Like Robert Johnson, P. Lev at the crossroads
Like Robert Johnson, P. Lev at the crossroads
Peter Lev, rŌbert, Bill Liske
photo credit, Bill Liske
When Ridgway’s Lisa Issenberg first got into metal work, it was mostly jewelry and small sculptures. Then she was asked to make awards for Telluride’s Mountainfilm, and she’s been hooked ever since.
“It’s the most rewarding. There is something about being a part of recognitions,” Issenberg said. “Awards are like gifts with great honor, and you are part of that gratitude. Even if you are the unknown person behind the gift, it still feels good.”
Issenberg, who operates through her company, Kiitella — Finnish for “to thank, applaud, praise” — has had plenty of clients over the years, hand-making awards for The North Face, American Alpine Club, the Birds of Prey World Cup ski races at Beaver Creek and even Aspen Skiing Co. Since 2013, she’s designed the Aspen Power of Four medals and will make her biggest medal contribution to Aspen athletics this week with X Games.
“It’s a big one. I was pretty excited to get the call,” Issenberg said.
Working with ESPN’s Brian Kerr, the associate director of competition for X Games, Issenberg was commissioned to make this year’s medals for X Games Aspen. The first-, second- and third-place finishers in each of the contests will receive one of the roughly 90 medals Issenberg handcrafted out of her Ridgway studio.
This is the second year in a row ESPN has sought out an external artist to make its medals, with Portland-based artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham having had the honors in 2019.
“Lisa and I talked through a couple of different concepts of what we wanted to see and she came up with a spectacular piece for us,” Kerr said. “As we thought through it, it’s not just another award for these action sports phenoms — our podium athletes are actually getting a piece of X Games artwork around their necks. And that’s really cool.”
Ski racing stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety have all taken home awards made by Issenberg, and beginning Thursday she’ll be able to add some of the world’s best snowboarders and freeskiers to the list, not to mention the motorsport athletes.
Issenberg’s X Games medals are relatively simple. Round like a coin and meant to be worn around the neck, they feature a large X Games logo with a space at the top cut out in the shape of a mountain range. Issenberg said the mountain design is meant to represent the Maroon Bells, using her own artistic license.
The simplicity, typography and angles all draw inspiration from Herbert Bayer’s Bauhaus design. Bayer lived in Aspen from 1946 until 1975 and his influence can still be found around the city.
The metal comes from at least 90% to sometimes 100% recycled content, and all waste is recycled as well.
the Blue Heron caught two trout today, rŌbert none.
||posted by Jonathan Thompson
Jan 8, 2020 • 2:29AM PST
|A sneak peak at “Behind the Slickrock Curtain”|
An excerpt from Chapter 8 of Behind the Slickrock Curtain, a novel by Jonathan P. Thompson slated for publication in July 2020 by Lost Souls Press, that your donation will help bring to life!
… Was Joshua’s riddle-poem simply a means to reawaken memories or a call for help? Was Malcolm’s older brother in trouble? And if so, why was he coming to Malcolm, of all people? Malcolm vowed to call Joshua when he got a chance. Or better yet, to email him. Maybe even send him his own cryptic message. Yeah, that’s it, he could establish a code language that only the two brothers understood, just like —
“FUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!” The figure had bounded out of nowhere, right into the middle of the lane, forcing Brautigan to scream a string of expletives and yank the wheel to the left, sending him into a sideway skid. Somehow, his Colorado winter driving reflexes kicked in and he steered into the slide, and within a couple hundred yards, he and his car had jerked to a relatively unscathed stop alongside the road. He gripped the steering wheel and stared forward, scared to look into the rearview mirrors where he might see the mangled body of whatever it was he had hit.
The passenger-side door swung open and a booming voice spoke: “Yo, bro, thanks for the lift, but you shouldn’t drive in the shoulder. You almost took me out back there. Damn!” The hirsute man, shirtless, wearing cut-off jean shorts, tossed a guitar case, presumably with a guitar inside, on the backseat before plopping himself rather fuzzily into the passenger seat. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be going up toward Superior? I have a gig there tonight.”
“A gig?” Brautigan had a policy against picking up hitchhikers. Not because he was afraid of being raped and killed, but because he didn’t want to be forced to make conversation with a stranger. But then, he had almost run the guy down, so giving him a ride was the least he could do. “Don’t I know you?”
“You’ve probably seen me play. I’m Mannfred Mannia.”
“Man Fred who?”
