Tuesday, March 29, 2016

An Ode to Michele and Team Gray

Back in about nineteen hundred and eighty-five or so I had an opportunity to take a semester out of school and come to Utah try my hand at being a ski bum, so I worked at Snowbird and skied most days (I even have an “I heart Snowbird” sticker somewhere in my archives; ironic considering I just bashed them last week in an op-ed in the Deseret News and haven’t skied there for a dozen years!).  Brother Paul was living here and I was able to see and ski with him a bit, but since he was a working guy in his first real job he was pretty busy, so most days I was skiing alone. 

And thus I stood in the corner of the tram car by myself, day after day, just watching and listening to my fellow Snowbirders.  Therefore, I couldn’t help but notice that every weekend I saw the same very attractive girl who always had about a dozen equally attractive kids circled around her, yukking it up and clearly keen to be in her space.  That is, as long as they could keep up on the descents; she was as graceful and quick on skis as she was with a compliment and a big laugh. 

Soon enough I left Snowbird and went back to school, but Paul stayed and I would bust back out to Utah for Christmas breaks, and invariably I’d see the same attractive girl casually slaying Great Scott, Upper Silver Fox, etc with her posse in tow.  And then on one of those Christmas vacations I saw her doing it on tele gear, and of course my infatuation only increased.   One year Mike Elovitz came out with me for the annual Utah Christmas foray, and in the tram line I pointed out to him the Tele Queen of Snowbird and mentioned that I’d been seeing her for years, but she always had such magnetism that there were too many people attached to her to ever bust into that circle.   I did a bit of snooping about to get some beta on her, but of course to no avail.  So it goes in the formative years. 

Some weeks after we returned to Portland Mike and I walked into the Bridgeport Brewery after an ultimate game (as was our wont), ordered a beer, turned around, and stopped dead:  there she was.  The Tele Queen of Snowbird! Right there in Bridgeport!  But this time there was no magnetic posse; just one other woman.  Emboldened, since I was now on my own turf, I marched right up to her and said “Hi! You’re Michele Martin, you’re a tele skier from Salt Lake, you went to Georgetown, you’re a diver, and one of your parents is named Pep, but I’m not sure which one!”  To which she wisely responded:  “Well now, who are you, and why are you stalking me?”  which of course was exactly the right response.

We have many “moments” in our lives, and very few of them are actually very substantial.  But that one was very much a “Sliding Doors” moment, where both of our lives fundamentally took on a new trajectory that continues literally to this very day. 

It turned out that Michele had just recently moved to Portland – with a boyfriend, much to my chagrin  - and was already wise enough to know that her passion for skiing was going to get muted by the relatively lackluster skiing available on Mount Hood, so once she realized I wasn’t a stalker (or was I?) and we were chatting she mentioned that she really wanted to get into kayaking.  “Kayaking!  We’re kayakers; we’ll teach you!” Mike and I exclaimed.  Little did she know what she was getting into, but she applied the same grace and athleticism to the rivers as she did to steep ski lines, and soon enough we were driving all over the Northwest paddling its great rivers.  
formative backcountry skiing on the north side of mt hood
a very flattering picture getting ready to mount up for some formidable river!
And as it turned out, she later dumped her boyfriend and Mike swooped in, but a trip to Utah where he got absolutely shelled trying to keep up with the Queen’s posse at the ‘Bird was the beginning of the end of that romance, though fortunately the friendship remained.

Not long after this a fourth musketeer was added:  Barbara Harper, fresh from a similar migration to the West to find good adventures and fun folks, and the four of us and our broader community proceeded to spend years charging down rivers, skiing  peaks, playing bad ultimate frisbee (though Michele later captained national and world championship teams), and generally yukking it up. 

At some point in that frenzy I met Ryan Gray, a strapping young videographer for Nike, and he asked me if I knew of an outdoorsy woman who had a size 7 (sample sized) foot and was a medium apparel size who would be a good model for Nike’s ACG outdoor line. Did I ever!  Michele was willing to stuff her size 8+ feet into size 7 shoes for the cause (and money) and for Ryan, and in addition to him making her into the early-90’s poster child for ACG he - like many  - fell head over heels for her. 

