Whiskey Ridge

Taiwan is not an island which usually invokes thoughts of rugged mountains so when Kaylin proposed a 5 day backpacking trip in early July I was very quick to leap on that band wagon. When I agreed to this trip I was living in the dead of winter in Alaska. I pictured the terrain on this hike to be the equivalent of the Teletubbies set. Of course neither Kaylin nor myself did any research to alter this mental image. We had a permit written in Chinese, a borrowed map, and the advice of local English man whose only recent climbing experience was crawling to the back of the beer cooler at the 7 Eleven. This was going to be a breeze, a walk in the park, a piece of cake.

We set off with Kaylin on her scooter, me on a borrowed stallion, Google maps in hand, and 8 hours of scooting ahead of us. Wait, Kaylin forgot her trekking poles…okay, back on track. Arriving at the first hut around 8pm with headlamps blazing we find that the ‘hut’ is a bunkhouse suitable for 180+ people. We hustle through dinner since the Hut Dad decided that we all needed a curfew. Just to reiterate, we cannot speak Chinese, and most people cannot speak English so all of our interactions have been a giant game of charades. So, when I say Hut Dad said it was time to sleep he could have been telling us to stop drinking whiskey, or he hates a friendly game of cribbage…or white people. Either way we hit the sack, very thankful to not be sitting on those cursed scooters any longer.

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Approach to the second hut.

The next day is an easy haul. After waiting a few minutes for Kaylin to run back and retrieve her trekking poles, we are on our way. We are still in the honeymoon stage of this hike and we are swooning over the views and the surprisingly steep terrain around us. I must point out one cultural similarity between the average American and your typical Taiwanese. Both societies seem to be unhappy with their given skin color. At the hint of sun we start stripping clothes to ‘bronze’, and that slight increase in light has the exact opposite effect on the Taiwanese. Imagine the excessively small bathing suits which are worn by Americans and Europeans to fry the maximum surface area of the body, now take the inverse of that and you have the extent of the covering which occurs in Taiwan. Where we have fake tanner and bronzing lotion, their lotions and soaps have a bleaching effect on the skin. We are dumbfounded by the majority of people which we encounter on the trail wearing long sleeved everything, gloves, umbrellas, even the occasional facemask.

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“Hmm…Bacon should be a food group.”
Deep thoughts with Kaylin Bettinger

The second night is spent at the last hut before the popular Snow Mountain summit and it was built to support a small legion. It differs from its predecessor by being located in the middle of a high alpine valley with stunning views. We settle in, cook dinner, play some cards and watch the sun go down. By no fault of ours, we end up sitting on the kitchen floor drinking warm kaoliang and talking to the porters for the commercial trips. For those of you with half a head on your shoulders and don’t know what kaoliang is or tastes like, take a trip down to your local Chevron or Costco fuel station, find the pump that is labeled 98 octane, wrap your lips around the nozzle and fire away. By definition it is a local sorghum wine (rice), but in practice it should be categorized as a war crime. Explaining our projected route using the same arm movements to clear a 747 for takeoff and a map, has prompted our hosts to point to certain places on said map and say “Danger!” The term danger can reflect many different situations and we cannot figure out if they are referring to a fire breathing dragon or the presence of poison ivy. The kaoliang goes around again, more dried fish snacks are eaten and we file the “Danger” comment into our brains under the ‘Bridges to burn when we get there’ category.

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Kaoliang fueled advice.

On the third day Kaylin performs the standard backtrack for trekking poles and then we are on our way. It is a steep but gorgeous ascent to the top of Snow Mountain and we summit just before noon. We spend the next 45 minutes realizing that this is where we leave the masses. The well defined trail can now only be described as a goat path precariously following the cliff edge. I always forget how tiring and unnerving exposure is. An hour of walking on the edge of certain death feels like eternity and when there is an approaching storm announcing its presence with ominous thunder, minutes turn into hours. The electricity has Kaylin’s hair standing straight up as we approach our third hut.  A small ‘A’ frame cabin houses the two of us and 10 climbers who are our parents age. We amaze them by cooking pancakes in the morning and they astound us by revealing they have hiked just shy of 18 miles that day…in rubber boots. Once again this term ‘Danger’ is used to describe our upcoming route and we once again begin to worry.

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Summit of Snow Mountain.

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Hiking along a 1000 foot cliff. Nice trail placement guys.

Trekking poles now firmly strapped to the backpack we leave in the early morning. The first ‘Danger’ point has me contemplating the decision to bring a liter of whiskey, Nutella, and fresh apples when I could have instead had my rope. Another 2 hours and we are at the second ‘danger’ point. We are now climbing pitches which can be rated on the rock climbing scale with our stupidly heavy packs. The only consolation we can find is that in the case of a fall we will not need to worry about recovery since the cliff we have found ourselves perched on is 1000 feet above the next landing zone. Fantastic. Kaylin successfully reaches the top with me closely in tow. My last hand placement finds the resting place of a bee and I watch the thing sting me as I pull myself over the last ledge. I swear a lot, kill the bee, look up and swear again. Kaylin is staring at the ridge we must hike across which on a good day is a very daunting cliff face and on this particular day has a charcoal grey cloud bashing the ridge line with lightning. The feelings of fear, frustration, and disappointment have us both on edge. We discuss our options, feel the first raindrops and much to both of our dismay, decide that retreat is our only option.

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The way up…and down.

