting -  he smugly announced that “this went just as I predicted”) but he did introduce the Wasatch Wilderness Bill and is at least as easily influenced by progressive business leaders like Black Diamond’s Peter Metcalf as he is by the wackjob coal mine guy.  And Ben McAdams is another progressive Mormon Dem whom we all like a lot and is the new county mayor.  So all is not lost here in the Beehive State. 

There is no doubt that economics, sociology, psychology, and politics are individually super-complex fields, and when thrown together as they’ve been for the past few months they create a byzantine mess that our proletariat simple minds have a hard time following.  And while it’s hard to fully underestimate our fellow Americans, it is true that not only did half of them reject Mittens’ theories w But as Mike Hales said (or maybe insinuated, and I’m paraphrasing!) about his fellow Mormons, if people were willing to do even a modicum of research into virtually any politically-charged issue (perhaps save abortion; I don’t think that can really be addressed with statistics, and is the ultimate emotional issue) there would be a lot less of the well-advertised rancor that seems to literally divide the country.  We can all just get along, if we all do just a little thinking.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Fall Finals

This week was a great one for the Wasatch; the well-advertised storm now on our doorstep started surfacing in the models about a week ago, and since then it's been warm and glorious, inviting great outings on foot before ski season could arrive with a bang this weekend (3 feet progged for the central Wasatch; not only is it a strong storm, but the lake is nice and warm from the mild fall so our beloved lake effect could really add to the total). 

But before the storm, might as well get some last few high hikes and runs in.  Sunday Ash, Geoff Lane, and I went south and hiked Timpanogos from Aspen Grove; a classic UT hike, made somewhat unusual by the late date and relative lack of people (due to said late date and that date being a Sunday).  I forgot to take any pics, but Timp is always amazing; it's such a massive peak that creates and dominates Happy Valley.

On Tuesday - with some angst built up over my fear of the looming election results (more on that later) - I did a solo charge up Olympus.  It's easy to establish a new personal world record for something when you haven't actually timed it before, but it's difficult to verify with the World Personal Record Keeping Association (WPRKA) when you inadvertantly stop the timer prematurely.   ah well.  but got a sense of the total time via the time to the upper saddle (55 mins) and I know that I went hard enough to cause this:

that nice toe-stub-protector on the La Sportivas also apparently has enough traction to catch on rocks while the rest of the foot keeps going.....

A good reminder that our beloved winter season is also the season for inversions that form quickly during high pressure:

And speaking of gear, I brought these up to see how appropriate they'd be for Oly:

A little hard to see, but this is one of BD's carbon fiber trekking poles, which I've found to be really good for stuff that's steeper-than-runnable.  And when these things are collapsed they are super easy to run with. 

Yesterday I got in an awesome ride of Flying Dawg with Mike Hales; we - along with a bunch of other folks - got that nice window of time between the slow dry from the last storm and this one, which will likely shut it down until May. 

And today Charger and I went up Gobblers from Butler fork to check out the snow on the north slopes:
Butler Trees has even safer avy conditions than usual

  Also a great vantage point for the approaching front at sunset:

nice artsy shot by Charger (courtesy of Juan Grande Productions, Ltd)

Near the top of Gobbies the snow was pretty granular due to its age:
kudos to Charger for his willingness to grab a handful of snow;
my hands were cold enough in the howling wind that I was only willing
to nudge it with my toe.

So we felt that in high north shots where there are the (rare) contiguous snow patches (albeit small, and still pockmarked by rocks) there will be a poor bond of the new snow to the old, but it'll likely be pockety in nature. 

Charger and I then charged down to beat darkness - which we did, but only barely; it's still a little hard to grasp the new time - and decided that while stuff like this is fun:

it's time for winter!  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

State XC champs - 30 years later

I generally abhor nostalgia, but given the coincidence of starting this silly blog and  finding an old sweatshirt of mine I thought I might indulge slightly on the 30 year (?!?!) anniversary of Sunset High School’s state cross country championship.  It was a seminal moment in a handful of lives, and the fact that I and some of my teammates are still periodically doing these silly endurance races is a bit of a testament to the legacy that this day created. 

Oregon has long been known as a distance running hotbed, and in particular Eugene, with it’s direct connection to the University of Oregon and the fabled Hayward Field, site of this year's (and many prior) track and field Oly trials.  South Eugene High School had a 7 year dynasty of unbeaten cross country teams, with many of their guys going on to excel collegiately at U of O.  In 1980 a young but talented crew of guys from Sunset upended South Eugene, but in 1981 – with all the top guys from Sunset coming back – South Eugene exacted revenge, much to our surprise.  In 1982 all but one of those top Sunset guys had graduated, and we only had one “star” in Eric Fahlman, one of the fastest milers in the state.  The rest of us fairly well fit the stereotype of a motley crew of skinny cross country geeks, with very little resume’ to our collective names.  Therefore, we toiled in relative anonymity throughout the season but – based on the systematic and inspired tutelage from our great coach Dave Robbins – we actually came into the state meet fairly confident.  Officially, however, we were - at best - distinct underdogs. 

