Monday, January 07, 2008

Take your life in your hands

Let's start today's post with a generalization: Women are more safety conscious than men. You can ruminate on that thought as you read my tale.

2008_0105_008_froglake_ski.jpgThe wind and the pounding rain kept both of us up most of the night. I seriously considered the wisdom of heading up the mountain in the morning. When Jess came in to say goodbye before leaving for work, she said, "Have fun skiing today honey," so I decided I might as well go. It doesn't take long for the weather to 180 around here.

I packed up all my new gear and headed to the 97th and Sandy Blvd park & Ride. I arrived right on time and saw a group of people with skis. Larry was the group leader and organizer. Once upon a time he volunteered for my mom at SEI. He's retired and as far as I can tell, spends most of his time doing fun outdoor activities and traveling. In 2003, he took us to Siouxon creek in Washington for a hike, where the infamous hiking-while-reading picture was taken. We just recently got back in touch after I emailed him about the dedication ceremony last month.

He came over and gave me a big hug. "Kronda, it's so good to see you! I feel so sorry for you..."

"I'm alright." I really didn't want o get into it in front of a big group of strangers.

Things got down to business and it was quickly revealed that organization isn't Larry's strong suit, nor does he particularly care too much about it. Though he was ostensibly 'leading' this trip for the Nordic ski club, he had a terrible time sorting out who would ride with whom. He had assured me through email that I would ride with him so when he announced that he was riding with a woman who was driving a Subaru SUV, I got a little concerned. "Um, Larry, you said I was riding with you."

"Oh right, I forgot! Wow, looks like we don't have enough drivers. OK, we'll take my car, and John can drive it." That struck me as odd, and I was a little annoyed. Especially when I saw that his car was a 20 year old hatchback that probably hadn't been cleaned in that entire time. He regularly carries his three dogs in it, and when I got into it, the smell was overpowering, as if I were trapped in a kennel. Since it was just John and I, I'd be expected to be social and make conversation. I was hoping for a car with two other folks in it, so they could talk while I read my book. It didn't make me feel better either when John said, "I haven't driven in snow in years," and started tooling around the parking lot so he could get used to the stick shift, which seemed to stick a lot.

Finally everyone got sorted into vehicles and we got going. Larry had decided that because it was so windy, our original destination of Clear Lake was too exposed. Instead we would head to the Frog Lake sno-park, where there was also Skijoring races happening. We agreed to stop in Sandy so one person who'd brought the wrong skis could rent some and people could get coffee and gas.

I wasn't having a great feeling about Larry's forgetfulness and apparent lack of organization, but I went from concerned to downright angry at John's words once we were already on the road. "Larry forgot to bring his chains today."

My stomach clenched and I was furious. Chains were mandatory after a certain point on the road up the mountain, and for good reason. We'd already seen the police out patrolling and ticketing people without chains when Jess and I went up two weekends before. Not to mention the very real chance of sliding all over the road or getting stuck in a snowy parking lot. There wasn't much I could do about it now so I made small talk with John. He turned out to be something of an adventurer, although I took it with a shaker of salt when he claimed to be one of the first people to bike across the U.S. He talked about his hitchhiking travels and the fact that he commutes by bike quite a bit. "I know it's all the rage now, but I just don't like wearing a helmet," he said.

I resisted the urge to give him my tirade on why I think people who don't wear helmets are stupid said something neutral in response. I don't know him, so what do I care if he cracks his head open? I noted that he didn't mind wearing his seatbelt. But maybe that was a combination of the law and the fact that we were headed for snowy roads.

After our coffee stop, we pulled over again so that the prepared people with brains chains could put them on. If only I'd known the situation in advance, I probably would have offered to drive. I have chains in my trunk. I'd never put them on, but I'd watched Terra do hers two weeks ago and could probably have managed, and gotten help if I need it.

To his credit, John got out and told Larry that he needed to drive his own car. I'm sure he didn't want to pay the ticket if we got pulled over. Larry agreed amiably and he and Marley came and got in. "I hope the Po-Po doesn't get us," I said.

"The Poco?"

"No, the Po-Po.

"The P-O-C-O?"

"No, P-O-P-O. You know, slang for Police."

"Oh, I'm not going to worry about it." How nice for him. He said this just as we passed a cop that had pulled a semi over to the side of the road. Luckily the cop was too busy with the truck to come after us.

