Since I began doing social work post-undergrad, in 2003, it hasn’t been unusual for my work to adversely influence my sleep.  Either the quantity, in the form of insomnia, or more commonly the quality, in the form of peculiar dreams and nightmares.  There are many reasons to not blog, and a number of the classics have applied to me these past days: busy with work and fun, educational and social commitments beyond the usual, and distressing, difficult, complex material percolating in my head.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, in the standard text on the subject in America.  I use it daily, irrespective of the qualms I have and its efficacy, because my work is paid by Medicaid, and Medicaid requires a DSM diagnosis to approve what I do.  There are many peculiar things to be learned about the DSM if you read closely, one of my favorites being the “clinically significant” qualifier.  It is possible to read the DSM as saying, in virtually all cases, that someone could have enough of the symptoms (6 of 10, etc) for a given disorder, but not experience clinically significant manifestations of those symptoms, and thus not merit a diagnosis.  This segues nicely into one of the more wide-reaching and substantive criticisms of the DSM, that it reinforces the extent to which mental illness is class, race, and gender biased.  In other words, clinically significant symptoms are often those which get one arrested, noticed by neighbors and passersby, or generally confound contemporary mores.  (Which is not to diminish the personal distress which precedes and follows from such public incidents.)

So then, not blogging for a while may be of interest, diagnostically, but isn’t clinically significant.  Until I stop going to work and start shooting the squirrels in our yard.
USFS avy workshop at Big Mountain yesterday.  A full house.

The source of my nightmares lately has been my perceived inability to break the intergenerational chain of trauma, neglect, violence, criminality, and mental illness.  At Eilis’ wedding this summer I was talking with her brother, who teaches in the LA juvenile corrections system.  He corroborated a theory that’s been solidifying in my mind for the last half-decade (and is perhaps not so profound); that the whole system of mental illness and criminal behavior (and it is remarkable how often the two are inextricable) is hereditary.  He said that, were a half dozen families in the greater LA area done away with, crime would drop off dramatically.  At my present place of employment, which has been around for a long time, something similar can be seen in two or three generations of a family receiving services and being in the system for comparable reasons.

There are ways to prevent this, the simplest, most effective, and most illegal being a mandatory vasectomy for all 12 year old boys, with applications for reversal being accepted beginning no sooner than age 25.  The black market in reversals would not doubt be ferocious.

Instead, I traffic in damage control for the present generation, in hopes that they will then have a more stable life by the time they choose or stumble upon parenthood.  I’ve yet to meet someone who has been in my field for more than 3 years and is not an ardent advocate for birth control, if for no other reason but that our work is hard, most of the time almost impossible.  I don’t have unrealistic expectations for what I will and will not be able to do, yet I have and will continue to have nightmares about my work.  I think I’d worry more about myself if I didn’t, given what I see some days.

There are of course many reasons to be fearful of, exasperated with, and even to feel contempt for the world in which we exist.  Avy danger is high this weekend, after a hard warm snowfall on Thursday and some strong winds.  Patrol at Big Mountain set off some small slides with charges yesterday morning, and rumors of burials yesterday are flying.  I did find stable, steepish, high quality powder in the sidecountry, highlighting the futility of generalities.  The C Team is headed out to find low-angle stuff today.

The world is full of such things, which we would be foolish to think of controlling, yet insane to not want to change.  My yesterday at 4, wending my way back down the Big Mountain road, I had already spent a week being pickled in this axiom.  My immersion was brought to its zenith, and my already enhanced tendency towards silent, depressed navel gazing further heightened, by M calling me with news of the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords.  One of the more infuriating things about political media coverage is that while the low approval ratings of Congress are thrown around whenever convenient, the idea that such low ratings have been the historic norm is rarely if ever mentioned.  Even more rarely mentioned is that the vast majority of Senators and members of Congress have high individual approval ratings.  Giffords is the paragon of why this is so; she is an extraordinary person and public servant.  I’ve been a huge fan ever since her first national election in 2006.  More states need more people like her.

To complete this maudlin tour, and end on an appropriately ambiguous note, I leave you with a Camus quotation:

The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.

A note on blogging

It’s amazing that blogs even exist any more. Facebook and Twitter are the Fast Food Nation of thought. Who wouldn’t rather take 15 seconds to spout something off instead of the hours it takes to write a decent blog entry? Bloggers are the resistance, and before they get taken into custody in the name of Vapid Über Alles they need props while they’re still with us.

-from the Competitive Cyclist Year in Review, of all places.


On the one hand, if blogging is the attention-demanding, longhand form of writing and reading these days, our standards have indeed been warped.  On the other, I think that blogging might well be an ideal compromise between sharing a breadth of content with a wide audience and creating forceful, thoughtful media. I’ve gotten a lot out of blogs and blog-esque content this year.  My life is richer for it.