“No, no, dude, Mannfred. One word. As in the Mannfred Mann Earth Band. I’m a Mannfred Mann tributary.”
“Yeah, like a solo version of a tribute band. The term’s trademarked, by the way. Dude! You have a tape deck in this car!? Awesome! I do all of my recordings on cassettes. You just can’t beat the tonal quality, you know?”
Brautigan looked down at the old stereo. “Yeah, well, a lot of good it does me these days. My wife … er, ex-wife … sold my whole tape collection at a garage sale she held when I was out of town. Sucks.”
“Well, shit. That ain’t cool, man. That’s like … selling your testicles at a flea market or something. No wonder you ditched her.” He pulled a cassette out of his little man purse and inserted it into the stereo. “This thing isn’t gonna eat my tape is it, yo?”
Brautigan was silent, still trying to figure out how he knew the guy, who looked like Sasquatch and talked like a middle-aged version of Jesse from Breaking Bad. The music started playing — acoustic guitar accompanying a solo singer, presumably Mannfred Mannia, wailing in a creaky voice: “… wrapped up like a douche another runner in the night…” Brautigan looked at his newfound companion with raised eyebrows, but remained silent.
They were entering what’s known as Arizona’s copper triangle: mining country: a land of violence, ongoing and remembered. Today’s violence — the blasting, gouging, pummeling, poisoning — is a re-creation of yesterday’s violence, when General James Carleton, predecessor and inspiration to Herman Goering, brought the weight of the U.S. military down onto the Apache people who had lived here for generations, routing them in order to make more Lebensraum or, in this case, Bergbauraum, for the white colonists who invaded in the nineteenth century.
“Hey, see those huge piles of gray stuff over there,” Mannfred said, pointing to a pair of symmetrical, perfectly flat-topped, monochrome mesas. “Mine tailings. Nasty shit. And they’re just sitting out there on the banks of the Gila River, waiting for some sort of catastrophe. Breach one of those things and the tails would smother every bit of life in the river — or what’s left of it — for miles and miles downstream, and the acidic soup within would poison the watershed for decades.” Suddenly, the yo, bro, dude Mann had become articulate.
“Hey, can you pull over up ahead. At the scenic viewpoint?”
Brautigan pulled off into a parking lot that could have accommodated Grand Canyon-sized crowds, but that was occupied by a single, pearl-colored, late-model Cadillac sedan. He parked in the middle of the clearing and cut the engine. The two men climbed out of the car, one excessively hairy the other excessively sweaty and hairy, both shirtless but too old and lumpy to be seen in public that way. An elderly couple were cuddled up on the sole picnic table, engaged in a public display of friskiness. But when they heard Brautigan’s not-so-quiet car pull up, they were torn out of the moment, and when they saw the two men approaching them, they quickly scurried back to their car and sped away, leaving the place to Mannfred and Malcolm. They walked over to the fence and leaned against it, trying and failing to take in the entirety of the yawning earth-wound known as the Ray Mine. Terraces lined the pit’s edges like stairs, each one as wide as an interstate highway, and tiny-looking yellow dump trucks, each far larger than Brautigan’s apartment, crawled along the terraces, carrying hundreds of tons of copper ore.
“Sublime,” said Mannfred. “Truly sublime.” …
Tenkara Master Bill Liske
elusive winter trout
Dick Dorworth is working on a typewriter, cross-legged on a thin mattress inside a handmade redwood slide-in truck camper. The year is 1974. Sheets of paper are stacked beside him, and woven tapestries hang from the open back doors. A pair of leather hiking boots is tucked in the truck bed beside camping gear. Dorworth’s dark hair and beard fall past his shoulders; his glasses are tight against his face. In the background, ponderosa pine boughs hide Yosemite Valley’s sheer granite walls.
National Geographic photographer Galen Rowell took this image of Dorworth, singularly focused on the work in front of him: Night Driving. This seminal coming-of-age tale is a window into the 1960s and ’70s counterculture fringe of climbers, skiers, and vagabonds and the drugs, drinking, and sex they imbibed. Mountain Gazette published all 100 pages of it in 1975, alongside a short essay by Edward Abbey, the two pieces taking up an entire issue.
“It became an instant cult classic, a talisman and a benchmark for those who fancied themselves hardcore,” wrote fellow climber, writer, and Buddhist Jack Turner, in an introduction to a later edition.
