Diversion: this thing is back. Here’s why.

Hello Earthlings with the internet,

It’s been a minute. I’ve spent less time than I would like writing lately, which might be the universal complaint of the non-disciplined writer that isn’t constantly employed at a keyboard. This post is an exploration of why.

My gigantic, whiny list of excuses that nobody wants to read (which is not available, even by request) dissolves into three major problems that bear mentioning: the removed ability to think through outdoor situations by writing about them, and the side effects from monetizing and job-itizing the writing I’ve been doing, and the people who have read my work, appreciated it, and want more.

Blogging was and remains my first outlet. Free from the benefits of an editor or the need to create content for sponsors, I just wanted a container to put my thoughts and adventures into. Those pure iterations developed into style of writing-as-thinking about the trip I was blogging, and thus did I better understand what had happened, what was cool about it, and how I could improve later on. Readers benefited from getting into that perspective as well. In not blogging as much, I’ve lost that retrospective rumination. Reason number one to kick this thing back on: I miss chewing on these experiences post-facto.

The strange aspect of all that processing was that it was valuable. I want to thank the folks that see monetary value in what I write—it’s super cool to be paid for one of the things I love to do. I’ve been given the key to audiences and containers that I would have never cracked on my own, and I continue to enjoy the support of editors who better my writing and push me to hone my craft, to develop my inklings into legible pieces.

But, making money off of something that’s a part of your heart requires care—and I didn’t manage that care very well. My relationship to writing changed: it became paid or rewarded content. It became a necessary part of my job, a line on my to-do list. I still wrote what I cared about, but it got squeezed into something I did when I was getting monetarily rewarded to do it. Other writing still appeared that felt good, but it wasn’t related.

Then my life moved on from a full-time focus on creating things that had marketing value. I’ve happy about that: it’s good to show up for work as a guide or salesperson or freelance writer and then leave the tools, the stress, and the to do list finished at the end of the day, to be picked up later. My thoughts went like this: “writing all the time for my blog or anyone else was a thing I did when I had the time—now, I needed to go to bed to get up to guide.”  Or, alternately: “I just want to go play, and get out of my head.”

Writing should be done because it’s what I want to do. Writers, first and foremost, should have something to say. The best part of this post is that it is procrastination: some writer’s block has slowed me down on a paid piece I care about, and here I am venting with words that flow easily, freely. Sorry Matt; I’ll get it done. Thus, reason two to return to the blog: writing is something I love. Some part of that love needs to be completely separate from work and money. I owe that part of me a chance that’s all its own.

If I were a storyteller in some village a hundred years ago, these kinds of thoughts might have been spooled out by the well, or maybe in a dingy tavern over the soft clinking of tankards at the bar. I’d look people in the eye as I said things, feel their reactions, appreciation, boredom. Instead, convenience makes this available nearly anywhere on a screen. You can read this at your leisure. I’m afforded a spectacularly large audience, many of whom I’m lucky to know, but can’t see their reactions. I write, it goes out, and I hope that it’s worth the time that people spend reading. I sometimes wonder how much time my friends and complete strangers have spent reading this blog. I wonder how many came back to read more. And recently, I’ve heard from a few of those folks saying that they want me to stop sitting on my hands. Thanks for the kick in the ass, you wonderful folks. Reason three: the people who spent their life force reading my ramblings demand yet more. David should not argue with these fine people.

It’s spring. Ski tracks and big, ursine paw prints once again crisscross the blanched dreamscapes of our local hills. Can’t go unprepared into this new season: it’s time for some more skinning with bear spray.

Cheers,

David

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Diversion: the streetlight

Visible through the branches of a mountain ash, the streetlight on the opposing block brightens the lower corner of my bedroom window. It shines every night, all year long. It did so during my whole childhood. And while the  lamp itself isn’t particularly striking–I’d never taken the time to look at it before writing this–the telephone pole and the bulb braced atop it illuminate not just the ground, but the air of that particular corner. Which, at some point during the fall, has always been filled with the small, reflective dots of snow cast in an amber glaze.

By mid-October, checking the lamp is a routine thing. There’s a tiny potential each time: perhaps, against all odds, that glance will yield the first snow of the season. Such peeks through the window put excitement into just getting up to head to the bathroom. Mornings are always easier when it’s been snowing. And though it was a slow sort of agony to sit in school when I was younger, snow coming down fueled the skiing stoke for later.

