23 March 2011

Literary Skiers 13a

One of the men I skied with was Lefty Cormier, who had been in the Tenth Mountain Troops. He taught me the single dipsy. Few people could learn it because it violated all the skiing rules of the time. Those were the days of the Arlberg Technique, made famous by Hannes Schneider, in which the shoulders wrenched the skis through wide arcing turns. The single dipsy did none of that; but you did have to turn yourself over to the mountain in a way the skiers of that day couldn't handle. It turned out that learning this technique was the most important thing in my skiing life because it enabled me to turn where few could on steep narrow chutes between trees. Because of this rare technique I acquired a notoriety I didn't really want as a pulver schnee spezialist in Davos, Switzerland and later in Alta as the "best woman powder skier in the world."


Long before we ever got to Alta, way back in 1939, Dick Durrance was manager of the Alta Lodge. You must remember that at that time there were only two real ski resorts in the West--Sun Valley, begun by the Union Pacific Railroad to lure people to ride the train out west, and Alta. Durrance soon found that he could not ski the steep, narrow Alta chutes using the standard Arlberg technique; but because he was also a mountain climber and used to heeling down the steep chutes--that's the beginning of the single dipsy. Of course, through his winter at Alta he refined it some more.


To continue with the story of the single dipsy, the war had started in December, 1941, and the Mountain Troops were formed in spring of 1942. They trained at Camp Hale in a high valley near Climax, Colorado. Dev Jennings from Salt Lake, who skied at Alta, had learned the single dipsy from Durrance and he taught it to many of the men in his platoon the winter of 1942. My friend, Bob Swartz, who owns the Mountain Shop in Boulder, was in that platoon. In fact it is Bob who gave me the origin of the name "single dipsy." It's from an old popular song of the year 1937 called "The Dipsy Doodle." Another old climbing friend, John Devitt, a musician, wrote it out for me. It was sung by Edythe Wright on the original Tommy Dorsey record. Words and music were by Larry Clinton, a band leader.

The song started out with: The Dipsy Doodle's the thing to beware, The Dipsy Doodle will get in your hair. A couple of other lines relevant to the state of mind of powder skiing are: It's almost always in back of your mind. You never know it until it's too late...That's the way the Dipsy Doodle works. It's got a very bouncy rhythm. You can easily see why those mountain troop skiers back in the early forties picked that up as the name for their skiing style.

--Dolores LaChapelle, from Deep Powder Snow: 40 Years of Ecstatic Skiing, Avalanches, and Earth Wisdom, 1993

Photo Credits:
Drinker Durrance Graphics

18 March 2011


When I moved here I was told by one of those wise local types that I would never ski first tracks at Chamonix. Seemed like a reasonable prophecy. I don't live in Chamonix, I live an hour and a half away. Skiing in Chamonix is expensive and you pretty much have to invest in a lift ticket to access anything of interest. Add to that French toll roads, European gas prices, family responsibilities, and a general aversion to competitive crowds and the wise local saw no argument from me. He still wouldn't. That doesn't mean I wouldn't try, either.

But first there were a lot of roads to roam.

Like through the first track train tracks and the fog dawn of Lausanne.

Through the impossibly steep vineyards of the Valais that rise above the blue hole of Martigny.

Two hours later and an elevation gain of 5,000 feet the roads become a little more white and a little more narrow.

Too frozen to ski and nowhere to go but up, the roads disappear and you take to your feet.

In Chamonix, as much as you struggle and as high as you go, someone or something has been there before you, even if it is for the purpose of blowing a high pressured gas mixture to clear the slopes of avalanche danger.

With Phase One below it's time to turn attention to Phase Two above.

The absence of roads, lifts, and Gazex tubes means that in Phase Two you enter a somewhat more natural world and are bound by a set of laws different from those that determine who finds first tracks or not. Sometimes those laws, and the physical compositions contained within those laws, prevent passage, so up turns back down and you compete with all that came before. There are worse competitions. Wind loaded, ice packed, razor ridges tend to trump human desires anyway.

