REMEMBERING WARREN MILLER

Warren Miller, who died on January 24 at the age of 93, needs no introduction. His influence on the post WWII explosive growth of American skiing and his legacy on younger generations of skiers are unmatched. Every American skier of a certain age grew up with Warren’s personally narrated films as a highlight of the year and nutrition for the spirit and mind seeking in mountains for what he once described as, “It’s our search for freedom. It’s what it’s all about -man’s instinctive search for freedom.”
In his autobiography he writes, “People remember their first day on skis because it comes as such a mental rush. When you come down the mountain from your first time on skis, you are a different person. I had just now experienced that feeling, if only for half a minute; it was step one in the direction I would follow the rest of my life.” He was following that direction when WWII interfered and enrolled in the officer’s training program with the Navy.
When the war ended Warren returned to America, bought an 8 mm Bell and Howell camera and spent the next few winters with his friend Ward Baker living a quintessential dirt bag ski bum life out of a tiny trailer in the parking lots of Sun Valley, Alta. Jackson, Aspen, Mammoth and Yosemite. He learned how to make ski films, as he put it, “…by blundering along.” Several ski clubs turned down his first film because they determined he needed a ‘professional’ narrator. Finally, the Ski Club Alpine of southern California agreed to a showing at which he later recalled, “The audience laughed at my stories, not just polite laughs, but amazingly loud belly-laughs. The film really worked, even though I had no script other than the one that was lodged in my brain.”
That brain changed the world of American skiing and ski films. When I was a boy in the early ‘50s in Reno, Nevada the annual Warren Miller ski film was a milestone of the year and, like everyone, I loved it. As I became a young adult ski racer and, later, ski instructor/coach/writer Warren and I became friends and I grew to love him as a person and more deeply appreciate his influence on American skiing and skiers and on my own life.
In the fall of 1972 I was adrift, skiing but not working in the ski world as I had been doing and more counter to the dominant culture than ever. A letter from Warren, who I had not seen in a couple of years, caught up to me asking if I’d like to join him and a crew on a several week trip to Europe to ski for his camera. The trip included money, expenses, good company and, of course, the best powder snow in the Alps. I replied that I would love to go but that there might be a problem. I hadn’t shaved or cut my hair in awhile and had a beard to the middle of my chest and hair below my shoulders and intended to keep it that way. I knew that Warren, to put it mildly, did not approve of what that represented in the early 1970s, and when he didn’t immediately reply I assumed the invitation was off. A few weeks later a letter arrived saying, “Let’s go.”
And we did.
We did some really good skiing for Warren’s camera at the finest ski resorts in Switzerland and France for more than a month, including some of the most memorable powder of my life. Warren used that footage in at least two films and it was well received and is still fun to watch. The trip remains in memory as some of my best time with Warren and crew and some of the best skiing of my life. But what I remember best of all was included in the delayed “let’s go” letter in which he wrote, “I’ve always maintained that what’s in a man’s head is more important than whatever is on it.”
That is, Warren Miller believed in people even when he disagreed with them, and, if they were honest, he supported them. He helped me understand that there is as much social/cultural/ideological freedom for the person who holds that belief as there is a different kind of freedom in the mountains and snowfields of the world.
Thanks, Warren.

