Father Charles Brandt—a priest and modern-day contemplative—on the steps of his hermitage overlooking the Oyster River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Photo by Grant Callegari

On Vancouver Island, a hermit-priest has spent a lifetime contemplating the natural world. At 95, he has come to believe there is a way we can save it.

by  Brian Payton
September 11, 2018

This article is also available in audio format. Listen now, download,

Congratulations to Brian Payton on winning a Digital Publishing Awardfor this article.

It is early morning with its quiet coolness. I walk out the old logging road. … The logging road along with other trails through the forest is where I practice walking meditation. I do not think of the road as leading anywhere. It is the road to nowhere, the path on which I journey and have been journeying for a lifetime. Although it is the path to nowhere, in reality it is the way to everywhere, because it enables me to enter into communion with the whole community of beings.
—from Self and Environment by Charles Brandt

Slow down. Take a breath. Attend. Insight takes time. Charles Brandt has been meditating and praying on the east coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island since 1965. Over that time, he has come to some elegant conclusions about our place in the natural world. He gathered them slowly, through solitude, study, and quiet contemplation. He has acted upon them. Brandt is a Catholic hermit, priest, ornithologist, flight navigator, book conservator, and naturalist. The solitary path he has taken in life can be seen as both a radical departure from and a return to first principles.

Brandt’s hermitage lies at the end of an old logging road near the Oyster River. Surrounded by coastal temperate rainforest, it is a simple, two-story home made of shiplap cedar planks. It has plenty of windows, indoor plumbing, electricity, and internet access. It is a very long way from the Egyptian caves of the Desert Fathers, the first Christian hermits, who inspired him. Brandt built it himself and named it Merton House in honor of Thomas Merton, the author of TheSeven Storey Mountain, the autobiographical account of a young man’s search for faith that is considered one of the most influential religious works of the 20th century.

Brandt is a calming presence, with eyes reflective of having reached both advanced age and wisdom. He seems perfectly present as he holds you in his gaze. He is tall and poised. He wears a loose-fitting sweater and old running shoes; not a clerical collar or habit. He appears not unlike other healthy people his age. And yet he is one in many millions—an ordained Roman Catholic hermit-priest. Although he relies on a walker, he does not hesitate to climb the stairs to his library where he keeps his copy of The Seven Storey Mountain as well as the other books on spirituality, philosophy, and ecology that have shaped him.

Brandt spends time in his study, to read, write, and work on his legacy. Photo by Grant Callegari

Back downstairs, he settles into a comfortable chair between his tidy desk and kitchen. Out every window is the view of understory and the trunks of towering trees.

“I was called to this life,” Brandt explains. “You don’t see anybody or hear anybody. [My hermitage] is on a beautiful salmon river. It’s just ideal for this kind of life.”

For over half a century, Brandt has walked the quiet road leading to his hermitage, his “road to nowhere.” As revelations of abuse and cover-ups eroded the moral authority of the Catholic Church around the world, he continued to meditate, pray, and observe the natural world around him. Over time, he came to consider himself not a theologian but an ecologian. Now, as he approaches the end of his journey, he is taking steps to ensure this land and hermitage are preserved in perpetuity. He also hopes the insights of his generation of ecological thinkers will live on beyond him.

Brandt was 13 when he fell under the spell of the man who famously went to live alone in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts—Henry David Thoreau, the renowned 19th-century American essayist, naturalist, abolitionist, and philosopher. Growing up on a farm near Kansas City, Missouri, Brandt was himself already a budding naturalist and avid birder in 1936 when he first got his hands on a copy of Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden. He was particularly taken with Thoreau’s attempt to develop awareness and empathy for the natural world, honing what Brandt calls the “latent senses.”

“He was my childhood hero,” Brandt says. “He went to the woods to find out what life was all about so that he would not have lived in vain.”

