Saturday, December 21, 2013


We were camping at Chaco Canyon New Mexico on a cold and rainy night, having a comfortable dinner underneath a fortuitously overhanging wall.  The sand was warm and dry next to our fire and the lighting was exquisite as we listened to the subtle sounds of the dripping desert.  A car pulled into the exposed campsite next to ours and sat there for a long time with the motor running.  My indignant wife Tracey eventually told me to go over and tell them to turn it off.  I stormed over and tapped on the window.  When they rolled down the window and I saw the confused faces inside, I changed my attitude and I asked them if they would like to join us for cocktails under our rock.  The husband and wife pair was flabbergasted and grabbed some whiskey and wine and quickly joined us in the sand. 

They had just flown in from New York City, rented a car and headed off into the wilderness.  In the rain and the dark they were a little discombobulated, making the transition from the city to the country, and they were having a hard time getting their bearings.  They were designers and developers of sonic playgrounds in NYC where the action and motion of the kids energized tubs and drums buried underground creating a symphony of tympani and percussion.  They were great folks so we shared our dinner and drink, shade and warmth.

It turned out that they were drummers by trade and hobby and said they always travel with their drums.  We asked if they would break out their drums and play for us, pa rum pum pum pum.  They went back to their car and came back with a big rug that they laid out next to our fire.  Then they kept coming back with more and more drums, elaborate drum sets for themselves and smaller drums for us.   They pulled drums out of their rental car like clowns popping out of a circus car.

 They started playing and we all started grooving haphazardly.  After the first cacophonous round they offered us the key to good drumming, one hint.  We are all responsible for the best.  They started again, laying down a simple back-beat and we were encouraged to join in.  We started tentatively but were soon riffing and improvising, dropping related layers of rhythm on top and around each other, never forgetting the original beat.  It sounded great, in our cozy little amphitheater, and we jammed harmonically late into the night, talking and playing with our new found friends.  

They left in the morning, after coffee and breakfast, with their rug, drums and their rental car.  We exchanged hugs and contact information as they thanked us for our hospitality and we thanked them for the drumming and the life lesson.  We are all responsible for the beat.

Monday, December 9, 2013


By, Kent Haruf

I love literature, good literature.  A classic story well told. But I am an engineer with no training for picking good books. I always had an American Studies major friend in college to steer me in new directions; from Kerouac to Woolf, Leopold to Abbey, Fitzgerald to Steinbeck, and Stegner to McPhee.   In the real world it is harder to find a mentor who shares your tastes and can make new suggestions.  I am lucky now to have my friend Andy as my reading associate. Andy doesn’t sleep a lot so he reads voraciously, anything and everything western.  He has steered me from McCarthy to McMurtry, Sprague to Kitteridge, Guthrie to Reisner and from Bass to Doig. Andy has read them all and always has a new book or author for me to check out.  Literally.

He left me a note a while back and all it said was Kent Haruf.  I knew what that meant and it felt like a new door had already been opened for me.  Walking eagerly down the Library’s alphabetical Fiction Isle, I found Haruf nestled comfortably between Jim Harrison and Ernest Hemingway, my favorites.  I randomly grabbed a heavy hardbound edition of the book with the nicest cover, called “Plainsong”, and checked it out. 

Kent Haruf is a teacher at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and sometimes lives in Salida, Colorado.  The setting for all of his books is Holt, Colorado, patterned after the north east Colorado town of Yuma, on the edge of the Great Plains where he lived in the early 80’s.  A ““Plainsong”” is technically a body of chants used in the liturgies of the Western Church, but Haruf has explained the title as “any simple and unadorned melody or air”, most likely emanating from the Great Plains of the western United States.

“Plainsong” was published in 1999 and became a U.S. bestseller. Verlyn Klinkenborg of the New York Times called it "a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader.” “Plainsong” won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

“Plainsong” blew me away.  Seldom have I read a book so deceptively simple and lyrical in style, and so well written that it evoked a deep emotional reaction.  I was reading it before bed one night and my wife asked me if I was crying.  I said yes because the characters were so real, so hurting and so good.  This is a compelling narrative about the town of Holt as exemplified by a pregnant school girl, a lonely schoolteacher, a pair of old, curmudgeon bachelor-brother farmers, two young boys abandoned by their mother and trying struggling father, trying to start his life over.  It is a story of community and compassion, and about our natural predilection to help each other in times of need, whether it is large or small.  It is about the inherent good in most of us and our inclination to bond together in our small communities, whether they are our towns or families, bars or our jobs.  Life on the plains seems too hard to go through isolated and alone, too lonely sometimes to even to try.  But we do try, with a little help from our friends. 

This is complete story with villains and thieves, heroes and protagonists, good woman and everyman.  It is a positive, uplifting story about the good in our human nature and our natural connections to others.  It does not punch you in the face but it infiltrates your soul.  Haruf craftily writes a simple story that builds on itself into a convincing tale of the human condition.  It is easy on the eyes and gentle on the mind.  The arc of this story flows thru your senses like the story of our lives and our towns, like the great American Novel should.  His everyday prose is neither flamboyant nor esoteric.  He uses the right words, not the biggest or the most words. 

You wonder if this story told itself to the writer during a period of inspiration, as he wrote it, revealing his subconscious view of the human condition, or if he technically blocked out the story, beginning to end, before he started.  I like to think the former.  This is literature.  Art divinely inspired and merely translated by the author, like a great song or sculpture.  In these times of isolation and ideological diversion this story attempts to bring us together in a spirit of compromise of consensus that minimizes the things that divide us and magnifies the things we have in common. 

When I finished “Plainsong” I wanted more.  The story was not tied into a neat bow or a happy Hollywood ending.  To my surprise this book was the first of the ‘Holt Trilogy’ followed by “Eventide” and “Benediction”.  These stories involve the trials and tribulations of the community of Holt with some repeating characters and story overlap.  They stand on their own, however, as singular stories with resonant themes of frailty, family, resilience, redemption, humanity and community.  They are worth the read but they fall off in content and feeling and are ultimately not as good as “Plainsong”. 

Haruf’s other early books such as “The Ties That Bind” and “Where you Once Belonged” show the progression in story telling that got him to “Plainsong”.    His narrative to the High Plains photos by Peter Brown, in their award winning book “West of Last Chance”, is worth picking up to feed your fascination with images and stories of this  brutal and beautiful part of the country. 

Keep Kent Haruf in your pocket like a good old friend you call to cheer you up and renew your faith in mankind.  He will never let you down.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Storms Happen

Extreme Storms happen.  Every day.  Somewhere.  Maybe not on your backyard or dam, but around the country and the world there is always an unbelievable storm raging.  Sometimes we see them in the news or on TV and sometimes these extreme storms get names like Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Boulder or Snow-mageddon.  Sometimes no one hears about them at all.  But they happen, all the time, and they could happen to you.  Live long enough and they will.

Why should I care about extreme weather?

Hydro-meteorological experts put all the historical extreme storms, at all their locations, into a big data base to determine how often they happen, how big they can get and what is the threat at individual locations.  We all know about the weather in our own back yard but these storm experts consider hundreds of years of data at thousands of locations and have a much broader understanding of the size, scope and statistics of extreme events.  They know that extreme storms happen.

