Tuesday, May 27, 2014

White Alice Rocks

I would like to write about a scrap of metamorphic rock. A low-lying table of schist placed a few hundred yards northeast of the White Alice towers (of Cold War DEW line fame), it barely suggests a bouldering area. A mere nook, a slight shelter out of the wind is all most climbers would give it. Placed alongside, say, the Sherwin Grade on the Sierra's east side, this rock would attract zero notice; it probably wouldn't even rate as a picnic rock. It might be something you might randomly sit on, but that would be it.
But starkly placed on the east shoulder of Anvil Mountain within easy reach of Nome, the rock transforms into a destination bouldering Zen-garden, an ever-shifting funhouse of iced-up planes of textured rock. In previous winters, the White Alice Rocks were sealed over under the snow-- in other words, nonexistent. In summer, these rocks offer little more than worthless crumbles. But last winter, the shockingly low-snow year of 2014, the seal of snow pulled back like a bubble bursting revealing a tiny ingrown wonderland of climbing joy, a sweet little mixed-bouldering area, freshly decanted and never-before dry-tooled, only a 5-minute drive from town, a short hike up Bear Creek on a northwest tack from the little skier parking lot at Newton Peak, the end of the road spot in wintertime on the Dexter Bypass Road.
(above) Lucy in wind with White Alice towers in background, on one of our many visits to the White Alice Rocks this previous winter. The towers were tropospheric scatter antennae for microwave radio waves. Many a thrill-seeking Nomen made the hideous, toxic, carcinogenic climb up the sixty foot towers via a curved internal scaffolding made of I-beam girders. A 

Ground cornices of drifted snow form troughs at the very base of the rocks, wavy, perfect luge runs on which Lucy banks her turns at full speed for the sheer joy of it, while I boulder just above on overhanging rock, laying back on the tools which are hooked on schist, with the curve of the snow in the trough matching the curve of my back, the snow bank making a natural, ergonomic spotting device.
Between pump-outs in the blowing spindrift, huddle between the rocks, lost and forgotten above the town. Stare at the surface of the rock. Graupels of snow collect on the catchment systems of lichen clinging to the wall. Rime crystals of ice stand up on the rock like columns. High-frequency whistling noises issue from a hole in the rock eight feet to your left. Bored and getting cold now, simply reach up above your head, hook a tool, and resume the workout again with a one-arm pull-up. Off you go.
  Who could not say this is real climbing? For God's sake, you're fifteen feet off the deck chicken-winging with tool and arm between dirt and flake, while the other arm is sparking away with the chisel of the pick against featureless stone, your shortened front-points feel like they might all of a sudden explosively scrape off the holds, with each second you are trying to stand on the points with heels lowered and vector of gravity unchanging, they get closer to their blowing-out point. Though the rock be but a smudge upon the hillside and you have greatly used your imagination to contrive the climb, it must surely be real climbing. 
Information conveyed in the skeins of snow filagreed across the hardpack like a neural network. The tiny bump on the shoulder of Anvil Mt. welcomes you back, glad to see you again, politely asks you how your time was in town, and what brings you back, a little bouldering perhaps?  You have completely enlivened the winter for this slight conclivity of rocks and tundra. What otherwise would have been highly inanimate has been rendered more animate by your bouldering visitations.
(above) A decent dry-tool circuit may be successfully devised at White Alice.  

