Friday, January 30, 2015

Some cool passive entertainment

Usually blawg posts from me and my ilk are all about doing this or that silly athletic outing, but over the last week with inlaws and such visiting I've had some fun and notable very passive "activities" that are worthy of relating.

The Utah Museum of Natural History caused a big stir several years ago when they announced that they were building a huge new facility up against the hillside above the University.  Trail lovers who ran and rode the Bonneville Shoreline Trail went ballistic saying that the museum would basically bisect it and ruin that section and didn't it seem a bit contradictory to destroy a bunch of natural landscape to put in a museum of natural history (not to mention that it's way too far from any public transportation).  However, they went ahead and put it in, and I'll be the first to admit that they did a great job with it; the trail was routed well and it's probably as unobtrusive as a 170,000 square feet of architecturally-funky building jammed into a hillside can be.  And even though it's been open for nearly four years I haven't been there, even knowing that I would like it a lot.

The museum is stuffed with interesting....stuff.  Of course, since Utah is one of the world's headquarters for dinosaurs the displays of actual dinosaur skeletons excavated from the state is hugely impressive, they have some great weather displays (including a provocative display talking about the effect of global warming on Utah; does US Rep Chris Stewart  - one of Congress' foremost climate change deniers:  huffington post article  -know that this drivel is being displayed in his district?!?!), the geologic displays are as impressive and eclectic it should be given Utah's impressive and eclectic geology, and of course there is a lot of space devoted to the old desert native Fremont and Anastazi cultures. I have seen plenty of ruins and potshards (is that one word?) down in the desert, but had never actually seen the pots in their entirety:
Pretty amazing that they could be put back together like this.
and I was quite keen to see the shoe samples:

Old school minimal
Leather and thatched sandals
I was a little surprised to see a big display of evolutionary man stuff:
Do our  Creationist local leaders know about this heresy?
As I left the museum I felt like a bit of a dunderhead that I consider myself to be an enthusiast of the natural environment but I had never been in this amazing facility where it's easy to learn....a lot about our amazing state that I did not know. I'll be back.

While not quite passive, Sunday's activity was slow enough to be nearly so but was really fun and fulfilling: fellow Wasatch Backcountry Alliance board members Kim Finch, Mark Menlove and I took the Winter Wildlands Alliance board of directors out skiing.   I usually feel like 5 is too big for a group to ski together, but we merrily marched up with 17 people!  Our fellow Wasatch skiers would have been horrified to see such a posse, but since many people have inexplicably given up skiing during our interminable high pressure, we didn't have to share the quite-good snow with anyone else.  which is good, because one lap in the meadow chutes had it tracked wall to wall!  It was a great venue to show the WWA folks the terrain that we are fighting so hard to maintain these heady days of negotiating with the ski resorts, and I love taking new people out into the Wasatch and see their stoke at skiing such amazing terrain and snow; many is the time that folks have told me "that's one of the best runs of my life!" and Sunday was no different.  That's cool.    
17 folks simultaneously trying to avoid skin gloppage slowed progress a bit!
And these folks are the real advocacy deal:  it was announced this week that as a result of their efforts the Forest Service has created new guidelines/limits to limit snowmobiles' ability to encroach on backcountry ski terrain.   Hooray!

We love good documentary movies and as such we should take more advantage of the fact that the documentary-rich Sundance Film Festival is here, but we are always daunted by the prospect of actually deciding on a movie and then doing whatever it takes (a lot?  a little?) to get tickets.  But given our visitors we made it happen and saw Censored Voices, which is centered around the 1967 war in the Middle East where Israel is about to be invaded by Syria, Jordan, and Egypt simultaneously, but (because of the US's huge support) Israel counter attacked and in 6 days not only was victorious but also took a bunch of those neighbors' lands (I have never even heard of this war: isolationist, apathetic American!).  There was relief that the war ended so quickly, but a couple of soldiers did taped conversations with their fellow Israelis about their experiences over that week and it was a sobering reminder that the "Fog of War" (another great Sundance documentary from some years ago) that somehow takes any sense of decency from people and enables them to abuse, torture, rape, and kill each other over idealogical differences.  Along with a lot of incredible video footage from that war they showed images of those soldiers  -now old men -listening to the tapes for the first time since they were recorded almost 50 years ago.  A worthy watch if the movie makes it out of the festival circuit.

We also made it to the Great Britian Ukulele Orchestra - a wacky show of 8 folks totally given'er on ukuleles that ranged from fist-sized to a bass ukulele (it sounds like an oxymoron, but it's true!).  Like most people I know next to nothing about a ukulele beyond that it seems like a cheap weird little guitar, but these guys tore it down to the point where I'm sure I wasn't the only one thinking "I gotta get me one of those!"