We return back to our fourth cabin and study the map once more while outside a storm rages on complete with hail. With the delay, our only sensible option is to hike the way we came. Seeing as though we will hiking three days distance in one, we set to the task of reducing our food. Makeshift hot toddies, beef stew and great company prime us for an arduous last day. Surprisingly, the unnerving sections are still unnerving on the second try. The trekking poles which fought so diligently to escape now come in to play and provide relief for both of our knees. The last night is spent in the first cabin. Gassed from the long day we take the obligatory picture with the other guests, make a quick meal and get some sound sleep. At this point I am really curious to see how many Asian families have a framed picture with some awkward redhead in it.

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Sharing our carrot sticks…not the whiskey though.

As we drive back dodging landslide zones, cabbage trucks, and what I can only imagine to be drunk drivers, I think about how surprisingly real Taiwan’s mountains are. My respect for them has grown and Kaylin and I agree that next time we will do a little more research. By the time we leave Taiwan I will back to get a rebate on this route…maybe with my own trekking poles.

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Culture Shock

It has been some time since my last blog post. This is due to a mixture of travel, laziness, and a moldy computer. It is a terrible concoction for these updates, but a wonderful one for my happiness. Since I left Alaska I conducted a frenzied whirlwind tour of friends, family and mountain biking in the wonderful state of Washington. This was promptly followed by your standard trip to Taiwan via Tokyo, backpacking for a week, and then a travel binge through the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, and back to Taiwan. So I write this from a sweat and mosquito filled den constructed of all the 1980’s unwanted fleshy pink and white bathroom tile.

I left Alaska as the snow was rapidly retreating its way up the mountain sides and dusk came around midnight. This is the signal for the mass exodus of people who come north for the skiing, and I was no exception. It just happened that my trek south placed me in Seattle the day before Memorial Day. Without further adieu, I picked up a 100lb pig from the butcher, grabbed my friends Greg, Skippy, and Lola, and headed east across the mountains. There was a significant amount of doubt in the success of the BBQ since the extent of my pig roasting knowledge consisted of YouTube videos and the standard advice from the self proclaimed “BBQ Masters.” With the nightmarish image of 75 people reaping the repercussions of pork based food poisoning running laps in my head, we took a wild shot in the dark and nailed it. I was amazed that it actually worked, but my true happiness was that it completely eclipsed the fact that I had dumped an entire raft of people 3 hours earlier. Instead chugging a beer out of a river booty per tradition, all was forgotten as everyone tapped into their inner barbarian and stripped the pig clean. The rest of my time in the PNW was spent visiting family, friends and riding bikes as much as time would allow. It was a cruel teaser to what I would miss while abroad. After two weeks of living in fast forward and what seemed like only a day later, I was diving back into the realm of flat escalators, felonious nail clippers, and the coveted exit row.

When I landed in Tokyo it was clear that I was not in America any longer. The people were smaller in stature, everything and everyone was moving in a calculated and concise manner, I couldn’t be understood no matter how loud I repeated myself, and half ton trucks were replaced with scooters. On the railway into downtown the thirty people surrounding me were completely silent. The trendiest subway activity in Japan is either staring at your smart phone or pretending to be asleep. The place runs as precisely as a Swiss watch. Everyone is on their way to the next destination, dressed in suits or dresses, not talking, not jaywalking, and doing everything to not upset the status quo. If a train says it will arrive at 10:34am you can bet your last cent that the train will be arriving 7 seconds before 10:34am, and at the moment that the watch hand lands on 34 the train cars will have just come to a complete stop. Of course I make all of these intelligent observations while stopping traffic to cross a main street, in shorts and a bright green tank top, simultaneously stuffing my face with delicious sashimi and doughnuts. As I reflect on the fact that these people have probably never seen a white person before and that’s why they are all staring at me, a giant thought punches something inside my brain. “They are staring at you because you are eating lunch in the middle of the street while wearing a shirt that can be seen from space, you dunce!”

Oh. Right.

After 19 failed attempts, two vending machine coffees, and one tattered subway map I finally kinda, sorta, somewhat, halfway figured out the subway system. I capitalized on this immediately and explored temples, sushi, shopping districts, a MASSSIVE fish market, a busy intersection, and much more sushi. It was a complete tourist blitz. Four days is not nearly enough time to explore this amazing city and incredibly hospitable people. I will be back with more time, more money, and hopefully a little more tact.

In Taipei I was greeted by a close friend of mine who resides in Taiwan. We took on Taipei in the same manner which I observed Tokyo. While we explored every tourist attraction from the zoo to heaven sent dumpling houses, I marveled at the dichotomy between the two cities. Taiwan was a far cry from the methodically precise style of Japan. Taiwan gives off the air of a younger sibling with much potential but who is just growing into its body. They have a train that can travel 180 mph but stop lights are still a suggestion. Some of the most technologically advanced composite manufacturing is located in the middle of active rice fields. Everyone has the newest nicest smart phones yet you sign all legal or official documents with a “chop” which is a rubber stamp. I got two weeks to explore and understand the nuances of this new country before leaving for two months of travel. It was basically two weeks of learning how to master scooter travel. Every foreigner has their one line of advice for driving in Taiwan.

“Don’t worry about what is going on behind you, just worry about what is in front.”

“If you think someone won’t do it, they probably will.”

“Drive like everyone is trying to kill you.”

