Land in the Sky: Toxic Waste Day

Toxic-Waste-Day-iiIt’s Toxic Waste Day. A blessing. The one day in the year when county residents are invited to dispose of their accumulated “household hazardous materials.” For free. No questions asked. That’s good, because in the past when I did ask at the town hall about how to properly dispose of a little carbon tetrachloride, I got the impression it would be easier to get a building permit for a backyard nuclear reactor. Or a new puppy mill. No wonder Toxic Waste Day feels nearly as festive as the Fourth of July.

The venue for this event changes every year. The location remains undisclosed until the very last minute. Then out of the blue a text arrives on my phone. It says go to an address on some road I’ve never heard of in a town I’ve never been to before. When I type this address into Google Maps, I get a travel advisory issued by the EPA. But that doesn’t stop me. I’ve been preparing for this day for too long. The pickup is gassed and ready to go—with its payload of rusty paint cans, quivers of fluorescent light bulbs, leaky bottles of Chlordane, and an unopened case of Red Bull left by some roofers a few years back.

I hit the road with my mephitic freight and drive far out into the wild woolly wags. Nobody lives in these parts. The trees along the road are blighted. No birds sing. Even poison ivy won’t grow here. Suddenly in the middle of the road, a bulbous-nosed traffic cop appears as if from nowhere. But this is nowhere, so what did I expect? The buttons are popping from his uniform. His eyes are red. He may have a gun. With a menacing wave of his hand, he directs me down a dubious dirt lane. I make the turn. What choice do I have? The lane quickly goes from dubious to washboard. The little Superfund Site I’ve been hauling along in the back of the pickup is being shaken violently. This can’t be good.

At last, the end is near. In the distance are a couple of corrugated steel buildings at the edge of a barren field. Yellow smoke can be seen rising from several large vats nearby. Only when I get closer do I see the long line of vehicles with loads even more virulent than my own. Men in red t-shirts and wearing dark rubber gloves work fearlessly to relieve the citizenry of caustic burdens. They whistle while they work. No one is wearing a ventilator. Nearby an American flag flutters gently on a white-painted pole. It almost reminds me of a Zen koan.

The line of vehicles moves more quickly than expected. Before I know it, my turn has arrived. The men in red shirts unload my half ton of hell. They are my heroes. Before I depart, I wave to them. I am given the thumbs up. My happiness is incandescent. Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of this pickup, I would break into fireworks.

Mountain Passages—Should Volunteers Patrol the Backcountry or Not

Do we really need backcountry patrols? And if so, who should be patrolling?


I ask for a couple of reasons: first, because I’d like to know what you think, and, second, because M. John Fayhee, editor emeritus of Mountain Gazette, was here in Boulder last week. And he had an opinion on the subject.

Big surprise.

Breakfast was a sausage, bean and egg burrito with chipotle in adobo sauce served here at The Creak House. It met with Fayhee’s approval. He had had three cups of coffee and was fired up. He wanted to know what I was doing with Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol (BMNSP). I said we were working on a proposal for the Forest Service to patrol out of the Brainard Lake and Moffat Tunnel trailheads next winter.

It was as if I had told him I was developing several acres of mountain property in a wilderness area inholding. He sort of sputtered and said, “Hell, I helped found a coalition up in Summit County to protect the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area. Now there are volunteers in uniform shirts up there patrolling like fucking Boy Scouts or something. I never envisioned that.”

He was trying to be nice, which is often a real effort for him, but the thought of any sort of “official person” patrolling in the backcountry just flat out offended him. “Some people think it’s fine to have patrols in the backcountry, they sort of need that official presence, but the rest of us just want to be left alone in the back country. If you get hurt, ask for help or drag your ass out of there.”

I explained that BMNSP would simply be a “presence” on these trails, a source of information to anyone who had questions, and first aid if anyone needed help. Period. We plan to be up there doing what we have been trained to do. We’re not rangers, or cops. We’re volunteer backcountry ski patrollers. BMNSP has been in business for 40 years.

The conversation moved on to other cosmic issues but the question still stands: should anyone be patrolling the backcountry?
In my view, the answer is yes. There need to be skilled people in the backcountry who can answer people’s questions, who can explain to people such basics as letting Spot chase wildlife is a bad idea, and who can initiate first responses if someone needs help.

It seems like this should be a high priority of the National Park Service, National Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. But it is not. Fifty percent of them are bureaucrats who think moving paper back and forth between their desks and driving around in trucks is real work.


And the fifty percent who really care… well, there aren’t enough of the good ones to patrol much of the territory they manage. So in many locations, it is left to volunteers to patrol.

But does the presence of volunteers in the backcountry impact your enjoyment?

I have to beg the question.