Knowing that the mid-November race was bound to be Oregon-worthy cold, windy, and rainy, and we wanted to address the cold-leg issue that was bound to have an effect in 40 degree rain.  This was pre-lycra tight era, but during the season we had been eyeing the football cheerleaders and had been admiring their….uh….tights!  and as such had been scouring the local dance stores’ of size large “leotards”.  So come the as-expected, miserably-cold race day, we all showed up with our secret weapon:  purple women’s tights, even on our indomitable Eric, for whom  - at 6’4” - it was literally a stretch.    As it turns out, the only other person in the field besides our seven-man crew was the guy who ended up winning the race; I like to think that with his help we sorta ushered spandex into the running world!  (for better or worse!)

The gun fired and generally it went as expected; a sea of skinny kids charging through the muck, with the easily-recognizable blond hair of Eric towering over the lead pack. And team Sunset generally givin ‘er well, though not noticeably better than South Eugene (also in purple, but not leotards) or Wilson High School from Portland, that year’s other strongest team. 

The exception was, unfortunately….me.  Inexplicably, I simply blew up, but at least I went out slow too.  I had experienced a tough year; I started out really strong but then had to sit out most of the short season with a stupid toe stress fracture, but had come back (with it unhealed, though I kept this news to myself) and had been improving steadily back almost to where I’d been.  But that day, I simply didn’t have it, and instead of a 10th or 15th place where I should have been I was….I don’t even remember.   As the account in the paper put it, I finally “wobbled” in, way too far back.  Which generally – in other running events, like a marathon or a road 10k – doesn’t matter, but I was our “guaranteed” 2nd man, so I literally felt that I had lost it for the entire team that had worked so hard together all season for this moment. 

Cross-country meet results are determined by the lowest score, based on the placements of the first 5 guys of each team.  Which sounds simple, but there were fast individuals who had qualified for the state meet without their teams so they sort of mucked up the team placements, and there were so many guys finishing so quickly that it was pretty chaotic at the finish line, such so that all we knew post-race is that it was going to be very close between the top three teams. 

Soon enough they called up the top five teams and started giving the awards, and quickly enough it was down to three.  We were cautiously optmistic that we had beaten South Eugene, and sure enough they were third, so there were two teams left standing, and of course when they announced 2nd place it would be clear who won.  The announcers recognized the drama of the moment and dragged it out accordingly.  Finally the guy pretty much screamed “Wilson!” as the 2nd place team, and pandemonium ensued.  He never even got a chance to say who won because we pretty much went nuts.(Eric actually knocked the announcer out of the way and the microphone over!)  And, I’m slightly embarrased to say, no one was more excited than myself, mostly out of the huge shock of relief that indeed I had only almost lost it for our gang (and made it much more dramatic in doing so!). 

I'm in the center, rejoicing. I admit it; I literally cried with happiness and relief,
something the gang didn’t let me ever live down! 

As it turns out, those coupla years of running cross country and track at Sunset HS set the trajectory for my life:  because we had a successful program we were asked by the burgeoning Nike to help them with their fledgling shoe weartest program, which later turned into a job for me, and now here I am today continuing to design, develop, and test footwear 30 years later.  And the lifestyle of doing silly endurance sports and challenging myself is still elemental, and the friends I made on that team are still friends today. 

Not surprisingly, my mom made the hat and that sick, huge pompom on top!

Dave Robbins – the longtime coach at Sunset whose passion and visionary training programs subsequently created the next high school cross-country and track dynasty in Oregon – had that same affect on literally hundreds of kids who passed through his program.  I see high schoolers playing football at Highland High near our house – and even rugby, for which Highland is famous – and think “wow, those kids have so zero future in those sports” but my heart is cheered when I see the UT state cross country championship going on each October in Sugarhouse Park.  I’m hopeful that at least a few of those kids will also have a great coach who will help them to understand the possibilities and confidence that the strength, fitness, and dedication associated with simply running fast over hill and dale will continue to present to them over the course of their lives. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ski Gear - go Big or......

With the first storm of the season comes the eager anticipation of the imminent ski season, and as always there's the annual buzz about gear.  Lately I've had a few folks ask me about boots - and over the last few years I've been thinking way too much about ski boots - and it reminded me of some of the weird paradoxes I feel are inherent in the backcountry ski community's purchasing decisions. 

Fundamentally, my questions are thus: 
1. Why do the best skiers need the biggest, burliest gear? 
2. Why is it the fittest folks have all the lightest gear? 

