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.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Luke heard the familiar hoot of the Land Rover's horn as he stuffed his lunch into his backpack.  He danced over to turn the stereo off and closed down the air vent on the wood stove.  As he grabbed his skis and shouldered his pack, he reviewed his habitual mental checklist, 'skis, boots, poles, hats, gloves, gators, Pieps, shovel, climbing skins. . . .'.  When he stepped out onto his porch, he hardly noticed the crisp, cool, morning mountain air suspending frozen particles of moisture that glistened rainbows in the sun.  His attention was focused on the fluffy new snow he slid through as he ambled to the street where his long time ski buddy, Willie, was waiting in his trusty truck.

They had met more than 10 years ago at the University, each with varied backgrounds and interests but with a shared passion for skiing of all varieties.  Willie, a native of Northern Maine, was new to the western mountains while Luke was born and raised in the shadows of the Wasatch Range.  Willie possessed many of the characteristics of the traditional north woodsmen.  He was strong, silent and simple with a complacent wisdom remarkable for one so young.  His scruffy brown hair and beard all but obscured his squinty bright eyes, ruddy Irish freckles and wind shingled lips.  The rest of his hulky frame usually filled out layers of wool and cotton fashion older than L.L. Bean itself.  

Luke was the cosmopolitan, western version of the same spirit.  A tall, slim, clean shaven perpetual-motion-music machine with dusty blonde hair, wide innocent eyes, and an easy, natural smile.  His deceptively athletic frame was impeccably attired in the latest modern-miracle-material and style.  Luke's easy going character and ability to play the fool endeared him to all, but inhibited any serious respect from those he revered.         

Their respective personalities counterpoised each other remarkably well whether they were at a fraternity barbecue or in a snow filled coulior.  Willie's skill as a mountaineer and shear physical strength complimented Luke's knowledge of the local area and mystical intuition.  As they rumbled down the unplowed road leading from Luke's cabin to the main canyon, their minds open and hearts anxious for the adventures of the new day.  Willie drove slowly and deliberately, grinding through switchbacks and around potholes with a constant momentum.  Luke scanned the radio dial for the, 'hypothetical, quintessential rock and roll tune,' switching stations wildly.  His frantic efforts were abruptly interrupted when Willie pushed down the tape in the deck and filled the cab with scratchy bluegrass and off key country harmonies.             

Luke looked every which way, spotting deer, owls and hawks, snow sluffs, slides and fractures cut by an occasional wind swept ski track.  Their excitement and anticipation increased the higher they drove until they pulled off onto a plowed, firm, shoulder of the highway.  A long line of cars and busses passed them on their frenzied way to the ski resorts up the road.  They quickly mounted their climbing skins, shed two layers of clothes, clamped their pack on, activated their Pieps and broke into the new snow on the barely discernable trail that led up the drainage.  Climbing in silence through tight aspens, alternating the lead like pursuit cyclists with only the sounds of their breath and their avalanche beacons audible above the tromping of their skis and the soft song of the mountain breeze.  Breaking their first sweet sweat, they settled into their own thought looking up occasionally to notice familiar landmarks.  They passed the 'peace sign' carved into an aspen years ago when these trees were shorter and war was real to young Americans.  Older proclamations of love, lust, and anger had been elevated above the snow pack by the maturing trees, and obscured by sap and bark.  They passed the beaver ponds, the glory holes, and the mines indicative of the relentless spirits of the men and animals inhabiting the back country.  They crossed from the warm, sunny aspen grove to the cool conifers on the north facing slopes, pushing, plowing, packing, testing and tasting the snow on their way.  They paused to wipe the perspiration from their eyes and to peel off another layer.  Breathing deeply, the thin, cold air, they could feel their pulses pounding in their temples and in their groins.  Sharing swigs of water, they arched their backs and looked up patiently at their ridge line destination.             

Rising above the tree line, they powered into a zig zag traverse on a protected ridge that intersected the main ridge one thousand feet above them at a corniceless junction.  Climbing, with a macho intensity, they paused only to reverse direction with a kick turn and to look around for signs of weakness in the snowpack or in their partner.  Upon reaching the ridgetop, they rested again, changed their sweat drenched shirt and donned dry layers of shirts, hats, and gloves.  Although the high altitude sun was very strong, obscured only by a layer of wispy high clouds, the wind on the ridge was persistent and quickly drained their bodies of all warmth.  After adapting to the rigors of the ridgeline microclimate, they calmly surveyed the panorama that is usually unbelievable to those not accustomed to it.  Standing on the top of their world, surrounded by blue sky and sawtooth peaks, they studied the terrain that had become so familiar to them.  Theirs was a deeper appreciation of the beauty, the clarity, the majesty and menace of the terrain they viewed as one would eye a venerable old friend.  Their inspection was a detailed analysis of shadows and shapes, of wind and its deposition, of bowls and couliors.  When they looked at small towns spotted below them, they say familiar houses, cars, dogs, and people.  When they looked at slopes and chutes, they saw all the previous turns they had done there.  They perceived detail too small to see and compiled it with what they all remembered to determine where it would be safe and where the snow would be deep.  The quiet intensity of the climb matured into the summit silence of the insignificant.  