When I was into bagging 14ers, the first thing we would do on top was to look 360 degrees for approaching thunderboomers. If a cell was vaguely close, we would sign the register and beat feet downhill to treeline.

On our way down, we almost always came across folks making the approach in shorts and T-shirts and mostly empty water bottles from the Jiffy Mart, often with kids—all of them totally unprepared to weather a mountain thunderstorm. We’d tell them that the sky was about to explode and that the temperature was about to drop 30 degrees. We’d tell them they should turn around. And they almost always ignored us and pushed on for the summit. At the very least, I know they had a miserable experience. I’m wondering if they would have listened to me if I’d had on an official looking shirt or instead of ratty, layered polypro?

Should we patrol Moffat and Brainard, we’ll have our radios, and our red vests (filled with medical stuff) with the white crosses on our backs. So we will look official. If we see someone struggling on an easy route and suggest that it’s only going to get more difficult, the question becomes, will they listen to us and turn around because we sort of look official, or will they ignore us?

I suspect that they will ignore us in spite of the official gear and push on. But I also suspect that we will continue our patrol but make sure that we return to their route to check on them.

Big Brother ruining people’s wilderness experience?

Nope. Volunteers watching our for people who might get in trouble.

But I also admit that the presence of an official person does impact your enjoyment of the backcountry. In point of fact that person is there to watch you and that fact alone is annoying to folks like Fayhee, maybe you, too.

A partial answer might be to do away with any uniforms or insignia, hide the radios and just patrol. And I think that those of us who love the backcountry do just that routinely. We are always watching other people on the trail and offering information or aid if needed. But I need to be honest here about my motivations. I joined ski patrol because I wanted to be part of an organization that can actually be of service—so there is an ego thing to carrying the gear and wearing the cross.


Without some sort of an organization and insignia, I think it would be hard to recruit, train, and keep volunteers. Generally people who volunteer want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and expect some level of management.

Finally, I have to go back to my 14er’s experience. I think people might pay more attention to our warning of danger if we appear to be more official.

That’s my opinion.

Fayhee is still sputtering.

What do you think?

Alan Stark is a freelance writer and recovering book publisher who splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge.

Photos are of BMNSP member and world-famous guidebook author Alan Apt. 

Land in the Sky: Outside

Watts-LibraryA while back, my friend Steve posted a good question on Facebook: “Buddhist friends, fellow practitioners of any path, a line in the late Nanao Sakaki’s collected poems, How to Live on the Planet Earth,  has stuck with me as a kind of koan: ‘Sit in the outside of your meditation.’ What does that mean?” I had no idea, but the question stuck with me. Like I said, it was a good question.

A good question is like a big old iron chest dug up unexpectedly while roto-tilling the Vegetable Garden of the Mind. The chest is rusted shut. It can’t be opened but you know it’s full of treasure. So you haul it along till you find some way to pry it open. The thing is, lugging around a weighty item like that is carking hard work. So hard you wind up using words like carking to describe your heroic efforts. Anyhoo, this one weighed on me so much I decided to skip zazen that morning and go for a hike in the Catskill Mountains. I live there, so it’s not as far away as it sounds. Without that bothersome treasure chest, my mind was able to soar. Right up into the clouds of memory.

I got to reminiscing about the time Steve and I visited the ruins of Alan Watts’s library. Watts was a renegade Anglican cleric who wrote a lot of books and did more to popularize Zen Buddhism in America than just about anybody. One of his books was called Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown. It’s my favorite title of all time, and he wrote it in his library. I’m writing this in my library. You could say I have a thing for libraries. No wonder I wanted to visit Alan Watts’s. It was located in a place called Druid Heights, a former bohemian enclave north of San Francisco. I can’t remember exactly where it was or how Steve and I found our way there. I do remember walking a mile or more along an iffy, bay-scented dirt road past ten thousand ticks leering out from the brush. In their eyes we were lunch.

Near the end of the road, we found Alan Watts’s library: a once-marvelous, hand-crafted, circular, wooden structure now coming apart at the seams. Big shreds of fallen eucalyptus bark hung like crepe from the roof. A long-defunct PG&E meter affixed to the side of Alan Watts’s library looked like the forgotten coffin of electric power. Around back we found the moldering remnants of a vintage Marin hot tub and a tired-out statue of Ganesha, “remover of obstacles.” Through a shattered bathroom window we could see an old toilet, busted and begrimed. For some reason this creeped me out more than anything else.

