Smoke Signals a Colorado Book Award Finalist

Great news. We just heard that M. John Fayhee’s latest book, Smoke Signals: Wayward
Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West, has been selected as a
finalist of the 2013 Colorado Book Awards in the General Nonfiction
category. The bulk of the book appeared in previous form in the Mountain Gazette over the years.

Mr. Fayhee, you will be much missed here.

Poem for the (Baseball)Season

Well, the major league baseball season is underway, and even up here in the still-winter mountains we can appreciate the eternal promise spring that brings with it. It seems an appropriate time to dig up a poem about the game and one of our favorite mountain towns.

Missoula Softball Tournament

By Richard Hugo

From The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir (1973)

This summer, most friends out of town
and no wind playing flash and dazzle
in the cottonwoods, music of the Clark Fork stale,
I’ve gone back to the old ways of defeat,
the softball field, familiar dust and thud,
pitcher winging drops and rises, and wives,
the beautiful wives in the stands, basic, used,
screeching runners home, infants unattended
in the dirt. A long triple sails into right center.
Two men on. Shouts from dugout: go, Ron, go.
Life is better run from. Distance to the fence,
both foul lines and dead center, is displayed.

I try to steal the tricky manager’s signs.
Is hit-and-run the pulling of the ear?
The ump gives pitchers too much low inside.
Injustice? Fraud? Ancient problems focus
in the heat. Bad hop on routine grounder.
Close play missed by the team you want to win.
Players from the first game, high on beer,
ride players in the field. Their laughter
falls short of the wall. Under lights, the moths
are momentary stars, and wives, the beautiful wives
in the stands now take the interest they once feigned,
oh, long ago, their marriage just begun, years
of helping husbands feel important just begun,
the scrimping, the anger brought home evenings
from degrading jobs. This poem goes out to them.
Is steal-of-home the touching of the heart?
Last pitch. A soft fly. A can of corn
the players say. Routine, like mornings,
like the week. They shake hands on the mound.
Nice grab on that shot to left. Good game. Good game.
Dust rotates in their headlight beams.
The wives, the beautiful wives are with their men.

Bonus points to anyone who can name the winners of the 1973 World Series and/or what the snowpack was like in Montana that year.


Feels Like the First Line

Thirty years later, legendary big-wall climber Eric Kohl heads out to retry his first route, which has now fallen into obscurity.

By Chris Van Leuven

“It’s got some cobwebs on it,” says Eric as we look up at the 30-foot boulder split with an overhanging, leaning finger-to-hand crack.

We’ve spent the past hour hiking up the railroad-grade trail that winds up Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, California, followed by twenty minutes along the side of a fence picking our way through thick forests, downed trees and poison oak along a steep, narrow creek.

We’re here to unearth legendary Yosemite big wall climber Eric Kohl’s first, first ascent.  It’s a route he found at the age of 17… 30 years later, it looks like it’s seen little traffic since he last climbed it in 1985.

We talk about our respective ages. “I feel old, but not creaky old,” he says. The crack is covered in moss webs. There’s not a spec of chalk on it. That’s the norm for like 90 percent of Eric’s routes—most of them haven’t been climbed in years.

Eric’s developed a reputation of establishing hard, bold routes, and though he’s put up many free routes, some up to 12d sport, his notoriety has come from dangerous aid climbs. He calls things as he sees them, regardless of how people receive him. Looking at this route, and comparing it against the modest rating he stuck on it, plus its remote location, I’m getting an idea of why he’s so misunderstood, and how hard he works on his climbs, often in solitude.

Even though I’m 12 years younger, I’ve known Eric nearly as long as I’ve been climbing, upwards of 20 years, but only recently have I gotten to know the man behind the ‘tude. My experience has been so positive, yet his rough reputation has more often than not overtaken his more caring side. Maybe I’m just lucky to be getting to know him now that he’s decided to open up to people and share his experiences.

On the way in we talked about the many romantic relationships we’ve had over the years. We’re both confident that the partners we share our lives with now are the ones that bring out our best. They don’t want to change us. Trust is a recurring theme and is the basis for how we let people into our lives, we say.

His older brother, Peter, 15 years my senior, and I were both mentored by the same bouldering guru, Russ Bobzien. Peter, 50, says even though he was once regarded as the best gearless climber in Prescott, Arizona, his brother Eric, specializing in gear-heavy aid climbing, is likely one of the most accomplished aid climbers in Yosemite. Peter and I recently spent a sun filled Wednesday afternoon traversing Marin’s most visible and well-traveled boulder, Turtle Rock, reminiscing about what Russ taught us about movement, and the many lines he pointed out that are still our favorites.

Today I’m ten miles away on Mount Tam with Eric in the shadows, by a cool creek, out of sight from even the hearty Mount Tam explorers, on a route filled with dead bugs.

Eric wasn’t mentored by Russ to learn smooth technique by ascending eliminates on Turtle Rock. Instead he tucked himself into one of Tam’s many sprawling fingers, engraining muscle memory and developing mental fitness on this short solo climb with its dire consequences. It’s a theme that would lure him up  an extensive list of fist ascent A5 pitches, mostly done solo, like World of Pain on the Yosemite Falls Wall, and Plastic Surgery Disaster on El Capitan. Eric’s done 34 Yosemite first big walls, and counting.

I wait on a moss covered boulder in the middle of the lightly flowing creek for him to setup the anchor on the tree on the top of the boulder using an old climbing rope he’s cut up for this purpose. A small waterfall cascades near my perch; otherwise everything is still.

He lowers down an end of the pink climbing rope until it dips in the river. Tiny bubbles float to the surface. I get up from my perch and try and keep the rest of it from landing in the water, until he lets the end free.

I notice a burned tree that has fallen over the nearby fence, crushing it. It’s a reminder how very close we are to trespassing on the Ralston Retreat property, which is likely one of its reasons that this climb has fallen into obscurity. Discovering it in the first places was a coincidence—an old high school friend was cultivating weed on the sunny hillside directly across the way. Ironically, the retreat is located on El Capitan Avenue.

The retreat, erected in 1913, contains a 14,000 square foot house, a heart shaped driveway and various footpaths over its 43 private acres. The concrete for the pool was poured nearly 100 years ago. The Ralston Retreat website shows a pic of the pool in use in the ‘30s and states the pool once held 35,000 gallons of water. It has long since been abandoned but the concrete pool is still there, though filled in with sediment. “I used to take girls to pool that is fed from this creek” he says, and laughs.

When he graduated high school in ’85, Eric moved to America’s granite mecca, Yosemite. At least there in the Park the granite was reliable, unlike here on Tam where it’s common for holds resembling gray concrete to crumble in your hands.

He called the route Ralston Crack, named after the house, and rated it 5.11a. Through his junior and senior years in high school, he frequented the route, first picking all the loose cobbles out of the crack on rappel and later recruiting a partner who’d never belayed, much less worn a harness, to belay him. He slapped the proper gear on his partner, showed him how to belay and sussed the route with the safety of a top rope. Over time he dialed it in so that every move was solid and routinely free soloed the line. It’s tall, steep, and challenging enough that I’d be hard pressed to find anyone to solo it today. Looking up at now in its dirty state it looks even less solid.

He hikes back down to the base and unzips his red and gray synthetic jacket to reveal his black motorcycle T—the same one he’s worn nearly every time I’ve seen him. He’s dressed in his customary camo man-pris and wearing gray, canvas approach shoes.

He crosses the creek and admires the line. “This was my first first ascent,” he says proudly. “Man, it looks dirty.”

“I’ll belay you,” he says with a smile. “See if you can onsight it.”

Each jam hurts because gnarly irregularities dig into my hands and fingers. I trend up the crack over the lightly flowing creek filled with jagged boulders. Each move feels insecure and I fall when I’m unwilling to thrust my hands into deep, gray cobwebs. Raking my wooden toothbrush through them, I pull off a big glob of thick cobwebs littered with bug parts and cast it to the ground. Eric laughs.

After several failed attempts, I finally make it to the top. Like he said, it does ease off but only after a long series of hard moves. Due to the poor landing, an un-roped fall from anywhere on the route would land me in the hospital. Towards the top it’s so dirty that I often just grab handfuls of moss.

He talks about an ex. “I was so unhappy when we dated,” he says. Then he talks about the happiness and mutual dedication of his fiancée, Cherry.

He ties in. His man-pris are now rolled over his knees.

After climbing a few moves off the ground, he falls and yells an expletive. “I can’t believe I used to solo this thing all the time,” he says with astonishment.

That’s what I thought.

“How hard are do you think it is?”

“5.11+ and gutsy,” I reply.

“I’m out of shape,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel right,” he adds, before slumping on the rope again.

He returns to the ground and looks down at the open wound on the back of his hand. He repeats, “I used to never fall on this thing.” Another expletive. “It’s hard. I thought I would get this thing second go.” Several attempts later, he still has not made it clean.

“I haven’t done it since ’85,” he says. He slips his approach shoes on, lets out a sigh and sits down on the boulder over the creek, then looks back up at the crack.

“Climbing this thing got me all psyched on cracks in the Valley,” he says.

