Monthly Archives: February 2010

Life: Beaver Creek B-day Romp

My van, circa 1970, is 40 years old this year. I wouldn’t have thought of celebrating the Old Lady’s oldness, but when my sister came out to visit last weekend, she insisted we go dig her out for some mid-winter fun. Of course, this birthday romp wasn’t all fun—especially when I accidentally shifted into fourth gear instead of second while going up the steep mountain road to Bachelor Gulch (as shown, at right).

I flooded the engine—smoking carburetors and all. At this point, my sister turns to me in the passenger seat and asks: “So. Should we call for a tow?” No, no way, I’m thinking. We were just getting going, and I wanted to spend the day skiing, not dealing with a cranky old vehicle. So I put on the flashers for a bit and gave the problem some serious thought.

We eventually got the Old Lady going again by popping the clutch, a suspect maneuver performed while letting a vehicle coast backwards and then letting out on the clutch, engaged in a forward-motion gear. Problem solved.

That little glitch overshadowed a series of smaller glitches that punctuated the morning’s activities. When I showed up at the place where I’ve got the van parked for the winter, two other vehicles were blocking it in. This necessitated a hidden key search, which turned up nothing:

So, the mechanic who owns the lot simply hooked a tow strap to both of the impeding vehicles and pulled them out of the way. Finally, the great fun of driving this vehicle up to Bachelor Gulch for a day of skiing at Beaver Creek erased the memory of these small difficulties in getting going (The Sister, cheering at left; yours truly, at right, trying to keep an eye on the road):

The highlight of the day probably involved the all-around excitement when we pulled up to the Ritz Carlton at Bachelor Gulch and asked that the Old Lady be valet parked. For me—someone who either rides the free shuttle to the ski hill or parks within walking distance to a lift—valet parking is a luxury. Period. So this was an exciting moment, and others at the Ritz Carton seemed to be having a good time with it, too.

My sister decided to do a video with commentary of the Old Lady’s retrieval, which turned out to be quite hilarious:

Maybe it’s just me, but I thought that the Old Lady, next to all of those other “luxury vehicles,” looked like she was holding her own.

Literature: Orwell Endures

For those of you who don’t know…the title of this blog, “Down and Out,” is a reference to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). I read the book shortly after I broke my ankle abroad, and I was also seriously low on cash. Low on cash, as in, buying groceries with a credit card. Right? Somehow reading Down and Out in that moment made me feel like all would be all right. When things (finances, broken bits, work, life) improved, I began this blog with a nod to Orwell, whose writing gives me some comfort in distressing times.

Other Orwell fans out there might like to read an essay published in last week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review: “Why Orwell Endures,” by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Wheatcroft and a buddy pilgrimage to Orwell’s grave near Oxford on the sixtieth anniversary of his death, and the occasion prompts Wheatcroft to reflect on Orwell’s enduring literary reputation. The article touches on Orwell’s political influence, and it also praises him for what I like best: “the sheer originality of what Orwell says.” I agree with Wheatcroft: “…whenever you dig into him you will hit a nugget of golden wisdom.” It’s true. Whether you decide to read Wheatcroft’s article or dig deeper into Orwell himself, I hope your exploration is good like that, good like striking gold.

In the February 12, 2010 New York Times Sunday Book Review:
“Why Orwell Endures,” by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

Photo credit: from

Life: Avalanche 101

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to get into an Avalanche I course offered through the nearby Colorado Mountain College in Edwards (after being waitlisted for an earlier course in January). I wanted to take the course for general awareness purposes…and to have some info to back up my decisions about where it’s safe to climb and ski in the mountains. I’ve definitely felt freaked-out by avalanche danger in the French Alps, having watched avalanches and ice cliffs tumble down steep couloirs, listened to them crack and boom as they let loose during the night (photo, above: a fresh avalanche path in Chamonix that Andy and I walked over to climb a nice icefall just above). But I also know that this danger is very close to my home here in Vail, Colorado, where avalanches regularly occur in the backcountry. The course consisted of two classroom sessions and two field days at the Shrine Pass area, near the summit of Vail Pass.