Did I mention that Alan Watts died in his library? Near the front of the building was a small wooden stupa, poking up like a sore thumb from a nest of weeds. A portion of Alan Watts’s ashes are interred beneath it. Another portion sits under a boulder at the end of an overgrown trail at Green Gulch Zen Center. The boulder itself has been devoured by tangling vines of poison-oak. The whereabouts of yet another portion of Watts’s ashes are, well, unknown. They disappeared shortly after his death in 1973, when his widow’s home was burglarized. The thief probably did not know what was inside the pretty urn he was swiping

We dared not go inside the old library. Instead, we peered in through narrow, vertical windows that had not been washed since the Nixon years. Steve looked through one and I walked 180 degrees around the library to look through another. The room was, for the most part, barren. The circular walls were lined with empty bookcases. The only piece of furniture was a small woodstove, painted bright red. It hadn’t been fired up in years. Through the dust motes and ghosts of Alan Watts’s ideas, Steve and I could see each other across the room. We each had a camera and became a couple ghosts taking pictures of one another. Afterwards Steve suggested we sit zazen outside on the rotting deck of Alan Watts’s library. And we did.

Alan Watts’s library.



Holy crap! I think I just pried open that treasure chest.


Land in the Sky: Meadows

Mount-HoodOn my bookshelf is a copy of Joseph T. Hazard’s Snow Sentinels of the Pacific Northwest. It’s an old book—published in 1932— about the eight great snow-peaks of the Cascade Range and the Olympics. I acquired this volume more than twenty years ago in a used book shop in Ellensburg, Washington. Back then, I was living in the West. If I wasn’t trying to climb one of those mountains out there, then I was reading about them.

Now I live in the Northeast, where we have lovely, blue-green and hay-scented mountains but no snow-peaks. I spend my days cutting down trees and hauling brush. I am trying to restore an old meadow nearly lost to the dark woods. Too many old fields and pastures around here have vanished along with the farms they once surrounded. For some reason, I am compelled to keep one or two of these intervals open to the sun. It’s hard work. I don’t even have any farm animals, but the worm-eager robins seem pleased with my efforts.

At night I read. Reading helps to preserve another kind of meadow, this one inside the head. Sometimes, though, I get nostalgic for those glistening Elysian firns of the Pacific Northwest. Or maybe I just miss my youth, which is yet another kind of meadow being lost to dark woods. In any case, that’s when I pull down Snow Sentinels and flip it open to find passages like this: “We arrive at the summer snowfields. The air is clear, the sun bright, and to the reaches of dimming distance the floating maelstrom of snow summits is stilled to a white silence.”

Postcard: Lake Placid, N.Y.

Six years ago, a dear friend from high school named Tim passed away unexpectedly. Ever since then, a number of Tim’s friends, myself included, had talked about reuniting in his honor somewhere meaningful. We made it happen last weekend at Tim’s mother’s house in Lake Placid, N.Y. Guys flew in from around the country and spent two full days catching up on life and reminding ourselves how much real friendships mean. This photo depicts the impromptu national anthem we all sang before a lively horseshoe tournament kicked off the weekend. As hard as reunions are to plan and attend, they always seem to be worth the effort.

national anthem
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Flowers in the Sky

Mountains-of-the-MoonWe were out west and our directions were faulty. We had been seeking a mountain but somehow arrived at an old graveyard. Instead of a trailhead it was tombstones. The ground between the glancing markers was strewn with pine needles and fretted with morning sunlight. A weather-beaten sign nailed to an old tree delivered two gray words: “Pioneer Cemetery.” No birds were singing, yet in the middle of this small enclosure was a solitary wildflower with small blue blossoms: forget-me-not, or as the plant is more commonly known in these parts, stickseed. The burial ground was serene and inviting. Had we been looking for a campsite, this might have been the place. Ah, but the day was still young and our minds were set on a mountain, so we continued on our way. The peak, as it turned out, was not far off. The sky was clear. Soon we were making our ascent. But that unexpected graveyard and its lone wildflower remained in my thoughts, right to the top of the mountain and beyond.

To judge from the records, a kind of “dark learning” is to be obtained by those who scale mountains. For reasons never to be fathomed, lofty summits serve as portals, if not to the “other world” then perchance to another style of awareness. Maybe it’s the thin air, or the proximity to sky, or the mere physical exertion that relaxes the tension of consciousness—it’s difficult to say with any certainty. “You have but a short time left to live,” says Aurelius, “so live as on a mountain.” Whatever the case, the religious landscapes of the world appear serrated into wondrous heights. Mount Olympus, according to Homer, is “neither shaken by winds, nor ever wet with rain, nor does snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless.” The Bible has its share of “power peaks,” including Ararat, Horeb, and Tabor, while in China Taoism claims its Five Sacred Mountains, and Vulture Peak in India is revered as one of the Buddha’s favorite resorts, where he delivered some of his most rarefied teachings.

