Thursday, February 26, 2009

Inversion Therapy

I have one strong attribute that keeps me going in the adventure play arena, and it sure as heck isn't competence. Mostly, it's that I'm not smart enough to be embarrassed. Heck, I'm the guy who kicked his ice axe into a crevasse right in front of Yvon Chouinard during an ice climbing class on Mt. Hood (I wonder; between global warming & nearly three decades of glacial movement, I bet I could get it back now!). You know, the guy who started Patagonia and possibly the most influential climber of the whole golden age of Yosemite big-wall first ascents? Let's just say I got off on the wrong foot with one of my heros, and stayed there the rest of the day.

So we should probably get this out of the way right up front: the highlight of my first trip down the whitewater section of the Verde River was the descent of the Class IV Verde Falls.

Upside down.

Yeah, I managed a raggedy roll in the hole at the bottom of the Falls and paddled myself out without needing any rescue. But I can hardly claim that was my first choice.

I woke up that morning expecting to do chores around the house all day, despite a hearty scramble all week trying to put together a paddling trip. I'd met Ben (he's the one pictured at the left, while we were scouting the falls) several months back and wound up talking kayaking, ending with a general agreement to look each other up when the water got back up in the local rivers & creeks. We'd reconnected last week with plans to run the Salt, Tonto Creek, or something, but I didn't know much beyond that. I passed on plans with my friend Bill to run an easier section of the Salt River, and heard half an hour too late on Saturday about an early morning meetup to go run the Class III-IV section of the Verde from Beasley Flats to Gap Creek. Without any contact info for Ben or word from him, I figured it was a good day to work on getting the garden ready for spring. But with a late morning phone call & a gracious green light from the love of my life, I was scrambling to remember just what all I needed to pack for honest-to-goodness whitewater.

Half an hour later, I was headed for Beasley Flats & setting up a shuttle with Ben and his housemate West; it'll be interesting to see how long we know one another before it becomes necessary for us to know last names. The river was on the low side for that run -- around 350-400 cfs -- and that contributed to my first mistakes. At that level, the first named rapid, Off The Wall, seemed pretty inconsequential. I allowed myself a bit of hubris, which got me in trouble the very next riffle, which I ended up running backwards after catching a rock right at the top. See, while it's not that pushy at 350, at that level the Verde has plenty of rock gardens that lurk just under the surface, waiting to trip up the inattentive, the arrogant, and the just plain clueless. A year and a half out of whitewater boating, and I had a bit of all three going for me.

One of the big tricks with Verde Falls is the Pre-Falls rapid just above it -- an abrupt 3-4 foot drop over a rocky, toothy shelf that is pretty bony at low levels. Mess up at Pre-Falls, and you've got very little room to recover before the Falls proper. Still feeling tentative & shaky in the boat, I was doing the baby-duckling thing with West, following his stern where ever it went. Right up until the moment when he zipped into a little eddy and I went sailing past (my East Coast friends Helene & Scott will know how this story ends) and into a rock-bashing solo read & run of Pre-Falls, along one of the uglier, barely-passable lines through the rapid. Chastened, I got my butt into the first available eddy and waited for my betters to catch up.

Verde Falls at 350 looked straightforward enough, with just two things I had to get right. First, don't screw up in the little slot to the right of the cleaver rock that splits the current and creates a couple of funky curlers right above the falls. Second, get in a good boof stroke at the lip of the falls & catch a little air there, because: a) it's a hell of a lot of fun, and b) it'll carry you clear of the recirculating hole that will suck you back into the bottom of the falls. Failing the first, I brushed the cleaver rock and capsized in the slot. Uh-oh.

West tells me I actually managed an upside down boof that carried me & my boat clear of the falls; best I can guess, that must have been the big whack (as distinct from all the smaller rock smacks) I felt on my shoulder and helmeted head somewhere between flipping and rolling back up in the frothy jumble at the bottom. Fortune, it seems, once again favoring the fool.