I think it's fairly safe to say that much of the growth in the backcountry ski market has come from resort skiers venturing into the backcountry.  Therefore, it stands to reason that they are already at least decent skiers, and - at least here in the Wasatch - most of the backcountry skiing is in untracked snow on 30-35 degree slopes; ie - really easy, sublime, and "effortless" skiing.  My very scientific validation for this is that when it's been high pressure and hasn't snowed a flake for a week, the skiing is a mixture of sun crusts, wind crusts, and old tracks, there's almost no one out skiing until that next dump.  And then, ironically, despite the fact that people LOVE super deep powder, they get really fat skis that don't actually get down into that DEEP powder!  (Confucious say: “if Grasshopper want deeper powder, Grasshopper get skinnier sticks”)

Therefore, this is what is/has been happening:
·        skiers ski at resorts
·        skiers get good
·        skiers decide to get into backcountry skiing to ski more untracked powder
·        skiers buy phat skis, near-alpine boots, and big bindings that collectively weigh over 20 pounds (no exaggeration:  4.5 lb boots, 5 pound skis, and 3 lb bindings – per leg - = 24 pounds) even though they don't have much fitness and they will be skiing (most often) mellower terrain and better snow. 

Theoretically, a good, resort-bred skier should only "need" pencil sticks and floppy boots to ski in the backcountry and  - if indeed they have spent/do spend most of their time running cables - actually do "need" light gear to enable them to shuffle up the skin track at a reasonable rate.  However, as we all know, the opposite happens:  the "best" skiers have the biggest gear.  And many times it's the newbies who are on the lighter, less-performance-oriented gear, even though theoretically they need the most "help" from their gear.  And interestingly, it seems like the only folks who have the lightest gear – the “racers” – are also the fittest!  It’s totally backwards:  fit guys have light gear, unfit resort guys have heavy gear! 

For sure, there are a couple of different segments:  the dramatically-increasing slackcountry/out of bounds folks who really don’t do much hiking and are more resort than backcountry, and then the backcountry regulars who plop themselves in the middle:  medium-weight boots, medium-fat skis (relative to the monsters at the resorts) and  - their ode to “lightweight” -  Dynafit bindings.   But having dabbled a little in the really lightweight ski arena, I am pretty convinced of a couple of things:
  • The lightweight gear today skis surprisingly well
  • If people were willing to try it, they’d be very surprised at how good the stuff skis. 
  • If they were willing to try it, they’d be absolutely stunned at how fast they can go uphill. 
 Although we “go skiing” as opposed to “going skinning”, the truth is that over a typical 6 hour day we might optimistically get 5 runs in that take maybe 3 mins each, which adds up to 15, maybe 20 minutes of total descending per day.  That’s 4-5%.    However, for sure skiing doesn’t have to be logical or sensible; it just needs to be awesome. But many of use pay for that extra bit of sublimity in that 4-5% by limiting our ski-time, vertical,  and number of runs because we are overkilling it on our gear:

this shot that Andrew McLean got (or maybe Bruce Tremper; both were there that fateful day!) of a fellow enthusiast doesn't necessarily represent my point all that well, but it's such a sweet shot that I couldn't resist!

And here’s the rub: I think that if we all skied by ourselves – without our partners around for us to measure our turning ability against, or without our own perception that our friends (or even the other people out there whom we see but don’t know) are critiquing our style/ability and actually care how well we ski – our priorities would change and we wouldn’t buy the bigger gear that assures us of good ski-ability.  We’d buy lighter gear to simply do more and not have the peer pressure of looking good affect us.  But instead we get lured in to extending the ski version of The Arms Race. 

I think it’s fair to say that we ski for the excitement of the activity.  There are lots of other reasons to be sure, but “excitement” is almost always a component of skiing.  And even though big skis and big boots enable one to ski fast - which of course is exciting - I can vouch for the fact that skiing really fast on skinny sticks is a heckuva lot more “exciting” than skiing on big phatties!  And more challenging, which is part of the fun and enjoyment.  If skiing weren’t challenging to master it’d be called snowboarding, but it’d also be not as fulfilling.  So why are we endeavoring to take some of the challenge out of it by annually making it easier vis’ a vis our phat new gear? 

Choose your weapon!  It may be hard to believe, but them skis on the right actually ski nice powder - and corn, and crust, and steeps - quite well. 

It’s true that most of the time I fall squarely in that middlin’ category with my standard rig being medium-weight boots, biggish skis, and Dynafit bindings. And I like to ski fast; faster than I do on my little skis and certainly a LOT faster than I did with my leather teles on 205 hippystix back in the day.  But the truth is that if all my ski partners had lighter boots with better range of motion, and thinner, shorter, foam-cored or carbon skis……we’d all ski a lot more.  And more is better, in my notso humble opinion.  But apparently, for the broader backcountry ski community, “better” is better, and that supercedes “more”. 

But don’t get me wrong; burly backcountry ski gear isn’t all bad:  if people are hauling around 20+ lbs on their feet, another 4 lbs on their FlyLow pants, (and wearing their sweaty-ass $540 Arcteryx Gore-Tex Jacket and bibs, and ski helmet, and goggles on a long, south-facing skin track)…..they probably aren’t spending a lot of time “out there”, either in terms of time or distance from the trailhead….and therefore not poachin’ my future lines!