Animal Nature: Why I Run

Yesterday, as I sat working away at my computer, I felt the urge.  The urge is something that you can probably relate to– it’s that feeling that you want to break out of whatever you’re doing and go elsewhere.  This feeling comes in many sizes, big and small, ambitious and modest.  It comes when you flip through Alpinist magazine rather than read your textbook, and you start planning a trip months in advance instead of paying the bills.  It comes again when your momentary distraction leads you out onto the internet, where we’re blessed to have many, maybe too many, sources of inspiration.  I’ll become distracted only to  read an article about climbing, or skiing, or any movement sport and right then I just have the feeling that I want to do that too. Not later.  I need to go now.

A little piece of nature

Read on →

North of the Border

I’m standing in the Northernmost stand of Joshua trees, or so the plaque says.

This plaque I discovered while wandering up a deserted wash, just north of some numbered state route just north of the Arizona border.  Arizona’s so close I could almost toss a rock across the invisible line, if I hadn’t driven a few miles up a rough road across some recently flooded washes.  The kind of driving that doesn’t really worry me, unless the rain comes back.

Some poor BLM bloke, he had to have driven as I did across these washes, parked, as I did, at the turnout by the water catchment hole, and then he had to have walked, as I did (though likely with more purpose) up the rocky wash to affix what must have been a pretty heavy plaque.  It’s about two and a half square feet of brass, bolted to the limestone walls of the wash.  Must have been a charm to carry over there.  And what a place to put it.  If I hadn’t been working hard to finish our 3.2 beer before leaving the state, I never would have thought to walk up here.  What with the Mojave rattlesnakes, approaching storm and all.  But I did, and I found this.

Two other men may have seen this strange apparition.  They were hunting for ‘chuckers’ they said, walking past our camp in what felt like the early morning, but turned out to be almost noon.  They’re ground birds they said, like a blue-grey softball.   But they hadn’t seen any, scattered across the desert by the storms of the last few days they thought.

This is the second time that I’ve been up this road this year, the last in the late spring.  When I was last here I thought silently to myself, ‘I’ll likely never return here’. Read on →

Wind River Fall

A summer has passed through the Wind River mountains once more, and the wind’s gone cold. Out of the field again, I’ve gained nothing more material than a good solid stink, but this trip in particular got the wheels turning once more. How to live the good life? Where’s the satisfaction to be found? Am I living by fear or am I injecting the necessary energy to keep the real ball rolling?

Invented on this last course, in collaboration with J. Spaulding, is the concept of the Anablog:

An·a·blog /ˈanablôg/ Noun: Blogging by use of analog technologies. Verb: To record on paper opinions, information, etc. on a regular basis. Journal.

The following is Anablog #2, as numbered on paper.

As I walk through the pre-dawn darkness by headlamp, my light begins to catch on the reflective tabs on student tents which, though they plan to leave before us, are for some reason still standing.  I’m carrying all of my possessions in the bag on by back, and I greet them with a “Good morning, gentlemen” as I pass.  As an afterthought I add:  “If my memory serves me, today is the first day of Fall.”

“Feels like it”, one of them responds through the frosty dark, though I can’t quite tell who.

As I walk on towards the kitchen, where Gabo is preparing water for coffee and for the morning maté ritual, I think about the absurdity of what I’ve just said.  Fall doesn’t come at once, but as a slow and rolling tide punctuated by occasional rapid advances.  Though the nights are now longer than the days, it was last week that the crowberry turned yellow, earlier still that the blueberry bushes purpled, and the lupine have been standing at seed for weeks.  The calendar says that Fall has just begun, while the golden quaking aspens disagree– more like halfway to Winter here. Read on →

July, 2004

Often, when I write here, I feel like I’m writing for no one in particular.  Sometimes the analytics confirms this.  But that’s besides the point.

When I built this blog and paid the whopping fifteen dollars to have my own domain name, I did so knowing full well that it wasn’t going to serve my ego very well.  The simple design, the undeclared authorship, it’s all designed to cut away the trappings and reveal unobscured what I write here, so that I have little place to hide.  It was designed as such because, as MontBell puts it, function is beauty.  The irreducible is the most full.

This photograph is one that I took on one of my first extended trips through the mountains.  I was 14 at the time.  I still remember the exact place in which I took it, on a point in the Olympic mountains of Washington.  To this day, I still think that it’s one of the best images I’ve ever made of life in the mountains, and it was made without that intention.  The story that I have for it I wove around it years after I took it with my dad’s 35mm all-manual Vivitar, but that simply means that I can’t claim authorship to how it speaks.

