Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ski culture in the Vermont backcountry

With four feet of fresh powder falling last week, it did not take much for me to accede to a friend’s invitation to Mad River Glen. Known for its challenging terrain, minimalist approach to snowmaking, and single chair, Mad River—“Ski it if you can,” blares their bumper sticker—is a simple and traditional resort. It’s the kind of place where ownership is cooperative, snowboarders aren’t allowed, and most people in the lift lines are old friends. Access to one of the few slopeside condos is not something to be taken lightly.

As post-dump hordes assembled—the ticket office closed at 10:30—Mad River’s minimalist approach backfired rather spectacularly. The power in the valley went down, leaving only one lift working on the entire mountain. This, the single chair, remained in service because it is so old that it actually runs on diesel. Thousands of people were forced to wait up to an hour to get to the top of the mountain. Mad River did give out vouchers for a free day of skiing to those who called it a day before three, but I missed the cut after foolishly trying to maximize my time on the slopes and getting stuck in “Upper Glades” around 2:55.

So on Sunday, we ditched for the more intrepid slopes of Camel’s Hump, which is true skiing backcountry. Unlike the New Hampshire ridges that I am more familiar with, Vermont seems to have many open forests high on its mountains—beech and birch glades instead of dense Spruce-Fir forests. Whatever the reason, it makes for superb skiing. Only without a lift, you’re in charge of getting yourself to the top.

The most efficient way is to strap a pair of skins to the bottom of your skis and “skin” up. The hairs on the skins angle so that ski can move forward but not back. For the original enthusiasts of ski touring, as the sport is known, skins were just that—an animal product—useful for getting around (or after animals) in the winter. Even today, the sport is far more popular in Europe than in America, though it is growing rapidly here. These days, however, synthetic fabrics have replaced animal skins.

In America, skinning has long been the province of telemark skiers, whose releasable heel allows them to go uphill. The heyday of New England telemark skiing was in the 1930s, when its cheapness and wholesome appeal led skiers to cut dozens of trails across New England. Weekend “snow trains” ran from Boston to New Hampshire, allowing urbanites access to the best skiing in the region, the crown jewel of which was, as it is now, Tuckerman’s Ravine (known as Tuck’s to any telly skier worth his salt). The Inferno, an insanely steep and extended run named for a similarly intense race in Murren, Switzerland (which still exists and is part of the World Cup circuit), ran for three years in this period. In 1939, Toni Matt, a young Austrian who, having never skied Washington before, took the Tuckerman headwall without turning and won, halving the previous record. He later said he felt lucky to be “nineteen, stupid, and have strong legs.”

In the postwar period, skiing began to catch on with mainstream America. Resorts cropped up all over New England, and with the convenience and accessibility of lifts, telemarking’s popularity declined in favor of fixed heel alpine skiing. Only a few die-hards, preferring the simple approach, kept the sport alive.

In recent years, that has begun to change. It is nothing unusual to see people skinning up the slopes of a New England resort; indeed, telemarking is growing exponentially. As people have grown tired of the commercial nature of downhill skiing, they are embracing the simple, stylish telemark alternative. The telemark turn, though slower than its alpine equivalent, is remarkably graceful and beautiful to watch, and it also provides more of a challenge and workout than alpine skiing.

Telemarking is growing suspiciously popular, however; among outdoor people, it is becoming a test of how hardcore one is. As alpine skiing has, telemarking will lose its mystique if its appeal changes from aesthetic to joining the bandwagon.

Practically speaking, telemarking gear isn’t the best way to get around in the backcountry. In Europe and Canada, alpine touring gear is the norm—this system combines the best aspects of telemarking and alpine skiing. With AT bindings, the heel releases for skinning uphill, but it also clips in for easier turns on steep downhills. The advantages over telemark gear are considerable: AT equipment tends to be lighter, safer in a fall (as Andrew McLean of points out, AT skis have a mechanical release system, whereas the telly release system is biological—your ACL breaking), more efficient on the uphill and more controlled on the downhill, has boots better suited to crampons, and is easier to put on (step-in vs. bend down and attach). What AT skis lack in countercultural appeal, they make up for in functionality.

But, to quote Mr. McLean again, “the beauty is in the thigh of the beholder.” Skiing, like so many sports, has a major image component to it, which extends to all aspects of the sport. My favorite, of course, is the language—I won’t ever be able to say the words “shred some gnar” or “wicked pow” without giggling. Freestyle skiers are adapting a badboy style which, promoted by ski porn, seems to be catching on, having first been adopted by snowboarders from skateboarders, and now a few skiers seem to be getting in on the act.