Probably the most provocative event of my week of passive endeavors was the opportunity to hear supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor speak at the U of Utah.  Again along the lines of stuff I don't know, I didn't realize that she had recently written and autobiography and was on a book tour, but of course a supreme court justice doesn't just show up at a Barnes and Noble to sign books!

Not surprisingly, she was great:  I am always so impressed by people who are clearly uber-smart but are still genuinely humble, yet clearly brim with easy confidence.  After a couple of introductions from the podium she was introduced and sat down in one of the two comfy chairs on the stage with Utah supreme court justice Christine Durham for about two seconds before she got up and started wandering around, much to the consternation of "those guys in the suits with the things in their ears who are trying to protect me."
Just wandering around the Huntsman Center chatting with 5600 people.....she then moved on to park herself among a bunch of high school students
In an era of hyperbolic national leadership it was a real pleasure to hear someone talk about having a ton of respect for her fellow justices despite idealogical divides because they all "share such a strong passion for justice!" and be such a strong advocate for education, because an educated electorate that understands complexity and nuance is much more powerful than blustery, emotion-based, simplified black and white views.   It was great to know that someone with the levels of soaring intellect, passion and integrity as Ms Sotomayor is in a position of such power for as long as she chooses (she did emphasize how difficult the job is; they get all the hardest cases!  So maybe not a "justice for life".....)

And so went my week of passive entertainment; tomorrow I'll be back doing hedonistic, mindless, and inexplicable outdoor pursuits at the Crowbar Rando Race up near Logan!

And for a bit of a summertime flashback, Canoe and Kayak magazine just published an article that was a bit of a re-write of the blawg post I did last summer of our Selway packraft trip with (the healing) Jim Harris' pics:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A SkiMo race weekend; why do I do this again?

This past weekend I joined what has become an annual January pilgrimage to Wyoming ,where skinny people who ski in lycra and on skinny skis drive gawdforsaken distances to congregate at Grand Targhee and Jackson hole to partake in "skimo" races (short for "ski mountaineering, even though the races are almost always inside resorts).  Leave it to humans to take something as sublime and enjoyable as backcountry skiing and make it ferociously competitive!  But more on that later.

My big SkiMo year started with pretty gently riding a bike the length of Vietnam:  slow, all-day riding in heat and humidity at sea level is perfect training for blowing my alveoli to bits in 1-3 hour ski events at 9000 feet in freezing temps!  But given the snow that Ullr so nicely delivered for our holiday season we were able to get in plenty of trudging up and down the local hills.  Ash was supposedly struggling with her post-nose surgery recovery, but we were still managing to put in several back to back 8000-foot days! As they say, make alfalfa when the rain falls, or something like that.....

My legs hadn't really felt very good (when the snow is always good and vacation is on there's no "opportunity" for rest, which helps the legs get goodness in them), but on Thursday I did a march up Snowturd and finally felt a bit better, so with an hour to spare that night I signed up for the Jackson races.  I also reminded myself that whether I'm "fit" or not likely means little in terms of my time or place, and whether or not I'm 12th or 15th or 23rd or 42nd....well, no one cares.  

Two years ago I did this race combination in the opposite order: the shorter, faster Targhee was day 2, and the longer, slightly-slower Jackson race was day 1.  So I thought that going into the Targhee race fresh I'd feel better than the awfulness I had two years ago.  However, I guess that shorter simply doesn't suit me, because I felt like I was about to explode 10 minutes into the first, nearly 2k foot climb and seemed to pay for it throughout the race.  But it was fun racing; I was behind the remarkably-hard charging Powderwhore Big Man Noah Howell for the first half, passing him on a long, quad-screamer descent that was mostly chopped-up frozen chunder right before he bloodied himself on a ferocious crash, and then seesawed back and forth with the venerable Chad Bracklesberg before watching him glide away on the final groomer descent; clearly, he nailed it on the wax!    Our large Utah contingent made its first stamp on the weekend's festivities, going 1-3 and others in the top 20.

Jason Dorais (center) and Tom Goth (right) celebrating.
I was the fortunate recipient of the growler of local beer that Jason won!
That night was a sprint event.  Ever since I realized I was half-decent at these "endurance" activities sprints have been my weakness, whether a too-short event or being able to turn up the heat at the end of a race.  So I was happy to watch.  Again, Utards had a great showing, going 1-2
Andy  -the rightward of the interchangeable brothers - took the win.  Despite looking like he got 2nd, Jason did not; fellow ex-BYU speedster Lars K was fast on Andy's heels.
Andy Dorais has a great account of his convincing victory here:

Sunday's race involved a bit more vert (pushing 8k feet vs <5k on Saturday) and as such the slower pace worked in my favor (as did borrowing some half-pound lighter skis!).  Given Jackson's easterly aspect the base surface was a bit scratchy and the whiff of snow from the night before made it a bit slick, so the uphill skinning was challenging and some of the descents were either a bit icy or chundery - but at least the top had some solid flat light - but that's what these races are about, and it's the same for everyone.  I chugged along in my usual position behind the fast guys and in front of others, and after climbing and skiing, climbing and skiing, booting up, skiing down, skinning again, skiing down, skinning up, etc etc I ended up within 20 seconds and one place away from where I was two years ago.  And as expected, no one cared!  Well, I guess I cared, since I did make the effort to go up there and spend my entire weekend  - and plenty of $$ - to race for 5 hours.  And I was satisfied with my efforts, time, and placing.  And again, the local hard boys Jason D and Tom Goth showed the (Colo)'Rado boys how it was done, going 1-3.
Tom Goth celebrating a very close and strategic finish
The whole racing thing is funny:   I keep asking myself why - after literally 38 years of doing these silly events - I continue to get lured into them.  I actually now consider myself fortunate to never have been Really Good; I've always been behind the fastest guys (and girls!), and as such I have never really enjoyed the Great Glow of Victory that can be so hard to fall from, so maybe the moderately-warm fuzzies of still finishing in more or less the same position I've been accustomed to is still enough.  Or do I do it to "prove" (to whom?) that I'm sorta strong?  And if so, hasn't 38 years of that provided me enough proof?  Apparently not, 'cause I keep signing up.  I think that as we charge around the mountains - or tracks, or roads - we find ourselves wondering "How fast am I?  If I really gave'er, how would I fare in this silly activity?" (against other folks who are also asking themselves that question).  And importantly:  "How much of my ego and identity are wrapped up in my ability to do this or that at X level"?

Strava has emerged to provide a great way to measure ourselves vs others and therefore goes a long ways towards validating our very existence, but a good ol' fashioned "race" where everyone lines up at the same moment in time with the same conditions with the like-minded goal of givin'er as absolutely hard as possible is indelible in some folks.  Last night - in our latest Tuesday night World Cup Skimo race at Brighton - I found myself side by side with local skimo dude/trail runner Ben Sukow and we were working ourselves into a fine lather to beat each other.....for 3rd or 6th or 10th place, even didn't matter one whit!

But I guess it did, it does, and it will......

Some good photos of the race are here: and thanks again to Andy D and Mike Hales for the key gear loans.  But I guess if I continue to do this I oughta mount up and get my own appropriate stuff?  But will I race again?  Whether I want to or should, I invariably and inexplicably will indeed keep doing these silly races.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Kessler Avalanche Reflections

I triggered an avalanche the other day that could have easily killed me and/or my partner, the same way that an avalanche in the same place killed a friend.  I’m supposed to be “very experienced”, so why did this happen? 

Every fall in recent years seem to follow a familiar pattern; long about October the talk on runs and rides turns to what skis and boots people are getting this season, what hut trips we are going on, remember that day of cold smoke in the Room of Doom, etc.  Then a cold storm rolls in, dumps enough snow for snowboarders to ride some rails and cover the high trails, and then…..we wait.  Usually until December to  - sort of - start skiing.  Also during that time the snowpack invariably develops The Layer that a long spell of high pressure has wrought, and this deep slab instability then plagues us for weeks; sometimes months. 

And this season was no different:  a couple of early storms then a longgg snowless period of high pressure that turned surface snow to sugar, then the storms started rolling in and buried the sugar down deep; a nice ball-bearing surface that’s well-greased to let subsequent slabs rage down.  I have been back around and skiing for three weeks and watched as this developed, and saw the reports of people going for scary, dangerous rides as these slides broke and ran on them.  So why did I then go out and trigger one?

As ski season comes and the storms do/don’t come as well, I try to shake up the marbles inside my skull a bit to account for another season of traveling in avalanche terrain.  As our venerable Utah Avalanche Center forecasters have become acutely aware of, avalanches are as much a function of psychology/sociology as they are of meterology and snow science, and as such that’s a reason I’ve been intrigued by books such as Blink, How We Decide, The Black Swan, and – the best  - Thinking, Fast and Slow.  I try to remember what I learned in those books and apply them to my winter state of mind, because backcountry skiing is not the mindless jibjab that trail running or cycling are; simply put:  it’s dangerous. 

