Monday, January 26, 2015


 In the Annapurna region of the Himalaya there are shrines to an ancient mountain god. An archaic anthropomorphic deity, this gods presence predates both Buddhism and Hinduism in the area. It is a bestial god, both physically and in nature. Vengeful and demonic this metaphysical entity demands offerings and sacrifice. The keeper of fates in these high mountains, Mas-ta, is not known for mercy.

Peter Matthiessen, in his classic "The Snow Leopard", witnessed the people of this secluded mountain world paying homage to this pagan deity. At his shrines people place prayer stones, flowers, rams skulls and, commonly, cannabis.

Mas-ta is the fear and apprehension one has when entering the mountains. The projection of the negative emotions felt when confronted with the challenges of the elevated world. For all the joy and peace one can gain from the mountains Mas-ta is the opposing force; the suffering and helplessness.

I arrived at the trail-head for South Colony Lakes and the Crestone Basin late in the afternoon and was forced to wait until morning to begin my trek into the alpine. The sun rose over the Wet Mountains and I was making uphill progress by 8am. The gentle slopes of Marble Mountain and Humboldt Peak form the hall of South Colony Creek that was now mostly frozen over. It is as if you transcend the world as you go into these mountains. Progressing from the desert scrub on the lowlands to the juniper and pinion, lastly, the aspen before the alpine, devoid of trees.

 One person had been snowshoeing here before me and had made some headway compacting the trail. They had only gone two miles though before giving up and turning away. From then on I was breaking the trail, at times through deep snow. It took six hours to get to the treeline and I fell short of my goal of the lakes. Exhausted from the days work, I set up camp for the evening.

Over breakfast, the following morning, I could see a very steep gully that led up into the hanging valley of South Colony Lakes and I decided it would be a good challenge to ascend. It was longer and steeper then anything I had yet climbed, maybe at 500ft and at an angle > 60 degrees. Using my piolet and crampons I front-pointed with the assist of a few self belays to ascend the gully. Halfway through I looked back and hesitated. The anxiety hit; Mas-ta. The runout was safe if I fell and just last week I was practicing my self arrest. Reassuring myself, I began upward progress again.  From the top I was satisfied, the dynamic of positive and negative emotions swells inside. "Welcome back to life on the edge," I thought.

My view opened up and from my height atop the gully I could see upper and lower Colony Lakes, both frozen over. Luckily, I could also see where the trail was indicated giving me a safer route down back to camp. The basin is commanded by the presence of Crestone Needle between the two lakes. Crestone Needle, Crestone ridge and Broken Hand Peak have walls so steep little snow clings to their sides. In contrast Humboldt to the north, with its gentle slopes, is mostly wind blown and without snow. In summer this basin must seem like a paradise with the cool waters of the lakes and blooming alpine flowers; but there is an elegance and uniformity to winter. It is the flatness, the somber tones.


During my lunch break the wind picked up and I decided to head back for camp. I had climbed up the slopes of Humboldt to an elevation of 13,000ft when I began to descend.  Just below me was a long, icy snow field of a generous angle and I thought it would be a good spot to glissade. In an instant I had slid down 300ft. It was exhilrating until I lost control of the glisade and had to preform a self-arrest.

Steaidly, the wind picked up and when I got back to camp I was unable to prime my stove for dinner. I had the option of digging a snow trench to block the wind but snow was being kicked up now. It felt like being in a sand storm. The sky patchy and clear, then white out conditions for moments.

By twilight it was clear that the wind was not a short phenomena, it was the voice of Mas-ta. Tiny ledges on the mountain faces that held snow released their loads onto the valley below. Hundreds of wind caused miniature avalanches, a snow twister erupted briefly.

Throughout the night my tent buckled and caved in the heavy wind. I slept little. To pass the time and to keep my mind off my growing concern and feelings of helplessness I cleaned up my living space. Organizing my clothes and gear into my backpack, I prepared for the worst case of a major failure to my tent. I built a plan to escape to a nearby grove of trees if needed.