So when I arrived back in Montana two days ago from the UK, I was greeted by a snowstorm upon landing. Once home, I looked out the window to see the lamp, and the little dots descending under it, blanketing me with the comfort and excitement of all the years that I’ve stared out into the darkness at that streetlight. It’s winter. It’s time. It’s on.

Cellular solitude

You are reading these words on a screen. They come to you as information from a vast network of computers. Most likely, you were linked here via social media or email. Such a path to written word would have been unthinkable to people a hundred years ago, and the capability of the internet to enter and alter people’s lives is incredible. Without it, my work as a writer would be much harder. And there’s no question that I’m as intractably stuck in the world of the internet as anybody else. But as people who are both on and offline, we must find ways to negotiate technology and ridgelines in a life that spans both.

A foggy wander around the Hanging Gardens with my grandparents and mom a few weeks back.

Recently, I finished The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a 2011 book by Nicholas Carr. Covering the important shift in brain function that results from way we interact on the internet, it should be essential reading for nearly everyone. Societal transition from books or newspapers to screens has done more than just simplified and shortened our access to content. The new format, with its hyperlinks and flashing advertisements, changes the way that our brains process information. Instead of the blank margins of a book, where the words are the focus, I know that I’ve felt the restless distraction posed by interacting and reading on the net. In some ways, this blog is part of that noisy wave. Carr summarizes this eloquently:

“And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.”

Speaking about the Twitter discussions of live events, Carr states, “Even the experiences we have in the real world are coming to be mediated by networked computers.”

Myke Hermsmeyer hightails it down the diagonal above Lunch Creek a week ago.

Tuning out. As I read, I thought hard about what it means to tune out, to become involved in activities that have nothing to do with electronics or the myriad ways they’ve come to constitute our lives. The feeling crept up that Carr is writing from the standpoint of someone who often can’t escape the things we’ve done to ourselves. Which would be the case for me–but I’ve got a serious habit of doing things that don’t occur in cell service. The blank margins of a book, that entirety of focus and deep concentration on task at hand, these are the feelings that come with being beyond the reach of text messages, email, social media. Solitude is not just getting away from people. It’s also a retreat also the maelstrom of technology that comes with us.

Tara Oster takes in the views at Stahl Peak Lookout last week.

In the centuries after the creation of the printing press, the naturally distracted state of the human brain experienced a new phenomenon. Carr writes, “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to single, stated object…they had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them”.

My time in the mountains is, for me, that concentration. When focused on the next turn in a chute or balancing to make the next clip while climbing, the wealth of distractions quiets. Nothing else is there but the moment. And I’m convinced that in the same way that books provide that depth of distraction, the outdoors free from screens and cell service are a wilderness essential to our survival.

Taylor Streit makes his first tuns of the season yesterday on Logan Pass.

Deep thought isn’t a luxury. Time to think should be a part of everyone’s life, whether they get it in conversation in a coffee shop or being battered by groppel high on a peak. Perhaps the photos between these blocks of text seem like a distraction. Instead, view them as the real point: as outdoors people, we need our solitude more than ever. There’s much to gain by what we can access with our technology. It shouldn’t supplant our ability to think, though. It can’t replicate the joy of sweating hard to achieve something physically difficult. In its frenzy, it won’t allow us the ability to retreat. So shut off your screen, turn off the nonsense, and go play for every reason you already know.

On brutality in the mountains

A box of old notebooks still lurks in my closet. Recording the capricious and hormonally charged span of years from high school into college, there’s a pile of angst and unformed emotion via poetry. In light of studying and gaining perspective in the craft of writing, they now seem so raw and reckless in their vicissitudes as to be pretty dang useless. However, their true testament is to the simple fact that writing, for me, is an outlet for emotion.

And when it’s pared that simply, there’s nothing wrong with those notebooks. Many of the blog posts here are a sort of decompression or reflection on trips involving various levels of stress or enjoyment. If you’ve read them, you know. Writing is not the dictation of finalized thoughts–while we write, we rethink and generally clarify the things we’re trying to get down. There’s a therapy to words in that sense, because to write is to continually reconsult about a topic until the final catharsis of the finished product takes some of the burden with it.