“It’s funny. I’m totally struggling. If I had my brother here he’d totally walk it. I could lose about 10 pounds… I could probably do that if I cut my beer drinking in half. And Cherry always cooks me this really good food. I blame her for gaining all this weight. She got a slow cooker and makes meat and potatoes in it.”

“I’m trying to dial it in to feel how you felt when soloing,” I say. “But I can’t make it that secure.”

“I had it totally dialed so that I knew there was no chance I’d fall,” he says. He stares up at it. “I’ll give it a go,” he says.

The creek tinkles around the rocks.

He comes down and looks me in the eye. “Yeah, that’s the sequence,” he says. “That felt hard. I can’t believe I just did it.”

“I’m [expletive] bleeding all over. “Look at that,” he says with a small laugh under his breath referring to the strawberry on the back of his hand.

He puts his approach shoes back on. “That definitely takes me back, dude. Hard to believe 30 years ago I found this thing. I don’t know. All these years this crack was a forgotten place. I would come here all the time if I still lived in Mill Valley like I did in high school.” He now lives in Pacifica. “I’ll probably check it out again.”

I think about how maybe this really was Eric’s road to El Cap. If he could see soloing this, and did what it took to get a belay on it on the first place, maybe that same tactic was useful for climbing El Cap, both with partners, alone and later, on cutting edge first ascents.

I think back to the time I asked him about his thoughts on some of his more treacherous big wall FA’s. He said he doubts he’d be able to do them anymore.

We soon leave the boulder. Heading out, he points up to a crag mid-way up Mount Tam. It’s one I’ve never noticed before, though like Eric I’ve been climbing on Tam since high school.

“I hiked up there with Cherry once and looked over the top to see bolts. I don’t know who put those in or when.” He asks if I’d like to climb it with him. “It’s a long walk,” he warns, but I agree to venture up there anyway.

Chris Van Leuven writes for The Alpinist, The Gear Institute and Elevation Outdoors.

The Post-Christmas Saga of the Sleeping Bags

Back in January, as the temperatures in Portland dropped below freezing and the Willamette River swelled and heaved an icy brown hue under a grey indifferent sky, I was seized by a post-holiday spasm of seasonal giving. It was not the first time the unpremeditated urge (that also defied seasonal boundaries) had struck me, but it was the first time in a long time. My good intentions were beyond doubt as was the impulsive nature of the act. There I was, Doer of A Good Deed, free of irony and self-consciousness! Welcome the Milkman of Human Kindness delivering the goods, the law of unintended consequences nipping at my heels.

It all began that frosty morning when I came out of my house to start my truck, warm-up the engine, and scrape the fine coat of ice off the windshield. My wife Helen was inside, gathering up our gear and groceries. We were making ready to drive west to the Oregon coast, an hour-and-a-half sprint over the Coast Range, elevation 1,500 feet. (Oregonians think going to the beach in winter is like going to the beach in southern California, only without the sun and warm water.) Out on the sidewalk, I crossed paths with one of the familiar neighborhood homeless guys. Normally these young men who look old avoid eye contact and conversation; most are harmless. They haunt the neighborhood, silent reminders that the stories in the newspaper are not about the homeless in some faraway city.

Bill was on his morning rounds, pushing his grocery cart piled high with his scavenged survival gear, an urban Sherpa collecting bottles and cans from the yellow recycling bins that line the neighborhood streets. He had mastered the drinking geography of the neighborhood, and knew exactly who the beer drinkers were and where he was likely to hit a payload of empties. He could then return (recycle) his booty at a nickel a piece to the local market and though it is a stereotype of the homeless, purchase his daily 48-ounce malt. The famous Oregon Bottle Bill of 1970 had spawned a not-so-underground industry.

Normally Bill would retrieve the bottles out of the bin without asking, but our near proximity forced him to acknowledge me. He mumbled something about bottles. He was asking if it was all right to collect my discards, which he had been doing for months. It was an unusual act of courtesy. I felt embarrassed. At a nickel a bottle (Guinness was my flavor of the week in a city some call Beervana), he might collect thirty or forty cents. A pint of Guinness can cost $2.89 or $3.27, depending on the store. (It tastes better in a pint glass at the local brew pub.) In the finger-numbing cold, Bill looked like he hadn’t slept well or was hungover or had gotten beaten-up, possibly all three.

And so my leap of faith, hope, and charity into the abyss began.

“No worries,” I replied and told him my name.

He paused as if he were trying to focus on a faraway object.

“I’m Bill.”

“Pretty cold out?”


A long silence as we sized each other up.

“You sleeping rough?”

“Uhm … yep.”

Bill was one of perhaps a dozen or so homeless men who sleep along the Willamette River in an area called Oaks Bottom. They are transient campers who prefer the outdoors, even in winter, to the homeless shelters, which are often crowded and rule-bound. Their camps are set off the beaten and popular bike paths, carved pockets camouflaged by thick bushy walls of invasive English ivy, impenetrable Himalayan blackberry thickets and dogwood, as well as a variety of deciduous trees — Pacific willow, Oregon ash, Black cottonwood.  In summertime, these locations are prized spots. They offer privacy, a degree of safety, river access and pleasant views. Sometimes, the campers band together for company and protection. As any good river man or homeless dude knows, however, camping on the banks of a river in winter is nothing like a summer residency. It’s damn bone-cold. Moving inland a few hundred yards can make all the difference, but for guys like Bill, that can mean giving up ownership of a prime spot.

The next thing I know, Bill was showing-off his thick, coal-colored trench coat. Clearly, he was proud of his outdoor wear. The trench coat, however, looked like it had been soaked in crude oil and weighed a hundred pounds. You could die from exhaustion just trying to walk a few blocks wearing this garment. This was not lightweight, efficient colorful North Face mountaineering protection. Bill also had a role of eighth-inch tubular plastic spackled with leaves and streaks of dirt. He explained how he sleeps at night: he wears his jacket over his clothes and wraps himself in a tattered red blanket and crawls inside the plastic tube which sheds rain like a potting shed roof. I asked him how it works in this weather. He shrugged, “Not that great.”

Suddenly and without warning, I connect Bill’s tubular plastic “sleeping bag” with the North Face down sleeping bag in my basement. All the same, I am not sure I know yet what I am going to do. There is only this kind of rough imaginative association: rivers, wanderers, camps, outdoor gear, cold. When there is a severe power imbalance, the act of giving can bring out the worst in the receiver of the gift.

Actually there were two sleeping bags, mine and Helen’s, though I would be hard-pressed to tell which belonged to whom. The Kelly-green, all-purpose down mummy bags were purchased (in a pro-deal discount) one summer more than thirty years ago when I was working as a river guide in Grand Canyon. Two months earlier, Helen and I had married. I thought we would be camping or living out of my beat-up station wagon for many more years while I ran rivers.

Two significant details: the sleeping bags (and the North Face V-24 tent, only recently retired from use), had been a kind of wedding present that we had given ourselves; perhaps most important, the sleeping bags zipped together.

The basement door was a few steps away and, the next thing I knew, I am telling Bill to wait a second while I disappear into the basement and come out with one of the sleeping bags. I am in a state of charitable bliss as I hand the bag over to Bill, whose glassy-eyed stare reveals little. I cannot be sure if Bill realizes what a good person I am. After all, free stuff is free stuff. What goes around comes around, right? By this time, Helen has appeared and is watching, with arms folded and a calm gaze, the scene unfold. What I didn’t know was that I had just taken a blow-torch to our marriage vows.

And just whose sleeping bag had I given Bill?


This tale of the sleeping bags cannot proceed without the knowledge that in the Universe of Takers and Givers, my wife, by nature and profession (she is a midwife), is a Giver of major proportions. If giving of yourself is a river, Helen is like Oregon’s Columbia. The virtue comes so naturally to her that it worries me (and her at times.) But that cold morning, all bets were off.

Bill stumbled off with my empty Guinness bottles and my (our?) sleeping bag. It will be a long ride over the Coast Range to the Pacific Ocean. Who was it that said no good deed goes unpunished? Irony had returned with the speed of a downhill racer.

All was silence as we twisted and turned our way out of Portland onto Interstate 26 through the creeping, but contained, urban sprawl that gives way to farmland and finally the foothills of the Coast Range.

“You gave away our sleeping bag?”

“It’s just a sleeping bag. And he was cold. It’s not a big deal.”


“We’ve had those since we were married.”

“You’re always saying material things don’t matter.”

Deeper silence?

I am irked.

“I did something good without calculation and now I feel bad. How can that be? Besides, I gave him my sleeping bag.”


“How do you know it was your sleeping bag?”

Double There.

“We’ve had those bags since we were married. We’ve used them on the river, slept in them with the kids when they were babies. What were you thinking?”

Good question.

“And what’s more, they zipped together.”

I am not over being annoyed, but I am clearly dead in the water and going nowhere. I cannot deny the validity of what she has said, and not said. The damn sleeping bags carry symbolic weight; they are objects, like my treasured wooden dory, that are infused with memory and emotion and a life together.

Silly Man.

The transformation from Good Deed Doer to Damage Control Operator, slow in coming, begins.

“How ’bout I give you ‘my’ bag and ‘we’ buy a new one … that zips together?