So how about a brief, sporadic, beginning of the year shout-out to some of the content I’ve enjoyed in the last 12 months:

Eugene’s great black and white photos.

Luc’s ski movies.

Hendrik’s reading lists.

Roman’s reminiscences.

Ryan’s Teton traverse.

Damien’s video of the same.

I could of course go on and on and on.  But that little quotation got me thinking about blogging in a new light, and clarified why I don’t like Facebook very much.

Thoughts?  Your own good stuff to share?


The question of laziness

After getting my ass kicked the last 4-5 times out skiing (or at least not feeling like a powder slaying god), moral has been low. One result is that I’m going through a period of nostalgia for summer. Thinking about mountain biking on dry dirt, or catching trout in clear water.

The other result is that I’ve been obsessing about how to not suck at skiing.  At least, how to suck a bit less.  The most important way is to keep skiing a lot, which I will continue to do (see below for complications).  Another, more remote but nonetheless weighty, answer is that I will buy new gear.   Not this winter, but before next, I intend to plunk down the 1500+ or so US dollars a proper BC downhill rig will run.  The question is, what stuff?

The most obvious answer and sub-question would be a get a Dynafit ski rig, weighing lightness v. burliness.  Most anything would be a massive improvement over doing p-turns with 3 pins and floppy tele boots.  However, I also don’t have all that much invested in skiing per se, which leads to the other option: splitboarding.

Snowboarding is reputed to be easier to learn, and let us face it, is waay cooler than skiing.  Logistically splitboarding is more complex than skiing, but that sort of thing plays to my strengths and is less of a concern.  It’s certainly less efficient on rolling terrain, but I have light tele gear for that.  So my initial thoughts would be to get some used Scarpa F1s and a Voile splitter.  Perhaps.  (I welcome the thoughts of the at least two accomplished splitboarders that read).

In any case, I need to keep getting out and learning, the glories of which I attempted to venerate in the most recent post.  But it’s hard.  Working hard uphill only to get more beat up on the down is not the easiest thing to psyche up and leave pre-dawn to do.  And that ambivalence bleeds out and over.  Yesterday I rallied to skin Big Mountain after work, but didn’t summit after I got into the fog and didn’t want to flail my way back down with no visability in the rapidly rising darkness.  This morning would have been a stellar powder day, but I reset the alarm and slept for another hour.

I am in short, lazy, and lack discipline.  Always have.  Want to get better at it, but always seem to falter (haven’t done regular core stuff since T-day, for instance).  Frustrating, disheartening, the sort of subtle failure that engendered further failure and inaction.

I’m in good company in claiming to be lazy.  Greg Hill told me he is lazy.  Hard to believe in someone closing in on 2 million feet of vertical gain this year.  Evidence suggest that a mountaineer’s mountaineer feels the same way.  Peter Croft, one of the most impressive rock climbers ever, is a notorious TV fan.  In short, it is clear that everyone suffers from the same potentially debilitating shadow when faced with the choices that, in aggregate, make a good adventurer and/or athlete into a great one.  The question is, what enables some to be so much more consistently good at going from idea to reality, from motion to act, and from desire to spasm?

I don’t know.  Practice, I suspect.  Self-knowledge, to a certain extent.  But at this juncture, my explanations are frustrating, primarily because none of them have helped me get much better at overcoming my own shadow.

But I intend to keep trying.  I did my core routine this morning, and in the process tweaked my shoulder doing pull ups.


2010: in review

Running through all these Christmases is the sense of an emotional cadenza at the end of the year, a braiding of feelings like hope, renewal, nostalgia, love, joy and exhaustion. Yet in the stories about this holiday, it’s surprising how often we’re reminded of a darker life, full of isolation, penury, greed, despair and the fear that traps emotion within us.

-The NY Times editorial page, today

2010 will stand out in my mind for many things; I finished my masters, got a good job, raised my gear making and photography to a new level, met many great people, and achieved a paradigm shift in how I view outdoor adventuring.  But above all, 2010 was the year in which I finally became an adult.

About time, eh?

In my post-MSW world, there is no longer some hypothetical future achievement which can (abstractly) be expected to categorically alter my life.  What I have and am now can reasonably be expected to be, with subtle variations, what I have and am in the future.  Reflecting on this has gone well with the expected, end of year, seasonal introspection of which the Times speaks.  It has been the cause of both satisfaction and angst.  And while there are many thing with which I am not satisfyied and which I hope to change in an enduring fashion, there are also many things of which I am proud.  Examining the first 29.8 years of my life is, from this comfy chair on this quiet morning, majorily a fulfilling experience.

This year I learned, primarily through school, that there are still important things that I’m quite bad at, that there are things in life that I thought I might be that I will not be doing, and that choices I’ve made in the past have already limited choices I can make in the future.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to embrace this more accurate, full, realistic poirtrate of my existence.

