Today, Sunday, May 3rd the Rōbert Report will share the VIII and final installment of The Next Pitch by Peter Lev. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to share the life of a true mountain person and a friend with Rōbert readers. If you’d like to read the complete memoir it can be had in it’s entirety by simply going to the link at the bottom of each week’s posting. Rōbert has enjoyed sharing Lev’s mountain adventures with you and hope you’ve enjoyed this very cool trip with Peter.
ALTA – UTAH
During this expedition period I worked during the winter at Alta, Utah. At that time, Alta was the place to be for snow studies and avalanche work. I was assistant and apprentice to master USFS Avalanche Forecaster Binx Sandahl. This photo shows Binx and me on the porch of the Alta Guard Station with the slopes of Alta in the background. I had lobbied Binx for a few years, and he finally hired me in 1971, based on my mountaineering experience and interest in avalanche forecasting. This was before the Forest Service cared about Civil Service exams or certifications for avalanche specialists. You got hired for your experience and who you were, rather than what the paperwork said. The same could be said for Exum Mountain Guides in those days.
I am in a snow pit looking at snow crystals with a small magnifying glass, as understanding and tracking the snow layers is an essential part of slab avalanche forecasting.
Another essential part of the job is to venture out to the avalanche starting zones to evaluate snowpack conditions and look for developing slab avalanche hazard. Even on skis, breaking trail can be a chore.
Ron Perla was also an important mentor for me at Alta. Ron had been an Alta Forest Service avalanche forecaster who now, during the early 1970’s, was working in snow science research at Alta. Ron had also been a guide at Exum, so we have been friends for many years, and still are to this day.
When I arrived in Alta, there were concerns with the placement of one of the 75mm recoilless rifles. Binx and Ron didn’t like the location because it was at the end of the run-out of the main Mt. Superior avalanche path. Binx had a close call there, and had to dive under the gun stand as the dust cloud and wind blast engulfed him. It didn’t look so bad from the gun stand, thought I. Ron hiked me up to the summit of Superior (a major hike and rock scramble), so I could fully appreciate the problem, which I certainly did from that vantage point. Binx tired of waiting for ‘permission’ from the USFS higher-ups. With the help of Alta Ski Lifts he finally got the gun placed high on Peruvian Ridge across the valley from Mt. Superior. We could now fire across the highway and village directly into the avalanche starting zones. It is done that way to this day.
In 1974 I left Alta for British Columbia to become the avalanche forecaster and a lead ski guide, along with Martin Heuberger from Austria, for a new Canadian heli-ski company. This was arranged by Binx. Back-country skiing in the mountains was, and still is for me, a major attraction. I suppose the primary purpose of it all, at least at that time for me, was to seek and accomplish the ideal great ski run, and of course, just be in the mountains.
CANADA – CAMPBELL GLACIER
For the last several years I have been joining old friends for alpine ski touring at remote helicopter-access huts in British Columbia. Once there, we are on our own, making the ascents with climbing skins. This photo shows a truly ‘Great Run’ on Campbell Glacier, Canada in 2008 with my ski buddies Arne Stemsrud (second from left) and Jock Glidden (far right), and Jean from the larger group (in the left middle). We are all pleased.
A few days after The Great Run, and a big storm, different snow conditions now existed. My small group of friends had earlier developed some conflicts with the lodge owner and trip leader. That sort of thing puts me on edge, put my friends on edge, and I was upset. We also knew the new snow was not completely stable. This photo shows the two avalanches in which we managed to get caught. With the first avalanche, on the right, I said to my friend Paul Stettner (also from college days, and a trip with Jock to Nun in the Himalaya), “You go first!” Nice. (laughter). Paul got partially buried and I was carried a short distance. This should have been a warning, but I was ‘steamed’ about the rude criticism we had been getting from the lodge owner, and I turned off my ‘voice,’ which by now was shouting. It’s not necessarily true that one always get wiser as one gets older.
The second avalanche is on the left. Paul had gone before me again. The slope was convex and he soon disappeared from sight. I started my run and came straight down the middle and kicked the whole thing down on top of Paul, burying him completely. Fortunately, Arne had wisely chosen to be a spotter so he was right there and able to move quickly and dig Paul out. Arne had spoken up beforehand along the lines of “Maybe we shouldn’t dothis, it is similar in aspect and pitch to the first avalanche slope.” Good for Arne, but I was deaf. Back at the lodge we were now really in trouble. There was, however, some good-natured teasing from a few of the other skiers, who repeatedly sang: “Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do, When They Come for You,” etc etc. Binx Sandahl, my old Alta mentor, would not have been pleased with me, even from the grave.
A somewhat contrite Lev after our Campbell avalanche misadventures.
THE NEEDLES – SOUTH DAKOTA
Onward to the Black Hills. The Conns have a little ditty: “No more talus, no more scree; back to Sylvan Lake for me.” In the Needles, one doesn’t have to hike miles and miles to climb. So now I’m an old goat in the Black Hills with the other old goats. This photo was taken on the Spire Three – Spire Four Pass. The white ‘old goat’ was waiting on the Pass as we came down off South Tower. Getting to the Pass involved tricky low 5th class climbing for that fellow!
As far as rock climbing goes, the South Dakota Needles is my ‘retirement’ favorite place.
This is a photo of me leading on South Tower, August 2009, my favorite climb in the Cathedral Spires, the largest of the South Dakota Needles formations. South Tower, a Conn Route, has that typical Needles quality of requiring creative gear placements and being somewhat run-out, although typical 1970 – 1980’s era climbing as far as I’m concerned. Rating difficulty is 5.8. I last climbed this route in 2010 when I was 70 years old. So, I am still climbing. . .at least a little.
From 1960 to 2010, that is fifty years of climbing.
I am sometimes asked “Why? Why do I do this?” There have been many days when I have asked myself the same question. However, when I am finally able to put my hand on the rock, all doubt (usually) disappears. Life has been full of many things I have not tolerated very well, because they either seemed stupid, or unsatisfying, or both. Or because I just couldn’t seem to ‘get it.’ Climbing and alpine ski touring may not have a ‘good reason,’ but they don’t need any. It is ‘unto itself’ and for most of my climbing and skiing life I have been certain in its rightness for me.
Since childhood (and things seem to always go back to childhood) I have chased some form of deeper understanding; a questing after knowledge and experiences which have always been a little different from the mainstream. A companion of this quest has been a certain level of alienation from other people. Is it worth it? Is it a Faustian bargain? I don’t know. Yet I am grateful for the time spent in the mountains. It was a fine ‘stage’ on which to develop myself. This climbing/skiing life has also brought me two very valuable things; good health (mostly), and perhaps most important of all, friends.
I didn’t really think much about the fact that I’m getting old until this past year, or that my drive and physical abilities to continue climbing are declining. My interests have also changed, which I suppose is about time.
My old climbing and skiing skills may be much diminished, however, they are not lost. I still enjoy a little alpine ski touring and rock climbing on a regular basis; a small foray of return to climbing and mountains.
May 15, 2012
“I remember my youth, and the feeling that will never come back – the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the [mountains], the earth, and all the men; that deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold ,grows small, and expires – and expires too soon, too soon – before life itself.….. I did not know how good a man I was till then.”
Joseph Conrad, Youth
After Denali summit, May 25th 1963, back at High Camp. I am twenty-three years old.