How small the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous.
Ellen and I went to the Oregon coast for a quick overnight on her birthday. (more…)
On my last day teaching with the Gravity School at Mt. Bachelor, I got a tip from New Hampshire Daniel.
I should know what Daniel’s last name is. I’m embarrassed I don’t. He’s one of the most stalwart ski coaches on the staff, has been for years. He works every day. He teaches a lot of kids, and he’s very good with them. I see him in the cafeteria surrounded by whatever tribe of little Indians he has that day, and the vibe is super mellow. The kids are free to be themselves, be silly if they want, but Daniel is in charge. And on the hill he has pockets full of tricks to get his troop skiing, playing at skiing – making skiing play.
With his thrift-store skis, white hair and slow smile, he’s brilliant at it. But he might not have been the first pro from whom I would expect to get the skiing tip of the season. Out of the blue, standing together on the ski school deck, after it was clear there would be no lessons that final afternoon, he told me he’d improved his own skiing with a trick that helps him keep his inside hip higher through a turn. Focusing on this one thing had put him in a better stance on his skis and allowed him to carve a clean arc with almost all of his weight on the outside ski, the working ski.
I tried it, and it clicked. I couldn’t do the arm thing that Daniel said triggered the positive response in his skiing. (It was something about raising your hand as if to ask a question.) But it was enough, the zeroing in on that anatomical link. It led, later that day and in days since, to my assuming a taller, more forward position, which led to more control, more playfulness, as if a delighted puppet-master were floating above my descent. It is a feeling I have treasured without always understanding it when it came my way in the past, by accident or other design. Now here was a direct-action tool to get me there more often.
Daniel’s hip tip joined a handful of technique gems from the season, my first at Bachelor. Instructor trainer Mike Philips led a clinic early in the year that focused on two-legged carving – railroad track skiing. His insight had to do with patience, the patience to stand in balance while a turn develops, gradually.
Then there was Greg Dixon, another clinician, who played with the idea that all turns fall somewhere along an intensity spectrum, a spectrum he defined with a nautical analogy. At one end would be your “submarine” turns, diving, pressing deep into an etched groove. At the other end, imagine a hovercraft skittering lightly atop the snow. There was lighthearted argument within the group about whether our between-the-extremes boat impersonations should be jet skis, or cigarette boats, or . . .
These late-spring weeks the submarining has been splendid. April storms turned Mt. Bachelor’s volcanic ribs into huge ocean waves the better to lean into a bottom turn followed by a soaring, weightless cutback off the lip. It’s a good thing I’m a goofyfoot. Most of this wind-deposited snow has filled in the left sides of the gullies. As a goofyfoot kid on the California coast (whose natural stance is right foot forward on a surfboard) I was always looking for left-breaking waves, frontside waves as it were, where my toes, my chest and my hands were facing the green wall of water. As skiers, we have no frontside or backside, in theory. We face forward, down the hill. We go left and right, foot to foot, not toeside to heelside. But still . . . the old love affair with big, left-hand walls remains, and this season Bachelor’s wave-like furrows delivered.
Now the teaching season is done. The beginner-area “magic carpet” is shut down. All but three of the chairlifts are closed. Still, there is top-to-bottom skiing. Some days very good skiing, other days not so much, as a high sun works its fingers deeper in the snowpack. The most exquisite snow might be on the ridges where, earlier in the year, a rain/freeze cycle set up regions of glassy ice polished smooth by each successive wind event. Skittering slick and loud, these places were to be avoided, until now. Watch, ski school supervisor Chris Smith told me one day last week, those pods of ice (I see them sometimes as breaching whalebacks) will turn to “silk.” And they have.
Getting to these delicacies can take some doing. You might need to traverse rock-hard chunks of cornice fall. And you’ll likely have to punch through half-baked remnants of the last powder storm – like a switching yard of frozen tracks. It’s worth it when you get to the silk, the quiet, smooth Yes! of easy. Technique, after all, is about more than aesthetics. It is, or should be, in service to where you want to go, to what state of play.