This year I learned that cultivating friends and partners, for today and for days in the future, is essential.  Finishing up the second video this morning was an emphatic reminder of this.

This year a long dormant in interest in artistic expression and the sharing it allows was reawakened.  I’m very pleased with the photography, videography, and writing I’ve done in the past 12 months, and the responses it has engendered.  Thanks to all of you for being a part of that.

This year I learned that day trips are, to be blunt, bullshit.  18 months ago I was still quite uneasy with overnight trips.  This year I sought out that uncertainty and looked at it right up close.  And while I’m still afraid of solitude, I’m longer afraid of that fear.  If I were to seriously ruminate upon and draw up a futile list of the 10 most significant outdoor adventures of my life, I think that half of them would have taken place this year.  And while some of the packraft trips may have been more sublime, there is no question that the Thorofare trip in May was the greatest outdoor adventure of my life to date.  It is just not possible to drink as deeply of the wilderness if you don’t spend the night.  When I plan trips now, the ones which capture my interest the most are days long.  When I write this essay a decade from now, I’m certain that adventures will be categorized as pre or post Thorofare.

This year I learned that making gear and sewing can be deeply satisfying, and that while I may come up short on detail work, I both enjoy and excell at big picture design work.  I think about gear design and fabric science in categorically different ways today.

And this year I learned that packrafting rules.  I’m not doing a list of best gear items, because there is the packraft, and then everything else.  Get a raft, but at your peril: you will never look at outdoor adventures the same.

I expect great things from myself in the year to come.  My job suits me perfectly, and I have no reason to suspect anything but better things as I continue to learn.  But it is the vast wilderness complex to the east that really inflames my imagination.  Winter is still something I’m working on and learning about, but come spring and summer, my confidence is large and my plans grandiose.  After almost 30 years of walking in the woods my summer skillset is nearing completion, and I am very much looking forward to exercising it to the fullest extent.  I suppose that, having found maturity at last, I am enjoying its benefits.  2011 should be a good year.

In praise of the mundane

I started taking blogging seriously this summer.  One conspicuous byproduct of this is that I began gathering/paying attention to statistics associated with my work here: who reads what, how often, when, and so forth.  Some of it isn’t surprising: Monday and Tuesday are by far the biggest traffic days, Saturday and Sunday the least.  Some of it is: I’m surprised at how many views some individual photos get.  And some of it is both expected and disappointing: gear posts are by far my most trafficked.

In the last two weeks, the Marquette preview post got the most views.  It’s an odd yet intriguing piece of gear with little published info, thus the interest (and number of google searches) is understandable.  But this past months most trafficked post is about my ski clothing.  Snore.

It’s a disturbing trend, the gear-centricity of outdoor blogging.  I take blogging seriously, if for no other reason than that abysmal content in mainstream print and online publications leave me no other choice.  Too many pro outdoor writers don’t know what they’re writing about, or pretend not to in order to make a living.  Instead you have sites like the 800 pound gorilla of BC ski blogs, Wild Snow, with content generated by experts.  Unfortunately, gear posts drive readership, which drives revenue.  In the last week exactly one post at Wild Snow concerns itself with the direct act of making turns, and it is one of the two shortest posts available.

Wild Snow is a good example of a general trend in outdoor blogs, wherein its content can be grouped into three categories: tech posts, terse “stoke” posts, and Big Trip posts (which typically feature a substantial gear pre and post mortem).  I would put forth the thesis that most outdoor blogging can be dissected into comparable categories, with blogs often choosing to emphasize one category over the others.  Some of my favorites feature Big Trips to the virtual exclusion of all others.  The problem here, as Doom and RJ demonstrate, is that Big Trips don’t happen all that often.  This approach means less frequent content, and while I’m an advocate of waiting to speak until you have something to say, I also think that the act of publicly articulating the value of daily and weekly outings, the mundane, is important.

Witness the master of elevating and expounding upon the profundity of the mundane, Jill Homer.  Long before I met and went on adventures with Jill I admired her ability to wring salient details out of even the most miserably routine of outings.  Beyond making her a better (and continually improving) writer, I have no doubt that this ability not only resulted in her success in ultra endurance endeavors, it is one of the reasons why her work is so popular.  What is right will not always be popular, but in this case Jill points towards ways in which most of us can elevate our pursuit, that pursuit being sharing and propagating enthusiasm for a world that is wonderful in even the littlest details.


What matters in life?  A redundant question, as thinking that something would matter outside of life (which is to say, existence) not only makes no sense, but is quite unthinkable.  Life is an echo chamber, where meaning is discovered like a skier in a whiteout: unable to see anything, the skier yells out, listens, and skies slowly forward, knowing the location of mountain walls only by the echo.  We only know, anything, because of the presence of other stuff in our lives.