We have all heard of the ‘100 year storm’ as the typical flood design standard in the USA.  Things that are replaceable, such as a culvert, minor flood plain encroachment, or a low hazard dam, are designed for the 100 year level of risk.  Things that are not replaceable, such as a high hazard dam, bridge  or a nuclear power plant, where human life is at risk, are designed for a much bigger storm because of the high consequences of a failure.  With that kind of high risk and consequence there is no excuse for an acceptable or foreseeable failure and the design standard is the ‘non exceedance event’, no matter how rare that event is.  Design standards should never compromise human life and safety.

This kind of non exceedance event has been determined by the National Weather Service (NWS) to be the Probable Maximum Precipitation (PMP) in the USA.  These PMP events are defined by the NWS as, “theoretically, the greatest depth of precipitation for a given duration that is physically possible over a given size storm area at a particular geographic location during a certain time of year”.  By combining these storm events with the most severe hydrologic conditions that are reasonably possible in a given drainage basin determine the Probable Maximum Flood (PMF) that is the national industry standard for high hazard dam design.

The fact that these extreme storms happen, are predictable and quantifiable, make them the design standards for critical infrastructure and where human lives are at risk in the USA.  They are not random, unpredictable acts of God that surprise designers and owners with their ferocity.  We know they can happen and do happen, even though we personally may not have experienced them.  They are one of the most critical and elusive design components of a dam because they are the weather.  They must be considered like we consider all the dam loading factors and forces such as earthquakes, wind, and gravity, and material properties such as soil steel and concrete.

Dam designers and owners are therefore responsible and liable for all of these accepted loading conditions and their consequence, both legally and ethically. The standard of legal care, in a court of law for these instances, is ‘the actions of a reasonable man’ and a reasonable man.  A reasonable dam man should know the proper loading conditions, and must design against exceedance and failure under these foreseeable loads. 

In conclusion, the impoundment of water is a hazardous undertaking and those who benefit from its storage must also be responsible for its containment.  We never fail to underestimate the power, persistence and the patience of stored water and we must diligently guard against its catastrophic release.  To do anything less, knowing the potential loading conditions of extreme storms, would be ethically irresponsible at best and gross negligence at worst.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ski Bum

‘Hey John’, I shouted to the first guy in the gondola line, on the last day of the year, at Canyons Ski Resort, ‘how many days did you ski this year’.  ‘All of them’, he said.  Now that is a ski bum.  A skiing curmudgeon with squinty blue eyes, perma-tan and a wild haircut with a grey beard extending down to his chest, 68 year old John Haney is 155 pounds of pure modern mountain man.  With almost 40 years of skiing on the Wasatch back, he is the definition of a local and the quintessential ski bum. 

Haney, as he is called by his friends, is the face of old Park City and someone we all came here to be.  He has not been distracted by love, work or money.  He has remained true to himself and to the focus of this town - recreation.  Skiing an average 140 days and riding his road bikes 225 days each year, he remains singularly fixated on the basics of mountain life and to this town. 

Born in Nebraska in 1945, John served in the Army and moved west after college in the early 70s.  He lived in the classic early Park City institutions like the Palace Flophouse, Last Resort and Alpine Prospector and started work at Mileti’s restaurant as a dishwasher.   There were stints as a surveyor at Jack Johnsons and Alliance Engineering and part time work at the Racket Club but he never let the job get in the way of his passion.  He kept his recreational priorities, never missing a powder day, a sunny day, a cloudy day or even a rainy day.

Operating out of his small house in Swede alley, insulated with bike parts and old skis, John has perfected his trade.  Up before dawn and on the first bus out of old town, he arrives at Canyons sometimes an hour before the lifts start.  Although he does ski PCMR and Deer Valley and the Cottonwoods occasionally, Canyons is his home.  Dressed in an old Deer Valley ski coat and pants, allegedly waterproofed with bacon grease, he positions himself at the front of the Gondola line.   Every day.  

On a typical day John will ski the corduroy at the resort in the morning and slip out the back door gate in the afternoon to farm some slack-country slope for 10 - 15 laps, cutting an up-track too steep for any mere mortal to follow.  No ‘Texas Traversing’ for this buckaroo.  On a powder day he will start on the old Park West mountain, getting first tracks down Stampede and Geronimo Bowl (he doesn’t use the new names).  He then works his way over to the new mountain for the opening of 9990 and Dutch Draw, outlasting skiers ¼ his age before heading home on the last bus.  Skiing on a pair of 20 year old K2’s, Haney links turns effortlessly, spooning economically in the backcountry and keeping to the sides in the resorts.  He can often be seen skiing under the chair-lift on a weekday powder day, shouting to his yuppie friends on the chair, ‘ get a job you trust funders.’  

Thrifting and dumpster diving for his clothes, bikes, skis and equipment John lives a simple minimalist lifestyle.  He once told me he lives on 300 dollars a month and I believe it.  His house on Poison Creek is paid off and I imagine there is a mattress full of 100 dollar bills in his back bedroom.  Sometimes accommodating a roommate, he eschews the company of the fairer gender saying simply, ‘women cost money’ although he has softened recently saying he would ‘have any woman in Park City, if any would have him’.   John has also learned to enjoy the some of the other finer things in life.  Coming late to an Alliance Christmas party we found him alone at the head of the table of the Seafood Buffet with a pile of shrimp the size of the great pyramids and a big smile on his face.  When, later that night, he was told that, ‘it takes money to make money’ John shot back ‘and it takes money to lose money’.  Maybe. 

Haney proudly eats raw sweet potatoes on the chair lift for lunch, because ‘they are gouging us lately  on the price of carrots’.  When I asked for a sample bite one day he told me, with a mischievous grin, to ‘get my own’.  Frugal but generous, he once lent a needy neighbor boy a hand-built aluminum Trek road bike with Campagnola  components for a fun ride across Iowa.  While the local bike shops were asking 500 – 1000 dollars for the monthly rental, John asked for only 25 dollars and a tee shirt. 

John rides his bike everywhere; for economy, efficiency, exercise and for the sheer fun of it.  Legend has it that he rode his bike down to Salt Lake one day, completed the Snowbird Hill Climb race in less than an hour, and hitched a ride home.  He routinely participates and wins the World Senior Games – Bike Stage Races and Track Events in Cedar City.  Several years ago, when he turned 60, he entered the National Road Bike Championship race being held in Deer Valley.  He won his age group easily lapping many riders in the field.  He rode a mountain bike and a snowboard once or twice but likes to stick to what he knows best, the soft and the smooth.

Haney occasionally wages his personal crusade against rampaging snowboarders, unleashed dogs on Main Street and Slurry Seal road repairs, all of which have sent him flying at one time or another.  Otherwise he is OK with the ‘inevitable’ changes he has seen in Park City but laments the traffic and the ‘eventual grid lock from Old Town to the freeway’.  He thinks the free bus system is the best thing about modern Park City as well as the library and the new hospital at Quinn’s junction.  He recently had his hip replaced and knee rebuilt by an old ski bum’s best friend, Medicare.  He wonders if the eventual ‘Aspenization’ of Park City will leave us with a touristy ghost town of rich people, Olympians and servants.  In spite of everything, he plans on staying in Park City in perpetuity.    ‘Where else would I go’, he wonders.

