30 January 2012

Champion Angels

I turned off the music about noon on the 7th of January. We--the two dogs and I--were about halfway up the route. I wasn't exactly worried but with new snow on the ground, a mix of rain and snow falling from the sky, and low visibility I just wanted to be sure I could hear everything around me. The The's "This Is the Day" turned on in my head and I continued to climb. That's strange, I thought, where did that song come from? I checked on the dogs. They appeared content, confident, and eager as always to spend a day in the mountains.

Soul Mining is a classic album of my youth. Part of my life's soundtrack, Soul Mining has played countless times in cassette, vinyl, and CD formats. I haven't listened to it or any other Matt Johnson album in years. As the three of us made our way into the narrow, rocky chute, the song's chorus repeated itself between my ears. I interpreted it to mean that after three years I would finally make it to the top. I know now my interpretation was wrong.

This is the day, your life will surely change.

The The: This Is the Day

The light faded in and out and revealed different parts of the chute at a time. Too steep to skin, the skis were thrown on my back. After a series of intense snowstorms a spell of warm weather consolidated the snow and made for excellent kick-stepping. It wasn't what I expected; my original thoughts were only to check out the early winter snow conditions but the stability and ease of the climb propelled me forward.

For three years I wanted to ski the chute that I was about to climb into. I saw it first while skiing around Le Reculet, a popular touring destination and second highest summit in the Jura. The skiing to Le Reculet was fine enough but very busy and the landscape marred in every direction with the tracks of others. Later, a reconnaissance trip exposed a small pocket of European-style wilderness completely devoid of ski tracks. This, I decided, would be my secret country.

I don't know what exactly attracts me to this corner of the Jura Mountains but I have hunches. I've taken two parties there and neither seemed overly impressed. In the time it takes me to drive there I could drive to the Grands Montets in Chamonix instead and ski 2,000-plus vertical meters of off and on piste at a time. Of course I would also compete for space with countless other skiers.

I'm also reminded of favorite ski spots from back home in Idaho and Nevada, quiet places that make up for their lack of other skiers with an abundance of wildlife like elk, pronghorn antelope, moose, and, in this case, chamois. But topping out at only 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) the low elevation means the window of opportunity for skiing is relatively small; best to explore mid-winter, I think. Also, the difference in elevation is only about 750 meters (2,500 feet) which is next to nothing compared to many places in the Alps. No, I don't exactly know what I like about the area, but I do. It's peaceful, pretty, steep enough, big enough, and not well-known, and I guess those are good enough reasons as any.

Not well-known but like anything in Europe it is not unknown. Known and mapped. And named. There is a name for the area and Les Avalanches may explain the absence of other skiers. The route is also published on a French ski-touring website with photos from similar viewpoints and locations as I've taken. Of course none of that meant anything to the three of us that day. As usual no one else was around. I couldn't see well but the snow was good so I led us uphill into the unknown.

We reached a shelf and not knowing whether the ridge was to the right or left were forced to stop. We weren't at the ridgeline but bad visibility, steep slopes, and heavily drifted snow told me I shouldn't push things. Right or left, I knew the ridge wasn't far. I declared our trip a success and prepared to descend. One more tick off the To Do list.

Going up is always easier than going down. Hazel and Annabelle didn't want to go down. They were suddenly nervous and paced along the shelf while I scraped my way down the icy first section. When I felt safe to stop I called to them, their brown heads peering over the ledge at me. I skied down a few more meters and called again. For me the worst part was over. The skiing wasn't good but it also wasn't as dangerous. I stopped to call for them again before the shelf disappeared into the clouds. They didn't follow.

There have been times when for whatever reasons the dogs did not like my chosen path down. In these cases they simply slipped to the side and picked their way down something more suitable. I would ski down, they would work their way down, and we would meet somewhere below. As the chute narrowed to a cliff face and access to the ridgeline or out of the rocks was indeterminable I wasn't sure if this was even possible. There was little I could do but continue to call them, ski down into more open country, wait until nightfall, and make plans to return the following day. In an instant my life had surely changed.

