Land in the Sky: Passing Through

Walking in this morning’s crepuscular light, I heard the hoot owl calling far off in the DeLong woods. Later I learn from the almanac: “An owl’s flight noise is about 1 KHz; mice can’t hear much below 3 KHz and so they don’t hear the owl coming.” When my father died, that night I was driving my mother home through a dark stretch of woods. Out of nowhere a large owl swooped down over the road in front of the car, the pale silence of its flight illumined by our headlights. The great bird flew directly over us, and was gone. We had not been expecting this coming out of nowhere, or its going.

Mountain Passages: The Heart of the Matter

Sometimes we get signals about our mortality. By Alan Stark.

Every once in a while the Mountain Gods give a warning. The warning can be subtle such as a glimpse of white puffy clouds over a peak at 10a.m.

The curious thing about getting these warning is our manner of dealing with the warning. We start with complete denial, continues on with an actual or planned change, then we feel growing discomfort, followed by flat-out fear, some deal-making, an action of some sort, and a resolution.

So you were late to the trailhead, and by the time you get above treeline, those white puffy clouds are morphing into a grey thunderstorm cell.

“Thunderboomers are not a big deal. I’ve been around plenty of storms in the mountains. This one looks like it will pass way to the south. No worries.”

“Hmmm. It’s not tracking south as much as I thought. So maybe if I hike a little more to the north above treeline—just in case.”

“Damn. That cell is headed right for me. Gotta get out of here.”

“Holy shit! Fricking lightning just hit below me.”

“Pleeease Lightning God, if you get me out this one, I’ll never start late again.”


Sooner or later we’ll all ignore warnings from the Mountain Gods. If we don’t get caught-up in the natural selection process for our stupidity, we’ll go through the same routine again and again.

I did just that—ignoring a Mountain God warning right after Thanksgiving. I was awake in the middle of the night and felt pressure under my sternum. It was nothing, just enough discomfort to wake me up. As a borderline hypochondriac and since I’m no longer 40 anymore, I’ve learned to ignore all sorts of signals from my body, as they are just part of the process toward geezerhood. I went back to sleep.

The same thing happened several nights later and again the next night. Now I was slightly concerned. Chest pain is one of several key symptoms of a heart attack, along with shortness of breath, pains in arms and jaw, nausea, and sweating. After 40, we all learn the drill. Truth be told, I was really concerned and began to feel the pressure at odd times during the day.

But I’m moderately fit, I work at altitude in the backcountry twice a week in the winter. I’ve run about a million miles of trails and have my share of century-ride caps. I’ve never had any chest pain other than from broken ribs. How could this be that my chest hurt?

So to prove that my imagination had run wild, I went for a long run. There was no pressure in my chest. Proof that I didn’t have a problem. All fine and good until later in the afternoon when the pressure came back. Now I knew I had a problem. What to do? I couldn’t bring myself to show up at the ER because I was afraid of what they were going to find. Better to tough it out. Maybe try another run the next day. Maybe the pain will just go away.

So let me stop here for a moment. Is any of this familiar to you? Have you done this sort of thing before? Is this denial something you are experiencing today and feeling one level of fear or another?

Nope, the pain didn’t go away. I suppose that the pressure I felt was about the same, but as I drifted through the next week, my imagination took over and the pressure seemed to increase. I got more and more worried. I could have cared less about the Holidays, because I was by now convinced that I was going to die of a heart attack. It was just a matter of time. Absolute fear set in.

But maybe I could make a deal with the Mountain God in charge of health. Maybe if I ate better and gave up my evening cocktail. I didn’t have a drink or a beer, and I ate about half as much as I usually do. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel any pressure in my chest that night.


But later the next day, while sitting at my desk, I felt the pressure again. Fear and dread rolled back into my life.

The fear I felt stayed with me all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about dying of a heart attack. I was essentially frozen by the fear of my impending death.

Blue Eyes looked up from her soup and said, “Are you okay? You look terrible.”

“I feel terrible.”

There it was out.


“My chest hurts.”

“Call Kaiser now.”

We were headed out to cut a Christmas tree on friend’s property. I was imagining having a heart attack while dragging a tree back to the Highlander. I had to smile at the irony, but I simply couldn’t do that to my best friend.

An RN at Kaiser calmly went through a series of basic heart attack questions over the phone and told me to come in. At Kaiser an LPN asked more heart attack questions and then put me on an EKG. At this point, while I’m sure I’m still dying, I’m also immensely relieved to be getting checked out. A doc, who I had never seen before, comes in and asks even more in-depth heart attack questions. She finds out that I had gone out for a symptom-free run two days ago.