New Hampshire Daniel told me he’ll be attending the annual PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) giant slalom camp the last weekend in April. (“I just try to stand up,” he said with a self-deprecating grin.) Then he will head back across the country to his home state and a summer job tending bar. Come fall, he’ll get in the car and migrate west again for another winter on skis.
Meanwhile, the season in central Oregon isn’t quite over. I’ll be out there as long as the snow lasts, submarining where called for, skipping like a stone where possible. And watching my hips.
Thanks, Daniel. When the snow is gone I’ll rewind, and press play.
At a morning ski-school meeting this week adult program director Chris Smith told us, “Be sure to tell your students, ‘Don’t eat the snow!’” Not the brown snow around the base area anyway.
“The snow farmers are doing a tremendous job,” Smith went on, “bringing in snow from the parking lot snow banks, stockpiling snow for the top ramps, piles for the tricky, high-traffic areas. We owe them.” Just keep an eye on your thirsty kids.
In a normal winter, the metal stairs leading up to the Gravity School’s twin yurts would be buried by now. The Clearing Rock patio bar, hovering these days like Rapunzel’s tower in the air, would typically be at waist level for skiers christie-ing to a stop at lunchtime. The imported snow Smith referred to is peppered with marble sized pieces of black volcanic rock. “Free stone grind!” one lift operator sang out in response to my sotto voce comment. Employee morale is still high despite my need to take my skis home for base repairs now and then.
It’s been a tough winter, snow-wise, in the Pacific Northwest. Many ski areas with lower elevations than Mt. Bachelor have closed (Alpental, the Summit at Snoqualmie) or never opened (Hoodoo, Willamette Pass). Portlanders tell us the skiing on usually reliable Mt. Hood is sketchy at best. Areas closer to the coast have had more rain than white stuff. And Bachelor is down, too, well below average for snowfall and base depth. As of late February, snowfall stands at 202 inches for the season, with a base depth of 88 inches. That compares unfavorably with season-long numbers from 2006 to 2014, which show an average 450 inches of snowfall and base depths exceeding 14 feet. Snow water equivalent, the measure used by water managers, stands now at less than 20 percent of average for the Oregon Cascades.
It is reminding some people of the winter of 1976-77, the winter Ellen and I arrived in Telluride. That season was the driest on record; it still is, for Colorado. If I remember right, the ski hill opened briefly over Christmas, closed, reopened for a week in February, then closed again before cranking up a third desperate time in March. The ski school situation was grim. Ellen and I didn’t much care, though. Ellen gave birth to our first, baby Cloe, on February 1. We were so blissed out we didn’t see the irony of sun bathing together on the dry grass in front of our rental house at 8,745 feet.
Smith watches the weather closely. He hasn’t seen much in the long-range forecasts to cheer him. Long-time locals bitch out loud, or under their breath. Is it global warming? Is it an aberration? Where have our powder days gone? WTF is going on?
Mt. Bachelor’s marketing department has not been shy about broadcasting our relative good fortune, however. “Third deepest mid-mountain base in the U.S!” “The most snow in all of Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada!” All true. And a quick scan of license plates in the parking lot would indicate the word has gotten out. Skiers are coming from all over, buying lift tickets. Some of them are taking lessons.
And, truth be told, the skiing is actually pretty darn good. The groomed runs are skiing superbly, smooth and obstacle free, with nightly help from the cat drivers and their corduroy-making machines. The mountain’s summit, its treeless cone a Fuji-like presence above the surrounding hemlock forests, is skiing pretty darned great, too, without any help whatsoever. Fog and wind and, yes, even the rain, have shaped a pleasure zone up there that rivals off-piste skiing I’ve done in the Alps. On one of my days off last week, I scored a half dozen summit laps, practically alone, on intriguing, often very nice, dry winter snow. It took a little exploring to find it, but who doesn’t like exploring?