Our carefree lives got a gut-wrenching blast in 1994 when Barbara died in an accident on the river (the subject of another post, or maybe not….); I was not there that day, but Michele was, and as I returned home and stepped off the plane I realized there was no one I needed more at that point.   We had shared so much together already, but this was big, and even as she grieved and had survivor’s guilt she was a rock for the rest of us. 
a year later, at a ropes course with Barb's friends and family
A year later Michele and Ryan got married, and she honored me with the request that I be one of her bridesmaids, which I happily accepted.   As such, she made sure that I didn’t lured out on the groomsmen outings, which was fine with me; I was in very fine company!
I was willing to wear a low cut dress myself, but Michele knew where to draw the line. 
Some years later I was again out in Utah for a Christmas holiday and she introduced me to a woman named Ashley, who was very similar to Michele in her abilities to laugh, ski, and make other people feel great.   At the end of the day Michele sidled up to me and slyly said; “You know, Ash is single!”  I protested that she knew that I had a nice girlfriend, but Michele just gave me her famous smile full of brilliant teeth, and that was all that was needed.  Michele knew better than I did what was best for me, and now - almost 20 years later - Ash and I are still making the most of it. 

The years flowed by and Michele and Ryan added to Team Gray, having three great kids who grew to love rivers and mountains as much as their parents.  And Michele  inspired an entire generation of Portland kids as high school English teacher (and as one who could out-ski all of her students!).   But their idyllic world got rocked a few years ago when Michele – as avid and regular of an athlete as any of us – fell over on the tennis court with a stopped heart.  Fortunately there was a defibrillator nearby, and they were able to keep it going for the quick zip to the closest hospital, where a renowned cardiologist was just checking out for vacation happened to still be around, and he was able to bring her back.    One of her heart vessels literally tore open due to a difficult/impossible-to-predict and very rare condition.  Since then she’s had multiple stents put in and some fairly aggressive and unusual treatments to address it, but is always pretty dismissive about it:   “Oh, it’s fine”, with the only nod to what could potentially be a fatal condition that she just not run quite as fast! 

Michele and I both put in for our Grand Canyon permits in the early 90’s, and The List for the GC was epicly long.  I was able to use my permit in 2002, but  - because she wanted her kids to enjoy that trip with her – she put it off for a few more years doing many river trips with brother Scott and family and others to make sure she and her family were ready for The Grand.  In the meantime she was gradually rising to the top of the list where she could choose any date she wanted, and finally she got her much-vaunted launch date in August of this year.  And they honored Ash and I with an invitation to finally join Team Gray on their Grand Canyon journey. 

However, their world was turned upside down on Friday morning:  their oldest daughter Ruby had died in her sleep that night after a glorious week of skiing in Sun Valley with her friends, telling Ryan she loved him, and going to bed like she did every night. 

Team Gray has had their fair share of challenges, but this…..this is big.  Too big.  Ruby was – like the rest of her family – a goofy and lovable force of nature, and her passing will clearly leave a gaping hole in not only the Gray’s lives but that of their vast community, since the tragedy of the loss of youth in general and children in particular is desperately acute. 

Indeed, that moment in Bridgeport Brewing was a turning point in both of our lives, and I’ve many times been thankful that I was bold enough to confront Michele with my stalkage that night.  She’s tough as nails and Team Gray has been through a lot together, but this is a whole new dimension for she and her family to process.   Undoubtedly they will do so with the grace and courage that they’ve inspired in all of the many friends and students who have grown to love them. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Multi-modal on Deseret Peak

Deseret Peak is the most prominent peak in the Stansbury Range out in Utah's West Desert, named after the "state" of Deseret that the early Mormon settlers were trying to establish.  It's actually just the highest point on a long ridgeline there, but I think that Brigham Young and Co. probably looked up and imagined slaying the phat couloir that comes almost off the summit on his slat skis and had to give the high point a good name!   As such, skiing the three mainlines of Dez has become a bit of a spring ritual for skiers looking to escape the busy central Wasangeles.