Larry didn't seem to worry about the road conditions either. Our side of the road was fairly plowed and sanded, and we weren't slipping around any. But I looked over at the other side and worried. The snow was deeper and who knew if it would be plowed when we left? Completely oblivious to my inner panic, Larry talked casually about how long he'd had the car, that it would probably die soon, and what he might get as a replacement. Eventually I took refuge in my book, and he turned on the radio.

A couple of chapters later, we were still alive and pulling into the parking lot. The snow covered parking lot. Now we did slip a little bit, but made it into a spot. "Are we going to get stuck in here?" I wondered out loud.

"Oh, I'll worry about that when we come to it," said Larry. At least he was consistent. I got out of the car and my ears were met with a cacophony of barking. The lot was full of huge trucks and trailers, sleds and dogs all here for the racing. Marley was thrilled and wasted no time in jumping out of the car and adding his own voice to the chorus. I only had time to meet and greet a few of the closer dogs before getting into my boots and other gear and making sure I had everything I needed in my pack.

When we were all pretty much ready, A woman in our group who was clearly Larry's opposite, asked, "Does everyone have proper safety gear?" and proceeded to recite the list; extra food, water clothing etc. "If anyone doesn't have these things, speak up and maybe we can see if someone has extra." No one said anything. Her pack looked like she was about to camp for three days. I certainly appreciated the counterpoint to Larry's complete disregard, but I probably fall somewhere in the middle. I had enough food to last me all day and into the night if I stretched it, extra mittens, hat and socks and lots of water. Safety Girl, as I came to think of her, also had walkie talkies, which is probably not a bad investment.

As far as I could see, about the only thing Larry did that was remotely leader-like was to bring a few extra maps and hand them out, after asking about people's ski speeds.

I was already having tiny bladder syndrome and it occurred to me there might be a bathroom in the lot. I had to ask three times before anyone in the group responded, but there was a vault toilet right next to the start of our trail. It wasn't fun getting all my layers off, but better than going in the woods, in a big group of strangers. The delay meant I didn't have time to go watch the start of any of the racing though, since everyone else was already on the trail. I would have loved to make a little video of the start.

Once on the trail, my day finally improved. For one thing, the weather was better than I would have believed possible when I was laying in bed awake listening to the wind howl just 12 hours before. The sky wasn't sunny by any means, but it was bright and for the moment, it wasn't snowing. There was no wind at all.

The snow conditions weren't as nice as two weeks before, but it was decent. The trail was wide enough that I didn't have to adjust my poles from their standard length and the snow was packed and fairly hard, but not super icy. The going was all uphill at the start, but fairly gradual. There were clearly some beginners in our group and some people, like John, who hadn't skied in ten years. One woman said, "Is this uphill the whole way?" clearly freaking out about going on a prolonged downhill run on the way back.

"It goes up until we get to the top," responded Larry, and I thought it was a good thing he was out of reach of her poles when he said it. I kept my thoughts to myself and focused on my new skis, which were awesome. As were my poles and my new boots. I'd gotten a different brand of ski than Jess but with the same type of tread on the bottom and I seemed to be having a lot easier time getting up some of the trickier sections than my fellows on traditional cx skis. A few times the women in front of me asked for tips on how to do things. But all that was overshadowed by the triple awesomeness of my toe warmers, which, thanks to the beauty of mitten liners, I was also using on my hands. I was toasty warm for the entire trip.

After the first mile and a half, we reached a turn off and the front runners, including Safety Girl, were waiting for us. There was discussion of doing a loop that went up to and around a different lake. Larry wanted to know what time it was, but when someone offered to check their cell phone, he had a mock tantrum. "If your cell phone rings while you're skiing with me, I'll throw you down the mountain!" He was smiling when he said it, but I got the impression he was only half kidding. When someone else offered that she had a watch, he insisted on getting the time from her. He had also already made clear his feelings on walkie talkies and they were similar. "If I had it, I'd just turn it off." If he's not face to face with someone, he doesn't want to talk to them. I could understand the sentiment, I just hope nothing ever goes wrong for him on one of these trips.

But for today, there were plenty of people about to help if we got in trouble. In fact, we ran into another group from the Nordic ski club, about twenty snow shoers from a different club and, as I slowed to a stop at a large fork in the trail, who should I see but Terra, our ski buddy of two weeks before. "Dude! What's up!" I greeted. They were out with two other friends and probably bemoaning the number of people they were meeting on the trail. As I tried to line up for my turn, I took my first fall of the day. "Terra, you jinxed me," I said. "I hadn't fallen once till I saw you."

