Friday, December 22, 2023

Relatively easy

The hike out the King can take anywhere from 12 minutes to 2 hours, depending on your skill, familiarity, and fitness.  Mostly your familiarity, as you need to know where to just point it, where you can kick steps as fast as you're able until you almost puke knowing that the line you're sweating for is just past the top of a given pitch.  Skill helps, of course, cos those hard corners where you drop a shoulder and glide instead of skidding wide are much faster with the right amount of edge, and the speed'll let you carry up past ten or fifteen side steps other folks have taken, which saves your lungs for those three pitches on the actual peak where you need to kick hard to stay ahead of the Joeys from Bellevue in their bar-mode boots and this year's trendiest goggles.

I swear it's steeper than it looks. First Throne Gate, CM.

The first time I headed out, I think I was 7. All three of us tagged along with Pa, and I'm fairly certain I was the slowest.  My brothers would have been 10 and 12.  I obviously didn't know where I could pump a roller for an extra boost, or where I should double up to rest the legs for a half second of airtime.  The hike is all about conservation, whether it's momentum or lung power or quadriceps energy, and at 7 I knew about none of that. Somewhere in the middle of the second pitch on the shoulder of the King, we caught up to, or more likely were passed by, a couple around Pa's age. The wife, I'm pretty sure, had a Bota bag of apple juice.  I will never forget the taste.  I think about it, the Bota bag, the apple juice, the kindly lady I never saw again, every time I'm out South, or sidestepping out to Lower Mores here in the desert, or walking along one of the ridges at The Place That Shall Not Be Named, or skating back to the Lodge on the 20 Road after a quick Rabbit Ears lap at Mt A, when my throat burns cos I'm too stubborn lazy to carry water.

I don't remember which line we skied.  Knowing the sort of terrain Pa prefers, it was probly Southeast Right.  Wide open and steep, but manageable. Southeast facing, as you'd guess.  In my mid-to late-twenties, it was a ramp of much speed and few turns, but in the spring of 1989 it would have seemed endless.  I don't remember how many turns it took down to the exit, but it probly felt like a few hundred.  Those years in the late aughts tuning skis for Brad, I made a game of how few turns I could make from the top of the King to the bottom of the first pitch on either side.  My best was 4.


Yesterday, I woke up and realised I was 42 years old.  My birthday long past, but still, sometimes it sticks.  I know this is universal, whether you're 31 or 75 or 103, one day you're minding your own business, checking groceries, pumping gas, bumping chairs, riding bulls, sweeping dirt off your baseball pants from a successful steal of third in the deciding game of the CWS, playing a show in front of 3000, whatever, and the next day you're older, feeling broken, and praying to God the trade-off is one resulting in endless wisdom and old-guy strength.  Again, not unique amongst any peer group or novel in the scope of geographic time.  Just, well, hard to swallow sometimes.

This wasn't anywhere as steep in '008. Two Turn Eino? More like Two Hundred Forty-Two Turn Eino.

That day, the 4 turn day, was a Saturday.  It'd puked, then puked some more, and Patrol hadn't opened south all week, not even Friday.  (Stina always spat "Baugher's just waiting for Friday cos he hates locals!")  I knew it would open, and didn't have a shift in the shop, so I was planning to just head for the gate and wait until somebody dropped it and fight for whatever leftovers I could find.  Standing in line for 11, just before opening, the line stretching for two hundred people in front of me, I heard the Number Two Lifts Guy (no clue his name, this far on, but I'll call him Adam, cos why not) yell my name.  That year, '008, I was tuning most-time for Brad.  I'd got my pass through lifts thinking I'd need two jobs, so when I realised I couldn't swing both, I told Bob I'd help out when necessary and otherwise deal with fewer Greenbacks.  He didn't really need me much, and I usually skated by with the last of my tips.  That morning, though, they were short enough lifties that they actually needed me. 