TIBET, THE ENVIRONMENT, THE (AMERICAN) WEST

Every native of western America to visit Tibet is struck by the geographic, environmental and ‘Big Sky’ scenic similarities between the two different locales of our earth. To be sure, Tibet is higher above sea level, having the loftiest, most spectacular and loveliest mountains in the world, but except for the thin oxygen of the earth’s highest and largest plateau the western traveler to Tibet can easily imagine Nevada, Idaho, parts of Washington, Wyoming and Montana, Arizona, Utah, California, Colorado and New Mexico in the fragile Himalayan landscape.
Tibet is like western America in other ways as well. People are much the same everywhere in the world, and though many appear to not recognize it we all live from the same interlocking ecology. Tibet is Asia’s principal watershed the source of Asia’s great rivers, as the west is the source of many of America’s great rivers. Before the invasion/occupation/colonization of Tibet by Communist China in 1949 the waters leaving Tibet to become the Yellow River, the Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Indus were among the purest of any on the planet. These waters irrigate land where 47 percent of the earth’s human population lives, and today those waters are among the most heavily silted, polluted and prone to flood rivers in the world. What happens to the environment and people of Tibet does not stop at the Tibetan border.
Even more than the indigenous peoples of western America, the indigenous people of Tibet traditionally evolved successful and sustainable environmental practices into their cultural and political value systems as part of their Buddhist teachings. The Buddhist precept of Right Livelihood stresses contentment and discourages over-consumption and over-exploitation of natural resources because they harm other living beings and destroy habitat. In 1642 the Fifth Dalai Lama issued a Decree for the Protection of Animals and the Environment, and each succeeding Dalai Lama has annually issued a similar decree.
But the thirteenth Dalai Lama and the Government of Tibet in Exile do not determine what happens to the environment of today’s Tibet. China does. The most succinct description of China’s effect on the environment of Tibet is “ecocide.” (As the most succinct description of China’s effect on the people of Tibet is “genocide,” but that is another and equally ignored by most of the world matter.)
Ecocide is an ugly word. It indicates a far reaching and even uglier reality. Grasslands dominate the Tibetan landscape and formed the backbone of its traditional animal husbandry, agrarian economy. The staple agricultural crop was barley with other cereals and legumes, but China’s need to feed its ever expanding military and civil personnel and the enormous numbers of Chinese settlers seeking lebensraum in Tibet have devastated vast areas of once productive land. It has also extended farming onto marginal and steep terrain, and, as has happened throughout America, hybrid seeds, pesticides and chemical fertilizers have been indiscriminately spread upon the land and washed into the rivers and to wherever those rivers flow. The on-going degradation and desertification of the Tibetan Plateau during the past 50 years has very likely affected the atmospheric circulation and jet stream wind patterns over Asia, and may be one element of the destabilization of weather patterns in the northern hemisphere. The world is one environment with one interconnected ecological system, and the dynamics and problems of one part of that system and another, say Tibet and western America, are not all that different and each part affects the whole.
In 1949 the ancient forest of Tibet covered 221,800 square kilometers. Less than half that remains today. The rest is a casualty to China’s deforestation of huge areas of Tibet through clear cutting, much of it on steep slopes. Tibet is not alone in this. In 1998, after centuries of turning its own forests into denuded deserts through heedless logging, China banned logging within its borders. As a result, not only Tibet but Burma and other Southeast Asian nations and parts of Africa and Siberia are being clear cut to feed China’s demand for wood.
There are an estimated 90 nuclear warheads stationed in Tibet by China, and, as in Nevada, Idaho and Washington, the respective Communist and capitalist agencies responsible for public and environmental safety have performed their duties with equally cavalier and reckless deception. One report on nuclear waste in Tibet reads: “Waste disposal methods were reported to be casual in the extreme. Initially, waste was put in shallow, unlined landfills…disposed of in a roughshod and haphazard manner…Nuclear waste would have taken a variety of forms—liquid slurry, as well as solid and gaseous waste. Liquid or solid waste would have been in adjacent land or water sites.” Eerily similar descriptions have been written of the nuclear waste management practices at the nuclear facilities at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho and Hanford in Washington. (An aside worth noting: INL was once INEEL—Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and before that something else, and before that something else, but a nuclear environmental laboratory is the punch line from one of Frankenstein’s favorite jokes about putting an apple laced with Plutonium-238 in the Garden of Eden to see what might happen. INL is more politically correct if not environmentally sensitive.)
As mentioned, Tibet and western America have many more similarities than differences and have much to teach and learn from each other.