Nowhere do mountains assume greater spiritual significance than in Japan, where adherents of Shugendo—a hybrid of Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism, with a little shamanism thrown in—regard mountains as ritual loci of power, veritable landscape mandalas, to be entered as much with the body as with the mind. Along similar lines, Ichiro Hori in his Folk Religion in Japan explains that the word for mountain—yama—is commonly employed in rural districts to refer to funerary rites. For example, the coffin is called yama-oke (“mountain box”); selecting the burial site is yama-gime (“choosing the mountain”); and digging the grave isyama-shigoto (“mountain work”). A hint is to be gleaned here as to the true nature of all mountaineering, similar to Socrates’ famous definition of philosophy as the “practice of death.”

Make no mistake, mountaineering in whatever form is risky. For the true adept, nothing material is ever gained from the arduous ascent, though all could be lost in the slip of a moment. Edward Whymper, the nineteenth-century Englishman who led the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn, concludes his classic Scrambles Amongst the Alps with these sobering words: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.” The hard-won insight behind these words is almost palpable: half of Whymper’s climbing party perished on the descent, the result of a minor misstep.

The most elevated graveyard on earth is Mount Everest. A couple hundred bodies—each a mountaineering fatality—are believed to lie scattered across the upper reaches of its frozen slopes. The practice of climbers around there is to let the dead bury the dead. It is a tradition arising from necessity: to attempt recovery of bodies at such unforgiving heights is extremely dangerous. Among the oldest of these cloud-shrouded corpses are those of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. At the time of their deaths in 1924 they were very near the summit. They may have made it to the top, thus becoming the first human beings to set foot upon the world’s highest point. If so they beat out Sir Edmund Hillary by nearly three decades, but no one knows for sure. The tale perished with them—a reminder that the climber is not the master but the minister of the peak.

Those who climb mountains seem motivated by a venerable wisdom: What is gained with great difficulty is more valuable than what is acquired without effort. Or so one would think after perusing the literature. I’m not talking about those bestsellers that dish up harrowing accounts of doomed expeditions on Danali or K-2. No, I am referring to the fugitive writings of ordinary folks who, when they get a little time off from the workaday, spend it upon the more companionable mountains and then write down a few words about their experiences. Such accounts are usually deposited in containers and left on the summits, as a kind of votive offering. Mount Shasta in California provides a case in point.

Shasta is a big peak by anybody’s standards—a glacier-clad volcano rising 14,179 feet above sea level. To climb it is arduous but not technically difficult. Lots of people have made it to the top. I’m one of them. But truth be told, each of these ordinary human beings was seeking something extraordinary. The summit register confirms this.

Actually, “register” is a highfalutin’ term for the tattered spiral notebook I found crammed into a dented coffee can stashed in the uppermost rocks. Over time, weather takes its toll on the legibility of all such mountain documents—words suffer from exposure. This book was in worse shape than some of the exhausted climbers who stagger up to sign their names in it: all meaning was perched on a narrow ledge of coherence, about to tumble off. Even so, it was still possible to make out various entries in the Shasta register. Most of them were commonplace exclamations concerning the weather (“Glorious day!”), God (“Thank the Lord for getting me up here!”), and ego (“I’m on top of the world!”). But one or two entries did rise above the ordinary, in terms of ability to pique a reader’s interest. At the bottom of the can, a brittle slip of paper preserved this fragment of a tale: “. . . end this way. I never thought I’d be writing about [. . .] for strangers to read, but . . . .” And then there was this text, surviving in its entirety save for the author’s name: “Beautiful climb, perfect weather, hope to God I make it down. My sex change operation is at 9:00 sharp. Just think: Maybe I can be the first person to re-climb Shasta as another person.” Ah, but who among us ever remains the same from one climb to the next, whether it be up a mountain or out of bed in the morning?

To gain some purchase on this question, consider the seventeenth century alchemist Thomas Vaughan, whose Lumen de Lumine, or A New Magical Light can be recommended as one of the great handbooks of mountaineering. At one point, after referring in cryptic fashion to a wondrous plant found only on the highest peaks of a shadowy range called the Mountains of the Moon, Vaughan writes: “Much indeed might be spoken concerning these mountains, if it were lawful to publish their mysteries; but one thing I shall not forbear to tell you. They are very dangerous places after night, for they are haunted with fires and other strange apparitions, occasioned—as I am told by the Magi—by certain spirits which dabble lasciviously with the sperm of the world and imprint their imaginations in it, producing many times fantastic and monstrous generations.”

For my part, I never climb a mountain without the hope that I will discover on its summit one of Vaughan’s rare and winsome moon-flowers. That I have yet to succeed does nothing to diminish my expectation. As for the psychological dangers he speaks of—those lasciviously dabbling spirits—they do exist and should be given heed, but one man’s peril proves another’s boon.

