Thursday, February 24, 2011

127 hours, and then some

Slot canyon near Page, AZ

Yesterday I returned from a week in Wisconsin, where I visited with family, celebrated my mom's 87th birthday and got reeducated on Wisconsin's politics. Jon met me at the airport and we headed home. I was yawning most of the way having not had much sleep the night before as I was engrossed in a book and, once asleep, sleeping fitfully as I worried that the alarm wouldn't go off at 6:30 a.m.

After unpacking my bounty of cheese (through which the TSA had rummaged then not put away as tidily as I had), we lounged around the house before deciding to go to the movie at the Bear Tooth. The movie: 127 Hours. You know, the one where Aron Ralston is trapped by a boulder in a slot canyon and must amputate his arm with a dull knife or die.

We've hiked in a few slot canyons in southern Utah and Northern Arizona. They're intriguing, sometimes magical-feeling places - once you get over your claustrophobia and fear of getting washed away in a flash flood. I even remember climbing over a boulder that was wedged in a tight canyon. We had to climb over it to lower ourselves to the next level. It was very similar to the one in the movie and I remember worrying that it would roll over me. A guy we know was in line next to us and said that in the canyon country, they now call them "Ralstones." Hmm. Not such an unreasonable fear after all.

Slot canyon near Page, AZ: from the surface, it's just a crack in the rock...

but when you climb in, it's an earthen maze.

Spoiler alert ahead!
Aron gets trapped early in the film, yet the director took the time to show us a character who was adventurous, but also self-centered and careless. Nobody knew where he was because he didn't give anyone an idea of where he was going. Pilots know: always file a flight plan. That's good advice even if you're just heading out for a dayhike, I guess.

When Aron finally gets serious about cutting off his arm, he first breaks it, knowing he can't cut through the bone with the cheap knife he's made more dull by chipping away at the boulder with a delusion that he can dislodge it. The toughest thing to cut is the nerve and I had to look away each time they showed him attempting to go at it. Awful, awful! But then, as we know, he gets out. He wrapped the stump of his right arm and is heading down the canyon where he then rapels down to a water hole. He's drinking the rank water from a pool. That's when I heard something and looked to my left.

Jon's head was tipped back as if to look at the ceiling. I thought he would be sick. I pulled his empty beer glass closer and reached for his head, looking at his eyes. They were rolled back. He was out. Oh shit! I was saying his name as Aron walked away from the pond to his new life. "Jon, Jon." He wasn't moving so I just started calling out: "Doctor." I was close to panic. Louder: "Doctor, is there a doctor?" What if it was a heart attack? I know he's healthy, but these things happen.

Soon we were surrounded by people. A nurse reached for his wrist to find a pulse. Someone asked me what happened. They got him to stand up and walked almost as a unit to the lobby while I collected our jackets and found my bag which had dropped to the floor. I left the uneaten pizza on the table and followed.

Someone had already called 911. Jon was in the lobby sitting on one of the benches as the doctor and nurse questioned him and checked his pulse again, consulting each other on what they thought it was. The movie had ended and people were walking out, looking. Gerald, the physician's assistant who works for our doctor showed up to see what was happening and he stayed with us as the medics arrived and checked Jon. But they wanted to take him out on a gurney. "Do you have to?" Jon asked, insisting he could walk. They loaded him up and wheeled him out.

In the parking lot the doctor gave me her card. (She had told me she was a pediatrician and I assured her that this was the perfect doctor for a middle-aged guy. Sorry, it runs in my family to joke at serious times, ala Dr Hibbert of the Simpsons.) Gerald told me we were doing the right thing by going to the E.R., and I agreed, if only to make sure there was nothing serious wrong.

Jon and I got to the emergency room at about the same time. When I went into the room, he was hooked up to a monitor, answering questions posed by the nurse. When he had a free moment, he asked if I'd gone back in for the pizza. "Sorry," I said. "I knew you'd be thinking about that."