ANOTHER WINTER

Another winter within the mountains and upon the mountain is upon us, and not a day too soon, thanks Ullr. The mountain of winter’s choice depends on the person, but for those of us whose lives in one way or another revolve around the practice of skiing in the small though growing mountain towns of western America November is the beginning of the best time of the year. Snow and cold temperatures and white upon those peaks gladdens the heart and quickens the pulse of those who ski and snowboard and snowshoe and skate and, truth be told, the even larger numbers of those who in some actively uninvolved way have an economic or sentimental interest in how glad are those hearts, how quick those pulses.
Not for us are the frigid, unaffectionate words of Victor Hugo: “Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man.” One imagines poor old Victor, hunched like a glowering gargoyle over some small desk in a dank, chill Left Bank apartment with one tiny window looking out upon Notre Dame, contemplating his own considerable tragedies and the general sufferings of mankind, completely missing that air temperature is not responsible for turning the heart to stone and that when water is transformed to ice you are not required to cower upon the river’s bank waiting for spring to unthaw your heart of stone. Instead, you can put on a warm layer of clothes and get outside and breathe some cold, clean, invigorating air and learn the joys of sliding upon frozen water. In Hugo’s case, it would have been French, 19th century winter’s version of putting into action the pop wisdom adage, “If you are given a lemon, make lemonade.” Victor would have been better off getting out of the city with its famous, Gothic, man-made cathedral and taking a trip to Chamonix to cast his eyes upon nature’s own cathedrals, the Aiguille du Midi and Mont Blanc, among others, and walking up to Argentiere and checking out the Mer De Glace, the sight of which will thaw the stoniest heart. His spirits would surely have been raised if he had consulted Ullr instead of the deformed and definitely downer if good hearted Quasimodo and taken a walk in the Alps and breathed some clean, fresh, frigid air rather than holing up in Paris contemplating the dour, gargoylesque spirits spouting water off the flying buttresses of Notre Dame.
No, Victor Hugo’s dark view of winter is not for us who live in mountain town western America not by accident but by choice. We are more in tune with and the spirit of one of the most extraordinary skiers in the history of snow, Fridtjof Nansen. Indeed, Nansen, explorer, skier, scientist, statesman and humanitarian, was among the most amazing humans in the history of man, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his part in saving the lives of some 400,000 prisoners of war after World War I. Nansen exemplified the spirit of what Dick Munn, an adult skiing friend of my childhood who loved to ski and who had seen war and wanted nothing more to do with it, once said to me: “If everyone in the world skied, there would be no more wars.” Whether he was right or not in his idealism, I have always remembered it and the fact that Munn was inspired to think of it by the activity and place and season of skiing. Like Nansen, Dick Munn was warmed and made contemplative by skiing, the mountains and winter. A man for all seasons, Nansen wrote with a skier’s heart of skiing in the Arctic, “Tuesday, November 13. Thermometer –38 degrees C. (-36.4 degrees F)…..A delightful snowshoe (ski) run in the light of the full moon. Is life a vale of tears? Is it such a deplorable fate to dash off like the wind….through a night like this, in the fresh, crackling frost, while the snowshoes glide over the smooth surface, so that you scarcely know you are touching the earth, and the stars hang high in the blue vault above? This is more, indeed, than one has any right to expect of life; it is a fairy tale from another world, from a life to come.”
Yea, Fridtjof.
Yea, winter is here with its short days and long nights and brisk air that waken the body at first inhalation, putting it on full alert that this is the time to give complete attention to the smallest details of survival. It is a time to take note of those patches of ice on the sidewalk, the road, the ski hill and in the thoughts and hearts and intentions of those whose actions and decisions might make a difference in your life—the driver with cell phone at the ear coming around a glazed corner with an equally glazed look in the eye, the chattering of skis or snowboard coming up behind you with the sound of imperfect control, or someone who spins the truth with such icy determination that believing them could, indeed, turn the water of heaven and the heart of man into stone.

COYOTE/coyote: TRICKSTER, TEACHER, SURVIVOR, FOOL

It is always good to remember coyote and Old Man Coyote.
Trickster, teacher, survivor and fool, coyote has inhabited this land we call America much longer than the later arriving humans from Asia, who have only been here about 10,000 years. European refugees started arriving around 500 years ago. Their descendants have forgotten their refugee ancestry, act as if they own the place and do not pay as much attention to Coyote as do their indigenous predecessors. The small prairie wolf known as coyote mostly attracts their interest in a long standing, unsuccessful effort at extermination; but this creature with a perpetual bounty on its hide resembling a medium-size dog with a narrow face, tawny fur and a bushy tail, is only one aspect of what native American peoples have called Coyote, Coyote Man and Old Man Coyote.
In some Native American traditions, Coyote impersonates the Creator, making humans out of mud and bringing into being the buffalo, elk, deer, antelope and bear. In these myths, Coyote-Creator is never mentioned as an animal, though he can and does meet his animal counterpart, coyote. They walk and talk together, addressing the other as “elder brother” and “younger brother.” In these traditions the spiritual and corporeal are brothers who always walk and talk together.
While coyotes (the animal) are certainly responsible for destroying some domestic livestock, they are important to the larger environment as scavengers and destroyers of rodents. Omnivorous feeders, they prey on small animals, eat plant matter, carrion and garbage, and sometimes though not regularly team up to hunt larger animals. They are an invaluable part of a healthy ecology and environment, which sustains all life, including that of domestic livestock. That the livestock industry has waged a brutal and environmentally irresponsible slaughter (most of it at taxpayers, not industry, expense) of coyote for more than 100 years is shameful, scandalous, unsuccessful, unnecessary and expensive. That coyote has persisted, prospered and expanded in both numbers and range since the livestock industry put a price on his head is an indication of why Old Man Coyote continues to live in the mythology and dreams of native Americans and in the literature and imagination of its more recent arrivals. Coyote Man is the primordial trickster/teacher of American lore.
The creature coyote has managed to survive and thrive in the same (murderous) American West environment that drove wolf to the edge of extinction. The coyote learned quickly not to eat the strychnine-laced cow carcasses that ranchers put out to kill predators, but the wolf did not learn. The wolf, despite its recent re-introduction in small populations and limited areas, is mostly gone from the vast territory over which it roamed 200 years ago. The coyote, equally persecuted and slaughtered in that same time period, has expanded its territory from the plains of central and western America. Coyote now lives as far north as Alaska, as far south as central America, and from the Pacific Coast to New England, including New York City’s Central Park and Los Angeles’ metropolitan area. Coyote/coyote is ubiquitous.
There are many stories of Old Man Coyote—trickster, teacher, survivor and fool: he is a hero, always traveling, stupid and awful, outrageous and cunning, foolish and wise, mischievous and often doing well, despite himself.
In many ways, Old Man Coyote as well as the flesh and blood coyote act remarkably like human beings. American cultures, both native and European derived, have created mythologies and literature, murdered, admired, learned from and made of Coyote/coyote a villain and a fool, just as humans tend to do with each other.
There are many stories told by humans of Old Man Coyote’s sheer foolishness, all of them anthropocentric projections when one thinks about them. For instance, once Coyote Man was struck by the beauty of the gold colored cottonwood leaves as they floated to the ground. Instead of appreciating them for what they are, Coyote Man wanted to be beautiful like them. “Now, how do you do that?” he asked the leaves. “That’s so pretty the way you come down.”
“That’s easy,” the leaves replied, “all you have to do is get up in a tree and fall off.” Coyote Man climbed up the nearest tree and jumped off, filled with the vain and impossible desire to be as lovely as a falling cottonwood leaf. Of course he isn’t a cottonwood leaf. Coyote Man is killed, crashing to the ground just like a coyote falling out of a tree. The sight is neither beautiful nor inspiring. It is grotesque and really, really foolish.
In myth and lore, Coyote Man never dies; he just gets back up and comes to life again. In real present time life coyote still dies in traps, from poison and being run over and shot by humans, but coyote continues to flourish. Sometimes you can hear the song of coyote howling in the night. The sound of this song is as lovely and full of lessons about the world and how to live in it as the sight of cottonwood leaves falling to the ground.
Only a fool would jump out of a tree hoping to look like a cottonwood leaf.
Coyote Man/coyote and man have a lot in common. It is a mystery how they continue to survive and thrive.

CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS IN SKIING

The following appeared as a letter to the editor in Powder Magazine last spring, in support of an article Porter Fox wrote in the online Powder Magazine at http://www.powder.com/stories/news/campaign-donations-link-ski-industry-leaders-climate-change-deniers

November 15, 2016
Bozeman, Montana

To the editor:

Re: Those who support deniers of human caused climate change.

The world of skiing is a microcosm of the larger world. I am one of those fortunate enough to have spent my life in this privileged, tiny, dependent on snow sphere. My gratitude for a life in skiing includes some awareness that all things are connected, no matter how large or small one’s world of experience and attention, and that each of us are responsible for how the world is faring. That is, our actions and thoughts matter.

Snow is the literal foundation of skiing and, as reservoir for the waters of spring and summer, the foundation of much larger spheres of life than are found in the corporate properties and offices of Vail Resorts, Jackson Hole, Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley, Sugarloaf and others. Human caused climate change is and has been and will continue to decimate the world’s environment and ecology, including the foundation of the world of skiing. It is a crisis of unprecedented danger to all life on Earth, and its menace will be immeasurably compounded for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Skiers and other human beings who attempt to deny human caused climate change are absurd and shameful, and their futile attempts to deny reality are based on stupidity, ignorance or purposeful ignorance. Stupidity can sometimes be alleviated by experience. Ignorance can be cured by well-intentioned and thorough education. Purposeful ignorance—which afflicts those who are neither stupid nor ignorant but whose compassion, personal ethics and morality have been stunted and deformed into deception by greed, ideology, laziness or the illusion of disconnection from all things not serving their self-interest—can be coaxed into reality by honest, courageous journalism.

Thank you, Porter Fox and Powder Magazine, for being the first major skiing writer and publication to address this issue and shine some light on the dark deniers. Don’t stop now.

Sincerely,

Dick Dorworth

THE PURPOSE OF PLACE

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important but least understood need of the human soul.”
Simone Weil

“Of all the memberships we identify ourselves by (racial, ethnic, sexual, national, class, age, religious, occupational), the one that is most forgotten, and has the greatest potential for healing, is place. We must learn to know, love and join our place even more than we love our own ideas. People who can agree that they share a commitment to the landscape/cityscape—even if they are otherwise locked in struggle with each other—have at least one deep thing to share.”
Gary Snyder