But that sort of things isn’t going away anytime soon, and if telemark skiing brings back the snow train and gets skiers out of resorts and into the backcountry, I’m all for it. Up at Camel’s Hump, the gnar was four feet deep, and we got in three runs before getting lost and having to break trail all the way back up a shoulder of the mountain. We had more time to admire the snow-laden trees in the backcountry, and the downhill, complete with wild shrieks, attempts at grinding on fallen trees, and the difficulty of extricating ourselves from several feet of powder, was all the more exhilarating for the climb.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Winter Days at Lonesome Lake

Appearing in the March issue of the North Star Monthly...

It’s 7 AM at Lonesome Lake Hut, and the thermometer reads -16 degrees. Outside, the wind whips across the frozen pond, searing any exposed skin. Meg Norris, better known to her friends and co-workers as Bajo (an old nickname from Spanish class, pronounced Ba-Ho), is already up checking the snow stake, wind speed, and temperature measurements for her eight o’clock radio call with her headquarters at Pinkham Notch.

To outsiders, the cold is perhaps the most daunting aspect of caretaking. “I’ve had whole stints like this,” Bajo remarks, referring to the below-zero chill as she scuttles out with a blowtorch to unfreeze the well pump. Later, she only half-jokingly speaks of temperatures “warming up to 5 degrees.”

The Appalachian Mountain Club, which operates its huts with a permit from the Forest Service, keeps three open on a self-service basis in the winter. Two caretakers trade weeklong shifts at each hut. 1.7 miles from Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch, Lonesome Lake is closest to the road, but nestled in a bowl amidst Cannon and Kinsman Mountains, it is detached from the everyday world.

Such a situation requires considerable reserves of personality in the caretaker. “I’m good with people, and I know how much Bajo they can take,” my host jokes. Unlike in the summer, when hut croos cook for their guests, the caretaker is not responsible for feeding hiking parties. Bajo does have a number of daily duties, however: keeping the hut’s wood stove going from 4:00 to 7:00 in the afternoon, assisting guests with washing dishes (they are allowed to use the stoves and kitchenware in the hut, which makes their packs lighter but can be a headache for the caretaker), and generally being friendly and helpful. The main challenge is “Can you be hospitable in a cold environment? It’s way more, can you deal with people or not…you survive the weekends and look forward to the zero counts.”

The previous Saturday, with a full house of more than forty people, both the hand and electric pumps to the well broke, meaning that all the water for drinking, cooking, and washing had to be collected from snow outside and melted. “People were cranky,” Bajo chortles.

This evening, however, there is only one party of five, and they are in an amicable mood. As soon as Bajo gets the fire going, they extend an invitation to a dinner of barbecue chicken, sautéed potatoes, and corn, promptly accepted. Cooking up here tends to take a long time; besides, nobody wants to pack out extra food. As the pinkish alpenglow infuses the Franconia Range across the lake and the two older guys tell embarrassing stories about each other—last time they stayed at Carter Notch, one of them took a wrong turn during a nocturnal visit to the outhouse and landed in snow up to his armpits—it becomes clear they are a mixed group of family and friends. Drawn by the challenge and camaraderie of a winter outing, they make an annual outing to the huts. The off-season price is affordable, too—at $28 for non-AMC members, an individual saves almost $60 on full-service prices.

“It’s definitely a different crowd from the summer,” says Bajo. “[It’s] a hardier stock with a great sense of humor about how crazy they are.” Groups are often boisterous and cook with gusto, often having packed up surprisingly elegant items such as steak and wine. When asked about the post-dinner atmosphere, Bajo erupts into snickers. “Let’s not talk about the booze,” she says, and leaves it at that.

Some make the hike for a more rejuvenating experience. “People come up here specifically for camaraderie—a couple of people have come up who have just gotten out of jobs or relationships. Basically, I’ve worked as a therapist…it is kind of a cleansing thing for people to come up and unwind.” Once in a while a visitor gripes about the hut’s intrusion into wilderness or argues that its presences encourages inexperienced hikers to put themselves in harm’s way. Bajo endures such comments with a mixture of public patience and private frustration, meanwhile noting that such passers-by never fail to come inside to investigate the woodstove or drink a cup of tea.

Occasionally someone does come through without proper equipment or in the early stages of hypothermia. Then it is the caretaker’s responsibility to educate them about the risk of continuing or to warm them back up. Winter accidents in the White Mountains happen frequently, and immobilization is particularly dangerous in cold weather. Indeed, in late January, just across from Lonesome Lake in the Franconia Range, a combination of high winds, ambitious planning, and human error forced a lost climber to spend two nights out in the bitterly cold weather. Only after an intense and sustained search involving 65 searchers and two helicopters was he plucked off the mountainside, having sustained severe frostbite.

