Perceptions are altitude dependent

There is a point on every trail when I ask myself why on earth I keep going out on hikes. Usually, it happens when sweat beads into my eyes and along my jaw line.  It’s when my knee and/or ankles hurt, and I’m looking uphill thinking, “This totally sucks.”

Hiking is hard.

But it’s also awesome.

Yesterday, at the summit of Mt Hunger, I ate a half-mooshed banana and set about orienting my compass and myself. See, I have a terrible sense of direction. I have only a rudimentary sense of where points are in relationship to one another, and I navigate best by associating locations with landmarks. Mountains make awfully good landmarks.

In video games, there’s an effect called the Fog of War. The effect prevents you from seeing places on the playable map that you haven’t yet explored. Assassin’s Creed does a particularly good job of dealing with the Fog; the best way to reveal sections of the map is to climb a tall building and have a look around.

View of Stowe from Mt Hunger
That’s Stowe in the distance.

Mt Mansfield to the northwest. The Presidentials to the east. Camel’s Hump, southwest. Somewhere to the hazy, foggy west, Lake Champlain.

One of my favorite quotes is from Sally Shivan’s essay “Airborne.”

Once again, perceptions can be altitude dependent.

It’s true. From the top of a mountain, faced with the panoramic view of humanity nestled in the folds of nature, it’s impossible to not experience a subtle shift in point of view. From up there, I placed the roads and towns and mountains in my life in context. There is home. There is Stowe. I am here. This is about when I forget that hiking sucks and remember that it’s awesome.

Then, I hopped, skipped, and jogged my way back down the mountain. At one point I tripped and fell. A few minutes later, I rinsed my bleeding knee in the mountain spring. It seems I’ll never learn to not run down mountains, just as I’ll never learn to not hike up them.

How do your perceptions shift when you’re in your sport? Tell me in the comments!


The Other Thing: On Adventuring Alone

Mud boots, rock skisThis is the other thing I wanted to talk about. But first, I’ll start with a kind of a disclaimer. To quote Haruki Murakami: “I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone.” This has been true forever. I enjoy the company of others, sure, but I need a certain amount of alone time to feel rested and complete.

For years, however, I was under the impression that this need for solitude was ‘antisocial’ and therefore bad or wrong. I worked very hard to suppress this drive for solitude, which meant that several years were more difficult than they had to be. Not in the sense that I was picked on or otherwise mistreated. Simply in the sense that I was more tired more often than I needed to be. Constant social fatigue wore away at my self-confidence, spilling over from the social sphere and into my adventure sphere. Fear of going out and doing something by myself (and fear of somehow failing or running into trouble in the woods alone) meant that I didn’t get out into the wild anywhere near as much as I wanted and needed.

It’s taken several more years now of practicing doing things alone again, but I’m finding joy in the rehearsal. It started small with going to cafés to work or quietly sip tea. Then, a few bars. (I love reading in bars. I don’t do it often because interruptions annoy me, but bar-reading is great.) Or the beach. Or driving to the resort alone to link a few turns in the lift-served playground. These places are as pleasant and enjoyable by yourself as they are when in a group.

Smiling in May on Snow at StoweAnd then there was yesterday – earning my turns in calm, satisfied solitude. The peace of walking upwards and the exhilarating joy of sliding back down again.

Of course, there were other people out enjoying the day – hikers with their children or dogs, other riders in small groups. We flashed smiles to one another and commented on the weather, but for the most part I was by myself. Then, when I finally arrived home, I hopped on my bicycle to ride to the beach and lay stretched out on a towel writing the rough draft of these two blog posts. Eventually, I headed back into town to join friends for dinner, drinks, and laughter.

This perfect day was all due to the realization that yeah, I got this. I woke up Monday morning with the confidence in myself, my gear, and my ingenuity to get up and have an adventure doing what I love. If I got hurt on the mountain, I had a plan. If I locked myself out of my car, I didn’t have a plan, but I’m sure I would have figured something out.

Maybe this is just a small thing, but like icebergs, even small-seeming things can be quite large.

Gondolier Stowe

Just as earning your turns lets you experience both the Uphill and the Downhill, so too does following what you love give you the opportunity to be both Together and Alone. There’s nothing quite like stopping halfway through a powder run to trade high-fives with your friends, but there’s also nothing quite like savoring a mountain that is yours and yours alone.

This is what I wish I learned years ago: whether you’re in the middle of a crowd or standing all alone, just keep doing what you love. Everything else will fall into rhythm.

You got this.

Go have an adventure.

Uphill People, Downhill People

For many, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. Families roll out barbecue grills. Co-eds drink beer in folding lawn chairs.

Pro Tip: Always match your beer can to your ski graphics.
Pro Tip: Always match your beer can to your graphics.

Today, Memorial Day 2013, I went skiing.