“Or I buy you a new one and I keep ‘our’ old one?”


“Or you buy a new one (they have very cool colors these days) and treat yourself?”

My wife looks at me, a faint smile on her lips.

I backup and rephrase.

“How ’bout you give me your bag as a symbol of our long lasting marriage and a sort of apology for raining on my parade and we get you a new sleeping bag as a symbol that no matter what happens, we will always be zipped together?”

Damn Bill and Irony and the Cold and the Season of Giving.

Vince Welch is the author of the newly released “The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West.” He lives in Portland OR.

Stad Ship Tunnel: Rough Weather Shortcut

Artist’s conception of high-speed passenger ferry in tunnel. Credit:

Canal tunnel through Stad! The front-page headline of the Friday, September 11, 1874, edition of Nordre Bergenhus Amtstidende was sensational. The newly established newspaper, just two years old and the first in the Norwegian county now named Sogn og Fjordane, may have been trying to attract readers. But the problem was real and the solution proven.

Stad is a peninsula jutting out to the northwest from the mainland on the west coast at latitude 62° 10’ N. It blocks an otherwise sheltered coastal shipping route. Moreover, it marks the dividing line between the North Sea to the south and the Norwegian Sea to the north. Accordingly, the ambient weather is fierce and the seas hazardous 90 to 110 days a year. Understandably, mariners sailing along the coast feared Stad, as around it currents were strong, waves fierce and shipwrecks frequent.

Canal tunnels had been built elsewhere to overcome terrain hindrances. In 1679, the 541-foot-long Malpas Tunnel, Europe’s first, had been built on the Canal du Midi in France. In 1847, a 640-foot-long canal tunnel was completed in Weilburg, about 70 km north of Frankfurt in Germany. In 1848, a longer 3,118-foot tunnel was completed on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal near Paw Paw, West Virginia. That said, the logistics and costs of building a still-longer tunnel through Stad were unknown. It seemed destined for the limbo of unrealizable ideas.

Interest in the tunnel resurfaced during World War II, when the occupying Germans considered building it so their vessels wouldn’t be exposed to Allied attack at sea when rounding Stad. But the war ended without the tunnel being built. It could have been built had the war been longer. But it most likely would not have been built, as ships in these waters had become more vulnerable to aerial bombing than to naval engagements in open sea. In the post-war years, there were neither funds nor incentive sufficient to support further promotion of the tunnel.

Locator map; red circle around isthmus location of tunnel.


Three decades later, in 1985, public and private sector organizations joined to found Lottlag (LL) Stads Skipstunnel (“Stad Ship Tunnel Partnership”) to promote the tunnel project. The location for it was chosen, slightly more than one mile through the isthmus linking Stad to the mainland, from Vanylvs Fjord west to Molde Fjord. (Confusingly there are two Molde Fjords; the other, larger one is further north on the coast, near the city of Molde.) The rationale of the tunnel was straightforward: It would improve safety at sea, as perilous voyages around Stad no longer would be necessary. As the sea is the backbone of transport along the west coast, public transport could be upgraded with improved regularity in cargo services and a new year-round high-speed passenger ferry service between the coastal cities of Stavanger and Trondheim. Various spinoff effects were envisioned, as improved transportation would boost the economies of communities along the coast.

The project was large — the current version is budgeted at NOK 1.7 billion ($300 million) — so governmental funding would be necessary. Initially, the Government decided not to fund the project but to support other initiatives to mitigate the maritime hazards around Stad, including relocating coastal fairways farther out at sea and improving wind and wave forecasts to mariners. These two incentives remain the basis of today’s maritime safety measures, now augmented with newer safety systems including all ships over 300 gross register ton (GRT) now carrying Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) gear and increasingly satellite-based Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship tracking equipment.

By 2002, the tunnel was on the national agenda, as an item in the National Transport Plan (NTP), a ten-year plan revised every fourth year and valid from the year of a Parliamentary election. In turn, that brought in the Concept Research Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, the Ministry of Finance’s watchdog on major public investment projects, charged with ensuring that public funds are not wasted.

The NTP processing triggered several studies by private organizations and government agencies. The conclusions of the studies varied, particularly in their assessments of the socio-economic benefit of the tunnel. There was no consensus sufficiently convincing to warrant funding of the project. Moreover, with time, the envisioned tunnel had grown. The initial proposal of 1985 called for a tunnel for ships up to the size of a 600-GRT trawler. By 2001, ship size had increased to 5,000 GRT, the size of a naval frigate, and by 2007 to 16,000 GRT, the size of a Hurtigruten (“Express Route”) coastal passenger ship. The Norwegian Coastal Administration suggested that two of the sizes be considered further, a “small tunnel” for 600-GRT ships and a “large tunnel” for 16,000-GRT ships. So the next NTP called for further evaluations.

The decision-making remains a tug-of-war between local administration and the national government. It has been going on for 28 years and has resulted in myriad, expensive studies. Over these years, safety at sea has been dramatically improved, so safety arguably now is a lesser issue in the rationale for building the tunnel. That said, should the Parliamentary decision favor the Stad tunnel, 140 years will have passed from its first proposal to the decision to build. Though long in human terms, in the world of tunnels, it’s not unusual. The Anglo-French treaty of 1986 included the decision to build the Channel Tunnel first proposed 233 years earlier.

Further reading: There are many publications on the Stad Ship Tunnel in Norwegian and a brief entry on it in the English Wikipedia. The Concept Research Programme leader, Prof. Knut Samset, has written a reference textbook in English on the principal goal of the Program to more thoroughly understand the crucial phases of major projects: Early Project Appraisal, Making the Initial Choices, Basingstoke, UK, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 286 pages hardcover, ISBN 978-0-230-27324-5. The Stad Ship Tunnel is discussed in Chapter 19 on Strategy Analysis.

Stad Ship Tunnel was first published online on January 26, 2013 by The Foreigner. Reproduced by kind permission.

M. Michael Brady used to be Mountain Gazette’s Dateline: Europe correspondent. He lives outside Oslo, Norway, where he works as a translator.

Dreaming of Summer

Bear and Willy

Mountain people are odd creatures. In the heat of summer, we dream of knee-deep powder, followed by an evening near a warm cookstove, with a book and a beverage in a cabin tucked-in below treeline.

But now in deepest, darkest winter, the dreaming reverses.

I just hobbled outside the house here in Boulder to toss the ball for Willy the dog. Without bending my braced left leg, I lean on a walking stick, push the left leg way outboard (but still straight) and squat on my right leg to grab the tennis ball off the ground. Then I toss it again and a black blur of dog hair streaks down the cul-de-sac to leap in the air, mouthing the ball on the second bounce.

It’s starting to snow, that dry, light stuff that streams over your chest and face freezing a huge smile in place as you streak downhill making wide sweeping turns.

Not this season.

I ruptured my left quad trail running at dusk on New Year’s Eve when I should have been inside spooling up for the most-widespread drunk-driving evening of the year. Not to make a point of it, but my leg didn’t work all that well with the quad detached from my knee. Still doesn’t. The surgeon said I should be out of the brace after six weeks and maybe trail running again in six months.


The track, backcountry and downhill skis are racked for the season. I’m dreaming of summer and road biking, trail running and sailing.

Willy is back with his ball, and now flying off again in pursuit.

It’s ten in the morning and we are headed up to Carter Lake. Three old friends trade off the lead while we talk of work, mates, cycling and where we’d like to ride our bikes if we had a week or two. The pace is moderate, the air temperature in the 70s and there is little wind. As we pedal north, we can see Longs Peak off to the left and then the smell of first-cut hay washes over us. It’s a grassy, sweet clover smell that reminds us of places we haven’t been for a long while and other friends we shared this smell with who are now long gone.

Willy returns, drops the ball ten feet away and pushes it with his nose in my direction. He thinks that’s cute.

It’s one in the afternoon just above Lake Isabelle on the way up to Pawnee Pass. In the last hour, a thunderboomer blew through. I huddle under a space blanket making deals with God about never doing this again. Eventually the wind drops and the rain and hail slow up. I’m cold, shivering in fact, but will live to make another deal on another trail. I roll up the space blanket and begin to trot uphill again with thunder booming from the valley below. The air smells of electricity and something metallic. It was stupid to be caught out. I know better, but in that moment, there is no place I’d rather be.

Willy has dropped the ball right at my feet and is looking at me, his head turned a little sideways with that quizzical look. “Are you still with me here?”

The skipper mentions that it must be five o’clock somewhere as he cracks open a beer. We are sailing downwind in the BVIs on an old 52-foot sloop. The sails are set wing and wing, with the jib all the way out on one side of the boat and the main, which is attached to the huge boom, all the way out on the other side. With no warning, we hear a CRACK! The boom buckles and folds, dropping into the water, hauling some of the mainsail with it. The boat goes totally out of control, lurching in the direction of the broken boom. Instinct takes command. I haul in the jib, drop it on the deck and move forward to secure it. The skipper regains control of the boat. With the jib down and the main in the water, the boat slows. We begin work hauling in the broken boom and the main. The skipper starts the engine and turns us upwind to make the task easier. It seems like an hour has passed, but it has just been minutes.