Bachelor’s summit lift tops out at 9,000 feet, the highest lift-served terrain, by far, in the Northwest. There are taller peaks to the north, notably the Three Sisters, with their own glaciers and craters. South Sister, at 10,358 feet the third highest summit in Oregon after Hood and Mt. Jefferson, is the closest neighbor. But the Bachelor stands apart, and that isolation seems to generate the mountain’s typically fierce weather, including that 450 inches of snowfall and peak winds in excess of 120 mph. Wind and poor visibility keep the summit chairlift shuttered during storm cycles, so the prolonged clear, warm weather we’ve been having threw open a door that is often closed this time of year. The wind was blowing this day but not so hard as to bluster the lift and just hard enough to move surface snow around in my favor. Sometimes the wind is your enemy; sometimes it is your friend.
Bachelor is what is known as a shield volcano, with radial erosion furrows descending from the summit like spokes on a wheel. That means the wind will transport available snow grains into these hollows, to one side of the gully or the other, depending on slope aspect and wind direction. This day the wind buff took two forms, a chalky, very smooth, hard deposit on skier’s left, and a softer, deeper confection, dappled like a wind-kissed lake, that had sifted across the furrow bottoms.
I started with a short hike to the Pinnacles, a half dozen eroded lava stacks (the highest is about 100 feet tall) left over from the most recent glacial period. Like so many Easter Island heads, they stand near the summit hardly recognizable as rock, so coated are they in thick cauliflower rime. You see rime ice occasionally in Colorado, where Ellen and I spent the last 38 years. But nothing like this. Rime is wind-driven, super-cooled water droplets. Inside the cloud they are actually, in defiance of physics, colder than freezing but somehow still liquid. That is until they run into something solid and vertical, whereupon they freeze instantly – to the side of a rock, a hemlock trunk, a lift tower – much like touching your wet tongue to a bitterly cold steel pipe. The rime builds up until, sometimes, trees look like giraffes, and the Summit Pinnacles look like monstrous tapioca mounds.
Between two of the bigger pinnacles, I found wind buff of the first kind, smooth as a sand bar but firm and with a slightly hollow sound beneath my ski edges. This is the steepest skiing on Mt. Bachelor, pay-attention steep, plant-your-pole-like-you-mean-it steep. I worked my way carefully down into the bowl – Gordon Lightfoot, as it were – before shooting off to my left across the West Wall toward the lip of the West Ridge. This is huge terrain, Alps-like in its naked, scooped-out mass, overhung by cornices, timberline another 1,500 vertical feet below. I had a hunch. Looking up earlier from mid-mountain, I thought I saw snow dancing like so many spindrift scarves, waving up the furrows on what is known as the Serengeti Plain.
The ridge itself would have been a disaster to try to ski. Stripped by the wind of its snow, all that remained was the frozen glaze left by our early-season rain events. (We complained about the rain when it came, in December and January. And it rained buckets. I feared for my Saturday ski class of 10-12 year-olds who held contests at lunch to see who could squeeze the most water, faucet-like, from their gloves. But that rain, as miserable as it was, soon froze solid and bequeathed the mountain a bulletproof base, a base we are skiing on to this day. “The Glass Mountain,” I called it, after the fairy tale, when for weeks the summit gleamed above us – minus the golden apples but just as unattainable – deemed too dangerous by the patrol for skiing.)
Just beyond the glassed-over West Ridge I came to a vast field of “chicken heads.” These are rimed features as well, ground hugging, clear-ice nubbins that resemble petrified, disembodied coke bottles. Also referred to as “coral heads.” The only thing to do is traverse across their tops, gingerly. The reward is on the far side, where the aspect is slightly different: closer to northwest than north, angled a little differently to the wind, shaped so as to catch blowing snow rather than lose it to scouring.