At first thought, it seems like the “other stuff” can be divided into two categories: other people, and everything else.  Our relations with fellow humans tend to be rich and dynamic, echos coming back quickly, the relationship therefore easy to define and understand.  Our relations with mountains, however, (and we do have relations with such things) are more prolonged, subtle, and on the surface at least one-sided.  Both kinds of relations, those with other people and those with nature, define who we are, but do so in different ways.

Or do they?  I’ve long thought that existence is quite a bit messier than that.  Inter-human relations can be quite shallow and truncated, the influence of nature is always more profound than we can easily understand, relationships with animals and the land (farming) seem to point to significant grey areas, and technology has of late exaggerated the many ways in which non-face to face relations can nonetheless be enormously influential.

In short, defining how we are who we are is not so simple, and how you ask the who question is enormously important.

Ed Abbey’s central thesis, both in his work in general and in Desert Solitaire in particular, is concerned with this question: how does our relationship with the world define us?  The coextensive and thus contradictory need to be both a part of something (secure) and a separate person (independent) can be played out between two people (most poignantly in romantic relationships), or between a culture and the land (manifest destiny and America’s fetishization of The West).  We cannot be truly independent people, because the possibility of our existence is defined by the presence of other people and of the larger world.  Yet, a degree of separation from others and the backdrop of nature is essential for much of our thinking and action.

Bedrock and Paradox.

All of which is to explain two things:

I see philosophy and the tradition of intellectual exploration as rooted in nature.  Aristotle was a philosopher and a naturalist.  Thoreau went walking in the Maine woods (but what wonders would his mind have created had he went west with Muir?!).  Siddhartha Gotama sat under a tree in Varanasi.  Jesus wandered in the wilderness.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sat in his cave.  As our world becomes more and more full of our fellow humans, experiencing the other side of existence, not in solitude, but being in the sole and overwhelming company of nature, is more and more relevant.  This is, generally speaking, why I do what I do, and why this blog is what it is.

I am very glad I went down to Missoula to visit with my friends this weekend, my sisters-in-arms from grad school (they’re all women, after all).  We cooked and ate food, drank beer and wine, sat around and laughed and talked, and went skiing, snowmobiling and skinning up to a high ridge with a tremendous view to lap turns and turns on a slope of perfect snow.  Because on some moments you can be, all at once, in the company of everyone and everything.

How I got the best job on earth

I spent all of August online, looking for vacant places in organizations. Companies that would pay me to do something enjoyable.  Right around the autumnal equinox I drove up here, to NW MT, and did a neat trip and interviewed for a job.  The trip amounted to a necessary and sufficient evocation of the fates, I knocked the interview questions out of the park (I can say that now without tempting the fates), and left with a very good feeling.  It was the first and only job interview of my immediate post-MSW career.  I was offered and accepted the job a week later, and here I sit today, in a house four blocks from downtown Kalispell.

All of this, my choices and motivations and the things I find relevant and important, is dependant on that ways I define enjoyment.  And any good definition must be plural.  I am a hedonist insofar as I am skeptical of any accounting of the world in which enjoyment is not placed front and center.  I am a nihilist insofar as I cannot see enjoyment (or anything else) as having intrinsic and immutable value.  I am an optimist insofar as I see the human race as being very capable of, collectively and individually, arriving at good definitions for enjoyment.  And I believe that defining and understanding enjoyment is much more complex and difficult than most are able to admit.
My tie collection, most very recently acquired.  I wore the blue and yellow to the job interview back in September, and the red to an important meeting today.

I drive around quite a bit for my new job, with a frequency and over distances that make a car irreplaceable.  A drastic change from bikecentric Missoula.  As a result I’ve listened to more pop radio in the last month than any similar period ever before.  (I define pop radio somewhat tautologically as any music appearing on a radio station, other than classical.)  So much of it is obsessed with definitions of enjoyment so narrow, cliched, and self-referential that I fear for us, culturally.  My professional work and research in addictions treatment and counseling this summer confirmed a conviction I’ve always had, that the overwhelming bulk of alcohol-based enjoyment is psychosomatic.  The hard organic aspects of drunkenness are only a shadowy corner of those aspects held up in pop music (most egregiously the abomination which contemporary hip hop has grown up to be).  If we are, as a culture, venerating effects which are only a casual outgrowth of alcohol consumption, it begs the question: what do we so desperately need that we are so afraid of embracing without the shadow of artifice?

The answer is of course, enjoyment.

It is possible that many people find intoxication to the point of mild memory impairment liberating and thus enjoyable.  It is more probable that the idea of this experience as FUN has become so influential that drunkenness (in various culturally sanctioned venues) has become a major default venue for expropriation.  If we, culturally, don’t know how to find enjoyment, faking it to others and ourselves through drunkenness is a reliable, easy and intelligible recourse.

All of which is less to say anything about alcohol consumption than it is meant to say something about enjoyment.  I think our idea of it and expectations for it are warped.  Perhaps with dire consequences.