I catch the skipper’s eyes. They are wide open and huge, almost as big as mine. I point at my eyes and we begin to laugh as hard and as loud as people do after dodging a bullet. The work continues but so does the laughter. We will sail again together another day.

It’s snowing hard now, the beginning of a decent flatland storm. Willy brings me this really slimy ball that I tuck in my pocket. I need to get in before the street gets slick. I can’t afford another fall. He runs ahead to the house as I hobble along and think of better days to come.

Alan Stark is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette, a member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and publisher emeritus of Colorado Mountain Club Press.

Truths, Lies and Legends in the Big Ditch

Author’s note: Although names and some events have been tampered with, and in certain instances outright fabricated, for dramatic effect (and to protect the guilty) what follows is nonetheless a true story … basically.

Down the towering columns of foam and spray and chaotic boiling eddies, all possibilities looked bleak. It was Upset Rapid. The other kayakers were already at the bottom, undoing sprayskirts and slipping out of cigar-shaped boats to line the shore and eagerly watch my descent.

I took a deep breath as my kayak bobbed up and down in the eddy, deciding after one final inspection that river right looked like the lesser of several evil courses. The more I hesitated, however, the more I doubted my evaluation. Someone cheered from the bottom. Perhaps trying to encourage me but more likely impatient for the impending carnage. The rafters joined the kayakers, lining the bank and watching with wide, greedy eyes.

All of the sudden — my body acting on its own accord — I peeled out toward the drop ahead.

At first, it seemed that my choice to go right had been correct. The bow of my boat bumped easily over a few small waves. I could relax and enjoy a fun but mellow ride to the eddy below. But in that moment — when complacency reared its ugly head — two things happened simultaneously: one of my companions on shore howled in excitement and an unexpected horizon line (a kayaker’s worst nightmare) emerged in front of me.

I reached the event horizon and understood my miscalculation. Directly in front of me the river plummeted ten feet into one of the biggest, gnarliest hydraulics I had ever seen: the infamous hole of Upset Rapid. It accepted me greedily into its maw.

* * *

David Romney, permit holder and trip leader, had waited fourteen years for this trip, but due to a last-minute cancellation I was invited two weeks before launch. It was 2005. The permit system for the Grand Canyon was still based on the infamous waitlist. In theory, all it took to get a permit was a little — okay, maybe a lot — of patience. Today, permits for the Grand are awarded via a lottery system with odds resembling scratch-ticket jackpots. The Grand Canyon, affectionately known in river rat circles as “The Big Ditch,” is the world’s most-coveted whitewater adventure. It was a trip I’d been dreaming about my whole life and I was lucky to finally have the chance to experience it for myself.

The Grand Canyon is the cradle of whitewater paddlesports. Its history is long and illustrious and populated innumerably with colorful characters and enigmatic chapters. From John Wesley Powell’s famous 1869 expedition to Nathan Galloway’s revolutionary decision to turn his boat around so he, as oarman, could see the rapids ahead instead of rowing blindly backwards under the auspices of a “navigator”. The Grand has been the site of some of the most pioneering and influential moments in whitewater history.

The Grand has also witnessed some less-glorious moments. Early pioneers Frank M. Brown and Bert Loper found their end in the tumultuous cataracts. Three members of the Powell’s original expedition hiked out after becoming hopeless facing an unportageable cataract later dubbed Separation Rapid and were never seen again. Glen and Bessie Hyde, newlyweds who decided in 1928 to navigate the canyon for their honeymoon, also mysteriously vanished amongst the canyon’s towering walls. The canyon is vast and so are its secrets.

The legend of the Hydes is one of my favorites in Grand Canyon lore. Although the newly married couple was seen as far downstream as mile 95, and a camera recovered from their gear indicated they might have made it as far as mile 225, neither one of them was ever seen again. Myriad theories have attempted to explain their disappearance, everything from drowning to an un-favorable encounter with local tribes. My favorite theory, however, is that Bessie became disgruntled with Clyde after almost a month in the canyon and put an end to him with the pistol they carried. This dark version of their tale became popular in the 1970s when a mysterious loner on a commercial raft trip claimed one night at camp that she was Bessie Hyde. The woman’s claims were never substantiated and comparisons between photos of the two women cast her story in doubt. Regardless of the truth, the tale of the missing honeymooners has become one of the Grand’s enduring mysteries.

In the 1950s, river exploration in the canyon took a new turn, and visionaries such as the Hatch brothers and Georgie White had the crazy notion that the river corridor might be useful for something other than mere transportation. The primary objective of early Grand Canyon expeditions had been to determine its viability as a route for trade and commerce, but Georgie White and the Hatch brothers cultivated the idea that people might actually enjoy and even pay money to float the Big Ditch. Commercial rafting — and whitewater recreation — had been born.

Although it was the exploits of these early men and women that largely form the tapestry in which Grand Canyon legend has been woven, there is another, lesser known, chapter that could have put an end to it all before it began. In wake of President Eisenhower’s embrace of Roosevelt’s New Deal ideology, a proposal took shape in the early 1950s to dam and harvest the water and kinetic power of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Two dam sites were proposed: one at mile 39.2 in Marble Canyon and one downstream at Bridge Canyon near mile 238. Plans were set, workers mobilized and test bolts drilled into the rock. It was only through efforts from organizations such as the Sierra Club and river stewards like Martin Litton that attempts to flood the Grand Canyon were staunched. Had the project gone forward as intended, the Grand Canyon as we know it would have been drowned and whitewater recreation might never have taken shape.

* * *

Day three of our trip, almost two weeks before my foolhardy charge down Upset Rapid. It was a special morning, one of the few on our 18-day trip sans whitewater. Instead, our day featured a casual float past two of the canyon’s most-famous scenic attractions: a multi-tiered cascade called Vasey’s Paradise that erupts almost magically from the walls of the inner canyon and Redwall Cavern, a gigantic limestone amphitheatre that shelters an expansive beach. Without whitewater to provide excitement, we had devised other means to keep entertained.

The old timers called it Giggle-up. Highly concentrated mushroom tea (genus Psilocybe) diffused in pure fruit juice. As a veteran of many concerts and festivals, I wasn’t a neophyte psychonaut. Still, the potency of the old-timers’ concoction caught even me by surprise.

If psychedelics are good for anything, it’s altering perception. Not just in the fully realized hallucination kind of way that those who have never experienced it for themselves expect, but a complete mood and perspective overhaul that renders the familiar world and all its complexity into a completely different reality. I have often tried to explain a mushroom “trip” to people who have never had the experience as “as close as you can get to being and thinking like someone else.” Nothing changes the way you think and perceive reality more than psychedelics. Am I condoning them? Not really. Just stating an observation.

After consuming the prescribed two mouthfuls of Giggle-up, I snapped on my sprayskirt and launched casually down river, anticipating with some trepidation the onset of the strangeness I knew was now inevitable. It didn’t take long to begin to feel the effects.

My teeth felt strange in my head, like calcium intruders in the gum lining of my mouth. My hearing became amplified and modulated in strange waves of both volume and pitch. Striations of rock on the canyon walls, formed and deposited in orderly layers by hundreds of millions of years, melted actively together and wavered like a flag in a light breeze. Boils of water erupted with terrifying violence, as if Charybdis herself lurked beneath the dark surface, waiting for a meal to unknowingly drift over her mouth.

We reached peak and Vasey’s Paradise simultaneously. Sheets of water spilled from porous sandstone, scattering rolling crystals down the rock ledges to the river below. We stared in awed silence. The age of the canyon, unfathomable in a normal mindset, seemed painfully obvious. It seemed almost as if geologic time had accelerated, and I could witness the canyon crumbling into shape. I could almost watch as a simple yaw in surface flow amplified into a mile-deep gooseneck bend. A million years passed in a moment.

Redwall Cavern was only a mile downstream of Vasey’s Paradise and we beached our kayaks and rafts at its mouth to explore. Peter and I took our guitars to the back of the amphitheatre where the acoustic resonance could rival Carnegie Hall. We took turns pulling marijuana smoke from my glass pipe to take the edge off our maturing mushroom high.

“Powell wrote that 50,000 people could fit in this amphitheatre,” Peter said, putting down his guitar long enough to complete a turn on the pipe. When he strummed again, the overtones and enharmonic modes formed the perfect backdrop for watching our companions toss Frisbees and whack golf balls across the world’s most beautiful sand trap.

“That’s what he said,” I replied, drawing smoke into my lungs, holding it, and releasing slowly. “I think he was full of shit.” I passed the pipe on. I had a vision — not a hallucination — of Powell standing in this very spot, pondering if not exaggerating the scope of this beach. The effects of the mushrooms were just beginning their downslide, but it was easy to envision the silhouettes of our friends as members of Powell’s expedition, not flinging Frisbees but feeding on meager rations and watching their one-armed captain apprehensively, wondering what they had got themselves into and when it would end.

Peter took another turn with the pipe. “Strange, the history of this place. Everything and nothing has changed.”

“When was the first time you came down here?”


“Wow. How many times have you been down?”

“Eight,” he replied without having to think.

“How has it changed?”

