44°N, 72°W: What on Earth am I doing?

I have bad ideas. This has been a fact of life for all of my friends throughout childhood, teenage years, college…always. Any time the words “I have a great idea” come out of my mouth, most all of my friends know that its time to turn tail.  They equally know that they’re going to get roped into the scheme no matter what. Resistance is futile.

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So it may come as no surprise to said friends that despite not owning property in, ya know, the state where I actually work and live, I had a great idea for buying a ski house. In Vermont. See now the idea would have been just fine, but as it turns out, I spent most of the last three months actually executing on this idea.

Now one would imagine that a lawyer would be able to get mortgage financing, no problem. I don’t mean the whole qualify for it and get a bank to hand you money part…I mean the figure out what documents to send and where to sign and all the other things that I routinely discuss as frustrating parts of herding cats in my profession. Nope. Not a chance. It took most of those three months to just get the insurance company to issue an insurance binder…and I only finally got one when I switched insurance companies.

But in the end, and as it happens, while I was traveling in Japan, I did it! I bought a house! In Vermont! Its adorable! And TOTALLY empty! Oh right, furniture.

As you can tell, I’m certainly not the leader in blogs that present rational and useful advice to 30-somethings striking out and making big-kid-pants decisions. Perhaps this is more of a brief outline of the very worst ways to go about pretending to be an adult. I don’t know. Perhaps we’re still looking for a purpose, the blog and me.

What I can tell you is that you probably don’t want to tell your broker, your lawyer, your mortgage agent and your mother than “oh I know the house is supposed to close in two weeks, but I’ll be in Japan.” What I can also tell you is if you happen to do that, make sure you throw your mother under the bus with as much grace as possible. And make sure you have a rockstar mom willing to step up and pick up your (not small) slack.

So now I have a house and its awesome and terrifying and I need to go about doing things like putting stuff to sit on in it. But with or without chairs, I’m pretty stoked on having a new base for adventure in the mountains.

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45°N, 12°E to 41°N, 12°E: Wandering in Italy

The vast majority of my travel is adventure travel: I’m drawn to the areas with more of a running, jumping, climbing trees type outlook on fun. So a ten day trip to Italy to tourist around churches and museums and piazzi was something totally different. But with huge upside: traveling with my mom and blowing off American Thanksgiving, of which I Portal-078am not a huge fan, so I was still stoked for the opportunity. Since we’d been to Rome and southern Italy previously, it only made sense to go north – so the plan took us from Venice down to Florence and on to Rome, where we would meet cousins we’d never had the good fortune of meeting before.

Going in the off season also meant the added benefit of cool weathePortal-035r and low numbers of other humans, because clearly the only thing worse than a tourist site driven travel experience is one where every other individual in what seems
like the entire free world decided that they, too just had to see the Venus di Milo, like right now.

Our first stop was Venice, which I  was unimaginably excited to visit: its one of those cities that has absolutely fascinated me since I was quite small. And for once, a place totally lived up to its hype and I found wandering around the streets and canals even more hypnotic than I thought I would. I think my favorite moments traveling are usually a result of happenstance, which was certainly true of our first stop: wandering into the feast of Portal-010the Madonna della Salute (commemorating the last day of the Black Death in 1577) in the pouring rain and sharing a fratelle caldo with my mother under the archway of a building which quite possibly saw the original plague. That’s the best way to start a trip for sure.

 

Venice was Portal-013definitely the tourism highlight: Florence was perfectly nice and expectedly awe-inspiring, but didn’t seem to have the same soul as Venice: it is an immersive museum while Venice retains all of the chaos of a life well liv
ed. Although I must admit that not much compares to running to the top of the Il
Duomo to have a quite moment with Florence spread out below you, just waking up.
Finally, though, we ended up in Rome and got to meet my great-grandfather’s brother’s grandchildren and their children – my first cousins, twice removed. Anyone  who knows me knows that I have a visceral dislike of randomly connecting with strangers who share blood in foreign countries…This is mostly a result of the Irish American propensity to track down anyone with the same last name and appear on their doorstep.

However, in this case, my great aunt had met these folks years before and there was a strong enough connection that we at least knew the same collection of names. Plus, this was something mom was keen on, so hey what’s the harm of having a coffee and saying hello.

This was, in fact, not at all what happened: instead I spent three afternoons roaming around Roma with an extraordinary collection of relatives who were eager to spend time, talk and get to know us; I got to meet their children, and their grandchildren; I got to meet a great-great aunt, who was 90 years old andPortal-690 sharp as anything – ready with bitters and snacks and photos of her family; I got to come face to face with uncannily familiar strangers who looked absolutely like my family; I got to mangle Italian while trying to understand much less mangled English; I also got to see what driving in Roma is really all about. It was amazing and exhausting and more fun than I ever would have thought possible. I guess there is something to be said for reaching out and meeting family after all…no matter how distant.

