Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Avalanche One

Randall Tate Photography
And now for a good old fashioned adventure.

Randall and I left Seattle for Bellingham before 5am, and were eagerly anticipating the sun rising for the journey. It never did, and we ended up killing time in a Fairhaven coffee shop, and then in the American Alpine Club classroom for the first hour of lessons before the world lit up even a little bit.

Randall Tate Photography
We stayed in that classroom till 5pm on Friday, except for a lunch break where we drank absurdly sized margaritas which nudged me into a pleasant and warm state of mind for the remainder of the day. Randall and I shared our classroom with eleven others- including a Whitefish pro, a couple of good looking mountaineers and four relatively young, incredibly enthused, Boeing employed snowboarders who I began referring to in my head as simply "The Stoked." We learned all about avalanches and their foundation of snow science: fern, aspect, the avalanche rose, terrain traps, convexity and trigger points. It was the most fun eight hours of EMT continued education credit available.

For the next two days, we carved pits into the snow with shovels and saws and toured the back country of Mt. Baker. At the time, Baker had the most snow of anywhere in North America, although I'm not sure how long that lasted, because Friday night Stevens Pass to the East was buried at a rate of about two feet in an hour, and The Stoked were bemoaning not being there. I'm not sure what we could have done with anymore powder, however. As it was there was already too much of it.

We took turns breaking trail, thank goodness, but either way all movement was exhausting. If, during transition, I placed a single boot off the skin track, I'd fall up to my neck in snow. It would take a day's ration of energy to swim to the surface and right myself. Skiing downhill in untracked powder was a wild rush, and mentally taxing only because the fear of falling translated into the fear of writhing helpless in the snow, carving an ever deepening hole, for an embarrassing long time, for the snow was feather soft and endlessly deep. Other than that the days were peaceful, snowing consistently, a completely quiet, cold world which I observed from the depth of four hooded jackets and the pink-tinged blur of fogged goggles.

That particular avalanche class, although not our first choice (our original class, a yurt trip powder cat trip, was cancelled because of dangerous conditions) was a momentous occasion as we shared three days with Lyle, who I've since come to know to as Lyle Who is All That is Man. Lyle is a mountain guide, a structural firefighter in Seattle, and a former Alaskan longshoremen fishermen. Had he also been a pediatric surgeon it would not have surprised me the slightest. He spoke very quietly and politely, almost as if he were trepidatious of being the center of attention, which is funny because Lyle should be unsure of nothing, ever. Randall and I loved Lyle. 
Randall Tate Photography
The other instructor was a man named Dustin who very much looked the part: he had cheek bones chiseled from ice and stained rose from the wind. Dustin was very quick to make a joke, and brush off the dust from my sweater when I dropped it on the ground, and talk with great about the 'suffering' of guiding on Denali. Randall and I both know the outdoor guiding well, and we felt very fortunate that we avoided entirely the douche-baggery we both slightly expected from our instructors. They were in fact very patient and cheerful and certainly most enjoyable to look at. 

That weekend we stayed at the Mountaineer lodge, which shown warm-bright under a heavy frosting of snow. We shared the lodge with The Stoked and also a handful of similarly windblown and healthy young skiers and three snowboarders who had an affinity for curling up in slippers near the wood stove with their nose in guide books, discussing with great revelry their most recent trip to Peru. (Or perhaps it was Patagonia. Or Perugia?) When I went to bed at 10pm they were thus engaged and when I woke up at 6 there they were, in the same positions, with the same boundless enthusiasm, as if they were barely aware that sleep as a state existed in the first place, much less that it was considered a necessity by some.