“Watch out for the blue trucks because they’ll hit you and back up to make sure you’re done.”

“Black Mercedes, BMW’s, and Audi’s are usually gangsters. They will run you over”…..

“And right turns on red are illegal.”

Hold on. You are telling me that certain cars are known for hitting people, running red lights is common practice and right turns on red are illegal??! This would not be the first time that Taiwanese logic would feel like the equivalent of a 2×4 to the back of the head. Little did I know that the Taiwanese scooter life is a sanctuary of meditation in comparison to what we would find in Vietnam.

Coming from Alaska to cities of 15 million, 90 degree weather and languages that seem to be drawn instead of spelled is an experience. It takes a little effort to shift gears between cultures but no matter where you end up it seems that there is always cheap beer as a lubricant.

Castle Grayskull

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Castle Grayskull

Due to the fact that this will probably not portray a certain Girdwood based Hotel and Resort in the best light I have waited to write anything about my employer until I was long gone. I applied for a job to curb my cabin fever, score a free ski pass, and maybe not hemorrhage all my savings by the time I left Alaska. These three points made up the criteria I was using to apply to jobs. Forget resumes, references, and cover letters. I applied for the jobs which only requirement is a weekly shower. After two weeks of no response, I started formulating small conspiracy theories about where my applications had ended up. To prove the Keebler Elves and Al Gore are not running the internet out of their diabetes ridden castle, I decided to talk to the HR department in person. Trying to treat the human with the unsavory twitch, who has lost your applications (plural) in his inbox and whose only job it is to pass those applications along, with any modicum of respect is a STEEP uphill battle. Finally after swallowing a very bitter sample of the ineptitude of which was soon to come and practically forwarding the applications with my own hand, I thanked the mammal and left.

I did not get a call regarding any of my desired positions. Instead I got a call from the Engineering department. A full time job keeping the hotel running was not my optimal choice of ski bum employment, but after January’s monsoon season and the agreement that I would work on the night shift, I reluctantly agreed to start the following week.

The first two weeks I spent helping renovate one of the conference rooms on the 8th floor into a yoga studio. The project was a disaster. It was the equivalent of watching drunken fish try to learn how to walk. Walls were finished without the required electric work complete. Plumbing was off by multiple inches. The bathroom had to be retiled, not twice but three times. When I left the $2000 LED lighting still did not work. The blinds were re-hung three, maybe four times. As the new guy I was relegated to broom duty which was more than alright with me. I kept that floor damn clean as I watched progress regress and the most detailed example of inefficiency unfold. A two week project blossomed into a month long train wreck, and the fog began to lift bringing the situation to light. We were light bulb replacement technicians not engineers.

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Yep. Welcome to 5th grade shop class.

After a week and a half of day shift, I finally began working nights. Night crew was a reactionary force. Preventative maintenance was a term which the hotel had not heard in decades. Most of our time was spent sitting by and waiting for the archaic innards of the hotel to self destruct, usually at the inconvenience of some elderly Florida couple. “Sorry miss, I know it is 87 degrees in your room and you are cold but the two chimpanzees in your ceiling cannot shovel coal any faster. Do you have any amphetamines you can feed them? That sometimes helps…” Astonishingly, retirees accustom to Chrysler Sebrings, pharmaceutically induced sleep and Old Country Buffet outings have a really bad sense of humor. Our time was split as follows: 70% YouTube videos and in-depth NASCAR discussions, 15% checking the kitchens for extra food, 8% room calls (Chimpanzee strikes), 5% walking the hotel looking for burnt out light bulbs and 2% unclogging drains or documenting a problem for someone else to fix. After working a job which was directly related to profits, this was painful. The saving grace was that I could download books to my phone. This worked well for two reasons, I was staying entertained while off-handedly agreeing that Kyle Busch (NASCAR) is probably a communist, and if I possessed a real book I would usurp Mr. Busch as lead communist. The job was incredible in the sense that it actually existed. The other incredible aspect was that whenever anyone in the department was asked if we were busy, the standard response was “OH YEAH! We are probably going to need to work overtime this week.” This comment was coming from the same human who just spent an hour on YouTube watching cats blow things up with laser eyes.

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How many technicians does it take to plug in a ice machine?

Let’s not get the job confused with my coworkers. The night crew especially, was hard workers when it came down to it. It’s just that the job conditions did not provide a venue where those work habits could be put on display. There were a couple classic gems in the mix as well. The first week as I was eating my lunch in the shop, I over heard a particular coworker mutter behind me “My truck could beat a B-52.” This obviously had to be a joke. I turned around grinning, and was met with a dead serious face. Let’s call this individual Eremy for anonymity. “Eremy, could you explain what you mean?  In a race? In a fight?” I still believe that he was convinced that his response was true when he said “Both.” I was looking at him perplexed when another coworker jumped on the opportunity for an argument. In 45 seconds flat I went from eating a sandwich and reading some hippie book, to watching two adult males vehemently arguing whether a 2003 Dodge Ram could beat a multimillion dollar war plane capable of carrying almost 30 thousand pounds of explosives.

Facts by Eremy.

  1. His truck can beat a B-52 bomber.
  2. A grizzly bear’s brain is located in the back of its neck.
  3. A grizzly bear has retractable claws.
  4. He has a platinum snowmobile.
  5. He had a stroke last night and his 7 year old daughter drove him to the hospital.
  6. Steven Tyler is his cousin and Aerosmith is going to come play at his house.
  7. He avoided the law by moving to Ireland for ten years.
  8. He has never done drugs.