Historically we've waited until April or May to head west to Dez, but February - and, really, March's - bleak snowfall and warm temps have brought the feeling of spring early this year, so when Chad Bracklesberg - finally freed from the rigors of organizing the Wasatch Powder Keg and bizzy business life - suggested giving it an earlier-than-normal go, Brother Paul and I were in.

The first time I did Deseret Peak a few years ago we knew that there were a couple of Forest Service gates on the road into Little Willow canyon that were sometimes locked, sometimes not, and debated about bringing mountain bikes for the road approach.  However, not only did we blow off mountain bikes, we also weren't very attentive to our morning footwear, so a couple of us did the 4 mile road climb - and descent - in clogs and other non-appropriate footwear.  Therefore, it's become a multi-modal effort of riding to ski regardless of the snowline/gate closures.  I love the concept of riding to ski, which Chad calls "Skiking" or I call "Skicycling".   Later in the spring the lower gate is unlocked and the upper gate is locked, with the road clear up a few miles to the campground; this early the lower gate was locked, but the snowline wasn't much above the 2nd gate. So off on our bikes we went.  

After a few miles we ditched the bikes and switched to skis/skins, and soon enough we were out of the low-elevation goo and breaking through some powder, with views of the main couloir in the distance:

 However, I forgot to wax that set of skins:
 "skin wax" really doesn't work that well, especially since it is contradictory to the human propensity to only react to adverse conditions, not think pre-emptively.....
So we were booting somewhat prematurely toward the couloir that Brigham lusted after.
yes, it's really as non-steep as it looks!
A ways up we dug a little and got some borderline stability results:
Me picking a notso-safe place to wonder if it's safe! 
But we talked ourselves into persevering, because it was such a sweet line

and skied it with aplomb:
Given that it didn't avalanche on us, we charged back up:
went up the ridge for the gratuitous summit bid, where some tasty-looking chutes loomed off to the north, but we were "pretty sure" that they cliffed out:
did you forget to take the beta picture?  Are you feeling lucky?  
We weren't feeling lucky so we carried on, but after getting to the head of the iconic twin chutes that run north off the shoulder we looked to the south, and after about 2 seconds of debate decided to blast down the 1500 feet of perfect midday corn at about 60 mph.  
this isn't the "blasting" part, but you can imagine heading down to the flats far below.  Note the nice north facing glades and burn lines in the background.....
And a nice long gradual climb brought us back up to the twin chutes, where we charged down one, climbed back up it, and hit up the other.  There are enough funky winds blowing off the desert that they can funnel up the couloirs and create just enough windjack to make them quad-burners. but nobody cared about conditions.  

We had good untracked white dog shit skiing back down to the road, and once on the road it felt like an Austin Powers car chase, skiing down a decently-steep road at barely above walking pace due to the watery snow, with the occasional awkward shuffle across dry patches.  But eventually we hit the bikes - which of course we had pushed too far up the snowy road - and engaged some creative bike/ski transport options:
skiing and pushing the bike simultaneous works pretty well, but you gotta remember not to use the bike brakes to slow down, since the brakes don't affect the skis!
Paul figured out one other way to skicyle: straddling the bike with both skis on the ground, which I copied:

But actually putting the skis on the pedals is a pretty effective way to skicycle along!  
Can I get a ski-crampon-like attachment for my ski bases?  
A great cap to an awesome birthday weekend of shredding with Ash and Colin (Saturday, in Big Cottonwood and Mill Creek) and Paul and Chad!   Brigham woulda been proud that his "state's" namesake mountain delivered yet again.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

Wasatch Powder Keg 2016

Yowza!  Lately it seems like T-Dawg Sleeps, or at least Rests, instead of Speaks.  I don't know why I haven't written any blawg posts for 2 months, but I am keen to get back on it.  I got tales rattling around in my head of floating the Rio Usumacinta and an amazing trip to the Carlyle Lodge in the Valhalla range in British Columbia among other things, but the story that's at the top of my head at the moment is this past weekend's 14th annual Wasatch Powder Keg Skimo race.

