Friday, June 4, 2010

BDSIWFW: Billy Birdzell and Brother ski Castle Peak

I had the pleasure of skiing with Billy this year in Aspen, and we maximised our short time together by laying out some very specific goals and going after them agressively and patiently. Billy is a tremendous athlete, willing to listen and apply what his coach asks of him, but most importantly, he was willing to let go of old patterns that had worked well enough in the past to embrace something new, and then stick with it until it took. Because of this, Billy's ability to ski tough terrain shot up suddenly, and we spent the second half of our day ripping up steep, technical terrain.

He recently skied Castle Peak, a gnarly 14er in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and, having just had a procedure on my neck, I was unable to tag along. I asked Billy if he would be willing to write a guest post on my blog about his experience skiing this monster, and here is what he sent back to me.

Thanks for the kind words, Billy. Your hard work and dedication certainly shows in your skiing! Well done, and thanks.

Heel-Toe-Express. Crampons, Ice Axe, Pain

For twenty-five years, I have called myself a "skier." As a young man, a boy and a child, skiing implied hurling myself down the mountain without regard to either my life or the well-being of others. Several times, both hung in the balance. Technique was not part of the equation. Miraculously, I escaped murder-suicide and permanent injury (although I have taken more than one ski-patrol directed Toboggan ride to the bottom). Skiing meant freezing on a chair lift, wipeouts and yard sales as those magical bumps ate my lunch again and again and again.

In my mid-twenties, armed with the technique of an eight-year old on straight skis, I attempted to follow my brother. Shaped skis were supposed to make it easy. That sojourn ended with a torn meniscus and I did not ski for a few years. Age and wisdom do not have a linear relationship.

Seasons change and this past winter, following a failed attempt on Aconcagua's Polish Glacier, I returned to Colorado with a desire to learn how to ski. Skiing, like climbing, is not a game. Games have rules. The mountains do not. In a game, the best one can do is win; in the mountains, survive. There is also an openness to sport that does not exist in games. The hardest slopes are as open to the novice as the groomers are to the expert. The Garden is not open for three-on-three pick-up games. Sport also has breadth. 14,279'

Whether one defines skiing as I did, or as a reason to congregate in the lodge, or to dance with the devil, he is still skiing. For me, skiing has become climbing a mountain without a lift or lodge in sight and skiing down runs where commitment is mandatory. Slopes on which falling has consequences. The kind that matters. Unfortunately, my desire and ability were not in parity. What to do? Face the truth? Awareness drives us to intentional incompetence or unconscious competence. That's when I hit bottom. My life had become unmanageable and I admitted to myself and to my higher power that the methods I had been using were not only been inefficient but would not allow me to do what I wanted to do. I was the problem. Mediocrity is addicting. Change or die. Be it by four noble truths and the eight fold path or the twelve and twelve, the road is clear once one decides what one wants to be. The hard part is why. The easy part is Howe.

Via an instructor I met on Highlands the year before, I was put in touch with Kate and a date was set. I signed up for four days but was only able to ski with Kate for one. I wish we could have skied together more. My first three days were spent with Kate' friend. We skied twenty-five groomers a day. That's up and down from eight to three with seventeen minutes for lunch. Our longest lunch was twenty three minutes. My instructor kept score. For lap after lap I tried to figure out how to ski. I was worse than a neophyte. I was doing it wrong. Humility comes from finding out how bad one really is. Eventually, I stopped leaning back in my boots, initiating my turns with maximum edge angle and leaning up hill. Eventually.

With a foundation built upon three days of mind numbing runs on blue squares, Kate took me from making pretty turns to skiing the Highlands Bowl. I went from detesting the bumps to adequately skiing double diamonds in the trees. In one day. Adequate is defined as controlled, connected turns down the fall line.

I practiced the techniques Kate taught me for three days at the Butte this past March. Total number of days having a clue as to how to ski - 4.

Over Memorial Day weekend, my brother and I set off for Castle Peak, 14,279', which lies twelve miles south of Aspen. My first ski-mountaineering attempt. To get there: drive past the parking lot at Snowmass and keep going until the road ends. Walk until bipedal locomotion is no longer possible. Skin until skis no longer grip the snow. Strap skis to pack and attach crampons to boots. Climb until all terrain lies below the feet. Take picture. Enjoy view. Plummet back to Earth.

Kate Howe's Eightfold Path

During spring, North Faces typically have the most, and the safest snow. The route on Castle Peak is moderate for mountaineering standards (Dawson says it's a mere 40 degrees) and except for a few protruding rocks, straight forward to ski. This year, two weeks before Memorial Day would have been perfect since the trail from the foot bridge to Montezuma Basin as well as the rocks high on the pitch would have been covered in snow. However, conditions were adequate and will probably remain so for another week or two. Make hay while the sun is shining.

Nothing in the world that is serviced by machines compares to the quiet beauty of muscle and blood powered approaches and descents. Both psychologically and physically. My brother and I were the only ones on the mountain when we dropped-in. And we didn't even get up early. So, regardless of your ability or the number of years you've called yourself a skier, you have either experienced Kate, or you have not. The only reason slopes have alluded you, is that you have not learned Howe. The Best Damn Ski Instructor in the Whole World.

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