That lodge, softened by snow, warmed and lit, was even more dreamy that weekend because, as luck would have it, it was was 'decorating' weekend. The round old woman who ran the place announced at Saturday breakfast that there would be party that evening with 'cake and punch' and that we were all to partake in decorating the place for Christmas.
And so we found ourselves, after ten hours of pushing through relentless powder, skinning up and gliding down hills and chopping countless pits into the drifts, presented with glitter paint, brushes, and an entire window each on which to paint. True to her world, the round woman baked nut cookies, a strawberry cake iced with cool whip and a bowl of Hawaiian punch mixed with ginger ale that when added up, although sickening with regards to sugar accumulation, created an atmosphere so wholesome and sweet I nearly died.
For a little while it was completely quiet as all of us painted on our panes of glass, everyone in sweaters and long underwear, deeply concentrated. The Stoked surprised me by painting four separate lovely designs, mountains and skiers and one Santa Claus surfing a wave, done up in marvelous detail. A family with two tiny red haired girls climbed up on furniture and painted a snowman three panes high. The only window that did not register close to outstanding was that belonging to Randal and I, but mostly me; I'd painted a house floating on the black sky outside the window, and a few small stars and snow drifts, and then I'd lost all inspiration. I'd have filled the whole thing up with snow but the children had all the white paint and weren't giving it up, so I filled the rest of the window with blue. All Randall really added was a stencil of a pine tree in the middle of the air, and everybody asked if our house was a tribute to the Sandy flood victims, which was never the intent.
I slept very well at the lodge, the strain of snow struggle tugging my body into a white, heavy underworld. Randall on the other hand had a different story to tell and claimed that I snored. Which is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life, since I'm a crystal quiet sleeper. Snoring drives me crazy and I would never do it.
Randall Tate Photography
So Randall said he'd video me the following night, and he did. But I refused to listen to the playback the next day in the car because it would crush me and my pristine image of myself. He let it rest for a few days and then ambushed me: along with some photos, he emailed me a sound file: he claimed it was a song he'd heard and thought of me. The song was called Sweet Dreams (in hindsight, did I really not see this coming?) and I literally thought, "How sweet of him." I opened it up and it wasn't a song at all, it was a soundbite which I quickly destroyed.

Aside from that, I can't say the weekend could have at all been improved. We are all Avi I certified now, with Randall and I a few hours closer to continuing our N-EMT registration for another two years.

It concluded, as all good things do, with pints of porter at a ski bar with an overcrowded table and seven hungry souls ordering plates of hot food and talking about upcoming adventures. I challenge you to find a worthy weekend that does not end in such a manner.


BlueEyeFireMom said...

I don't know, I think you're life is too gorgeous. And you're so young!

Christina McKeown said...

Just when I needed it most, your post made me LAUGH. Great bit about the snoring. :) That's too funny. Thanks for continuing to share your experiences with us. I can say that I can get through my nightshift tonight because of this post. THANK YOU!

Melina said...

Christina, I'm so happy that a bad ass woman like yourself is reading. I can't believe we haven't met yet! Please let me know if you guys ever make it down to seattle!

Troglodyteking said...

Wow, you can get EMT continuing education credit for taking an avalanche course? Good to know.
Been lurking, following the blog for a month or two. I really enjoy it! Eagerly anticipating any stories that might materialize of the Seattle Fire ridealong.

Melina said...

Hello Trod, etc! And may I first say, way to go on the handle. my mind does loops just looking at it. thanks so much for reading/following, and i'm glad you left a comment! I don't think anyone is a 'lurker' really but I'm glad you introduced yourself all the same.

Glad you asked about the SFD ridealong, i'm trying to write it and keep trashing the drafts because i can't get it right. Maybe your comment could serve as my catalyst to just bite the bullet.

I hope you keep reading, keep commenting, tell me about yourself, do you come here often?


Anonymous said...

I love all that you do! Your writing is an inspiration for me to get moving!

Troglodyteking said...

Melina, I've been reading the blog since about mid-October. Found it via your OkCupid profile, actually. Have done some going back and reading older articles - have enjoyed (and been envious) of the ship adventures this past spring/summer, read some about Patagonia (visited there our last winter/their summer), really liked the RMI W-EMT stuff (took my WFR through them, about to take an EMT course through North Seattle CC but was considering a W-EMT).

I've also particularly appreciated the posts and comments about vulnerability and being open to things and people. That's a theme that has been running around in my head for a while now as something I want to work on being better about. Danke schoen for inspiration!

The handle! I chose it more than ten years ago, in high school, for a password actually. I liked the look of the word troglodyte, figured it wouldn't show up in some dictionaries and therefore be more secure. It an adjective meaning 'cave dwelling' or living in a subterranean habitat, but it also is a monster in Dungeons and Dragons. Which is where I actually got the word, from a flipping through a book of D&D monsters for a neat looking word. I then started using it as a handle for online games with friends, my email, ancient LiveJournal, etc. At first it was just a random username but it's grown some symbolism for me. Dur, I realized after making the comment that, "Oh, hey, it's not going to list my name or anything, is it?" I just figured "Oh, I can sign in with my Google account? Great!" Probably should have just listed name and maybe linked to something?

William Jahncke: aspiring outdoor educator, Seattle area native, hopefully soon-to-be-EMT. Board game geek, cider and mead brewer, novice mountaineer, possessor of near-useless degree in medieval history and literature from impressive-sounding institution, employing said degree doing trailwork, mostly.

Ellie said...

Upcoming adventures? I'm in! I've been reading for quite a while-found you as a commenter on Nici's blog and was loved your blog's name. Beer and puffy jackets seem like a good way to end a weekend to me. *cheers*