They proceeded westerly along the ridge, keeping a safe distance from the cornice edge yet examining each and every slope's potential.  Soon they began to feel more comfortable, more at home and they strength and their nerve.  Willie pounds on one section and a large crack appears between his legs but he quickly scampers to the high side.   A snow boulder the size of a Cadillac breaks off and starts a storm of snow cascading down the slope, exploding into a sugary cloud as it hits the trees two hundred years below.  Standing on the ledge, Willie smiles his crooked smile but Luke just stares down at the twisted trees and suspended powder.

The crash of the boulder broke some of the tired tension and they began to feel the joy, the excitement, and the adventure of the moment.  They are anxious to ski so they shuffle down the ridge another half a mile to where the slopes to the north open up.  They stand atop a bowl shaped like an inverted triangle and lined by thick pines that seem to hold all the snow and keep it protected from sun and wind.             

Luke threw down his pack in exhaustion and prepared for the descent.  In a few moments, they stood at the edge with their tips cantilevered over the waiting pitch.  With a wink and a grin, Willie leaped off the edge pumping his arms and legs wildly and landing into a pillow of pure fluff.  His momentum seemed stalled and he momentarily appeared stuck but as quickly as he landed, he popped out of the drift and began a series of smooth, rhythmic telemark turns.  His upper body remained calm and low with his hands out to the front as he shuffled his feet, almost kneeling on his inside knee as he cranked each turn.  His speed remained unchanged as he stepped out away from the hill to initiate each turn and the muscular stress needed to maintain control was vaguely perceptible.  He cleverly disguised his struggle with confidence, grace, and balance.  As he approached the bottom, Luke could hear a muffled, choking, yodeled - scream of ecstacy.  Willie pulled to a stop before entering the trees and turned to admire his serpentine signature etched in the mountain.  He held his poles in the air and tapped them together three times, expressing his satisfaction and his anticipation of Luke's run.

Luke gritted his teeth in determination, stretched his legs once more, adjusted his goggles and dove off the edge.  He landed and exploded out of a spot 10 feet to the right of Willie's and began a synchronized crisscrossing of Willie's tracks, exactly 1/2 wave length out of phase, drawing an endless row of connected eights.  He dove deep into each turn to check his speed and popped out of each carve to catch a glimpse of his location and a breath of air.  He had alternating views of spewing waves of snow and Willie's smiling face getting closer, bigger, and brighter.  Exhausted, he tumbled from his last turn into a entangled pile at Willie's feet but his friend quickly picked his up and shook him off.  They looked up to the slope and laughed as they admired the most expressive symbol of the bond between them.

After a short respite, they donned their climbing skins again, shed their outer layers and happily began to break a switch back trail through the deep snow up the south end of the bowl.  Trudging like mechanized tanks, taking short strong steps at a pace dictated only by the strength of their hearts and their lungs.  At the top of the ridge, they suited up and shared an orange.  Once again, they flew and crashed, recovered and turned, revelled and rested moving slowly across the bowl that was decorated with their toil, their joy and delicate creations.  Their switch back trail up soon became packed solid, a veritable highway to the sky.  The marks that they left, their impact on the slope was temporary for the wind had begun eroding their tracks immediately after they were made.  Even the large cornice they sent smashing to the trees would be rebuilt quickly by the prevailing winds.  A new storm would completely obliterate any trace of humanity, resetting the scene in pristine perfection.  

Luke and Willie eventually left the bowl and moved down the ridge examining the countless opportunities for descent.  Luke had visualized every detail of Dutchess Draw and would not be tempted by any other bowl, no matter how deep the snow was.  They stopped in a sheltered southwest facing alcove, dug a large pit and formed chairs with their rescue shovels.  Sitting back with their feet propped up on snow ottomans, they absorbed the warm rays of the winter sun while they ate their lunches.  Luke munched on an assortment of granola, raising, dried fruit, and nuts and washed it down with a high energy exotic fruit punch.  Willie ate his traditional peanut butter and honey sandwiches and drank his frozen frosty beer.             

A sudden chill overcame them as the sun slid behind one of the afternoon clouds.  They packed their trash, loaded their packs and mounted their skis.  They traversed down the ridge further until they arrived at Duchess Draw where, for the last time, they prepared for the descent.  They stood at the edge looking down into the shadows and trees, planning their route, imagining their turns, recalling countless days spent skiing this very spot.