Anyway, Adam wanders over and asks me if I can do lunches. Obviously, I can't say no, regardless, but I mumble something about getting one solitary South lap, and he says "Dude!  Of Course!  Gimme your time card and I'll punch you in. Come back and do lunches, go skiing some more, and clock out at 4."  Well, now.  To be honest, I don't even know if he ever clocked me in.  Or care.

That knowledge of the hike and traverse out south, it pays off sometimes.  There was a line at the False Summit, the second Throne Gate.  I kept booting until I was alone at the top of the Throne, only a short ski down the ridge to the A Basin saddle.  Everyone waiting in line for the lower gate had to traverse, duck the krummholz firs and pine and spruce at speed.  I just had to point it and hope the corners hadn't changed too much with all the snow. I had probly a 5, 6 minute head start on them, and I was faster than all of 'em, too.  I hit the bottom of the King knowing nobody could catch me, no matter how many were back there.  I had built another 4 or 5 minutes in by the top and could catch my breath, make my decisions, breathe some more, ignore the butterflies and the crowd at the top of 9, and be ready instead of jittery.  Brad and his now ex were second and third, surprisingly.  He rarely skied, but it was exactly the kinda day that he waited for.  High, thin, beautiful overcast, chilly enough to preserve the day-old snow, visibility clear and unlimited.  When he poked his head through the last whitebark, I looked quizzically, and asked "How'd you pull this off?" He just shrugged.  "How'd you?!" "I'm doing lunches, as you can see.  Hard at it." I saw the cloud of ants chasing them up the last pitch, waved, ignored his invitation to ski where he could see me, and dropped off to the northeast. Slid a directional turn on the ridge and dropped into the Hourglass, the easiest line off the top of the King.  Some lines just feel right, and I hadn't known it'd be that line until I rolled over and saw nothing but an open ramp.  Four turns at speed, whatever radius that is, down to DFF.

When I was shoveling the ramp at the top of Rex during one of the lunches, a pro patroller slid by and said "Nice turns. I know it was you."

You can't see the forest for the glaciers. Ingraham, Fryingpan, Emmons, Inter, Winthrop, Curtis, and Carbon, NE shoulder of Tahoma. There's more species of conifer in this pic than in all of SW Idaho. Name them all and you get 15 points.

The knees just don't work the way the should, and certainly not the way they did.  I remember one morning at the community college squatting outside Noël's old Acura 5-speed at 7 in the January morning, thinking my knees were done, and how unfair it was that I was only 18 and I was already being sold down the river by creaky joints.  I wasn't, though.  Through strength training, and, more importantly, telemarking 100 days a year and hiking 3000' vertical peaks all summer, the muscles and joints starting working together.  Once I got a bike and stopped with the horror of running, things really clicked and I had a stretch of 15 years with only one single second of true knee pain.  Just now, though, I settled weird in my seat to write these exact words and the lateral side of my right knee lit up with that same white flash.


Alta is known for traverses.  The High T is probly the best known, perhaps in the whole damn country.  I've never partaken, and to be honest I have no desire whatsoever.  I and Alta don't get along.  Taos, Bridger, Baker, and the like are known for bootpacks straight up to their respective ridgelines.  Mt A for complaining that the Bowl is closed while ignoring the technically-out-of-bounds south and west sides of the peak because the skate back on FR20 is there.  Not cos it's hard, because it just isn't.  Sun Valley for its glitz and septuagenarians ripping the groomers on the Warm Springs side at Mach Stupid.  Mad River Glen for its single chair, co-op structure, and for allegedly being hard AF.  Jay, for the waterslides.  You get it.