I have an old friend, now in his 80s, who has lived since he was a child on the same piece of land in a beautiful valley of a western state framed by mountains. I once wrote a letter of congratulations to him “For remaining rooted in place….There are few people in our culture who have this sort of good fortune, and having such deep roots has allowed you to grow in certainty from young agile boy with a smile looking for the next adventure to old, bionic-kneed man with a smile looking for the next adventure.” During the years from childhood when his home was nearly 10 miles outside town to the raising of his children to playing with his grandchildren that town has grown and surrounded and made a cityscape of the landscape of his youth. Still, his sense of place has allowed him to keep his priorities in order, his integrity intact and his sense of humor in operating shape. He has retired from a teaching career and has a sufficient but not extravagant lifestyle, and when a real estate developer offered him $14 million dollars for his property he turned it down. My friend said to me, “What would I do with $14 million? Move to Sun Valley and buy a condo? I like it here. I always have. This is my place.”
My friend’s wisdom is both informative and inspiring, as are Weil’s and Snyder’s.
A person rooted in place has a different experience and understanding of that place and thereby the larger world than one who is passing through to make the next step on the ladder of upward mobility, looking to crash as gently as possible after falling off that ladder, moving to the next job, following the restlessness of disaffection to the next layover or being pushed off place by rising prices. Place as used here is not to be confused with property and it need not be a particular dwelling or tiny or humongous parcel of land within either landscape or cityscape. Roberta McKercher’s place was Hailey, Idaho in the home where Ezra Pound was born. Mary Jane Conger’s is Ketchum, Idaho where her family has lived for three generations. John Muir’s was the Sierra Nevada. Another old friend, writer/photographer Peter Miller’s is Colbyville, Vermont. Jane Goodall’s is Tanzania. Han Shan’s was Cold Mountain. The Dalai Lama’s is the Potala, which he has not seen since 1959. And Gary Snyder wrote of his place, “I set up my library and wrote poems and essays by lantern light, then went out periodically, lecturing and teaching around the country. I thought of my home as a well-concealed base camp from which I raided university treasuries. We named our place Kitkitdizze after the aromatic little shrub.” There are those who are only at home and at peace with themselves (and committed and attuned to place) in the mountains, others on the sea and still others upon the rivers that connect them. For Wilfred Thesiger it was the southern Arabian Desert. In the late 1940s he was one of the first Europeans to even see what was then known as the Empty Quarter, and he titled the book he wrote about his experiences and sense of the place “Arabian Sands.” One description of Thesiger’s work reads, “It is a book of touches, little things—why the Bedouin will never predict the weather (“since to do so would be to claim knowledge that belongs to God”), how they know when the rabbit is in its hole and can be caught. It is written with great respect for these people and with an understanding that acknowledges its limits. With humility.  Fail the humility test, and the desert will surely kill you.” Today the Empty Quarter is filled with oil wells, Land Rovers and people passing through with a notable lack of sense of place or humility.

It might be said, Fail the humility test of sense of place, whether the place be a plot of land, a river, mountain, sea or neighborhood and it will surely kill at the very least some essential part of the soul.
If you have a sense of place, treat it with respect. If you don’t, start looking.

WIND RIVER UNIVERSE

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

John Muir

 

Those oft-quoted but not often enough pondered words of John of the Mountains come to mind when I think about the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Every Winds climber experiences those qualities and all are altered by them in subtle and significant ways. Whether they take a 40 mile roundtrip trailhead to trailhead one day ascent of Gannett Peak or free the North Face of Mt. Hooker in a day, the experience transforms them differently‑‑but no more momentously‑‑than less ambitious endeavors like the Northeast Face of Pingora or the North Face of Haystack Mountain.

The Winds have everything climbers and other humans could ask of a mountain range, and each visit leaves us more complete. The unique character of the range includes 40 granite peaks above 13,000 feet, alpine forests, 7 of the 10 largest glaciers in the lower 48, more than 2000 lakes‑‑and a serrated topography that even Joe Kelsey, the John Muir of the Winds, hasn’t fully explored. On a clear day, the surface of Lonesome Lake reflects the sweeping silver walls of the Cirque of Towers, a glacial polished mirror to the climber who cares (dares?) to gaze into the reality that rock is more durable than but not immune to the transitory human touch and take that reflection back to the larger world.

 

My first and favorite Wind River outing in 1972 gave me a transformative personal experience guiding a woman named Elizabeth who had escaped the Nazis by crossing the Pyrenees in World War II and who taught me a new dimension of all we mean by the word ‘freedom,’ and one of my best climbs with a then new and now old friend and climbing partner Sibylle Hechtel. A third gift of that trip was a dream I had one night camped by Lonesome Lake in the Cirque of Towers. I turned the dream into fiction as vision or hallucination (but it was a dream, honest) in a short story titled “Medicine,” previously published in Mountain Gazette:

He lay exhausted in the afternoon sun, his eyes resting on the great, broken east face of Warrior Peak. His vision moved slowly along the large vertical crack systems and intersecting, diagonal lines. One detached slab near the top of the face seemed like it would fall any instant, it could not last another winter and spring thaw. He imagined sitting in that spot for thousands of years, long enough to watch Warrior crash apart, piece by piece, until nothing remained but a mound of rock that once was a mountain. He pictured Warrior as it would eventually be, a rubble heap of broken rock, continuously reducing itself into smaller and smaller particles. Even mountains are returned to the sea.

When he superimposed this image over that which his eyes saw as the east face of Warrior, a strange thing happened. He saw a zigzag pattern of unbroken movement flowing up the fractures of the face. He perceived an endless mass of people jammed together on the same path. Some were carrying big loads on their backs, others in their hands; some carried nothing while others had carts drawn by animals‑‑men, women and children, all struggling to progress. The pathway of people moved like a river, a flowing stream of light comprising all mankind, every man and woman carrying their own loads up the same strenuous path, together. He watched it a long time, filled with compassion.