Willie turned to Luke and nodded don the slope.  Luke dropped his goggles down and leaped unhesitantly into the bowl.  After slaloming several small pines, he faltered slightly, leaned far forward, and planted his face in a magnificent summersault, egg beater crash that sent snow and equipment flying.  He stood up, collected himself, brushed off the snow and dejectedly skied out the rest of the run muttering to himself of nightmares and bad Karma.  Willie frowned, sharing his friends disappointment and slid off the edge towards the center of the bowl.  Luke watched as Willie linked several deep turns in the waist deep snow.  Out of the corner of his eye, Luke noticed a huge fracture develop just below the cornice.  He watched as the whole slope released at once turning it into a menacing wave of snow.  Willie did one more turn before he noticed that the bottom had fallen out on him and he vainly attempted a quick traverse to the trees.  His attempt was too late and he was swallowed up by the onslaught.  

Luke scampered out of the slide patch into the protection of the dense trees.  He watched Willie disappear and a few seconds later, saw a ski shoot out of the snow cloud and splinter in the trees.  The slide exploded into the pines at the bottom tearing up roots and branches before subsiding into an erie stillness.  It ended as quickly as it started, in minutes or seconds or milliseconds, the slope was ravaged and Willie was gone!  The severity of the situation overcame Luke as he screamed for Willie and for help.  Entombed in dense, packed snow, Willie heard the screams and tried to answer.  He could not move, he could not see, he could not breathe, he could not even tell which way was up.  He tried to relax and wait for Luke to get him.  The panic raising in his chest abated as he started to pray.  A feeling of helpless bliss overwhelmed him and the last thing he heard before blacking out was the steady, rhythmic beating of his heart and the far away sonld of the beeping of his Piep.

He gathered his wits and calmed himself as he reviewed the rescue procedure they had practiced.  He kept thinking that if he didn't find his friend in 20 minutes, Willie would be dead.  He reviewed the events of the slide in his mind and imagined the spot where he last saw Willie and his ski.  He turned his Piep from transmit to receive and listened for the sound of Willie's beacon.  He listened intently scanning the slope and twisting his Piep at all angles, hearing nothing.  He scanned again and he heard nothing again.  He climbed frantically up the slope towards the last sighting and heard nothing.

Luke continued his climb for what seemed like an eternity, then stopped to listen again and he imagined he heard a faint beep off to the southwest.  He attempted to move in that direction but his skis inhibited his progress so he opened his bindings and kicked off his skis.  He found that he could maneuver easier on the dense debris without his skis and he moved towards the direction of the stronger signal.  The signal got louder and louder as he walked south, then quickly faded away.  He retraced his steps to the loudest point, turned ninety degrees and walked until the signal intensity peaked.  He repeated this procedure five or six times until he had pinpointed the loudest point.  He pulled his shovel out of his pack and dug furiously at the dense snow.  His frustration and fear turned to rage as his folding shovel kept collapsing in the hard snow.  Although the digging was very strenuous, he did not stop or rest and was soon five feet deep.  He checked his Pieps and assured himself that he was in the right place.  

Suddenly, he saw the blue fabric of Willie's pack and found new strength in his elation.  He screamed to Willie that he was saved and yanked on the pack.  The pack easily pulled out of the snow and Luke saw the broken shoulder strap and the Pieps broken cord twisted around the shoulder strap.  He threw the pack aside and jumped into the hole digging with his hands, blinking tears of rage from his eyes.  He stood up hopelessly when he found nothing else, feeling that he had failed and betrayed the trust and confidence of the person he respected the most.  He emerged from the hole and scoured around the area for any clue or sign of his partner.  He tried his Pieps again but remembered Willie's disembodied Piep and threw his down.  Overcome with loneliness and grief, he dropped to his knees and flailed the snow with his pole.  

He stopped suddenly when he felt his pole hit something solid.  He crawled up a few feet and found the tip of a ski, Willie's ski!  Again he began digging madly and tried to pull the ski out but it was anchored firmly.  After further digging, a tattered ski boot appeared and he dove at the snow with all his remaining strength.  Soon Willie's unconscious body was uncovered and his yellow lifeless face held a peaceful grin.  Luke started resuscitating him while imploring him to breathe.  Finally, Willie grasped, choked and puked into the snow.  He looked up at Luke with tears in his eyes and smiled. 

After recovering much of their gear, they climbed out of the Draw, skied back down the ridge and over to the Land Rover.  It was well after dusk when they nervously climbed into the truck.  They drove down the canyon that once was so friendly, towards their homes, their lives and their loves.  Willie reached over, turned the radio on to a rock 'n roll station and started to rhythmically tap the wheel.  Luke looked at Willie, smiled weakly and turned the music down..