The philosopher William James loved to climb mountains. He was particularly fond of the Adirondacks. On a July night in 1898, while camping out with friends just below the summit of Mount Marcy, he had a run-in with a gang of mountain spirits. The story is recounted in a letter James wrote to his wife. Here’s what happened.

After a delightfully strenuous day of clambering up and over the highest mountains in New York State, James not only was physically spent, but his mind was furiously at work on a series of lectures he had agreed to present at Edinburgh. Unable to sleep, he arose and ventured forth, alone into the night woods. “All fermented within me,” he reports, “till it became a regular Walpurgisnacht. I spent a good deal of it in the woods, where the streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral gods of the inner life . . . .” A colloquy of gods was being held in his heart!

The ordinarily eloquent James suddenly was at a loss for words as he tried to explain to his wife what had come over him. Like a desperate climber on a difficult and unfamiliar pitch of rock, he started grasping for anything that might provide a hold: “The intense significance of some sort, of the whole scene, if one could only tell the significance; the intense inhuman remoteness of its inner life, and yet the intense appeal of it; its everlasting freshness and its immemorial antiquity and decay . . . .” Having arrived at the limits of linguistic ability, James concludes: “It was one of the happiest lonesome nights of my existence, and I understand now what a poet is.”

The lectures he eventually delivered in Edinburgh were profoundly influenced by his encounter with those gods in the mountain dark. Later the talks were published under the title The Varieties of Religious Experience. The book was immediately recognized as a classic. James was now at the top of his profession, but it came at great cost: the gods had opened his mind to the poetic nature of reality, but the grueling traverse across that rugged Adirondack range had worked irreparable damage upon his health. His remaining years were marked by visionary intensity but drastically diminished physical vitality. There would be no more trips into his beloved mountains. When he died in 1910, an autopsy revealed the fatal lesions on his heart.

*          *          *

Hellroaring is the unsurpassed peak in its range, but you will not find its name on any map. Some say this omission was a mapmaker’s error, while others claim it a stratagem on the part of locals to keep out unwanted visitors. Another piece of information not on the map: Hellroaring has had more than its share of climbing fatalities, giving rise to a considerable body of tragic lore, which hovers ominously over the mountain like a lenticular cloud. What you will find on the map, however, is Hellroaring’s elevation—10,751 feet—and a labyrinth of contour lines that translate into a rocky finger of fate pointing skyward. There’s no mistaking this peak once you’ve laid aside the map and are actually on the ground. So, if your heart is really set on climbing Hellroaring, you can find your way there, despite the obstacles.

We were up there just a few weeks ago. A sunny summer day, the eleventh of July. From our base camp, it took most of the morning to reach the top of the peak. It was ourselves alone and endless distant ridges. The air was calm. Pincushion clumps of alpine phlox were abloom in blue abundance, saturating the summit air with a fragrance sweeter than any breath of Persephone. Butterflies were everywhere, feeding on the nectar.

The summit register for Hellroaring is housed in a mountain-box more lavish than most: cast aluminum and embossed with the name of the mountaineering club that placed it here in 1961. The top of the box is hinged and held shut by two large thumb-nuts. When I bent down to raise the lid, a resting butterfly took wing. Inside the box was the usual oddball assortment of mementos left by climbers: business cards, empty pens, a set of keys, an old pair of sunglasses. And of course, there was the register itself—in this case, an ornate leather-bound journal. Its entries possessed an eloquence all but lost in contemporary alpine literature. Hellroaring’s register was packed with the gnomic utterances of several generations of mountain sages: “Don’t mess with what lies deep in the other.” “Foolish people imagine what they imagine is someplace else.” “Only a few among us have learned to love stones.” Given this mountain’s unfortunate climbing history, many of these entries can be assumed last words.

My attention was diverted from the book when I noticed a Ziploc bag lying at the bottom of the box. I reached for it and opened it. Inside was a photograph. Climbers often leave them on summits, and almost always these are pictures of people—yearbook mugshots, wedding photos, family reunions, that kind of thing. But the photo I found that day on top of Hellroaring was unique in my mountain experience: it was of a grave marker, located who knows where, bearing a simple inscription:

          Heather Smallidge

          June 27, 1977 – Sept. 8, 1999

          She May Have Died Here

          But She Lived Here Too . . . .

The back of the photo was blank. No words upon which to anchor a narrative. The question, if not the ghost, arises: Who was Heather Smallidge, and what happened to her? Tales too go the way of all flesh—and this one was lost in mountain air.

Only later do we learn the story—or at least a story. We happen upon it on the way home. We stop for breakfast in a log cabin tourist lodge at the edge of the mountains. A young waitress shows us to our table. As we are sitting, we spot a small memorial plaque hanging on the wall. It bears the name of Heather Smallidge. Surprised, we ask our young waitress if she has any details. Yes, she does. She has them all, and delivers them in a tone of malicious joy.

