Monday, March 19, 2012

The Window

“ . . . the guy locked away on the sun porch who the Young Doctors were taking apart an arm and leg at a time.”

––Mark Richard, “The Birds for Christmas”

I’ve always remembered this line but never, until now, thought of it as referring to me. These cancer surgeries are barbaric—they just cut away chunks of flesh and pray for “clean margins.” I’ve got another one next week.

We’ve got so much snow that even with a late start and probably an early finish (for me) I have skied more than in any other year. This is one advantage of not having skied so much as younger man. I came to skiing pretty late.

I was thinking of all the snow (800+ inches down in Girdwood!) and wondering how the crevasses might be all sealed up, and presumably safe, up in the Alaska Range. I think about that a lot more since reading The Ledge by Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughn. It’s about these two guys who fall into a hidden crevasse on Mt Rainier. One guy dies and the other barely manages to extricate himself and later, to write the book. The book is chilling because probably hundreds of people had walked over that spot and not broken through the surface. I just count my hours on Mt Rainier and think about all the good luck I’ve had, much of it blind and dumb, as good luck so often is.

From up on Mt Kennedy we could see that down on the glacier below there were dozens of places in the snow where the crevasses were buried. They only were slightly shadowed. They were plentiful and parallel and they looked like shark’s gills. On the way in we had blithely, unawaredly skied right over them. But now we knew they were there. We tried not to think of them as we skied out.

This was the advice that according to Hemingway the Catholic Church gave: “Not to think about it." But, said Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter ego, “. . . swell advice, Try and take it sometime.”

Years after our climb, one of those very crevasses below Mt Kennedy swallowed up an airplane, killing the pilot. The climbers, who had successfully done the same route we had, were lucky to have survived.

We were drinking Old Bushmills, neat, on St Patrick’s Day, as is befitting a couple old dudes, and I was telling Charlie Sassara my theory that maybe all this snow would seal up the crevasses and it would be a good year for something in the Alaska Range. He was quiet for a minute and then said. “I kind of liked dry years. That way there was less stuff that can fall down on you.”

Crevasses and avalanches. Fire and ice.

Jim Sweeney’s a cat that has used up all his nine lives and then some. He used up most of them on one trip into the Alaska Range where he got seriously injured and barely extricated from the Ruth Glacier. I don’t think a reader of his new book can be expected to actually count the number of avalanches Sweeney survived on that trip. After eight or nine days they managed to get him off the glacier and into the hospital in Anchorage. The book Sweeney has written about this is called Alaska Expedition: Marine Life Solidarity and will be out any day. It’s about as harrowing a mountaineering book as you will ever read (that’s a long list, too: harrowing mountaineering books). The main thing they could have done differently: not gone climbing at all.

When I first got to know Sweeney a few years ago he said, “I don’t even dream of mountains anymore.” But over the weekend he was telling me of the ski runs he took down Flattop over the weekend (note: Flattop is not lift-assisted). So perhaps, after his hip was replaced and the writing of the book exorcised a few daemons, Sweeney is back to dreaming of mountains again.

Charlie and I are talking about the window. The window within which you are climbing at your best. I forget how this topic came up. Probably we were talking about elitism as it relates to climbers and membership in the American Alpine Club, of which Charlie has recently become president. The fact that today the requirement for getting into the club is having a credit card. Charlie, during his window, was as elite as an alpinist can get.

I tell him that I want to go back to the Alaska Range. The climbs I have in mind are not major. He nods.

“It’s a small window,” he says, “a very small window.”

Do you know the great Grace Paley story “A Conversation with My Father?” It is perhaps the ultimate metafictional story, in which a writer tries to write a story to please her dying 86 year old father. The last words of the story belong to the father, he says: “”Tragedy! You too. When will you look it in the face?”

It’s a rhetorical question, right? And I think about it quite a bit, mostly disassociated from the context of the story. The answer is: “not until I absolutely have to.”