The Place That Shall Not Be Named, maybe none of those things.  They have those gilded bathrooms, the English wool carpet lining all of their countless lodges, the grooming, the 3000' vert of grooming.  Nobody talks about the short hikes to the actual reason to ski in Weber County, Utah, which is the same as anywhere else you can think of, even the Driftless.  Quiet, steep, not-always-safe turns in good, unsettled snow.  Not all of the lines are worth it.  Some, though, it's, well, shoot.  There are still some things I miss about Utah.  From the top of Strawberry, you boot up a little toward DeMoisy, then skate around the west side.  In many years, with some adventurous partners, you could drop Burch Creek all the way to town.  You ignore this, ignore the obvious lines back into Middle Bowl, skiers' left of DeMoisy proper, and keep skating and sidestepping and booting until you're on a ridge above a hidden bowl that empties down into the top of Porky.  You can't really see it from anywhere, and nobody will know you're there.  It's not the steepest spot on the hill, not exposed and terrifying like Mt Ogden, nor obvious like the north face of DeMoisy.  It's a ramp with probly 20 or 30 turns, and it's yours if you want it.

Some of the only truly good memories I have from that glitziest of hills are the handful of turns I made back there and the look some tourist lady gave me when I popped outa the limber pine onto the groomer at the top of Porky.  My moustache, drooping every day further below regs, caked in snow when it hadn't snowed in days.

It's right behind that rock, right there, and there's none of those pesky Joey traverse lines or strange skier people you don't know and yet somehow know you don't like.

The hard truths that take lifetimes to grasp don't first arrive as welcome rain drops on a light breeze after a three week drought, they hit like a 2 am tornado.  Just as convective storms are still hard for the atmospheric science hippies to pin down, these lessons, or insight, whatever you want to call 'em, do what they please, and you have to be paying attention at all times or it'll be years later and you'll sit up with a jolt because there was something to learn from that one moment, way back in 2012 or something, that you can't quite visualise.  Scientific understanding has taken millennia for this same reason, that most folks didn't know how to understand what just happened when all they could see is the black of the receding tornado and their belongings scattered hundreds of yards or even miles away.


By the time I hit the top of the King last winter, I was scraping rime off the gnarled 5-foot Pinus albicaulis to chew on for water and hoping the feeling in my chest would recede.  Four years of knee problems and anxiety and the fitness I spent all those years cobbling together is long gone, with the weight my far-northerly genes seem prone to add when I'm out of commission complicating things further, and that easy 15-minute hike took me probably 45, for most of which I was out of breath.

The view is the same, that slow spin to take it all in, one more time.  Maybe that was the last, I don't know.  Alterra hasn't made things better up there.  They can't significantly alter the landscape.  They are trying, though.  They are having success pushing out the locals, too, as they are in all of their gathered holdings, legacy and otherwise.  Heather Hansman and Hal Clifford have documented this part of our world better than I can.  Maybe it's obvious, maybe not, but when a large portion of a corporation is built on past legal misdoings--think Intrawest and the fraud they or at least stakeholders in the org committed--one has to wonder whether there's ever any goodwill at the heart of things.  One can't escape these things, only ignore them, and there's a line I can't cross.  It hurts.  It feels like I can never go home, and yes, maybe I should read that book.  I tried Look Homeward, Angel, but never finished it and I associated Wolfe with Kerouac too much and got bored.  I grew up at the exit of the valley, where the lahar fill spreads north and west and flattens the land.  We didn't leave to be gone, but to try to find greener pastures, and yes, the joke writes itself.  Enumclaw averages almost 60 inches of water a year, pretty much all of which falls as rain.  Ashland and Ogden get less than 20, and BoyCee many years never receives more than desert-level water.

From the top of the King, one can see peaks of all shapes, exotic terranes, volcanism old and young, forest, water, and even a little bit of desert.  The constant change and illusion of permanence.  The Emmons, that murderous and beautiful and terrifying glacier, is the biggest thing. It becomes the whole western sky if you don't look away.  It is magnetic, the largest area of any glacier in the lower 48.  If I could choose my death, which I don't want to do, part of me hopes it's underneath another lahar, down on the White some cool fall afternoon, oblivious and calm behind a giant redcedar trunk when the ground shakes and I have a few minutes to understand, to take it all in one last time.  As I said, I don't want to choose.  I hope I'm old and crazy, yelling at all the tourists downtown, some jerk of a business owner calling the cops on me again.