As of today, the ski mountaineering community has experienced a couple weeks of tragedy:  Sebastian Haag and Andrea Zambaldi died in an avalanche just short of the summit of Shishapangma. Yesterday, snowboard mountaineer Liz Daley died in an avalanche near the Fitz Roy massif. Also yesterday, ski mountaineers Andreas Fransson and JP Auclair have been presumed dead in an avalanche on Monte San Lorenzo (or Mount Cochrane) on the Chile/Argentine border. No rescue party has been to the latter, but with helicopter reports of inert bodies and a minimum of 48 hours in the cold, it’s a pretty slim chance. I hope that I’m wrong.

But as the notebooks attest, these times of emotion trigger a written response. Instead of being speechless, or submitting some excuse about words not being adequate, here’s a try.

“We [climbers] demonstrate in the most stunning way of all–at the risk of our lives–that there is no limit to the effort man can demand of himself. This quality is the basis of all human achievement…it can never be proved enough. I consider that we climbers–that I–serve all humanity. We prove that there is no limit to what man can do.” -Walter Bonatti

My heart goes out to those who knew and loved these wonderful people. I thank all of them for their proof.

And the rest of us, who watched on as they did incredible things, as they redefined what could be done via a pair of skis ridden by the human spirit, are now left to ponder the course our aspirations will take. On one hand, I question whether I have any legitimate claim on the sorrow in their deaths–after all, I didn’t know any of them personally. Jumping on the bandwagon of a dead icon as if an imagined connection means as much as the loss of a spouse or real friend only demeans their deep grief.
On the other, these people are my people. People in the mountains. Exploring on their crampons; sending it down on their skis. The ski mountaineering community is, and will probably continue to be, niche enough that the effects of these deaths reverberate. And for international ski icons like Fransson and Auclair, their passing reflects not only the loss of an individual and the bright creativity that made them so worthy of their status–it also marks the loss of people I looked up to. It makes final their progress into difficult, dangerous terrain. It stops their ability to continue showing us “what man[kind] can do,” and because I cherish them for their abilities in that realm, it represents a loss of a leader in a small community.
On yet another hand, such losses bring home that the sheer bliss and joy that comes from our good times in the mountains has another, darker, equally as sheer side in brutality. If Fransson and Auclair symbolized pushing forward, this is the rebound. It is so hard to acknowledge, as it forces me to reflect on all the close calls. This spring, a broad wet slide aired off a cliff above and took out a face traverse we’d put in only ten minutes prior. In another incident highlighted at the start of my season edit, I kicked off a wet slab/corn slab of two week old snow on June 30th. In both cases, luck figured heavily. And to hear of people dying when they have much more experience makes going out again a complicated pile of emotions for me.

Danger is such a part of what I do. It’s somewhat relative–driving in cars at 70mph only a few feet from people doing the same in the opposite direction is considered very normal. People knowingly eat food that may cause disease or early death, or readily expose themselves to chemicals that do much the same. So perhaps there’s some variability and danger in skiing down mountains, but I don’t see it as that much worse than many real dangers that we take for granted. I make calculated guesses and try very hard to be safe in the mountains. Even so, the truth is that the consequence of death isn’t something I understand, and it’s hard to weigh that kind of thing honestly. I think it gets covered over, and much like the drop under one’s feet while leading or the exposure that you can’t afford to fall off, I try to hold it in value without letting it paralyze my moves.

During college, a ski buddy took his life. The day after I found out, I skipped my classes and drove I-90 up to Snoqualmie Pass and the PCT. Once up high, I took a detour to a rocky outcrop that doesn’t see much traffic, wrote him a note, and tucked it in a crack in the rock. I said goodbye to him aloud up there, the wind carrying my words off to the north. In retrospect, it was exactly what I needed to do.

In 2012, an avalanche swept down Tunnel Creek at Stevens Pass. It killed three pillars of the local community, including Chris Rudolph. He’d been the one to lure me to Stevens, the one who had gotten me a job, the one who was constantly stoked to get out and play. I wrote this in his memory, and though I’d rework the beginning, it still fits with how I felt then.

So I don’t know what I’ll do this time. But the writing is there, and as with these other knocks to the heart and to confidence, the start is as simple as a sentence.