The Powder Keg has become a late-winter rite for the Utah "competitive backcountry" folks who like to ski uphill as much as going down.  And because it's the oldest/biggest/best skimo race in the country, it typically attracts a solid crowd from around the west as well.  I've realized that there are few road warriors as willing to drive great distances for events as ultra athletes!  It attracts folks from Montana, AZ, CO, ID, OR, and always a good cadre of Coloradans who scoff at the relative low elevation of the Wasatch!

A brief overview:  "Skimo" is short for "ski mountaineering", which truth be told is not necessarily representative of most races, since they usually held in or near resorts, and while yes, sometimes there is some rope work to ensure backup safety by oxygen-deprived athletes determined to charge, it's not really "mountaineering", per se.  I prefer the moniker used more in Europe:  ski running.  But even that isn't quite appropriate, because - like regular backcountry skiing - it's mostly hard walking uphill on skis (between harrowing descents over icy moguls, punchy mank, and screaming groomers).  But skiwalking doesn't have the same ring to it.  So it's skimo.  For more general info Paul at the Utah Adventure Journal was kind enough to publish an article of mine in his winter issue:  http://utahadvjournal.com/index.php/skimo-where-spandex-and-the-backcountry-collide

The Powder Keg actually hosted the fastest folks (Euros) in the world in 2004 and 2005 as a stop on the World Cup tour, but since then it's "just" become the premier US race; there are others that may be more competitive at the top end, but the PK typically has almost the best competition and always has the most participants across the spectrum.   There are a few different races/divisions (including a fairly well-attended junior division) with the "elite" and "heavy metal" (skis and bindings over 1200grams; gotta delineate this in an era of mixed ski genres) divisions doing 6200' of climbing and skiing over 10 miles, both within and just outside the boundaries of Brighton ski resort. And a few years ago a "technical teams race" was added for the next day, where two people race together, never more than 30 seconds apart, and do some steeper/hairier stuff, for longer:  8600' over 14 miles.  This year it got the nod to be the "North American Championships", which theoretically would lure some of the fast Canadians (and Mexican?) skimo-ers to Utah.
Historically the race has been blessed by good weather, and Saturday was no exception:  sunny and warm, as much of February and early March has been.  However, a strong cold front was projected to stomp into the Wasatch on Sunday morning......

Chad Bracklesberg has been a driving force for skimo for years, and he took it over when Andrew McLean and Butch Adams  -the pioneers - were ready to hand it off.  Chad and his wife Emily and their cohorts Eric Bunce and Nick Francis pretty much take a week of vacation to put the Powder Keg on, and rely on >60 volunteers to help make it happen.  I am not a big race volunteer guy, but I helped Chad set some skin tracks earlier in the week; we needed to put them in when the snow was soft, because the early morning race start meant that it was going to be very much pre-corn, and having some semblance of a flattish skin track was going to be important on a few of the climbs.  Chad was very appreciative of my help, tho really all I think I was doing was keeping him company and keeping his mind off the zillions of race details that were blasting through his head.

But enough about all that:  what about me!  That's what these blawgs are about, right?  The start was a bit of a frenzy, as always:
only 30' off the line and I've already lost 10'?  And eventual winner and Wasatch Strongman Tom Goth is already out of the picture to the left!  
But I tried not to blow up in the first 10 minutes, as I've been wont to do in the past, so I tried to keep it at a "moderate push" to keep my lungs inside my chest.  It appeared to me that Tom was going to march away with it and then there was a posse of 6 or so guys clustered in a "chase" (when you're only walking fast it's hard to image actually "chasing" people....) and then local goofball/physicist/aerobic animal Elliot Barcikowski and I keeping them within sight, with plenty of other strong Wasatch locals lurking not far behind on the first thousand-foot climb.  Elliot came out of the first transition a bit ahead of me, so it provided some incentive to charge the first descent, but for being inbounds at a resort, "charging" down off the icy, bumpy, rocky, and cliffy Millicent bowl on little skimo skis felt pretty spicy, and then waited 'til it mellowed out a bit before straightlining to a tear-jerking speed.  Elliot got away from me a little on the next climb and I was chasing him down the icy, south-facing descent when suddenly I saw him clawing his way back up onto the old mining road I was tearing down after blowing a turn.  Exciting stuff!