Night Driving was based on the real thing. Dorworth, who turned 80 in October, broke the world speed skiing record in 1963, going 106 miles an hour on metal skis and leather lace-up boots on an icy Chilean mountainside. He went on a 6,000-mile road trip from California to Argentina to climb Cerro Fitz Roy in 1968; his team—among them Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, founders of Patagonia and The North Face, respectively—made the third ascent of the 11,020-foot rock spire. And between 1957 and 1971, Dorworth fathered five sons by five different women. He didn’t meet or know about two of those sons until he was nearly 60. I first met Dorworth in 2006 at Practice Rock, a climbing area south of Bozeman, Montana, where I live and he spends summers with his partner, Jeannie Wall. Since then, we’ve become friends. They winter near Sun Valley, Idaho, where Dorworth—a member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame—still skis six days a week.
In mountain towns such as ours, Dorworth is a living legend known both as the madman he once was and the kind, loving Zen philosopher he is today. He is a child of his generation, his story one of redemption as well as contradiction. Never chasing commercial success or fame like some of his contemporaries, Dorworth followed his own path. It always led to the mountains.
There, and later in the zendo, Dorworth shifted his way of being in the world. One foot in front of another, one breath at a time, he found peace.
When he was 7, Dorworth and his parents moved to the south shore of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to work for his aunt and uncle, who owned Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino. His mother was a cook, waitress, and change girl, and his father did bookkeeping and odd jobs. After class at the Zephyr Cove one-room schoolhouse, Dorworth would strap on his wooden skis and sidestep up the hill behind their house, lapping it until dark. He leapt off jumps, practiced slalom technique on a race course made of willows he’d cut and stripped with an axe, and toured the hills above the cove.
“I learned to cope with and then cherish solitude in action on skis, and those times were among the happiest of my childhood,” he wrote in The Only Path, a memoir self-published in 2017.
A natural athlete, he found joy in skiing—in the movement, in the discipline of practice, and in the mountains. It was also an escape from his parents’ difficult marriage.
While Dorworth’s father was deployed with the Navy during WWII, he had an affair with a woman who then died while he was overseas. He returned to a wife and 6-year-old son, living at home with resigned acceptance. Dorworth’s mother never forgave her husband. Dorworth himself didn’t find out where the resentment came from until he was almost 50.
His parents dulled their misery with alcohol, often drinking until dawn in casinos and bars around Tahoe, Reno, Carson City, and Las Vegas. Dorworth spent those nights in the back seat of the family car.
“Sometimes it was cold,” he wrote. “Always it was lonely. Sometimes it was scary. And I always hated it.”
When sober, his parents were caring and affectionate. They bought him ski gear they couldn’t afford and drove him to races around the West. Herself a fan of pop fiction and mysteries, Dorworth’s mother gave him the essays of the 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, crime novels by Mickey Spillane, and everything by Mark Twain and Jack London.
Dorworth finished Reno High School and entered the University of Nevada, Reno in 1956, a time he has described as “an insipid era of saccharine shallowness and sterile hypocrisy that the ’60s would none too soon strip naked.” He studied English and journalism, ski raced, partied, and read Faulkner, Snyder, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Hemingway. He graduated in 1963 with a BA in English.
“Skiing and the mountains gave me a place to put my anger about my family dynamics and the disruption in life caused by WWII,” Dorworth told me. “[Both] were the beginning and the path of spiritual searching, which eventually took me to Zen.”
Although he was an all-American college ski racer and a member of the first U.S. National Development Team, Dorworth never made it to the top of that game, in part because he hated the politics and favoritism of sanctioned ski racing. The niche pursuit of speed skiing, on the other hand, had none of that. It was pure. All he had to do was survive.
“He was a very bright, intuitive, creative guy,” said C.B. Vaughan, a racer who spent three months preparing the speed course in Chile with Dorworth and, incredibly, tied the record that same day. “He was always interested in everything and anything.”
After he retired from racing in 1965, Dorworth began a 30-year career as ski coach and instructor, which included a winter coaching the U.S. Men’s Ski Team and four as director of the Aspen Mountain Ski School in Colorado. In 1966, at age 28, Dorworth started graduate school. The plan was to become an English professor, but he left after a year, bored and exasperated. The country’s fault lines were spreading amid Vietnam and civil rights protests. Dorworth was still lugging around angry childhood baggage. He’d been dropping lots of acid. He needed something to believe in.
He found climbing.
The Battleship path running near Silverton, Colorado.
Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson
Some folks sit on a cushion and count their breaths as though it were a matter of life and death. Others, like 68-year-old Jerry Roberts, a retired avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, meditate wholeheartedly on the intricacies of snow.