I don’t even want to think about the window, the small window. The surgery––minor, I have been assured––is next Thursday. All want to think about is how many powder days I’ll get in before then.

Friday, March 9, 2012

End of the Racing Season

“And, in short, I was afraid.”–-Eliot’s Prufrock

How many words will it take to describe how horribly I raced in the Town League this season at Alyeska? And I’m not even talking about how I compared to the other skiers, which I can’t care too much about because they’re almost all better than me even had I been skiing my best.

I’m talking about how much crappier I was this season than last season. Reasons abound, he rationalized, after the fact.

I started late due to surgery and the course was in lousy condition many of the nights: rutted like a luge course one night, hard as polished diamond field (a diamond field?) another night, –15 F˚ another night, blizzard another night. I only raced five nights, so maybe one night it was okay. My times were lousy every night, though.

By lousy, I mean an average of five full seconds slower than last season. Last season, on a really good night, I once hit the gates (well, didn’t hit them) for a 22 second run. This season I averaged around 29. When a 24 second run is a whole infinity practically, 5 seconds, well, that’s an infinity, too. Time does something inexplicable between the start and the finish line: slowing down and speeding up simultaneously.

I asked my surgeon why I was afraid to let it all hang out this season, when last year I wasn’t (or far less so, apparently). ("Let it all hang out"–my alma mater Evergreen's motto–Omnia Extares.) He laughed because it was the second question I asked him that was, according to him, out of his league. The first question, which I’m embarrassed to admit, was, “Okay it’s a miracle I’m alive, why aren’t I more ecstatic about it?” Not his field, he said, implying I needed a different sort of professional help. Now I was asking him why I stood at the starting gate, ski tips hanging out over the lip, poles poised for leverage, waiting to hear “Skier ready blue, Skier ready red? Three, two, one, . . .” and was . . . scared.

Last season, I couldn’t wait to race. I took a killer fall too, last season, described by a PBR–drinking local racer as “mega ragdoll yard sale.” But I couldn’t wait for the next run.

My surgeon said, “The Scottish race car driver, Sterling Moss said that when he became afraid, he became cautious and becoming cautious increased his danger, didn’t lessen it. And Moss knew that then it was time to quit.” Obviously, my surgeon is telling me that less risky pursuits would be more, I don’t know, age appropriate?

Anyway, at the end of the racing season, I was just glad to have finished the seasons’ runs unhurt. Then, I had a couple IPAs, at the Sitzmark, Aly’s classic apr├Ęs-ski bar, collected my race t-shirt and hit the road back up to Anchorage where I got on a plane to Detroit where I would visit my dad who is beyond doctor’s help, little cancer fires in too many parts of his body to put out. I easily put skiing out of mind. On a good day my dad gets out of bed and walks to his recliner and back and forth a few times, but he’s clearly winding down. On the day the hospice nurse was there he was in good enough spirits to make faces at me behind her back. But some time during the hospice nurses’ droning I had this epiphany and it was this: next year I’m charging hard in Town League, fuck it.

As previously scheduled I returned from the Midwest a day earlier than my conference lasted to race in the second largest cross country ski race in North America, the Tour of Anchorage. Last year in my first Tour I did not distinguish myself, except by how terrible I felt at the end, which included mild hallucinations (not the good kind), vomiting, and hypothermia. The trifecta. Thus, it’s obvious why I was so eager to repeat the experience. I concluded it was a nutrition problem and I had help figuring out a strategy from our trainer, the great Heidi Beer.

On race day morning I had not slept much, having just flown in from Chicago the day before. But master ski waxer, Dave Ward, and his faithful apprentice waxer, Erich Heinrich, had expertly prepared my bases and, somehow, I felt great and during the 25 K course I never stopped feeling great. I kept an even pace, and even finished strong on the final long uphill. It was a vindication, or something.

We’re having a record snow year and I’ll probably get some runs in well into June. I’m already nearing my season's record for days on skis. No more racing, but lots more skiing ahead. And that’s a good thing, because you never know what run will have been your last.