My mind needed to stay occupied and in this state I recalled something. In the history of Buddhism there are many stories of a teacher entering a town and dispelling the old demons. Mostly these stories can be interpreted as how Buddhism began to replace the old cults and sects of eastern peoples. Mas-ta was one of these usurped demons. My growing concern pushed me mentally to reach out and, then, verbally speak out, "Om! Om Mani Padme Hum!". The ancient chant that has been echoed for centuries to center and evoke peace.

Mas-ta continued to assail me. I continued my rites. A moment of serenity arose. No longer was I afraid of the wind, no longer was there anxiety but only peace with the wind. This is the way of the mountain! To every day there is a night and to every meeting there is a parting. This is just another embrace of the mountain. An expression of her glory.

The morning brought with it a new placidity to complement my new understanding. Now the air passed gently. After my pack had been reassembled and my gear all stowed away I began the long trek back. As I descended through the changing woodland I paused for a moment to reflect on how calm it had become. A light breeze blew and broke a tuft of snow from the branch of a pine. In the sunlight a thousand rainbows glittered and I heard a voice on the wind. Mas-ta?

It said, I salute you, "Namas-te."


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mixtape Vol 2: Pain-O-Mania

Are you ready for Pain-O-Mania 2015 Brother?!

Everyone gets to see the pretty pictures and hear the funny stories.  But where are you when I'm slogging for ten hours in mindless monotony? Step after step, mile after mile. The days laid up in a tent due to storms. Hunger, thirst, cold, and then... the wind. No, you rarely get to see the suffering, but you always see reward. It may make you want to go out, see the world, embrace nature. Don't be naive. Nature doesn't care for us. It is complete apathy. Sometimes benevolent, other times malevolent. We must be able to cope with her attitude. She will not change for us. These songs remind me.



Monday, January 19, 2015

Fruits of My Labor

Fruits of my labor. What the hell does that mean? Sounds like some force fed consumerist, capitalist propaganda! If you work hard enough you can get what you want out of life?! Is that it? Last time I looked fruits grew on trees, and trees grew in forests, so why don't you just go out in the forest and find what you want in life.

The Wheeler Peak wilderness and the Taos Ski area received their second major snow of the season this past Tuesday. I arrived in the area on Tuesday. The snowfall wasn't that deep, between 8-12", but it was enough to make my first few days here work.

On Wednesday morning, when I strapped on my snowshoes to start scouting the trails into the alpine, the snow was fresh. It was laid upon another 12-16' of old snow and when I began snowshoeing I was breaking trail. At times plunging and post-holing, even in high flotation snowshoes, with a light pack.

 Breaking trail is fun and tiring. It is nice to think you are going where no one has been yet, but the energy required for every step is multiplied. Crunch, compress, plow, prod, sludge, and suffer. Over the next three days I broke over nine miles of trail. Up one canyon only to loose the way in a snowed over meadow. Back track to the main trail, search another, get stuck in the labyrinth of snow and pine again. Luckily, a group of six  backcounty skiers and snowshoers followed what became my main, and correct, route. Their progress further compacted my trail.

 By day three I had a hard pack trail up Bull of the Woods mountain into the alpine.  I was able to use my crampons in the ice now rather then my snowshoes and, consequently, now carry a heavy load. It took me three days of work to be able to carry a 35 pound pack a mere four miles up a mountain side, but I worked for it. I was able to spend three days at 11,400 ft in a deep snow pack.

The high alpine slopes on the west side were wind blown. Most of the snow had been swept away or frozen to an ice pack.  On my second day at high camp I got above 12,000ft to practice my self arrest, self belay, and glisading technique off the side of Fraizer Mountains. It was wonderful to be playing again in an alpine environment. I dream of this stuff. Happiness is an understatement.

I only ended up five miles, via trail, from Taos ski valley and it took me three days to get there and another three to utilize it. Six days, for five miles.  We all work towards something, right? Fruits of my labor.