There’s a lot in this photo for me about our relationship to the mountains, how we enjoy them with others, about teaching a life of travel, about yearning and direction.  But I prefer not to break it down.  Looking at this photo just pulls at my heartstrings in just the right way.

Summer’s coming.  I can feel it, smell it even, during warmer evening moments.  This transition always stirs up the crazies in me and forces me to ask too many questions.  This year I hope to avoid thinking about those questions too much, not because they’re not important, but because it makes a lot more sense to me now to understand things as a whole rather than to ask how the elements all fit together.  Where am I going?  Is this right job?  Do I live in a good place?  Should I run?  Follow?  Those sorts of questions I’ll relegate to my weaker moments if I can.

The me that took the photograph above couldn’t possibly have planned or envisioned the pathway that has brought me from there to here, because too much of what has made me who I am was a tangle of unforeseeable mistakes and happenstance.  But it has been a path of increasing depth and satisfaction.  For now, I know that on the whole I am headed where I need to go, and hopefully after another ten years I can understand my path with the same satisfaction and depth with which I see this photograph.

Baptizing the New Year

At the beginning of last year  I wrote about the Year of Resurrection.  2010 was an incredible year– as the economy began to recover, along with the generals sense of world possibility, great things again became possible.  In my little piece of the world, once I discovered the possibility of great things, I realized many of them.  Along the way I made a lot of mistakes.

Big ones.

Hurtful, jarring, unexpected ones.

These were the biggest successes of 2010.  The tan that comes from warm sun on a relaxed body fades come winter, but scars remain.  These scars are the small pieces of self changed by injury that have come back stronger than the softness that they replaced.

My little tradition of assigning a name to each new year, as in ‘the year of the rabbit’, came from a joking discussion with a good friend about the coming year of 2008.  We named that year The Year of Stoke and Ambition.  The name now sounds silly to me, but it’s reflective of a time and of the sentiment that time carried for me.  It’s a way of telling a story.

Then, 2009 became The Year of Resurrection; the economy was in the pits, and year-end recaps focused so strongly on the negative that death became imminent and it became time to usher in resurrection, both personal and collective.  But as resurrection goes, rebirth is the easiest step.  It’s a step defined in the negative as not-death and new-life.  But what comes next?

2011 is The Year of Identity.  Following rebirth comes the period of emotional adolescence.  I know, it sounds like we’re back in highschool, but in some ways, that which we found so unsettling about our teenage years is a supremely useful and necessary stage when we engage with it consciously.

In 2010 we became new beings.  In 2011, we choose who we will become and in what world we will live.

Make new rules.  Redefine the good life.  Spend lavishly on what you love.  Don’t fight what you hate, create the alternative world that holds all that you need from it.

We are our own greatest tyrants, for this we must accept responsibility.  All rules by which we abide we have accepted.  Exuberance is temporary, bliss is a process, and satisfaction is born of good work concluded.

In 2011 it is now time to redefine success and to decide what place we have in the world.

May you sleep well each day of the new year in the tiredness born of hard-working bliss.

Crystal Mountain

(Cornice control - Chris Morin Photo)

“People may die in spite of me, but they’re sure as hell not going to die because of me.  We live in a culture of try, ‘Good job.  Good game champ.  Great try’.  That doesn’t work as a paramedic.  You think you tried hard?  Try telling that to the family.”

As I drove away from Crystal Mountain in the pouring rain, I remembered the paramedic who’d lectured two days before on basic life support.  On that frustratingly slow and winding road, his words dug into my side; ‘No excuses champ’.

I had spent the week crammed into a small dormitory with fourteen other candidates vying for nine jobs on the Crystal Mountain professional ski patrol.  We sat through lectures, practical demonstrations, and tours side-by-side with the returning pro-patrollers in a hell-week that would have been ripe fruit for a reality TV show.  Who knew on what we were being assessed?  God forbid that they should tell us.  It certainly wasn’t skiing, as we did none of that.  Nor avalanche skills, as we did none of that either.  Sitting bum and packing your own lunch were skills that we demonstrated, as were staying awake in dark rooms, and always smiling, despite the oppressive humidity.

On Friday, as the week was nearing Sunday’s decision point, the pressure became almost tangible.  A few candidates had already been pulled aside and informed that they wouldn’t be considered further.  The odds were improving, but collective blood pressure was also rising.  Brutally, after every 10-hour training day, a senior member of the patrol would host a dinner party, so that the mingling and campaigning could continue well into the night.  Each night I felt like I could sleep for a week, and needed to.