42°N, 71°W: #noaclnoproblem (part 2)

 

I love physical therapy. I know that’s not exactly most people’s sentiment, but since embarking on my mission rehab my knee into submission, PT has been a key element of my life, and its great. Its been a blast to consistently work with one person to not only get stronger (which any trainer can do) but to work with someone who is going to understand your goals, limitations and injury so that you get stronger safely and sanely.  Those are not skills I’m particularly good with in a training setting.

Its probably a good thing that I do love PT because according to my 10 week MRI (yes this has only been going on for about 12 weeks),  I am still sans ACL, but according to my first day on snow, my knee cannot tell the difference. So so far so good. Its not like I’m hopping a plane for Japan in two weeks…

The hardest thing about rehabbing this way is exercising patience and internalizing the fact that everything takes time and injuries have to heal. Basic things like tensing my quad muscle have been frustratingly inhibited until this week. And while you wouldn’t think that’s something you’d miss, it has driven me nuts for weeks.

So in the next two weeks, my plan is to keep working hard, and try to get on the snow as much as possible (Despite the fact that it is currently 50 F and sunny here right now) to test my limits and see how my body reacts. The first day I did this, two weeks ago, we came up aces: no instability, good strength, little fatigue and total excitement to be back on the mountain. Even the brace was barely noticeable after the first hour or so. It had me completely excited for pushing harder and getting ready to send the season like nothing even happened.

I am feeling super lucky that this crazy experiment seems to be going well, even if my orthopedist felt the need to remind me I was human on my way out the door…

10°N 61°W: 48 hours in Trinidad and a question…

I was home from Iceland for about 30 hours before I hopped a plane for Port-of-Spain Trinidad.  That trip was going to be close to exactly 48 hours long and had absolutely no planning involved. I was super excited to be visiting a friend, but other than that knew basically nothing about the island or anything else. It was also the first trip I had taken to a non-cold climate since an ill-fated trip to Hawai’i in 2008. So it was kinda the outlier of travel plans for me.

And of course ever single person I knew asked “Why?” This was, when you think about it, an excellent question, but in a more global sense: for me, it became a meditation not on why this particular trip, but what do I get out of traveling – this trip was going to be about 11 hours in the air with a layover in New York, all for what amounted to a few hours in another country.

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Now I know what the oil and gas industry actually looks like. It’s quiet pretty at sunset.

The answer is not at all simple: I travel because I can, because of an intense curiosity about everything, and because I know that some day it will once again be not so easy to just drop everything and go run away. The glory of being single, with a good job, and minimal social attachments is that this type of adventure does not have any social cost to me: I’m free to go, do, see and then walk back into the office and pick up where I left off. I enjoy that freedom and know it will be short lived as something, or someone else, pops up and demands my time and attention. So I travel while I can; I hope that this way, I might feel a little less trapped by life when it becomes overwhelming.

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Another 48 hours anytime.

As for Trinidad, it was different from any other trip I’ve taken: the country has no tourism and high crime, so its not exactly a wander around kinda place. The friends I was with were all British colony ex-pats, which made the whole trip a bit more surreal, with a stark contrast of race, culture and socio-economic status shockingly obvious all the time. But ultimately, it was a perfect use of 48 hours – getting to see one of my favorite people, being thrown into a new culture and broadening my horizons just a bit more.

41°S, 71°W: #noaclnoproblem (part 1)

Back in August, on a hot, wet spring conditions day in Argentina, I dropped into a neat little chute – the last of my crew to drop a not so scary line that was well within my comfort zone. I had skied a similar aspect the day before, also after being sun warmed, and I knew that the lower I got, the heavier and stickier it would be. I was not stoked for the line, because of the conditions, but I also was the decision maker, and was in total awe of the folks I was skiing with, so what was I gonna do (insert discussion of expert halo here).

The top two thirds of the chute were just fine: snow, a bit of frozen rollers, nothing too soft. I got turned around after one pitch and had to sort out my exit, which was farther skiers left than I had anticipated. The stop was the right move, because much lower and I’d have been dumped into a relatively steep culvert (way finding and line choice is the skill I’m most focused on improving this season).

I continued toward my exit, now in the mashed potato-y lower elevation, and was maybe two turns away from the runout: my skis stuck as I initiated a turn, getting way too far outside my center of gravity….and then my knee popped – a sound that is unmistakable evidence that something just went really sideways – and went out from under me.  When I stood up and skied over to the guide posted at the runout, I reported what I knew: that I’d just really injured my knee. But by all bio-feedback I was fine…the knee didn’t hurt and was supporting my weight just fine.

