Peter Shelton

Largemouth Bass

Posted in More Sport, Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on July 31, 2015

We were waiting for Dick Bass. That was normal – waiting for Richard D. Bass: never-say-no human magnet, whirlwind of positive energy, Texas oil tycoon, builder of the Snowbird Resort in Utah, conceiver of the seven-summits project, first man to climb the highest mountain on all seven continents, and at that time (1985) the oldest man, at 55, to climb Everest. Life was a feast too big even for his prodigious appetites. He was constantly suffering, he would tell you, in his raspy Dallas drawl, from “the tyranny o’ the urgent.” (more…)

Wind Buff

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Weather & Climate by pshelton on February 25, 2015

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.

Fellow Kids

Posted in Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on February 3, 2014

The last time Zjak and I skied together, he stood very tall on his feet, chest and chin up, the way I remembered from our years together at Bear Valley in California’s central Sierra.

His form was upright, but with a pronounced bend at the ankles, noticeable even in ski boots. This, too, I remembered. It’s one of the things that made Zjako’s beautiful on-snow line drawing possible. You see, the ankle flex (cue the song “Dem Bones”) connects to knee bones being positioned over the front of the binding, which leads to hip bones well forward over the feet (as opposed to in the back seat), which leads to a skier’s weight falling naturally in the middle of the skis. And that is the magic, dear friends, the simple key to going where vision and character want to go.

Simple to know. Not so simple to execute.

This was three years ago now. Maybe four; time slips around. John (Jock, Zjak, Zjako) Selfridge and his wife Marty were visiting Colorado from Carpinteria, on the California coast. Zjak was sick then. He’d been sick with an aggressive form of prostate cancer for many years. He’d been in and out of clinical trials, on experimental drug regimes, dosed with hope one season and deposited, spent, to his bed the next.

But there was no question during that visit that we’d go skiing. It was the thing that bonded us. Marty and Ellen are skiers, too. Accomplished, elegant skiers. But Zjak and I recognized each other as fellow addicts. Couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop. We needed to be out there on mountainsides, moving through the air and over the snow as serenely as possible. Sculpting space on the tilt.

Zjako was a master of the aesthetic line, the secret line. He didn’t care how he looked, whether his jacket was zipped up, which pocket held his cigarettes, which his Coors Light, which the matches and the marijuana. He had to rebuckle his boots and find his goggles, which were there on his head the whole time. It could try Patience herself waiting for Zjak to be ready, finally. But when he was he shoved off with a savant’s sense for where to find the softest snow, the quietest, most yielding snow.

Zjak trusted that exploration would lead to reward, even if that meant climbing over logs or squeezing through prickly spruce branches. There was redemption in as few as two or three turns of pristine powder.

He was James Dean handsome. But he was shy, reserved, and mistrusted (or didn’t believe in) his good looks. There was something wounded in there. I never knew what, though there were hints about family, parents, strained step-family relations? I don’t know. In any case, he refused – wasn’t cut out – to go into the family business, which was big-time farming in the Central Valley near Fresno.

Zjako covered over this disappointment (disappointment he had caused? or felt in himself?) with athleticism and irony. We referred to each other as “fellow kids,” after a line from the LP “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,” circa 1968, by the Los Angeles comedy group Firesign Theatre. We – all four of us – practically memorized whole albums, they were so word-wise and funny.

(Clueless Principal Poop speaks at high school graduation: “Fellow kids. In addressing for the assembly this morning . . .” In the back of the gym, scofflaws yell out: “Eat it! Eat it raw!” “Rah, rah, rah!” Poop chants without missing a beat, “That’s the spirits we have here at More Science High!”)

Fellow kids. Dear friends. Sometimes we spoke in what amounted to a kind of code. Everything reminded us of a line from Firesign Theatre. Our children, Ellen’s and mine and Zjak and Marty’s boy, Sam, didn’t always know what the adults were talking about, but, eyes rolling, did know from whence the cryptic lines came.

(Nick Danger pulling in, tires screeching to a stop at a filling station: “Say, Pops, where am I?!” “You can’t get there from here.”)