On Sunday, we finally concluded.  We’d finished with a lift-evacuation exercise, and sat through three hours of blathering about risk management.  I felt what I suspected might be an ulcer forming, making my stomach churn as we cleaned up the day lodge that had served as our lecture hall.  The ten of us remaining made our way down to the first-aid room, painfully aware of the pending decision.  As we gathered and forced conversation, one of the supervisors, a lean and tanned mountain guide with more than four-hundred summits on Rainier, walked in with a clip board and looked around the room at ten pale faces.

“Has Paul told you yet? No?…  Well, welcome, everyone, to the professional patrol.  It’s a cool club to be a part of, and hard one to get into.  Congratulations.”

A wave of relief swept through me, cortisol levels dropping for the first time in several weeks.  Dream: realized.

“So long as you’re on our list here, and there’s been no mistakes, please check your contact info, and we’ll be in touch about when we plan to open”.  He set down the clip board on the gurney that we’d encircled.

I looked at the list.  Nine names.  Ten people there.  Who’s missing?


Sixty to zero in 1.5 seconds.

I walked into the office, staving off disappointment in the hopes that there’d been a mistake.  After a brief discussion amongst the bosses, they agreed that there hadn’t been.  I was tenth on a list of nine.  They’d tried to find me before the last meeting, tried to spare me the disappointment in front of everybody else.  It took a long second for me to swallow my churning insides and ask where I most stood to improve.

“It’s not that we don’t like you, there’s no personality issue.  And your skills are just as good or even better than some of the people that we’ve hired.  It’s just that… it’s like a light bulb, you know, and it wasn’t glowing bright enough.”

“I’m not sure that I understand.”

In short, he told me that I hadn’t seemed eager enough.  That other people had made more of an effort to schmooze.  I hadn’t sucked up enough, and that’s what they’d wanted to see.

After letting them know that I’d be available should anyone drop out before New Year’s, I grabbed my pack from amongst my elated peers, who were sorting out patrol packs and uniforms.  Their excitement made me bitter, and I hated the bosses for making me do the walk of shame.  I walked back to my car with a cold heat burning inside of me.  Shame;  Not something that I’d felt so intensely before.

The girl always tells me that I “shit rainbows”.  It’s her way of saying that I’m annoyingly positive about things.  As I walked to my car, I wasn’t. I wanted to beat the hell out of someone to make a point, and I was that someone.  As my shame faded away into disappointment, I only wished that I could wallow in some comfortable delusion.  I wanted to compare myself to those that they’d hired, and convince myself that I was better.  I wanted to tell myself that those making the decisions were foolish, that they’d made a mistake.  But that didn’t fly:  it was abundantly clear to me that I was solely to blame.  The day before I’d written on the internet, “Today I do the sowing.  Tomorrow I’ll be reaping what I sowed, be it enough or not enough”.  It hadn’t been enough.

Worse still, as I pulled out of the dorm driveway and onto Crystal Mountain Boulevard, the meaning of what was happening sank onto my shoulders.  For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I’d failed to achieve something that I really wanted, and I was the only one to blame.  I’d fallen short with no one else to blame because of a character flaw that my ‘successes’ had thus far hidden: I though that I deserved it.  I expected it to fall into my lap.

“Nice try champ.  Good game.”

This presumptuousness didn’t just apply to the job at Crystal, it applied to everything.  Until now, the world had been good to me, and I hadn’t done anything to deserve it.  Jobs, girlfriends, grades, summits, all had fallen into my lap with little effort on my part, and I’d congratulated myself each time on the ‘success’ that had come of my ‘hard work’.

Time for a reality check.

Assets:  A little over three grand in the bank, a working car, and the ability to shit rainbows.

Liabilities: No home come the end of November, no employment plans, arrogance, and a moving violation (Thanks Officer J. Hicks for making yesterday the best day that it could have been.  I didn’t want that $200 anyways.  I just wanted to get home.)

The story of Zen master Hakuin came to mind.  The work at Crystal would have been amazing, and I’m still wallowing more than a bit in my disappointment, and even more so in the coming uncertainty of how to support myself from here on out.  But at the same time, I can’t help it, the rainbows just keep coming.  Even though the whole experience at Crystal left me emotionally battered, and maybe with an ulcer, I can’t help but feel that the world just dealt me a big spoonful of tough love, and that I’m getting what I needed most, even if it’s not what I wanted.  It might take some time, but if I can learn from my arrogance and disappointment, I may get more that I would have if my dream had been realized.  Yes, I’d be lacing explosives and skiing powder, but I’d still be under the illusion that I’d earned what I have.  I’d be waiting to discover the truth.