Let this be the official Pee Mark:  MARK!  I hereby lift my leg upon the White Alice Rocks by categorically stating that if it's an obvious problem of M6 difficulty or less at this area, I probably climbed it during the Winter of 2014.  I climbed 56 boulder problems in 14 trips to the rocks, and named each one with a super-groovy title translated into Inupiaq, and attached specific ratings in a variety of global rating systems to each problem, and indexed all the problems in a color-coded grid system which I have submitted to Kigsblog for publication. And here we see the true, hidden intent of the blog: to relieve the swollen bladder of Ego by spraying on the Internet.
Three or four "high-ballsey" problems surface from the flotsam of Winter memory:  a verglassed slab ending in a wide mitten jam, an iced-up offwidth with a pick-to-adze Gaston at the crux, an exposed arete with a slammer moss-cloud jug at the top. These are problems that leave you feeling clean and giddy. You feel  like an astronaut using tiny holds and bodily movements to manipulate the movement of the weightless Earth through space. Earth is the motorcycle and the climber the rider. Hammer and swing.  And all so close to town. 
And which is the LEE POINT on the dial this time at White Alice today? You will always find a calm spot out of the wind, some specific radian in the lee, but you might have to walk the circumference of the rock cluster to find it. If the wind is out of the southwest, your spot will be to the northeast, and so on. Sit with your back pressed tightly to the rock, the wind whistling past the overhang above your head. The calm spot will not be at the base of the boulders, but up high near the top on some grassy ledge just under the crest. Here only will your lighter light and your fingers thaw.  Take some time and jettison these silly concerns of town you have carried all the way up here.
With the simple thwack! of a moss cloud, Head clears. The pick of your Terror snaps down, the vector of force translates through elbow to wrist to shaft to pick, the final vector precisely aligned on the exact angle of a crimping forefinger that impales the pick deep into the frozen rhizoids of the sod clump. You are saved! This glorious life-giving moss stick has delivered you in an instant from splintered bones. A second ago you were highly stressed, hanging off loose holds way far off the deck. Your mind was vaulting into that rarified calm space which dwells beyond the boundary layer of panic. Now, you are fine, your future assured, your children will be orphans no longer.  Just the sound of your axe thunking into the turf and the feel of the pick piercing the dirt has caused your hips to imperceptibly lower, your shoulders to relax, your anxiety to clear, as if chrome molly and carbon fiber contained neurons.   
The stone thinks, it must be aware, I know it. Not the degree of thought humans enjoy, of course, not nearly so far on the spectrum of mental process, but if the potentiality for Mind manifests at the boundary layer of the leptons and quarks, then the potentiality for mind is present in the atoms of the White Alice rocks. Climbing, being an ancient shamanic practice which harmonizes the nonentropic electromagnetic patterns of the climber with the non-entropic electromagnetic patterns of the rocks, (both rocks and neural networks falling under the category of nonentropy) elevates the rocks to an even higher level on the spectrum of mental process. Climber and White Alice Rocks form a system that is mental, in which it is discovered that the stone, also, possesses rudimentary awareness.
(above) North from Anvil Mountain, January 2014

Frog cavorting on eye of piton,
Vulture glowering far from the village,
Looking out over the valley
Never stops making me happy.
Twilight has stopped the world.
Rock world, Rock man.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The light has gone out.
We now must feel feel our way down...
(above) Town, looking south from Anvil Mountain, January 2014.

White Alice Rock was for me the hotspot of the (not so) long winter season. I was drawn there again and again, in all moods and weather. A place of meditation, rest, varied  climbing, and wind. Chimneys, hooking, torques, shafts, glove hands, and at least two versions of verglas that came and went in January and February, not the 3-centimeter shellac of seasons past, but enough ice for a little more spice in a life otherwise filled with repetitive motions in the rumor-mongering universities far below. But what might not be understood is how such a low-lying turd of a rock could produce such variegated climbing? But anything is possible in a world of imagination.  

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Iditarod 2014

(above) Drew assessing slope at Sampson Creek, looking northwest, through tilted iPhone.

        Like children at the beach running to the wave, Drew, Chelsea and I rode snow-machines tipsily towards the historic finish of Iditarod XLII at three in the morning. Drew wore Adidas with gym socks on his feet, and his colleague Chelsea rode two-up (whatever that means) on the back of a rather dimunitive Yamaha Bravo, through the same arctic -blizzard that had, a few hours earlier, taken four-time champion Jeff King out of the race. For all we knew, Aliy Zirkle and Dallas Seavey were around the next corner battling for first place, and we were the three slushes about to get tangled up in the historic finish.
      "This is blowing it! Let's turn around now before it's too late!"
       Surreal wind, pixellating long-term memory, the trip back wreathed in the fuzzy gauze of ground blizzard, the children running back from the wave without wetting their feet. Back at the Bering Sea Bar & Grill, we were amazed at how soon musher Dallas Seavey appeared behind us.  We must have narrowly avoided a faux pas.  Everyone was zonked out at 5 in the morning, Dallas Seavey most of all. Aliy Zirkle, with her beautiful second-place finish, wins the KigsMusher of the Year Award..

(left) My shadow is pointing east toward Sampson Creek.

        Drew, flown in for Iditarod from nearby waterlocked summits of Beringia and already fully embedded in the GLUE OF NOME, was hot to ski something. The bowls out back of Engstrom's Mountain seemed within range of a stretching GLUE-TENDRIL of town, and seemed also as if they might contain the UNPACKED we so desperately craved, so we calculated an escape vector from the Iditarod and roared off on our dreadful Hogs over bare, icy trails to a Monday appointment at Sampson Creek, near Mile 18 of the Kougarak Road, just past the most death-trappy spot on the whole 65-mile long road, an elevated gravel ramp way off the deck, guarded by an inquisitive troll that lives on a knoll in a mansion above the Nome River, and comes out to greet you should you slow your vehicle down.
       No Jackson Hole to be found at Sampson Creek. We did hydro-frack a few turns between ice patches in the upper bowls, and had entirely too much fun in the half-pipe of the creek, but the run wasn't even as good as the runs at Drew's home area on Sivuqaq. I had let Drew down, as well as under-represented Nome's skiing potential to a visiting dignitary. So, right then and there, an Iditarod ski-salvage trip was planned to Tom's Cabin, an idyllic bowl in the next valley to the west.  But first, it was back into the GLUE-STREAM sucking us back toward the fleshpots of town, and the flagrant Iditarod shenanigans awaiting us there.