"It's probably true," she chuckled. "I've certainly spent some time on the ground today." I saw Leslie a little further along the trail and she admired my new skis. They went off ahead and I didn't see them again.

There was a fun downhill section for a while and then we started going up again. I passed a guy from our group who had lost the basket from his pole. He and John and a couple of others turned back. I ended up skiing with Larry and two other women, Sam and Leah. We got into some pretty tricky uphill sections that included switchbacks and a lot of side stepping and falling on my part. It was as if, having fallen once, I had opened the floodgates of gravity. Sam gave me some helpful tips as we went along. At one point she said out of the blue, "Aren't you friends with Skelly?"

My day seemed to be full of moments requiring diplomacy. For this one I settle on, "Yes, I know her," and did not add that she would was now definitely in the category of 'ex-friend' after being completely radio silent during my year of hell and well before then. I have this funny basic requirement that says my friends should actually respond when I reach out to them. Go figure.

"She's up here today too," Sam said, but from her tone I gathered that she was probably at a different sno park altogether. I was glad I wouldn't have to run into her.

We reached a second lake and and there was no sign of Safety Girl and crew. Perhaps they got too cold. I was surprised though since she seemed so concerned with everyone keeping people informed of their intentions. She'd made a whole speech about not putting people in the position of assuming what others in the group had done, and now here she'd gone and done it. Our choices were to keep going around the lake and possibly hooking up with the Pacific Crest Trail to go down which was reported to be easier than what we'd just come up. But that section was outside the small area maps we had no idea how long it would take us. And it was already 2:00pm. Larry voted to go back the way we'd come, which seemed to be the first sensible thing he'd said all day. We agreed, and after a snack, started back.

We made a deal with the snow shoers, who had stopped in the same place, to let them pass us on the uphill, if they would return the favor on the downhill. When we came to the evil switchback, three of us (guess which three?) took our skis off and walked down it. After that the going was not too bad, except for the unrelenting uphill slog. It had seemed so fun on the way down, but now that I was getting tired and ready for some downhill, it just made me cranky and seemed as if it would never end.

But end it did, and I was thrilled to see the sign telling us we could now enjoy a sweet mile and a half of downhill bliss. The snow shoers were as good as their word, and after we passed them there was no stopping us.

Back at the parking lot, the folks who'd turned back, were also just arriving from a sojourn in the other direction. The Skijoring races were long over but there were still dogs to pet. This guy had fourteen dogs with him in a triple decker trailer on top of his truck. I never imagined people not living Alaska would have that many dogs. Larry saw someone he knew skiing in with three dogs attached and got caught up talking to her and then going to see her new trailer, which really looked more like a motor home, in which she carried all her dogs.

I felt like Jess must feel trying to get me to leave a party. I figured it might be a good time to see about getting home in one piece. Leah and Sam were riding together in Leah's car, which I noted had chains on it. Sam had commitments back in town so they were headed straight back. I told the guy who'd ridden up with them that I needed to go directly back too (which was true) and he graciously agreed to trade cars with me. I wasted no time getting my stuff out of Larry's rolling kennel and into Leah's car and we got going after a tiny bump into the snow-mobile parked behind us.

Hwy 26 was a mess. We watched fools with no chains sliding all over the road in front of us including a sixteen foot U-Haul. One truck was involuntarily parked perpendicular in the right hand lane of the road and they finally decided it might be a good idea to put their chains on.

After sitting in the road going nowhere for ten minutes Leah decided to turn around and head down Hwy 35 to Hood River. I had no doubt, based on the amount of stupidity I'd already seen, that there was an accident ahead of us. After we turned around, the road was suddenly a ghost town and we made our slow, careful way down the mountain, talking of men, women, safety and other things. My only regret was that our new direction meant not reaching a real bathroom for at least an hour or more. I should've gone in the parking lot. As it was, I ended up squatting in some knee-deep dirty snow by the side of road on one of our stops to check the road surface. By that point I really didn't care who saw me, but I did wish I'd still had my gaiters handy as snow sunk into the cracks between my waterproof pants and shoes. My ankles were cold and wet for the rest of the ride.

Once we reached Hood River and Hwy 84, things sped right along, but the whole adventure took three hours and I didn't get home till 7:00pm. I ate first, then showered and later on Larry called to ask if I'd left something in his car, so I knew he'd gotten home safely, no thanks to himself. I was tempted to ask him about the trip home, but decided against it.

On this week's to-do list: Get car tires checked and practice putting on chains.

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