It slowly began to change from movement to form, like the creation of understanding itself. That which was flowing up a steep, winding path formed itself into a human hand, a fine, beautifully formed hand, palm up, with long, graceful fingers extended and together, thumb relaxed and not quite touching the first finger. It was the hand of man and everything he had ever seen and known and touched and loved and felt and cared about was in that hand. As soon as he understood this all that remained before his vision was the East Face of Warrior.


I took the gift of that dream back to the larger world as reminder of something we all know but fail to ponder with enough effort and focus: that the hand of every human holds the earth within it and the hand of every climber brings and then leaves more than new climbing routes, slings, bolts and other manufactured protection. On any busy summer day, at what I once referred to but no longer can as ‘pristine’ Lonesome Lake it is not unusual to find two or three dozen campers, not all of them climbers. What they (we) leave depends on their (our) level of consciousness of being hitched to everything in the universe, including unpacked out shit and toilet paper buried or not, carelessly or uncaringly abandoned garbage, campfire ash from easily gathered wood that will no longer be available to rejuvenate local soil, the impact of millions of footsteps trampling vegetation and making hardpan of porous soil on and off the trails.

When I first wandered the Winds climbers and other visitors were still few, and winter erased most signs of their passing. Within the span of a human life 45 years is huge, but in the time that is hitched to everything else it is miniscule. Today the snow pack melts 16 days earlier than it did in 1972 and it will continue to vanish earlier and earlier each year. The environmental integrity of every mountain range is degrading with as yet unknown consequences as a result of human overpopulation, overproduction and overconsumption fueling the rising temperatures of Earth. Some countries and peoples are suffering the violence of climate change more than others. America drives those changes more than most nations and so far suffers less, but eventually the ecological degradation will visit all countries and all peoples.

I cannot imagine how climbing standards will accelerate in the next 45 years but assume they will keep pace with the increasing velocity of environmental squalor and unwelcome change that will meet climbers when they enter the Winds and that will accost them again as they exit back into that larger world. What I like to think about is that any solution to the man made global warming crisis that affects everything to which we are all hitched is in the hands of humans. The approach to climbing as pilgrimage. Environmental activism as a mission. Improving lives through living our own lives in a sustainable manner. Educating the ignorant about retreating glaciers and melting snow and encouraging simplicity as a (partial) solution. I think the holy Wind River Range which has given us so much would be honored, grateful, relieved and reciprocal to such a hand from its climbers.

Don’t you?

 

BACK TO THE BASICS IN THE BACKCOUNTRY

The number of skiers and snowboarders who climb up on their own power in order to slide down snow covered backcountry slopes has grown significantly in recent years. Many of these climbing skiers/boarders also ride ski lifts and slide down groomed runs some of the time and others haven’t ridden a lift in years. A few have never been on a lift. This cultural/athletic phenomenon is as evident in the Wood River Valley as in the rest of the skiing world, and the reasons for this are varied and personal. One oft quoted explication came from Pepi Stiegler, Olympic gold and silver medal winner in alpine skiing who directed the Jackson Hole alpine ski school for many years. When asked why he and other alpine skiers are spending more and more time in the backcountry, he replied, “It’s like it was in the beginning. It’s pure. Skiing in the backcountry is like going home.”
Other motivations include economic (lift tickets are expensive), a search for solitude or at least quietude, the physical benefits of a good workout and the mental/emotional profits of a day away from the madding crowd(s) in a pristine environment. Going home, at least to those for whom skiing has been a foundation for rich, rewarding, healthful lives, is a return to the basics in much the same spirit as eating the fare from your own home grown organic garden. It costs less money and more effort to grow, but the results are healthier for body and mind than the less arduous and more expensive alternatives.
For several reasons beyond the scope of this writing there is more terrain easily accessible to Idaho’s Wood River Valley backcountry skiers/boarders and fewer people using it than in any other major ski area in western America. As a result the local backcountry skiing/board scene is relatively quiet, both in the hills and in the bars. In contrast, on a busy weekend the backcountry chaos on Teton Pass between Victor, Idaho and Wilson, Wyoming will see hundreds of people, feuds and dented fenders over the limited parking, lines of climbers on the way up and few lines left after 10 a.m. on the way down and recognizable as home only to those from very large families. Even the social media obsession of the Go Pro/Facebook generation has not (so far) brought such attention and congestion to the vast backcountry terrain surrounding the Wood River Valley.
Some (not all) zealous purists among local backcountry regulars can be tight-lipped about their favorite lines and peaks and how to get there, considering those of a more communicative nature déclassé. Such zealous purity inspires words not usually printed here to describe those who use helicopters to access their favorite backcountry lines, though, in truth, some of those same puritans have been known to use snowmobiles to cross the long, arduous and monotonous flats to approach those same lines.
Still, the word gets out about the best, most easily accessed backcountry areas, and anyone with enough interest in local backcountry pursuits to acquire the proper equipment, attire, attitude and energy to return to the basics will quickly discover enough skiing/boarding in the Wood River Valley to last a lifetime.
After all, it’s like going home and is where I live in winter.
 