Sometimes community leaders do not sit on city councils or in the corner office.   As a quite Park City icon, John Haney is an example of the bygone days when skiers would just move here to wash dishes and load chair lifts, all for the privilege of living and playing in our sleepy little town.  He serves as a constant reminder to some of us of why we came here, who we tried to be and what makes this town great.  Simple, focused, honest and happy.

 Photos by Mark Maziarz.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Powder Paradigm

    The gondola door slammed shut and the 6 old friends inside settled down for the quick ride up the mountain.  Doctors, Dishwashers, Engineers, Entrepreneurs, Real Estate Magnets and housewives, fathers, mothers, outstanding members of the community, they are defined, above all, as skiers.  The weather outside was a raging blizzard, in the middle of a Rocky Mountain three day storm, with new snow stacking up to the roofs of the small resort condos below them.  Although this group of skiers had taken this ride dozens of times before, they were incredibly excited by the upcoming challenge and potential adventures of the new snow. They had skied with each other many times but were hesitant to speak at first, until someone finally took the lead.

Luke – What’s it going to be today folks?   Biggest powder day in 5 years.

Chip – I gotta go for the gusto early, I’ve only got 3 hours to get my ya ya’s out and head home.

Rick – Efficiency is key, I’ve got till noon and then it’s back to work.  It would be great if we can, for once, stick together for more than 5 minutes, for safety, for group continuity and for shared vicarious experiences.

Peter – I don’t care, I’ve got all day and no agenda.

Martha – I’ve got an agenda but it’s hidden. 

Olivia – What are you guys talking about?

Chip – Well, we can improvise this day, wing it haphazardly or individually like we always do, or we can organize it, optimize it, maximize it and super size it with good team work, communication and planning.  I’m willing to facilitate the process if you guys are game for a paradigm shift. But I still get to vote.

Luke – I’m oldest here so I’ll be team leader but I will probably contribute only as much as the rest of you.  Powder skiing is like a commodity or a widget, a limited resource to economize and distribute competitively to the most deserving.  This is a business model, and engineering application of efficiency.  Let’s take the first derivative of this day’s fun equation and solve for zero to maximize it.

Rick – The first derivative has all the optimization in it but the second derivative is where the fun is, like acceleration – the rate of change in the change, the slope of the slope.  It’s only a 10-minute ride, we can do this.  Can we be called Team Powder Hound?

Peter – Fine with me, we can be called Team Butt-Face for all I care

Martha – I’ll record and remember the salient points of our discussion.

Olivia - I’ll be the heart and soul of the process, a Leo leading by example driving from the back seat.  Did anybody see my ski poles?

Luke – Good, we need to establish our agenda for the ride and state our goals.  I think that we need to optimize routes and timing for the deepest snow for everyone involved. We need to identify the root cause of our typical problems and come up with solutions from all our options.  We need to find the critical path for everyone involved.  We should assess the technique and results of this meeting when we are done and meet again at the end of the day to calibrate and adjust our strategy for our next powder attack.  Anything else?

Chip – How bout lunch.

Martha – Lunch is for wimps.

Peter – Eat it on the chairlift.

Rick – I could use a bathroom break soon.

Peter - Pee off the chairlift.
Olivia – My goggles are fogging.

Luke – Settle down people we are wasting time.  For 10 minutes can we be serious and not goof on each other, speak one at a time and respect everyone’s viewpoint.

Martha – Sure, and no group domination or manipulation.  All our time and ideas are equally important.  If I recall correctly, last time we tried this it was all about Chip’s needs and we wound up checking back at the lodge every 30 minutes to find his girl Pollyanna Powderday.  Remembered we agreed last time that meeting other people limits our flexibility.  Also remember that we all agreed to carry beacons and shovels and keep them with us all day so we are safe no matter where we go and we not tied to return to someone’s pack drop area.

Olivia – And if you can remember what I had for lunch the last time, I will be really impressed.

Martha – That’s why I’m the human recorder, my photographic memory.

Pete – That never develops. 

Rick - Are we bonding yet?   It’s storming inside and outside of this gondola car and we are not getting anywhere.  Let’s do this together, or not at all.

Chip – OK, we have defined our quest, established rules, and set our course, now everyone tell us what you know about the current conditions outside, in 1 minute or less.

Luke – 27 inches of new in the last 24 hours, 45 in the last 48 and 63 in the last 72.  It came in on a south wind that shifted to the northwest after 24 hours.  The density gradient is from 10 to 3 percent, inverted with a Crème Brule crust in the middle.  Could be death cookies.

Peter  - Temps at 10,000 feet have been below freezing for 5 days, no sun, I say we stay high all day.

Chip – No sun this week but things baked big time before this storm so we should stay off the hard crusty south faces.  Go north young man – I say.

Rick – Speaking of Baked, what do you know Olivia?

Olivia – I know that puppy dogs have cold noses….

Luke – Give me a freaking break

Olivia – OK OK, I’ve been up skiing the last 3 days and the sheltered trees have been primo deluxe.  Its almost too deep, we need the wicked steep.

Peter – That sounds safe, anyone hear any avalanche control bombs this morning.

Martha –They have been blasting early only over on Condor side.   The Trophy Wives in the Trophy Homes over in the Colony do not like to be blasted out of bed too early so they only bomb that side after the Cappuccino hour.

Luke – How bout the backcountry gates.

Rick – Closed indefinitely due to the high avalanche hazard, and trail breaking would be a bear otherwise. 

Luke – We need data, Peter stick your head out the window to see which way is the wind blowing.  Martha call the avalanche forecast report on your cell phone, Rick monitor the ski patrol bomb squad on your walkie-talkie.  Someone find Olivia’s poles.

Peter - Don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows and even a blind man knows when the sun is shining.  It’s blowing from the NW  20-30 gusts, to 50.  10 degrees ambient, 30 below wind chill.  It’s a white out.  Wish I brought my fat skis.

Olivia – I wish I brought my hat.  Weather, ultimately it is what it is, always, perfectly.  We take what we get.

Martha – The Avalanche hazard is off the charts.  Anything between 35 and 45 degrees is sure to slide; anything else would not be worth skiing – too slow or too steep. 

Rick – The Ski Patrol can’t even get to their blasting routes yet it is so deep.  Is there such a thing as too deep or is that concept in the same category as spare change, or extra beer?

Luke – This is all good technology and information and it should be good skiing eventually, but the problem remains that we have so many options and we are all going in 6 different directions.  This is inefficient and we waste too much time in transition, we need to coordinate and attack this as one.  If we can close this gap, we can ski twice as much terrain in half the time and all be home for Gilligan’s Island re-runs.  I know there are ‘no friends on a powder day’ but we can reinvent the paradigm and ‘all be friends on a powder day’.

