Over the Edge

Mammoth Mountain, Ca.

Years ago, my friend Jack Banbury and I started to go on ski trips with our pal Eric Durfee who at that time lived in Vermont. Eric would take us to places that were a little bit out of our comfort zone and it kind of went like this. Eric went over the edge first, then I saw that it can be done, so I think positive thoughts and went over next. I heard Jack laughing behind me. He reasoned that if Pat can do it, so can he and we all followed Eric. Many different places like the Palisades at Squaw( now Palisades-Tahoe), Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, and many other iconic drops that make you think about your first turns.

Eric and I went to Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire for many years and skied down some really steep walls there that we climbed first. One year, we hiked in the fog over to Dodge’s Drop and broke our rule of never skiing anything that we had not climbed first. But we made it and were the only tracks in there for the day. Eric did it with a cast on his wrist which is another story altogether.

The Headwall at Tuckerman Ravine

Fast forward a few years and Eric’s childhood pal from Vermont started to come with us. Mark Hutchinson was a ski race coach at Stowe and a Level III PSIA ski instructor with a lot of experience. He is a nice smooth skier but we both continued to follow the “alpha dog”,as Hutch calls Eric, down some interesting places at Mammoth Mountain, California and Mt. Rose in Nevada. Same situation, Eric showed us how it is done and then Hutch and I looked at each other, mustered some courage, got rid of any negative thoughts, and proceeded to ski down some iconic drops. Places like ” Dave’s” and “Paranoid’s”. Better judgement said “no” to some drops which Eric skied. But for the most part, we followed the “alpha dog” and breathed a sigh of relief when we had completed the run. In fact, most of the drops that I have done in my life were with Eric and all of them were most memorable. I can honestly say that most of my really good skiing experiences have been with these two guys. We have been skiing together for years and we still put them over the edge from time to time- just to make sure we still have it. The thing is as you age, your experience with these things comes into play. We know how to make the turns. We just need to make sure we are in shape and use good judgement when it is warranted.

Chair 23 at Mammoth- serving up some great “drops”
The Chutes at Mt. Rose, Nevada
The cornice this year at Dave’s Run at Mammoth- whoa!!! Not sure I would be challenging that.

Recently we have been taking trips with our wives and have a nice one scheduled again this year up in Oregon. But I ski Deer Valley, Utah with my wife and some friends from Philly (The Flying Smittys), and locals Patter and Tom Birsic, on another trip each year. When the opportunity arises and the conditions are good, I make my way over to the Daly Chutes at Deer Valley and look over the edge on the cornice above a series of steep drops. I think of Eric and Hutch when I am there and as I peer over the edge, I think about my first turns, get all the negative ” what if” thoughts out of my head, and use the experience that I have over the years to begin a series of turns down to where it flattens out a bit. Skiing these things are part of the western experience that you pay your hard, earned, money for and each year, the challenge is there. As I get older, I assess the risk and the reward and if my experience and feelings at the time are in order, I drop in. But if not, I will defer to another day and time. But the feeling of making some really steep turns down a vertical face is quite intoxicating and one of the reasons why I try to stay in shape by riding my mountain bike. My friend Pete always explains that I am not really a cyclist. I am a skier who cycles to stay in shape. Even though I live in the mid-Atlantic and ski locally most of the time, I love to head west and ski these challenging runs to keep the flame alive. Janet lets me go and burn a few which I appreciate. And when I get together with Hutch and Eric, the “stoke” is still alive as the young chargers say.

Eric and Hutch sipping a cold one at the June Mountain Brewery a few years back.

I am looking forward to what the new ski season will bring with these guys and the ladies. I am sure we will get some chances to “burn a few” together. We may even have a time or two when the ladies need a rest to “peer over the edge” at some things and see if the “alpha dog” thinks it is a “go.” Hutch and I will look at each other, decide, and then eventually make our way back to the ladies for some relaxed smooth turns with them. But we will have that twinkle in our eye if we did something fun with Eric. Just like the old days. The older we get, the better we were. Thanks for reading and think snow.

The Daly Chutes at Deer Valley

Risk versus Reward

03jack395.2 One of my favorite characters is Harry Callaghan, aka "Dirty Harry of the SFPD. Harry says that a man has to know his limitations. This can apply to sport. Take the golfer for instance. He has to make a decision to go for the green with a water hazard within reach. The risk is getting a penalty if he hits it into the water, the reward is a good score if he does not. No real threat to his body. Ratchet it up a notch and see Peyton Manning trying to thread the needle to a receiver. Again, the risk of an interception with a scoring penalty, the reward is a reception. Take it up another notch if Peyton stays in the pocket too long and two goons are charging to take his head off, the risk is then accentuated. Finally, look at the picture above. This is the infamous Corbett’s Couloir at Jackson Hole,Wyoming. Now in good snow years, the couloir is filled with light, fluffy snow and you can enter the couloir and ski the fluffy stuff all the way down into the slope below with very little risk if you can handle the steepness. However, as in the picture above, there are years when the snow is lean and the conditions are rock hard with the entrance to the couloir requiring a leap to the snow surface. In these conditions, you hope that your bindings stay on and you make the first critical turns. Otherwise, they may have to scrape you off the rock walls on the side of the couloir with a puddy knife. I have skied Corbett’s in both conditions and the follwing principles guide my path to execute or not to execute.

The first principle is called the Pucker Syndrome. If you were to plot a graph with the beginning in the lower left hand part of the graph and extending at a 45 degree angle to the right, there would be a point where we plot when one would pucker his lips and say,”OOOOOOH Man, I don’t know about this one? Accompanying the Pucker Syndrome line would be a parrallel line which I call the Oh Shit Factor. The OSF can also be plotted to the point where the cognitive mind steps in and says that you have a family, a job, and the risk is too great. The OSF is there to help you live to ski another day. There are folks who ski 100 days plus or are young, strong, free skiers, who think nothing of conditions like this. Their risk versus reward is not a factor and they ski it with ease. But for the rest of the world who perhaps don’t get as many days or are older, the combination of these two elements guide judgement.

Sometimes the Pucker Syndome and the OSF come on in a hurry and unexpected. Like the time I was climbing up the Hourglass in Tuckerman Ravine and my friend Eric was above me and told me to turn around and look at the storm approaching in the valley below. As I turned, I sunk into the snow up to my waist with no sensation of solid ground below me. I had apparently stepped onto a snow covered crevasse. The Pucker and OSF were upon me as I scrambled to safety. Otherwise they would have had to pull me out with a rope or find me in the spring looking rather disheveled,wrinkled, and cold as a clam.
If you go to You Tube, look up Alex Honnold on 60 Minutes. Alex is a celebrated free climber in Yosemite and without giving the video away, he seems comfortable in what he does. But in my world,he has pushed the OSF into the stratosphere on the graph. So, in life and in sport, listen to my man Harry Callaghan. If the factors are comfortable, go for it, the risk may justify the reward. If not, listen and live to ski another day. Thanks for reading.