“Smooth move.” she says, “Essentially giving yourself your own stress test, were you?”

I nodded in agreement and Blue Eyes made her frowny face, something I had occasionally seen before.

After looking at the EKG she said,” Your heart is fine.”

“You can do one of two things. You can either go home and make an appointment with your PCP to get to the bottom of this or you can go through the heart attack routine of a blood test to see if there has been any recent damage to your heart, a chest x-ray to take a look at the size of your heart, and probably another EKG.”

We elected to do the heart attack routine.

Five hours later, nothing. No heart damage, my heart size was normal, my lungs were clear, and the protein test for heart damage was negative.

The next week, David, my PCP suggested that I had a wicked case of ongoing acid reflux.

So what did I learn from this experience? Probably nothing.

Know two things about asking for medical help. If you talk to your PCP about how she makes decisions, there is a good chance that she will eventually mention Occam’s Razor, which loosely means, “always go for the simplest answer.” In my case, eating spicy food and age caused chest pain; all exacerbated by an overactive imagination. And if you ask her more questions about her work, she will probably tell you that 50% of the complaints from patients are nothing or go away quickly, 45% of the complaints require routine medical intervention (mostly non-invasive) and only 5% of what she sees are dangerous and possibly life-threatening. In other words if you visit your doctor, there is a 95% chance you won’t get an awful diagnosis.

Alan Stark is a backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and lives with this Blue-Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at

Postcard: Tucson, Arizona

“Watch out for the jumping cactus,” reigning national cross-country champion Howard Grotts told me before we set out for a ride on the 50-Year Trail in Tucson, Arizona last week. Maybe that was the problem: I was too busy watching out for a jumping cactus. Shortly before this photo was taken, I washed out my front wheel and landed hard on a rock, which opened a deep gash in my forearm the size of a steak fry. I never did see a jumping cactus.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Postcard: Friday night at the shop

Photo by Devon O'Neil
Photo by Devon O’Neil

Maybe it’s wrong to eat pizza in front of the ski-shop dogs on Friday nights. They just sit there and stare at me, hanging on my every bite. Sometimes a sausage crumb hits the carpet and they pounce. More often they just keep staring. I tell them I wish I had unlimited pizza and could give each of them their own slice. I don’t know if they believe me. But I would.

Land in the Sky: The Public Lands

All the big shot Greek gods—Zeus, Hera, Athena, and the rest—live up on Mount Olympus. But there is one god who never bothered making the ascent and instead remains on the down-low. His name is Hades, “Lord of the Underworld.” No altars or temples have been erected in his name. Why bother? He’s one god who is everywhere and requires no special attention. He’s a renowned host, most generous, and all who enter his House, with a few notable exceptions, are treated so well they never return. Hades touches more lives than all the rest of those gods put together.  His nickname, “Pluto”, means riches or wealth. And indeed his realm is the great commonwealth of humankind.

Yet lately there has been talk, in certain circles in the far American West, of privatizing the Commonwealth of Hades, of returning his lands to mortal authorities and landowners. “Wealth,” say these activists, “generates from the earth, from the lands and the resources.” Who can argue with that? And so a small group of these mortal patriots  laid siege to the realm of the dead. “This refuge,” says their leader, “it has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area.” On the other hand, there are those who say these activists are in fact militants, or even worse, terrorists. “We are not terrorists!” say the mortal patriots. “We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children.” The mortal patriots issue their statements from a place whose name means “misfortune.”

Hades the Generous just shakes his head.

Eye in the Sky

A hike up the mountain Hawaiians refer to as the House of the Sun. By Lara Dunning

The signs on Kuihelani highway said “U Turn OK.” It was almost as if Paka‘a was warning us six early morning risers that he’d be sure to display his power of winds at the summit of Haleakalā. But, we couldn’t turn back now. We’d all gone to bed early in preparation for our long drive to the mountain known to Hawai‘ians as the “House of the Sun.” Sleepy-eyed and coffee fueled we could see Haleakalā shrouded in clouds in front of us. Up there, at 10,023 feet above sea level, we’d be the first on the island to lay eyes on the glowing orb we all worshipped during the day. A sight, Mark Twain said was “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.”

The sun, we’d basked in it every day since our arrival to Maui. It penetrated the sun tan lotion we slathered on our bodies. It created freckles and golden hues on our skin. We lay on Kaanapali beaches, snorkeled in Molokini Crater, watched humpback whales and breathtaking sunsets all under the watchful eye this powerful sphere. Now, at three a.m. the sun lay beyond the black blanket of the ocean that stretched to the horizon. Off in the distance the big island of Hawai‘i blended in with the dark waters that surrounded it. It’s from there, Hawai‘ian legend says, the demi-god Maui traveled to the top of Haleakalā to lasso the sun so his mother’s bark clothing, called kapa, would dry faster.  At the top he braved the frigid air and waited for the first rays of sunlight to appear. Then, he lassoed the orb with a twisted coconut fiber rope and made the sun promise to “move more slowly across the sky.” The sun agreed and from that day forward Maui’s mother’s kapa dried in one day.