Back on piste, it was still fine, and I had a relatively uninhibited rest of the day. While the evening sucked…a lot…and I may or may not have been able to walk by the end of the night, the next day, the doc was confident that I was all in one piece, so I was back at it, pushing for the next five days, with all the stability and minimal pain. So when I went to the ortho back in the states, it was out of an over abundance of caution, as was the MRI, since they too were confident that all my ligaments were intact.

Opps.

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So as it turns out, I don’t have an ACL anymore. And unlike 99.99% of athletes in my position, I chose not to have surgery and a year of recovery, at which point the knee would still probably not be quite as good as it was before. Instead, I opted for a lots and lots of physical therapy and rehab to get as strong as possible over the intervening four months.  My PT, and current early morning bestie, Paul, thinks this is the worst idea ever. The docs (most) have shrugged and said go for it.

 

 

64°N 21°W: Icelan…OMG the northern lights, quick go outside now!

If you have ever wanted to watch a dining room full of adults peal out like grade schoolers at recess, go to Hótel Rangá  in Hella, Iceland and wait for the Northern Lights to appear. Full disclosure, I was right there with them:  I mean when you travel to the back of beyond to see this absolutely amazing phenomenon, AND you only have a 50% (at best) chance of seeing them on a clear night, AND the chances of a clear night are less than 50%…well it’s pretty darned amazing and since the lights are so unpredictable, you want to be there for the whole show.

Primer on the Northern Lights: the Aurora appears when charged particles ejected from the sun pass through the electromagnetic field of the earth and ionize the gases in the upper atmosphere. The colors change as different gases are ionized.

Primer on what it’s actually like to SEE the Northern Lights: no amount of science can diminish the extraordinary sense of the uncanny when the Aurora appears. Our first reaction upon seeing shocking rivers of green flow through the sky was absolute certainty that we would have sacrificed any number of things to Odin, Thor or any other belief system available to keep that power from wreaking havoc on us. That was, in fact, our reaction every time we saw them.

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Yes, this 30 second exposure sustained a bit of a blur but I was so excited about capturing the Aurora and the Milky way that I’m going to leave it here anyway.

What really amazed me the most about the whole phenomenon was how dynamic the Aurora is. I thought of it as a static thing that appears and disappears, but it’s not. The Aurora ebbs and flows, changing shape and intensity with stunning rapidity. It’s entirely mesmerizing.

Actually the entire experience of Iceland was one of the more 214uncanny and mesmerizing that I’ve had.  The country vast, barren and sparsely inhabited. There are no roadside stores, few visitors’ centers and not a large number of paved roads. Visiting is walking into a very natural and congruous past, not a built up past of museums, but walking around a landscape in which you can totally imagine what people 1,000 years ago experienced, because you are experiencing the landscape in a way that is relatable.

 

313.JPGThis was certainly true at Þórsmörk, a vast wilderness at the end of a flood plain flanked by sheer cliffs, mountains, glaciers and moraines. We had the good luck of hooking up with Mudshark Tours to take a drive out to Þórsmörk to do some hiking into waterfalls, through rivers, in glaciers and up some of the mountains. The entire day was enriched by Magnús’s knowledge, enthusiasm and willingness to Glacier-255.jpgtolerate my sense of adventure. I would have loved to spend a week
exploring the area – one day doesn’t even begin to do the region justice.

 

When I come back though, I will definitely bring my skis:

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Mt. Hekla. I have no idea if it is skiable, but I would sure like to find out.

 

41°S 71°W: Winter in August

Last winter was pretty wretched on all fronts: family, personal, professional…you name it, it sucked. I spent most of those three months just trying to skate by in all of my commitments and by May, I was pretty burnt out on survival alone. Then work got better, ramped up and buried me, so burnout reached a whole new level by July.  After my fifth weekend of work, I decided I needed to do something and I needed to go big.

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This isn’t quite accurate given my travel took me BOS>JFK>EZE>AEP>BRC

And so, on a bit of impulse, with no real plan, and a bag full of ski gear, I ended up in Argentina in mid-August. The first thing I learned was that Argentina is far…like REALLY far. This would seem obvious, but apparently my brain has some hang-up that the up/down distance of things can’t possibly be as far as the east/west distance. Yes, I was wrong…as even two minutes of consideration of the latitude of Bariloche would have told me.

But after 30 hours of travel and 5 airports, I was in a lodge, in the mountains, with 60 strangers all stoked on the fact that it was AUGUST and there was SNOW.

Stoke stayed high throughout the trip, through bluebird days, and zero vis days, and mashed potato days, in no small part because of the absolutely AMAZING crew at SASS Global Travel. From logistics, to on mountain safety, to ping-pong tournaments, every person on the team was thoughtful and brilliant at bringing their expertise to the matter at hand.

