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Well, Drat. 25 February 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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How did it get to be so late without a new post?

No Country for Old Men will do that to a person.

But Moab is country for every man, and I’ll have a post up on it really soon. It’s enough to make you want to put down your skis for a weekend.

Avalanches: The Destructive (Un?)predictability of Nature 17 February 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Skiing.
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Photo from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center: roof avalanche near Creede

Everything I know about avalanches, I learned from watching the Discovery Channel at age five or from reading the Colorado Avalanche Information Center‘s (CAIC)website at 23. In between Shark Week and powder forecasts, both will teach you essentially the same thing: when snow starts moving, it’s best that you’re anywhere else. Otherwise, skedaddle, or hope that your friends know how to use a beacon. Every year, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers trigger tens of avalanches in Colorado alone, and as more and more people take the backcountry, that number will only increase. And so will the deaths.

CAIC tracks and describes every avalanche reported. It makes for fascinating reading.

Take the photo above. It was late March in southern Colorado. Two guys went up to check out a summer home, maybe to clear off some snow and make sure nothing had taken up residence in the cabin that winter. They circled the house a couple times and moved onto the deck overlooking the Rio Grande. They might have admired the view. And then the roof released above them, leaving neither a chance to react. A couple thousand pounds of snow cascaded onto the front porch and snuffed them out. That was that.

Or consider the two former Loveland ski patrollers who set out on a December morning to explore some backcountry lines near their old stomping grounds. Dry Gulch extends from the backside of Loveland Basin all the way down to Highway 70, where the pair set out from a parking area on the morning of the fifth. CAIC describes the events leading up to the avalanche:

Both members of the party broke trail up the eastern or climbers left side of the north-northeast aspect slope. They had looked at a few other lines but either did not like the terrain or there were other groups in the vicinity. Once they got to treeline they moved a little further west to look at a different line around a treed ridge. This path was well scoured from wind and did not have much snow coverage. Both decided to return to the original route.

At the top both parties made a plan and reviewed potential safe spots. Subject 1 made a ski cut across the top of the path heading east, across a convex wind roll. Subject 1 stopped at an apex of their up track and turned to signal Subject 2 that it felt ok and they could descend to the pre-determined safe spot. At this pre-determined safe spot, Subject 2 stopped and turned to watch Subject 1 begin their descent a little further to skiers right of Subject 2′s line and close to the center of the path. This area had a shallower snowpack depth when compared to the further west line taken by Subject 2. As Subject 1 descended to just about even with Subject 2, Subject 2 heard a loud boom and watched the slab buckle and break into refrigerator sized blocks.

You can imagine what happens next. Skier 1 disappears down the slope while his watches, trying to escape. Then skier 2 is caught as well, tumbling down the mountain in a freight train of snow. He wakes up dazed and buried, but with has Avalung in his mouth and a little room for hand. He manages to dig himself out.  His friend, though, is nowhere to be seen or heard, so starts a search not evening known where to look. When an uphill approach fails, he heads back down and catches skier 1′s signal from the avalanche beacon, loses it, then locks on.

Altogether, finding him took maybe 10-15 minutes after skier 2 extricated himself. It was already too late. CPR failed. An off-duty emergency room physician skiing in the area tried to help without success.

Not all avalanches end in deaths, of course. Out of the 32 slides during the 09/10 Colorado season, 8 people were killed.  Last year, thousands of people headed out beyond resort boundaries to ski, ride and snowmobile and only 36 died in avalanches. Those trained for travel in the backcountry know the risks and generally carry the appropriate gear. They take hours of courses on snowpack analysis and rescue techniques. They know to avoid sketchy areas, and they follow the forecasts. Those who don’t face the same hazards with much greater uncertainty—and they die more often.

So before you head out into the backcountry this season, please take some time to learn about it. Read CAIC’s accident reports, take the courses, buy the gear. Nature’s destruction is often more predictable than you’d think, and by doing your homework and playing it safe, you can mitigate the risks.

The first line of CAIC’s report on the Dry Gulch slide reads:

A good example of a cross loaded slope.

Don’t get caught knowing less than you should. I don’t want to read about you.

Review: Devil’s Thumb Ranch 11 February 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Reviews, Travel.
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Let’s about hotels for a minute or two—nice hotels—and Devil’s Thumb Ranch in particular. It wasn’t until recently (within the last year or so that), that I realized lodging wasn’t just about what was cheap and close to the highway or whatever/whomever you were visiting. Back when I was six or eight, we spent a couple nights at Tan-Tar-a, a Missouri resort, in the dead of winter. It was cheap in the off-season, I guess. My dad got food poisoning from some tacos. Then, when I was about the same age, we took a long spring weekend at the Greenbriar, where even little boys needed to wear dinner jackets and the activities guide listed “falconry”. These constituted my two stays in a “destination hotel.”

The Red Roof Inn was more our style.

Places like Devil’s Thumb Ranch just outside Tabernash, were not. Too bad, because you really can’t ask for much more than “5,000 acres of raw Colorado,” though admittedly, it’s a tagline that needs a little work. Devil’s Thumb is the sort of place you go if you think most outdoor adventures ought to begin and end within easy walking distance of a large, well-stocked bar. If that’s your style, then you’ll also appreciate the bajillion-square-foot spa, the miles of cross-country skiing trails, the stables and the general lack of cell-phone service. Don’t expect to check e-mail. These are the things Devil’s Thumb offers.

The decor is “raw” and “Coloradan” in as much as any four-star resort hotel can be either of those things. Wood abounds. Dark stains impart a closeness in an otherwise enormous building, and a central stone fireplace soars three stories. Cowboy hats hang from every vertical surface, but thankfully, no one has yet thought to include a bear carved out of a stump. For everyone’s sake, I hope it remains so.