The road to the Pu‘u‘ula‘ula summit parking lot consists of twenty-nine switchbacks; the signage for most of the curves warns drivers to take them at fifteen mph.  Once visitors enter the park no food or gas is available. Right before the turn onto Crater Road we stopped at a coffee shop rightly named “Last Chance.” Here, we filled our stomachs with another kind of fuel, hot chocolate for me, and coffee for everyone else. I, the only person to suffer from motion sickness, became the designated driver. After paying our ten dollar entrance fee we began our hour long ascent on a two lane road with no shoulders, no guard rails and a 5 to 6 percent grade. Our car would be one of a millions that drove the road this year, one of twenty thousand that came for the sunrise this month, and one of one hundred and thirty that would visit the park for sunrise today.

Besides steep turns, the hazards on the road included grazing cows, rocks, bicyclists, large buses, and unpredictable weather conditions. Curve after curve, the landscape remained shrouded in darkness, only the reflectors lit the way. The further up we went, the more silent we became as we pondered what lay beyond the glare of the headlights. I gripped the steering wheel thinking if I made one wrong move we’d all plummet into the abyss and roll down the mountain. In our tumble we might trample over a Nene, a rare Hawai‘ian Goose that was on the verge of extinction in 1951 or a Peuo, a Hawai‘ian owl which many Hawai‘ians refer to as aumakua, or guardian spirit. I knew one thing for sure, we were driving up the side of a dormant volcano and for every 1000 feet in elevation the temperature would drop about 3°F. In Kahului, the temperature in the early morning was around 55° F. Using this calculation the summit would be around 25° F and that didn’t account for any snow or wind we might encounter at the top. We’d all worn heavier garments and layers, but would it be enough?

In the summit parking lot we easily found a place to park. Paka‘a shook the car and darkness veiled everything within several feet. With the elevation gain and wind the temperature it had to be in the upper teens. We pressed our faces to the car windows and gazed upwards. Thousands of stars twinkled in the clearest sky I’ve ever seen. It didn’t surprise me later to find out that The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy has been conducting research here for over four decades. With their powerful telescopes I can only imagine the solar sights they’ve seen.

As liquids pressed against our bladders the first one went out to search for a bathroom in the darkness. He returned quickly saying there was none within sight. No bathrooms? Surely, at least, there had to be a designated place to view the dawn. The clock said 5:15 a.m. and sunrise according to the “Last Chance” coffee guy was at 6:33 a.m. We had about 45 minutes. Minutes passed and the sky became a lighter shade of blue. With cell phone in hand and flannel buttoned all the way up my partner went to search for a path and found one. He returned several minutes later and between chattering teeth said, “Lordy, lordy, it’s cold out there.”

What the park map doesn’t tell you is that next to the parking lot is short path that leads to a small stone building that faces east with windows that stretch mid-floor to ceiling. In this protected space, sun gazers are the first to lay eyes on the sun rising out of the east. In perfect weather conditions one could see 115 miles out to sea and all five Hawai‘ian Islands. For now, the only thing we could see clearly was stars and the other sunrisers searching inside their cars for warmer clothing. Something, we now wished we’d packed more of.

Paka‘a dissuaded any attempt to go outside until we absolutely had to so I perused the park map. It explained that the park consists of several different ecosystems; coastal, pastoral, rain forest, dry forest, subalpine shrubland and alpine/Aeolian and many plant life and wildlife are endemic to the Hawai‘ian Islands. I was surprised to find out that approximately one third are on the Federal Endangered Species List. ‘Āhinahina, also known as Silversword, is one of these plants and has been on the endangered species list since 1986. Its shallow root system and dagger-like leaves with silvery hairs have adapted to high altitudes and intense sun conditions. These plants live up to 50 years, can grow up to six feet tall and right before they die dozens of purple sunflower-like flowers bloom up the center stalk. In the growing light behind our car I could see a cluster of them standing about four feet tall. As the minutes passed, the sky brightened. I zipped up my sweater, tied the hood together with a hair clip and exited the car. The moment my eyes landed eastward shades of pink painted the sky. Sunrise had begun.

“It’s starting,” I called out.  Everyone piled out of the car and took the path up to the overlook.