The cold does not seem to bother Bajo much, however, and she has carried up a couple of down blankets and makes hot water bottles to stay warm at night. Nor does she go hungry—the pantry, or “poop” as it is known in AMC slang, is stocked with more than enough staples to last till spring. “Freshies” she carries up herself at the beginning of her stint: “You can get by [without them], but you’d get scurvy. You’re packing milk, vegetables, butter—things you couldn’t get during the Great Depression.” On her last shift she brought up a fifty-pound bag of flour. “I hadn’t packed anything in a while and it kicked my ass!”

Loneliness is not much of a problem. “I do a lot of reading, a lot of writing…there’s a lot of thinking time. It depends on your personality, because some people do get lonely” (a caretaker at nearby Carter Notch Hut recently quit because the job was so solitary). When the radio squawks—Joanne, the caretaker at Zealand Falls Hut, is calling the AMC’s Construction Crew, presumably because something at her hut isn’t working—Bajo jumps up and runs to the radio to listen. “My program’s on!” she yells, and then comes back disappointed when no one responds to the radio call. “There’s enough work up here to occupy your time…at night, I listen to NPR, so it’s not like I don’t hear people’s voices for a week.”

Self-motivation is the key to accomplishing the gritty tasks it takes to keep the hut in good shape. “No one’s going to pat you on the back for reaming (cleaning) the stove,” she says. Cleaning the bathrooms, scraping ice off of windows, and scrubbing graffiti off of birch trees are some of her glamorous tasks. In colder weather, she chooses more active chores to stay warm.

A year ago, Bajo was working at an upscale women’s boutique clothing store in Burlington, where the money was good but the work uninspiring. Having paid off most of her college loans and seen the huts in action through a roommate at UVM, she applied to work for the AMC last fall and got a position on the croo at Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Hearing the friend’s stories about surviving the bitter winters made her wary of caretaking, but her enthusiasm for the mountains and simple lifestyle convinced her to try it, thus escaping another boring retail job at home in Connecticut.

Halfway through her winter term of employment, Bajo is already signed up to work at Mizpah Hut this summer and is thinking about another two months of spring caretaking. By August, she will have spent an entire year working in the backcountry. Born a flatlander, she prefers the rugged terrain of New Hampshire and Vermont and has plans to stay. After caretaking, she can survive anything. “It’s an opportunity to live a sparser life than in the frontcountry,” she says, and settles down for a late morning nap, to be followed by a couple of laps around the lake in the afternoon.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The ICA and the new South Boston waterfront

The trouble with modern art museums is that the buildings tend to overshadow the art within. This is the case with the ICA/Boston, an arresting new building on the Fan Pier just east of downtown. Its situation is magnificent, and it stands as a major milestone in the transformation of Boston’s waterfront.

The art itself is not worth the visit, however, so I will sum it up briefly. The first glimpse of the collection in the lobby is Chiho Aoshima’s “Divine Wind”—a giant anime girl reclining along one enormous wall in the lobby, issuing a swirl of multicolored clouds and flowers from her bottom. This attempt at an ironic joke ends up only warning of the predictable and boring installations. The most flattering adjective one can apply to the collection is “interesting,” and with a few exceptions, “self-indulgent,” “contrived,” and “kitschy” are more accurate.

The building itself and the position it occupies in the evolution of Boston’s urban planning are fascinating, especially with all the recent activity having to do with the Big Dig. With the dismantling of the Central Artery downtown, planners are converting the new space into the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a well-intentioned but poorly reasoned scheme because too few people live downtown to make use of the open space (those who live in the North End might, but the Greenway is isolated between two wide boulevards and doesn’t lead to any useful citizen amenities, just the financial district).

A wiser plan would have converted the land into prime building space, easing the pressure on the already cramped real estate market. Instead, development is spilling across Fort Point Channel and onto the South Boston waterfront. Long home to docks, fish processing plants and distribution centers, vast parking lots, and the odd upscale seafood restaurant (Anthony’s on Pier 4, more recently the Barking Crab), the area is no stranger to redevelopment; the World Trade Center has spawned a colony of sleek hotels to the east, and the new Moakley Federal Courthouse is a massive castle-like edifice on the edge of Fort Point Channel. The old brown turntable bridge has been replaced by a sleeker, less distinctive span.

The ICA building heralds a shift in focus, however. No longer will the South Boston waterfront serve primarily industrial and commercial functions (most fishing operations have already moved south to New Bedford and Fall River), but, like the stretch of shore just south of the North End, anchored culturally by the Boston Aquarium and which underwent a similar metamorphosis thirty years ago, it will now have a cultural and residential purpose.

Nine blocks of new development, replacing a wide expanse of parking lots, are slated for Fan Pier. The developer, Joseph Fallon, is planning a new luxury hotel and residential building adjacent to the ICA, to be followed by various further office and residential buildings depending on demand. While the buildings are hardly skyscrapers—mostly within the 150 to 225 ft. range—their size will make it difficult for them to create the neighborhood feel of the North End or Back Bay.