“Oh yeah,” she says, “her—the snooty college girl from back east. She worked here a couple summers. They say she was a poet and crazy about wildflowers, especially ones that grow on tops of mountains. She called them her ‘flowers in the sky.’ I’ve never seen them myself. She must have had her head in the clouds. People around here used to call her ‘Sky Pilot.’ Yeah, she loved her poetry and her flowers and—oh yeah, she loved the bartender too.” She jerks a thumb toward the barroom door.

“They were going to be married, you know, and have kids and a whole life together. That never happened. One day the girl just didn’t show up for work. People knew she had gone off the day before looking for her flowers in the sky. Nobody knew where exactly. Talk about stupid! It was three or four days before they found her body up on Hellroaring Peak. Looked like she slipped and fell, but that’s not what killed her. They say she bled to death. If you know the spot you can still see the bloodstains on the rocks. Imagine the suffering!”

“How horrible!” we say. “Did you know her well?”

“Oh no,” the young waitress replies, now yawning. “I never met her.” Once again she jerks her thumb toward the barroom door: “My fiancé told me the story.”

As I resumed my perusal of Hellroaring’s summit register, an index card dropped out from between the pages. The card showed no signs of weathering, and indeed looked brand new. It contained a short message, written in a neat hand. It was dated—July 11th. Today! Had somebody already been here before us? Funny, we saw no one on the way up, nor any signs that any had been here in a long, long time. With only the date and no year to go by, this card could just as well have been placed in the register one hour ago, or one year ago, or even ten years ago. Maybe it had always been here—no telling. Anyhow, the card read: “Most extraordinary, right now, just me and ten thousand butterflies.”

Yes, the butterflies, those innumerable small triumphs of transformation, faithful pollinators of the alpine phlox. Phlox—the word literally means “flame”—and the gaslight blue of its petals must be drawn from the same dark lamps that lit the way for Orpheus. That such a flower should abide up here on this deadly summit, so close to heaven, confirms that most enduring of all mountaineering maxims: “The way up is the way down.”

Death among the ancient Greeks was personified as a beautiful youth. Because the immortal gods are by their very nature “without death,” they hated this boy and banned him from Mount Olympus, a place he dearly loved for the wild beauty of its flowers. Thus he was forced to wander in the mortal realm, a lonely journey that continues to this day. In old paintings and motifs he can often be seen holding an inverted torch, its flame extinguished, or, as I like to envision it, the flame having fallen to the ground and shattered into innumerable slivers, now transfigured into the petals of certain flowers that grow only in those high and hard to reach places, closest to the heart of that outcast youth.


(Originally printed in the November – December 2003 issue of Quest magazine.)

Land in the Sky: When Circumstances Are Right

Tiny-Ivory-ChestMy study is cluttered. And dusty. A room jammed with all the junk that goes with being O’Grady. Books. Manuscripts. Bankers Boxes full of yellowing letters from old friends. Yes, letters. They date from the days when friends would write letters to each other. I can’t remember the last time I received an actual letter in the mail. It’s just as well. I have enough stuff. “I am myself and my circumstances” says the philosopher. And “circumstances” is just a fancy word for stuff. Especially the older you get. I need to get rid of some stuff.

On top of one of my bookcases is a big ole Jeffrey pine cone—a gentle reminder of the East Side of the Sierra Nevada. On my desk is a granite rock long ago plucked from Walden Pond. I used to have two rocks from Walden Pond. Then one day in the nineties I took one with me to the top of Mount Shasta in California. It’s a 14,179 foot sleeping volcano with glaciers on it. Right near the top of the mountain is a boiling, sulfurous hot spring. I tossed the Walden Pond rock in there. I must have had my reasons. I just can’t remember them anymore.

Maybe the weirdest item among my stuff is the bones of the writer Mary Austin. Well, not really her bones, just a few fragments of her cremated remains. I gleaned them many years ago from a mountaintop in New Mexico, where they lay scattered among the baloney sandwich ruins of a half century of hiker picnics. Yes, mountaintops can be weird places, at least for me.

Mary Austin died in Santa Fe in 1934. She is remembered today mostly for her first book, The Land of Little Rain. It’s a pretty good book. She was a pretty good writer. Literary scholars have written things about her. I’ve written a few myself, including the story of how her remains wound up on the summit of an obscure peak outside of Santa Fe and then were forgotten. That story would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It was published in a little-known literary journal. I forget which one.

Anyway, I had thought I was done writing about Mary Austin, but here I go again. Coming across somebody’s cremated remains forgotten among your stuff is a powerful prompt. I tried to resist it because maybe I write too much about graveyards and how file boxes look like coffins.