Chip – That means a little sacrifice, compromise and pain on everyone’s part and it will require us to reach consensus.  This is not a democracy, this is Utah. 
Olivia – You mean that my opinion as a lowly dishwasher is as important as your plastic suited, cell phone toting, real estate mindset.

Rick – Ouch, that really hurts.  Remember the rules, no personal attacks.  Out here we are all equal, especially you.

Chip – Ok, now we are ready to brainstorm the root cause of our problem our ideas.

Luke – Personally I think we have too many options.

Rick – I think we all have types of equipment and different abilities.

Chip – The problem is we have different needs, for boards, skis or tele’s.

Martha – I feel that there are too many natural things out of our control.

Olivia – Obviously, there is too much snow.  We should not ski the same run twice, as if it was metaphysically possible to ski the same run twice.  You change, the run changes, the snow changes, nothing is ever the same…

Peter – Deep Space girl, let’s focus people.  In my opinion it is impossible to second-guess the ski patrol and the bomb squad.

Luke – Speaking of space, we have too many places and spaces to go.  The more you do the more you miss.

Chip – I really do have to meet up with Pollyanna some time, or I’m a dead man.

Martha – And a pee break at a lodge is critical.  Forget the trees boys.

Peter – We always do the same thing, let’s be different today, somehow.  Change is always good.  A change is as good as a rest or vice versa…   Our minds think only of linear change and can only extrapolate linearly.  Let’s think exponentially, nature is all an exponential spiral, like the shape of a hurricane, the flow of a flushing toilet, or the shape of a sea shell, the curvature of a cornice, a natural log.  Let’s think outside the box, outside the gondola….

Olivia – And don’t forget lunch.  Life is too short for fast food and slow skis.    Let’s combine all the lodge issues into one category since it is one stop.  And let’s combine the natural unknowns into one category and the variety of equipment, ability and schedules into one also since they are close. 

Chip – Let’s clarify these ideas now and analyze them with the data that we have.

Luke – I think this mountain is so huge we couldn’t possibly pick an optimal route for all. 

Rick – I think we are all on different equipment, skis, boards, tele gear, that we can’t keep everyone happy and healthy.

Chip – With all our schedules and time constraints, how do we coordinate?  I still have to meet Pollyanna.

Martha – Pollyanna is a symptom of a personal agenda not a problem in itself.  My problem is that with the bad wind and visibility we won’t know where we are or where we are going.

Olivia – With so much snow we can’t get to half the places we want.

Peter – And the ski patrol does their own thing that we can’t predict.  Snow cover is almost random and multiple natural hazards could be anywhere.  Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.  How can we choose?

Chip – Any other clarifications necessary?  If not let’s vote.  Criterion should be what works for you.  Agreed?

Luke  - Also consider the biggest problem for your needs.

Rick – 5 minutes left. We are on schedule Captain.

Olivia – Thank you Mr. Spock.  It doesn’t really matter, time is relative.

Rick – You can’t mix ‘matter’ and ‘doesn’t matter’ on this team.  We all have to care and try, or it doesn’t work.

Luke – OK the votes are in. The top 3 are;

A    Natural/Human Conditions  6

D    Route Preference  7

F     Personal Schedules  4

Chip - Now everyone rank each problem in order of importance to him or her, on the back window.

Martha – What about my pee break, I really have to go.

Luke – OK put that one up there too, even though you were the only one to vote for it.  Her is how it shakes out people.
Chip – It looks like the highest-ranking problem is Route Selection, and of course a pee break is still an irrefutable side solution if we want to stay together.

Peter – Great, can we move on and find a solution.  How do we look for time?

Rick – 4 minutes.   Let’s hurry, fast fast fast…

Olivia – The secret to life is enjoying the passage of time.

Luke – Let’s brainstorms some solutions for optimum route selection, informally, just shout out your ideas.  I say we go high to The Peak and ski the steeps until they open the backcountry gates.  Remember for everything you do there are some things you don’t do.

Chip - I think things will be closed for a while and we should stay at the Tombstone lift so we can access the first thing opened.

Peter – I say we go to the Condor lift and go fast on the rolled stuff

Rick – Let’s go over to the Colony side and cruise real-estate runs to be safe.

Martha – I vote we go to the lodge to pee, have lunch, wait for Pollyanna and watch what opens first.

Olivia – I say we split up and do our own thing or go home and forget this group continuity thing.

Chip – Olivia, we need consensus and some group buy in by you, what is your real problem and what can we do to get you on board.

Olivia – All right, I don’t know why Luke is the leader he is just big old and loud.  I ski everyday, twice as much as any of you and I should be running the show.  And besides I’m hungry, tired and cranky and need to pee too!

Luke – Olivia, you were supposed to leave your ego at the door, but if you want to be the leader you can.  Does that mean I get to be the backseat burnout space cadet?

Chip – OK back to solution ideas, are there any more constructive ideas.

Peter – Let’s check with the ski patrol in person for the inside scoop.

Martha – If you analyze some of these ideas there is a pattern forming, with a stop by the lodge as a part of each plan.  Then it is a question of going north or south to different parts of the mountain and then a question of how far and how soon.

Rick – A real solution would have portions of everyone’s solution but done in a priority that makes everyone happy.

Olivia – OK it looks like these are the priority rankings as I hear them.  We stop by the lodge first to pee, eat, and check with the ski patrol.  Then we head to Condor to warm up on some safe, rolled cruisers.  Then we head back past to lodge to pick up Pollyanna and head to Tombstone to wait for rope openings.  Once they open up the Colony we can cruise that before going to The Peak to ski the steeps and by then we can check the backcountry gates.  Those who want to stay can go for a tour; others can go home if they need to.   How’s that sound for all??

Peter – Great but can we just stop at the lodge only once, at midday for everything?

Martha – No way, we need sustenance and info NOW and I can’t wait till mid morning!  Stick with the solution, feel the force and trust the tools.

Rick – One minute left till the top.

Chip – OK, it has been decided, does everyone feel good about this plan?  Congratulations on the good consensus.  How did you guys like the format, the meeting and the results?

Olivia – I think it went great once we got a good leader and stopped bickering.

Luke – I think it went well but you guys should eat and pee before we start the day so we can focus and are not distracted or over concerned with your pressing personal needs and minutia.

Peter – I think it is a little over formal for a bunch of ski bums but I admit it is effective.

Martha – Let’s celebrate our success, I’ve got one beer we can share, no backwash please.

Rick – The gondola has stopped  - one-half minute left and holding.  Can meeting time stand still.  Are there any other problems to solve while we have to opportunity?

Chip – How bout world peace and global warming – we are getting good at this.

Luke – Don’t get cocky kid.  Here we go, we are moving again.

Rick – We are at the top, meeting adjourned.  Let’s assess, calibrate, verify and evaluate our solution at the mid morning break. I want Pollyanna included in this decision process and we should use a similar agenda and process to include her needs and desires.

Olivia - But first the group hug, on 3   1-2-3 mmmmmmmmm.

Martha – I love you guys.