As Townes Van Zandt said, "You don't need no engine to go downhill." Enter Phase Three and the road less traveled.

It continued this way for a while, the quest to find something that does not exist. Finally, though, at the bottom, I found them, all the tracks from all the skiers that came first, before me. I conceded as I was told to concede and my own tracks were soon lost to the river of lines that led to the bottom.

There are places where you don't or can't go.

There are places where everybody goes.

In between those two lines of demarcation is an abundance of fleeting moments of solitary wonder so perfect and pristine that the naked eye, fixated on limitations, is often blinded by their availability. Maybe it's like staring at the sun. You're not supposed to do it, right? Too much exposure will damage the something-or-other and you'll be blind for life. Look one way or the other but not, under any circumstances, directly at the object itself.

We all do it anyway, don't we? We all take a glance and hold it as long as we feel comfortable and then we close our eyes and turn away. But what happens in the liminal phase, that brief threshold between time and space when we close our eyes and open them up again?

It's there, I think, we experience a new vision. It's there that the black composite of the sun allows us to see what we couldn't see before. It's negative space and it offers not only complementary perspective but also opportunity.

When negative space is employed you are better able to see the hidden, the gray space between right and wrong, yes and no, or even Heaven and Hell. You begin to realize that a choice is more than a two dimensional proposition but rather an opportunity to open yourself up to a world of possibilities, even if that world is one of snow and your choice of where and how to leave your mark.

I haven't completely perfected this approach but I'm trying. Life is short and I believe the best moments are micro in size and scale compared to the overall production. They are the negative spaces in an epic drama that too often pass unnoticed. This brings me back to Townes Van Zandt who I think tried to adhere to a similar philosophy; at least he expressed it more eloquently.

Days up and down they come,
Like rain on a conga drum.
Forget most, remember some,
But don't turn none away.

Everything is not enough.
Nothin' is too much to bear.
Where you been is good and gone,
All you keep is the gettin' there.

To live is to fly
Low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes.

Or, with words that engage the gray areas of choice:

Well, I come through this life a stumbler, my friends,
I expect to die that way.
It could be twenty years from now,
It could be most any day.
But if there is no whiskey and women, Lord,
Behind them heavenly doors,
I'm gonna take my chances down below,
And of that you can be sure.

11 March 2011

Seven Days at Alpe d'Huez

The calendar that determines the ebb and flow of the European masses, otherwise known as Spring Half Term:

At some point between the end of January and the beginning of March every school child will receive, free of charge, one week off. This Get Out of Academic Jail card tends to impact the entire extended family who are more than eager to sign up for the Spring Half Term themselves. During this time period, every Citroën, every Smart, every Porsche Cayenne is packed full with life's essentials and heads for one of any number of European Alpine resorts. During this time, every chalet is booked full, every hostel is packed, every restaurant filled, and every piste dotted with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the European ski set.

Note that the United Kingdom is not listed on the calendar though they constitute a substantial population of the Half Term skiers. Switzerland doesn't appear on the calendar either because, well, apparently they're not European.

This year we chose Alpe d'Huez as our place to go a little insane for a week. Located deep and high in the Rhône-Alpes, Alpe d'Huez is probably more famous for the twenty-one steep and narrow hairpin turns on the road leading up to the village rather than the village itself or the skiing it provides. The road is a very popular stage in the Tour de France and its history boasts many a dramatic race.

As for skiing, Alpe d'Huez holds the respectable honor as the site of the very first Poma surface lift installed in 1936. These days there are something like 85 lifts and 250 kilometers of ski pistes. The place is huge. It also includes supposedly the longest black run in the world, the sixteen kilometer Sarenne piste. That, sadly, will have to go unconfirmed as the Sarenne was closed due to low snow conditions.