At the top of the path dozens of people gathered inside or huddled outside of the small circular observation building. My eyes roved over bodies, large and small, wrapped in sleeping bags, hotel blankets and beach towels. Inside, bodies pressed close to the windows refusing to give up their view. No matter where we stood, all eyes turned one direction, east. I was amazed that every single one of us had gotten up in the wee hours of the morning to come here. In our group the reasons intertwined with one another. We’d wanted to experience a sunrise at 10,000 feet; a third of the way up to Mt. Everest. We wanted to share it with friends and family; our group consisted of sisters, couples and friends. We wanted to experience an event we’d heard so much about and see if the Haleakalā sunrise should really be on your “bucket list.” But, what drew everyone else here? Was it because Twain thought it sublime?

As these thoughts crossed my mind the display of light and color created a mesmerizing effect over everyone. It painted our skin, like a Monet painting. Whispers filled the room and families and friends huddled close together as this sacred moment took hold of us. Native Hawai‘ians call this place wao akua which means “wilderness of the gods.” Purplish-grey clouds hovered over the lunar-like landscape and rays of orange-pink sunshine bended across the sky. Seeing that I could believe the gods resided here and they had something to tell me. What were they saying? In this moment, this sunrise, anything felt possible. Maybe here, at the top of the world, I could hear them. Twain hadn’t been wrong.

My friend with her cinched white windbreaker came inside and told us about an almost wind-free spot to the left of the building. I headed out to investigate. She was right; this spot was the place to be outside. Six steps to the left or right and the fierce wind chilled your bones, but where we stood it blew gently. Out here, the vibe was jollier. People knew they were freezing, but laughed about it. Four young girls huddled under a hotel blanket, lovers kept each other warm with layers of beach towels and mothers and fathers nestled their children close to them. Everyone took pictures and two young Asian men filmed it all. In anticipation we all watched the colors of the sky began to change and glimmers of green and bright orange hit the clouds. All of us awaited the rising of the sun from this very spot; 3,055 miles above sea level on the coldest and one of the most beautiful spots on Maui. My partner and I huddled against each other shoving hands under each other’s armpits to warm our fingers. Every few minutes we checked the time. The sun was coming.

Within moments the colors became more intense. Then, a pulsating ball of light glared into our eyes almost blinding us. Shades of pinks, oranges, yellows, and greens burst across the clouds and onto the clouded crater landscape. Outside, we all gasped at the ceremonial display of light, snapping pictures and smiling at the barren beauty we had come up to experience first-hand. In that moment, my chest swelled with pride. I had made the journey up here. I belonged to this place and it deserved my admiration.

It wasn’t until after sunrise I noticed Park Ranger Keith inside the summit observation building. He wore a floppy eared fur hat, long pants and a winter coat. I chuckled to myself thinking this guy knew how to dress for sunrise. His smooth face bore an expression of serenity as he answered questions about the park. Haleakalā consists of 30,000 acres of public lands with three separate visitor centers and offers camping, hike-in cabins, ranger programs and approximately twenty-seven miles of hiking trails. On any given day there are two to three rangers stationed at sunrise overlooks. Ranger Keith sees at least ten sunrises a month. Each year staff sees hundreds of thousands of people from countries all over the world who come to see the sun rise and explore the park; a number that seems just as vast as fish in the ocean that surrounds Maui.

Almost 300 feet below us at the Visitor Center, Park Ranger Nan, whose seen many sunrises over her twenty-five years at the park, sang a traditional Hawai‘ian prayer. As a Native Hawai‘ian, the moment of sunrise is “extremely special” and in the prayer Nan asks for “the knowledge of the environment to come and sit with her so she may learn its knowledge and use it correctly.” Nan told me that seeking earthly wisdom and protecting the planet, especially for those generations yet to come, are part of Hawai‘ian philosophy and this idea reverberates throughout different cultures and peoples all over the world. Now I wondered if that been the inaudible whispers I’d heard earlier? Had I missed my chance to listen? Really listen.

A few like me, despite frozen noses and hands were determined to stay as long as we could muster. In the valley, the sunlight transformed the clouds from light purple to blue. With each passing moment the veil of darkness lifted to reveal the astral like wonder of this divine place. At the top, with the ocean thousands of feet below and nothing but sky above, it truly felt like I was standing at the top of the world. Afterwards, I decided next time I do this I’ll be better prepared. I’ll put on a layer of clothes, and then another until I could pass for the abominable snowman. I’ll use the detached restrooms at the Haleakalā Visitor Center and bring a chair and a blanket so I can be comfortable. Then I’ll ask and listen. Really listen.