 

Following hot on the heels of the plane truck fight, I watched another character apply hand sanitizer to what was obviously a staff infection on his cheek. Concerned for his well being, I explained to him that he needed antibiotics immediately to keep this infection from spreading. That night he obtained his PhD online, and began a fool proof treatment of scraping it and applying tea tree oil. It took his face swelling to double its size and the sore turning snow white for him to see a doctor.

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Accidentally left this up after helping someone with their online class. Of course it equals peanut butter! Thanks.

The last diamond in the rough is George. He was the Romanian electrician who could out talk the women on The View any day, anytime. From what I could gather, he spoke 4 languages fluently, had 4-5 offspring in 2-3 countries, has run electric companies in Romania, Florida, and California, and was in Alaska to start prospecting. It is hard to convey George and his persona in print. Smiles, exaggeration, a vernacular mutt of an accent, non-stop ranting, unbelievable stories not fit for this blog, and an eastern European interpretation of law and social interaction all came together to make one very interesting human. If you ever meet him you will know because he will refer to someone or something as a ‘Babbalucci!’

In retrospect I was very thankful for these characters. Spending 8 hours waiting for light bulbs to go out so there is something to do is a painful process and interesting people are needed in such situations. In the end I got my ski pass, didn’t motor through my savings, and it was not difficult to say good by and good riddance to the hotel. I am confident in their ability to find someone more versed in YouTube searches and the track angle at Talladega. 

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Lightbulb stock.

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The sunset from the top of the tram wasn’t all bad.

Big League

With nature preparing the mountain canvas, we capitalized and drew lines on one of the most memorable runs I have ever had. It may be a little cliché to draw parallels between skiing and painting, but I am dive into this hackneyed theme anyhow. The stability of the snow pack writes the rules on what can be skied. With a widow-making facet layer at the base of the snow pack preventing everyone from skiing anything steeper than Lake Michigan for the first couple weeks of the season, when mother nature gave us the green light we took full advantage. It was the equivalent of driving 30 mph at a Grand Prix track and then getting the nod to take it to 200 mph; sweet relief. After a few days of observation and reading field reports it was obvious that a certain zone had been primed, sanded, primed again, and was ready for the paint brush.

The night before, word got out that there was a few of us heading in the direction of Big League. All of a sudden our numbers had blossomed from 3 to possibly 9, and we decided it would be best to split into two parties. The beauty of living in this town is that some of the best terrain can be reached from our driveway. An early start for the Girdwood scene, we woke up around 8:30 and were walking up the road an hour later. One person had opted out by the morning, so Coyle, Arron and I began the bushwhacking ascent of the first obstacle. The views from the first peak were spectacular. We were able to ogle our desired route from a distance like a creepy kid in science class. It was at this point that we met with the second half of our party. We refueled and chatted about the approach, the descent, snow conditions, hangover conditions, etc. Since the other group had a dog with them, the three of us would be the only ones heading up Big League. I had seen pictures of the planned route but it was usually on a cell phone, and there were a couple pints between the picture and my brain. Only when standing on the opposing peak did it dawn on me that this was real life, we were going to ski that, and it was BIG! The fear/anticipation cocktail which I had just inhaled had me blurting out redundant and obvious comments like, “WHOA, that is BIG!”, and “I really like how I packed my backpack today.” After I recovered from my pseudo stroke and re-booted my brain, we skied to the base of the valley.

Big league from Max's.

Big league from Max’s.

Mountain top rendezvous.

Mountain top rendezvous.

Different locations can give completely different perspectives of slopes, especially when there is not a quantifiable reference point. Looking up at a 3000 foot peak from the base, knowing that you have to get to the top provides a humbling and tiring perspective. The ascent began with a relentless switch back section, followed with us removing our skis and boot packing up the ridge. After a couple hundred feet of us avoiding the school bus sized, over hanging cornice on our left and navigating rime covered rocks, I noticed two things. A. There were two people ahead of us, and B. They were wearing crampons. Huh. It was time to cross our fingers that they were just being extra cautious. For the rest of the hike my eyes were focused primarily on foot placement. When I finally got to the top and looked around it was nothing less than breath taking. I could not tell how far away or how tall the mountains are, but I did get the overwhelming feeling that I am minuscule in comparison. As we tried to absorb as much of the views as we can before we have leave, Coyle spots the Chugach Powder Guide helicopter thousands of feet below us dropping off their clients at the TOP of their run. We make a few rapid fire jokes about the cost of a day of heli-skiing out of sheer envy, and get ready for our descent.

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View from the top.

CPG Helicopter at the bottom middle of the frame.

CPG Helicopter at the bottom middle of the frame.

Looking north-ish.

Looking north-ish.

The two people who were in front of us had just reached the valley floor when we inch out to the edge. One line looks like it goes to our right which is standard. The other line appears to go far left which would mean cliffs. We stick to our hazy memories of the face and plan to go right. There is a good vantage point 25 feet down the slope on a flat feature. One by one we ski down to this point, getting a feeling for the snow conditions in the process. We double check our radios. Arron will take the lead, Coyle will go next, and I am running sweep. Arron explains his route one more time, we give him the nod, and he drops in. There is a bit of slough (loose snow) moving so he sticks to the ridges. Soon he is out of view and we wait a few minutes until we see him flying across the valley floor at 60 mph. The radio crackles to life and a joyous hoot comes through the speaker. He confirms what we already expected regarding the snow conditions; loose but manageable. I try and give Coyle a confident look that says, “We are going to crush this!” but more likely looked as if I was trying to swallow a large strawberry without chewing. We discuss his route once more, he gives me the nod and away he goes. After he feels out the situation with a few turns, he opens it up a bit and takes off out of view.IMG_0367

Two humans dead center of the frame add some perspective.

