23 January 2011


And now a break from our regularly scheduled program...

Yes, there are barriers to a productive ski season and they come mostly in the form of that on which a ski season depends. So while the bise wind is petrifying whatever snow was able to survive the foehn wind, let us reflect on times of Mediterranean tranquility and high alpine bliss.

The ancient Greek word for Corsica is kallisté. This translates to something like "the most beautiful." That's a fair approximation. Granted the ancient Greeks hadn't seen Southern Utah, Northern Idaho, or the Great Basin, but for their time and place, sure, Corsica would probably take top billing. And so it was in Corsica that we found ourselves in late October, after all the Germans and Brits returned to their respective countries and the summertime crowds a distant nightmare.

Corsica is a small rock, and it's a rock that sits quietly in the Mediterranean just above the larger Italian rock of Sardinia. Mountains comprise two-thirds of the island. Monte Cinto is the highest of these mountains and at 2,706 meters (8,878 ft) the top of it was one of my goals for the trip. An early, cold storm brought heavy rains and high elevation snow two days before I set off for a day of climbing around Haut-Corse.

I knew the interior was rugged but I was struck by the aridity and resemblance to places I know and love, like the Rocky Mountains. The Corsican pine tree is beautiful and big and reminded me of a combination of the Ponderosa pine, with its long needles, and a Bristlecone pine, with its hardscrabble environment in which it thrives.

The day was long, cold, and quiet. In the end, though, the mountains won and I was forced to stop about 1,000 feet below the summit due to deep, drifted snow and soggy feet. The climb was very rewarding and included quite a bit of scrambling, rock-hopping, and route finding. Plus, new snow is always a thrill.

Under the summit of Monte Cinto and the turnaround point:

I decided to descend into a different valley to make a big loop out of the day. More solitude. More views. More waterfalls, Aspen groves, and pine trees. Good day.

With that accomplished, and because the other members of the party weren't interested in alpine scrambles on ice and snow, I set my mind to other pursuits: trout fishing! Trout fishing under the disguise of family picnics, of course. Cold, clear, fast moving water flows from those big peaks and native Brown trout make their home in Corsica's rivers, streams, and lakes.

Then there was the Mediterranean, where two-thirds of the party preferred to spend their vacation. Luckily, as a small rock surrounded by it, you're never too far from its shores. Even I admit it was pretty nice.

What else do you do in Corsica? You eat and drink well. The people on that rock take their food seriously. From fresh-caught seafood to wild boar, house-made pastas to sheep's milk cheese, the menus vary widely and reflect the Corsican pride in locally raised and produced products. The wines, too, with funky, indigenous grape varietals like Nielluccio and Sciacarello make for a new world of exploration. To eat and drink in Corsica is worth a trip alone.

Beyond that, driving in the foothills, staying in ancient villages, and doing a whole lot of nothing is good enough, isn't it? Corsica's own blend of Old World Europe--a little French, a little Italian, a little Portuguese--lends itself well to lazy, dreamy days.

All in all, a great way to spend a week.

There is skiing in Corsica, weather permitting. It’s better in the spring, apparently, when weather systems are more predictable and less violent. There are a few rudimentary lift operations and many backcountry touring possibilities. I came across a guide book called Corsica Bianca that details some routes and if I can catch another EasyJet flight for 300 CHF then spring skiing is a real possibility. At this point, and with these weather conditions, even skiing mid-winter on a small Mediterranean rock can't be much worse than the current state of the Alps. Bad snow conditions in the Haut-Corse? Go drink Vermentino and eat langoustines at a seaside restaurant for the day. In Corsica there doesn't seem to be too many reasons to fret. Life is good and slow. Kallisté. Then and now.

14 January 2011

The First Horseman

Brothers and sisters, the Bible has it wrong.

In the Book of Revelation of Saint John the Evangelist the chapter describes the Seven Seals and how Jesus "Grabby Hands" Christ snatches the first four seals from God's right hand, opens them, and, thus, unleashes the wrath of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse onto us all. (Nice one, JC.) These not-so-friendly riders are depicted as Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Pestilence? What on God's All-Too-Green Earth is Pestilence? Whatever. I'm shaking in my Garmonts.