I do not use that word “meditate” lightly. As a forecaster, Roberts’s job was to rigorously and relentlessly observe the snowpack. That involved studying everything from weather systems swirling in the Pacific to the structure of ice crystals out the back door. His special awareness was then tapped by the Colorado Department of Transportation to help determine when to shut down the mountain roads for avalanche mitigation around Telluride, Durango, Silverton and Ouray. Winter in the San Juan Mountains begins in October and ends in June, and the range often receives 350 inches or more of snow in a single season. It is a notoriously dangerous place.
Currently, Roberts is employed with Mountain Weather Masters, an outfit he co-founded providing weather forecasts for the motion picture and television industries. The group’s logo—a sword-wielding samurai backed by a white cloud—reflects his longtime interest in Japanese culture. Roberts’s house in Ridgway, Colorado, is equally filled with avalanche maps and anthologies of haiku by Issa, Buson, and Basho. I met him there on a bright winter morning, and we sat by the fireplace, drank coffee, and talked. He showed me homemade chapbooks of his own free-verse haiku, many of which braid the languages of snow science, skiing, and mountain geography with the language of Zen.
Enlightenment? Roberts surely doesn’t claim to know much about such an exalted state of being. Self-deprecating and quick to laugh, he jokingly referred to our conversation as “bullshitting.” Nevertheless, I could tell from his warmth and sincerity that talking about snow and poetry was, for him, an immensely valuable pastime. After my second cup of coffee, when I rose to leave, instead of offering a handshake, he smiled and told me, “Keep on enjoying life.”
How did you first get interested in snow and avalanches? Living inside was never an option for me. I grew up at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, here in Colorado, and as a kid I was constantly outdoors. A big part of my life has been climbing peaks and skiing off them. Enjoying nature and the pleasure of the turn. Feeling the wind on my face. Those experiences in the wild can be so vivid. You become them. For some there’s no turning back.
Spending so much time in the backcountry, sometimes going out for weeks on end, I saw my share of avalanches. Pretty soon I was thinking, hmm, I better learn a bit about this huge power I’m edging up against. The air blast created by an avalanche can reach 200 miles per hour. In some cases we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of snow on the move.
So in the early seventies I found my way to the San Juans and took an avalanche course. Within a few years I’d moved into an cabin in the Chattanooga town site and was collecting data for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, San Juan Project. It was a simplified, almost ascetic existence—skiing a bunch, learning the snow-pack. The locals down in town called me and another buddy who lived in the next shack and worked on the project, “the snow monks.” We were hooked. Who would have ever thought looking at snow could be so exciting?
What exactly does “looking at snow” entail? It all starts with the weather. Back then, forecasters weren’t using the Internet. What Internet? It was more like a finger in the air: Okay, it’s coming from the southwest. Might be a big one. Get ready.
Wind is the architect of avalanches, so you’re tracking the storm’s movements, gauging speed and direction. You’re monitoring temperatures, too. Did the storm come in warm and then cool down, bonding the new snow to the old snow-pack’s surface? Or did it come in cold and then warm up, creating a dangerous upside-down cake, a heavy, wet slab sitting atop a low-density base? You’re constantly interpreting. Is it a hard slab or a soft slab? What got loaded during the storm, north faces or northeast faces?
Small world becomes big world—that’s how I like to sum it up. A forecaster observes things at two scales, the micro and the macro. You look at a snow crystal under a hand lens and see all the beautiful shapes and angles, and then you think about how a mountainside covered with these beautiful crystals can all of a sudden fracture, come down and cover the highway, and sweep you into oblivion.
I’m reminded of a line from the Soto Zen teacher Taisen Deshimaru: “You must pay attention as if you had a fire burning in your hair.” Yeah, you’re afraid to go shopping at the supermarket an hour away because you might miss a wind event. You can’t be absent from your place. You have to be totally present.
Forecasting is not just a job; it’s a lifestyle. You don’t think about Christmas or your wife’s birthday. You don’t go on vacation. A series of storms in ’05 lasted ten days. I got very little sleep. From November through May, paying attention is what you do. It’s who you are. There’s no difference between on and off.
Over the years, I learned so much by just being out there. A friend of mine says, “Experience is a series of nonfatal errors.” Every winter I added something new to the list of what I knew. You develop a daily mantra, your daily prayers: Look for this, note this, pay attention to this. If you don’t, somebody is going to get hurt. Maybe you.