The first day of field sessions was devoted to pit-digging and snowpack evaluation. We skinned up to a good slope and started shoveling:

We dug all the way down to the ground and then started chopping out a nice wall of snow so that we could see what kind of layers had accumulated:

In order to see where weak layers were buried in the snowpack, we did a series of tests…including the compression test, so nicely demonstrated here:

While all of the digging kept me warm, I preferred the search and rescue component of the course. Instructors buried avalanche beacons and clothing under the snow and concocted these great scenarios to keep us on our toes:

We also practiced the probe line, which is basically a last-resort technique that’s probably only going to be effective if you have this many people all out searching for a missing party:

I’d recommend a course like this for anyone out there adventuring in the mountains. The field days were great practice, and hopefully the practice of digging pits and evaluating terrain will be ongoing. But I hope I never have to practice a live search.

Literature: Gilbert’s Committed

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed is holding its place this week at #2 on the NY Times bestseller list in the nonfiction category. Committed skyrocketed to the #1 position just after it was released by Viking in the first week of January. I’m a big fan of Gilbert’s The Last American Man (2002), even more a fan of that book than of Eat, Pray, Love (2006)—even though most people on the planet seem to adore that one more than any of her others. In Committed, Gilbert takes up her writing, at some level, where Eat, Pray, Love leaves off. She’s now engaged to Felipe, the Brazilian man she fell in love with in EPL, even though both parties have sworn never to marry again (having both been through painful divorces). But when the Department of Homeland Security cuffs Felipe and detains him at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, Liz and Felipe face a stark decision: they either need to get married, or Felipe won’t be allowed to legally enter the country again.

Committed contains more than the self-exploration and brokenhearted globetrotting that defines EPL. Yes, it’s still adventurous and far-flung, as Gilbert and her guy wander through Southeast Asia in a state of near-exile while waiting for their fiancé visa to get approved. But Committed also takes a good look at the culture and history surrounding the Western marriage tradition…and it brings up many thought-provoking questions in the process.

Final word: Book clubs are going to go crazy over Committed…but I still think that The Last American Man is Gilbert’s best book so far, by far.

Photo credit: Viking

Landscape: East Vail Ice

I vowed this winter to ski less, climb more. The biggest obstacle? Finding partners (that I trust with my life in their hands). To be fair, I’m not actually out posting signs to recruit people off the streets of Vail Village, so my lack of partners isn’t that surprising. When I saw that an ice climbing class with a two-day field session was being offered just down the road, I jumped at the chance to dig my axes and crampons out of the gear closet.

I’ve only climbed waterfall ice a handful of times, and it’s been a trial-by-fire affair—me scratching my way up sketchy stuff behind guys who offer little or no instruction. I don’t regret those experiences, but neither am I content with them. So this class was a good thing. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, we hiked up to some fat waterfalls behind the East Vail firehouse. The sun was just creeping over the hills:

Even though we had a nice view of the valley—all warm and sunny—we shivered in the shadows.

But then we started hacking away while Dave T.—our fearless leader—shouted up instruction and encouragement. All of this was more helpful than anything I’ve experienced in the past, and then towards the end of our second day, I got something I needed just as much: inspiration.

These two guys showed up—one wearing what looked like pajama pants—and started delicately dry-tooling up the rock face next to the fall we were climbing on. Then, they decided to climb through this:

I wasn’t exactly sure how they’d go about it, and these photos don’t do justice to the feat, but this guy (Rob?) climbed up the icefall below the curtain, with Mr. Pajama Pants belaying. He then did some very yogic-looking stemming to place a screw and clip a bolt on the rock. He proceeded to climb along the inside of the curtain and bashed away a few icicles for an exit:

Things got even more precarious-looking as he swung around to the outside of the curtain…

…and then climbed up a few more feet before placing a final (the second?) screw.

Right. Knowing that stuff like this is possible is what keeps me from being content with my current (seconding and top-roping) ice climbing abilities. It’s a good thing that climbing is a process…otherwise I would have just chucked my axes down the gully in frustration after seeing these guys climb like that. But instead, I’m plotting ways to get out again on my next day off…