            They pile from the gondola stumbling out into a ghost storm, white on white, with the realization that they optimized without manipulation, coordinated without compromise and reached group consensus and continuity without the loss if individuality or freedom.  Their personal bond and mutual goals allowed them to transcend the situation and themselves.  Together the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  As soul mates, they skied together that day, with vicarious and personal enjoyment of each other’s ability and performance.  Their highly functional, multi disciplined team and deep personal commitment to each other overcame insurmountable obstacles and a pressure cooker time constraint, guaranteeing them that they would solve their problems and achieve their goals.  They all made it home for Gilligan’s Island re-runs.

Monday, June 24, 2013


While riding my bike alone in Deer Valley on Flagstaff Mountain the other night, I bounced out of the woods too quickly and nearly flew off the trail into a rough meadow.  I spun along in low gear, looking to get back on the trail when I noticed a set of equipment for the new chair lift.  I rode towards the shadows, directly into the glaring solstice sun, with a western breeze in my face.  It was tough going in the grass so I rode with my head down, concentrating on my front wheel.  I did look up occasionally as I approached the equipment and I noticed, hundreds of chairs, a lift house, some towers and a huge BULL MOOSE not 20 yards away. 

I circled back quickly, muttering friendly words of encouragement, to a safe distance of about 50 yards, just behind a stack of lift chairs.  We eyed each other cautiously for a while and he bugled and burped until a cow moose strolled out of the Aspens.  I thought that I may be in trouble for interrupting a lovers tryst  until yearling calf walked out of the woods.  The cow put her head down to show her displeasure with me and I thought I was a dead man.  Just then another twin calf  (they all look the same) walked out of the woods and I began seriously looking for an escape.  I could ride away quickly but I knew I would never get into my toe clips or I would crash and burn.  I could run into the woods and try to keep a tree between me and the moose but there were 4 of them and they could easily outflank me.  My best option, I figured, would be to jump into the middle of all the chairs and hope they weren’t very nimble. 

I watched them, three tons of unpredictable ungulate, with my heart in my throat.  I was fascinated with the huge rack, the long legs, the shear bulk and the little goatees.  They had a menacing wildness as well as gentleness and grace.  The mother nibbled and licked the ears of one of the calves, while the father grazed unconcerned, all the while gurgling imperceptibly to each other.  The couple seemed focused on one primeval purpose yet seemed to know that the time and the place were not quite right.  I stood there for 20 minutes (OK it was more like 5 minutes but I was very excited), respectfully watching them, with their apparent permission, and feeling like a privileged witness to a final family gathering. 

They eventually started showing concern with the sound of approaching heavy machinery, impending development and the eventual loss of their peaceful home.  They startled and started, twitching nervous ears, until the cow abruptly dashed across the meadow into the opposite woods.  The calves galloped awkwardly after her and the bull followed begrudgingly, looking at me as if I would understand.  They crashed into the forest, breaking trees and causing a tremendous ruckus as they located each other again.  They had blocked my escape route so I sat tight, shaking from the experience and waiting patiently for them to make the first move.  Eventually, they came back out of the woods, walked across the meadow, up the adjacent hill and out of sight.  They allowed me to escape and finish my ride, with my head up and eyes peeled at every dark shadow in the conifer forest, wondering if I would see them again - ever.

The habitat these animals enjoy is to become the Flagstaff development with millions of units and endless ski lifts and runs.   The Flagstaff development is a done deal, it is all over except for the crying.  There will be other developments, and it doesn’t matter if they are in Deer Valley, the Kaiparowits plateau, or on the moon, they affect all of us intrinsically.  Wally Stenger said we need just to know that wild places exist.  While this philosophy may be appropriate for humans, it doesn’t work for wildlife.  This moose family’s precious wild habitat is shrinking as quickly as our own.   They will soon be gone - to find replacement habitat, as the EIS optimistically predicts, or more likely to crash through the windshield of some rental Range Rover.  Gone with them will be a piece of our quality of life, our wilderness and our wildness.  Where will we go when all of our wilderness is gone?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

That Holy Crap Moment

BOOM, It hits you, 'the call' out of nowhere, like a punch in the stomach.  Like looking in your mirror and seeing a police car.  The lesson is learned as soon as the lights go on. 

The stormy midnight call from dam owner Dick Dingleberry saying “We have a problem”.  “Weeeee”, you think as he explains that his POS dam is leaking 100 GPM of muddy water from an area somewhere in middle of his dam exactly over the outlet.  It’s that Holy Crap Moment when life, as you know it, changes forever.  Time will be measured, from here on out as before before or after this moment.  Up to this point, you have done all the dam engineering and owner mentoring you could.  You have handled the politics, the public posturing and the personalities involved with this structure.  You have handled all of the FEMA defined and dictated emergency preparedness and mitigation but now it is time for reaction, response and hopefully recovery.

            As in any emergency, the first thing you do is treat yourself for shock. If you are a bumbling basket case at this point, then the cause is already lost.  Clear your mind, relax your nerves, feel your senses.  Take a chill pill, a deep breath and an accurate evaluation of your abilities.  Get help if you need it, right away.  This is no time to be winging it or to go it alone.  Look at this as an opportunity, the kind that makes or breaks careers.  Don’t blow it.  Above all – Do no harm.

            As in any human endeavor, the first step is critical since it sets the pace and direction for every subsequent step.  Think of Michael Jordan, Lawrence Taylor, Wayne Gretzky   Not only did they have a quick first step, but they intuitively knew in which direction to take it.  Trust your instincts because they are a subconscious amalgamation of everything you know.  Trust your gut.

            I received a call like this one day, at noon on a clear Tuesday.  I was pissed.  I was supposed to play hoops at lunch time and this was a terrible inconvenience.  ‘Maybe i'll check it out after lunch’, I thought.  Wrong.  Get the file and plans, get the phone and the flashlight and get in the truck and go. 

            Sure enough this 100 year old nightmare dam, located just above Salt Lake City in a fault line graben, was full and leaking badly.  The new HDPE outlet liner and annulus grouting were almost a year old and this was the first filling after repairs.  This dam, that never had seepage issues, now had them in a big way.  How often has this happened?  The amount of damage done to this world in the name of improvements and good intentions is baffling.  If it ain't broke don't fix it.

            Seepage was pervasive on the downstream face but worse over the outlet.  Small slumps and sluffs were starting to form.  The first thought to my racing mind was evacuation, of the reservoir and perhaps the downstream inhabitants.  The problem was with the outlet or the intake well but opening the outlet would drop the head on the upstream gate and start to draw the reservoir down.  The owner wanted to fill the outlet tower with bentonite pellets that we didn't have and couldn't find, a move that would have sealed the outlet and sealed our fate by preventing evacuation of the reservoir. Gut check time, Screw the owner, I’ve got a better idea and I’m going for it.  We opened the outlet fully to start to drain the lake, reduce the hazard and head.  We sent someone downstream to warn of the impending high releases and possibly some very high flows. 