The rest of the way down was all giddy discovery. Weaving a route from one furrow to the next. Reading the snow, or trying to, by its surface texture. (The softest snow had dimples, like a golf ball.) Stitching together a line of 60, 80, 100 turns? – I don’t know how many turns – until I was back finally to the lower mountain: trees, chairlifts, civilization. I hadn’t encountered another soul since leaving the Pinnacles.
So, if this is as bad as it gets, and the numbers are trending toward historically bad, I’ll take it. I’m new here, so I want to see the good. But I’m no Pollyanna. I’ve skied a lot of days over a lot of winters, in a lot of mountain ranges, going back to 1956. For sure, this winter has not been up to snuff, so far. But I have to say the sliding is pretty terrific, parking lot pebbles notwithstanding. In a bad year we’ve been lucky. And I can only imagine, with glee, how brilliant a “normal” winter must be.
One of the first ski lessons I taught at Mt. Bachelor this winter, in my return to teaching after many years away, was a group of four first-time beginners. They were Chinese grad students: a brother-sister duo, a cousin of theirs, and a friend. Three of them were attending Oregon State University, in Corvallis, the fourth was at OU, in Eugene. Three Beavers and one Duck. Yizi and Jining and I laughed briefly about that as Jilin and Xuanhan stumbled up, rental skis akimbo, struggling as first-timers often do, to walk in stiff plastic ski boots.
Yizi did the introductions. Tall and smiley, he said to pronounce his name “Easy.” Jining told me she and her brother were from Inner Mongolia – so they knew about winter. The hardest name to pronounce, by far, was Xuanhan, the sibs’ cousin. Her shy attempts to help me say it right were all sliding swishy breathy sounds. Would that Xuanhan’s skiing experience had been similarly fluid.
Ellen has said more than once that it is “brave” of me to go back to ski teaching. She’s proud of me, for getting out of the house, for bringing home a little bacon. But behind the words I sense incredulousness. I’m 65. I’ve got two artificial hips. I like my skiing – indeed, after all these years I may be clinically addicted to it – but since the two of us gave up the ski-school ski-bum life in 1980, in Telluride, I have spoiled myself as a strictly recreational skier. No uniform. No morning line-up. No ski school bureaucracy with its certification levels, its priority lists, its tautology and fealty to the PSIA manual, the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
It’s a job for young people. Ellen and I met, as twenty-something ski teachers, at Keystone in the early 1970s, when that Colorado area was still in thrall to its founder and ski school director, Max Dercum. Max’s enthusiasm extended to projecting Super 8 film on the wall at his Ski Tip Lodge – film he had shot in Austria of the latest instructional innovations from Professor Kruckenhauser – to which all staff were invited.
We worked for three winters in the California Sierra, at a brainy, tight-knit ski school in Bear Valley. Then we went back to Colorado, to Telluride, for four years’ work during that resort’s promising infancy. Promising was the operative term; hardly anyone in the skiing public had heard of the place in 1976.
It was hard to make a living at it. And with two children by then, we knew it was time to move on. Ellen got involved in Telluride’s film festivals, and I launched a career as a freelance writer, which advanced in part because editors at Powder and Outside could count on my writing convincingly (not to say authoritatively) about the mechanics, the feelings of sliding on snow.
That was 35 years ago. When we moved to Bend last year to be close to our first-born and her two kids, I needed a job and thought for the first time in ages about joining a ski school. I’m not the oldest. Ray is 70, I think. And there’s another guy I haven’t met who is 72. I am at the bottom of the priority list. Mt. Bachelor is one of eight resorts in the Powdr Corp. stable. The powers that be didn’t care – didn’t know and by rights needn’t care – about my ancient history. I was brought on board as a “non-cert(ified) new hire.” I battled through the on-line application, submitted to the drug test, attended orientation (where we learned that a lost child is never a “lost child” but always, euphemistically, a “huckleberry”), signed up to have my minimum-wage pay deposited directly into my checking account, was issued a locker and my orange-and-black uniform. Brave was maybe not the word.