A bible bound by Brandt, a bookbinder by trade. The hermit has worked on near priceless tomes, including an original work by James Audubon. Photo by Grant Callegari

After high school, Brandt studied general science and biology at the University of Missouri, and soon realized that his true interest lay in natural history. The Second World War interrupted his post-secondary studies. Brandt enlisted in the US Air Force Reserve and trained as a navigator flying bombers. He did not declare himself a conscientious objector, but became deeply conflicted about his upcoming role in the war and sought the counsel of an Air Force chaplain. Then the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the war came to an end. Brandt never saw active duty overseas. After his discharge, he continued to seek spiritual guidance. He also followed his interest in the natural world to Cornell University, where he studied ornithology, took part in a birdsong recording project, and earned a bachelor of science degree.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~


By Dick Dorworth | January 27th, 2010 


Mount Saint Elias was named in honor of an Old Testament prophet, given the name by the Russian explorer Vitus Bering who, presumably, was a religious man or at least wished to be viewed as such. Denali, meaning “the high one,” is the Athabascan name commonly used by climbers and Alaskans for the highest point in North America, but William Dickey, a 19

th century gold miner in Alaska, named it Mount McKinley after a presidential candidate. William McKinley had no connection to mountains or Alaska but supported the gold standard, while his opponent supported silver. The name McKinley was nothing more than PR for keeping the price of gold high.

The Muir and Salathé walls on El Capitan honor the two Johns whose surnames they carry, and those men’s reverence for the natural world.

Words have meaning but names have power, as the saying goes, and it is a matter of consequence to name a mountain or a climbing route. A name also reveals more about the mindset and values of the namer than the subject.

Royal Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt made the first ascent of the Salathé Wall in 1961 and named it, in Robbins’ words, to honor our beloved predecessor. It was the second route up El Capitan after the Nose, and, in keeping with Robbins’ career as America’s preeminent rock climber of his time, it broke new ground in both style of Yosemite climbing and naming of routes. The Salathé honored a person and his values rather than a physical feature, and the route was climbed in one push, unlike the Nose.

Four years later, when Yvon Chouinard and TM Herbert climbed the fourth route on El Cap, Herbert praised Muir as a hero of nature and conservation, so far ahead of his time in the environmental movement that the climbers wanted to recognize him. Robbins today says that he would have named it the John Muir Route, not the Muir Wall, but it was not his to name.

Other El Cap route names are simple geographic descriptions – West Face, West Buttress, the East Buttress and the East Ledges Descent®and others are not so easily grasped by the uninitiated: Tangerine Trip, The Central Scrutinizer, Grape Race, Magic Mushroom, Bermuda Dunes and Realm of the Flying Monkey.

And that’s just one rock; granted, a big one. Every climbing guidebook contains a wild and wide range of names of routes: bizarre, boring, inspired, offensive, subtle, in your face, humorous and macabre. Themes often run through the names of an area, not all of them exactly wholesome.

Idaho’s City of Rocks has the Decadent Wall, with a range of names guaranteed to offend somebody. The National Organization for Women took some hostile interest in its sexist flavor, and Dave Bingham’s latest guidebook to the City includes this caveat: “In the early 1980s Utah climber Jay Goodwin coined the ‘decadent’ theme, using sexually-oriented names for about a dozen climbs. I decided to omit some names because they are idiotic and were not given by the first ascentionists.”


Bingham’s guidebook lists these names: Dikes on Harleys, Kibbles and Bits, Adolescent Homosapien, Divine Decadence and FDC. The original guidebook had more specifically listed: Dykes on Harleys, Nipples and Clits, Adolescent Homo, Devine Decadence and [unprintable]. Other original route names included Rancid Virgins, Dimples and Tits, Preteen Sex, Abortion on Parade, Life Without Sex and Estrogen Imbalance. (I recently encountered Goodwin having dinner in Almo, the closest community to the City of Rocks, enjoying looking through the charming homework papers and drawings of his 6-year-old daughter. I neglected to solicit his thoughts about the Decadent Wall routes or whether he thought his daughter would better appreciate Dad’s original names or Bingham’s tidied-up ones.)

The drug culture significantly altered the consciousness of American climbing. The double-entendre in the group of climbers who named themselves the Stonemasters is one of my favorites, and their contribution to pushing the limits of climbing is certainly mind-expanding. Among the many routes with drug-inspired names (not all of them, by any means, done by the group called Stonemasters) are Left, Right and Middle Peyote Cracks in Joshua Tree, Colombian Crack and White Line Fever at the City of Rocks, Mescalito, Magic Mushroom and Pyschedelic Shack in Yosemite, and Drug Nasty (aka Dean’s Dream), Lethal Dose, Panama Red, Cocaine Crack and Powder Up the Nose at Smith Rocks. The popular Tuolumne route Oz is not named after the famous wizard. It is on Drug Dome and connects to the Gram Traverse.

If a name has power, then the more one understands about the name the more power it has. Some of my own perspective on this issue is included here because I believe my experience is like that of other climbers, and clarifying history is crucial.