Walking into the Rain

(Enjoying the first snow of the year. Wind River Range, WY.)

There’s a warm rain coming down on Portland, and unseasonably warm at that.  It feels like the first onset of what ought to be a warm and wet winter.  I can only hope that it lives up to expectations.

Tomorrow I leave for Washington, which brings with it another bevy of hopes and expectations.  The preparations for my departure have left me feeling winded.  The uncertainty that accompanies a transient and seasonal lifestyle, one which I’ve only begun to sample, is the price that has to be paid by all of the seekers out there chasing the warm rock, the big waves,  and the next round of powder.  This feeling of being off-balance, of not knowing where you’ll spend the next week or month, can be a harsh one.  It has at times made me depressed, angry, and doubtful.  Shouldn’t the best life also be easy to live?  It’s simple to say that one should have to sacrifice to have anything that’s worth having, as that seems to be how the world operates.  We tell ourselves that we’ve worked hard to have the best things in our life, exhibiting a memory bias against our failures.  What about that for which we worked hard but which never materialized?

I have, inexplicably, a faith that the world is inherently good, and that it rewards boldness, good humor, and love with a fine and rewarding life.  But I can’t help but ask, if the world really is this way, shouldn’t satisfaction come more easily than discontent?  Again, it’s easy to say that this satisfaction is there for the taking, but that we’ve been drawn into discontent by distraction and manufactured desire that make us believe that we are incomplete with what we have now.  But at the same time, I feel driven on from where I am to somewhere else, and from who I am to someone else, someone better.

It’s just ingratitude.  I am blessed to be surrounded by interesting, inspiring people, and to have won the “ovarian lottery” and been born into what may well be the most privileged group in human history.  The reconciliation of where I am and where I want to be may well be the project of my life, and one which I’m not prepared to tackle now.

As the transition approaches, and the preparations start to fall in order, the doubt is slowly replaced by excitement and energy.  I am grateful for those who celebrate and encourage my departure, and even more so for those who honestly admit that they’d rather I never left.  The relationships that I’ve formed in Portland redeem any mistakes that I’ve made during my tenure here.  The depression, the anger, and the doubt are just the cost of an experimental life, and the more that I move on from the places that I’ve lived, the more I find that community can be made wherever you’re willing to extend your hand.  There are many good people, and the relationships formed in each of these brief communities can be maintained, and ought to be, as they’re the greatest possessions.  They are those that encourage giving, and while receiving is having, giving is creating.

Trailing Roots

(Moving On - Wrangell-St. Elias Ntl. Park)

Always lifting, turning, remembering, landing, forgetting, lifting again, and moving on.

I’ve written before about transitions, and about the anxiety that can precede them. But now the wind is lifting me up again and I feel that feeling in the pit of my stomach that tells me that I have be self contained; that if I try to anchor myself in some piece of ground then I’ll be torn at the uplifting. Imagine a sort of Celtic tree of life, roots curling to meet the branches, forming the symbol of a thousand infinities. If only it was that simple.

We forget, sometimes, that our world isn’t really couched by the margins of future and past. They’re so real in our story. That’s just it though: they’re simply the setting of our story, an imagined foreshadowing. Really, there’s just right now, when we’re floating our storyline through a world of our choosing. The pending transition of mine that’s giving m e this sense of ungrounding comes at the turning of a season, as the snow starts to lay a damp blanket of cold onto the Northwest. It’s an early gift, possibly just a tease, that says that this year might be better than the last. We need it. The powder drought of last year’s El Nino may have left skiers unhappy, but the true and humbling drought that comes with little snow is felt months later in the lowlands and the mountain sheds it’s too-thin skin. This last summer was a dry one.

This year may be rich, but it’s the skier’s curse to imagine too much. We pour over the weather reports, knowing that they’re wrong. We wax up the quiver, knowing that it will be weeks until nature obliges. We dress in white and hold pray-for-snow parties, and simmer our pipe-dreams in the seasonal beers that come too early, just in time for October’s first Christmas advertisement. The whole industry can’t help itself– summer has barely ended and already we’ve been doused in new product lines, and more movie premiers than you can shake a pair of sticks at. Still, winter’s at the door. It’s been slowly approaching like a sound just on the verge of earshot, but only now we’re starting to catch the beat. I’m hungry for it.

