Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’

AK Ingenue: One Step Further Away

Written by leehart on April 5th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

As I gaze out the window at snow-capped mountain-ringed Prince William Sound, the impending debut of Google’s sci-fi glasses gives rise to conflicting reactions: James Bond cool vs. obnoxious, handy vs. intrusive, useful vs. detrimental. The “glasses” set to debut later this year stream a steady flow of info – inputs and your responses to them – in front of your eyes essentially acting like a nosy personal assistant on your shoulder or, quite literally, in your face in this case. Check out the Mashable post and watch the short video to better and quickly understand this new sci-fi technology.

The glasses have a certain Jetsons vibe to them but I worry that as all the little pop-ups and messages flash in front of my face I may bump into more things – people good, light poles bad. Will I love them so much I never want to take them off – cool if they could record dreams, though that’s undoubtedly a long way off.  Will all the input just turn into annoying foreground noise? People are already abusive enough with cell phones, answering calls and texting at restaurants or other face-to-face meetings, how much more distracted will they become with glasses that turn up the volume on our already always-on multitasking society? Will such glasses improve my life or just distance me even further from real life connections to people, surroundings, happy coincidences and chance encounters. Undoubtedly more useful in urban settings, would they be of any use or would I even want them if I was in the middle of nowhere or the end of the road in an outpost like Valdez.

Can they smell the roses?

Whether in some far flung corner of the world, here in Valdez, or deep in a national park closer to home in the Lower 48, any place where the raw environment demands undivided attention, the senses become re-connected and recharged. It is liberating and humbling to re-focus on the rhythms, mysteries and instincts that most of we residents of First World nations have long since forgotten yet peoples of Third World countries are often so much more intimately knowledgable. Living in harsh or extremely fragile environments, as well as more privileged pursuits like blue water sailing, climbing unnamed peaks, or backpacking deep into the wilderness, heightens awareness of the signals around you and can profoundly change your priorities.

Here in southeast Alaska, if the storm is coming from the Bering Sea it will be an entirely different experience than if it’s coming up the Pineapple Express from Hawaii or any other directions. The clouds, wind direction and temperature changes all offer clues to what’s in store. Internet technology and color-coded satellite imagery grant access to dozens of weather cams to help estimate the expected arrival and intensity of the approaching storm.

People in more remote places as well as folks like farmers who are more rooted to the earth are more keenly attune to whether the harbingers of seasonal change are earlier or later than usual – the annual fall rut, the return of the robins, the sprouting of crocuses, changing of the leaves – and other hints on what’s in store for the coming season.

The courses and livelihoods of sailors and fishermen are intrinsically tied too other ocean factor like tides, currents and the life cycles and migration habits of various species of fish and sea mammals. Though modern telemetry and GPS takes a lot of the guesswork out of navigation at sea, the best mariners as well as airmen can, when the electronics fritz out or fail as electronics invariably do, rely on good old-fashioned celestial navigation like their predecessors from long ago times.

Here at the intersection of small town America and impossibly vast stretches of wilderness I have become keenly aware that I and my fellow humans are decidedly not at the top of, but rather part of, the food chain, a Scooby snack for needs-driven predators with no conscience or discrimination between the different options for fresh meat on the hoof. On the way back from our ski tour above the Shoup Glacier the other day, we spotted fresh bear tracks following the skin track we’d put in a couple short hours earlier. We scanned the terrain around us. Maybe the bear was waiting for us at the cabin or perhaps licking its lips while watching from a lair we couldn’t see.

A few short days after arriving, the Aurora Borealis, aka Northern Lights, put on a spectacular display though sadly, I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the vicinity who missed it. The next day, a friend turned me onto the Aurora Forecast app that helps predict the arrival of the ethereal light show and while the forecast was good I still missed it, though not for lack of getting up every few hours and stepping outside to try to catch it. Technology has never been an antidote to bad timing or luck.

Improvisation, creativity and resourcefulness are valued traits and even key to survival for anything from car and home repairs to cooking, clothing and even those times, more prevalent than in the Lower 48, when even the most innocuous outing turns suddenly and unexpectedly desperate.

In places like this, ignoring your gut instinct can cost you your life.

So where do Google goggles and other such tech in the pipeline fit into the big picture? Though not their intended target market, would or could Google goggles be of any use to less technologically conjoined communities like indigenous tribes in the Amazon, a drought-stricken family on the brink of existence in sub-Sahara Africa or a nomadic herder on the Mongolian steppe? As mom and solo traveler Darcey wrote:  “My time on the steppe gave me a feeling of freedom that was unusual and healing. The girl in me who still lives with the upturned cardboard box as an end table doubly appreciated that freedom . . . In Mongolia, I found everything I sought for myself: peace, quiet, stunning beauty, and a way of life that persists doggedly in the modern world, despite an increasingly vulnerable environment.”