KIM SCHMITZ

The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. By that measure, as well as others less agonizing — including high adventure, the burning fires of passion as well as the healing waters of compassion, humility, kindness and seeking Kim Schmitz, a longtime Buddhist, lived life to its limits and, sometimes, a bit over.

Schmitz, who was born June 26, 1946, in Oakland, California and died September 19, 2016 in northern Idaho spent most of his early life in Portland, Oregon.

He was one of the finest climbers in history. After graduating from Lincoln High School he spent a couple of semesters at the University of Oregon in Eugene. But though he was a voracious reader with a keen intellect and curiosity about the world, classrooms and academia were too confining for Kim Schmitz. He lived to climb and ski in the classic tradition of mountaineers for whom mountains are the defining relationship of their lives.

By the time he was a teenager he had climbed Canada’s Mount Robson and Mount Waddington and gained a reputation for first ascents on some of the hardest technical climbing routes of the Northwest. He climbed a lot at Smith Rocks in Oregon.

“Without rival, Kim Schmitz emerged as the top all-around Smith climber during the first half of the ’60s,” guidebook author Alan Watts opined,

Schmitz and climbing partner Jim Madsen arrived in Yosemite in the mid ’60s and quickly raised the local standards of the valley’s big wall and hard free climbing. Schmitz never lived full time in the Northwest again, spending his summers climbing in Yosemite and winters working as a ski patrolman in Squaw Valley. After his friend Madsen was killed rappelling off the end of his rope on El Capitan in October 1968, Schmitz teamed up with Yosemite climbing icon Jim Bridwell and, among many other things, pioneered new routes on both El Capitan and Half Dome.

By the 1970s Schmitz was climbing and skiing in Asia. His 1977 first ascent of Pakistan’s 20,623-foot Great Trango Tower in the Karakoram range, a 4,300-foot wall, was the first big wall, hard technical climb in a high-altitude alpine setting and became know as “the biggest big wall.” In 1979 Schmitz returned to the Karakorum to be the first to climb 20,043-foot Uli Biaho Tower, 34 pitches of difficult technical climbing that took 12 days and became the first Grade VII climb in the world.

In 1980 Kim joined trip organizer Galen Rowell, Ned Gillette and Dan Asay for a nearly 300-mile ski tour called the American Karakoram Traverse Expedition across northern Pakistan. The trip started March 27 and ended May 8, and each man’s pack weighed approximately 120 pounds. Toward the end of the tour food ran low, their energies followed, and their pace had slowed from 4 miles an hour to 4 miles a day. Schmitz devised a solution that Rowell described in a fine essay about the trip: “Kim was our medical officer. Although not a doctor, he had a strongly developed historical sense of medication for mountaineering. He knew of a drug that had been developed precisely for this purpose by native people who found it necessary to carry tremendous loads at high elevations with low caloric intakes. Small amounts of this extract from a South American leaf were at one time the main active ingredient of the most successful multinational soft drink until the potential for abuse made it illegal. Propitiously, Kim had been able to purchase an ounce of this material at the Khyber Pass to add to our medical kit.”

In October of that year Schmitz was part of an American expedition to 24,790-foot Minya Konka, the tallest mountain in China’s Sichuan Province. High on the mountain Schmitz was roped up with Yvon Chouinard, Rick Ridgeway and Jonathan Wright when an avalanche took them on a 2,000-vertical-foot ride. The accident killed Wright, broke Schmitz’s back and some ribs and pummeled Chouinard and Ridgeway without seriously injuring them. The broken back was the beginning of the decline of Schmitz’s climbing career.

By then Schmitz was a Jackson Hole resident for much of the year, making his living guiding for Exum Mountain Guides, skiing in winter and climbing as much and wherever possible. Al Read, longtime owner and president of Exum and leader of the Minya Konka expedition, who invited Schmitz to work for Exum, knew him for most of his life and recalls him as “an imposing species of human who was intimidating because of his goodness, his physical presence and his unbelievable strength and skill in the mountains. Just knowing Kim made me a better man.”

On Aug. 4, 1983, while guiding a client on the Jensen Ridge of Symmetry Spire in the Tetons, Schmitz fell 80 feet, landing feet first on a ledge, shattering both legs in numerous compound fractures and sustaining a major head laceration. It is safe to say that Schmitz never experienced a pain-free moment from that time to the end of his life 33 years later.