            Experts and officials began to materialize out of nowhere, all with their own credentials and opinions. At the worst possible moment, Deenie Wimmer, a 20 something knockout anchor woman from the local TV station dressed in a spotless white pants suit, came traipsing across the dam crest with a cameraman in tow, thrusting a microphone towards me.  “What’s wrong with the dam, is it going to fail, do we need to evacuate, are people going to die, …” she fired questions at me in rapid succession, never pausing to hear an answer.  My mind was swimming as I looked at her white Geno GamaGucci shoes covered in mud and told her ‘I didn't have a clue’.  As things went from bad to worse, my Division head and Department director miraculously showed up, and with merely a nod to me, ushered the extraneous officials to one abutment and the press to the other, addressing their concerns and leaving a small group of real dam engineers and owners to figure out the problem.

            We considered all of the cause and effects of blankets and bentonite  filters and fabrics, diaphragms and drains, pumps and Piezometers, evaluation times and inundation maps.  While we fiddled with the facts, I spotted the contractor from last years retrofit, off to the side, smoking nervously.  ‘Gary’, I asked after brief pleasantries  ‘how much grout did you pump into the annular space between the new HDPE outlet and the totally deteriorated CMP’.  True to form, he said ‘the design amount dictated in the plans and indicated on the pay request’, as he looked away.  ‘Gary, how much grout did you really pump,’ I repeated impatiently.  He said ‘about enough to grout half of the pipe’ and he shuffled his feat.  ‘Gary, tell me the truth’ I said almost yelling but placing my hand on his shoulder, ‘this is critical.’  He looked me in the eyes and spoke softly and quickly – ‘the grouting went badly, and if there was 10 feet inserted at the bottom end of the pipe, that would be a lot’.  This was the ‘Ahh Haaa’ breakthrough moment we had been hoping for.

            We quickly mobilized a concrete driller and drilled into the annular space above the outlet.  When we drilled in about 9 feet, water exploded around the drill stem and shot all over everyone.  When we pulled the drill out, the 4 inch water stream shot out horizontally at least 10 feet before succumbing to the gravity of the plunge pool. Within one half hour the seepage began to abate and eventually stop.  The old rotten CMP outlet had functioned as an embankment drain for years and when we fixed the outlet, we had sealed the drain.  This dam was never filled again and eventually decommissioned. 

            We were done by sundown, tragedy narrowly averted.  We went for a beer and discussed what had gone right and what had gone wrong.  We had used our experience and good engineering, we trusted our gut, we kept our cool, we isolated the press and officials but kept them informed, and we counted on the people and personalities we trusted and new best.  We got lucky too.  This could have been at night, in a storm, with no one to help and no one to care.  This could have been bad.   

            In years to come we would breach a downstream dam to prevent the imminent breach of an upstream dam from being compounded and killing someone.  A homeless man, attempting to cross the flooded river fell from an overhanging cable to his death.  On New Years Eve in 1989 when we sent the sheriff, with sirens, around to evacuate downstream residents below the impending Quail Creek breach flood, they were saluted and told ‘Happy New Year to you too”.  So we chalk it all up to experience.  What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  We hope to share our experiences here today, not to kill anyone, but to make us all a little stronger.

Monday, June 17, 2013

rode with the boys last night
first time all summer
we were all out of town or out of mind
or helping wives be mothers

rode up to the seasons first snow
and down thru canopies of color
speckled ground cover carpet
smooth and soft from autumn storms

conifer Christmas trees
with aspen leaf lights and bulbs
a moose in the trail, a grouse on the road
a miniature town below

3 dollar beers and burgers
and peanuts on the floor
the glow of friends forgotten
to ride again once more
hanging with the rich and famous
the new york elite
country club golf
playing with 2 left feet

Raphael my Rasta Jamaican caddy
says play your own game, man
be yourself
the only person you can

walking the fairways
with just one club
3 hour round
a tempo I love

of all those there I met and fear
Raphael  was the most sincere
I walk on past the clubhouse bar
and I buy that man a Red Stripe beer

Male Bonding in the Monashees - a Heli-Ski Journal


            We met at the terminal gate, old friends, new friends, friends of friends.  Anticipation  was the immediate bond.  Months of preparation, physical, financial, and emotional had brought us to this point.  A week with the boys, heli skiing in the Canadian Monashees - the pinnacle of our skiing careers.  No women, no work, no kids, no nothing - just skiing.  One more indulgence of the sport, the lifestyle, to which we had all dedicated a disproportionate amount of time, energy and money.  Pilots, developers, brokers, salesmen, engineers, husbands, fathers, boyfriends, bikers, sailors, athletes, intellectuals, extroverts, - all different but all with one common denominator - skier. Identified, above anything else, as a skier.

            We boarded the plane together and had a hot, anxious flight to Calgary. We checked into the Airport Hotel, registered with the Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) agent, checked the weather report and took a cab into town for a little action. We spent the night at a Canadian shaker bar called the French Maiden howling at triple inverted moons and other assorted gynecological delights. We swilled Molsens and stuffed dollars until the wee hours.  "It doesn't get any better than this" we howled to a cold Canadian moon while we waited for a cab, shamelessly imitating trite macho - yuppie commercials.


            After an endless bus ride through the front range of the Canadian rockies, past clearcuts and soggy logging towns, in a depressing drizzle, we arrived at Mica Creek.  From the looks of the place I thought we were getting gas, but when the bus driver started piling our bags at the curb I knew that this must be the place.  Mica Creek is a little company village built by B.C. Hydro Ltd., between two major dams on the upper Columbia River.  After the dams were operational, the demand for housing in the valley diminished, so in 1971 CMH bought out the "Lodge", a "Hotel", a few houses and a share of the recreational amenities.  Mica Creek, located on Revelstoke Lake in the heart of the Monashee mountains (Mountains of Peace), was our operations base for the next 6 days. The Monashees offer the most difficult and challenging skiing of any of the nine CMH lodges and is open only to the most experienced Heli Skiers.  Seventy percent of the skiing is done in the steep and deep trees.  The remainder of the terrain is on high elevation, open glaciers and mountain meadows that provide long Alpine runs and magnificent scenery during good weather.

            Upon further inspection Mica Creek was much nicer than it first appeared.  The lodge and facilities were quite modern and luxurious.  There was a dining room, lounge, bar, ski shop, pool, gym, massage room, game room, and full sized Curling courts.  The hotel rooms were for singles and couples so our group was assigned to our own, chartreuse house in the B.C. Hydro workers village.  Although Mica Creek offers the most spartan conditions of all the CMH lodges, we were happy with our little fraternity, animal house and were there, after all, for the skiing.

            After settling into our hovel we explored the facilities and found a rousing game of floor hockey in progress among some of the off duty B.C. Hydro workers.  We challenged them for a few games and started out as good sports and complete gentlemen.  We had a full week of skiing ahead of us and did not want to risk exhaustion or injury not to mention the loss of dollar investment.  After a while, the local hard working, blue collar Canucks began taking it to the trustfunder yuppie heli dogs from the USA.  Stick checks and slashes increased in intensity.  Body checks resounded on the open floor and against the walls.  I mashed one of the locals in the corner, stole the puck and headed up the right wing only to be checked from the blind side, out of the side door and into the parking lot.  "Ay hoser - keep your head up", they told me when I returned.  This was heaven, crossing cultural barriers and assimilating with the local customs and dialect.