Peter leaned his guitar against the side of his camp chair. “Well, we didn’t have groovers in those days. We just dug holes to shit in. There was no such thing as a six-foot ‘playboat’, either. Only four-meter Holoforms. Today there are more hoops, more bureaucracy, more regulations.” And then almost as an after-thought, “But the canyon is basically the same.”

“So the works of nature trump the works of man?”

“Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes not.” He tried to take another pull on the pipe, discovered it consumed, and tapped the ash into the sand. He retrieved his guitar. “Just look at Glen Canyon.” As his words died in the air, he filled the cavern again with music. Perhaps the pseudo-autism of tryptamines made such thoughts too complex for casual conversation.

I listened to Peter’s melodies and thought of drowned canyons. The treasures of Glen Canyon now lost forever beneath the oily, stagnant surface of Lake Powell. As year after year passed, and the silt dragged down from the decomposing Rocky Mountains came to a premature halt behind Glen Canyon Dam, it was quite simply filling up. Every year the former glory of that lost canyon becomes more and more deeply encased in mud.

Not only had Glen Canyon suffered from this concrete monstrosity, but the Grand Canyon too had been altered. Once glorious beaches, ones that could rival Orange County classics like Newport and Huntington, were deprived of the regenerating silts now filling Glen Canyon and were slowly eroding away. Native fish species that had evolved to thrive in water temperatures that often reached the eighties in mid-summer were not able to survive now in water that rarely climbed above forty-five degrees. The entire ecology of the Grand Canyon has been altered.

Even more disturbing to me, as I sat curling my toes in the sand of Redwall Cavern, was the sudden realization that this very spot, at mile 33, narrowly escaped the same fate. Marble Canyon Dam, proposed for mile 39.3, would have left this very beach under six-hundred feet of stale water.

It is hard to quantify these losses. There is the thousand years of archeological record buried forever at the bottom of Lake Powell. There is also the alteration of two billion years of geology. But on the other hand, Glen Canyon Dam and its companion Hoover at the canyon’s downstream end form two reservoirs, Powell and Meade, that are the lifeblood of the American Southwest. Without them, megalopolises such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas could never exist in such an arid and barren landscape.

Moments later, as I sat lost in thought, group elder and resident know-it-all, Frank, approached us. “Mind if I have a toke?”

“Yeah, sure, man,” Peter said without stopping.

Frank, who had already earned a rather irritating reputation for long pedantic monologues and infuriating debates, sat clumsily in the sand between us. At 62, he was the oldest on the trip, and as such, felt entitled to impose his opinion on everyone else whether he was right or not. I watched him struggle getting the pipe lit, neglecting proper use of the “carb” on the side.

“Frank,” I started. “You have to — ”

He stopped me with a condescending look. “Honestly, Brian. I’ve been doing this twice as long as you’ve been alive.” He smirked and continued to struggle lighting the pipe. “In fact,” he said exhaling the wisp or two of smoke he’d managed to inhale, “I remember the first time I came down in the canyon back in 1967. What year were you born?”

Since we’d been through this before — and I knew he damn well knew my age — I didn’t respond. He handed the pipe back to me and I demonstrated its proper use.

The previous day, Frank had earned the nickname “Frank Loper” by swimming at 24.5 Mile Rapid, the rapid that claimed the life of river pioneer Bert Loper. It had been much welcomed comic relief to see Frank’s raft disappear under the rapid’s monstrous crashing wave only to emerge emptied of its over-loquacious oarman. Frank had resurfaced five feet upstream of his boat, looking like a greased-up weasel and barking directions at his lone remaining passenger for help.  Of course, Frank vigorously fought this new moniker, insisting instead on his preferred nickname “Fish.” Incorporating “Fish” seemed natural, and Frank’s nickname evolved from “Frank Loper” to “Frank Loper Fish” to “Loper Fish” before arriving ultimately at the snide, mildly condescending stasis of “Floper Fish”, by which he was referred for the ensuing two weeks.

“Not a bad spot, eh, Brian?” Frank asked before fumbling with the pipe for the second time.

I laughed mildly. “Not bad? That’s an understatement.”

“This whole beach was underwater in the floods of 1983, did you know that?”

“Oh?” I knew about the high water of 1983. It was the gold-standard run-off by which all others in the Four Corners’ states are measured. I did not know, however, what a river that typically runs between 5,000 and 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) would look like with over five times that flow.

“The entire beach, all the way back to the wall.”

Not that I didn’t believe him, but I found it hard to imagine. The very back wall, where we now sat, was at least thirty vertical feet above the current river level, so I asked the first question that comes to mind when you encounter a potentially unreliable source, especially one notorious for posing second-hand material as his own:

“Were you here?”

“Yeah, I was on a trip. We were passed Lava when the helicopters dropped their little messages.”


“They dropped plastics bags filled with sand with a note inside that said either: ‘Camp high, be cautious’ or ‘The river will be rising to 90,000 cfs. Good luck.’”

“I’ve seen pictures of Crystal Rapid in the flood,” I responded. Indeed, a 2’ x 3’ poster of Crystal during the 1983 flood hangs to this day on the wall of a famous boater hangout on the shores of the San Juan River in Mexican Hat, Utah. The Grand Canyon flood of 1983 was a story every boater worth his chops knew. A new era of big-water boating had, in effect, been born in those few short weeks.

“Fletcher Anderson set the Grand Canyon speed record that year during the peak. He didn’t have a permit so he pirated it by putting in at night. Did the whole canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry in 49 hours.”


“He did it in a wildwater racing boat. Can you imagine running the Grand Canyon at 100,000 cfs in a wildwater boat?”

Wildwater racing boats in those days were usually made of fiberglass and were always the standard length of four meters. Compared to today’s plastic designs, which are almost exclusively eight feet or less, a four-meter wildwater boat would have felt like driving a school bus instead of a sports car.

“Fletcher was an impressive dude,” I confirmed.

“Is,” Frank corrected.

Fletcher Anderson is one of the colorful figures of later Grand Canyon river lore. The 1982 guidebook “Rivers of the Southwest: A Boater’s Guide to the Rivers of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona” that he co-authored with his then-wife Ann Hopkinson is considered a classic among “old-school” boaters, a designation which I increasingly find myself on the cusp. Fletcher became famous in the 1960s and 1970s pioneering whitewater runs such as Gore Canyon on the Colorado downstream of Kremling, CO that wouldn’t become mainstream until the 1990s or later. When they entered these places they had no digital guidebook to not only tell but show them what to expect.

On Grand Canyon trips, Fletcher was infamous for arriving at Lee’s Ferry to put-in, having been held responsible for a portion of the food for the entire group, with nothing but a giant bag of GORP and half-dozen cases of beer. Here was a simple but extraordinary man who epitomized the boater of the era.

As it turned out, less than four months after our trip, Fletcher’s fearlessness finally got the better of him when he crashed his mini-plane into the Snake River in Wyoming. The Aspen Times reported it this way: “Anderson’s plane went into the Snake River after clipping a river gauging wire, which caused it to flip and crash into the water.” Though there were no witnesses, it is curious what Fletcher was doing close enough to the water that such an accident could occur. Not long after his tragic death, some of his best friends released a blog post/eulogy that stated, among other things, “Fletcher lived the life of an intellectual, kayak dirtbag, using that term with utmost affection.” The legend of Fletcher Anderson and what he contributed to the river lore of the 20th century is hard to explain. In the same blog post, those that knew him best concluded: “I guess I was not all that surprised to hear that Fletcher had fallen from the sky again. Newspaper reports say investigations are ongoing as to why his plane was low enough to the river to crash into the gauging station cable. Given Fletcher’s love of the river, I suspect I know. We’ll miss you Fletcher!”

The Grand Canyon has been the cradle for the river culture of the American Southwest. Characters like Fletcher Anderson continue to color the recent chapters of its history, and new pages are being written everyday. Even stories that are not well known are no less important to those whom they involved.

“You know,” I said at last, breaking a lengthy silence, “they say that 100,000 cfs would have only been an average peak run-off before the dam. It used to get up to 250,000 cfs or higher.”

Frank gave me a blank look. Either the addition of the reefer to whatever Giggle Up he consumed had tipped him over the edge or he had no interest in facts that aren’t his in origin.

Only a few minutes later, lunch was ready on the beach, and we stood around the camp table greedily waiting for our turn at the food. Conversation drifted among the other boaters as we settled in to eat, but I felt contemplative and anti-social and instead found a shady corner inside the cavern. The Grand Canyon is an overwhelming place, and I felt small. But sitting there on that beach in the cool desert shade it was hard to imagine a place more peaceful and more serene.

* * *

To one that has never experienced what it is like to be at the mercy of a hydraulic the size of Upset Rapid, it is a difficult sensation to describe. Almost immediately upon impact, I felt the bow of my kayak lift forcefully and flip over my head back into the hole. The world was filled with blackness and deep, growling white noise. There is a menacing quality to crashing water; the violence of it a clear articulation that this is no place hospitable to the living. You feel as if you are in the hands of a vicious, malevolent giant, whipping you around with unpredictable ferocity. Seconds stretch into eons.