Friday, January 16, 2015

There's Cheese In My Sleeping Bag

Sleeping outside, without a tent, is one of my personal favorite outdoor experiences. You can look up at the stars, play out the stories  of the constellations and look for meteors. Its a great way to fall asleep. This is what I did last night. I was watching Orion fight Taurus and I had already spotted three errant meteors.

I like to keep my clothes in my sleeping bag so they stay warm. Adjusting  myself in my sleeping bag, I relocated my pants. My keys were still in their zippered pocket but something else was in there. Something I didn't remember putting there. Triangular and hard, I couldn't think of what it could be. I pulled it out and hit it with my flashlight. A cheese wedge. Tomato basil cheddar.

Cheese! In my sleeping bag!? No! I was breaking one of the cardinal camping rules.There could be no worse food item to have in your sleeping area in the wilderness. I would rather meat. Everything loves cheese! Rodents, birds, dogs, mule deer, coyotes, bears, and humans. Humans... I was pretty hungry.

The world against me because of cheese!

One mile into the woods and I am having a culinary crisis at 10pm. Eat the cheese? Well, then I would have an open package with residue and I did not have a bear bag with me. This was a real ethical issue. Wild animals can not get used to our processed foods. I could risk the package unopened and nothing would probally happen, but what if something did?  I would be responsible.

I did the right thing.

I ate the cheese. 

Then I got out my parachord and used my back pack as an improvised bear hang for my single item of waste. Crisis solved, hunger abated and Orion pushed Taurus ever farther west.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mixtape Vol.1: Hipster Party

On a road trip, the radio has a mystical appeal to it. You never know what you are going to get, and finally when your jam comes on, after hours of junk, it is all worth it. Nothing beats the mixtape though, and no road trip is complete without a few choice music mixes. Having your jams on call at any time, just waiting for that opportunity, well, yeah that's the best.

Enjoy Mixtape Vol. 1: Hipster Party!


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Conversation With A Pine

"I haven't seen you in a year and you are still standing right where I left you. Honestly, I didn't expect you to go anywhere, but I'm happy to see you again.

"How was your summer? I bet it was hot up on this ridge line. You are so exposed here. The winds are so strong from the west but I see you have known that for years. That side of you is all beat up. Your branches are broken on that windward side and all of your needles are on the east side. Maybe that is your style though, but hey, you look good.

"It is quiet today. How do you pass the time up here?

"You know, some people like to say that bears are the symbol of the wilderness. Strong and resourceful. They are a good one, but I think trees are better. Trees are a real symbol of strength. How does that make you feel? Lets think about it. When the weather gets bad a bear can den up, but you have to stay here. You are stuck here, wind, fire, or drought. You have to endure. Whatever nature brings you have to take. Trees are the wilderness symbol of stoic resolve. Don't you think?"

The wind blew hard and the pine swayed. The air rushing through the needles whispered something soft and faint and the tree waved. And then, silence.

"Yeah, I thought so."


*I wrote this in my pocket book the other day and thought it was a but amusing.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Frozen Ravioli

It was just a matter of getting over the texture. The cheese that was mixed in the red gravy had frozen and made it gritty. That was acceptable though, considering the beef inside the pasta pockets was frozen.  It was like beef ice cubes in an overly thick, frozen, bloddy mary. They only half promised a view at the ranger station and especially did not promise accommodations.

I was at 8,300' on the ridge line to Guadalupe Peak. My entertainment for this too solid dinner was the lifting storm in the high country of this little range.  It was a great show of the "sea of clouds" and slowly, emerging from the void were the distant ridge lines of the other scattered peaks. You could have given me a private jet back to New Orleans and a fully paid dinner at Emrils and I would have turned it down. My view was better.

My dirtbag attitude towards vacation can come off a bit bizarre to traditionalists. These days, people love to spend money on vacation. How can you blame them? You work all year for your two weeks off. Why not indulge? Order the finest liquor and cocktails, room service, that suite in the hotel, and don't skimp out on the entertainment. It's a good bit different from the way I approach vacation but if that's what people want, then let them have it. What we all value as a rewarding experience differs and I am not here to argue about how to achieve a satisfied life. However you want to spend your vacation go for it, climb your mountain.