This idea came to me today as I was driving back to the office in the early afternoon.  After dropping in on work, checking messages, calling people, doing some paperwork, and getting coffee with a new client that dropped by, I headed off to do a school visit with a kid who has at least two major psychiatric diagnoses and a rare and serious medical condition.  These three interact in ways which are, under the best of circumstances (his behavior and our clinical detachment), interesting.  Because of these three conditions, it is unlikely he will ever be able to live on his own without inadvertently neglecting something vital and killing himself.  I then drove to another nearby town to staff and intake for a day treatment facility.  It’s not an especially good program, but for the kid in question it is the only one available, and thus the stakes were high.  I arrived back at the office, early for once, just in time to staff a med management meeting with a kid and his mom.  A month ago this kid seemed a likely candidate for expulsion from public school and subsequently one more step towards life long institutionalization.  Via some med tweaking, interventions at school, and other things which elude comprehension this seems to have reversed itself, the family is interested in outpatient therapy, and the kid actually talked with us today.  By that point it was mid afternoon and I was quite as tired from 6.5 hours of work as I was Saturday from 6.5 hours of skiing at my limit.

This is the reason I’ve always found it hard to train well during the week.

It’s also not a coincidence, not at all, that two such different days which became so stressful are both days which I would classify as highly enjoyable.  I can begin to articulate just how and why these days are enjoyable, and have done so in these pages repeatedly.  What’s more important this evening is to answer the title question: I found the best job of earth by defining enjoyment for myself, and then doing all I could to tilt luck in my favor so that I would find a job that would suit said definition.  Chance still played a large role, I applied for a different position and was offered this one just as it came open, but I also knew a good and happy thing when it came along.

A benefit of getting older, I think.

Adventure film-making after Youtube (Banff World Tour review)

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour three times now; in LA in 2008, Missoula in 2009, and here in Kalispell last night.  Even in that short time the dynamic of the films showcased seems to have changed.

The world tour makes a wide selection of films shown at the original festival available, and local promoters pick which ones they wish to show, based on whimsy and their expected demographic.  When you attend the world tour, you never know quite what you’re going to get.  I’m going to list and comment briefly on each of the seven films we saw last night, before moving on to a more general discussion of how Youtube (both as a website and a cultural phenomenon) seems to be shifting the Banff films.  In the order seen last night:

1) Dream Result

You can see a trailor at the website, above, but it bears only a passing resemblance to what we saw last night.  We did not see the full film, but rather an edit, about 15-20 minutes long.  Whether the film makers or Banff folks did the edit is unclear, but whomever did should be mildly taken out to the woodshed.  Sturges et al secured some astonishing footage, and while much of it is in the traditional, “radical” vein of bigger is better, some of it went beyond and showcased the personal, narrative side of kayaking.  Chiefly, that running the brown (aka schralping the super gnargnar) can be terrifying, and beat the shit out of you.  Our clip consisted of a biographical piece about Tyler Bradt, many minutes of the most outstanding and gut wrenching boating carnage I’ve ever seen, and a brief narrative of Bradt’s world-record-breaking run of Palouse Falls.  In short, good stuff, but the edit we saw came up emphatically short.

2) As It Happens

You can watch this one (or a version very close to the festival one) on vimeo!  I’ve discussed this one before, both because I went to college with one of the makers, and because the project is one of the more interesting ones to come out in 2010.  The premise, that editing footage as close to the moment as possible will produce a superior artistic product, is a great one, and Renan and Cory pulled it off in great style.  Unfortunately, the edit shown on vimeo and at the festival underwent quite a lot of editing to make it one single work, rather than 5 dispatches (you can view the originals on Renan’s account, which I recommend).  A lot of the immediacy has been lost in the polish, which is unfortunate.  This film also highlights the ways in which things that succeed online and in the Youtube idiom of social media marketing (TNF did well with this one, I reckon) fail on the big screen.  Each dispatch had an amount of local-color/cute cinematography/intro-extro material at the beginning and end, sandwiching the meat of the narrative.  It all sort of works online, but put up on the big screen, in a different context where expectations are different, the lack of a tight narrative with meat on the bone stands out starkly.  I enjoyed this, but think that either the original film(s) should have been preserved, or an even more complete transformation should have taken place.

3) Eastern Rises

This is by far the best film I’ve seen at the Banff world tour.  By far.  It balances all the elements the make adventure films work: great cinematography, compelling micro and macro narratives, humor, idiosyncrasy, and an interesting and exotic subject.  And the film wears its confidence very well indeed, as evidenced by the trailer.  A fly fishing film trailer without a single fish visible!  Be warned, this will make you think about taking up fly fishing.  This is a film worth buying.

4) Chimaera

Also fully viewable on vimeo.  Great shooting, completely boring content.  I think the least interesting film I’ve ever seen at Banff.  A walking, talking cliché that gives great evidence that the Youtube format flops out of the computer.