The following day was the same warm mix of rain and snow, flat light, and poor visibility. I made better time to the shelf, not stopping to enjoy the scenery or solitude. I was thankful not to find Hazel and Annabelle on the shelf. I also knew a larger, more complicated chapter was about to begin.

Hank answered the phone the following evening. He asked the caller to speak English because he couldn't understand French very well. A minute or two passed before he gasped and handed me the phone. I knew what she had to say before I ever heard her voice. She had Annabelle's collar. Her husband brought it home after taking her body off the highway and placing it in some trees. He found her body sometime around 7:00 A.M. Monday morning while on his way to work. Annabelle made it all the way out of the mountains only to be killed by a car down in the valley.

I picked up the collar and the husband, Guy, drove me to the grove of trees where he placed her body. On Wednesday I buried Annabelle Lee. I took her to the Jura just above the house, to the general area where we would go on morning runs. I found a small meadow away from foot or car traffic and buried her on her bed with a small steak bone she kept around in the yard. The thought of her of next to a highway in an unfamiliar part of France and exposed to the elements was too much for me. I had to bring her back home and make her comfortable. It was good to see her again and touch her fur one last time.

I wish we could take every path,
because I hated to close the door on you.

Joanna Newsom: Baby Birch

Annabelle Lee was born into a world she did not deserve. From the mean streets of Guadalajara, Mexico she came from a long line of forgotten, neglected, abused, and otherwise invisible mixed-breed perros de la calle. Walking home one day in 2002 Annabelle appeared out of nowhere from the weeds and trash of an abandoned lot. She was tiny, little more than two giant ears and a coat of fur entirely covered in mange that draped over her skeleton. She pounced at Hazel and coaxed her to play. Until that point Hazel was uninterested in other dogs but Annabelle persisted and eventually Hazel dropped her defenses. I walked them to a nearby park and they chased each other and wrestled for an hour before I walked the two of them home.

Back at the house Annabelle ate three full bowls of Hazel's food, all while Hazel sat and watched. As soon as the last pieces were finished Annabelle collapsed by the bowl and slept for the next two hours. She had found a home and she knew it. Several trips to the vet later, many more bowls of food, and a crash course on pack behavior and hierarchy and Annabelle was a legitimate family member. She grew fast and she was healthy.

By the time we left Mexico Hazel and Annabelle were inseparable. Other than a few scuffles here and there over food and pecking order there were never any problems. I think the reason for this had to do with their almost identically opposite personalities.

Hazel, the older alpha female, is timid. Who knows what happened to her before I gave her a home but it wasn't good. She trusts few people; dislikes thunder, fireworks, or any loud noise; has had bouts of separation anxiety; and is submissive almost to a fault. She's also loyal, gentle, quiet, highly intelligent, and seems to live in a world where her sixth sense runs in overdrive.

Annabelle Lee, on the other hand, was none of that. She liked everyone, could sleep through a tornado, and always challenged Hazel's alpha status, though also always acquiesced. She was undisciplined. She was our traviesa, or little trickster. She, too, was gentle and never wanted anything except to be part of a loving group.

I suppose our whirlwind life of continent jumping probably helped build a strong bond as well. The transition from places like Kazakhstan to Chile is formidable enough for a human; I can only imagine that it helps to have another familiar furry friend alongside to ease into the changes. Dogs adapt but they never complain.

The real difference between Hazel and Annabelle is their instinct to survive. Both survived difficult first years but both survived in two very different ways. Hazel's instinct is to hunker, settle in, and stay. It took the Elko Animal Shelter three days to bring Hazel in from the desert. She would hide, she would run away, and she wasn't fooled by their traps. Annabelle, on the other hand, was social and would befriend anyone, especially if it included free love and food. She liked her family but we always had the feeling she would like any number of other families if they were willing to take care of her.

Hazel and Annabelle made it off the cold, snowy shelf at the top of the Jura and I'm pretty sure they made it off almost immediately after seeing me for the last time. Annabelle's body was found on the opposite side of the range, out of the mountains and forest, not far from the Swiss border and Geneva. It makes me feel better to think that she was on her way home and that her street sense would have taken her to a kind person who, in turn, would have called us to pick her up and bring her back. And she was almost there; and she almost returned home. And it's terrible to think about what almost happened.