Later, I found out that Park Ranger Keith likes the sunrise because it gives us “a moment outside our rushed world to appreciate and study the environment” and “reflect on the possibilities of a new day.” I thought back to look of contentment on his face and wondered if over the years Haleakalā had shared its knowledge with him. Inside, when the sun’s glimmer rose above the clouds he thanked everyone for “starting their day at Haleakalā National Park on March 8th, 2013.” When my friend said his heart-felt declaration made her teary-eyed, I knew for sure, that even to someone who’s seen the dawn hundreds of times, this wasn’t just another sunrise, some might even call it “sublime.”

Crass Consumerism: Finding hope in the halls of Outdoor Retailer

We sent MG reporter Mike Medberry into the belly of the beast. Sort of. As in we sort of sent him and he sort of wandered down to Salt Lake City from Idaho and then sent us his thoughts on the best stuff in the world of stuff.

By Mike Medberry

Now I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m a writer who dislikes the brand of hype and quotable material that is offered to give writers words to print. And I’m not a journalist. I’ve got forbidden opinions. And when it comes to gear… frankly, there are too many superb outdoor products even to name them all, but show me what you’ve got, give me the price, and prove to me that it will last for a significant portion of my life. That’s the name of the game for me—sustainability and quality.

I went down to the Outdoor Retailer winter show in Salt Lake City because I wanted to hear writer Terry Tempest Williams and the National Park Service Chief, Jon Jarvis, say good things. And they did. Jarvis celebrated the 100th anniversary of the NPS and Williams asked the 1,000-plus listeners to do more than sell their product: They should aim to save a piece of earth and wildlife that their businesses thrive on.

After that I walked through the numbingly beautiful displays publicized by tough, studly men and tough, shapely women offering their wares and samples to potential purchasers. I felt more vulnerable than a Chinook salmon swimming up a headwater creek, as all kinds of sweet, sweet chum was thrown out to hook me. Some business offered superb value and creativity, some counted on the charming (or grating) personalities of salespeople. Some were start-ups with teeny budgets while others dominated a large piece of property in the Salt Palace and had monumental billboard advertisements. Some gave away beer and some coffee, some hired bands, others shared chocolate bon-bons as a conversation breaker, or had huge slabs of ice to show off their superior brands of footware. All sought attention of potential customers, friends, and competitors. Times were agreed upon for business meetings and meetings were had as you’d expect for a trade show.

12636845_10207089202522749_1245843440_oMore than 1,200 companies had displays. Thousands of people wandered from business to business to see what they could see, they sought out moneymaking opportunities, looked at fashions and new devices, but mostly they walked, drank, telephoned friends, met with other workers, chit-chatted, and just hung out. I was wearied just watching all of this happen and naturally I helped myself to their free alcoholic drinks and food.

Nonetheless, I found something to write about. Out of all of the businesses I chose six that appealed to me right away. All six had chutzspah. I did plenty of walking and listening. Then I talked with each of the managers or spokespersons of the audacious six about what they were selling and what drives them to sell their product. I admit that my search was quirky and each business was based on my oddball tastes. But, here ya go with all of my stinking prejudices.


Patagonia is one of the best companies when it comes to protecting the environment, selling first-rate clothing, encouraging recycling, and championing environmental organizations (and its heroes). One of the clearest commitments that Patagonia has made to protect the environment is that the independently owned business has become a B-Corporation. This Benefit Corporation allows the business to create a “general public benefit” which legally requires it to make a positive impact on society and the environment. Additionally since 2014, Patagonia has made a commitment to recycling the fluffy feathers, the down, in manufacturing their new garments. Within that commitment is what I see as the protection of thousands of ducks and geese every year. In 2016, they are instituting an accountability system for determining the source of down. Eider ducks no longer will be killed for their feathers to keep me warm! Thanks.

Patagonia spokesman, Corey Simpson said, “We’ve done the legwork knowing that other brands can promote down and provide the best product for advocating animal welfare. We’re just saying to other manufacturers that you can build good products and do it in a good way.”

I asked Simpson how Patagonia remains on the cutting edge of their business and environmental protection.

He replied: “Each of “Patagonia’s employees is committed to their passions, although they may be cut of different cloth. They all are passionate, and when they talk about making changes that makes a difference.” In my words, the management listens to what their workers say and believe. That, I thought, gives employees a say in managing their company and gives them a chance to be innovative without being criticized merely for having an opinion.

12637161_10207089198842657_532767656_oPatagonia also has an environmental grants program which as Simpson said, gives money to “grassroots groups, for on the ground work, and to people who do the real work (of conservation).”  Patagonia has a new book, Tools for Grassroots Activists, with the intention of making environmental organizations more effective in protecting the environment. But in my world it is Patagonia’s catchwords “Don’t buy what you don’t need” provides the last word on their philosophy; championing the legacy of Doug Thomkins as an environmental hero clinches the gold ring.