Speaking of coffins, the few bits of Mary Austin’s remains in my possession have been kept respectfully in a tiny ivory chest. A friend gave it to me when she discovered what exactly I had been keeping in a vintage Catskill Mountain Game Farm ashtray on one of my bookshelves. She was a poet and not impressed with my literalism. So for the last couple decades that’s where my portion of Mary Austin’s remains have resided, in that tiny ivory chest.

I had forgotten all about the remains till I came across the tiny ivory chest yesterday when I was tidying up my study. It was inside a handsome carved wooden box, where I had placed it some years ago because, honestly, who wants to be looking at a little coffin all the time? As soon as I saw it, though, I remembered the promise I had made to myself to one day return what’s left of Mary Austin to that obscure mountaintop outside of Santa Fe and give her a proper burial. Which is more than she received from the hired cowboys who dumped her ashes there in 1939 when the mortuary that had been storing them went out of business.

Yes, when the circumstances are right, I will go to New Mexico and get rid of some stuff.

Postcard: June ski day in Breckenridge

Baldy summit chute
Photo by Devon O’Neil

It started out as a three-person group and quickly swelled to nine. With high-alpine lines still fat and smooth and gorgeous bluebird days aplenty this year in Colorado, the June ski season has been phenomenal, and a small tribe of diehards has been taking full advantage. Everyone mumbled in jest about the large group, but the truth was we all loved it. Two summits over 13,600 feet and a pair of long, thigh-burning runs later, we reconvened at a house in town to drink beer and eat watermelon in the sun. No one wanted the day to end, especially not Marble the dog.


Land in the Sky: Scrambles Amongst the Cascades

Scrambles-Amongst-the-CascadesThe other evening, on the way home from happy hour down at Pandora’s Tavern, I drove past the Story Crematorium. You know the place, where they incinerate all the tales that come into writers’ heads but never get written down. It’s a full-service creativity mortuary—they also put the torch to unfinished manuscripts, if that’s what you need.

I have my share of them. One in particular has haunted me for more than twenty years. Probably because it’s in plain sight, right next to where I shelve my mountaineering books. The manuscript is several hundred pages long and I keep it in a wood-grain storage carton. They call it a Bankers Box but it looks more like a little coffin for bright ideas. For me, it also holds a morbid fascination. I sometimes lift the coffin lid and take a peek inside. The pages lie there exactly as they were interred, perfectly preserved, like the body of a saint: Incorruptible. What else should I expect? It’s not like the book is going to finish writing itself.

“What’s the book about?” Well, I’m happy to tell you. I only wish I was as happy to sit down and actually finish writing it. But anyway, in the late 1980s I got this idea to climb all the volcanoes in the Cascade Range—from Lassen Peak in Northern California to Mount Baker in the State of Washington—then write a book recounting my heroic adventures in solo mountaineering. That might sound impressive, but it’s really not. Even though I’ve climbed a lot of peaks over the years, when it comes right down to it I am not much of a mountaineer. Everything I know about climbing comes from reading Edward Whymper. And I’m even less of a writer than a mountaineer, to judge from my output. I’m just a guy who likes to climb mountains by himself—even the occasional one I don’t belong on—and scribble a few notes.

So on August 1, 1992, I loaded up my aging Corolla wagon with my thrift store climbing gear and headed north for the mountains. I spent the next six weeks driving from one Cascade volcano to the next, staggering my way to the top of each one. Many had glaciers and permanent snowfields. I trekked across them oblivious to hazards of serac and crevasse. I carried a single ice screw with me as a kind of talisman to ward off danger. I had no idea how to use it. I picked it up cheap at a consignment shop just before I set out on my adventures. I still have it. I’ve never used it—and still don’t know how—but it looks good sitting there on the mantel. A few of the Cascade summits required some technical climbing. I wasn’t expecting that. I wound up accidentally free-soloing them. Altitude sickness can be a problem on the higher peaks. In the summit register on Mount Shasta somebody wrote: “Long way to come to feel like shit.” Sometimes that’s how I feel when I look at my unfinished manuscript.

By the third week in September of 1992, I had climbed all these Cascade volcanoes: Lassen, Shasta, McLaughlin, Mazama (really a volcano turned inside out and now a lake called Crater, which I circumambulated instead of diving into), Thielsen, Three Sisters, Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Jefferson, Hood, Adams, St. Helens, Glacier, and Baker. The astute reader will notice one name missing from this list: Rainier. That’s because on the day I stopped in at the Park Service office to obtain a climbing permit, the rangers took one look at my outfit—old-style climbing tweeds, deerstalker hat, Redwing work-boots, and rickety alpenstock—and told me to take a hike, elsewhere. Oh well. So a few years later I got myself a pair of Koflach boots, some Gore-Tex, and a real ice-axe, and went back to Rainier with a couple buddies and we bagged it.