Albrecht Dürer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
ca. 1497–98

For what it's worth, new translations of this horror story update Pestilence with Conquest. Big whoop. Not much scarier. The Mormons even interpret the First Horseman as "good," as in a moral conquistador, not a rape and pillage kind of guy. Isn't that convenient. No matter, they are all wrong.

Brothers and sisters, sinners and saints, the end must surely be near. Let me assure you, though, that the end will not come from a scourge of pestilence sprinkled over our fair land. It won't come from someone conquering us and it certainly won't be considered good. Ladies and gentlemen, the first of the Four Horsemen is upon us. He rides a pale horse and his name is Heat Miser.

With his destructive weapons like the Foehn, Favonio, Puelche, and Chinook among others; his capacity to produce flames from thin air; as well as his insidious ability to warm the whole damn globe, Heat Miser knows no boundaries and shows no mercy. But before I continue my tale of woe and suffering please turn with me now to Hymn #1 in the Holy Gospel of Country Music and sing along to this fine and appropriate tune.

To some, a warm planet is a happy planet. To a skier anything above 0°C/32°F might as well be the fiery pits of Hell. Take this season so far.

Everything started out textbook perfect. November produced two large storms that gave our backyard, the Jura Mountains, a healthy and stable meter or so of snow. This allowed me to escape the rigors of everyday life and float high above my earthly trials.

While I waited for the real big rocks of the Alps to be covered in the real big snows I could slip away for a few hours of heavenly peace and quiet knowing that I was doing the work of Ullr, and still be home in time to attend to my more secular duties.

It was a blissful existence, filled with short but steep secret treasures:

Visits with kind and generous neighbors:

Wealth and abundance typical of the region:

And a highly controlled system of heat replacement:

Yes, it was a blissful existence. Until he appeared.

The Snows of November turned to the Rains of December. The backyard washed away. Then it turned cold and the rain froze. Our White Christmas was a small dusting of mostly hoar frost that lasted until the temperatures rose again and the rain returned. By the end of the decade we faced a world that appeared pretty much the same as it did in late October: muddy, wet, and green. It was time to head for higher ground.

Though we knew Chamonix was under the same three-week dry spell the Heat Miser cursed most of Central Europe with, the elevation, and with that the snow depths, were higher. The hour and a half distance from home is a plus, too. As was the last minute steal on a half-priced apartment. Still, we were on a self-imposed mission and I insist all skiing was done in the name of the Lord (God of Snow).

The sacrifices were many. For example, we didn't ski powder. At best we skied only something that resembled two-week old, wind affected, heavily consolidated packed powder hidden in trees or the tightest of extreme north facing gullies.

Otherwise, we skied more wind-buffed, manky, crud. For the Lord.

We did not eat at a single Michelin starred restaurant. We ate only at humble auberges or creaky mid-mountain lodges.

We forced our young into a strict regimen of discipline, service, and respect and encouraged his higher calling.

In the end, though, all of our hard work, our sacrifices, our atonements were for nothing. More high pressure. More warm wind. More rain.

The First Horseman, the Heat Miser--his reign is almighty and encompassing and destructive and, seemingly, complete. He is punishing and cruel. And though you could easily pick him out in a crowd for his bad haircut, pointed ears, and sparkly outfit, he walks among us.

Let us turn once again to our hymnal and sing with conviction Hymn #10, "Satan's Jeweled Crown."

Brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, apostates and disciples, with this threat in our presence, this heinous rider that, at least in the short to mid-term forecast, shows no signs of retreat, how, then, will you choose to live out your End of Days? On the long white carpet of death? Or maybe something closer to home, like trail running? Think carefully, brethren, and remember this: The Heat Miser never wants to see a day that's under sixty degrees. He'd rather have it eighty, ninety, one hundred degrees! He's Mister Heat Blister, he's Mister Hundred and One. They call him Heat Miser. Whatever he touches starts to melt in his clutches. He's too much! Too Much!

The Apocalypse is near.

In Ullr's name we pray. Amen.

Image credits:
Albrecht Dürer
Heat Miser
The Louvin Brothers