Saturday, October 7, 2023

I love the bass when it's low and mean

I wish I had a picture of the sunburn my calves got the first time I hiked up to Camp Muir.  I'd kinda just slurred the sunscreen on quickly, and missed what ended up looking like flames coming out of my socks. Muir isn't a difficult hike, technically, just long. You leave Paradise at around the Or Fight* line and just keep goin until you need real alpinist gear and you're wondering who all these people are, sleeping at six in the evening.  The Muir Snowfield tops out a little over ten grand, at the divide between the part of Tahoma where you only worry about getting lost in the fog and the part where she's actively tryna off ya at every turn.  Being a snowfield and not a glacier, the Muir is skiable year round, easy in pitch if not in sightline. If you hike without skis, it's a long way down.

That first hike was with a kid who, to be blunt, was one of those friends you're friends with cos you think your friends are friends with him, only to find out when he's not around that nobody likes him and everyone is friends with him cos they think somebody else is friends with him, but in reality, you're all just kids in your early twenties, unforgiving, and now, looking back, maybe dude wasn't that bad. Kinda annoying in that socially awkward way that a lot of us were in our early twenties, and we just judged him cos we wanted to think we were better. Obviously, if he pulled some Me Too shit or like killed somebody and joined the Proud Boys, then maybe we were right.  Who knows where he's at, but we did some good hikes to some cool spots. Can't complain about that.

Strangely enough, it's Brett (I'm like 75% sure that's his name) who got me my first bike job, and damn near twenty years later, I'm still pretending to be a mechanic, building wheels in between those reveries of afternoon coffee, some sort of Scandihoovian almond pastry, looking out on a montane prairie, covered in snow.

Some boring volcanism at Camp Muir.

The first time I actually skied in October was around Halloween, or a little before.  One of those heartbreaking fall days you wish would never end.  It had snowed a little up at Paradise, not much, but enough to scratch a few turns into some frozen melt-freeze in the blazing but radiationally ineffective sun. Patches of grass.

It's hard to say the turns were worth the hike, let alone the drive up from Puyallup.  But then, if that's the math you're using, nothing is ever worth doing.  I try to ignore that sorta logic.  That day, let's say it was the 28th, probly '07, I just hiked until I found enough snow on a steep enough pitch, probly up around Pan Point or so. Seven grand, somewhere thereabouts.  I say snow, but it wasn't really.  I think I didn't even bother dropping the knee for fear I'd make too long a turn radius and be back at the car before I'd had my fill.  Joke's on me, though, cos sixteen years later I still ain't found "enough". I get by, yes, but at this point my desire outlasts my ambition. There's always a wisp of yearning hanging in the air like some deep subalpine valley in January where one house has a fire and the capping inversion is visible, just a lazy line of smoke about three hundred feet above the chimney.

I won't lie and say those turns were good, but they were memorable. Scratchy, challenging, even a little painful on my unprepared feet. When I got back to the old Legacy, I probly shrugged, looked up one last time at Tahoma in the late afternoon sun, and headed back to town. If I'm reading the calendar right, it was the 30th, right after Junior fired me from Bonney Lake Bicycles of Sumner, Washington. The start of the only good month of unemployment I've ever had.  The November turns that year outshone the October turns, but it doesn't matter.

The view from Camp Muir could be better.

October of '08, after getting skunked in the summer tryna ski Muir, Catherine was pretty gung ho about getting up there. It snowed early, and quite a bit. We were a day late, or maybe two, somewhere around the 12th.  She met me in Puyallup and we headed up in my Legacy. Another one of those days, clear, cool, visibility unlimited.  We didn't hit snow until above seven grand, what would be the toe of the Muir if it were a glacier. While swapping to skis and skins, we ran into a pro skier whose name isn't that important here. He was a full bedutchka to us, grunting and acting like we were in his way.  No answers to our questions, just an impatient gesture and he was off down to Paradise.  Any time I see his name today, I, too, grunt a little and act like he's still in my way.

The skin up from 7200' or so is long, long, long. Flat, in comparison to the sort of alpine lines most skiers dream about. I joke that the descent was the most exciting beginner run I've ever skied. You don't switch back much, just slorp and glorp your way along until the last few hundred vertical, where consensus holds that it's "steeper". The consensus holds, too, that the Muir Snowfield is only worthwhile for these early fall desperation quests.