I hope that I find what I'm reaching for,
the way that it is in my mind.

Waylon Jennings: Dreaming My Dreams with You

I buried Annabelle Lee on a Wednesday, four days after I last saw her alive. There was still no sign of Hazel. On Thursday I scoured maps and satellite images and guessed at Annabelle's route out of the mountains. I thought Hazel might have traveled with her on at least part of the journey and if I could narrow the area I might have a chance of finding her. On Friday I returned to the Jura.

I drove to the commune of Choudans, drove as high as the snow would allow, then started to hike and ski-tour from there. I entered unknown country and my expectations were low. Looking at maps, however, I noticed several chalets and other outbuildings used by herders in the summer. If Hazel wanted to hunker, any one of those places potentially
could provide for some shelter and food. Up I went, out of the fog and clouds, for the first time in a week. The sunshine was a relief.

I skied to the top. I found the spot on the ridge directly opposite of where we climbed six days earlier. I found the shelf where I last saw the dogs. I did not find Hazel.

What I found instead was a sense that I covered the bases, returning to the place where we separated and returning again from the other side, the side I knew Annabelle descended. I could post notices in every commune in the area, I could call animal shelters, I could contact village mairies, or town halls, but not until then did I completely resign myself to the idea that Hazel, like Annabelle, would live or die according to her own instinct. I could not stop cars from racing on highways just as I could not stop Annabelle from searching for help. Likewise, if she was out of range of my voice or sight, there was nothing I could do to pull Hazel out of a warm bed of old hay or a safe hole in the ground to look for me.

Ultimately, the word 'pet' doesn't do them justice. They might be domesticated, cherished, and indulged but there is an element of ownership in the word pet that doesn't work. Given the option, an animal will choose to live, no matter how attached or loyal it is to its human companion. Annabelle did what she could to stay alive and her instinct almost brought her home. Hazel, I knew, was alive. She would also rather go feral than trust another human to take care of her. I was preparing to leave when I saw her walking along the ridge toward me.

Our lives are buried in snow.

Alela Diane: White as Diamonds

Her paws were sore and she had lost some weight. She spent the next three days doing little more than sleeping and eating. She survived and she survived because she did exactly what she knew. She lost an adopted sister and companion of ten years. She found her way back home.

In an instant they were gone and in another instant everything changed again. What happened in between is anybody's guess. We will miss Annabelle Lee for a long time to come and we are grateful Hazel Dickens has returned to the family. These lives we lead are fleeting at best and for me the only meaning found from it all is inferred from the people, places, and things that consume my time and energy. Of course the great mystery is that any of it happens at all. The great question is, Why?

I like to think that pure luck has more to do with it than anything else--a random series of events that we only ever participate and possibly determine but never control. We are lucky and we are all lost. Embrace what you have within reach because anything else is speculation. Time to celebrate. Your life will surely change.

Among all you angels is a champion angel.
Amidst all you devils there's a free soul.
Up from the disenfranchised the engine cries,
Up from the circle there's a hole.

The Low Anthem: Champion Angel

19 January 2012

Der schöne Traum

For our last Christmas in the Old World we decided to return to the land of Christmas or somewhere thereabouts. Though the Stubai Valley felt less Christmasy than Christmas in Berchtesgaden 2009, that in and of itself was a welcome relief. No Christmas markets, no nightly fireworks, cannon volleys, or black powder rifles. Not much Glühwein. Few lights or decorated trees. In fact, apart from the candle-lit cemeteries and New Year's Eve noise there was little to distinguish it from any other near-perfect, snow-filled, action-packed ski week. Good.

Before mid-December snow conditions all over Europe were meager at best. It was reported that the month of November was the driest in something like 65,000 years. By the time we hit the road, though, everything changed. Christmas was white and there was plenty of it. The little person was deposited into ski school, the snow began to fall, and life turned exceedingly swell.