12633075_10207089204802806_631390716_oThe artfulness and elegance of sweaters made by Dale of Norway halted me to look at, what?—sweaters? Yeah, sweaters: sleek, comfortable, colorful sweaters, and it wasn’t only the wearers of the wool that stopped me. I swear I am a magpie for the bright, complicated, pretty colors of a sweater!

Come to find out that that company has been in business for 130 years, they use 100 percent natural wool, they have their business in Dalekvam, Norway, hire locally, have sweatered the Norway ski team since 1956, and stand solidly behind their knits. All of this appealed to me, though I own very few sweaters (they’re very old ones with holes in the elbows and armpits…). I’ve seen many corporations compromise their products for sale in the U.S. because of competition from Asia and others that treat workers as mere drones or worse, but Dale of Norway doesn’t happen to be one of them. Part of that is the dedication of workers to the business, the fine quality of the sweaters, and the low cost of production. The factory still lies on the bank of the Dale River and is powered by the inexpensive hydropower from waterfalls.

Mark Bruce, Production and Design Manager for Dale of Norway, spoke in a smooth, understated British accent. “We have a huge wealth of knowledge that we can take from our original designs.” Bruce explained that the bright colors that I saw came from the style of wool spinning and that Dale of Norway sells a high quality, long-lasting garment. “We work in a small village outside of Bergen and have to treat people right.” Two people who have worked there for more than 30 years are quoted in a brochure that “The experienced staff follows every step of the production with their personal touch and attention. This is the secret behind the unique qualities of the Dale of Norway garments.” I thought it was audacious and wholly appropriate in this angst-filled day to brag about your longest serving employees.


Emergency Essentials caught me with their steaming packets when I was hungry. “What’s this?” I asked Matt Putnam, the sales manager for the business. He said “It’s a Hydroheat.” Say what? “You pour in some water and put in the bottom of a pot and it can cook a meal in 10 minutes.” Cool! “No hot….”

HydroHeat showingI recall a long, solo dayhike on one solstice in Idaho when I was stranded in a lightning storm. Then it snowed, which seemed improbable or impossible, but it certainly was cold and I hunkered down for a night without any appropriate gear. The matches were damp enough and the wood wet enough so that I couldn’t start a fire. My fingers became too cold to work one of those kid-proof lighters that I carried as a backup tool. The upshot is that I lived, but it was a very uncomfortable night with pine boughs stuffed into my wet jacket for warmth and in my teashirt for a pillow. T’was an itchy night, believe me. But one or two of the hydro-heat packets that I could’ve bought for a song and carried in my pocket, would have been more than a God-send. Heat and food were at a premium out in the woods on that cold, stormy day.

It may be that those packets can be dumped out into my garden after they have provided their heat but I’m not sure. I’m told that they are only limestone when they’re spent. Well ok, they’re a damned good thing when needed.  Sold!


12620773_10207089197962635_786894970_oThe next grabber was the Steri-PEN. It seemed like some device that could be used to treat a diabetic mishap—it was was, however, an ultraviolet light, a finger-sized water purifier. But what the hell is it? Turns out it kills microbes in water in roughly a minute, as long as the water is vaguely translucent. You just stick the light underwater and turn it on. This baby should work in mountain streams and most sources of water that look slightly palatable. For more turbid water sources the water should be filtered.  I’m figuring that means a paper coffee filter.

“The PENs have been around since 2001,” Kayla Moore, Director of North American Sales for SteriPEN said, “but we haven’t had a budget for advertising until last year when a company invested in our product. We’re here to do bigger and better things with our product. We can help with camping and hiking, but in the end we want to provide safe water for third world countries, so we really need to branch out.”

The SteriPEN beats the heck out of a heavy pump that always has one tube coming into the dirty water and another going out to my water bottle (which I have been known, somehow, to occasionally reverse and spoil the water). It’ll fix up my water on the Payette National Forest, in the fountains in India, in cattle troughs in Ketchum, but I’ll have to experiment in the canyons of southern Utah. I don’t mind living a little dangerously and the PEN would be soooo light to carry!


Don Scott at GSI Outdoors saw me fingering the shiny, silver, one-cup expresso maker and eyeing the four-service cook pot. He said, “May I help you.”

“Sure. Is there someone that I can talk to about your pots and coffeemaker?”

“Well, the public information person will be around and….