As you immerse yourself in the observation of these massive forces—storms and avalanches and the like—you must become increasingly aware of your own smallness, your own fragility. There’s a quote attributed to Miles Davis, “If you aren’t nervous, you’re not paying attention.” I used to joke that it was my job to worry for six months of the year. The worry is itself a kind of meditation. You worry from the first storm to the last storm. Why hasn’t that slope avalanched? It’s got to avalanche, doesn’t it?
Our mortality is with us through all stages of life, whether we’re aware of it or not. As a snow viewer, out in the middle of the storm, you know that the possibility of the end is always present. Mortality isn’t an abstract concept—it’s right in your face. The sky is falling!
At times it was dangerous driving the road in “full conditions,” snow coming down so hard you couldn’t see past the steering wheel. Over the years, an avalanche or two took me for some rides while skiing. For much of my life I’ve had a daily, maybe an hourly appreciation of my own impermanence—a heightened sense of how delicate things really are.
Because no matter how much expertise you have, no matter how keen your focus and diligence are, the big one can still slide on you unexpectedly, right? One has to be comfortable living with uncertainties—that’s just part of the life. In the worlds of snow and weather, but also the rest of life, there are so many unknowns. Our job as forecasters is to try to reduce uncertainties while simultaneously learning to live with them. A bit of yin/yang. Some days are better than others, but every day is another invitation to try.
Without mindfulness, my job living with the uncertain nature of snow would have been impossible. Riding around in my CDOT rig, feeling the snow with hands and under ski, they all lead to the same place: Mindfulness. Mindfulness of what is.
How does haiku fit into all of this? I’ve always been drawn to the counterculture, so naturally I spent time in the Bay Area in the sixties. I was fortunate to experience some of the fine Beat poets performances at City Lights and Moe’s. That was my first brush with another life. All of a sudden I was thinking on that plane—the haiku plane.
The Zen aesthetic relies on the fewest possible words to express a situation, a feeling, a view, a brush stroke. It shaped how I looked at everything, including snow. Alongside the more scientific approach to the snow-pack, I began to understand it through little descriptive bursts: “Wind slab layers / thick as Van Gogh / brush stroke.” I’d pull off the road during a blizzard, or stop at the end of a ski descent and scribble something about the mood in my notebook. Some of my haiku are okay, some aren’t. That’s fine with me. The importance lies in the attempt, the effort at catching a moment.
The poet Jorie Graham has described poetry as a way of going through life, as opposed to accidentally slipping around it. Even if you’re serious about not going around it, you do. We all do. Searching for the right words for haiku, skiing a perfect line through the trees—these can get you going through life, at least for a little while.
The haiku is both a meditation and an expression. You disregard the nonessential and focus on the essential. There’s a discipline to it. It’s similar to writing a good avalanche or weather forecast with a minimum of words—less room for confusion. It’s also an attempt to share some space with the masters, to walk the mountain paths with traveling monks and roshis, begging bowl in hand. There’s a haiku by Basho that I love: “Come, let’s go / snow-viewing / till we’re buried.”
Buried in what? In snow? I wonder if it isn’t also something else. As you put it a minute ago, maybe by viewing snow we get buried in “what is.” One of the great things about snow is that its meanings are infinite. It melts and becomes irrigation-water for ranchers or drinking water for city dwellers. It has significance for an avalanche forecaster today and for Basho back in the 17th century. It can be a dream or a nightmare. And yet it’s all the same, just different crystals that have bonded together—needles, columns, stellar.
After six-plus decades in the Colorado Rockies, what would you say are the lessons that stand out in your mind? It might sound trite, but what I’ve learned is that the mountain always leads in the dance. It’s hard to say much more about it than that. You do what you are allowed, nothing more. You wander around above the trees, knowing all the while that you are a temporary trespasser.
I don’t want to be a downer, but people die. Avalanches take us out. It happens. Years ago, a friend said to me that in the San Juans we’ve got a “tiger of a snow-pack.” That always stuck with me because of its animistic sensibility. Rocks, snow, clouds—I see them as alive. That mountain outside the window is a living thing. And it’s bigger than you are! It’s in charge. If you’re not careful, you’re going to get bit by the tiger. You’re going to suffer. It’s a big tiger.