The E.R. doctor gave the same diagnosis as the pediatrician. Pretty simple: he had fainted. The discharge instructions say that these vasovagal symptoms "may be brought on by emotional distress, pain, dehydration, bleeding or medications effects." They might add to the list, watching a movie that includes a graphic scene of someone amputating his own arm. If you go to the movie, which I still would recommend, be sure to have some water on hand and a little hand-held fan. If you feel faint, don't stand up. And don't be surprised if someone calls for a doctor.

In doing a little research, I've learned that Jon isn't the only one who has fainted at 127 Hours. It's a pretty powerful scene. Had I known, I still would have gone to the movie, but I may not have reacted quite so drastically to his fainting. Or, maybe I would have, because you never know. Either way, I can't wait to see the questionnaire from the insurance company asking Jon to explain this incident.
Here's what Ralston and the actor who plays him, James Franco, say about how to watch the movie.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

frosty visions

In mid-January when we were biking on the icy waterways and the mudflats, I was intrigued by the frost formations on the ice, on the marsh grass, on everything. My bike ride today in sprinkles and temperatures just above freezing reminded me of some of the images I captured during the January cold spell.

South Anchorage and mountains

crystal crust


winter blossoms spring from the mudflats


Monday, February 7, 2011

revolutionary invention makes butts appear slimmer

For your consideration:

My butt, on Mavic rims and 2.1 tires.
Not bad...*

My butt on 80mm Rolling Darryl rims with 3.8 Larry tires.

*Thanks to Karen Lee for sending me this picture of my butt on the White Rim Trail.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


My idea of a perfect ski trail.

I ski the way I bike. By that I mean I prefer skinny trails that are less traveled than the pristinely-groomed, often-wide ski trails laid down by the local ski club. Don't get me wrong; I do use the groomed multi-use trails, sometimes even for skiing. But typically I'll use them to get from one narrow trail to another, connecting the dots between one technical experience and another while on my snow bike.

And that's how I ski, too: use a wide trail to get to a narrow one that twists through the birch- and spruce-forested park. Or branch off cross-country to explore off-trail (something I can't do on my bicycle). Two of my favorite ski experiences of last year were off the Powerline Trail in the front range of the Chugach Mountains that climb from the foothills on the east side of Anchorage. (You can read about them here and here.)

Powerline cuts through a wide valley and is heavily traveled, but once you leave the trail and cross the Campbell Creek, you could go the rest of the day and encounter no other skiers. While enjoying brilliant spring skiing last April (yes, April) I realized I wasn't properly equipped for the outings that I loved the most. So I started shopping. Rather, I started asking questions: what gear should I be using? Because what I was using just wasn't cutting it in the backcountry.

New backcountry ski (left) compared to my mid-90s classic.

I was skiing on the classic "touring" skis I'd purchased the first winter I lived in Anchorage. They were the first skis I'd ever owned and marked my commitment to living here. I would embrace the winter, I had told myself. And I did. But I found that the groomed and tracked ski trails that my membership to the ski club promised were just not my cup of tea. I'm not that good at skiing but after a while I found the groomed trails to be uninteresting.

Which brings us to this winter.

At Christmas Jon gave me a gift card to my favorite ski shop in town, Alaska Mountaineering & Hiking (AMH). There I found most of the backcountry equipment I needed (though I did find boots that fit me better at REI). I bought my gear, then waited for enough snow. Through the melting of early January; through the deep freeze of the middle of the month; then, finally we began getting some snow cover. Friday, February 4, began cold and clear. A calm, perfect February day.

In the early afternoon I gathered my gear and headed for Glen Alps where a few people had packed down the Powerline Trail. Instead of heading up the shaded valley, I skied down toward the city. I watched another skier carve into the snow as he swung onto a trail that ducked into the trees. Then I pointed my skis toward the same trail.

When I pushed off, the metal edges cut into the wind-crusted snow making the turn so much easier. I could snowplow a little to slow my speed, my ankles stable inside the higher boots. Then I headed onto a narrower, singletrack trail. The skis, with their hourglass shape were stable and, again, I could take the tight turns a little better.

They handle great!

That first outing was kind of a short one, but I spent some time practicing turns on the descent before climbing back up to the trailhead. If we keep this good snow, I have another way to enjoy the winter with better gear for the backcountry. Don't worry, though, you'll still see me on my snow bike.