I’m sure the goggles will sell well and be embraced by urban hipsters and high rollers. Such products will likely increasingly become an intrinsic part of daily life, especially once future iterations make them smaller and less obtrusive. Wistfully, I would argue that Google goggles are yet another gadget taking us yet another step further from primal connections to people, animals, and all the natural drama, force and beauty of nature that are already available to us if we just make space to tune into them by filtering out some of the modern noise we’ve collectively come to accept as essential to our lives but really isn’t. For that, I guess we still will have to have the self-discipline to unplug, turn off the electronics from time to time and get out there and, in a manner of speaking, run naked and connect with the wild again. Even less poetically, how many happy coincidences and chance encounters will we miss out on by being guided by our goggles.

Ultimately, as Forbes noted in their tongue and cheek pro/con review about how Google goggles will and won’t revolutionize life, love or hate them, there’s no turning back; the future is only a matter of time.



AK Ingenue: Sticker shock

Written by leehart on March 10th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

I’ve started a list of the things that take my breath away here in Valdez: the stunning scenery – like the Alps on steroids, the cold when the wind blows out of the north, nearly eating it walking on the ice-caoted streets, the steepness and length of the descent and the price of groceries.

This, coming from someone who has lived in Telluride where I remember audibly gasping at the price of butter the first time I went to the Village Markup, as the Market is called by locals, to buy groceries. My roommates in Revelstoke thoughtCooper’s the lone grocery option in town was price gouging, and prices were steep. But Telluride, Revelstoke, Hawaii and New Zealand are bargains compated to Valdez.

Not only are the prices high but the breadth of selection and depth of quality are just depressing. Tuesdays are tragic. The delivery truck comes in Tuesday night. You could diet and save money at the same time if you committed to shopping only on Tuesdays. Wednesday’s a different story. Fresh and different produce arrives and is priced on the shelves priced .

Thankfully,there is a health food store. Rogues’ Garden on Fairbanks St., that has a pretty decent selection of groceries but again the prices are just silly high. I stood  a long time deciding how badly I wanted to make homemade Hummus as my mind reeled at the $11.95 price tag for a 16 ounce jar. It went against my savvy shopping instinct. I put the jar in my basket then put it back on the shelf twice before deciding that this was simply a new grocery reality I’d have to buck up and pay. Still, by far, THE most expensive jar of tahini I’ve ever purchased.

Welcome to Valdez.




AK Ingenue: Hanging out at the Glacier

Written by leehart on March 4th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Valdez glacier, crevasse rescue practice

I tagged along today as the H2o Guides staff  ventured out to practice crevasse rescue. The magnificent Valdez Glacier is on the outskirts of town, just past the airport. In true AK style, we got on our skis and were towed up behind snowmobiles to the practice site. We traveled over a frozen lake to a big iceberg that had a nice vertical wall. Glaciers are alive so the feature we played on today may not be here next season or it may just relocate to another part of the lake. Once the main route miners took inland during the great Gold Rush of the late 1800s, these days this area is a snowmobilers playground. In the summer, local outfitters guide people to this same spot  . . . by boat.

While the guides worked to dig in anchors, prep their lips and set up their mechanical advantages, I took photos. It was a bluebird day at the glacier and bonus: uncharacteristically wind-free. Setting up for a crevasse rescue is tedious business. I got bored and happily volunteered to be the “victim” and get hoisted up the iceberg face. I walked to the base of the ice face with Chris who made sure I got my crampons on, rigged up and a gave me a few pointers about being rescued, namely, help if you can.

I had fun front-pointing on the ice as Mike single-handedly hoisted me up the ice face using a 6:1 mechanical advantage. Cool! Thinking that was fun I volunteered to be a victim again. This time, I was asked to act unconscious. The iceberg wall here was slightly overhanging so I couldn’t front point and walk up the face anyway so “acting” unconscious was easy. I was going to just dangle. After being hoisted a couple dozen feet off the ground my progress stalled. I took pictures of the surrounding scenery. I took pictures of myself. I could eavesdrop on the conversation a couple hundred yards away where Dean was leading the beacon search practice. I was getting dripped on by melting ice from the overhanging wall. I thought about Chinese water torture. It made me remember why ice climbing never held that much appeal. I tucked my camera away to keep it safe from the drips. Clouds started rolling in. I dangled on.