Fallon, who bought the land from the embattled Pritzker family of Chicago (they have recently been embroiled in an intra-family lawsuit over the size of a grandchild’s inheritance), is intent on replicating the ICA’s glass and steel (International) architecture.

Should he? Many critics, perhaps most notably Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times, are ecstatic over the new ICA. Ouroussoff calls it “a startling display of public-spiritedness,” meanwhile noting Boston’s conservative taste in architecture. The building is intriguing and from some angles, attractive. Its cantilevered fourth floor is at its best when viewed from the east or west; unfortunately, it presents itself as a box to the south, which is the angle from which most people will see it. Inside, the lobby and restaurant occupy most of the first floor, while the second and third are taken up by a theater. The fourth floor is reserved for art, and thanks to the cantilevered design, it is much bigger than one might imagine. Two features stand out—the mediatheque, basically a downward-angling computer lab looking meditatively into the blue harbor, and a long observation corridor, which offers a stunning view of the harbor and the East Boston Shore through an entirely glass wall. Finally, the future boardwalk lining the waterfront is another excellent idea.

Fallon has found an ally in Mayor Tom Menino, who is salivating at the prospect of escaping the monstrosity that is Boston’s current city hall by building a new one further east on the South Boston waterfront. While Menino’s eagerness to move out of the dysfunctional and hideous current building (which some say is responsible for Boston’s antipathy to architectural experiments) is understandable, making a new one on the waterfront makes little sense logistically—the neighborhood is isolated, its only connection to public transportation being the much lauded but essentially slow Silver Line, and Boston does not need to further entrench its political establishment in Southie. Redeveloping the current site would make far more sense.

What’s unique architecturally about the ICA in Boston, however, is not necessarily distinctive on the international stage. Cantilevered roofs are currently in vogue among designers of cultural buildings—note Henning Larson’s new Operaen (Copenhagen Opera House) or Vienna’s refurbished Albertaina. The ICA building and future developments on Fan Pier will make a striking contrast to what Ouroussoff calls “Boston’s architectural aspirations: brick,” but will they be livable? Does Boston want to distinguish itself architecturally by emulating successful features of world cities or by emphasizing its own quirks? Is it possible to construct a vibrant urban neighborhood from glass and steel, or is Fan Pier destined to become an enclave of the wealthy and isolated as well as a tourist destination, meanwhile depriving Boston of another piece of its maritime past?

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Hitting up the Mount Washington Hotel hot tub

Saturday morning saw me quit EMS. At daybreak on Sunday, RD Jenkinson and I were preparing for Wildcat Mtn. And on Monday, after a steamy night courtesy of an overloaded wood stove, I dropped into International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. There I ran into fellow AMC Naturalist Lynne Zummo, who needed a ride down to Boston that night, where I was heading.

What to do in the meantime? I learned on my last day up at Mizpah this fall how easy it is to lean on those who can afford it. The Mount Washington Hotel, home to the Bretton Woods Conference where ideas for the IMF and World bank were hatched, is the poshest resort up north. Blessed with a superb location—the Hotel faces the main ridge of the Presidentials, dominated by Mt. Washington—it is the last of the venerable old hotels which used to dot the White Mountains and Lakes Region, somehow having escaped fire. It’s a place that likes to do things on a grand scale, whether in its “Spanish Renaissance” architecture or the massive fireworks we saw through the fir trees on a Crawford Path night hike this fall.

The irony of a place like the Mt. Washington Hotel is that most guests are social climbers. They aren’t the confident, suave people one imagines luxuriating in a place like this; rather, they go there to impress themselves and their friends. It’s not unusual to hear a strong New Hampshuh accent on the verandah, or to see a mom shushing her kids in the front hall. The jetset may have frequented the Mt. Washington Hotel back in the 40s and 50s, but now they’re going to Vail or the Carribean in the winter.

So if you can look a doorman in the eye and keep the cuss words to a minimum, it’s not too hard to blend in. After all, the staff isn’t going to challenge you—you might be the rough around the edges face of new money, for all they know.

Enter via the side door closest to the parking lot (that is, unless you choose valet): the pool is all the way at the end of the corridor, about a quarter of a mile away. The hotel provides towels—all you need is a swimsuit, or in my case, a pair of boxers. In addition to the Jacuzzi, there are two pools, an indoors and a heated outdoors. I prefer the latter—the view of the Presidentials is tremendous, and the steam rising off the surface in cold weather (it was about 10 degrees out on Monday) is both beautiful and conducive to privacy.

If you feel like mingling, head upstairs after your soak and grab a paper and a cocktail in the main hall. The late afternoon alpenglow on the Presidentials is particularly fine. And as you head at the door, a snappy farewell is a nice parting shot—I find that “Ciao” seems to elicit the most patronizing response from the doorman.

Luxury is a dangerous habit but a delightful treat.