Two humans dead center of the frame add some perspective.

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It is amazing what goes through your head when you are nervous, in a precarious spot, and all alone. “I should have brought extra socks. Dad would probably freak if he saw this. Should I spit out these gummy bears? The cliffs were all on the left. Wait, right!?? NO, definitely left. Stick with the original answer. Who told me that? OH, Ms. Culp, 7th grade biology. I wonder if she is still alive. Not the time for that. I should eat some more gummy bears.” Arron’s voice on the radio brings me out of my train wreck of a thought process and steps in before I can shove more gelatin carnivores down my hatch. “Stick to the right, it all goes.” I double check everything. Zippers zipped, buckles buckled, goggles are tight. Game time. I cut across a chute to gain the next ridge. Four turns, looks good. There is loose snow on either side of the ridge, I open it up and beat the slough. This is one of those wonderful moments when pure elation and instinct take the reigns. The crazy hemisphere of the brain which usually runs the show stands back and lets them boil everything down to the simplest form. Go faster. Take another turn. Avoid that cliff. Jump off this cliff. Nothing else matters except what is immediately in front of me. Before I know it I am that little spec doing 60 across the valley floor towards four cheering humans.

Our route.

Our route.

At the bottom.

At the bottom.

High fives were being passed around like cheap beer. To avoid being seen as a weirdo I stuck to the standard high five and refrained from hugging everyone. As the euphoria began to subside I turned and looked back to what we had just skied. The portrait which we had just drawn was an exhibition piece based purely on the moment. Each person’s line reflected a continuous stroke of split second choices. We stood in silence for a good minute as everyone admired each others masterpiece. Then, just like that, the moment was gone. “DUDE, what the hell were you thinking traversing over that cliff?” We began to question every little nuance about the run, describing in detail what we would have done differently if we could be back at the top. We sat and discussed and relived and tried to catch that feeling that was now just huge melt-able graffiti on the side of a mountain letting everyone know we had been there. Knowing that the euphoria would only be found on the next blank canvas, somewhere in the future, we headed down the valley. As we left our piece behind, there was some satisfaction to be had as we watched the other half of our original party draw their artistic conclusions further down the valley. There will be other days, and seemingly better runs, but none of us will forget our lines down Big League.

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Ski Train

A while back I got an invitation to join some people in an event called “The Ski Train.” I had no idea what the Ski Train was, but I was hungry for something to break up the rhythm of working, skiing, and beer. Rinsing, and repeating. Alright, that’s a lie, I didn’t want to break up that rhythm but I was just so intrigued by the title of the event. After acting like a year old who just got invited to Trampoline World, I started inquiring as to what this little activity was about. It was clear that we were to board a train at 6am in Anchorage, ride 4 hours north to an abandoned mining town called Curry, get off, ski, get back on, and finish the day with 4 hours back to Anchorage. This was the skeletal plan for the day. The fleshy details provided me with mixed emotion. “You can drink beer on the train!” Awesome! This was promptly followed by, “It’s a cross country skiing event!” Oh shit. The mental picture began to form in my head and it was that of a Prius driving, granola-eating, Zima-drinking, REI garage sale 4 hours away from anything and anybody. With the Ski Train a week away I began the mental preparations for this backcountry abomination.

 

Working nights means I typically finish around midnight. Due to the efficiency and the brilliant engineering that went into the hotel I am employed at, I got to stay an hour and a half later the night before Ski Train, cleaning ice blocks and snow drifts out of the intake fans. 5:15am came awfully early, and with 3 hours of sleep under my belt I sardined my gear into a car meant for humans with an average height of 5’5”, and took off for Anchorage. The train station parking lot was already filling up when we arrived. A solid procession of sleep depraved zombies with a bad cross country skiing habit was making their way to the awaiting train. We fell into step realizing these zombies might turn on us at any moment since we were the imposters trying to board with actual ski gear. That is when my mental image of how the day would progress began to crumble. Standing beside the train car was a lady waiting for something or someone. It was not the lady which began my slow paradigm shift, but her belongings. She was standing guard like a mother hen over three crock pots, a mini keg, and a couple racks of beer. These were not your typical cross country skiers; they were a long lost faction of tailgaters, cross country skiing tailgaters. And this was their Super Bowl.

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Early morning ski train.

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Peter, carbo loading for breakfast.