5) Azadi: Freedom

A film about skiing in Gulmarg, Kashmir, India.  Good material, but unfocused.  It has some nice skiing footage, which is particularly refreshing because the lack of a helicopter obliged the filmers to avoid many of the modern clichés.  It has even better local culture material, which to a certain extent gets lost amongst the ski porn and historical/educational diversions.  Greater focus and a time restriction would’ve helped this film a great deal.

6) First Ascent: Fly or Die

This work, by the super-team of Peter Mortimer and the Lowell Brothers, wins my award for most disappointing.  (I had low expectations for Chimaera from the first few seconds.)  Five years ago their work was indeed at the cutting edge of climbing films, but the effects used by the Camp 4 Collective crew and the material had by Hot Aches and Posing Productions leaves this film feeling stale.  The fact that the series was made for National Geographic TV is largely responsible, leaving the narrative structure dumbed-down and stilted.  Dean Potter is an extraordinarily cinegenic figure, and by that virtue alone this work should have been much better.  Perhaps the other films in the First Ascent series are better, or perhaps Sender Films just needs to step up their game.

7) Kranked Kids (or something)

The seventh film was a goofy, hilarious little spoof from the producers of the “Kranked” series of mountain biking films.  It involves their kids.  I can’t find the name or trailer.  Darn.

Overall the evening was entertaining, and “Eastern Rises” alone was well worth the price of admission.  Unfortunately for the rest of the films, the fly fishermen led by example and showed that good material is not sufficient to make a truly great adventure film.

Rises would not have succeeded had it been standard, 5-15 minute Youtube length.  The interest was in the arch of the storytelling, and the characters which drove that process.  Humor, scenery, and nifty camera work made the medicine go down easily, but were in the end secondary factors.  By contrast, “As It Happens” would have been quite boring without the exceptional camera work, because the storytelling was so thin.  If the material in “Dream Result” had not been so remarkable, the loose character development and barely-there narrative would have never been paid attention.  Without HD video and truly gratuitous slo-mo, “Chimaera” would have gone beyond the realm of the soporific and into the realm of the unbearable.

All of which makes me wonder how Youtube culture will continue to change adventure cinema.  On the one hand, 5 minute attention spans reward visual and athletic pyrotechnics above all else, providing little incentive for auteurs to step back and focus on that which, for me, is most interesting.  Athletic achievement and the dreaded process of “progression” (going bigger, faster, and so forth) are significant because of the mental processes at work for the participants.  “Dream Result” hinted at the fear involved in kayaking a 60 meter waterfall, and the psychological and interpersonal effects of such a process is in the end the story of modern adventure.  As Steve Fisher notes in the “Dream Result” trailer linked to above, in the absence of unexplored continents adventure exists more purely than ever as a pyschological construct.  Telling this story in Youtube-friendly bites, with the immediacy and quick turnover that social media marketing demands, will be a tall order.

I look forward to seeing how my generation measures up.

Packrafting defined

St. Mary Lake from 500′ up.  50 mph winds and oceanic swells.

I was introduced to boating and skiing early in life, in the normal ways: canoeing, whitewater rafting, downhill skiing in area, XC skiing on track skis.  All were fun for short periods, but none resonated especially well.  Until the last few years, that is.  Backcountry skiing revealed skis as an enhancement for exploration, rather than a hindrance.  Like a mountain bike.  Two years ago it was love at third or fourth sight.

Boating has taken quite a bit longer.  In the hierarchy of outdoor pursuits the human-powered descending of rivers exists in the upper echelons with respect to the literature it has produced.  Twain, Powell, Ellsworth Kolb, Katie Lee, Abbey, Dimock; all give ample evidence that floating a watercourse seems to be an especially good way of experiencing the landscape.  It has also always struck me as indecently decadent, ponderous, and constrained, objections rooted in aesthetics as much as financial and logistical concerns.  I’ve never liked having more equipment than strictly necessary, and shuttles are at best necessary evils.  And while the kinesthetic and technical aspects of skiing and especially mountain biking are seductive, I increasing enjoy such things primarily as a means to the end of seeing large slices of the world.

A good pair of shoes is the most essential piece of equipment.

At first packrafting was the obvious, water-based equivalent of skis and bikes: portable technology to enhance foot-based travel.  Packrafts are such things, but they’re much more.

I’ve been continually frustrated by my inability, since July, to adequately capture the fantastically intimate details one sees from a packraft.  Being low and in the river, the clear water of the Rockies, and the ability to float small streams and thus follow drainages in a very definitive fashion.  Ryan Jordan has written some resonant words, and put a item on my to-do list, about following lakes chains in the Beartooths.  And he is absolutely right, floating down a drainage and seeing the landscape shaped and reshaped on its own terms, rather than a human trail builders, is a singular aesthetic and metaphysical experience.  In the modern world, with so few real wilderness floats, packrafting goes back through Powell to Lewis, Clark, and the anonymous voyageurs in that it unites efficient wilderness travel and contemplative, experiential profundity.