As you said earlier, though, for some folks there’s no turning back. It’s a risk worth taking. That’s right, you learn all you can, pay attention, and then learn some more. Nature has this draw, whether it’s the ocean, the desert, the river, or the mountain. For me, it’s the wind from the desert southwest carrying it’s dust that will become the snowflake nuclei here in the San Juans. It’s that smell: “Aaaaaah, the turn / I can smell it / in the air.” It’s the feel of powder snow blowing up into your chest as you round your turn on a perfectly angled slope. There’s stillness at the heart of that motion, the Stillpoint. Gravity is pulling you down, the same force that wants to collapse the snow-pack and send it to the valley floor. Steep powder skiing is just one controlled fall after another.
“One controlled fall after another.” That has a lot of overtones. Words come up short. D. T. Suzuki, the prominent early exponent of Zen in the West, once said, “When a feeling reaches its highest pitch, we remain silent, even 17 syllables may be too many.”
Matt Wells has many nicknames, chief among them Uncle Fuzz, but it isn’t until his old buddy Jerry Roberts calls him abuelo that reality sinks in. We are standing in Roberts’ yard on Easter Sunday 2017, in the small southern Colorado town of Ridgway, inventorying our gear before attempting a ski traverse of the San Juan Range. For some reason, up until now I have viewed this trip like any other. Only when Roberts used the Spanish word for grandpa did I remember: I am about to try and cross one of America’s king ranges with a 70-year-old (Wells)—while following his 68-year-old friend Denny Hogan’s lead.
Hogan, who organized the trip, drove south from his home in Buena Vista and met me on Wolf Creek Pass the prior day. We stashed a truck there and continued on to Ridgway, where in recent years an impressive array of mountain men have retired to an alpine-desert version of their former selves. Roberts, who used to oversee avalanche mitigation along the notorious Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton, acts as a sort of ringleader, and whenever a member of the old guard shows up, à la Hogan and Wells, the rest of them emerge like werewolves.
Almost on cue, Peter Lev appears at 10 a.m. A retired guide and former co-owner of Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Lev partnered with Hogan on an attempted first ascent of the west face of Mount Huntington in Alaska 38 years ago. Earlier this winter, he relocated from the Black Hills to Ouray, just down the road from Ridgway, at the base of Red Mountain Pass. Lev almost summited 13,321-foot Trico Peak yesterday, he tells us, and enjoyed a marvelous solo ski descent. He is 77.
Roberts knows that Cron and I are here to learn from Hogan and Wells, and he assures us we will. “These guys are mentors without being mentors,” he says. “You see how things are done just by watching them.”
Hogan became interested in a San Juans traverse after reading that George Lowe and two friends skied it in 1992. Hogan has since tried it nine times, succeeding four. The 65-mile route basically follows the Continental Divide from west to east, and you spend much of your time above treeline—for better or worse. Hogan had long tried to convince Wells to join him, but it didn’t come together until this year. Wells recruited Cron, his former mentee on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, and Cron invited me for an even number.
Aiming to complete the traverse in six days—an ambitious timeline even with good conditions—we divvy up supplies in the driveway. Lev, who has climbed the Grand Teton more than 400 times, shakes his index finger at Hogan. “You clearly still like to carry a heavy pack. What the heck is wrong with you?” Hogan laughs and blushes, but weight will indeed prove to be a factor during our trip.
Neither Lev, whose ski pack now consists of a hip pouch with a small bottle of schnapps, nor Roberts can physically handle such a traverse anymore. With each lament that another of their brethren has succumbed to a heart attack or brain tumor, it becomes clear how rare our two partners are. Cron and I are here to see how they still do it, so that one day we can be the holdouts.
Hogan and Wells met as Colorado Outward Bound guides in the 1970s while ski training on Teton Pass with, among others, future Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. They slept outside 16 days a month and went on to travel together for decades. Wells, who lives in Hailey, Idaho, and still maintains a solid build to go with his fur (hence the “Uncle Fuzz” moniker, or Fuzz for short), spent 14 years guiding on horseback in Mongolia. He also made nine trips to Nepal and 15 to Peru, mostly to climb. Still, he never took himself too seriously, as evidenced by one of his favorite lines during our trip: “Do you know who I was?”
The first time Hogan skied across the San Juans, he did it with the late Randy Udall. They met at Wolf Creek Pass, where Hogan found out Udall only had five days until he was due back home, instead of the seven they’d planned. Hogan, an aerobically gifted athlete who loves to suffer, barely hung on to Udall’s ferocious pace. When they collapsed into camp each night, Udall would swallow a stick of butter and go to sleep, Hogan says. Still, they finished the route, and Hogan was hooked. No one has done it more than he has—or survived more close calls along the way.