I faded a little on the next long climb as Elliot pulled away and two guys caught me; and after another couple of long climbs and descents there was one more 300' climb and descent where the 2nd guy - local Joey Campanelli - and I pretty much blasted into the finish line simultaneously, though he was kind enough not to try to "take me" at high speed in the last couple of corners.  I ended up 9th, 13 mins behind Tom Goth:
Tom pretty much skied by himself off the front all day, and totally crushed it in the sprint finals Friday night as well, winning by a big 8 second margin.  
Which is about where I usually am.  There were lots of absentees:  the Flying Dorais bro's were apparently out snowmobiling (?!?!) there was no SLC Samurai nor Viking, Chad, Eric, and Nick were all busy putting on the race, some of the phast boyz from CO are racing in Europe, my last-year partner and ever-faster Noah was out of town, and the two fast old guys from CO -  Michael Hagen and Pete Swensen  - weren't there to beat on me for the master's win.  But I'll take it; I've been trying to make this 20 year old hydration pack work for years as a small/light ski pack:

But - what a surprise - my modifications have been mostly a shit show, so winning this actual skimo pack:

will hopefully enable me to be a cool skimo guy!

Brother Paul had an interesting day:  after tearing his ACL last spring and getting it mended in May he'd been doing quite well leading up to ski season, and his doc said "yes, you can ski this year, but it's NOT fully strong and you CAN'T hurt it again!"  Which may have been ringing sonorously in his ears as one ski caught in a bush, came off, and launched him out over his remaining tip in a high speed somersault just above some trees.  He came to an abrupt halt actually hitting one of those trees and heard the sickening crunch......of his ski as it snapped on impact.  Better ski than knee, I always say.....(actually, I've never said that before, but it seemed appropriate).

On a more somber note, well-liked-and-known hard-girl Emily Sullivan was volunteering instead of racing this year and slipped off the course while setting ropes, fell off to the wrong side of the ridge, tumbled over a cliff band and was stopped by a tree - that kept her from going over an even-bigger cliff - with bad injuries.  A challenging rescue was mounted and she was finally extricated and flown out, and is stable in the ICU with broken ribs and lacerated liver.  Really unlucky, and really lucky at the same time; no head/spine injuries, and alive.

I recovered Saturday afternoon by hefting a literal ton (or two) of mulch:
isn't mulch-moving what sport scientists advise doing between races to recover?
Colter Leys was my able pard for the 2014 teams race, and even though he towed me around that entire day, was willing to possibly do it again this year after being in NZ last year on a multi-month bike tour with his family.  We hoped that we'd be just as smiley but not quite as bloody as we were in '14:

Day 3 of the PK had a stormy forecast, but until Sat night it looked like the brunt of the front wouldn't hit until late morning. However, it was snowing  -and raining, just barely downcanyon  -and blowing super hard as daylight came, and Chad, Eric, and Nick were scrambling on course reroutes.  But once they got word that the patrollers were kicking off windslabs that had already formed, and the fact that visibility was going to near-zero:

they wisely pulled the plug.  I think no one was as disappointed as those guys; they put in so much effort and try super hard to make a great event for everyone that it was crushing to not allow folks to...crush themselves.  But everyone knows that's the way it goes.

We did have time to do a couple of brisk laps up the first climb, and it was great:  a fun chance to chat with folks you normally don't "chat" with since every ounce of oxygen is going towards trying to beat them!  it was still a bit stormy when our posse topped out:
Colter and I made the most of it by taking our little skimo getups into the "real" backcountry (the Park City ridgeline) and doing a few laps on the fresh snow that had blown in, and had a great day skiing a few inches of powder, which is perfect for Voile's Wasatch Speed Project skimo skis.  The truth is that I was more wiped out than I anticipated after Saturday's effort and I felt like I could barely move uphill, and I literally would have been a drag on the fresh  -and very strong - Colter, but after a Brighton (Costco) muffin calorie bomb finally kicked in I was able to march a bit and at least be able to keep up with him as he broke trail!

Thanks again to Colter for being willing to give 'er a go:
Not quite as exhausted as last time.  And just wait'll next year!  
And thanks again to Chad and Co for once again throwing down hard for a great event!