(Catherwood the butler: “May I take your hat and goat, sir? . . . You may sit here in the waiting room, or wait here in the sitting room.”)

(“He’s no fun, he fell right over!”)

That last one was especially apropos on the few times when Zjako tipped over on skis. As the years went by, his balance, and his strength, slowly ebbed.

The addiction to skiing meant that Zjak and I never grew up completely. Lucky for us, we married women who had. Strong, loyal women, who understood and were willing to put up with us, with all that time on the slopes as we indulged our obsession.

In Bear Valley in the early 1970s Ellen and I taught skiing, Zjako worked as a lift mechanic. He had an engineer’s ability to see how things were put together, and he liked climbing up lift towers in his ski boots. Marty cooked at the Tamarack Lodge. She flowed around a kitchen, still does, with a seeming effortlessness.

Ellen and I followed a muse to Telluride. Zjak and Marty moved back to the coast. She taught elementary school. His last job, before he had to stop working, was in a lab near Santa Barbara, messing around with silicone. Marty wrote in December about how hard it was watching Zjak “fade.” That was the word she used. He died in January.

The last time we visited out there, Zjak was walking with a cane and had to rest frequently. But he never once complained. About fate, or having to give up skiing, or having to lie down after a short walk on the beach. He was still movie star handsome: the strong, silent type.

Except when he was giggling. (From an alternative history lesson on Firesign Theatre’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong” album: “And so, I betook me to the Hashfire Inn, all lusting for life and liberty. The real George Washington brought the hemp, and I the evening papers. We quickly proceeded to get Sam Adams and young Tom Jefferson goodly stretched by the hemp. What a fetid fervor of freedom! I say, let’s have a revolution!”)

On that last beach walk, despite the fact he could barely ambulate more than a few yards without stopping, Zjako found a stretch of sand cliff: vertical, soft-sand walls three feet high chewed into the beach by a previous high tide. He motioned to me to follow and together we pounced barefoot on the lip and rode the cascade to the bottom. Zjak stayed perfectly upright, riding the incline on the soles of his feet as if surfing childhood itself.

Code White

Posted in Personal History, Ski evolution by pshelton on December 15, 2013

My new skis are German-made Völkls, the Völkl Code Speedwall S. I leaned them against a wall downstairs and admired their sleek shape, felt their supple flex – every time I walked by, day or night – before I took them out for a ride.

The S stands for slalom, I’m pretty sure. They are built like a slalom racing ski – without actually being a race ski – sandwiching stiff titanium top and bottom sheets around a laminated wood core. They are small-waisted, just 74 mm underfoot, and curvy. (Back in the 1990s when I was part of the annual equipment test at SKI magazine, someone correctly described the then-new “shaped” skis as having a figure like Betty Boop.)

The Speedwall in the name refers to the skis’ sidewalls, which can be be waxed. In fact, the factory supplies a little tube of fast fairy dust with an applicator lid. Just rub on and polish.

Why wax the sidewalls? Part of the Code.  You wax the sidewalls because these babies beg to be tilted up on their sides – way up – so far up on edge the resulting grooves in the snow are etched by both the base and the sidewall. You wax your ski bases, so why not . . .

My regular five-year-old skis carve pretty well. They were once described, in a gear review, as “double-wide giant slalom skis.” They are curvy, too, compared to old-fashioned “straight” skis. But they are much fatter than the Codes. Their built-in turn is more like a high-speed bend in the road than a mountain hairpin. A gifted skier can carve them down almost any hill, but I have to apply the brakes when it gets steep. I reach a point where I can’t handle the speed, or the g-forces, in a long-radius, pure-carved turn. So on the old skis I’m on-carve and off, scrubbing speed, on-carve and off. Carve and skid, where the skidding can feel like compromise.

With the Codes, and their tighter natural turn shape, I learned right away I could carve more terrain more of the time. This is huge. I struggle to relay just how huge. Carving is not like run-of-the-mill steering, not like the skiing we used to do. There is no play, no skidding, no brushing sideways at all in a turn. The feeling is pure precision joined with perfect stability, because the ski is in fact slicing a trench in the snow, building a tiny curved wall against which you, the driver, lean. Insouciant. Invincible.