I tumbled around out of control in Upset Hole for what video later confirmed was less than five seconds. When it finally let go and my boat drifted to calmer water, I felt like I’d survived a war. I rolled up and paddled casually to the eddy as if I had dropped into the hole on purpose.

Peter came running over with the camera still held in his hands. “Nice, man!” he exclaimed, offering me an enthusiastic high five.

“Wooo-hoooo!” I cheered and threw my still-shaking hands into the air. Few moments in life are as exhilarating as surviving a Grand Canyon rapid.

* * *

There is more lost beneath the stagnant waters of a reservoir than just geologic and archeological record. The Grand is a place of dreams and a place of legends. It is a place that has been the cradle for a corner of humanity. All of the young children who peer down into its depths from the stone buildings of the South Rim have felt it. The adults too, anxiously pulling these same young children away from handrails, feel the inexorable draw of the canyon. It’s almost as if the place were alive and the sound of the hollow wind tracing the cliffs were the many voices of the people and animals who’d left as much impact on this place as it had left on them. The Grand is a place of stories.

On the last night of our trip, we camped five miles from the takeout on the Hualapai Indian Reservation at Diamond Creek (river mile 226). Knowing that we were at the end of a life-transforming 18-day journey, there was an elevated level of emotion and excitement. We clustered around the hissing fire, consuming what beer we had left. David emerged carrying an ornate stick as the night wore on and thoughts of sleeping bags and Paco Pads had begun filling our exhausted heads. Totems such as hemp necklaces and prayer flags had been attached to it.

“Everyone,” he said. As we quieted down and sipped beers we watched our trip leader in wonder. “Thank you all for being with me here on my birthday trip. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it has been.” Murmurs of approval greeted this. “I thought for our last night, we could do something special.” He thrust his stick in front of him triumphantly as if he expected us to understand its significance. When all he met was blank, confused stares, he continued. “I thought we cold pass this talking stick around. When it comes to us, we have to tell a story from the trip.”

This was met with chuckles and excitement. “I’ll go first.”

We circled the fire on our last night, each holding everyone else rapt while we spun small legends of river heroism, wit and near-catastrophe. As the stick drew nearer, my mind shuffled through an array of possible stories worth telling: one of our many sidehikes such as Havasu Creek, or Elves Chasm, or Deer Creek. My run down Lava Falls, the most-famous rapid in the world. Perhaps I could even talk about mushrooms and Redwall Cavern.

At last the talking stick was placed in my hand. I looked around the fire at fifteen pairs of eyes focusing in on me, waiting patiently for my story to begin. I took a deep breath.

“Down the towering columns of foam and spray and chaotic boiling eddies, all possibilities looked bleak. It was Upset Rapid … ”

Brian Wright is a lifelong kayaker and outdoor enthusiast. He has degrees in writing and literature from Colorado Mesa University and currently resides in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Works Cited

“Fletcher Anderson — Great Memories.” Home Performance Video. Web. 12 May 2011.

Gaskill, David L., and Gudy Gaskill. Peaceful Canyon, Golden River: a Photographic Journey through Fabled Glen Canyon. Golden, CO: Colorado Mountain Club, 2002. Print.

“How Do Dams Impose Values on the Colorado River or Any Other River’s Uses? A Case Study.” Siry’s Ecology Homepage. Rollins College. Web.

Rink, Glenn. “Life at the Marble Canyon Damsites.” Grand Canyon River Guides Website. Grand Canyon River Guides. Web. 12 May 2011.

Speech: “What’s This About Flooding Out the Grand Canyon?” The University of Arizona University Libraries. Web. 12 May 2011.


Obituary: Maurice Herzog

Maurice Herzog

Story and photo by Cam Burns 

Maurice Herzog died December 13, aged 93, in Paris. He became internationally famous when he and Louis Lachenal made the first ascent of a peak over 8,000 meters — in this case, Annapurna (10th highest on earth) — in the summer of 1950. The ascent was remarkable because no useful maps of the Himalaya were then available, and the expedition didn’t just climb the peak (without the use of supplemental oxygen), they had to find it first. On the descent, Herzog lost his gloves, and both men were wearing lighter-than-normal boots. Subsequently, they lost all their toes, and Herzog lost most of his fingers.

Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat, who were high on the peak at the same time, didn’t reach the summit but instead helped Herzog and Lachenal down. Terray would later make the first ski descent of Mt. Blanc’s steep northern side with Aspen’s late Bil Dunaway. Herzog’s book about the climb, “Annapurna,” would go on to become the best-selling book about mountaineering on earth, and has sold an estimated 11 million copies since it came out in 1951.

In 1958, Herzog was named French Minister for Sport, and would go on to serve as a member of the International Olympic Committee for more than two decades. If you ever get a chance to see the film, “Annapurna,” do so. The cigarette smoke pouring out of the tents is one of the more interesting sights you’ll ever see in a “climbing” film.

Herzog had many friends in the Aspen area through his involvement with winter sports and the Olympics. He was also mayor of Chamonix, one of Aspen’s sister cities. As such, he was invited to Colorado to serve as Grand Marshall during 2000’s Winterskol parade in Aspen, and later showed his film “Annapurna” at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House.

Cutline: Maurice Herzog as the Grand Marshall at Aspen’s Winterskol parade in 2000 (he shared the carriage with climber Neal Beidleman).

Cam Burns is a writer based in Basalt, Colorado. His latest books are
“Climb: Tales of Man Versus Boulder, Crag, Wall, and Peak” and “The Essential Amory Lovins: Selected Writings.”