 

I was astonished and dismayed. Stashing my gear in and around our seats I couldn’t help thinking that I had made a horrible mistake. 10 beers were not going to be sufficient for a 12 hour long tailgate! Someone was forcing something into my hand and subsequently erasing all anxiety, it was a can of some of the worst beer I have ever put between my lips, Genesee. The sun was still a good hour away from showing its face, the train had just begun moving and people were already drinking. Ski Train was going to be one hell of an endurance race. We sat around playing cards and watching the world fly by for all of 15 minutes before the trail of aquatic costumes piqued our curiosity and we had to go explore. The Ocean themed car was full of humans dressed as jelly fish, sharks, Nemo, and even a under water thermal vent! I didn’t even make it that far on my first trip. I got shanghaied into a game of “Cards Against Humanity” with a group of random strangers. This is not a game for those with good standing karma credit. It is crass, highly offensive, racist, sexist, and if you have any shred of conscience I would not recommend it. But for those who are willing to crack a beer at 7 in the morning with random strangers, it’s a blast. Someone was pouring Bloody Marys, another person was cooking pancakes and sausage on the grill, a third was singing, and everyone was having a grand time. We politely ducked out of the card game stealing another bloody mary in the process, and made our way back to home base. An hour out from our destination and calories became our top priority. Summer sausage, an orange, a pulled pork sandwich and a handful of brownies solve the problem. Someone brought brie, but I believe that is equivalent of the sound check before a concert so that is why it was omitted. Fed and tipsy we arrived in Curry.

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Arrival mayhem.

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From a safety stand point this event seemed like a disaster. Inebriate hundreds of humans and set them loose in the middle of nowhere, on skis, with a foot of fresh snow and someone is going to at least get lost. Again, I underestimated the caliber of human we were dealing with. Getting off the train was pandemonium. Once people had their ski they took off without any visible plan. As non-nordic skiers we spotted the highest hill we could see, and aimed for that. Our group had diminished in size. Several of our members had pushed it a little too hard, a little too early. The snow was deep, the sun was out and the hiking conditions could not get any better. We disposed of our morning beers via sweat glands on the way up, and then celebrated the 1000 foot summit with…GASP…more beer. After the initial run, folks opted to head back to the train while a few of us decided to go for a second lap. At the top we heard the first train whistle blow signifying the trains warning call for departure. With the knowledge from the first run fresh in our minds we made good time back to the train and loaded up with the rest of the hooligans.

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Human sized rabbit.

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XXXtreme mountains.

 

I could not tell you how they were aware that everyone is back on the train. For all I know there is a Donner Party-esque event unfolding on as I type this. The train ride back to Anchorage was the fourth quarter of tailgating. If there was anything left in these people, now was the moment to leave it all out on the field. All or nothing. 110%. The slow cookers which had been slowly marinating a hodge podge of sausages, stews, pulled animal meat, etc. were finally opened. The polka band started marching up and down the train. Yes. Polka band. A DJ had set up shop beneath the ribbons and streamers of the underwater car. About this time the population of the train realized they had a personal vendetta against cheap beer and whiskey and did their best to eradicate it. If there is one thing about Alaskans is that when they do something they do it HARD. This was no exception. We arrived back to Anchorage amidst those who still stood strong, and those who had fallen…asleep on the train seat, floor, hallway, etc. Walking away from that train I can say that I will probably not get involved in cross country skiing, but I will always be glad to have a beer with those that are.

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Team players.

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Polka band.

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Sunset from Wasilla.

 

Tucker Time

It has been a while since I have written anything due to the fact that I have a “job”, and the skiing has been amazing. Yes, there are quotations around job. They are there for a reason. I will explain in a lengthy post at a later date. This little ditty is about a very random and chaotic day of skiing a week or two ago.

It was 8:47am and I was stumbling around the kitchen trying to find something to cover in Siracha and curb the repercussions of the previous night’s activities. During those activities I had made vague plans with an accomplice to drive out to Turnagain pass and do some ski touring. As I have stated before these conversations go something along the lines of, “Hey! You want to go hiking with me tomorrow??” The response is usually slightly less enthusiastic since what the recipient is hearing is, “Hey! I don’t have a car and want you to drive me to the pass. I might give you $5 or some left over beer from tonight for gas!” Either way, there was a reluctant agreement to carpool to the pass. Somewhere amidst me relearning how to walk while combining left over rice, an egg and fruit snacks, I miss the rallying phone call of said ride.

Everyone should be on Tucker Time. It would make my life a hell of a lot easier. All everyone would need to do is add 15 minutes to everything so I have a chance to catch up. I call my ride back at 9:03am. “Sorry, man we are just turning on to the highway. Maybe try and meet us out there?”  This reply was NOT what I wanted to hear but exactly what should be expected. I decide that I will hitch a ride with my roommate who is going out on his snow machine. Seems simple, right? Wrong. A 15 minute departure turns into 45 minutes. We are finally in the truck and pulling out onto Alyeska highway, when an expletive and U-turn let me know that we are not done with town. After picking up two gas cans at his sisters, we are now comfortably cruising along the highway when, BAM! He has the brakes locked up and we are skidding at a cool 45 mph. I am startled to say the least. I question him about this sketchy maneuver while simultaneously swearing. As he shifts the truck into reverse to make a driveway 35 yards behind us, he replies, “Sorry dude, I always forget where Carlos lives.” Two more gas cans and a cot, and we are back on the highway…going the opposite way. “Sorry bro, I forgot to get beer.” Why he chose to go to the grocery store for beer, when we were about to have the most arduous gas filling experience of my life at a gas station which sells the exact same beer for the exact same price is beyond me. With enough beer for a rugby team now in the cab we arrive at the gas station. I find myself playing musical chairs with 13 gas cans, a snowmobile and a truck. Our other roommate pulls up and I give him an incredulous look, barely masking my frustration. He laughs and says “Dude, you are on Kaki Time.”