The upper St. Mary River, near my put in on Saturday.

All that is why I drove for far too long yesterday to hike up to and descend the St. Mary river, from up near the cascade down from Gunsight Lake down to the lake itself.  I wrote some concrete beta on the packrafting forum, which fails utterly to communicate the experience.  That me-to-others lacuna is in turn exacerbated by the fact that my camera stayed tucked in my drybag for the duration.  It was cold, snow was flying, I was wearing neoprene gloves under Gore-tex mittens, and by the time I paddled along the lake for a stretch and took out at the beach I was darn cold and my mostly-empty All-Pack was encrusted in a 1/8″ thick carapace of verglass.  I want a waterproof HD helmet cam.

This is what they do to bridges in Glacier for the winter.  Stream crossings do a lot to give a place back to the wild.

All of which is to say that packrafting is a paradigm changing activity.  Yesterday is a perfect example; the intensity of 5-6 hours in the forest and on the water matches much longer trips on trail only.  Add the wonder of emphatic weather and an empty park (the ranger was closing the road behind me as I left), and you have a single-day out that cannot easily be improved.

So yes, you ought to get a packraft. They’re almost as cool as 4×4 trucks.

Fear and Trembling (in praise of the off-season)

“He had faith by virtue of the absurd, for all human calculation ceased long ago.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

Glacier National Park was called the Alps of the Americas not only to lure rich easterners away from Europe, but because the high peaks that make up the crown of the continent hold forth with a singular aesthetic.  Unlike the taller mountains of the Colorado Rockies, Sierras, or Wind Rivers, Glacier’s mountains are not only the icing on the cake of larger massifs.  They, like the Tetons, rise straight from the plains, foothills utterly absent, abrupt in a way that “go west young man” stereotypes would have midwestern children believe all mountains do.  Unlike the comparably small Tetons, which as a singular ridge constitute an isolated if craggy geologic exception, the mountains of Glacier National Park are at once unified and expansive.  There are many high peaks possessed of that singular, Matterhornian architecture which makes for such good photos.  There are also many appropriately deep and dark valleys, and said valleys are spread amongst and between the peaks such that it is possible to get well and truly situated in the depths of the range, something not possible in the Tetons, where any high vantage provides a view of either the Wyoming or Idaho plains.

All of which is to say that the mountains of Glacier are classical mountains, with all the proper metaphysical and mystical connotations.  There be dragons, indeed.

And that is in turn to say that religious inclinations are the right and proper outgrowth of time spent in Glacier, especially during the off-season, when the mountains wake from the soporific heat of summer (which is in Glacier de facto 2 months long at most) and really stretch their legs.

Triple Divide Pass, looking north into the Hudson Bay Creek drainage.  Note the bear tracks in the lower right hand corner. 

Soren Kierkegaard** was a Danish philosopher who wrote about religion and about faith.  He stands aside Plato and Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu as thinkers whose profundities are equalled by their stylist sophistication and beauty.  In Fear and Trembling he discusses the sacrifice of Abraham, and how the faith evinced therein rests on a belief in the absurd, that is, in something categorically beyond human comprehension.  Because Keirkegaard was post-Cartesian, he knew the power cogito ergo sum* held over human understanding (and thus, existence), and thus knew that placing a central tenet of religious existence beyond the reaches of human thought was at least doubly paradoxical.  As he wrote “To exist in such a way that my contrast to existence constantly expresses itself as the most beautiful and secure harmony with it- this I cannot do.  And yet, I repeatedly say, it must be wonderful to get the princess.”  This gorgeous reality has selectively reared its head in the century and half since, notably (and almost always overlooked) in the work of Edward Abbey, from which this blog takes its title and mission.

This past weekend I loaded snowshoes, two days of thin rations, and fall clothing into a newly completed pack (the umpteenth All-Pack revision) and headed through the heart of Glacier for 60 miles, on the latest of many such solo athletic and spiritual journeys.  Turning my mind off has always been a challenge; as a child I could never fall asleep without reading.  It is thus especially notable that, in 2010, I’ve weened myself off backcountry reading material, and been able to (normally) sleep just fine.  Nothing turns off the mind like the beat of walking for hours and hours in the woods, and as Kierkegaard wrote, “…faith begins precisely where thought stops…”

M graciously woke up at 630 on Saturday morning, and by 900 I was walking through the gated campground at Two Medicine, admiring abundant clouds and clean light.  It didn’t begin raining until just below the south side of Pitamakin Pass, which was amazingly snow free.  I put on my snowshoes at the summit, and full shell gear a mile down the north side.  I had pondered the necessity of bringing either, but would come to dearly rely on the presence of both.  My weather for the weekend substantially overdelivered on the forecasted 50% chance of rain, and the non-south facing passes of the second day would make the ‘shoes invaluable.

