I can see and hear you as you open this SPOT unit.
“Jane! Bear sent me a SPOT unit,” you yell from the den.
“You think he’s nuts?”
“Could be a message Dan.”
There are a number of reasons for the gift including age, friendship, and laughter.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always surprised and frightened when I walk into the John first thing in the morning and catch the image of this greyhair in the mirror.
“Geesus, who’s the geezer?”
“You,” says Blue Eyes and giggles.
Let’s face a fact that neither one of us is forty anymore. I quit doing the trail runs to the sky some years ago and stay closer to town on my routes today. No more leaving at eight in the morning and straggling back at dinner time looking like I’d been sorting wildcats. No more showing up at a friend’s house after a long run with him and then having his wife call us “junkies.”
So, brother, when you were training for ultra’s and out there alone along the Front Range and up into Rocky Mountain National Park, I’d worry a little about you and then trot out the old cliché about dying doing something you love. It’s a lame condolence, but to those of us who love the backcountry, it’s good enough.
But when I got the call that you’d busted your ankle on the Appalachian Trail last May and had to be carried out I really started thinking that maybe it was time for you to have a modicum of protection in the mountains.
I’m not a gadget person. I find the 5-watt handheld radios we carry on backcountry ski patrol semi-annoying, because we can often throw them farther than we can communicate with them. But when the Forest Service issued us SPOT units, this sort of Wylie Coyote balloon went up over my head and I thought, “What a good idea. If we actually got into the deep and brown at treeline with a snowboarder with multiple injuries, we could get help with a SPOT unit.”
This thing has a bunch of functions. Have Jane read you the instructions…slowly. Try not to move your lips while she is reading to you. But if you are really injured in the backcountry, the most important thing to remember is to punch the SOS button. The SPOT unit will transmit your lat/long coordinates to GEOS, the International Emergency Response Coordination Center in Houston, and they will in turn call the Boulder Sheriff, who will most likely send Rocky Mountain Rescue to haul you out at no cost unless you have done something really stupid.
So we’ve known each other for a while or certainly since we both had brown hair and sold textbooks. Do you remember the Trip That Ate Durango? I’m not exactly sure that much work got done on that trip, but man we ate well on our expense accounts and got some runs done, and maybe even a climb. But it is less about the work and more the really dumb stuff that happened to us over the years and the ensuing laughter that has made the bond between us.
You were leading something easy on Flagstaff. I think it was just a one-pitch crack and you had dropped in pro about every fifteen feet. I scrambled up cleaning the pro when I stopped for a moment and saw that you had dropped a nut right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy growing out of the crack.
“What are you doing?
“I’m clipping out around this poison ivy.”
“Don’t leave the pro.”
“I’m not reaching in that shit to get your hex nut.”
“Yank it out by the runner.”
“I’m not doing that either.”
“It’s my favorite piece of pro.”
“Geesus. what a baby.”
Back east where I grew up I used to get full-body poison ivy where I essentially turned into a giant blister for about ten days. But I’d come to Colorado in my mid-20s and never had a problem with poison ivy out here. Ten years later I figured I’d outgrown the allergy.
I pulled out the pro, racked it and finished the climb. Three hours later my right arm looked like Popeye’s forearm. It was huge and oozing and itched like crazy.
Or, how about the time in Boulder Canyon where I was working a dihedral and I got stuck reaching around the corner looking for a handhold? You were belaying from above and could see I was in trouble. Then I got sewing machine legs. I calmed myself. Sucked it up and made the move again. I missed and barely caught myself. Now I was really gripped. I looked up and could see you staring down at me.
“Dead is bad,” you said.
And then there was the Leadville 100. I was crewing for you from Winfield to Twin Lakes. You were bitching all the way up Hope Pass about your right toe. At the aid station on top I took off your shoe and saw this huge swollen big toe. I had a Swiss Army knife in a small fanny pack. I pulled it out and went to work on your shoe.
“No, Buddy you can’t do that.”
“I’m just cutting a hole above that toe.”
“Buddy, I love those shoes.”
You were wearing a half size smaller shoes than I was. I only had six or seven more miles to go and you had forty some. We switched shoes. We were running downhill and you were doing your typical down hill dawdle and talking at the same time.
“Real ultra runners can run and pee at the same time.”
“Damnit, those are my shoes.”
So, the SPOT is a way of saying thanks for the friendship and laughter but it is also a bit self-serving on my part. It’s fine to die out there, most of us sort of acknowledge that it could happen. But if this little piece of gear saves you, it simply means that we’ll get more time and laughter together.
Alan Stark is a backcounty ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and lives in Boulder with this Blue Eyed person and her dog.