At one time my friends and I were taken with naming routes according to a hidden message. For instance, in 1972 Sibylle Hechtel and I named a route on Mount Mitchell in the Wind River Range Ecclesiastes. Joe Kelsey, who might be called the John Muir of the Wind River Range, was not amused, pleased or in favor of the name because of the precedent it might set. But neither Sibylle (I believe) nor I are Bible students or, at least in my case, even Christian. We named it because of the great line in Ecclesiastes, “It is all emptiness and chasing the wind,” an apt description of climbing and, one might say, much else in life. The name of the route had nothing to do with Bible thumping or Christian theology. The name stuck in certain circles, but so far as I know it has never been included in a guidebook.

A year earlier Chris Vandiver and I named a route on Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows Truckin’ Drive. It is next to the older route Rawl Drive, named after the Rawl drill which was used in the early days of placing bolts by hand (as was done on both routes). Truckin’ Drive was named after the Grateful Dead song “Truckin’” and particularly for the famous verse:

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me;

Other times, I can barely see.

Lately it occurs to me …

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

In the guidebooks, Truckin’ Drive is misnamed Truck ‘N’ Drive, a misnomer that matters mostly to those who named the route and to those curious about the long, strange trip between the two very different names. A truck and truckin’ are as different as a pair of pants and pantin’.

That same Tuolumne summer Wayne Merry and I named a route on Daff Dome El Condor Pasa from the then popular song by Simon and Garfunkel on their album “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and, more specifically, the line in it proclaiming, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” The music for this lovely song was actually written in 1913 by the Peruvian Daniel Alomia Robles. Wayne was on lead and very runout when he yelled with great relief that he’d found a chicken head – a knob-like protrusion jutting out from the rock. After he tied it off with a sling and clipped in he said that it wasn’t just a chicken head, it was a condor head. The condor allowed us to pass and we would rather be hammer than nail, and as with Truckin’ Drive there is much lost in that Tuolumne guidebooks call the route El Condor instead of El Condor Pasa.


Undoubtedly many names have morphed into something quite different from the original: poetry in the raw turned to poetry dressed in a mistake or the censor’s burka.

A rock formation at the City of Rocks was once called Hershey’s Kiss because its top resembled one. On the left side of its west face is a three-star overhanging jam crack rated 5.12. Tony Yaniro is credited by Bingham with the first ascent of this fine route, but according to Stan Caldwell, Yaniro did not complete it, while Caldwell found the key to the route in a hidden hold at the crux that, he said, “You ought to see” to make the move. Through a process that can be imagined but probably never completely tracked, both the rock formation and its best route are now known as Odyssey. My favorite routes and route names there are Driving at Night and Just Another Mormon on Drugs, the former because it’s one of the best short 5.9 climbs at the City and its name mimics the title of a book I published at least 20 years after first climbing the route, and the latter because of its cultural humor.

Yosemite’s Crack of Doom was first climbed and aptly named by Pratt in 1961. This led to another intimidating route being named Crack of Despair soon after and even another Crack of Doom, named by Greg Lowe at the City of Rocks. These names are poetry eliciting the feeling of beginning such routes and, of course, inspiring puns. In Colorado’s Unaweep Canyon is a far easier route named Crack of Don, though I have been unable to find out anything about Don.

Every climbing area contains names to suit (or not) every taste intriguing, inspiring, descriptive, confusing, dumb, clever, incomprehensible and sappy. A guide to Oregon’s Smith Rock includes Vomit Launch, Victory of the Proletarian People’s Ambion Arete, Virgin Slayer, Shark-Infested Waters, Silly Boy, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and Darkness at Noon.

Utah’s Wasatch Range has Satan’s Corner, Saint Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast, Nipple Remover, Shadow of Death, Final Prayer Variation, Garden of Eden, Holy Grail, Judas Priest, Lazarus, Missionary Jam, The Rosary and Celestial Ascension. Official religion dominates Utah culture and these sorts of names are only to be expected, as, of course, is the occasional Nipple Remover in any culture.

Every route has a name (except, of course, the few orphaned, nameless ones looking for adoption or at least discovery) of history and personality, thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness. Contemplating its significance and power adds to the meaning and experience of the climb. Discover the stone poetry, the political PR, the hidden meaning, the pun, the idiocy, the crass libido and the refined reverence at the root of the name of the route.

