Mountain Passages: Written in the Sky

The ineffable look of the sky exhausts my modest vocabulary.

It is late summer here in the High Country and the color of the sky is telling me that I maybe have six more weeks of cycling before I have to rack the road bike in the garage and unrack the alpine touring (ATs) skis to be tuned. dave's cloud

The sky is a crystalline blue that obviously goes on to darkness. This sparkling blue backdrops white puffy cumulus clouds that often morph into cumulonimbus, the kind of cloud that can go grey in a matter of minutes and throw lighting bolts that will blast you off the ridgeline if you are dumb enough to be there after lunchtime.

You can almost smell fall coming on the air. It’s the best time of year in the High Country and as good of a time to die as any. The weather is beautiful, with warm days and cool mountain nights. No more of the flatland heat that can scorch the back of your eyeballs. And months before mountain winter, when four layers aren’t enough to keep you warm on a windy backcountry patrol.

A mountain person is dying of stage four prostate cancer, and he’s not seeing anyone anymore besides caregivers and his son. But when he’s feeling okay he answers the phone. I won’t bother with his name. If you Google your own name you’ll realize just how unimportant names are. But we’ll call him Dave. The couple of thousand people who know him will know who I’m writing about.

I first met Dave when he was director of a Mountain Trail Running Circuit in the mid-80s. Some fool had talked me into running the circuit. We had to run something like eight out of twelve races to qualify to earn overall points. Some of the runs were simply ridiculous like the seventeen-mile Imogene Pass run from Ouray to Telluride, or the half-marathon up Pikes Peak, and the grunt up Mount Evans to just over 14,000 feet. Others included a 10K course at Winter Park that made its way through a storm sewer and then followed a mountain stream where runners could be seen standing in the water trying to find their shoes.

But it was the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton that reminds me most of Dave. The run started in downtown Silverton at 9,300 feet and went six miles up to the top of Kendall Mountain at 13,000 feet, and then back down. Dave made some announcements at the start of the race.

“You fast folks, remember when you are blasting downhill that slower runners are still working twice as hard as you did to get to the top. Give them some space.”

“That’s me, a slower runner.”

“You guys going uphill, watch for the boys and girls coming downhill fast. Give them some space. Crashes are hard at that speed.”

The run was awful. Near the top, runners had to scramble hand-over-hand for the last 200 feet to touch the summit. At the start of the race Dave would hop in a Jeep and greet all the runners at the summit. So I’m pretty close to last, I’m bleeding from a knee that hit the ground, and there was Dave.

“You are looking strong Bear.”

“Fuck you,” I managed to grunt.

“You may have dead last in the bag.”

“Double fuck you.”

I was still running as I reached the finish line…last. Dave called for applause on his megaphone. I was handed a beer.

Earlier in his life Dave bought into the American Dream but then quit. He just walked away from being a successful Mercedes salesman because it was too stressful. His Dad and brother had died in their fifties of heart attacks. He was determined not to die that way. He got fit and ran trails in the summer and snowshoed in the winter.

The local ski area wanted to hire him to run a snowshoe school. Dave was excited about a seasonal job in the winter. Then they told him that he had to shave his beard off, and Dave smelled corporate stressfulness and rejected the job, but kept his beard and instead ran a free-lance snowshoe touring business out of his apartment in Nederland. In his spare time he revised a successful snowshoe how-to book by The Mountaineers.

In Boulder, we have this modest little 10K every Memorial Day weekend where half of the town’s residents turn out to run or walk. The Bolder Boulder is a half-day party with a little exercise for most of us. Dave was the start announcer for years. He would have a complete list of the participants by staggered stage. He would underline names and call out four or five names in each stage.

“And in this stage we have the Bear.”

“Fuck you, Dave.”

“Winner of the Least Points Scored Overall two years running in the Mountain Race Circuit.”

“Double fuck you, Dave.”

“Dead last, two years in a row.”

Dave did such a great job on revising the snowshoe book that I called him from time to time to do books for whatever publisher I worked for. He’d come down from Nederland to Boulder on the bus with his day pack. He was always meticulously dressed in clean backcountry functional clothing, and his daypack was organized with stuff sacks for rain gear, a notebook, extra food, and maybe a jacket plus a full water bottle.

We’d have lunch, I’d pitch my idea and he’d promise to consider it. And then he’d always call back in a couple weeks and tell me that doing a book would be too much stress for too little money. I’d laugh and tell him that I’d have another pitch in six months, would he have lunch with me again. He always laughed too and said yes.

As a recovering book publisher I lost touch with Dave over the years, much as an alcoholic loses most of his bar friends. And then I got a call from another backcountry patroller who said Dave was dying and would I call.

I called twice and didn’t get an answer. My ex-running partner called and said he’d gotten through to him and that Dave wanted me to call. I called again and we talked and laughed for twenty minutes.

He told me that he was at stage four, and that he was trying to make it to his 75th birthday on September 11th. I laughed and told him that Blue Eyes, my wife, was born on 9/11 and how we left the year after for a couple weeks in France because she didn’t want to be stateside for the first anniversary of 9/11. “Too sad,” she said. We told other lies and laughed and I could sense that he was getting tired. I knew I had to say goodbye.

I didn’t know how. “So Dave, I guess I’ll see you again on the other side.”

“Yup, I’ll be sitting on a summit when you get there. I’ll be making fun of your trail running. And then we’ll laugh and drink beer.”


Alan Stark is a recovering book publisher and member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol. He lives in Boulder and Breckenridge with this blue-eyed woman and her dog.

2 thoughts on “Mountain Passages: Written in the Sky”

  1. I had the great pleasure doing snowshoeing presentation with Dave and learning more about the sport every time. His mountain race series was a stroke of genius that was great fun for everything but my knees.

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