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Cerro Tronador in the distance on an amazingly clear day.

The matter at hand of course, and my whole reason for making this trek was the big mountain ski experience which is Patagonia. What I knew about Argentina going in was pretty close to nothing: the Andes are there and there’s snow in the Andes in August. And I think its pretty sick, right?

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AIARE Level I Class looking on attentively.

So it wasn’t hard to learn something on the trip, but how much I learned and the experience of learning by doing was both intense and gratifying: I got my AIARE Level One and had a surprisingly intellectually challenging three days in the mountains; after that I started to think about how to pick lines, and that knowing the line from above and below is critical to skiing it; and I learned that an amazing crew that communicates well and is in sync makes every second in the mountains that much more thrilling.

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Bannana Chute slightly climber’s left of center in the image. Yes I’m somewhere in there.

As for the skiing, what surprised me the most was the variability: weather changed by the hour in drastic swings: sixty degrees Fahrenheit, followed by impenetrable fog, followed by heavy wet storms. Snow quality swung wildly in step: solid ice from an overnight freeze heated up to heavy wet mashed potatoes by 10:30a. The mountain kept you on your toes and asked for your full attention at all times.  But when it was good, it was mind-blowing: chutes and cornice drops, hiking up through granite spires, first tracks for miles: even the so/so runs were downright breathtaking.

And the whole thing was shockingly addictive. By day five, I was down one ACL but absolutely sure I wasn’t ready to fly out on day 7…though not one for drastic, last minute, changes to travel plans, I nevertheless signed on for three extra days to catch an incoming storm. So 10 days after setting foot in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, I was flying out exhausted and counting the days till next August.

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Can’t wait to take turns with these guys again.

The Human Factor and the Expert Halo

Powder Magazine is currently rolling out a multi-chapter interactive article on deaths in the backcountry. This issue is timely, given the tragic 2013/2014 season, interesting and absolutely breathtaking in its construction. The thoughtfulness of the reporting and analysis, at least in the first chapter, makes it a valuable read for everyone who pushes the limits of our sport.

The article provides 6 Heuristics that form the basis of the “Human Factor” that the article argues causes many human triggered avalanche accidents. The one that I’m most interested in is the Expert Halo: the propensity for individuals to follow the guide’s decisions, solely because of the imbalance in perceived expertise. As a skier who is typically guided and certainly no expert in the backcountry, I would agree that the Expert Halo exists. So the questions is how do we overcome it? It is possible I’m jumping the gun and this very issue will be discussed in future chapters of the article, but for now, I will offer my thoughts. Defeating this Heuristic, for me, is as easy as Asking the Questions.

I was one of those kids who loved to ask questions, as a lawyer I am still asking questions, it is part of my job description.  But my natural curiosity also helps me form opinions and make decisions: If one never assumes that one has all available information, one will learn more, learn more quickly and make better use of the information one has.

In the case of guided backcountry skiing, all of us understand the continuous learning that goes into backcountry safety.  We internalize the need to be better at what we do, to be less of a burden to the guide, to get more out of the experience, or even to one day safely enter higher risk areas without guides. If this is intuitive, so should be asking questions every step of the way: not just during safety training, or in an avalanche class, but before we set out, at every pit, and before every descent. I’m not suggesting that the spirit of the question is to undermine the authority of the individuals tasked with keeping the group safe, but rather to use the opportunity to ask good questions that serve three purposes:

  1. to give you more information to base your decisions on,
  2. to learn more about the process of backcountry planning and analysis, and
  3. to encourage the guide to articulate her reasoning, and hopefully any assumptions she is making.

If we ask with thoughtfulness, we can begin to make some headway into offsetting the Expert Halo heuristic and reduce the risk of blindly following a professional in the backcountry.

Far Sickness…

I learned a new word yesterday and it is very appropriate for this time of year: Fernweh is one of those glorious German compound words that mashes two concepts together and creates something new. English does it, but not with nearly as much savoire fare (see what I did there…). Fernweh is constructed from fern, translating into English as something far-off and weh, translating to sickness. Though I think I prefer google translate’s even more poetic “Remote Woe”.

So fernweh, to me, is synonymous with this time of year: Its that autumnal realization that the ocean is behind us for the dark months and that the mountains are ahead, but still off in the distance.  As soon as a few cold days hit, I’m fidgeting and restless hearing the call of the high places. This fernweh builds through foliage season and reaches its climax when the snow starts to fall.

But now, snow has arrived, at least one chair on this coast is turning top to bottom (Wildcat), and there are places with enough coverage to earn your turns – provided you have good enough rock skis. Soon, we will be hip high (gods willing…) in winter and the anxiousness of fernweh will recede.

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I guess, all I really need to say is Winter is Coming.