As Easter Sunday fades toward dusk, Roberts drops us off at the end of a dirt road in Cunningham Gulch, just outside Silverton. The mid-April snowpack is firm as we set out on skins, crossing under a series of avalanche paths, one of which killed six miners on St. Patrick’s Day in 1906. The valley floor is littered with avalanche debris now, too, 20 feet of snow and broken trees piled up in mounds. We find a dry patch of tundra next to the creek and set up camp. I recline in a mesh-and-aluminum chair, one of a handful of luxuries I have packed. “You’re breaking my heart,” Wells jokes, lying on the ground, chairless.
On our way to Highland Mary Lake the next morning, we stop next to a creek to fill our water bottles. Wells is already struggling to keep pace and acknowledges out loud, for the first time of many, that he is the slowest skier in the group. Not that it dampens his spirit. He looks at Hogan, who has removed his hat for a moment, revealing a horseshoe of hair and a shiny cranium. “Man, you are bald,” Wells says. “You look like an egg in the nest.”
A short time later, we stop again and Hogan asks Wells if he is feeling the altitude—an indirect way of asking why he is moving slower than the rest of us. Wells takes exception. “I remember when you were feeling the altitude,” he fires back. Hogan grins: “Where was that, South America?”
We reach the lake at 4 p.m., and I ditch my pack to ski a run above our camp. Wells shows Cron how to anchor our tent stakes more securely, and I get a lesson in extracting water from a frozen lake courtesy of Hogan, who once trained Navy SEALs in winter survival on Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado. (He also worked as a prison guard and, later, as a bureaucrat with the BLM.)
Hogan, an early proponent of light-and-fast travel, would prefer to bivvy in the open, as he did on most of his 13 trips to Alaska. But he and Wells are sharing a thin shelter here, albeit one that leaves them exposed to wind and snow along the edges. Hogan’s only insulation from the frozen ground is a thin foam pad that extends to his knees. Cron and I, meanwhile, have inflatable pads and a three-season tent with a vestibule.
I am already a little worried about our pace, given we fell short of Hogan’s stated goal this morning. But I remind myself it’s early.
The next morning, Wells and I skin past a set of bear tracks as he tells me about his last big climb, eight years ago in the Cordillera Huayhuash of Peru. He and his partner were 62. “We knew when we got to the top,” Wells says. “We were like, ‘This is it.’”
Later, he shares some life advice out of the blue. “Don’t be afraid to apologize.” I admit that I have a tendency to hold grudges if I feel someone is in the wrong. “You’ll learn to let go,” Wells says.
The four of us stop on a dry tuft of grass at noon, staring across at the Grenadiers subrange, one of the most stunning landscapes in Colorado. Hogan and Wells spent much of their early twenties exploring these peaks with Outward Bound. Forty-five years later, they are content to gape and remember. “That range really excited us as young men,” Wells says. “It was a great place to gain your maturity and do some shit.”
Hogan made the first winter ascent of Jagged Mountain in 1971 with a friend, Arturismo Agasuma, who died two weeks later while climbing the Wham Ridge, which we are looking at as Hogan tells the story. Hogan then points toward Arrow Peak. “See that ramp coming off the north face? I skied that,” he says sheepishly. “It’s my only extreme ski descent.” He pauses, examining the ramp, which turns left above a giant cliff and weaves its way down to an apron. “I’m actually quite proud of it.” He pauses again. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Hogan laments that he can no longer find partners for even moderately hard outings. His neighbor in Buena Vista, 73-year-old ultrarunner John Nail, is an exception. It was Nail who invited Hogan to pedal home from Banff last year. “I asked him, and his wife has asked him the same thing, ‘When are you going to quit?’” Hogan says. “His reply is, ‘When I die. Because if I quit, I’m gonna die.’”
Both Wells and Hogan have small pensions and collect Social Security. They implore me and Cron not to follow their retirement strategies. Cron, who owns a hotel and bakery in the 100-person town of Stanley, Idaho, isn’t sold. “It depends on what you want to retire to,” he says. “If you want to retire to this, it’s a lot easier than if you want to retire to golfing.”
“Fuck golfing,” Wells snaps.
We lie on our packs in the sun, relishing the moment. I can’t take my eyes off the Grenadiers. It feels like we can touch them. Finally, Hogan and Cron rise and set off once more. Wells dons his pack and steels himself for another long stretch of white expanse toward Hunchback Pass. Just before he leaves, he says to me, “All my life, I’ve done this stuff. Sometimes when I’m out here plodding, I think, Why?” Then he skis off, not bothering to answer.