Misdirection Illustration by Chad Bassett Off to the north of a trail I have hiked, biked, skied and snowshoed more times than I can remember lies the approach to a side/tributary gulch (I’ll call it Pilgrim Gulch), which is, if not exactly hidden, is at least not blatantly obvious. From below, the mouth of Pilgrim Gulch looks to be nothing more than a depression in a ridge finger descending from a massive headwall and lying perhaps 500 vertical feet above the main valley. Pilgrim Gulch is accessible from the trail — actually a rugged four-wheel-drive road that is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the very busy Colorado mountain county I called home for almost two decades — only by crossing a willow-choked creek bottom, followed by an aerobically captivating bushwhack to the ridge finger. For many years, I had looked up toward that ridge and its tempting depression, but had never gone through the tedious process of actually visiting it. Then, one day, I found myself interviewing for a news story a local Forest Service employee who was talking about a recently filed application for a mining permit clear on the other side of the lofty mountain range in which this part of the story takes place. Knowing that the proposed mine site was essentially inaccessible except via self-propelled means along a sketchy section of single-track, I asked the Forest Service employee, “How would the applicants access their claim?” He then made mention of a gulch I had never heard of. I pulled out my maps and — lo and behold! — as far as I could tell, the Forest Service employee was talking about that depression in the ridge finger I had been eyeballing for all those years. He was talking about Pilgrim Gulch. I did not dally. Very next day, I hiked up the popular, rugged four-wheel-drive road to a point where it looked like the willow traverse would be easiest, or at least less skin-ripping. Then, while making certain no prying eyes witnessed my impending bushwhack, I began the trudge toward what ended up being one of the most astounding places I had ever visited in a county that boasts beaucoup astounding places. Though the mouth of the gulch, like I wrote earlier, was modest, it soon opened up to a broad expanse that included glacial tarns galore, expansive vistas, astounding rock formations, nearby mountain summits and thick wildflowers. It was like I had stumbled upon a mini-Shangri La that, stunningly no one seemed to know about. Pilgrim Gulch became one of my regular hiking destinations, and never once did I ever tell anyone about it. Never once did I ever consider the notion of telling anyone about it. Let the huddled masses continue on their merry way up the rugged four-wheel-drive road in the main valley below. Let them be blissful in their ignorance. Let them eat cake. Then, one day, I slogged up the steep incline to what I until that point considered my personal kingdom of alpine bliss. And what did I then see? I saw a series of diminutive rock cairns erected through a place where Pilgrim Gulch tightened up a bit as it followed a crystal-clear rivulet. My heart sank, for I knew what was next coming. It seemed like a form of corruption, not solely because other boot prints now existed in soil where I had seen literally none before, but because whoever it was who had traversed these parts since my last visit had felt compelled, even entitled, to leave behind near-permanent evidence of their passing. Fuck! But I did nothing, save sulk. During subsequent visits, the cairns became more numerous, larger and more elaborate. And the tundra through which those cairns were constructed started showing signs of wear and tear. Though I never saw another person in Pilgrim Gulch, it was obvious more and more people now knew about it. Then, one day, I saw some orange peels, eggshells and a candy bar wrapper next to one of the glacial tarns. And I lashed out: I destroyed every single one of those goddamned cairns. I mean to say, I obliterated the motherfuckers. This was no subtle carnage. I made no effort to aesthetically replace the rocks used to construct those cairns to their natural environment. As I kicked those cairns, I cursed the people who had built them. With regards to Pilgrim Gulch, I was likely too late. I ought to have disassembled the very first cairns I saw. I vowed then and there to never again make such a mistake. And thus began what to this day remains a love/hate relationship with cairns and all they represent, both literally and figuratively. Admittedly, what they literally represent is likely nothing more than some well-meaning person or persons who simply have a different opinion than do I regarding the placement of route markers upon heretofore-virginal landscapes. That person, or those people, likely feel it is better on all levels for folks out and about in the boonies to be both well oriented and following the same line of travel. But what they figuratively represent is the concept of order and management and linear thought — all concepts that, while perhaps valuable down in civilized realms, have little if any value in the heart of wild country — and, worst of all, the concept of encouraging and directing people to backcountry locales that, wherever period of time ago, were relatively unpeopled and untrammeled. The building of cairns in places lacking system trails is akin to guidebooks and magazine destination stories that reveal “secret places.” (One of these days, I swear I’m going to write a guidebook and/or a series of magazine destination articles specifically designed to get people lost. It would be the best favor I could ever lay on those people, though it might take them a few years to realize the good turn I have done them.) Before proceeding any further, let me be upfront and clear: Many have been the times in my long and extensive hiking/backpacking career when I have been mighty thankful for the existence of cairns. For instance, I was once on the Continental Divide Trail between Kite Lake and Stony Pass experiencing weather as bad as weather can be at 12,000 feet elevation in mid-August. It was blizzarding and blowing a gale, and there was not enough visibility to even measure. The only thing that kept my disoriented, teeth-chattering self on target was a series of six-foot-tall cairns delineating the venerable San Juan Stockway, which was contiguous with the CDT at that point. I likely would have been in trouble had those cairns not been there, as there was no shelter from the storm that I could see, or, in this case, not see. This is far from the only example of cairns saving my personal day. But — and this is a noteworthy “but” in this context — those cairns (I’ll call then the “good cairns”) have all been official, U.S. Grade-A trail markers, markers placed alongside existing system trails, trails that actually appear on maps, trails designed, as much as anything (in my mind at least) to keep the huddled masses on track and off whatever untrammeled (and, thus, more uninteresting) terrain that might lie nearby. The “good cairns,” in my considerable backcountry experience, are constructed by Forest Service and Park Service trail crews, who, presumably, know what they’re doing vis-à-vis trail location and construction. They were not constructed by Joe Blow the Ragman hiker who took it upon himself to expose a particular primitive route by building a series of “bad cairns” just because he felt like so doing. In this regard, the “bad cairns” are nothing more than litter and ought to be treated as such. I have long been perplexed, as well as red-faced angered, by the numbers of times I have ventured forth into the great outback untrailed unknown, only to find that someone has erected series of bad cairns to either direct those who follow (like, who’s to say that the cairn-builder actually knows where he or she is going?) or as a sign that Kilroy was here. These bad cairns were not constructed by Forest Service or Park Service employees; they were, rather constructed by people like me (but not like me), people who obviously were originally attracted to places sans official routes, people inclined to explore the hinterlands rather than simply following established systems of trails. What would possess people inclined to visit the untrailed unknown to then mark the way, to mark their passing, like dogs pissing on fence posts? What is this goddamned inexplicable attraction to orientation? Understand, please, that I am not herein castigating those who build bad cairns simply because they have visited a place I have also visited. Sure, I wish I were the only person to have ever interfaced with the myriad off-the-map destinations that over the years I have been blessed enough to interface with. But there is obviously more to it than that. Given my bushwhacking nature, I am happy that most backcountry enthusiasts most of the time access the forests, mountains and deserts via established, official, marked trails, many of which are delineated by cairns. I, too, generally access the backcountry via official trails, though, often, for reasons that have to do with both inclination and the influence of some sort of inexplicable metaphysical/gravitational/inertial force, it is not unusual to look down and notice that my boots have detoured their way into unmarked, un-delineated, sign-free, trail-free, cairn-free realms. One of the least-publicized and least-appreciated negative environmental impacts associated with the outdoor-recreation industry is the impact that simple, seemingly benign trails have upon the natural world. I once proposed a story on this subject to Backpacker magazine back when I was a contributing editor at that publication. The editor reacted in such a way that he obviously thought I had lost my goddamned mind. “Yeah, right, let’s make our readers start feeling guilty about the very trails upon which they hike into the woods. Our advertisers will love that.” I guess his response was understandable, if not somewhat lacking in the kind vein-opening honesty that I feel makes for good journalism, even if that honesty sometimes amounts to shooting oneself in the foot, or, worse, if it amounts to taking a long and hard look in the mirror. Still, based upon several peer-reviewed research projects I am familiar with, there is no denying that the existence of trails and trail construction results in many of the same kinds of negative impacts associated with roads and road construction. The clearing of trees to accommodate a trail causes more sunlight to hit the ground, resulting in the establishment of microclimates. New trails instantly up the erosion ante, especially if they are open to mountain bikes. Trails, not surprisingly, cause more people and, worse (from the perspective of the environment) dogs to venture forth into the backcountry. Species that do not take well to the presence of man (and dog(s)) start moving away from the trail, replaced by species that tolerate human activity. The habitat fragmentation that defines human kind continues unabated. There are certainly those who argue, and argue well, that, if you are going to have human visitation in the backcountry, it is better to concentrate that visitation on established trails, rather than having a whole bunch of stoned reprobates like me traveling in willy-nilly fashion hither and yon. There are also those who argue, and argue well, that the most significant impact a backcountry locale feels is when the first human passes through, and that every subsequent human visitation is incrementally relatively less impactful. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument against bushwhacking.) And, thus, if there is going to be human visitation in a given area, it is best for all concerned if those humans pass along the exact same route. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument in favor of cairn building.) That’s a great point and all, except that it does not entertain the impacts of aggregate visitation, which is often exacerbated by the existence of a trail, and which often in turn causes the existence of a trail. This is where we get back to the bad cairns. There are of course many ways that backcountry trails are born and raised. Many have historic roots — they were old pack train or livestock routes. Many were constructed specifically for recreational use. And many sprang into being via “unofficial” means. This latter category, often referred to as “social trails,” begin, for example, when someone — a hunter, maybe, or a bushwhacker, or a rancher on horseback looking for strays — comes across, as a random example, the biggest juniper tree anyone has ever seen. He takes a few of his friends out to see it. Those friends take a few of their friends, some of whom might be inclined to place a few humble rock cairns to help those who follow, and, before you know it, there’s what looks for all the world like a real trail to that tree, a trail that some people who have no idea it leads to a giant juniper tree start following just to see where it goes. Those people might start adding a few stones to the cairns lining the route. The Forest Service will sometimes institutionalize such trails, granting them “official, status” — meaning they get marked on maps, get trail signs, get regular maintenance and maybe even get a whole slew of cairns. Other social trails are established or even built in extra-legal fashion by mountain bikers or hikers. I recently heard of a lady who has been working tirelessly for years to build a new trail to the summit on one of our local mountains. (I would love to meet this lady, to give her a piece of my mind.) The national forest trail system I visit most often (because it is closest to my house) was started by a man who thought it was OK to go out onto public land, ax, adze and chainsaw in hand, and start blazing away, like Daniel Boone heading toward Cumberland Gap. Sometimes the Forest Service will come in and obliterate such ex officio trails. Sometimes — as is the case with the trail system I visit most often — the Forest Service throws in the land-management towel and institutionalizes those trails, and, in so doing, brings them up to construction standards. And, once those trails are institutionalized, they are publicized and, as a result, more and more people start using them, and more and more negative environmental impact results. Trees alongside the trails start to die. Birds move into less desirable areas to nest. Water hole accessibility is compromised. There is more to it than that, though. There is a certain difficult-to-quantify concern with the psychological repercussions of having more and more marked trails running through our mountains, forests and deserts, even if those markings take the form of modest sets of bad cairns along little-visited social trails. I believe it’s important for those of us inclined to tromp through the backcountry to get disoriented as often as possible, to have no idea where the fuck we’re going, to run the risk of getting lost and by so doing maybe finding something valuable that likely does not exist along a marked route. Most times, we find nothing, save experience and time alone with the trees and cactuses and birds and bears. And that’s fine. But sometimes we stumble upon something wonderful — a small natural bridge made out of Gila conglomerate, a new way to descend into a slot canyon, a cliff dwelling, a giant juniper. And whatever those wonderful somethings may be, they are made even more wonderful by the fact that we found them on our own. We did not follow a trail, and we did not torpedo the sense of wonder the next person who finds them experiences because we decided to build a line of cairns in our wake. The words “explore” and “adventure” are so over-used and misused in these days of ziplines, eco-tours and travel insurance that most folks, even those inclined to venture forth into the backcountry, have forgotten their true meaning. Whatever tattered remnants of their true meaning might still exist do not include guidebooks and destination stories and existing trails and even seemingly innocuous little systems of cairns constructed by people, even well-meaning people. This much I truly know and understand. These days, when I pass “good cairns,” I will often add a rock to them, if for no other reason than we have arrived at a time when cairns are being treated by passersby as art forms as much as directional devices. Whenever I pass “bad cairns,” I obliterate the motherfuckers, and I encourage you to do the same. I figure it’s my civic duty to help keep the backcountry as wild as possible. One of the best ways to do that is to play a small role in making sure that my fellow backcountry travelers have every opportunity to get disoriented, befuddled, discombobulated, bumfuzzled, bruised, battered and as scared as I have many times myself been while trekking through realms that lack trails and signs and cairns. And, in so doing, I hope those people, like I have, will find bear cubs frolicking in fields of wildflowers and pottery shards left by the Ancient Ones and entire fields of undisturbed crystals glimmering in the dappled sunlight.