Between Saturday night and Sunday, a beautiful nor’easter dumped 8″ on the summit of Mt. Mansfield (and 3 feet on New York’s White Face). The lowlands were pelted with rain. Monday morning had me waking up to sunshine and blue skies. Naturally, I threw my skis into my car and high-tailed it for the hills.

All day, two thoughts circled through my mind. One I’ll write about now. The other I will save for the next blog post.

The first: Brendan Leonard over at Semi-Rad wrote about a divide between Uphill People and Downhill People. He is of the former – finding pleasure in the journey UP, whether it’s sending a climbing route or skinning into the backcountry. As he describes, “I enjoy the Zen rhythm of methodically skinning up the snow, forcing myself to stay at a pace that I could hold for an hour straight without stopping…”

I have a deep appreciation for the uphill. Movement is my meditation, after all; the more all-consuming the better. This morning, I took a round-about way up to avoid the sight and sounds of other hikers (all four of them). In no time at all, I fell into a natural, steady pace. With no one to catch up to or slow down for, I simply walked forward. And up.

It was a warm day in the sun, but the wind flowing downhill was cold. It picked up the smell of the snow and beckoned me ever forward.

I stopped to eat lunch below the gondola summit and leaned again the pylon. Here, the snow lay inches thick and heavy with the morning’s warmth. I felt no need to walk any higher. The tops of things don’t interest me, particularly when I’m hungry and surrounded by snow. By the time I was done eating, the cold wind had picked up and drove me to my skis.

Clicked in and buckled up, I pushed off. The first turn wasn’t so good. Neither was the second. But, as I made my third arc, I hit the rhythm and my face exploded into a wide, open-mouthed grin. I turned off Gondolier and onto Switchback – which was perhaps not the brightest idea. Riding down Switchback meant navigating over ditches and large rocks while sliding on a fifty-fifty mix of snow and small rocks. I loved every minute of it. I was drunk on the same heady elation that overcomes me on long powder runs. It’s a thick, rich, sweet feeling of absolute thankfulness. (I imagine this is analogous to drinking Turkish Coffee.)

The most fun I've had since I discovered my brother's afraid of worms.
The most fun I’ve had since I discovered my brother’s afraid of worms.

See, I’m a Downhill Person. I love stepping down, then down again, then down once more, ever faster as momentum builds. I love the jarring shock of my legs absorbing the full weight of me with each step or turn. When I ski, I fly downhill. When I hike, I run downhill. When I am in the throes of a moment I want to savor forever, I run downhill. Even when I’m afraid, I find it’s best to take a deep breath and go downhill.

If the uphill is meditation, the downhill is ecstasy. At speed, I am released to being the child flying, arms flailing, as she runs into the arms of her mother.

(Aside: My love of the downhill is funny, because I am afraid of heights. But I think much of my fear isn’t fear at all, simply a horrified reaction to l’appel du vide. The call is strong in me. It stubbornly persists, insisting that I could fly if only I jumped. I long to fly. If I could, I would fly as high as Icarus, then drop like a peregrine, only to open my wings and climb once more. This is why I ski. It is my answer to l’appel du vide.)

The balance between Uphill and Downhill is the joy of earning your turns. By going both ways, reap the benefits of both motions and mindsets. The zen and the ecstasy – or whatever it is that goes through your heart as you get out there and enjoy.

How did you spend your Memorial Day weekend – going Uphill or Downhill? (Or relaxing around a grill?)

Last Days, Blue Skies

The sky was blue, the sun was warm.

Bluebird at the Quad
I didn’t mean those things I said. I love you! Don’t let me go!

28 days doesn’t seem like very many.

28 days of new friends and old. 28 days of powder measured in inches and the distance between two gates measured in seconds.

28 days later, I want 28 more days of snow and cold and bluebird (and graybird. I am from New England after all).

Spring on Mt Mansfield
Before the crowd.

The inevitable thaw continues on, although it’s not over until it’s over. Jay Peak is holding on, as is Killington. Sugarbush, too.

28 days. Why not squeeze in a few more?

The drive along home

Less than Stoweked – A Stowe Mountain Ski Area Review

Alternative title: In which I bite the hand that skis with me.

I spent the winter riding up, down, all over Stowe Mountain Resort. Bombing trails, bumping moguls, ducking in and out of trees, and sometimes avoiding cliffs and ice flows. (But only sometimes.)

Stowe is a great area.

A true Stowe powder day
Two words: powder day.

But I’m not going back next year. And I’m not bummed out about it.

I got my season pass at a steep discount. A lucky break for me, really, as I’m poor. My very impressive Helly Hansen jacket is a hand-me-down. My new skis were bought on sale. The rest of my equipment is either ancient, a hand-me-down, or a Christmas present.

I love skiing on Mt. Mansfield. It’s an awesome, gnarly mountain with the steep pitches and tight chutes that make my heart go rat-a-tat-tat. If Stowe was the only resort on this mountain, I would seriously consider sleeping in my car to afford to ride there. But it’s not. Smuggler’s Notch is just on the other side of the slope. You can even ski between them.