I really don't believe that everyone could enjoy my dining experience, I bet some of you out there are saying "bless your heart". But I don't want you to do the same and I really don't expect everyone to find fulfillment in that kind of experience. I want to see more people happy about the person they are and where they are in life, regardless if it is eating sub par frozen pasta dishes on a mountain side. 


*For full sizes of the panoramas:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

I Went Hiking With My Cell Phone

At Delphi, the historical residence of the oracle of Apollo, there is an inscription: "Moderation in all things." With that in mind, I went hiking today with my cell phone and it wasn't that bad.

The trail was icy from the past week of snow and ice storms. Snow patches were rarely deeper then a foot and it was nice to see the white stuff again. Yesterday's storm was still lingering in the high peaks. An alchemy of cloud, light, and stone.  I was using my phone as my camera and still had a signal. I cant do it often, so I shared the moments with friends as I saved them for myself.  I even made a few jokes, about the frost being "Hoar"ifing, and the worst:

The short hike ended in a small slot up Pine Canyon called Devils Hall. Taking a picture of the geology I noticed my signal was gone. Briefly, I regretted not being able to share it, but instead I stopped to hear the silence. A gust of wind rushed through the narrow passage and then it was still again. I was alone. There was no one else in the park and I felt it. It was a good feeling to have again. Shared experience means something but there is beauty in isolation.  I brewed a cup of tea.

I back tracked to the trailhead and to camp. Eventually my signal returned and, again, on my photo breaks I shared my fun, in snapchats, instagram posts and facebook. 

It was a tasteful use, a "moderation" of the technology. I wasn't stumbling over rocks sending text messages while eagles soared above, and alpen glow danced on the mountain peaks. I was not aloof to my surroundings. I pretended to be the water in the dry canyon wash, rushing ever downward. I stopped for a while to watch a robin in the brush.

Rarely, do I have a signal that far in the backcountry. I was able to have my wilderness experience and to also share it for once. I enjoy the use of technology in the outdoors*, but I'm also an outdoorsman. At base, I value the experience of the natural world over the digital world. Technology augments reality, it does not make it.

You just gotta get yer head up every once in a while.


*This entire post has been done in the field. My cell phone has acted as a router connected to the computer and all of my electronics are being charged via a Goal Zero solar setup.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Life On The Edge

It was 78 degrees today.

New Orleans, you are my home and I love you, but you have a bunk winter and I need to get out.

Winter can not be experienced in this city. I'll buy into the New Orleans conventional wisdom that humidity makes it feel colder, sure. I have spent Mardi Gras week freezing on St. Charles, camped out, waiting. I've had my old shotgun house with no insulation and a broke heater, but the winter here is still bunk. Rarely can you feel the crisp bite to the air as you breathe. The tingle on your cheeks and ears. And the wind. The wind. The sharpness of it's edge as it cuts through any break in your layers. The cold nor the wind, though, say winter more than snow, and NOLA is in a lack of this standard. We get a fine sleet and people call it snow. I need more y'all, ya herd?

Its starting to dump out west brah'! The pow is coming. I'm coming.

Two years ago I started this writing project. It was in anticipation of an extended road trip out west in the summer of 2013. That trip met limited success. Now, I'm headed back for a second take. This time during my favorite season: winter.

Real winter and winter in New Orleans are not the same. NOLA might get enough days below freezing to count on one hand. In true winter the cold becomes omnipresent and inescapable. The accumulating snow creates barriers impeding progress. Everything requires extra time, care, and attention. Little problems quickly become big problems.Lips crack, hands dry out, extremities become numb and you can never find enough warmth.

The endurance of these winter hardships is rewarded in beauty and lessons in virtue. A frozen alpine lake. Pines weighted in snow. The first light of the morning sun behind floating ice crystals in the air. The small prints of a hare. The cold enforces fortitude and self control. There is glory and insight in winter for those willing to pay the price. It's like a hero of mine, Jim Whittater, said, "if you are not living life on the edge, you are taking up too much space."

I'll see y'all dere'. The adventure begins January 5th.