Dick Dorworth lives in Ketchum, Idaho. He spends most of his time writing, climbing, skiing and reading. The best climbing he’s done recently were some routes in Tuolumne last summer that he hadn’t done in more than 35 years, including Truckin’ Drive. The best skiing he’s done recently was this morning (January 2, 2009) on Bald Mountain in Sun Valley.


In one survey, 91% of climbers said they have come across a route name they find offensive

Amanda Loudin

November 30

Melissa Utomo, a 29-year-old Asian American Web developer, is used to being the only woman and person of color when she rock-climbs.

A few years back, on a climbing trip to Wyoming, she was in just that position when her group arrived at a big section of Ten Sleep Canyon called the “Slavery Wall.” As the climbers challenged themselves on some of the wall’s routes, the troubling names mounted: “Happiness in Slavery.” “Welfare Crack.”

“I couldn’t really process or absorb the names at the time, because I was in this group of all White men,” Utomo said. “But when I returned home to Colorado, I started reading up on other violent, oppressive route names, and I realized I needed to do something.”

Utomo is part of a growing chorus of female and BIPOC climbers (climbers who are Black, Indigenous or people of color) working for change in the sport, particularly in the area of route names. Their task is a daunting one, sometimes placing them at odds with a climbing world dominated by White men.

But Utomo and others like her are beginning to make an impact. In June, amid mounting pushback and rising protests against racial injustice, local developers renamed the Slavery Wall and some of its similarly offense-raising routes. The wall region will now be known as the “Downpour Wall,” while some of the other re-brandings were even simpler: “Happiness in Slavery” — a route named after a Nine Inch Nails song that also inspired the “Slavery Wall” name — is now just “Happiness.”

The way that such routes are named in the first place is straightforward and done without much oversight. When you become the first climber to successfully map out a new route — a “first ascender” — you earn the privilege of naming it. Beyond the Slavery Wall, in some corners of North America that has led to monikers such as “Gold Digger,” “Kitty Porn,” “Clean Shaven Girls” and “Astride my Indian Queen.” In a Medium post in July, self-described “novice climber” Sena Crow recalled being appalled by Texas routes such as “Schizophrenia” and “Third Reich.”

Utomo said climbing has a system of gatekeeping baked into its culture that makes speaking up about offensive names intimidating. “We’ve normalized worshiping the first ascenders,” she said. “If you’re a new climber, it takes a lot of courage to speak up.”

Snews, an outdoor-industry magazine, and the 57hours app, which connects users with mountain guides, each recently surveyed outdoor adventurers to gauge their knowledge and opinions of route names. Asked whether they had ever encountered a route name that they considered racist, sexist, discriminatory or otherwise offensive, 91 percent of SNEWS readers and 65 percent of 57hours mountain guides said yes. Digging deeper, the 57hours survey inquired whether the prevalence of certain route names deterred women and BIPOC adventurers from participating in sports such as climbing and mountain biking. Forty-three percent of guides answered yes.

Ebony Roberts, managing editor at 57hours, said she wasn’t altogether surprised by the responses. “I was a little saddened, though,” she said, “to see some women express the sentiment that essentially, you just have to suck it up if you want to play.”

When 57Hours guides encounter a route with an offensive name, Roberts said, they don’t necessarily avoid it. “They just don’t tell the client the name of the route,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to lie or hide it. The names need to change — full stop.”

Like Utomo, climbing instructor and high school teacher Christina Smyth is working to bring about that change. Smyth, of British Columbia, says she took note of the route names in that area when she began climbing 11 years ago.

“With more free time this summer due to the pandemic, I decided I needed to make an effort for change,” Smyth said. “I started talking to other female climbers, and we began compiling a list of offensive route names. Then we decided which were most worth going after.” Topping the list were the flat-out racist or misogynistic names.

But forcing a change can be challenging, requiring one to get the first ascender’s buy-in and then persuading guidebook authors to make the revision as well. “There’s a good deal of tracking people down and reaching out to them to request the change,” Smyth said. “So far we’ve made some progress, but we’ve also had some pushback. I’m working with others to make this a collaborative effort so that many voices can outweigh those who resist change.”

For her part, Utomo has put her tech skills by developing a system that will allow climbers to flag problematic route names. She’s gained the support of affinity groups such as Brown Girls Climb, Women Crush Wednesdays and BelayAll.