            A hearty, if not gourmet dinner was served, and an orientation pep talk was given.  We mingled with the rest of the group for a short while and found them to be begrudgingly friendly.  Most of the others were definitely successful Type A entrepreneurs with more dollars than sense, who had been skiing with CMH for years.  There was a certain amount of strutting and posturing in subdued tones with more than a little arrogance and condescension.  It was clear that we were the underclassmen for the week with something to prove.  What it was we weren't sure so we retired to our house for an evening of burping and farting.  Chubby, Cruiser, Dipstien, Robster, Fatty, Deano, Alanator and Totally Pauly, - the names were changed to protect the mature.


            The next morning we woke early, sleep walked through our first stretching class and had a big breakfast.  We were all very anxious and I almost gagged on my morning whiskey shot.  We had more orientation about avalanches, the buddy system, the guest pack, man eating tree wells and the obligatory Skadis (avalanche transceivers) drill.  We picked up our shorter (< 200 cm) heli skies provided by CMH and headed out to the helipad.  Our group of eight was supplemented with two other guests.  One fellow named Alistar was a quiet, nondescript French Canadian, skiing on fat skis while the other, Cliff, was an ultra hyper Cal-dog who had already jogged and lifted weights that morning.  When we gave him the nick name of Cliffinator and he told me to "suck his butt" so I knew he would fit in just fine.  We never did come up with a nick name for Alistar. 

            Our guide was a petite young woman named Diny (no nick name required) who carried a pack larger than Rhode Island and skied circles around us all week.  She took our skies, positioned us in a cluster and told us to get down.  Then we heard the roar of the Bell 212 Jet helicopter as it crested a nearby ridge.  A tempest of loose snow enveloped us as we hunched down turning our faces away from the maelstrom.  We climbed in and took off in this incredible machine that could reach speeds of 100 kilometers per hour and climb 1000 meters in less than 5 minutes - fully loaded.  As Mica Creek quickly shrunk to toy village proportions, the surrounding topography began to reveal itself.  The Columbia River entrenched in the main canyon was harnessed in innocuous lakes behind mammoth dams, one more than 200 meters tall.  The terrain was steep and heavily forested for the first 1500 meters and capped by an additional 1500 meters of vast snowfield and glaciers.  Words like awesome, privileged and indulgent went through my mind as we cruised gracefully over craggy terrain.

            As soon as we touched down on a small treeless clearing in a heavy conifer forest we clambered out into waist deep snow.  The depressing rain of yesterday had manifested itself as semi - dense powder at this elevation (2000 meters).  We doubled-up and followed our guide to the top of a long, dense, steep tree shot called "Come Again"  that fell off steeper than a cows' face and appeared endless.  Diny clicked her poles together and skied off with terse instructions.  "Left and right" is all she said as she disappeared, but we knew exactly what she meant.  Nervous jostling, adrenalin, anticipation, performance anxiety, peer pressure, self doubt and fear filled everyones minds and hearts.  Then, imperceptibly at first, but all at once, leading and following, but all together, we took off.  Turning adrenalin into energy, fear into strength and doubt into confidence we collectively descended on the forest. The roller coaster terrain caused us to launch and explode in a powdery landings, gaining momentum and confidence with each turn.  Naturally picking perfect lines through the trees, skiing the opportunity and not the obstacles.  Just when we thought we were "closed out" a whole series of openings presented themselves with only a single set of efficient tracks to lead the way.  Anxiety gave way to performance, relaxation and relief which begot familiarity and eventual domination.  Dipstien launched off a 20 foot cliff, between two large conifers and landed successfully in deep snow bank while Cruiser dropped off of three consecutive ledges that looked like a huge, snowy staircase.  With an eye on our partners we shared the familiar old feeling of just shredding with the boys.  When we found Diny and the helicopter waiting we did it again and again and again... .


            After a spirited and necessary stretch class we met for breakfast at the lodge.  Everyone was crowded around the bulletin board in the lobby reviewing the "statistics" from the day before.  On an official looking computer printout I found my name and the fact that we had skied 7510 meters the day before (almost 25,000 vertical feet) or almost one quarter of our guaranteed vertical of 30,000 meters (100,000 feet).  As I tried to put the number in perspective (20 chair lifts, 8 trams, 3 days of touring) I noticed some of the other names.  None of the other groups had skied more the day before but the life time totals were inconceivable.  Several skiers had eclipsed the magic 300,000 meters (1 million vertical feet) for which they were rewarded with a "free" designer CMH heli suit. Even more incomprehensible were the figures for the true heli diehards with over 2 million meters and in one case 4 million meters.  One hundred and fifty trips at an average of $2000 is almost $300,000 for skiing.  They should award those guys a designer helicopter for skiing that much.  Two thing were clear; someone was keeping score, and we were way out of our league.

            Heli skiing has come a long way since Igor Sikorsky invented the helicopter in 1939.  It wasn't until 1963 that Hans Gmoser started as a private heli guide for Art Patterson in a tiny Bell B1.  Then in 1965 Hans started the first commercial campaign at an abandoned lumber camp at the foot of the Bugaboo Glacier with 18 skiers.  From the original package that cost $260 per week, the operation has blossomed into a 30 million dollar a year operation in 9 lodges - Bugaboos, Revelstoke, Gothics, Galena, Adamants, Bobbie Burns, Cariboos, Valemount and Mica Creek.  CMH has hosted over 60,000 visitor weeks, skiing over 2 billion meters.  There are many other heli ski operations but none as experienced and sophisticated as CMH.  Their remote lodges are designed specifically for the heli skier and while they cater to the high end powder consumer, they offer intro weeks and summer heli hiking.  The 14,000 square kilometers of terrain they serve are spectacular and varied, ranging from wide open glaciers to steep trees.  Their staff of 300 create a challenging experience that is second to none.

            After breakfast we prepared for the first lift.  The "Suits" group went first and we followed with a new respect.  The snow had solidified to a 22 % density that was very skiable when untracked but made for some horrendous crud.  The temperature rose to 5 degrees C as the day progressed and the conditions got dangerous.  A couple members in our group got caught in a slow moving, 60 foot wide wet sluff that carried them below the pickup point.  They slogged back wide eyed and dripping in perspiration.  They were unharmed but we missed our lift and had to wait for the helicopter to complete another round with the other groups.  By the end of the day things had set up fairly well but on the last run I followed our guide Diny's line through the trees, straight and efficient but with a sense of adventure and direction.  My legs burned with fatigue but I was determined to follow her to the end.  I missed a turn and then another and before I knew it I was upside down in one of the infamous tree wells.  I frantically pulled my head out and gulped desperately for a breath of fresh air.  From the road just 30 meters below I heard Diny laugh and click her poles, "You almost caught me there flat - lander".


            We awoke in a heavy fog with very poor visibility.  After breakfast they informed us that they couldn't fly in this weather and we were on hold, for an hour, a day or the rest of the week.  It was dangerous up high on the glaciers and too wet below and I think all the guides were spooked from an accident last year at Bobby Burns that killed several guests.  "Better luck next time" one of the "Suits" said to us as we left the lodge.  He did not realize that there probably wasn't a next time for most of us. This was a once in a lifetime adventure.