All of this moving, of the seasons, of my own transplanting, comes at a price. Every arriving is preceded by a departure, and every rooting by an uprooting. It’s the nasty truth of life that to create things, we have to kill others. Life springs eternal so long as there’s a knife to cut away what is no longer needed and what has become a burden or an unneeded tie. As the seasons go, the end of warmth that gives way to cold winter is more bearable knowing that the seasons turn circles, and that summer will come again just as we’ve started to really crave it. But with our own uprootings, within our lives, this sense of an inevitable cycle that will return to us what was lost is greatly lacking. There are, however, some ties that remain in a transplanting; stories and loves that we trail behind us like streamers to point back to the past at what else we might have chosen, but what we turned away. These stories can, I think, be fertile soil for regret if we fail to recognize that a life lived with any amount of creativity is bound to produce more faltering steps than clear strides. It’s the direction that matters, and the acceptance that where we have been and through what we have traveled has shaped us into who we are. Not perfect, certainly, but each scar is a lesson that only a fool could learn twice. It may be that the only worthwhile sort of nostalgia is to really feel and love those who we have loved and left, because in remembering them we realize the precious impermanence of what we now have. We owe now our perfect attention, and they our careless love, and if not today, when? Let it snow.

Notes from the Field #1

Northern Talkeetna Mountains, July 23, 2010.  Copied by hand into my notebook from course documents.

“I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all the times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me and alone; on shore and when
Through scuddling drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name.”
(Tennyson – Ulysees)

“The passage of time can work for me or against me: I must not drop the ball, and I must keep my name, so painstakingly discovered.
Listen! I know that something similar will happen to you someday, for in our wide world there are many goings home. We must hold on to our dreamings, all of us, now that we have earned the right to dream.”
(Morgan Hite – After the Adventure)

The Year of Resurrection

I made a list last night of everyone that I admired who passed away this year. It was mostly climbers, from Johnny Copp and Guy Lacelle to Shane McConkey, but there were some others on the list. I had planned to write two posts, the first a retrospective on the past year, and the second a look forward into 2010. I’m going to do away with the first and say only that 2009 was what my climbing buddy Alex and I had decided that it would be: the year of stoke and ambition.

The reason that I’m choosing to forgo writing about 2009 is that it’s too easy to get bogged down in what I’ve done, how I’ve succeeded, how I’ve failed, etc., and it’s too easy to see my past as my identity.  That’s stale at best.  Going into the new year, I’d like to propose that we forget the naughts.  Sure, there were lessons to be learned, and I spent most of my conscious life learning them in a ‘post-9/11′ world colored by some really worthless leaders and a lot of depressing news.  But the stock market is going up and the unemployment rate is going down, and its time for a new objective.

I’d like to propose that 2010 be named The Year of Resurrection.  Whatever it might mean to you, resurrection implies a new life, maybe even a new body.  Implicit is a detachment from the previous mindbody, and the birth of a new mind.  What is stopping us from achieving all of our goals in 2010?  Fear of failure?  Fear is a kind of memory, it can’t know anything about the future.  Let’s drop the past and surpass the fear.  Let be groundless and accept our groundlessness as our real condition.  One of Brad Lewis’ mentors said that it is, “better to work without a net, or a saw guard. The intensity [is] greater, more concentration, total commitment, better results.”

To borrow (again) from Mark Twight and Gym Jones (I raise my glass to you guys), “You have to be willing to bite off more than you can chew, to overdose, and to fail. If you won’t risk the answer you won’t ask the question. If you lack the will to ask then consciousness will not unite with muscle and bone. I criticize such a lack of will (especially in myself) and ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” The fearful part of me replies, “I may fall short of my expectations. I may not be who I pretend to others. My perception of self may be proven wrong, very wrong.” The confident part of me says, “So what … only after breaking myself apart may rebuilding begin.” So go ahead, break stuff. Break yourself on the once-hard edges of yourself. And recycle the debris into the foundation of your future.”

The priest Sekiso asked, “How do you step from the top of a hundred foot pole?” Another eminent master replied “You who sit on the top of a hundred foot pole, although you’ve entered the way it is not yet genuine.  Take a step from the top of the pole and the worlds of the ten directions are your total body”.

He darkened the eye in his forehead
and clung to the mark on the scale.
Throw away body and discard life
and the blind one leads the blind.

Mumonkan, (The Gateless Barrier), Case Number 46

The first step after resurrection is direction.  Direction needs a heading, so pick a goal.  Then don’t hesitate to jump off the end of the pole and get after it.