If I ever decide to exhume that manuscript and finish writing the book about that long ago summer I spent heroically climbing the Cascade volcanoes all by myself, I might have to edit my buddies out of it. The more likely conclusion is someday I’ll be dropping off my little Bankers Box of a coffin at the Story Crematorium.

Steve “Crusher” Bartlett Talks Desert Towers

It’s 10am on Tuesday at climber and author of Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock Steve “Crusher” Bartlett’s house. He’s cooking up sausages and bacon at his spacious home in downtown Boulder. His kitchen has turquoise tile countertops with an orange stroke around the edges. The walls are tall and white and windows surround us. The humming of the fan mixes with the sound of crackling grease. He pours coffee beans into a red grinder.

“One of the lessons you’ll learn from me is the advantages to getting up late,” he says. Then he pours a few chopped up potatoes into the gray skillet and replaces the lid.

grand viewWe talk about desert towers, his forté. He’s summited 142 towers, and 37 previously unclimbed towers. It seems no matter which tower or route I bring up he knows who put it up, what year and in what style.

“Since October 1976,” he says when I ask how long he’s been climbing. “The number keeps changing, it keeps going up. “Yeah, that was in northeast England, Northumberland. I took to it right away. I loved it. I was at college there so I joined some clubs. I could have been a caver but the van broke down so the next weekend I joined the climbing club. I just loved being high up on the side of a vertical cliff,” — he extends his arms – “and seeing the earth far below.”

“The situations you get into climbing — I’ve always liked that. When aid climbing in the desert you can get to places no one has ever been before. It’s a rare thing in this world to be able to do that.”

He sits down and digs into his breakfast. He quiets down, looks about, takes fast bites of his food, and a swig of his coffee.

“That’s a big part of why I got into towers. It’s also really exciting doing new routes. But there’s more to it than that. It’s a tradition in climbing that forces you to do things ground up because there’s no other way to get to the top.” The empty sausage pan, burner now turned off, continues to sizzle.

His wife Fran walks down the stairs and asks Crusher if he’d still be interested in going climbing during the next weekend. I ask what he plans to do. “I have no idea,” he says. “We’ll probably figure it out Friday evening.”

“I didn’t do much in the desert until 1988 when Eric Bjornstad’s Desert Rock book came out. I bought a copy of that as soon as it appeared. Strappo [Hughes] and Simon Peck and I went out to the Fisher Towers [outside Moab, Utah], a place we never heard of before. Page after page the guidebooks showed these really impressive towers with A3, A4, and A5 routes like you see in Yosemite. But it was of course nothing like Yosemite. The rock is really dark and intimidating and there’s mud dribbling down the sides of all these things. Spooky place.”

“We did this route Phantom Sprint, named after a little English car. It was put up by Jim Beyer and he thought it was really easy and straightforward.”

“So Simon, who is a good aid climber, starts up the first pitch, and suddenly falls off and disappears. It turned out he’d fallen 60 feet. He fell upside down but he was not hurt because he didn’t actually hit the ground. So I went up there and did it slowly and carefully.”

“And I started leading the second pitch and kicking loads of mud on their heads and they decided they didn’t want to belay me anymore. So we bailed and I was not happy. I went back a few weeks later with a guy called Bill Roberts. [We made] the second ascent.”

“I soloed the Sundevil  Chimney [on the 1,100 foot Titan] in 1991 in February and it was bitterly cold. Before going to bed I would lay out bread and cheese on the picnic table. This way I could eat bits of sandwiches and put my hands back in my bag again [he also slept on the table]. Once I got warmer I headed out to the Titan.”

“Getting to the top [of towers] is just fantastic. The really good moments — you would think the good moments would be getting to the top. Sometimes getting back down is a really good feeling. When everything is off the route and you can finally walk away from it — that’s really satisfying.”

Any tips for aspiring desert tower climbers, I ask?

“There was as phrase from an Eric Bjornstad to Charlie Fowler interview when Eric asked the same question. I liked what he said, ‘I like people that go their own way and follow their own path.’ I’d have to agree that if you just plug away at something, on one narrow field, it’s really nice to get good at it. That’s the great thing about desert towers. You have to do it the old-fashioned way, and just deal with whatever has to be dealt with. Convenience has never been of interest to me. The bigger the struggle the bigger the reward.” He takes a swig of water. “It’s nice to have some uncertainty.”

The author and Crusher climbed a tower with a David Levene, a reporter from the guardian, who made a the following video: Climbing in Canyonlands, Utah: ‘Whatever you do here you’ve got to do it on a grand scale’.