“I was amazed on Minya Konka at how strong Kim was climbing at altitude, and then after the avalanche, at how stoic he was,” Chouinard said. “He had to ride a horse off the mountain with a broken back. After his accident on Symmetry Spire I visited him in the hospital. Kim pulled back the covers on his bed to show me his legs. The sight of them caused me to pass out on the spot.”

Schmitz endured numerous major surgeries over the years as a consequence of that fall and, later, intestinal cancer. Those who knew him best considered his return to climbing, guiding, skiing and as normal a life as one can have in constant pain, both miraculous and a testament to his inner strength (and stubbornness) as a human being.

By the time he got serious about zen practice, he was 44, and his glory days as a climber had ended. His leg injuries made it impossible to sit either cross-legged or kneeling, but he didn’t want to get up on a chair, so he usually did zazen with both legs straight out in front of him.

In the early ’90s Schmitz joined Jack Turner, Thekla von Hagke, Jeff Foott, Susan Stone, Rod Dornan and others in the Jackson Hole community in founding the Cold Mountain Zendo.

Schmitz’s life and his practice were complicated by repeated health challenges: numerous hospitalizations and surgeries, ongoing pain, recurring abuse of alcohol and painkillers, DUI convictions and incarceration and losing his job at Exum. The loss of his job also meant financial problems and forfeiting his place in the world literally (his cabin) and figuratively (his identity as a climbing guide).

Schmitz was preceded in death by his father, Alfred “Alla,” who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1929 and was himself a climber and outdoorsman and a leader of Sierra Club and Mountain Travel trips on which he introduced Kim as a boy to his destiny. Kim’s mother, Virginia “Ginny,” and his sister, Dede, also passed before him. He never married and had no immediate family, but he leaves a large extended family of friends and cohorts, none more devoted than Dr. Bruce Hayse, Jim Williams, Andy Carson and Thekla von Hagke.

 

kinds of winter

KINDS OF WINTER
by
Dave Olesen
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
$19.99

Dave Olesen is a thoughtful, articulate adventurer who closely notes the details of an extraordinary existence in which the mundane chores of daily life entail severe consequences for inattention, keeps track of his experiences and observations in journals which he turns into books to share with fortunate readers. His latest book “Kinds of Winter” is, to sum up, beautiful. Olesen lives with his wife and two children, forty three huskies and a ninety year old Danish sailboat on a remote homestead by Great Slave Lake next to the Hoarfrost River in Canada’s Northwest Territories where average winter nighttime temperatures are below -20F and there are five hours of daylight in December. He works as a bush pilot and guide and for 15 years was a competitive dog musher, finishing the grueling Iditarod Trail Sled dog Race eight times. That’s a long way from the small Illinois town where he grew up, but in 1987, armed with B.A. degree in Humanities and Northern Studies, fled to the north to pursue a life that inspired Gary Snyder to write of Olesen: “I salute this man and his passion, and his family for giving him space to explore it. An old Inupiaq Eskimo once said to me as I set out in a canoe on a September river, ‘Don’t have any adventures.’”
But the daily challenges of life at Olesen’s home are a backdrop and nutritious foundation for the kinds of winter he seeks and discovers when he and his teams of sled dogs really do go looking for adventure. He explains it thus: “Once a year for four consecutive winters I hooked up a team of dogs and set out on long trips away from our homeland, traveling toward one of the cardinal points of the compass: south in 2002, east in 2003, north in 2004, and finally west in 2005. Having gone out, I turned home again. It was as simple as that.” Yes, as simple as a man alone with his team of dogs going south for 155 miles, east 380 miles, north 210 miles and west 520 miles through the kinds of winter that keep the Northwest Territories sparsely populated.
The adventure alone makes “Kinds of Winter” worth the read, but Olesen is no chest-thumping conqueror of the extreme compiling a resume of achievement for the reader to admire. Olesen, like his literary/spiritual predecessors Muir, Thoreau, Leopold, Abbey and Snyder is reminding himself and the reader of Muir’s admonition: “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
Every human being can, with a bit of intentional effort and spirit of adventure, break clear away, once in awhile, and wash the spirit clean. But there are very few who do so who also have the literary skills and discipline combined with the human and environmental insight to realize and write: “Time. It is all nice and fuzzy that: ‘Go out in the wilderness and just let Time flow’ or ‘let Time have no meaning’ stuff, but in traveling between supply caches, or climbing a mountain, or paddling a long river in a short summer, Time takes on fundamental importance—it cannot be ignored. It is the approach of dusk at day’s end, the looming onset of winter in mid-September, the final sack of feed rationed out to a hungry team. Like it or not, folks, the clock is ticking, even ‘way out here’ in la-la land, Today, though, sitting just 75 miles from home, I am long on time. I can rest, and walk, and watch the day go by. Muir and Thoreau would be happy for me.”
We should all be happy for Dave Olesen who has the skills, discipline and insight to make every reader happy he and she took the time from the ticking clock to read “Kinds of Winter.”