Suspended animation continued. I was tried spinning around for a different view.  I saw Dean look my way then get on his snow machine to come see what was up. After checking out the scene, he yelled down to me what was already pretty obvious, the rope was fouled. So basically, what started as a practice session had turned pretty real. I dangled a while longer. Once the rope situation was finally straightened out, the guys made short work of hoisting me the rest of the way up the ice face.

They thanked me for being a good victim. I’m thinking someone owes me a beer.

Valdez glacier, crevasse rescue practice, sunnier times

Jeremy (on the rope) and Max (on the ground)

Dean Cummings, Valdez Glacier, crevasse rescue practice

Dean Cummings inspects Max's anchor

Valdez glacier, practice crevasse rescue

Aaron hoists solo

Valdez glacier, crevasse rescue practice

Self portrait, hanging out at Valdez Glacier









Introducing: Alaska Ingenue, a Cinderella story

Written by leehart on February 26th, 2012. Posted in AK adventures

Welcome to incomparable Alaska

Welcome to incomparable Alaska

This marks the start of the chronicles of my first adventure in Alaska with my client Dean Cummings’ H2o Guides. I had just barely started to scratch the surface of all the amazing in-bounds, side- and backcountry terrain in Revelstoke and then opportunity knocked and poof, gone! So from a 24-hour drive north of Salida, Colorado I’ve landed norther of Colorado. The goal of AK Ingenue is to share with you what I expect to be an amazing introduction to living, working and  playing Alaska-style. Watch my Facebook page to find out about the next installments where you’ll join me for the full gamut of winter fun including all kinds of skiing, snow machining, ice-climbing, some insider glimpses of the heliski biz and more.

Karen Cummings, Salmonberry sidecountry

Karen Cummings, Salmonberry sidecountry

It’s been a week since I touched down in Valdez thanks to the unflappable piloting skills at Grant Aviation. The day after I landed was a momentous occasion, the official opening day of Salmonberry Ski Hill.  I sprang for the $10 season pass and  joined Dean’s wife Karen, and kids Wyatt and Tesslina – in breaking in the new rope tow.  It’s actually a kind of re-opening since there was a ski hill in the same location in the late ’80’s that’s been dormant until Karen rallied local civic leaders to bring the hill back to life. The four-minute rope tow takes folks 1100 feet to the top of a rolling hill. While Wyatt and Tess did a lap, Karen led me off-piste for a couple fresh turns – literally – a couple.

The next day, I needed to get to town for some shopping – it’s just a 20 minute walk but – but Dean offered to give me a ride. In case you haven’t heard, while many ski areas in the Lower 48 were languishing in drought, Valdez was getting hammered. There’s just under 40 feet of snow in town, about a 100 foot base in the

Yellow Taxi, Valdez style

Yellow Taxi, Valdez style

mountains. Fun to play in, deep snow creates havoc on buildings and roads and big equipment to move it all is a pretty common sight around town so it was little surprise that my commuter vehicle was big and yellow. This past week has been all work work work. So I joined the gym to keep in shape in between ski excursions. Prince William Sound Community College has a public fitness center where you can “rent” nordic ski gear and snowshoes for free which came in handy when I joined Karen and her friend Jen on a quick snowshoe jaunt at Dock Point.

Snowshoe view, Dock Point, Valdez AK

Snowshoe view, Dock Point, Valdez AK

All work and no play, at least no real ski play, was starting to make me and the H2o crew a bit twitchy so when  Dean gave the guys – Ryan, Chad, Paul, Elliot and Max – the day off, we all hopped in a van and headed up to Thompson Pass. Quite the views on the way up and we saw two moose (meese?). The ice in Keystone canyon is amazing.

It was a first in many ways today. Just before leaving Revy, I had transferred my Dynafit bindings from my retired Sugar Daddys to my new sweet, fat H2o Outdoor Gear Kodiak 162’s (120 under foot). Today was their first test drive. I was also test driving new skin technology from Gecko. The skis are amazing and the Gecko’s worked just fine. I’m still dialing in my Scarpa Gea’s which I love because they’re so light and comfy and easy to get in/out of but they’re just a wee bit big for me and it became really clear today I still need to work to fill up some volume and get rid of slop.

Couple o’ quick takeaways from today:

Scale is out of whack here: The terrain is bigger than it looks; it’s colder than it seems.

You can gain an astounding amount of vert in just three hours of skinning.

I need to work toward a bit more graceful steep uphill skin track kick turn.

I can’t wait to go again. It’s dumping right now and expected to do so for the next couple days and taper off by the end of the week.

Sorry about the background noise in the video below. It was a little windy on the saddle.