Think of a bobsled run with its banked vertical walls along which the sleds ride. It’s as if an alternate gravity were pinning them to the wall. Carving skiing is like that. Except you don’t have to ride down a refrigerated track, you gouge your own little wall with each turn, anywhere you want, anywhere you’re confident enough to stand firm against that knifing edge.

The Codes drew such round-y perfect lines in the snow, I could ski entire runs, top to bottom, without once throwing my skis sideways. Not until reaching the lift line again. It felt like what an engraver must feel, working soft silver. Ted Ligety, the American master of giant slalom, can do this. So can Mikaela Shriffrin, the slalom prodigy from Vail whose gorgeous technique and precocious sense of touch have made her, at 18, the world’s best slalom racer. Carving has been the Holy Grail of efficient, ecstatic skiing, especially for ski racers, forever. Sixty-four-year-old guys who started late and have never raced aren’t supposed to be able to do this. To feel this controlled freedom, this giddy, pressed-against-the-wall line drawing. And yet now . . .

The Code. Maybe it’s Code for cheating? Na. I don’t believe there is such a thing as cheating in skiing. In the early 1970s, when I was trying out for the ski school at Keystone, my Uncle Hal took me into his garage and showed me his Dynastar MV2s. He called them his cheaters, said they knew how to turn and somehow transferred that gift, deserved or not, to him. They were beautiful, white metal, with a small red logo near the tip. I bought a used pair in Denver and aced my apprentice clinic.

Those skis were primitive approximations, many design generations ago, of the surgical tools available today. I couldn’t have carved a turn on them to save my life.

The Codes are white, a beautiful pearlescent white, with a small red Völkl chevron. If Albert Einstein had skied, he’d have understood the Code. Riding them I can bend space-time.

My atoms get excited just thinking about it.

Banking Toward the Valley

Posted in More Sport, Watch columns by pshelton on July 29, 2011

I don’t know why, but the Tour de France makes me fantasize about skiing.

It doesn’t make sense. As I write, Cadel Evans is no doubt sitting up in the saddle sipping champagne as he wafts down the Champs-Élysées, the nominative winner. The Tour is coming to its ceremonial close in Paris, the overall finish order having been determined at yesterday’s time trial in which Australian Evans surpassed his rival from Luxemburg, Andy Schleck, and claimed the yellow jersey. (more…)

Pilgrim’s Progress

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Watch columns by pshelton on January 20, 2011

Ah, New England.

I had to call Adam when his Patriots lost to the New York Jets on Sunday. I knew he’d be devastated. (more…)

Out of Joint

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Ski evolution by pshelton on January 17, 2011

Here’s an essay I did for SKI’s January 2011 back page.

I had hip replacement surgery one month before my first grandchild was born.

The decision to do it, to go for the new hip, had not come easily. Back and forth I went over the previous winters: I’m too young. I can still ski. (I was 59 at the time.) I can barely walk back to the car after a morning on the slopes, but I can still do it, damn it! (more…)

The Geezers Club

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on February 27, 2010

Sometimes when I’m at a loss for something to write about, Ellen suggests, “Write about cats.”

She doesn’t mean cats, themselves, necessarily, though we are wrestling with end-of-life, quality-of-life issues (his and ours) for dear old Tonapaw, who is at least 17 human years old: skinny, stiff, irascible—prone to what the vet calls “inappropriate vocalization.” He yells a lot. It’s apparently a sign of kitty dementia.

No, Ellen means write about what’s in your lap. Right now. Where do your thoughts go when you’re not monitoring them, when you’re not on guard, at work, or in public? (more…)

Greatest of All Time?

Posted in Ski history by pshelton on September 2, 2009

Rob Story penned a fine tribute in the September Skiing magazine to deceased freeskier and free spirit Shane McConkey. My only beef is with the headline writer who blared in all caps across the ‘zine’s cover: “The Most Influential Skier Of All Time.”

Story made no such claim in his article. He rightly described McConkey’s 39 years (before he died in a ski-BASE jumping accident last spring) as “pioneering,” “ballsy” and “hilarious.” Most influential of all time? I don’t think so.

(more…)