Two and a half hours since I agreed to hitch a ride, I make it to the pull out beneath a mountain called Eddies. As I am eagerly pulling my gear out of the car, my roommate rounds the corner of the truck, hands me a beer, looks into the distance and says, “Bro, I forgot my coat.” I flinch and start to back away slowly, hoping that Kaki Time is not contagious. As the truck pulls away, I begin upwards, fully aware that I will never catch my original companions. The mountain has some safe, low angle aspects which I feel confident skiing alone so I fall into the familiar rhythm of ascent.

Lost in some highly profound thoughts about how many pounds of gummi bears I have consumed in the last 4 days and if it could cause damage to my insides, I realize that I am looking at an iPhone sitting in the snow. I pick it up, turn it on, and displayed on the screen is a message from Tucker Havekost. This is my original hiking partner’s phone with the last text message I sent him, sitting a mile away from the road in the middle of the woods. Dumb luck. Tossing the phone in my pack I continue on.

The sky is showing promises of becoming clear but until that time comes a bank of fog is lying at around 2500 ft, and anything above is going to be like skiing via brail. I decide to take a few laps underneath the cloud bank. The snow is great, untracked, and deep. High speed, hippy pow turns! I am all smiles when I reach the bottom of my second lap. Apparently so are the five folks which have just come down in front of me. Quickly making introductions and weaseling my way into their midst, I now have companions to summit with, if the clouds clear…and less importantly, a ride back to town. As we are slowly racing our way back up, silently comparing our fitness level to those around us, the clouds pop. The sun shines through and every mountain in the Chugach range comes out to flaunt its majestic beauty. The magnitude of this state will never get old. We decide that the snow is stable enough to make the push to the summit. Upon arrival, we all assume the Asian tourist stance and take a million pictures of the panorama which surrounds us. The view slowly loses ground to the 2500 vertical feet which is our route down, and suddenly everyone is peering over the edge, deciding which route down will be the best. Assuming the sweep position since I am the random guy, I wait until everyone has made it to the safe zone far below in the valley. Small clouds roll through and I wait for a break. It comes and all the effort which got me to the top is completely justified. Huge, steep turns cancel out the gas station escapade, a small cliff feeding into an untracked gully make up for the Family Circus style route out of town, and the remaining residue of impatience is inundated by pure bliss. As I head back to the car with a smiling group of new friends, I am amazed at how well the day turned out.

Sitting in the front seat watching the sun go down over the Turnagain Arm on the way back to town, the beeping of two iPhones in my pocket let me know we are back in cell range. I look at mu buddies phone and see that his girlfriend had locked the keys inside his truck and was really, really sorry. Looking at my phone, it tells me that the previous phones owner is already at the bar. When we show up to the Silvertip, it is the standard après skiing conversation. Each party asks how the other’s day went, anything out of the ordinary, snow conditions, etc. As I learn about my original party’s 3 hour wait on the top of the peak waiting for the clouds to clear, I decide to keep my exquisite day to myself and respond with the typical, “It was pretty good.” Then Dan looks at me in disbelief as I hand him his phone back and add, “AAAaaaannnd Molly just locked your keys in your truck. Sorry.” Just one more example of why everyone should be on Tucker Time.

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Top of the ridge.

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Inhibiting cloud cover.

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New friendlies.

 

 

 

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The way down.

 

Foot in Mouth Disease

“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This quote, most recently associated with Julius Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, appropriately sums up my vehicular luck. Alright, maybe death can be replaced with “Tucker” and worlds can be replaced with “automobile,” but you get the point. In the last two months I have rendered three vehicles highly inoperable. Before my departure from Washington, my trusty Subaru Outback finally succumbed to the years of abuse which I had unceremoniously subjected it to. The final 12 months of the Subaru was equivalent to a ship which was constantly being patched to keep it afloat…except boats do not take multiple snow banks at high speeds, have burn marks from fireworks in the ceiling upholstery, blown shocks from trying to emulate zero gravity by rallying logging roads at 50 mph, duck taped (and occasionally smoking) headlights, a blown head gasket, dodgy brakes and a litany of internal and external cosmetic “blemishes.” I guess the only parallel that we can draw is that a boat does not have a muffler either. It is safe to say that the Subaru was a barely rolling death trap. With two weeks left in a job which was 40 miles away from my home, the Subaru finally rolled over and admitted defeat. Thus concluded the existence of victim number one.

So with warranted trepidation, and sadness, my dear father handed me the keys to his VW van. I promptly had a friend fill in for me on my destructive path while I tried to scrounge up some level of responsibility for this van, and break off the inside door handle. Crap. I was coming out the gate on this race 3 strides back, and the outlook did not look promising. Following the door handle incident, I went ahead and fried the fuse which runs the heater, and radio. Double crap. Now 6 furlongs behind, I had to really tighten the screws to have a chance at finishing this race. The following 5 days were nothing but a concentrated attempt to return this vehicle in one slightly dilapidated, but operable piece. With a few days left, I was rounding the last corner and could see the finish line. On one morning commute I went to shift down and …no response. Shift again, let the clutch out, nothing. Maybe it’s a fluke. I am doing something wrong. Try again…nothing. As I coasted to a stop somewhere between Carnation, WA and Monroe, you probably would have expected a triple crap out of me. Guess again. The string of expletives which came out of my mouth could probably be tried in court of law. At 8 in the morning on the way to the work Christmas party, on the side of the road, I found myself eyeing the two bottles of wine I had brought for the festivities. Frustration and anger was bubbling up and my only thought was, “Drown it with the wine!” That is reason number 834 why I am neither a doctor nor a therapist. A few more sidelong glances at my seemingly only option, and I skipped the DUI and possible indecent exposure charge and called a tow truck. My expert and thorough examination of the issue led me to believe that the transmission broke. Don’t ask me any further details of the problem because as far as I am concerned transmissions run on magic, and pixie dust. The race results were in and I had been disqualified for bad luck, karma, and being an absolute dunce. Two victims down.