My Chinese millennials were all four pursuing advanced degrees in computing or coding – eminently practical things for their futures back home. By contrast, skiing is impractical, of the moment, all slippery feet and gravity. We started out with one ski off and one ski on, scooting gently back and forth across the snow. Yizi and Jining got it right away. They had the kinesthetic sense, the ability to lift their eyes, balance and glide. Jilin was more tentative, watching his feet. And Xuanhan was really suffering. She took tiny, mincing steps, with no glide at all.
She told me her feet hurt, so we stopped and investigated. Her feet were not the problem; it was her calves. She was a big girl with large calves, and the boots were cutting painfully into her lower legs. It’s well known – it’s been known for decades – that a woman’s calf muscles are likely to sit lower on the leg than a man’s do. Many women-specific ski boots are designed to accommodate this physiology. Xuanhan’s unisex rentals did not.
I tried loosening the buckles on the cuffs to little effect then unbuckled them completely. She tried again, gamely, but finally, near tears, asked to sit out the rest of the lesson. Her friends spoke to her in Mandarin (or maybe it was Mongolian?), but she insisted, sitting at one of the children’s tables in the ski school yurt and working through layers of long johns and tight jeans to get the boots off. For such a big person her feet were tiny. Yizi promised to retrieve her street shoes from the rental shop and bring them to her after the lesson.
The rest of us went back to the business of controlling, of crafting a descent over snow. They were quick studies. After a couple of successful, slow-motion turns we rode the beginner chair lift. Yizi and Jining especially took those new tools, their gliding wedge turns, and ran with them. They learned that turning was the key to speed control. They steered their ski prows downriver left and right at will. On the flatter sections Jining in particular was able to let go, give herself over, comfortably, joyfully, to gravity, wind in her hair. “So happy!” she beamed at the bottom. “I am a skier!” I was almost as pleased as she was.
Back at the yurt Yizi handed Xuanhan her street shoes while I repeated an offer from the rental shop folks to comp her next time around. No, no, she said, perhaps out of cultural reticence. Or maybe she was saying there would be no next time.
In any case, her final words seemed a kind of Taoist koan. After thanking me for my efforts, she said, “Where we come from, my name means ‘snow.’”
We named the U-Haul truck Pinkham because the Believe-It-Or-Not graphic on the side was all about Mt. Washington in northeast New Hampshire and the ferocious winds at its summit. “Highest ever recorded wind speed: 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.”
“Pinkham” comes from Pinkham Notch, the best-known trailhead for hiking Mt. Washington. It was also the finish line for the American Inferno, a famously terrifying, top-to-bottom ski race there in the leather-boot Thirties.
Ellen and I were terrified. It was early December, and the time had come to move everything from our under-contract Colorado house to our new home in Bend, Oregon. We hadn’t accumulated that much stuff, we said to each other, hopefully. Maybe we can get away with a 14-foot truck. The U-Haul place in Montrose had 14- and 17-footers. The agent then showed me a 20-footer and I took it, falling prey to a sudden vision of furniture triage on the driveway.
Good thing, because we packed Pinkham to the gills, with organizing and rope-tying help from a friend who had earned the rank of Eagle Scout. After three days, Boulder Rock was a nearly empty shell, walls bare, echoing concrete floors, largely devoid of our 15 years there. Ellen and I were both grateful for a non-stop, worker-bee haze that kept the swells of nostalgia from breaking into tears.
We didn’t get away until late on day three. Rolling north beneath the threat of rain, we made it only as far as Grand Junction, where we stopped for the night. It was important we cover some ground, any amount of ground, Ellen said. Strike out toward our new lives, even if it was just 75 miles.
The arrival of our stuff to Bend Corners 1,100 miles later transfigured a modest 1950s, one-bath bungalow in which we had struggled to feel at home. We sensed the change in spite of the stacks of packing boxes, the piles of rolled up rugs, the chaos in the garage. That first night we lit a fire in the fireplace. It started with kindling of split lodgepole pine from rounds I had cut earlier in the fall above Bend.