(left) Drew's tracks at Sampson Creek. Due to low snow deepening the parabolic curve, it's been a fine year for half-pipes.

       Drew and I were to be joined on our skiing expedition to Tom's Cabin by the dog team of Janet Balice, winner of the GETTING OUT THE MOST AWARD for three seasons running now, plus Janet's daughter and new mushing partner, Chisana.  In lead dog position, the redoubtable DIBELS, one of Nome's top ten lead dogs of all time. Riding with me on the Bearcat, Lucy, the Tschingel of the Kigs, shmooshed up between the cowling and my body, learning to throw her weight out on the turns.
(above) Tom's, March 13, 2014. Dibels, Janet, Chisana, Lucy, Drew.

      Surely the enchanted bowl of Tom's would have snow.  Yes it did!  Snow that makes a sifting sound like that of silk, a distinct blanket, Utah powder, Hatcher Pass, sweet cherry pow pow, a foot deep. The souwesters off the Bering Sea slam into Monument Ridge and gently sift the powder grains into the big lee of the bowl, especially down a northeast-facing draw of which Drew and I found ourselves swishing and swashing for great moments of giddiness that didn't last long enough, this isn't the Nevada side of Heavenly here, folks. But redeemed, redeemed we were, and Nome skiing was redeemed as well, and our skis were sated, at least for the nonce, as we swooped down into the maw of Monument Creek, and made the short up to the cabin, to have some tea, and another run.
(above) Dogs at Tom's cabin

       We executed difficult climbing moves inside the cabin to avoid getting burned by the stove as we writhed about in the LED darkness trying to locate items, at least half the party hampered by possible diagnoses of A.D.D., but nevertheless drinking deeply of life and slush beers, and all departing friends.
(above) Kigsblog staff photographer Raina McRae skiing in Dry Creek, Nome, Alaska, Iditarod 2014, staff Mountaineering Dog Lucy in tow. In the background, bare frames from World War II barracks.

     In the midst of the Iditarod fun torrents, these totally cool Olympic dudes from Nananordic showed up like Pied Pipers with a boatload of skis and boots for children, and led the little Nomens out into the lashing wind for some inspired ski lessons. My students got to miss class the week before Iditarod. I joked with them that our visitors would be "Super-Olympians" on account of Lars, the director, actually being in the Olympics twice, but a few days later, I would get to see the moniker was actually true.

     It was the last Sunday of Iditarod-week before the dread return to work. Drew had already returned to the island. I had not yet recovered from the  shock-absorber workout at Tom's Cabin, when I got the call from Tyler:  Bear Mountain was on! The whole gang would be coming, Tyler, Keith, Jeff, but also Lars Flora, afore-mentioned Johnny Appleseed of rural Alaskan skiing. I boasted of Drew's and my powderific runs at Tom's on Friday and Saturday, but by the time we got up the mountain Sunday, Mr. Wind had returned and was moving the snow across the slopes in dunes, big traveling dollops of powder snow that exposed bare patches of ice between them, so that you might have enough snow for  one and a half tele turns before you came clattering out onto bare ice fighting for your edges. March winds made everything frostbitey as we took off skins. Tyler and Lars disappeared into the clouds while the rest of us prepared to thrash our way down the difficult conditions.

    Minutes later, I watched Lars descend out of the clouds:  he was riding telemarks! He would dig in on the snow dollops, and then leap onto the ice patches, and back into the snow dollops, without any interruption of movement, from one island of traction to the next. On Monday, I told my students:  "Yeah, that guy Lars can ski!"  At that moment, he was putting the skis on the plane for Gambell, where he was scheduled to meet up with the students of...  Drew!


(above) Kigsblog Chief Editor Allapa on the lower part of Bear Mountain earlier this Spring.

This post is the putrefactant which has caused such a blockage in the intestines of Kigsblog. Hopefully, now that the infectious mass has been purged through publication, Kigsblog may flow more freely once again in order to report the other momentous adventures of this rather odd Winter season.