The story of the third car is amazing just due to the fact that I do not even own a vehicle in Alaska. A combination of factors led me to yesterday’s event. The snow has been absolutely dismal. When precipitation comes off the gulf, it comes as rain. The rain which came at the end of last week was promptly followed by three days of sub-zero temperatures. This one-two punch turned what should have been knee deep powder snow into water based asphalt. The bullet proof snow, my severe A.D.D. from lack of outdoor activity and a good friend leaving her car to me for the week, all set the stage for the third termination of a vehicle.

Scene three: third vehicle enters from stage left looking rather guarded. Not being able to ski in town at the lower elevations, I took off to Turnagain pass, with the intention of getting above the ice layer. I noticed the battery light was on, but I had driven the Subaru for a year with the check engine light, brake light, battery light, and a really mean looking light which resembled a caricature of Satan himself, all blazing away like runway lights on my dashboard, so I paid this one no mind. About 18 miles into the drive, while I was trying to teach Jay-Z how to rap properly in this hybrid spaceship/mini-van, a little skip in the acceleration made me realize that the battery light was on for a reason. Trying to ignore the obvious, I cranked the tunes a little higher and explained to Mr. Jay-Z that he needs to dress in all black, everyday, if he ever wanted to be at the top to the East coast rap game. It didn’t help. As the pedal hit the floor board, and the car lifelessly coasted to a stop, it dawned on me that I was 5 miles outside of cell service. With no wine to stare at, I tried to start the Previa about 25 more times to no avail. It’s just in my nature to try something 20 times after it doesn’t work the first 5 times. Some people call it optimism, others call it autism. Hitch hiking being the only option, I grabbed the essentials and got to work flaunting my thumb on the side of the highway.

When the 98th sled-neck in a jacked up F-350 Super Duty with a Crew cab containing only 2 people blazed past me I started wondering exactly how sketchy or scary I actually look to other people. While I chewed on this for a few minutes a 2012 Camaro flew by me while slamming on the breaks. As I jogged down the shoulder, I started to absorb the small details of this fine vehicle. Namely, the HUGE skull and cross bones airbrushed on the all sides of the car including the hood. With a slight hesitation I jumped in, inhaled my yearly allotment of cigarette smoke, and started profusely thanking the driver. The driver had obviously taken the fashion advice I meant for Jay-Z, and was wearing a black leather jacket (circa 1990’s garage bands), black Carhartts and black boots. Trying to hold a conversation over the deafening Shinedown seemed daunting but I tried anyhow. His name was Eddie and he was heading out to Dutch Harbor to work a few shifts on a crabbing boat, he lived down south, missed his plane and now had to drive to Anchorage. I have never been known to have a silver tongue, I leave that realm for my brother, but it surprised even me that I can literally fit my whole foot into my mouth. Obviously anyone who airbrushes the name of their boat on the side of their brand new car is proud of it, and expects a little recognition. Not being a frequenter of TV, let alone the Discovery Channel, I failed to put the two together and started firing off about The Deadliest Catch. I bluntly stated that I found it comical that this TV show had propelled your standard dirt bag fisherman into celebrity status, which was followed by a few moments of awkward silence, and then Eddie reached over and turned the music up even further. This was one cue I could understand, and spent the next 15 miles wondering how many noses Eddies’ sledge hammer fists had actually broken. By the time we got to the gas station, it had given me enough time to finally figure out the math, and I decided I wanted some proof that I had hitched a ride from this AK celebrity. Getting out of a car while thanking the driver who you have just insulted, all the while trying to use your non-existence ninja skills to take a picture of the paint job without letting them notice is a trick only James Bond should attempt. It was met with an obvious glare of displeasure, and proof that his car can go 0-60 quicker than anything I have ever operated.

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The rest of the day and majority of the following day was spent finding a tow truck which could handle a Japanese space ship. After all the logistics had been hammered out and the tow truck arrived, I could not help but laugh when the driver got out wearing a Deadliest Catch sweatshirt. He was incredible impressed by my story of the previous day in which I had purposely omitted my folly. Due to the fact that I may have twisted the story a wee bit, and it probably came off like I was now on a first name basis with Eddie from the Time Bandit, the total mileage of the tow came out 15 miles shorter than it actually was. Not sure if I should be feeling guilty or jubilant, I drove back to Girdwood in a borrowed truck praying that I was not working my gremlin voodoo on my fourth victim in two months.

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Maybe someday I will have a car that won’t commit suicide, and the status so that I can airbrush something bad ass on the sides of said vehicle, but until I do, I need to keep my big mouth shut. Oh, and don’t let me borrow your car unless you are trying to pull some weird insurance scam. Eddie, if you ever read this, I owe you some beers.

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This is just a really good sunset I got the other day while hiking.