“In July, along with Brown Girls Climb, I participated in Erased, a virtual discussion about route names and reimagining what the climbing culture can be,” she said. “We now have a team of 11 people and launched a fundraiser to begin a research phase into building a new climbing app that is accessible [and] will allow route-name flagging and new route names. We’re invested in a long-term goal.”

The efforts of Utomo and others have served to activate a joint effort with five outdoors organizations representing 150,000 members. The American Alpine Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Colorado Mountain Club, Mazamas and the Mountaineers issued a joint statement this summer committing to creating a more respectful and inclusive community with an eye on abolishing offensive route names.

“It’s important that we all spend this time dealing with the systemic oppression that is rampant in the climbing culture,” said Sarah Bradham, acting executive director of Mazamas.

Taimur Ahmad, who regularly climbs with a female partner, said that as first ascenders of several routes in the Sierras, they’ve been very conscious of the names they have selected together.

“I’ve done climbs where I felt uncomfortable saying the name to a friend and I’d shorten it or change it,” Ahmad said. “I’m optimistic that the majority of organizations in the sport are in agreement with the need to change.”

As with any cultural shift, effecting lasting change in the climbing culture will not happen overnight. But Utomo and others are emboldened to see it through.

“I’m very optimistic,” Utomo said. “There are a lot of voices coming into the discussion. People are hungry for change.”


~~~ A few rŌbert readers reaction to Route names ~~~

Rōbert ,Well Jeez and fuck that, this , and what ever. Had to know the era, had to know or be a player. I guess nothing static, I mean it ain’t politics, much of it all was never that serious anyway. And in a publication known as,Lilly Lines ?


What do the expect they are climbers???
The way across from the pool in Ouray a section is called the Bay of Pigs!


Interesting, not surprising. The era of white men dominated climbing is slowly coming to a close- not a moment too soon. It was never meant to last. Many of these names were given by testosterone infused young men (boys really), maybe even on drugs (part of an era), with few social skills (even more reason to climb). As Chuck Pratt once said, “it’s all a game we play in our mind”. Happy holidays to everyone!


Have you seen the original ‘old’ City of Rocks guidebook?  It is a dandy when it comes to ‘inappropiate’ route names.   


Out Of Our League … Thanks M. Friedman ~ The Wall Street Journal

Fly-Fishing the Ernest Hemingway Way

A new fly-fishing heritage collection inspired by the ‘Old Man and the Sea’ author’s favored gear lets anglers cast lines like the legend

CATCH OF THE DAY Ernest Hemingway fishing in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1939.PHOTO: GETTY

By John ClarkeNov. 26, 2020

WHEN ERNEST Hemingway’s well-worn steamer trunk containing his fly-fishing gear disappeared from a train bound for Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1940, the loss was so crushing that the author never again waded in the shallows. Instead, he concentrated his angling efforts far offshore, catching record-breaking pelagics like sailfish and marlin. 

The trunk’s disappearance also “shook” the family, said his great-grandson Patrick Hemingway Adams, who is helping launch the Hemingway Inshore Collection of rods, reels, inshore boats and more designed after the old man’s heart. 

Though inspired by Hemingway’s lost gear, these conventional reels are designed with modern features and technology.PHOTO: ANTHONY TORO

Debuting Dec. 1, the handcrafted 9-weight fly reels ($1,200, machined by Everol, an Italian brand favored by the author for their performance and durability. Each comes in a mahogany box packed in freshly planed wood shavings, smelling the way you’d expect anything “Hemingway” to smell: earthy, warm, woodsy. 

“The Old Man and the Sea” author often cast with his favored Hardy St. George reel, a trout rig antique by today’s standards. The new Hemingway fly reel, a “ventilated” model made of silver anodized aluminum with a multi-disc drag system to slow speeding fish, bears features of high-end contemporary reels made by Tibor, Nautilus and Abel.

Each of the handcrafted fly reels is stamped with the Hemingway logo.PHOTO: ANTHONY TORO

The author’s only surviving fly rods and the Inshore Collection fly rods ($2,700) share similar craftsmanship. Designer Anthony Toro spent 60 hours forming each two-piece, 8-foot stick from tonkin bamboo, including wrapping its nickel-silver ferrules in black kimono Japanese silk thread, and attaching a reel seat built of titanium, and a base and fighting butt made of West Indian mahogany and Spanish cedar. 

It’s impossible to compare any boat to the “Pilar,” the author’s 38-footer. But, for those who want a modern skiff fit for the legendary writer, the Hemingway Classic 20 by Willy Roberts Boats ($95,000) finds a balance of new and old, mixing features like mahogany trim with a Kevlar-constructed hull; a poling platform to stand on and sight fish; and a Yamaha F115 outboard engine. 

Will all of this heritage-style gear bearing Papa’s name make you a better angler? Stu Apte, a Florida Keys fishing guide who first met Hemingway in Cuba, where the author taught him to make mojitos aboard the “Pilar,” just laughed. “Some fisherman need all the help they can get.”

Now We’re In Trouble ~ Wall Street Journal


CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN Many skiers are planning to skip the usual tourists magnets this season in favor of backcountry runs, where you’ll need to climb up to ski down. ALAMYSHARE

You needn’t be a daredevil to go backcountry skiing—just willing to clomp up a hill. Around the U.S., several new spots are easing newcomers into a sport where utter seclusion is the whole point.

By Brigid Mander

Nov. 26, 2020