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January 2013 Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor

Letter #1

John: I’ve been an avid reader and collector of MG from issue #9 through #183. A few months ago when MG revised its appearance to more closely reflect that of the classic MG of the past, I sent you a letter commenting on MG going “Back to the Future.” Now I learn that MG has stopped publishing. I did not intend for you to back to the Great Hiatus in publication. What’s the story here? Will I ever see issue #194 yet alone #200?

I understand some effort is being made to return to publication. Without knowing the nature of the current problem, I think that, if all else fails, you consider the following radical proposal. Turn MG into a quarterly, subscription publication that retains the irreverent character and history of the rag we all have grown to love. I realize this is a long way from the newspaper-like, intermittent publication that existed in the 1970s, but maybe it will allow MG to continue to exist. Just avoid modeling Outside, Mountain and local stuff like Outside Bozeman, and continue to be the iconoclast publication MG has always been. I’d really prefer to see MG stay pretty much as it is, but if it comes to a choice between death and life, I’ll choose life.

Bob Kohut

Letter #2

Mr. Fayhee: Good evening. It is with somewhat heavy heart that I type this letter. Finally today, after a few weeks of searching for supportable snow, and sussing out the finer points of mountain bike tires and snowy trails, I made it down to the post office and received an unfortunate letter explaining the hiatus of MG. I wanted to pass along my condolences and support. I hope that you and the whole crew can enjoy a little time off and get out and enjoy and adventure, find inspiration perhaps, for a rejuvenated MG somewhere down the line.

Also, I would like to offer my help in any way. I hope there is a way you can forward this email onto a list somewhere for possible subscribers, street-team helpers and overall supporters of a new(old) improved (still the same old, odd) MG for when it might resume and resurrect. If this list exists, please add my name to it.

Lastly, thank you for the last ten years. I have always cherished the Gazette. It always seems to show up about the time I remember to pay rent, and certainly helps ease that pain, and many others.

I wish you and all the staff and contributing writers the best, and look forward to hearing from you all soon in some form.

Thank you.
Andy Keck
Leadville, Co

Letter #3

John: I am in receipt of your recent letter of “transition” for Mountain Gazette. I have been down this road with you before and have no doubt that your publication will rise like phoenix from the ashes and once again purvey thoughtful writing and images to a receptive audience. I only hope there is something left on my subscription. If so, please cash out the dough and purchase a bottle of scotch (these days I am currently enjoying both Old Pulteney and Glen Rothes) and set the bottle in the middle of the table at your next visioning and strategy session. I suspect the scotch will help grease the mind to look toward Mountain Gazette’s future. After all, we need Mountain Gazette. Too much of what is written today about outdoor pursuits is sanitized and unemotional. A lot of today’s outdoor literature lacks connection. Since its inception, your mag has transcended the ages (a couple generations?) with writings from the heart about the joys, foibles and trials and tribulations of pursuits in mountains, on rivers and just living in the Intermountain West. We need the writing with the sweat and dirt on it that you have published.

Keep it going if you can. In the meantime have a ruckus New Year.

Allan Pietrasanta
Bishop, CA

Letter #4

Hi John: Mighty sad to learn that the Gazette is going out of print … again. Sure will miss reading something new on paper from you each month. Your piece on the Inca trail was captivating. I’ll have to get online and read the whole thing. It reminds me of the stories in your book on backpacking in the Copper Canyons. Now there’s a scarcely known gem of yours. At first, I didn’t know what I had as my friend passed the book along to me. I began by reading the “Nuts and Bolts” section and I recall thinking, “Who the hell is writing this?” I was delighted when I looked at the front cover to see your name. I should have known it was you. The book offers great advice, but I think Mexico had changed a bit since then. Have you read “God’s Middle Finger?” That book makes me think I better bring along a strong man who speaks fluent Spanish if I want to drive my ’91 Civic all the way to Creel and back. It sucks how few rights women have down there. Anyway, after nearly 15 years of dreaming, I hope to go there this spring (I’m substantially younger than you and did not even know the Copper Canyons existed until 1998). Your book is coming with me.

Best of luck to you on your future endeavors. I’m sure you know that, when one door closes, other doors open. I’ll drink a beer (or 3) in honor of your achievements.

Happy Trails,
MK Thompson

Letter #5

John: I was really disappointed that the story “The Hermit Trail” by Anonymous somehow made it to print in MG #193. The fact that the writer refers to the “two girlfriends” by not two but four different names shows that this caliber of writing should stay in the file cabinet (or circular file). Anonymous refers to these two girlfriends at various points throughout the story as [Molly, Polly] and [Susan, Sarah]. How an author cannot manage to keep track of the names he gives his characters is beyond my comprehension!

Jenny Sheehan
Santa Fe, NM

Letter #6

Hello Sir, I have been listening to your interview on KBUT from a few months back

and have to tell you that the fact that you are NOT so hip on new gear, people and trends (such as you mentioned in reference to Elevation Outdoors), makes you a much more valuable editor for a mountain culture monthly. To me, most current mountain lifestyle publications read more like a “you will be sicker if you had this…” purchase catalog. My reason for keeping with the Mountain Gazette is in its dedication to people experiencing the outdoors, and their communities, as they are. Please continue.

Thank you,
Michael O’Brien

Letter #7

Hello, John: I recently read “The lost art of making fire” from your collection, “Bottoms Up,” after an afternoon of building up the firewood supply for my family for the winter. I was raised gathering firewood and heating my home with a woodstove in addition to having gatherings centered around campfires, whether in the backyard or out in the bush, and I am amazed when I end up camping in close proximity to newcomers to fire. I tend to take people at their word, but the foundation of that trust started to crack when I would watch people who were self-proclaimed experts in camp-craft struggle to start a fire while blaming everything from the brand of lighter or matches to the type of kindling and air currents. Building fire is a finer art than talking loudly.

That being stated, I also spend as much time as possible in the wilderness and, as a consequence, I often wonder about backcountry fires and the attitudes toward them.  Dead and downed wood does provide housing for birds, rodents and bugs, who do provide fertilizer for the sagebrush and even riparian areas in the High Country, but they do not bring the same benefits as naturally occurring fire does when the ashes are left to fix the soil and spur growth of flora, and in turn, fauna. Things do not exactly decay quickly in the High Country; trees and bones alike bake and wither in the sun as the moisture is drawn out of them leaving suspended nutrients above the earth. Fires are suppressed to protect property, leaving bone-piles of readily ignitable fuel dotting the public lands.

I am a wildland firefighter; firefighting is in large part made up of countercultural folks, working hard to save up enough money to camp and surf couches during the off-season, living as cheaply as possible to keep seeing amazing places that no one else does (mostly when they are on fire- but backpacking in and out to fires is part of the job as well).  The wildland fire community is comprised of strange personalities, peripatetic types that do not fit into any part of a corporate “culture”; and it takes pride in the fact that it is one form of enjoyable, tough work that allows a person to be outside the majority of the time earning a living while not dependent on the tourism “industry.”  Firefighters also see the regeneration and benefits of wildfire firsthand. We return to the places that we put in 100-plus-hourhour workweeks to see if what we did mattered. Fire does matter. There is a reason it is the foundation of civilization; it is also the foundation of life. As has been said — we humans are fiery people living on a fiery planet; to ignore that is to go through life with a blurry view of things at best. Are North American humans now in the stage of civilization where we can begin to deny where we came from — to alter our past history?

I was raised to spread the ashes from my campfires and woodstove so the soil could absorb it, something that I have continued to do and will continue to do until it becomes a felony to procure my own source of heat, light and cooking fuel from the land. Tree farms might not be pretty, but I prefer looking at them to looking at strip malls, and, with population increases, I would much rather see water diverted for tree farms than to water lawns with while leaching chemical fertilizers into the ground. I cringe when I see ashes and pieces of wood in dumpsters; heck, sticks provide light and heat too. I also keep ashes for backpacking trips and sprinkle them along the trails and places I camp; it is probably as close to spirituality as I get, but I have always been fascinated by trees and treat them reverently, using all parts of the animal, to borrow a phrase.

A fire is a sacred event, providing heat and light; it is a mesmerizing, hallucinogenic conversation carrier. A fire is a connection to the sky, to the clouds, to the stars, to the earth, to growth and death. A fire is a gift from the gods.

In an age of plastic everything, bottled water, bottled oxygen, air conditioning, air cleaners, gas heating and on and on, it is sad that woodstoves are banned.

Perhaps I should add the disclaimer that I grew up poor, in a rural area, with even the nearest town, one lacking stop signs, a safe distance away, so I might be considered a redneck, therefore, what I write does not matter.

Joseph Van Nurden
Gunnison, CO

Letters #8

John: I just read your Inca Trail piece and it’s funny as hell. I’ve always wanted to do that trail myself, now I want to even more. I thought the Dorworth piece about us cat skiing in Canada came out very nice in the magazine. Hope I didn’t permanently scar him with my driving. Keep up the good work with the Gazette.

Karl Weatherly