The miles between Pitamakin and the ascent to Triple Divide Pass are lost to memory and the violence it suffers at the zen hands of hiking.  The ascent of that pass is noteworthy however, as it has no switchbacks, just one 3+ mile long switch up the cirque wall.  A few of the deeper alcoves had a more easterly aspect, and these were reliably drifted full and packed with snow at a steep angle.  It was still raining, and the saturated snow made kicking steps with soft shoes easy.  I could even sink my trekking poles to the handles for self-belays, something I’d do again on similar sections going up Gunsight the next day.  In both cases steep snow (60-65 degrees, measured with an inclometer) and a 4th class runout (ie probably death in a fall) would have made harder snow a trip-stopper without an axe, alpine boots and crampons.  Those sections, perhaps 6 in all, were attention getting.

I had 31 miles to make my intended campsite on St Mary Lake, which meant I’d be night hiking.  I do that with dis-ease in Griz country, given that a startled hyperphasic bear is statistically the most dangerous to a hiker.  I saw no live bears, but lots of nearly live tracks, both black and Griz.  Some, as in the above photo, in rather unlikely places.  My off-season hiking this year has given me a ground truth understanding of what work animals do to find food.  Given the track depth, it seems Glacier bears favor night or early morning pass crossings.  So I strode along yelling “Hey ____! (bear, moose, elk, stick, mud, stump, vole, rock, etc) and singing old French camp songs.  Or what little I remember of them.

Camp was gorgeous.  On the flat rock beach of a glacial lake, it had stopped raining an hour ago, and the stars were out!  It was also gusting to 60 mph, making the fire burn fast (good for a quick dinner) and necessitating a post-dinner shelter re-pitching, complete with a lengthy quest for the heaviest drift logs and rocks I could carry.  The Trailstar is super burly once all the anchor points are guyed out, but establishing those guy points can be tricky.  The bivy sack, which I had thought about bringing days before the trip, turned out to the unlikely but best option (had I had it along).  I didn’t get the sleep until 1130, but slept well one I realized the shelter wasn’t going to blow away, just flap a lot.  The MLD guy points are burly.

I awoke at 740 and got going fast, after fetching my bear bag and crawling back into my bag to make coffee.  The trail was up in the trees 50-100 feet above the lake, so I walked the rock beach for a mile so I could fully enjoy the sunrise.

My legs and feet were creaky, and I knew the day would not be short, but M was meeting me at Lake McDonald Lodge at dark, and I had miles to make.  Fortunately, though my muscular and cardio specific conditioning is lacking right now, I’ve banked the experience to make up for it.

I needed all the help I can get.  The upper reaches of Gunsight were fogged in, breaks in the clouds and rain revealed steep, stark wall on all sides and one wet point-release avalanche that slide at the ground and ran a few hundred feet, covering a line of goat tracks.  The upper mile of trail was barely distinguishable, and making it up efficiently and away from avy terrain required all of my not inconsiderable skill at micro-route finding.  When I saw the hut at the apex of the pass and went inside to make ramen with my last esbit cube, I felt like I had very much succeeded in turning aside from human calculation, and in the process completed a Masters practical examination in wilderness travel.  The traverse around the side of Lake Ellen Wilson was tough and slow, snow conditions being as abysmal as they were, but even though the pass over to the Sperry drainage was not without its thought-provoking moments, the crux had been overcome and the trip was, sore feet and quads aside, a foregone conclusion.

I was over an hour late to meet M, but she had seen my microscopic Spot progress and delayed her arrival accordingly.  The last 1.8 miles, down hard dirt trail in the dark and drizzle with failing quads, was comical for even me to witness.  My safety call had morphed from Hey Bear to cursing the trail, errant rocks, deceptive shadows, my own knackered legs, and the extravagant number of feet in a mile.  All of which was absurd.  The nearer I felt to the world, the more intimate my notice of its details, the further I was drawn into a situation in which I was cursing exactly those things I was not only powerless to change, but would never truly desire to alter.  Whatever the state of my existence during those last miles, I was exactingly aware of it.

M was waiting, light on in the cab of the truck, in the parking lot of the lodge, the white truck seeming unusually clean against the wet asphalt into which all light vanished.  I threw my pack in the back, pulled off my rain jacket and my shoes, and let my damp socks stink in the air as I enjoyed a moist, warm, quiet ride back home.  My absurd, paradoxical existence, my coexistent separateness from and dependence upon the world at large, and my enthusiastic if occasional embrace of all that uncertainty instantly made the smallest details of my marriage, employment, and quiet daily life more beautiful and more secure than they had been 36 hours previously.

No matter how sore my feet were, and 24 hours later, still are.

*I think, therefore I am.
**All quotations/citations from the 1983 Hong and Hong translation.