That run wasn't four turns, or even forty.  I was gripped, bordering on scared.  Such a strange feeling in a place I'd long felt at home and comfortable at speed.  I dropped into the Toaster, the third line skiers' left of the peak itself.  I'm sure it's got other names, and I can't even begin to care.  The line is steep, with a nice, deep crux, and an immediate exit onto the huge apron.  I couldn't open it up, couldn't even get comfortable until I hit the groomed exit, avoiding DFF because I was too tired to make more shaky turns in uneven terrain.  Too pissed at the kid at the saddle who said he'd patrolled at Crystal for a year but never returned cos he thought it was boring.  I'd wanted that job, more than I've wanted most things.  Tried, even.  Wasn't cool enough.  Baugher ignored the recommendations of his assistant, the Snow Safety guy, the wife of the ski area owner, and several of his most senior patrollers.  I never even got a chance, and I will never pretend I'm not still bitter.  That anonymous and ungrateful 20-something trustafarian drove that home well and good.  I was so pissed at him I ignored the tightness in my chest and the scratch in my lungs, and only really took a break when I could dig my brakes into the chalk on the summit.


I feel like I am starting to learn, though, as though I can recognise the colour in the clouds and know that hail reflects or refracts light in a way that in mass quantities will turn the sky green.  That green sky in turn has showed up before tornadoes, so maybe it's time to head to the basement.  I am doing PT, three days a week, grudgingly each time.  I know my injuries, now, or at least have some understanding.  I know that this is a long, boring stretch and that doing the PT helps, while skipping it will result in not being able to walk and needing crutches just to heat the tortillas.


I think there's a transceiver gate at the top of Chair 8 now, the start of the hike out The Arm.  When I was bumping chairs at the bottom of 5 in '002, there was only a threatening sign with lots of red and firm admonishments.  Everyone sorta self-policed, and the winter of '99 was fresh in mind.  From the gate, one just starts kicking steps, grateful for any shorter person who went first, pissed at all tall dudes and snowboarders.  Tall dudes just step too far, but snowboarders didn't really kick their steps.  Something something "my boots are more comfortable than yours" and you all can go

The Arm. Dang.

Anyway, the snowboard steps would slope outward and even with tele boots, the traction would be garbage.  Best if it was a short and experienced alpine skier, so the steps sloped inward and were close together.  Many steps make light work, something like that.

There are some steep steps, and the terrain rolls parabolically away such that the only way to really know your line is to follow someone who does, or just guess and check.  There's only a few big cliffs.  You'll be fine. 

Who am I kidding? The Arm is huge, and consequential.  Don't french fry when you should pizza.  It's rewarding, too, with long and challenging turns, deep, unsettled snow that can rip out easily in the steeps, but a few lower angle ramps.  It's a circus most days that follow big cycles.  There was one day out there, I was on that big ol' red Seth Morrison.  It was late in the day, the afternoon angling toward shoulda-been-back-to-the-E-Lodge-by-now light, and it hadn't snowed in a week.  The wind coming up the Swift Creek drainage over Lake Ann had been slowly depositing grain and feather, and the week-long cold snap and its attendant drying had kept the snow soft.  Each convexity would hide a deep turn in the lee, several pillows unevenly spaced all the way down into the creek draw, surprisingly deep.  It was quiet that afternoon, just me and a couple other lifties.  At the exit we pulled left, silent, followed the traverse over the westerly branch of White Salmon Creek and out onto the bottom of Daytona, and out the cat road from the bottom of Chair 8 as we'd missed last call.  Another day, another dollar.  So many ghosts back there, real and imagined.
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I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. But still, this is how my brain tracks.

Title from the last track on Jason Isbell's first record after he got sober, the one with the song everybody cheers when he says he swore off that stuff, forever this time. It sounds trite, and instead it's all the feels. And that More Guns Walleye character can take a long tumble off Mt Ogden.