The Austrians proved themselves excellent and very friendly hosts; all except one, that is, and unfortunately he married into the family that owned the old Hotel Greier now converted into apartments and the place where we stayed. Franz is his name (of course it is) and because of his inhospitable ways I cannot and will not recommend spending hard-earned money there. On the other hand, the heir to the Greier estate, Gerta (naturally), is lovely if not a bit dingy. Something tells me that Gerta knows well enough of the callousness displayed by the hanger-on she calls her partner. Nevertheless, she keeps a pretty cool place that added plenty of charm to the week.

Of course traveling from inside an apartment is not really traveling. Besides skiing, good food was what we were after and an abundance of it is what we found. The Austrians are masters of soup and few meals passed without a starter bowl of one, usually a knödel suppe of some kind accompanied by a clean and cold Grüner Veltliner.

Other meals included more knödel, Christmas Eve pheasant, New Year's Eve venison, and the kind of picture perfect (if not slightly gaudy) desserts Austria has built a reputation on.

Then there was skiing. The Austrians are interesting skiers. In general the abilities of the Austrians are good to excellent. After all, nearby Alberg is "the birthplace of alpine skiing." It's just that they display some particular curiosities when it comes to the how, where, and when of skiing. For example the hordes of Austrians who make it a daily routine to ski from the bottom of resorts to the top. Seems like an awful waste of mind-numbing energy to me. Then again I don't ski in spandex or on 160 cm skis.

Skirting around their somewhat rigid ideas offers excellent snow conditions four or five days after a storm. In places like Chamonix or Verbier you are lucky to find untracked snow during the storm let alone an hour or two after the snow settles. So for most of the week I did just that: found untracked snow before, during, and after storms. As one able-bodied Austrian put it as I finished an especially powdery run through some small chutes just above a piste that took a measly ten minutes to hike to: "Yes, good, but that's dangerous too." Right-o, Franzy!

Even better skiing was available with short, one to two hour tours into higher cirques, made easier with well-established skin tracks. As usual, the skin tracks, punched into the snow by the same boys and girls who raced up 1,500 meters of groomed pistes, always lead to prominent markings, like the ubiquitous cross or the obvious pass. That leaves plenty to the imagination for those who possess imagination. Like scrambling up cliffy, rocky things and skiing back down them.

That particular day I was not alone. I caught up to a couple of new-skoolers, thirty-something-ish splitboarders who also scoffed at the skinny skin tracks and gorilla turns of the old guard Austrian skiers. Turned out we had the same couloir in mind (how's that for imagination?) so I followed them down a slippery slope. Nice guys. We said our goodbyes on the saddle and in an instant I was alone again with no one but the Tyrolean Alps for companions.

The next tour was even more solitary as it coincided with the near white-out conditions. Not surprisingly, Austrians don't like skiing that much when you can't see. A three-inch long core shot and several falls later when I couldn't see the Earth drop out from beneath me I wasn't sure if I did either. I think I found what I was looking for, though, and it sure was quiet.

The following two days were spent back at the resort. The sky opened and dropped somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) of snow and the skiing turned from very good to incredible. Short steep drops just to the sides of pistes and long runs through trees that were only recently wind scoured and hard packed turned fluffy, bottomless, and effortless. No time for pictures during a gold rush.

I must admit that as much fulfillment and inspiration as I find from climbing and skiing around snowy, rocky places, I've found equal satisfaction and wonder while skiing on the most gentle and tranquil places with Hank. His confidence on skis has grown immeasurably within the last three years in Europe and with that his excitement. To follow him through bumpy ski trails that wind in and out of glades, or to sail with him across the flats, or to straight-line over rolling hills, all the while listening to him yell, laugh, or sing, is nothing short of a complete, crystalline celebration. Watching him and skiing with him reminds me of myself skiing at his age, but more so it reminds me of why he and I--and, apparently, a whole bunch of others--enjoy sliding on snow with two sticks attached to your feet. It's a flight of fancy and it feels like a dream.

We left Austria in an extended dream state after visiting friends in a city of our youth. We experienced Christmas without much thought. We listened to the pops and bangs of 2012 while lying in warm beds in a cold, dark hotel. We escaped the rituals of a holiday season by participating in the rituals of a family. For ten days in the mountains in the heart of Tyrol we celebrated almost nothing else except the intimate act of togetherness. Wake up, ski, eat, enjoy. Repeat the dream.