“Naw, that’s okay. I was looking for a person who could tell me something about the efficiency of your product. That’s ok. I’m just looking around…”

“Would you care to talk with our Research Director?


“He should be here in about half an hour. Could I respond to your questions in the meantime?”

“Yeah, I guess. Well, I’m interested in the espresso maker and want to take a picture of it. It’s pretty.” It was very shiny and silvery, like the sun.

“Ok, just take it down, set it in the light, and take a picture of it.”

12591857_10207089201282718_1175328780_oI did just that when Kurt Gauss, the Director of Research and Development, came over and guided me to a four-piece cook kit. He explained that everything had an essential purpose and he impressed me that each piece in the kit fit together like a bunch of Russian Dolls. I saw that GSI created a seemingly mundane product that shined and had real beauty, efficiency, and usefulness. They had been well designed and built. That appealed to me but the 4-in-1 pot kit seemed to be a family kit, which was more than I would ever need. However, I thought about pocketing that cute little espresso maker. I looked at it standing there on its little pedestal. GSI was very efficient and careful in their designs; there was little gee-whix glitz and pandering to passers-by, plenty of class, and nothing but damn good products. By God, I want one of those sweet little expresso makers!


BioLite stoveThe sixth company is BioLite which seems to owe its existence to their study of thermoelectric processes: turning the heat of fire into electricity. Alchemy! Their business is to sell lightweight campstoves that generate electricity while allowing you to cook dinner on that stove. It also provides light, in addition to the fire’s glow. The stove works by burning gathered wood, mostly sticks I guess, and the company diversifies its products by also selling solar panels and batteries. Their mission is to take stoves to sub-Sahara Africa and provide electricity in rural areas.

At 2.1 pounds, a BioLite campstove is an intriguing addition to my backpacking gear, as it could replace my standard gasoline stove.  There are a bewildering number of products that BioLite sells and I thought that the company should work on a few of their best sellers, define and share the best technical information with customers, increase the efficiency of the thermoelectric process, and streamline its offerings. It occurred to me that charging my cellphone may require a lot of time sitting around burning wood, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how much. All I know is that it might take time from fishing. BioLite is operating in a golden glow of optimism and growth for the time being, but they’d better focus on what sells and deliver excellent information on each product or go broke. However, with their enthusiasm for making electricity out of fire, I hope they’ll live long and prosper.

So there you have it: my favorite six products at the 2016 winter OR gathering. I have ignored the oriental fabric making geniuses because they are all changing rapidly; some of these businesses will remain, but some will fail in the recession that China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries are experiencing. Anyone could see that ‘what goes up must come down’ but none would dare predict the future, as the cheap workplaces are diminishing. Or moving. That defines the blindness of Democracy and the arrogance of enterprise, but I expect that the six companies will learn from the Chinese recession, right?


Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Backcountry patrollers are good people who have difficult job. And this one particular old Bear is a bit tired of trying to please everyone on the trails in winter. By Alan Stark

The sun is just coming up over the horizon to the far southeast. A red circle blasts through the neighbor’s pine trees as I wait for coffee to drip into the pot on this winter morning. The sun is about as far south as it gets before the long arc northward, as it moves toward the summer solstice. Then it becomes a startlingly bright yellow flare that comes up over Greeley to the far northeast.

Coffee is beginning to drip into the pot. I scratch my scrotum, because that’s what half the population does standing around in jammies watching the sunrise and waiting for their coffee. Sure it’s a time for a scratch, but also a time to reflect. The subject that pops into mind is, “trying to please everybody,” a concept that has totally eluded me for my entire life. And the more I think about the concept, the more I know it’s a waste of time to consider. There are a good number of days when I can’t even please myself, much less anyone else.

I put on water to boil for oatmeal, pour a cup of coffee for Blue Eyes, walk down the hall and put it on her bedside table. Moving to a familiar routine and finished with my reflection of the day, my thoughts now move to the work in front of me.

In an hour, my partner and I will get to the equipment cache at Ned Fire. We’ll sign in, draw radios, a SPOT unit, and whatever other gear we’ll need. The duty firefighter may or may not be up when we get there. But if the firefighter is up, we’ll talk for a moment, usually about the weather or maybe just say, “Have a quiet shift, no fires today.” The firefighter will nod and maybe say, “Have a good patrol, no incidents today.”

IMG_2271At the Brainard Gateway, I park the Highlander, grab my boots and coffee cup and head for the warming hut. After I get my AT boots on, I start working on a fire in the small stove. There is something primal about building a morning fire. I’m not sure what it is, but getting that fire started is all consuming. I think of nothing else but making sure the fire is going. My partner is outside shoveling snow away from the warming hut door and then the doors to the pit toilets.