Checking into your room, you may or may not find a TV, a fireplace, a bathtub or a chair that fits a normal-sized adult. This is also raw, in the sense that you, like the pioneers who first explored these parts, will never know quite what to expect from your environs. You can, however, count on a bedside document detailing just how “green” Devil’s Thumb has made your visit. I don’t remember the exact language of the card but it goes something like, “At Devil’s Thumb, the way we figger it, bein’ green ain’t just for kicks; it makes plain good sense.” So they cut a hole out of the center of your soap to prove that point. And they picked up a civil-war era barn from Virginia and trucked it out to Colorado so they wouldn’t have to build a new one. Your guess is as good as mine.

The effect of all this is as you’d expect: rustic and relaxing. Absent the go-go mentality of a ski resort, Devil’s Thumb offers something more along the lines of bucolic bliss. You can feed the horses if you want. You can snow snowshoe. And at even given time, you’ll rarely see more than a few other people. It’s that kind of place, set sometimes literally in the shadow of the Indian Peaks, where no matter what you’re doing, you feel you’ve arrived, and that you’re no longer obligated to do anything else. It’s about being there to be there—not about spending the night and moving on. I sense it”s this quality that makes the place something of a wedding factory through the year. Well, that and the two bars.

If you want to go elsewhere, though, Winter Park is a completely reasonable drive, and the town of Fraser offers a little more dining selection. But I imagine, though, that if you’ve picked Devil’s Thumb, you’re not about to leave until your stay is over. Why would you want to?

The Deets:

Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Location: Tabernash, CO

Cost: You’ll spend at least $300/night on a room in the lodge. There’s a “bunkhouse” down the road which sounds a lot like a hostel and goes for about $100 + tax.

Activities: Spa, cross country skiing including rentals and lessons, snowshoeing,  horseback riding, hiking, game rooming, marrying, drinking, cigar smoking

Eat and drink: Two restaurants, both pricey. Two bars with a decent selection of wine and beer. Reasonably-priced coffee shop.

Blame Angry Birds 10 February 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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Angry Birds” derailed my plans. Without an iPhone, how was I to fall prey to such a thing? Turns out it works on an iTouch, too, so no post tonight. Tomorrow, though.

Unless I buy the full version.

Thoughts on Ski Bumming 1 February 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Self, Skiing.
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Twenty days before I left for Colorado, my father died. The cancer the oncologists had identified in April consumed him faster than anyone, including those same doctors, had imagined it might, leaving him a shell of a 66 year-old man on an October hospital bed. Room 547.

In the weeks leading up to that day, he and I argued about my choice to spend the next several months playing in the mountains, he in favor and I against—against myself. I’d worked too hard up to this point, I said. Ski bumming would throw away an education, my opportunities, any remaining chance that I might enter the Peace Corps. After a summer spent waiting to leave for Togo, only to have my departure postponed indefinitely, I’d chosen this: to ski bum and to kill what had up to that point existed as a resume of polish and pretentiousness.

Dad disagreed.  A sixth month stint in the mountains could not “kill” a future. The Peace Corps required more waiting anyway. Either they would take me afterwards, or they wouldn’t. Or I would no longer care. Our last, worst arguments turned on these contentions, and ignoring my father’s decline, I spent time worrying about my own future. The doctors had given him years. They’d fix the chemo regime, and he’d improve. In six months, we’d see who had better predicted my future.

And then he died, I left, and the Peace Corps helpfully called to say that my “family trauma” would bar travel for at least a year.

So I arrived in the mountains, still trying to figure out exactly why I’d come. I’d ski, certainly, but to what end? The Midwestern child grows up without interest in mountain towns. Creeks and baseball and bikes dominate the playscape.   The basement fills with old copies of Field and Stream, not Powder or SKI. Until I settled into my too-cramped apartment in Keystone, the idea that a ski-bum narrative existed—that people wrote about such things—had never occurred to me. Who was Warren Miller? That was a little over a year ago.

The realization swept in: drugs, booze, and irresponsibility were easy to come by if you wanted them. Women weren’t. The conversation never left the snow. It was the prospect of snow, the current snow, the snow that fell last night and last year and in years past. The snow on your car. The snow tires you’d need. The snow that gusted into drifts behind the boulders on the river, as it swirled, gelid, until finally on a December morning it froze solid and the snow covered that, too. Snow became a determinate of being. There was snow. Or there wasn’t. We lived for that. More than anything else we lived for new snow.

And I thought about my father, and life, and why I’d come to Colorado. About why I was still in Colorado. On a Thursday night, I walked home from The Goat in Keystone with a free t-shirt hanging over my shoulder, holding back tears. Back in October, I’d cried for the first time in I didn’t know how long. It wouldn’t happen again. Life in the mountains was taking its toll. The lack of aim. It was drifting, this time  here. My arguments with my father came back and hung in my breath. Why?

I grew as a skier in the mountains, from the kid who’d skied ten days and didn’t know how to carve, to the kid who dropped cliffs. I bought three pairs of skis in a year. We traveled to Wolf Creek (and I wrote about it), and we traveled to Solitude and Brighton (and I wrote about those, too), and I, on the weekend after my roommate left for an adult job in Washington, D.C., drove alone to Moab because I could think of nothing else to do. It was something and everything. I sat on a cliff overlooking Canyonlands, the La Sals and the Abajos fading into lavender. The cars made their circuits on the road to the overlook. Shutters clicked; the sunset; the sun set. This had nothing to do with skiing and everything to do with why I’d come to Colorado.

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