EIGHT WINTERS AGO, three friends and I spent a few days in northwestern British Columbia to check out a fledgling ski area called Hankin-Evelyn, outside the old railway town of Smithers. On our first morning there, we arrived to find piles of fresh, downy snow dotted by colorful visitor signs. It was an ideal wintry scene—crisp mountain air, blue skies and a blanket of enticing powder. Even better, we noticed very few other skiers milling around. Conspicuously absent was a line snaking around the chair lift for one simple reason: There was no chair lift.

When Hankin-Evelyn first opened, in 2010, a lift-less, backcountry-only ski area was a novelty. It drew both seasoned backcountry skiers and novices eager to break away from crowded resorts but not ready to go entirely off the grid. Hankin-Evelyn is lean on amenities but it maintains warming huts, parking, and mapped, cut runs through the trees so you needn’t forge your own path.

It turns out the founders of Hankin-Evelyn were a prescient bunch. In recent years, backcountry skiing and snowboarding has become the fastest-growing segment of the industry. Nonconformists have gladly sacrificed the creature comforts of a resort for less-trammeled terrain, even if that means hoofing it up the mountain rather than hitching a ride on a lift. And even if it means wearing a backpack and carrying your own safety and rescue tools such as an avalanche beacon and shovel. 

Fortunately, advances in backcountry gear have made the effort of powering yourself uphill far easier. Grippy skins that you affix to the bottom of your skis, bindings that release at the heel and light boots all make the climb essentially like any uphill hike, but you’ll be gliding rather than stomping. Most guides will lead skiers on tracks that ascend at a mere 12 to 15 degree angle. Occasionally, on certain terrain like rocky ridges or very steep slopes, you might need to “bootpack,” where you attach your skies to your backpack and climb up the hill in your ski boots.

SKIN UP, SCHUSS DOWN Vermont’s Green Mountains and the expansive backcountry terrain accessible from Bolton Valley Resort.PHOTO: MATT TESTA/BOLTON VALLEY RESORT

This season, as Covid-19 stats escalate in most of the country and many people shun the usual tourist magnets, demand for the backcountry ski experience is soaring, say industry insiders. “We’ve seen the backcountry industry boom in the last five years, but we’re also seeing a huge surge in interest this year from the mainstream resort skier because of Covid,” said Scott Smith, a mountain guide and owner of Apex Mountain School in Avon, Colo.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~


It’s the Winter of Backcountry. Here’s How to Start Safely ~ NYT

The pandemic has many people wanting to avoid crowded slopes. Going into the backcountry requires avalanche knowledge or a guide. Here are suggestions for taking part across the United States.

Jake’s Peak in Lake Tahoe, California, offers a spectacular view over Emerald Bay.
Jake’s Peak in Lake Tahoe, California, offers a spectacular view over Emerald Bay.Credit…Ming Poon

By David Goodman and Karen Schwartz

  • Nov. 27, 2020, 

Backcountry skiing and snowboarding have exploded into the mainstream this year. As ski resorts are limiting access because of the coronavirus pandemic, skiers are looking for alternative ways to recreate while staying physically distanced. The backcountry boom is also being driven by a new generation of Alpine touring skis and snowboards that make it easier for newcomers to transition from skiing and riding at resorts to the backcountry. REI reports that sales of backcountry ski equipment have tripled since last fall (you can rent it too).

Backcountry skiing’s new popularity has also been driven by a quest for connection. In the East, a vibrant grass roots movement is drawing scores of skiers to develop new backcountry ski terrain. Uphill skiing — a.k.a. “skinning” — is now a popular before and after work ritual in ski towns across the country.

While it’s easier to ski in the backcountry these days, there is a crucial caveat: “If you are getting into backcountry skiing you need to know that avalanches are a real risk,” cautions Brian Lazar of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The Utah Avalanche Center is anticipating a surge of new backcountry skiers this year and will for the first time be posting “avalanche ambassadors” at popular trailheads to educate people about backcountry hazards. “We’re ramping up for what could be an unprecedented winter,” said the center’s forecaster, Craig Gordon.

One way to learn backcountry skills safely is to hire a qualified guide through a group like the American Mountain Guides Association. If you go on your own, you should be self-sufficient and have some knowledge of navigation, first aid and avalanches, and if skiing in avalanche terrain you should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe and know how to use them, and check the local avalanche forecast.

Many guide services and outdoor organizations offer introductory courses on backcountry skills and avalanche awareness. You can find listings of avalanche courses in your area at the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and, which also posts local avalanche forecasts. Know Before You Go is a valuable online avalanche primer, and a simple backcountry responsibility code can be found at Ski Kind, a consortium of backcountry organizations.

The backcountry ski boom has been accompanied by a trailhead parking crunch. If you can’t park, you can’t ski. Check local backcountry skiing, state department of transportation and U.S. Forest Service websites to learn about potential area closures and overflow parking for the more popular trailheads, and plan to start your ski day early. Learn about less-traveled destinations from guidebooks and have a backup plan in case parking is unavailable.

Spreading out will also minimize the risk of coronavirus infection, as will following local travel and quarantine rules. 

If you’re a fit and strong intermediate resort skier and have the right equipment and training, where does a newcomer to the backcountry go? Here are some of the country’s best introductory spots for those who want to experience the wild side.