This brings me back to the matter at hand: our trip and the snow conditions. In a word: good. In two words: pretty good. In a more descriptive word: variable.

Like most of Europe, Alpe d'Huez has suffered from a decidedly dry year. The resort is fortunate, though, in that the relative elevation is high, maxing out at 3,330m/10,925ft on Pic Blanc, and it has invested heavily in snowmaking equipment. We were also fortunate to receive over the course of the week the first new snow in roughly seven for a grand total of about 25cm/10in. Not sufficient depths to warrant snorkels but at that point 25 centimeters felt like, and might as well have been, two and a half feet.

Day One, from the top of Pic Blanc, looking at the Aiguilles d’Arves:

Back down in the clouds, looking for some depth perception, among other things:

One of the goals of the year is/was to put the dude on skis as much as possible thereby making him more and more comfortable to slip around on snow. What this means was a week's worth of ski lessons, his second week of the year. And here at Hank's ski school is where the story begins.

With enough grommets to fill a football stadium the Ecole du Ski Français was bursting at the seams. Fifteen kids in Hank's class were paired with one typically crusty, rigid, and unforgiving instructor responsible for beating each and every one of them into French-style skiing submission. We resigned early to the idea that, in fact, we had not just spent a whole bunch of funny money to help Hank learn how to ski, but rather to be babysat until after lunch when we could ski with him and try to improve on everything he didn't learn during his previous lesson.

It is my new mantra to lose, to burn, to destroy any and every expectation that might surface before it influences my emotions. Without expectations I cannot be disappointed. And I wasn't. And if Hank learned one thing during the week at ski school it was to use his poles. And that was good enough.

So there were a few hours to kill in between the time Hank was dropped off at the babysitter and the time he was picked up. And with new snow, variable conditions, and a giant mountain to explore, the pleasure was all mine. Like the ski school, the hordes were thick. But as long as you could avoid places like this:

you had your pick of places like this:

I was surprised at how alone I could find myself. With a little effort the rewards were plenty.

The famous and very strange "Le Tunnel":

The tunnel gives you the option of (A) 300 meters of chest-high, hard-packed moguls or, with a short and high traverse, (B) 400 meters of open bowls, narrow gullies, and short but steep chutes. I chose Option B time and time again. And I was a happier skier for it.

But the Spring Half Term ski break is meant to be a holistic experience. A morning of hard, energy depleting skiing deserves a balance of warm food and cold drink. Like skiing, once you find that sweet and somewhat secret spot you should glean from it every last tasty morsel until it becomes, in effect, a part of your very being.

Andouillette baked in cream, gratin dauphinois, and a bottle of Apremont (made with my current fave grape, Jacquère):

Then after a tipple of the local digestif it was back up high for another round or two before sailing down the entire mountain to pick up the dude. Don't kid yourself: Chartreuse and piste hors skiing most certainly do mix. You just gotta know when to say when.

The cycle continued that way for a full week with only slight variations on the theme. A little sun here, a few clouds and fog there; some new snow, some pockets of old windblown; melted slices of cheese, cups of heavy cream; Chartreuse one day, Génépi the next. It was a good pattern, one that made for scenic, active days and tired, happy bodies.

I like Spring Half Term, crowds and all. As a gringo I like especially that Europeans carve long and frequent chunks of time into their equally busy schedules to spend with family and friends participating in specific activities that unify them not only as families and friends but also, I would argue, as nationals. When else, for example, would an enthusiastic family of skiers who have the misfortune to live in a place like Lincoln, Nebraska have the time, other than the Christmas holidays, to travel to a place like Colorado or Utah with the sole purpose of skiing?

The continent of Europe enables a mid-season road trip and I like that. I like that because I'm a skier and I like that because I have my own family of skiers. Mostly, though, I like that because I believe it encourages the cultural welfare of many different but united nations, a practice I also believe would benefit the all too often dis-United States of America.