Alas, the cognoscenti are correct.  The view from Muir is terrible. You only see a handful of volcanoes, there are cracks in the glaciers above, the rock is interesting only if you like rocks and volcanism. The valleys stretch below you lazily, and the Tatoosh look small at this distance.  The sun is benevolent instead of harsh, I mean, who wants that? The snowfield is long, and you'll probly just wanna get it over with cos skiing on a volcano isn't that special, is it?

You know what? Joke's on them.  Camp Muir is incomparable.  Millennia of volcanism tower over you, and this early in the water year, the underlying blue of the Cowlitz Glacier just over the divide peeks out from the crevasses, beautiful and ominous.  I know what they can do, and yet I can't look away.

The turns, ah, the turns, you ask. They were, well, challenging.  I'd built up excitement for the flat pitch, the long beginner run it would be, and then it was so sticky I had to hold each turn with all the leg muscles I could find. Tibialis posterior? Check. Soleus? Check. Adductor brevis? Check.  I don't even know what those are. Tele's hard enough when conditions are ripe, even more so when they are long past.  I didn't want it to end, but my legs did.  The two-day-old hot pow skied like you'd expect in the direct sun, that exposed southerly aspect.  The Muir fades skiers' left away from the Nisqually Glacier. It's so tempting to drift right and find the steeps of the Headwall, but there's no snow there off the glacier until the wet season systems build their snowpack, and it's not 1930 anymore.  The glacier no longer runs to the bridge.

The snow was so sticky, in point of fact, all I could do was a 30 metre turn and catch my breath on the transition, and repeat.  Eventually, the turns ended, the muscles could relax a bit.  It's still a few miles of dirt to the car from Pan Point, but the hiking shoes felt like slippers and it was mid October and I was twenty seven, in the golden years where you still know everything and your body doesn't yet hate you for seeking it all out. Eyes up, the Tatoosh growing with every step, and then the flat of the paved lot and the bemusement of the late-season tourists.  Low sun.

I guess this is cool if you're into that sort of thing. Nisqually Headwall, skiers' right of the Muir Snowfield.

The third October day was a full moon, '013.  It had puked at the hill, surprising for mid October in Jackson County.  Mt Ashland is the tallest point, and by most standards it isn't that tall. Seven and a half grand, give or take. The highest point on the Siskiyou Crest, recognisable from a long ways away.  The moon was low when I drove home from work in Medford, maybe a day or two before being truly full.

Amy was surprised at how ambitious I was when I got home.  Usually we'd make dinner and mellow out on the porch, a quiet evening above the bike shop, the heat of summer long past and the hippies long gone to warmer climes. Instead, we threw everything in one of the Subies and booted for the hill.

The lot was empty.  The snow was thick, and a bit orange from the town light reflecting off the thickening clouds.  A weak warm front passed through while we were there, changing the snow between runs from the first run in high quality settled-but-fluffy to a challenging crispiness. McLaughlin off in the distance to the northeast, Shasta just east of due south. The first run was delicious, the second a passing grade, but barely.  The warm air off the ocean was too much for the day old snow, and we called it a night.  Halo around the otherwise bright moon, a strange glow emitting from the Cascades to the east and the Bear Creek Valley below.

That winter never happened.  An early December storm dropped a foot in town on a whim. In the following days a burly Rogue Valley inversion set in and the snow just sublimated and the storm track never really returned.  The Weather Service called it the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge, to which the late Kim Clark added "Great" so he could just say GRRR.  My last turns at Mt A were in March that winter, dodging potholes in what rotten snowpack was around, never once dropping the knee.  I could never get a rhythm in anything that winter, and in truth, I haven't really found a good one since.

My last memory from that night was the ghosts of the Shasta Valley, Black Butte and Cottonwood and Anderson Grade and Black Mountain.  Basalt. Dark shapes, distinguishable more through memorisation of place than recognition of shape.  Old volcanism, uplift, and desert. Quiet, distant and immediate all at once.  Impossible to repeat.

From Eagle Point in the daylight rather than Mt A in the full moon, and frankly, just another volcano. See one, you seen em all.


I could have named this after the John Denver classic Some Days are Diamonds, but that would be too easy, no?

Title from The Judds' Turn it Loose, which is kind of a nice easygoing country song for folks who don't wanna try all that hard.  I mean, yes, I like the song.

Eagle Point gets its name from the eagle on McLaughlin that is visible in the shot above. I wish somewhere around the Sound with a boring name--like Burien or Buckley or Renton or Kent--was instead called Elk Head.  That'd be fun.

*54-40 or Fight, but you know that.

You can't even see the Eagle from up here.