~~~ CONTINUE ~~~


It should bottle up frigid air in the Arctic, favoring mild conditions in much of the Lower 48

A simulation of air temperatures in the stratospheric polar vortex during late November. (Hannah Attard/University of Albany)
A simulation of air temperatures in the stratospheric polar vortex during late November. (Hannah Attard/University of Albany) 

By Matthew CappucciNovember 19, 2020 at 1:08 p.m. MSTAdd to list

It’s almost the time of year when the term “polar vortex” will become inescapable. It will blast across television tickers, blare from afternoon drive radio shows and crowd any headline related to snow. Though it has become a pop culture buzzword, the polar vortex is a real scientific phenomenon — and atmospheric scientists are anticipating a strong one to kick off winter.

Contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean widespread snow or cold for the Lower 48. In fact, the opposite may be true, with unseasonable warmth and mild temperatures more likely for most of the southern, central and eastern United States.

A positive Arctic oscillation, left, is associated with a strong, stable polar vortex, whereas a negative Arctic oscillation, right, is associated with a weak, unstable vortex. (NOAA)
A positive Arctic oscillation, left, is associated with a strong, stable polar vortex, whereas a negative Arctic oscillation, right, is associated with a weak, unstable vortex. (NOAA) 

The polar vortex is a staple of the atmosphere; the southern hemisphere has one, too. Each polar vortex has two parts — the tropospheric polar vortex, which occupies the lowest level of the atmosphere in which we reside, and the stratospheric polar vortex up above. The tropospheric polar vortex is usually wavier and more erratic, while its counterpart in the stratosphere tends to be smoother and more self-contained.

Both are “coupled,” meaning changes in one can influence the other. That’s why meteorologists look at the health of the stratospheric polar vortex for longer-range indicators of how the weather people actually experience evolves. A stronger stratospheric polar vortex tends to fence in the cold, while a weaker one allows Arctic outbursts to visit the mid-latitudes.

How does the polar vortex affect us?

A simulation of the strength of the polar vortex over the next several weeks indicates it could become atypically strong. (Hannah Attard/University of Albany)
A simulation of the strength of the polar vortex over the next several weeks indicates it could become atypically strong. (Hannah Attard/University of Albany) 

“The weather during a strong polar vortex is usually not as exciting as we get when we have a weak polar vortex,” explained Hannah Attard, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“When you have a strong polar vortex, it’s really acting to bottle up all that cold air at the poles, so you won’t get those undulations at the mid-latitudes letting that cold air spill out,” said Attard.

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