Monday, February 17, 2014

The Axolotl in the Coalmine


In my formative years (as if those were over) I took a great literature class at Wayne State University in Detroit: Experimental Fiction.  There I discovered Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar both for whom I have held an undying admiration.  But it is Cortázar for whom I have the most affection.  He is probably most famous for his story “Blow Up” which provided the concept for Antonioni’s famous film of the same name.  The premise of this story is similar to this video of a camera falling from an airplane, if the camera had the ability to narrate:

Or, maybe his best known work is his first novel Hopscotch which can be read linearly or “randomly”--the reader gets to choose. My favorite of his short stories is “The End of the Game.”  In fact it is among my favorites of all short stories.  It is features no speaking cameras (like “Blow Up”) nor does it play with postmodernity.  It is about, simply, childhood.  

But on hearing the news about the probable extinction of the axolotl in the Mexican wild.  I thought first of Cortázar’s story “Axolotl.”  The axolotl is an amphibian and the word axolotl is Nahuatl, and translates as water monster.  Commonly referred to today as the walking fish.  It is native to only two lakes near Mexico City, one of which has vanished completely (artificially drained to avoid flooding) and one which exists mostly in canal form, Lake Xochimilco. A four-month long search in 2013 turned up no surviving individuals in the wild.  Previous surveys in 1998, 2003 and 2008 had found 6000, 1000 and 100 axolotls per square kilometer in its Lake Xochimilco habitat, respectively.

I always loved Cortázar’s story, “Axolotl,” probably because it was among his easiest to understand.  In “Axolotl” the narrator becomes obsessed with an axolotl in an aquarium, until by the end (SPOILER ALERT!) of the story, some kind Vulcan mind meld occurs and the narrator has become the axolotl staring out of the terrarium.  Borges said, of Cortázar "No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost."  Thus, I highly recommend reading the story here in its entirety, it’s not long:

Axolotls were, also, incidentally, a staple of the Aztec diet, but as we all know the axolotl outlasted the Aztec.  And we will outlast the axolotl, but one wonders, by how long?  I doubt that Cortázar could have foreseen the end of the axolotl’s days in the wild, nor that he intended his story as an eco-cautionary tale, but make no mistake: our days in the wild are threatened, too.  If we are the axolotl and the axolotl is us, we can look forward to a future inside an aquaruium. Tended by whom, I wonder?

Monday, February 10, 2014


Sweeney says this is one of the two worst snow seasons he’s seen in 40 years of ski-bumming.  Sweeney is utterly reliable about these sorts of assessments.  It started out okay, but now I haven’t been Nordic skiing in about three weeks.  And I haven’t been at the resort at all.  Last year, also a bad snow year, I had been skiing about 25 times by now.
Who knows? Maybe by going light this year I will extend my skiing deeper into the twilight years.  Could be a good thing.  Besides, last year I skied well into June, so potentially there is a lot of skiing ahead of us.
Usually I read ski magazines before the ski season, or after.  Usually not in February, like now.  I’m looking at Powder from December '13.  There’s an incredible shot of Mount Barille in the Ruth Gorge by Garrett Grove.  It looks enormous through his lens, but when you’re actually there it’s just about the smallest peak around.  His photo shows the northern side of the mountain and it looks pretty broken up by crevasses right about at the spot we were trying to ascend the thing back in 2001.  It wasn’t crevasses that turned us back though—it was the deep sugary snow that we’d sink into as soon as we took our skis off.  It was like that everywhere we went in the Ruth and the trip turned into an exotic ski tour.  I wonder if I’ll get back there; the flight in has more than doubled in price in the decade plus since. What a glorious place.  I mis-typed place as palace, and yes, that’s good, too: a glorious palace.
There’s a short Neil Stebbins piece about hearing riding a chairlift and hearing a mother and daughter four or five chairs ahead singing Waltzing Matilda out there in a whiteout, in The Church of the Ascension.  And I remember one time very early in my climbing life when John and I were attempting Mt Washington on a col cold winter day.  We stopped for the night in a hut and we were cold to the brink of fear.  We began singing Waltzing Matilda, god knows why.  We were singing to hold off the cold.  It goes without saying that we were utterly alone.  We turned back the next morning.  A couple days later I soloed Mt Lafayette, the summit of which, decades later, Guy Waterman would choose for his final breaths on the planet—a deeply sad and moving story (see Chip Brown’s excellent Good Morning, Midnight for a well-wrought bio of this complex man).
Then, still the same issue of Powder, there is Porter Fox’s excerpt from his book on the future of snow.  One of the pictures is of the classic north face of the Tour Ronde above Chamonix and I remember the summer of 1980 when I first climbed there. A roped party had fallen high on the face and flossed off another party.  Six fatalities, as I recall.  After a weak attempt on the Brenva Route on Mt Blanc, John and I found ourselves on the ridge to the summit of the Tour Ronde.  After after tagging it we  trudged back down and then back up to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi to catch the last telepherique down to Chamonix.  One of the longest days ever: full value.
Further in to the same issue I am reading about Arne Backstrom’s fall on skis on Pisco in the Cordillera Blanca.  When I climbed it, in 1984 with Jim Pinter-Lucke, we were just going up the west ridge as a warm-up climb. We had gained the ridge from the north.  I never laid eyes on the south face, and can’t really even picture it.  In fact, most of our summit day was lost in a whiteout, although the summit was unmistakable.  I am saddened to think of Arne’s death in such a lonely place, but also, glad once again for my good fortune in the mountains.
It’s getting on toward 30 days without snow, unless you count the half-inch we got last week, which I don’t.  At least it’s cold again.  And we’re still getting up into the Chugach, but we’re hiking up in crampons and walking down boiler-plated snow, glare ice, and rock (that photo is the snowless summit of Flattop in the photo from yesterday 2/09/14).  And, there’s Sweeney leaving text messages: he still knows where there’s still a skiable line.