Though rehashing my pratfalls is fun a few days later (lord only knows how much mileage I've gotten out of the Chouinard story), it doesn't do a bit of good when I still have miles of whitewater between me and the takeout.

I probably looked pretty goofy with my grim little game face on, but a conscious focus on the fundamentals -- aggressive posture, paddle in the water, seeing the whole line ahead rather than fixating on the immediate obstacle -- seemed to pay off. I started to feel my hips loosen up and let the boat react to waves & random thumps. My paddle strokes actually started to have a purpose again, instead of random, reactive flailing. By the last significant rapid before the takeout at Gap Creek, a fun Class III called Punk Rock, I was finally starting to feel the old flow, putting the boat where I wanted when I wanted. More or less.

Pushing on through bouts of the stupids has generally served me well. If I'd stayed rattled after the embarassment of Verde Falls, it's even money or better that I'd have slam danced with Punk Rock an hour or so later. Now that I think back, the most vivid memory of that ice climbing class isn't the mortifying one I've told a hundred times, but late that afternoon front-pointing up this translucent, overhung serac about 30 or 40 feet high, with an ice axe I'd borrowed from Yvon Chouinard.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

No Gear

I'm a gear nut. I'd admit to being a gear slut, but since I've never had sex in exchange for some blingy piece of outdoor swag, that'd be evocative, but not all that accurate. But it's pretty clear that rational seldom enters into my calculations when it comes to gear, unless it's part of the word rationalization.

I've got three kayaks, one canoe, a half dozen (or so) paddles, five bicycles, two motorcycles, four operational pairs of skis (plus probably 10-15 pairs of obsolete ones rusting out back that are going to become part of the fence) and proportionate amounts of all the associated accessories. It's embarrassing, no two ways about it. Yet just today, I caught myself looking at a catalog with pretty mediocre deals on last year's Alpine Touring & telemark skis and thinking of the money I could "save" by buying left over stuff. Pathetic.

While not a full cure, one way to reduce the symptoms of gear nuttery (not to mention all kinds of other maladies) is to spend time playing outside with kids.

This past weekend, AM's sister & sister's best friend were in town from Southern California. Adding our one into the mix, there were eight kids pinballing around the house (blessedly, not our tiny little place) off one another, the walls, the furniture and occasionally off nothing visible to adult eyes. It was loud and it was fun.

We spent an afternoon up past Groom Creek sledding, making snowmen & randomly hammering each other with snowballs and snow boulders. It was glorious and the only piece of "gear" in sight was a red plastic toboggan, though toward the end of the day most of the kids dispensed with even that and slid down the slope (probably a total vertical drop of 10 feet -- somebody alert OUTSIDE Magazine!) with just their snow pants or nylon jackets. Their smiles and excited screams were contagious, and easily infected the adults.

I will admit to one bit of backsliding; I brought along my little blue backcountry avalanche shovel (it's Carbon! Fiber! Reinforced!) and busied myself building & shaping the sled run, including boosting the launch pad by about a foot and adding an extra jump. I could pretend I was doing it for the kids, but really it was mostly just me playing in the snow with my toy.

It's not like one afternoon could cure me of gear addiction -- actually, a radical reduction in income since I moved from DC is doing a decent job of that -- but it did remind me that winter fun doesn't have to come with a high price tag or a first-name relationship with the FedEx delivery guy.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Falling & Getting Up

Seems somehow appropriate to my scattered, disorganized interests that the first real post on this blog wouldn't actually be from the Sierra Prieta, but from our other mountain range, the Bradshaws.

I'm sore but happy after a day spent climbing up & falling down in splendid, deep powder in the Prescott National Forest. Anyone familiar with the drought-starved winters around here will recognize that those words don't occur very often in the same sentence any more.

Some change is clearly afoot here in my backyard mountains -- in the previous century, deep snow was the norm around here. Aldo Leopold talks about the snow in the neighboring White Mountains as making them entirely impassible through the winter. It was fodder for a year's worth of bragging to be the first horseman to make it into the high country around here in spring. Now, winter storms typically come through as rain and run downstream immediately to the Hassayampa, the Verde and into the insatiable thirst of Phoenix and Southern California.