What’s in your sleeping bag? Warm up to the Down Codex

Athletes are notoriously unreliable when it comes to recommending gear–and I’m hardly an exception.  While I may use and abuse products more than any other group, I also prone to the same issue we all face: when somebody gives me something, or pays me, I’m less likely to give products or people the scrutiny they deserve. A bad pocket placement or issue with camber becomes something to deal with, an email sent, and perhaps a change in the line for the next year, but not a reason to switch brands when a purchase is at hand.

Also, the part of me that loves rational, scientific thinking about outdoor gear hates the ambiguity of a decision between this or that jacket, or which bindings, or what carries better in a given situation. Clear, interesting innovations or differences are what still get me excited about outdoor products. In order to avoid my personal biases, I try to focus on those when someone asks me how I like my gear.

Bearing all that in mind, I’m really quite jazzed on Mountain Equipment’s Down Codex project. In order to audit animal welfare and clean up their supply chain, ME started by asking a simple question: where does our down come from?

That answer, it turns out, is alarmingly complex. When they started asking back in 2009, nobody knew for sure, because nobody had yet asked. Raising ducks or geese purely for their down isn’t profitable, so all the down in sleeping bags or puffy jackets is a byproduct of slaughter for meat. Such birds are farmed all over Europe and Asia, from ten to ten thousand birds on individual farms. Processors or mid-level agents collect down, process it, then pass it on to wholesalers, who pass it on to manufacturers like Mountain Equipment.

A duck in China may go through three middle men who aggregate the feathers of hundreds of farms before making its way onto a processor. Maybe it’s a simpler scenario, where one farm in Ukraine goes through a processor, then wholesaler, and then into a sleeping bag. Either way, we’re talking about the lives of millions of animals over several continents–chasing down whether they have access to water or are plucked live is no small task. Beyond that, the quality of the down must still remain quite high, because nobody wants to be cold.

ME followed up their original inquiries by drawing up a set of rules to which their down suppliers needed to conform. Covering things like adequate space, no force feeding, and the elimination of solvents in the cleaning and sorting processes, the rules were then communicated to suppliers. Going further than anyone else in the industry, ME has created and implemented successful, third party audits by the IDFL  that check the compliance of every part of their supply chain. To date, one supplier has been phased out as a result of recurring infractions. Several other manufacturers have begun to do these sorts of things, which are steps in the right direction, though nobody else has gone nearly this far towards understanding and auditing their supply chain.

In the picture above is my Xero 300 (30 degree F) sleeping bag, along with the tag that I’ve cut out. The number (101012010018), when traced, shows the down to be sourced from Ukraine alongside the rest of the high quality 850 fill power fluff that fills something like thirteen nalgene bottles per ounce. It’s warm, comfy stuff. And I certainly sleep better knowing that birds weren’t live plucked or inhumanely slaughtered for my jacket.

Overall, specialty outdoor brands constitute less than 1% of global down usage. There’s literally thousands of tons of down going into pillows or comforters to be sold at Bed Bath and Beyond, and none of that is subject to scrutiny of this level. And while the stuff that ME produces constitutes a tiny fraction of the global demand, it’s admirable that they’ve taken the steps to understand and control their supply chain. It’s a definitive difference in how they’re doing business–one of the things that makes me proudest to work with them. Check out the site, see what it’s about, and perhaps think about where the down in your gear is coming from for your next purchase.

A thought on building things

Swung by the On3p Factory yesterday to help out and talk ski design.

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Handmade, physical connections with the tools that help us create joy are not just cool by way of anachronism, or worthwhile because they connect us in an ever more digital age. I see skiing or mountaineering or even just living as creative processes. Honoring the journey of a piece of gear takes in the minds and hands of those who imagine and build them is to see beginning of the equation between the reality of achievement and the tools that make it possible. Gear opens the door to new projects–the demands and wants of where we go form the gear we need to get there.

Presses and route finding, construction techniques and courage. These dreams are expoxied, sewn together.

Time

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Capital. There’s the kind that sits in bank accounts, and if it’s mine, doesn’t really even get time to take a load off before it’s headed to somewhere else. The kind that some people have loads of, and others none. The kind that accrues interest if there’s lots of it, or debt in scarcity.

Though more important is the bank of our time. How the tank starts full and ends empty. For each and every person alive. And the constant decisions on how to spend it. On days like today, with views like this, there’s no regret or rethinking. Time well spent, and gratitude to get to do this.