Nesting, for me, goes beyond a house to the landscape. I need to hover my mind’s eye above a place to see how the terrain works, what shapes the mountains and rivers take. The view I need is akin to – maybe even the result of – a well-known painting my uncle Hal Shelton did in the 1960s for Colorado Ski Country USA. In it he looks down and west across the entire mountainous half of the state from what would be – I don’t know – 60,000 feet up in a balloon. Not that anyone had ever done such a thing. But he imagined it, and painted it from that perspective, with all of the state’s 30-some ski areas showing as tiny white carvings into the forested Front Range, the Park Range, the Elk Range, and so on.
It really helped me this fall to get up high above Tumalo Creek, where I found the lodgepole, to look east over the Deschutes River Valley at the myriad volcanic buttes and cones and grown-over lava flows. Cascades volcanism is the force of record here. Some of the eruptions happened as recently as a few thousand years ago, after humans had migrated into the area. Chainsaw in hand, I marveled at the speed with which soils had o’er topped the eroding lava, and at the forests of big trees that sprang up out of that soil. I’m getting old in a place so geologically young.
Ellen nests differently. She had been more uncomfortable, more lost, in an unfinished remodel, with only a few dishes, a couch from Costco, and an Aero bed to sleep on. “I know it’s shallow,” she said, only half believing the critique, “but I need my stuff. I need it around me to feel we’ve really made the move.”
I added a stick to the fire. It was a piece of hardwood from Alabama. Our son-in-law Mike, whose family lives in Birmingham and Huntsville, had bequeathed his woodpile to us when he and Cecily moved from Colorado three years ago. He didn’t know for sure what kind of wood it was – pecan maybe, or some kind of elm? He got it from his father, who had driven out for a visit with a load of good ‘Bama hardwood as a housewarming gift.
I filled the last few cubic feet in Pinkham’s hold with firewood from Boulder Rock’s woodpile. That hardwood, driven from Alabama to Colorado to Oregon, had additional meaning. Mike’s mother died only a few days before our move, exiting finally, gracefully, from a decades-long death match with cancer.
As Ellen and I stared into the embers, we felt other presences. Out of the maze-like clutter she had already retrieved a few crucial items. One was my mother’s sculpture “Walking Figures.” Carved from a two-foot cube of walnut, a woman guides a just-learning-to-walk child with such warmth of action real children often walk up and hug it.
Also coming out of the boxes were a brace of table lamps with cut crystal bases, given to us by Ellen’s mother, a child of Polish immigrants who valued, keenly, the fine things she was able to afford. And the ingenious bag-drying rack my father made in his wood shop and gave to us years before it became de rigueur to wash and reuse Ziploc bags.
And the pillows Ellen had sewn from sections of worn oriental rugs my dad’s parents brought home from a train trip to Russia in the 1930s. A trip that, even though my father was just 13 at the time, later prevented him from getting a job at the State Department during the paranoid McCarthy years. “Material things,” Ellen again chided herself, chided our neediness. “But they are our heritage, our history, our family. It’s who we are.”
I placed a chunk of sweet-smelling juniper onto the fire. Cut on our Colorado property to make way for the house at Boulder Rock, the juniper flared and lit the living room at Bend Corners. The added light illuminated a painting by Uncle Hal that had survived the journey and that we’d leaned, temporarily, against the wall. It’s a large watercolor, a wedding present 40 years ago. Hal painted most of his landscapes in finely rendered acrylics. (He was also a mapmaker.) This one is much looser. It recreates a backlit mountain meadow with the sun just out of the frame behind a spruce tree and light shooting in all directions. The highlights are particularly blinding on stalks of late-season grasses, white-gold beyond the spruce shadow in which the viewer finds himself. Cozy for the first time in months, Ellen and I stared into the scene as if for the first time.