I was out with my friend & co-conspirator Will, who is on a mission (this from a guy who's current schedule barely gives him time to eat & sleep, and he's got spare minutes for a mission?) to learn & document the backcountry skiing in the Bradshaws. Lucky for me, I get to go along for the ride; not so lucky, snow around here can be a real hit or miss proposition. With 12-15 inches landing 2,000 feet lower in town earlier this week, though, our chances looked mighty good.

Once we hit about 7,000 feet, the snow banks alongside the icy gravel road had reached rather impressive proportions. We spotted an area where a telephone line cut made an open passage through the trees down into a deep creek gully and then way up the open slope on the other side. This was showing real promise.

For me, this was a first try with lots of brand new gear, namely my favorite telemark skis converted over to an alpine touring binding & boot. A telemark setup doesn't fix your heel on the ski -- which necessitates a lot of bumps and bruises before you learn the graceful, one-knee-down turns that chicks & dredlock dudes dig so much. An alpine touring binding, by contrast, lets the heel lift free while you're climbing up the slope, but then locks down just like a regular downhill ski for the schussy bits. After the move to Arizona, I decided that skiing oportunities would be limited enough that I'd be able to get back up to speed with a fixed heel faster than trying to re-learn telemark turning two or three times a year. Good theory, mixed results.

Will & I descended the slope into the gully, then started the stomp up the other side. Lots of work on the uphill, but I was pleasantly surprised that my year long campaign to get completely fat & out of shape hasn't been entirely successful. We stopped midway up to dig a pit to check out the snow & make sure we weren't on an avalanche-prone slope, and found at least a stunning four and a half or five feet of snow on the ground, and that's without hitting bottom. Not impressive by Tahoe or Mt. Baker standards, but remember that these hills spent much of the last few winters completely bare of snow. Good news all around -- there was lots of snow, and none of it showed any inclination to kill us.

After pulling off the climbing skins & (for me) figuring out how to lock down the heels of my bindings in deep snow instead of my living room, it was time to point 'em downhill. Will bobbled once, then carved a series of linked tele turns in the knee-deep fluff. I dropped in and had an immediate, unsettled sensation; for the first time in twenty years, my heels were fixed to the ski and all that internal dialog that had cluttered my brain for the past few months about how much easier it'd be to ski AT just kinda balled up into a little chunk of gravity and planted me face first in white.

While the skiing got prettier -- for both of us -- through the afternoon, I can't say I ever managed to make it look good. While my self-image fashions me a back-country, earn-your-turns skier, this mornings' aches and pains do tell me that I'd be well served by -- for at least one day -- biting the bullet, spending the money, riding the lift & getting a hundred or two turns in my legs before I let my aspirations run too far ahead of my meager skills.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sierry Petes

It seems to me that a blog is a bit like a sourdough starter -- you've got to keep it fed on a regular basis or it just kinda gives up on you. My favorite ones are a bit pungent and more than a little gassy. Unlike a sourdough starter, very few of them ever feed anybody.

This one is built as much as anything to help me remember some of my rambles around my new home for the past year plus here in Prescott, Arizona. My intention is to keep focused on outdoor fun, whether on water, snow, two feet, or two wheels (both the gas-powered and oatmeal-powered bikes), but focus never was my strong suit, so it'll likely diverge into local politics, irrelevant observations, and general griping or rejoicing about things that really don't matter to anyone but me. Sorry.

The name of the blog, Sierry Petes, isn't my name or nickname, even though the latter would be kind of fun. "What'll ya have, there, Sierry Pete?" would make me happy to hear at a local bar, even better if followed by "It's on the house." It's Yavapai cowboy slang for one of the two mountain ranges that ring Prescott, the Sierra Prieta, the other being the Bradshaws.

Let's go out and play.