            We moped back to the animal house for some cards and a breakfast beer.  We were all dejected but we handled the bad news differently.  Denial, anger, grief and acceptance came in waves of varying intensity and length.  The stronger, optimistic members cheered the more despondent.  In two days we had skied over 15,000 meters and had several days to reach our goal.  We knew that this trip was a crap shoot when we committed - weather and machine dependant.  This had happened before on sno-cat and Ruby heli ski trips.  I had personally been getting away from dependency, the resort experience and the Weather Channel.  More often than not I would prefer to strap on a pair of climbing skins to climb and ski when and where I wanted.  In our Wasatch back yard there was limitless perfect skiing to be had, independently, alone and free.  Instead we were wasting our time in the "great white north" listening to the misty rain drip off the roof.

            Just as quickly as the gloom had settled in, the fog lifted slightly and we heard the sound of the helicopter beating its way through the fog.  After lunch we dressed quickly and met at the lodge.  The pilot figured he could hug the trees and slip up one of the draws.  The fog was only 300 meters thick and the sun was shining above.  For safety and logistics all the groups would ski together.  Our spirits soared when we popped through the fog into a brilliantly sunny day.  It was very warm but we had a great time skiing some low angle glades called the "Enchanted Forest".  The snow was thick and wind packed in places but we were glad to be out and about.  A bad day skiing beats a good day doing almost anything else.  The group of "Suits" were having a tough time and they were bitching and moaning and wallowing in the wet snow.  They went back to the lodge first complaining that they, "don't ski crud".

            On our trip down I was allowed to sit in the front and talk with the pilot.  We circled the top of a steep canyon skimming the tree tops, looking for an opening.  The pilot dipped the rotors and we dropped through an imperceptible opening in the clouds into a craggy canyon, between a rock and a blind place.  After a few tense moments we popped out above the lake and were within sight of Mica Creek.  We skimmed the lake surface and sped towards the daily apres ski hors d'oeuvres.  The relief of the mornings depression had made the day especially poignant.  We met the first group outside the lodge looking liked drowned sweathogs in their soggy "Suits".


            This day started like the day before with stretching, breakfast and waiting.  Our spirits were different this day because we knew there was hope.  Although the guides talked about getting vertical credit for our next CMH trip we knew that we would ski this day.  We lounged back at the house watching TV and making calls home to families and businesses.  There was a huge storm in the Wasatch but it was a record 70 degrees in Calgary.  I called my girl at home for her birthday but she could hardly sympathize with me for blowing all our vacation fund on an ill fated boys trip.  We played some hoops and hockey, swam and took saunas and kept our spirits high.

            After lunch we skirted the fog again and went high on the Glacier.  The skiing was fair with a few inches of new snow on low angled, wide open slopes.  The views and the flying however were incredible.  In every direction treeless, craggy mountains stretched to the horizon.  The helicopter flew through several jagged saddles before depositing us on a knife edge ridge.  The details of the upper Columbia trench were explained and the highest visible mountain was pointed out for us (Mt. Robson 3954 M).  We skied together in mass descents, jumping off windrow ridges, laughing and clowning.  This wasn't the greatest skiing on earth but it was new, different and an excellent adventure. 

            That night we walked up the road to a locals night at the B.C. Hydro bar.  The place was packed with people from God knows where, smoking and drinking like there was no tomorrow.  We assimilated quickly and were soon dominating the Foos Ball table.  Diny came in with a few of the ""Suits" and entertained them in a quite corner with her incessant stream of one liners and a belt buckle that read "I don't do cowboys".  We made some great friends and challenged the locals to a game of hockey the next night.  We enlisted some of the guides to play with us for their aerobic capacity and international experience, but were informed by the "Suits" that, they "don't play hockey".  On the way home from the pub we wondered aloud if we would ever be "Suits".  We all hoped not but suspected that it was inevitable.


            Again we waited, but eventually we flew.  This time we flew over to the Selkirk Mountains and the skiing was almost as good as the flying.  The terrain up high was smooth and fast but it got sticky when we ventured into the trees.  We took pictures and videos and had a relaxing day with our guide Dominic.  Dominic ran the Mica Creek operations and appeared unflappable. His ubiquitous pipe was always smoldering in his lips, whether he was serving dinner or digging a snow pit. 

            That night we beat the locals in basketball (Noufies can't jump) but we were destroyed in the floor hockey event.  Exasperated by my behind the back Gretzkyesque passing, my swiss guide winger exclaimed "Have a look now and again mate".  Function before form and the international style wins again.  After hockey we found a little sports bar that doubled as a viewing area for the curling courts.  There was a tournament in progress so we drank heavily while we studied the action.  After the tournament it was our turn and we had great difficulties mastering the finesse of throwing and sweeping, let alone just standing on the perfect ice.  The locals looked on in polite disgust at the ugly Americans but had seen enough when my partner, Chubby, lost his footing and crashed to the ice with his hands in his pockets.  Luckily one of the "Suits" was an orthopedic and correctly diagnosed the torn ligament.  Chubby's week was over and we all took it hard.  Even the "Suits" sympathized and each bought Chubby a beer to which we reciprocated with a fine Merlot or hearty single malt.


            We were able to fly after only a slight delay as the weather grew cooler and a small front moved through the area.  We concentrated on the upper glaciers that we had grown to love.  We admitted that we could always ski steep trees at home but the wide expansive glaciers were unobtainable anywhere in the USA.  Each run was several miles long and dropped several hundred meters.  The skiing was easy enough that we could look around and enjoy the scenery.  We grew comfortable with the heli ski rhythm, the orange drinks and granola after every run, the sack lunches out in the middle of a sunny flat spot, the relaxed pace of the group with no concerns for maximum vertical.  We missed our leader and mentor, Chubby, and felt the break in the group continuity but took videos that we shared with him when we got back to Mica Creek.  They had a bit of a last night party at the lodge but we left early to go back to the house to wrestle and play cards.


            We flew in the morning and skied above the trees in a stormy white-out that gave us odd feelings of vertigo.  The "Suits" went in after they were sure that they had logged their 30,000 meters for the week.  We skied a few extra runs for the love of the sport, the terrain, and the company.  After we had returned, changed clothes and packed our bags there was a award ceremony where we all received our 30,000 meter pins and several others received "Suits".  Seventy percent of CMH's business is return customers not only for the great skiing but for the brilliant marketing that turns powder skiers into vertical hounds and eventually "Suits".  On the bus ride back to Calgary I reflected that some people appreciate the game, the hunt, or the climb but others focus on the final score, the kill or the summit.  To us it was the experience, the disappointment, the triumphs and the adversity that was important, not the notch in our belts.  We enjoyed the week for the skiing, the scenery, the hockey, the companionship and the adventure.  The "Suits" were figuring how they would boast to their friends at work or at the local ski hill.  Skiing could be enjoyed at many levels, for many reasons, each as valid as the next. We smiled at each other, smug in the comfort of our shared experience, which we knew we could never relate or reproduce.