A half-mile before the pass, Wells runs out of gas. Cron, who is still built like the college football player he was, skins back and takes his friend’s pack. When Wells finally reaches Hunchback, he collapses on the shale. We are already way behind schedule, and it seems imminent that we will pull the plug given further progress could put us in no-man’s land with little food or fuel. But that is Hogan’s decision to make since he knows the route, and he is not ready to concede.
Cron and I climb and ski Hunchback Peak, leaving tracks that shine in the alpenglow from camp. That night, a furious windstorm rolls through. Camped above treeline on an exposed ridge, we get smacked in the face all night by our tent. A pole nearly snaps. It is enough to seal the deal.
Hogan holds an impromptu meeting in their shelter first thing in the morning, where he announces that we are abandoning the traverse. Instead, he suggests we ski down Bear Creek then up to Stony Pass, turning the trip into a loop and ending back at Cunningham Gulch. I try to hide my disappointment.
We ski down to the Rio Grande River and ford it in our boot shells. Sitting on a grassy bank while our feet dry, Hogan recounts some of his other failures on this route. One year he got caught in a 36-hour blizzard with nothing but a bivvy and shovel. He bailed down Deep Creek, finally taking shelter in an outhouse on the second day, then skied 16 miles to a highway and hitchhiked to Creede. It makes me feel better somehow, knowing he has failed on this route more than he’s succeeded.
We set camp a mile below Stony Pass and make our first fire of the trip, which acts as a salve for my wounded optimism. The flames warm my face as Wells laments the death of amateur alpinism—regular people doing big stuff in king ranges. Neither he nor Hogan has ever been sponsored. “We were just the debris,” Hogan says. By the time I slip into my sleeping bag, I am no longer upset that we bailed. I’m just glad to be debris.
We know it’s cold the next morning because Hogan finally has put on long underwear. Single-digit temperatures, biting wind, and two inches of snow keep us curled up until 9 a.m. Then we set out for our first group ski. We pass a site in the snow where an eagle killed a fox, leaving just the skinned head and some feathers, one of which Hogan collects to bring home.
While climbing a col to a small peak just west of Stony Pass, Wells loses purchase on firm snow and falls, hard. He had been skinning with one climbing bar up and one down to make it easier on his two replaced hips and to compensate for his shortened stride. I feel bad when I see him slide. I downclimb, grab his skis, and help him to his feet. Then we regain the col. We don’t talk much about his slip, but I can tell it’s on his mind.
During the descent, he falls again. As he sidesteps back up to retrieve a pole, I wonder to myself if his end is nigh. But he rebounds once more and finishes his run, then heads back to camp happy to have skied in such a special place.
The next morning, we set out on our final climb of the trip. “Life is story, man,” Wells says. We are nearing Stony Pass, where we will rip our skins and descend all the way to Cunningham Gulch. He is smiling wider than he has all trip. “Man, it’s fun, shooting the breeze.”
The sun beats down on our charred lips and rosy noses. “You’ve seen the scope of our lives on this trip,” Wells adds. “We weren’t big players, but we were always in the game. And therein lies my satisfaction.”
I have wondered for much of the week if I am witnessing a last hurrah for Hogan and Wells as adventure partners. I ask Wells if he’ll do another ski tour like this. “Yeah,” he says. Then he thinks about it. “I say that lightly. I’d like to.”
We arc huge turns, trying not to tip under the weight of our packs, down a glorious bowl and back into Cunningham, where the end of the road awaits. Later that afternoon, we attend an outdoor party in Ridgway, the tiny town where legends live.
Peter Lev, who never said much on an expedition, is blabbering away with Hogan in the barbecue line, sipping IPAs in the spring sun. They can barely hear each other due to loud music and bad ears, but they cling to the moment like they clung to the side of Mount Huntington 38 years ago, pinned by a storm and doubting their chances. Steve House, arguably the world’s greatest alpinist and a Ridgway local, walks up with his wife and toddler son to shake Lev’s hand, as well as the rest of ours.
I had questioned my decision to join this trip, giving up Easter with my family and going incommunicado for a week. But this scene reminds me why I came. We share stories from our week with Roberts and Lev, who are eager to hear about the adventure. That we fell short of Wolf Creek Pass is an afterthought. Roberts tells us that the winds when we were camped on Hunchback likely exceeded 75 miles per hour, based on nearby weather stations.
“Well,” says Lev, a sparkle in his eye, “that’s what you get for wanting to climb mountains.”
Tyler y rŌbert on the road
photo credito, Lisa