There are forty or so cars already here. These cars and trucks belong to the hard-core backcountry skiers. Some of them started near dawn and will be coming in, just as the citizenry begins to show up in force around 10:30. The hard-core skiers are worth listening to, because they have been coming here for a hundred years and know all the trails cold, and can accurately tell us where trees are down across the trail. We use their information to pick our route for the day. If one of us is feeling responsible and into trail work, we might go clear the tree, but more often than not, we’re just looking for a good ski route, not additional work. Whether we clear the tree across the trail this week or next doesn’t matter all that much, it’s a long winter.

“Hey, what trails did you do this morning?” I ask.

He’s 50 to 70, silver hair and beard, fit looking, wearing an anorak with tele gear and old Scarpa boots. His skis have seen a number of miles and probably have “omni wax” on the bottoms, a combination of years of waxes and scraping which will help him hold on a pitch and effortlessly glide down a trail.

“Reservoir Road to Little Raven and back on Waldrop. My loop.”

“Anything good?”

“Little Raven.”

“ You been doing this for a hundred years?”

“Just like you.”

“Just thirty years.”

These are good mountain people. But some of them think there is no need for ski patrollers in the backcountry—that if a person is out here, she should be able to take care of herself.

As backcountry patrollers, we understand that. When we first started work up here, at the request of the Forest Service, there were a number of patrollers who wanted to do the work but didn’t want to wear red vests and white crosses, because they thought uniforms might make the hard-core backcountry skiers grumpy. But we worked hard to earn and keep our crosses. The vests have pockets everywhere for our first aid gear, radio, and SPOT unit, so we wear them and we’ve gotten used to the occasional look of surprise or even a frowny face when we pass by.

We have even gotten used to the occasional smart ass…

“Whoa, ski patrol is here, now we’re all safe.”

“Yup, except you.”

“What daya mean?”

“Think about it.”

Or the person of limited observational skills…

“Sorry sir, but your dog isn’t allowed on that trail.”

“Where the hell does it say that?”

“On the Brainard Lake webpage, on the map at the warming hut, and on the sign your dog is peeing on.”

We make an effort to be friendly and helpful and not act like snow cops. The job is service and safety, education and information, and a basic medical response if needed. Unlike ski area patrollers, we don’t do law enforcement. The Forest Service folks make it absolutely clear that we are not to do law enforcement in the backcountry. Alpine patrollers have a much tougher job, and more bosses than anyone needs—both within the patrol and from ski area management.

Backcountry patrollers have an easy job and light-handed supervision from the local Forest Service folks. They are good people with the difficult job of managing the forest and serving the community at the same time; often caught between massively conflicting interests. As good and decent as our local Forest Service people are, I sometimes end up shaking my head at the Forest Service policies handed down from biggies in Washington who have forgotten their field experiences.

With the exception of the smart-mouths and the terminally stupid, most of our interactions with trail users are positive and often interesting, sometimes fun. Some take time to tell me what they are thinking about. The perennial subject is dogs on the trails, the new subject this year is fat tire bikes.

I get it that dog spelled backwards is God. I love my dog. But dogs on the trails can be a problem. We have seen dogs badly hurt by the steel edges on skis. Is this injury the dog owner’s fault or skiers fault? It is usually the dog owner’s fault. And the fat tire bikes…in the summer a hiker can step off the trail to let a mountain bike pass. Not a problem, but in the winter getting off the trail is problematic. Conflicting uses…we tell people to try to get along and cut some slack with each other.

The chores are finished. We go back to the Highlander and pull out skis, poles, and packs and walk to the trailhead to gear-up. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

IMG_2272It’s absolutely true that National Forest belong to all of us, not just elitist backcountry skiers in plastic boots on AT skis. But certain uses are simply incompatible with other uses. A more extreme example than dogs and fat tire bike riders happened last year when we stopped a rabbit hunter on the Middle Saint Vrain Road who was shooting north. He didn’t have any idea that people skied the Buchanan Pass Trail a 100 yards north of the road.

The Forest Service needs to rethink the concept of multi-use trails, particularly in the winter. Trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand. Sure, there are trails where multi-use works. But the Forest Service needs to change their policy and accept the fact that some activities are mutually exclusive; this activity works here and this one works better over there. A good example of specific trails for specific activities is here at Brainard, where there are two trails, CMC and Little Raven that are designated “skier only” in the winter. But most of the trails we patrol are multi-use and a free-for-all. We need more activity specific trails in our National Forests.

Will the multi-use policy, particularly in winter, change? Probably not. Sometimes I wonder what the Forest Service folks in Washington scratch in the morning.

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller and lives with a Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at