View of Stowe from Smuggler's Notch
Oh hey there, Stowe. You’re looking pretty today.

That about sums up why I like Stowe, but don’t love it.

There’s also this: I’m sure they put a lot of money into their facilities, ski programs, and whatever else. None of which I use. They have fast, efficient chairlifts that carry more than two people. That’s nice, but I don’t really care.

Then again, that 4.7 million dollars they spent on a new snow making system… that is awesome. Their man-made snow is just as fun to play in as the real thing and the investment meant my first day of skiing was November 10th. Nowhere else comes close in snow making ability and quality, and in the temperamental winters of New England, that counts for a lot.

And the locals. Stowe locals are amazing. While I’ve probably pissed them all off by writing this, I must say that they are the best damn riders in New England. I’m a much better skier having spent a winter chasing them down the mountain, and when I go back (because I will. This winter and in winters to come), it’s because of them.

But I won’t miss snide comments overheard in the lift line that were so stereotypically moneyed American that I wanted to reach across the ropes and smack them. I also won’t miss the poorly concealed “Oh, you’re one of those,” when I tell people where I ride.

I love Mt. Mansfield. But I don’t love Stowe. The positives (of which there are many, many) are still outweighed by an overarching sense of disquiet. I belong somewhere quite a bit weirder.

Get out to Stowe and form your own opinion. Let me know what you think. And Stowe-folk, please don’t hate me.

Those Green Mountains

Spring skiing at Stowe, VT
Oh, you’re taking a photo? Here. Let me ruin it.

Can you believe this photo was taken on Saturday?

24 years of skiing and this sport still surprises me. Mid-winter coverage all the way into April. Corn snow as light as powder. With every turn, the falling ssshhhhhhh sound of sand downhill. Only… it’s still snow.

Clouds hung on to the summit for dear life – like winter holding out against spring. The sun broke through in the lower elevations, however, baking the corn into wet, soft mush.

We spent the day in the trees. In April.

The next morning, I sat on a porch in a t-shirt sipping coffee watching the grass turn slowly greener.

Don’t give up yet. There’s still snow in those green mountains.

Mountain Purist

The hardest part about writing this blog is remembering to take photos.

Sometimes when I remember, my phone’s already dead from searching for reception. Sometimes I remember, but it’s too cold to pull my hands out of my mittens. Most of the time, though, I don’t think of it. I’m too busy skiing.

But, then again, I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to my days on the slopes. I don’t listen to music. Until this year, my phone was turned off in the parking lot and only carried along in case of emergencies.

While I prefer my mountain days to be vacations from the rest of the world, there’s something to be said for snapping a few shots along the way… and capturing the beautiful days, perfect lines, and brilliant people with whom I share the mountain.

sunny day at Stowe
Crazy, cold, beautiful sky.

“Let the mountain come to you.”

I am sore, aching, and exhausted from two days on the mountain.

Friday’s storm dropped 11 inches on Stowe, filling in the rutted glades. It’s not enough (is it ever enough?), but the mountain feels whole again – complete under a fresh coat of white. Saturday was spent flowing through trees, and pounding through row after row of soft moguls. Sunday was for cruising with my coworkers, leaning into the turns, and taking the scenic way down. These were my best two days of riding so far… and not just because of the freshies.

Skis, snowboard against the sky

I haven’t ridden my best this year. I spend a lot of time frustrated, struggling with lines and recovering from poor decisions. Earlier this year, I even grazed a tree hard enough to knock the wind out of me. I want to blame my boots, the longer length of my new skis… anything to explain why I’m struggling. Rookie mistakes.

Saturday, I ended up upside down in a tree well. As I squirmed, one of the guys called out “Relax, don’t struggle.” Which… I didn’t do. I was too embarrassed and angry with myself for bailing out. Instead, I grunted and fumed. Between the two of us, I was right side up in no time, but rattled… The feeling was not improved by the next obstacle – a thin, steep chute narrower than my skis are long. Cover was thin… and the wall of solid ice on one side of the run-out was hardly reassuring.

The only way down was to take on turn and go for it, skis pointed straight. Which… I didn’t do. I was too scared to take the line, and ended up sliding part of the way and fumbling the rest, redeeming myself with a single solid drop into a pillow of soft powder.

Looking up from the bottom of the chute, I watched the next rider come down, moving with the fall line much more gracefully. Standing there, I thought about a story that Bob Berwyn shared with me about the woman who taught him to telemark. Something the woman said stuck out to me when I first read it, and just then it came back to me like a tap on the shoulder.

“Let the mountain come to you. And trust your skis.”

After the group shared high fives in celebration of our survival, we turned to the fall line. I exhaled, the worst over, and found myself finally relaxing into my turns. Too tired to battle my skis, I let them follow the fall line through the white.

Today, I ducked in to the woods to lap up what was left of the soft, riding easily. All the while, I reminded myself, “Relax, don’t struggle. Let the mountain come to you.”