So what happened?  Why did I knowingly go up into an area that has all of the terrain characteristics that our forecasters have said for weeks is primetime to trigger a dangerous deep slab avalanche?  A few reasons, and my analysis of those…..
1.     Uncommon Partner.
Jason is a friend I always enjoy doing outings with: he’s game, interesting, gotten super strong over the last few years, is a great skier, and our careers are very similar so we always have a lot to talk about.  But our connections are sporadic; we get out a couple/few times each year, and so we don’t have the intrinsic knowledge of each other that we likely have in our other, more-consistent partners.  As such, we probably don’t have the most-open line of communication which – ironically – means that the fact that we don’t get out that often makes it even more important that we communicate before and during the outings.  We had a bit of perfunctory chat before going out, but much of our conversation revolved around catching up on our respective lives.  We didn’t talk enough about the snowpack and The Plan. 
2.     Agenda
The night before Jason told me about a “safe place’ he knows on Kessler, and wanted to hit it quickly before heading out of town.  I know Kessler probably as well as most folks, and while I figured that it was unlikely that he knew some hidden pocket that I didn’t, I was willing to go along with his agenda, since much of that area is indeed safe and for sure it’s great skiing.  However, it did define The Plan and therefore there was less likelihood/opportunity that we would be willing to consider alternative options. For sure, Jason is a great guy and an agreeable sort if I had suggested alternatives, but the tone had been set.  

I’ve now had three different avalanche experiences in the last few years that in hindsight were complete functions of an agenda.  I generally lack a bit of ambition; that is, I just wanna go out and have a good time.  I’ve had the good fortune to do a lot of fun stuff, and don’t often get fixated on a goal, and while I admire folks who get a vision and work hard to execute on their goals, I think that goals/agendas create greater opportunities for an insidious “Drift Into Failure” that Drew Hardesty wrote a great synopsis of here:

3.     A few more turns
On our first climb I suggested stopping well-short of the “normal” stopping spot on the ridge.  Jason agreed and we skied down from that point, which ultimately was shown to be right about the end of the “safe” zone since the slide path did not affect the skin track below that point.  Our run was pretty ridiculous:

(A quick video):

And of course we headed back up for another.  When we arrived at our earlier stop point we suggested going up a bit higher; why not?  That was fun, nothing happened, and…..we are human beings, so if we have the chance to go up higher and “get more”, we will!  I’ve sometimes used this point in the day to say: “Well, we haven’t triggered an avalanche yet, so let's go up higher!” In hindsight, we would have had a stellar day and not triggered that slide had we continued to stop at our short spot.  However, what if the other party that was in the area had pushed on up higher?  Would we have followed?  Answer:  absolutely.  That’s what we do.  But maybe….we shouldn’t. Be satisfied with the (very good) goods that we have, and don’t succumb to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), despite its omnipotent push/pull? 

4.     Danger rating de-escalation
When I heard the avy forecast that morning I heard Bruce Tremper say: “No avalanches yesterday, a few inches of superlight snow, and no winds, and the rating is……considerable.”  Considerable?  Ie human triggered avalanches are likely?  What he had described sounded like “moderate” to me.  Yes, there was a weird avalanche on a similar aspect/elevation a couple of miles away, but it was two days prior, without a significant load applied since then.  And an experienced observer had noted that the “snowpack was healing”.  Yes, there are deep-pack instabilities, which are notoriously fickle and long-lasting, but the odds that the blower that fallen big enough and the addition of a couple of skinny skiers to awaken the dragon seemed low. 

That said, even my de-escalation to “moderate” was tricky; after all,  “human triggered avalanches ARE possible!” But we get so many days of “moderate” ratings in these parts where people seem to slay every imaginable line on every elevation/aspect that “moderate” is almost the new green light  (despite the fact that just as many avalanches are triggered on moderate days as on considerable days).  So I practically de-escalated it by two steps……

5.     Comfort in trees
One of the allures of Patterson Ridge is the presence of lots of anchoring trees, even as it’s pretty steep.  However, as you get up higher on the ridge the trees become fairly sparse, but those that are there are pretty big. Ie you aren’t skinning up a path of Christmas trees that grew out of a leveling-slide some years ago (as on the nearby Catcher’s Mitt run), and the trees up there aren’t “flagged” with branches missing on the uphill side. 

But as I thought about it, there’s a bit of a rub:  those trees are in the starting zone, where a slide doesn’t yet have the destructive mass/power.  And then there are enough openings below for the snow to slice through (which also makes for great ski lines!).  But for the skier this is almost worse than a nice wide-open slope, because – as happened to our friend Craig up there – there are just enough trees to almost certainly pulverize you before you get buried (Craig was not buried; he died of trauma).  If a slope is wide open you are only dealing with the odds of being buried and the probably of being found before you expire; by tumbling uncontrollably down a pinball run at 60mph it’s unlikely you’ll get that chance (Ian McCammon did a study where he determined that 30 feet is the key; if you are 30 feet or less  from a tree and can aim for it to stop you, do so; past that its destructiveness to our fragile little bodies becomes too great). 

So trees are great…..until they aren’t. 

I have gotten lucky….again.  I’m losing track of how many times I shoulda died but didn’t.   And while it’s been said that: “It’s better to be lucky than good” I’m not fooling myself: this stuff is like a coin toss, and luck that happens next time has absolutely no relation to what happened this time.  Unless I can do a better job of fully (instead of partially) mitigating/avoiding the danger and recognizing my own frailties.