Tuesday, July 7, 2020

West Texas Poetry


the nasty storm paving way for still waters 

the golden merger of the sunset and the lake

the orange then red then purple clouds

the easy drifting into the silent reeds

the coyote family howling on a distant shore

the peace from waiting 

the flaring lightning in the distance 

the starry canvas up above 

the dancing water from the boat being towed

the relief that we didn't have to swim back

the rising moon

the humor shared afterward


Monday, July 6, 2020

Virtika Outerwear CEO David Lesh Turns New Leaf, Announces Priesthood and Path to Salvation To Right Wrongs and Save Damned

DENVER, CO — Virtika Outerwear CEO and Founder David Lesh, who has been the target of ridiculous amounts of social media-driven hate speech over the course of the past few months despite a global pandemic and nationwide, racial controversy which you thought would have had everyone mad enough already, has just vowed to make it all right.
In the name of the Lord, David Atman Lesh announced today that he is taking a higher path towards salvation that will cancel out his previous wrongdoings and surely please the thousands of social media users who have sent him hate mail, death threats, and called he, his organization, and his mother an unmeasurable list of bad names. Because now, with God in his heart and in his pocket, the off-the-rails bad-boy is turning a new leaf, saving himself as well as everyone who hates him via divine love and a profound desire for eternal harmony with the unknown.

Lesh, readily on his way to sainthood, said today in an Instagram post
"I’m taking my life in a new direction. It’s touching to receive life tips from professionals all over the world and I wouldn’t know how to hike, snowmobile, or run @virtika without them. The countless death threats, news stories, and hate mail from so many caring people made me realize I have been going off the rails for a long time. My goal has always been to please, so I hope they will continue to invest their valuable time in guiding me through the minutia of my daily life. May the Lord walk with you all. 🙏🏻"

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Remembering Bronisław Czech: The Polish Olympic Skier Sent to a Nazi Death Camp 80 Years Ago

Polish Olympic skier Bronisław Czech. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
What's special about June 14? 

Well, it's essentially a day where hell became a real place on earth 80 years ago. That place was called Auschwitz.

Because on June 14, 1940, the Germans brought 728 Polish political prisoners to the Auschwitz camp, which was still under construction at the time. Among them was a man named Bronisław Czech.

Bronisław Czech is a Polish Olympic skier who was sent to Auschwitz 80 years ago. Earlier this month, Polish officials and athletes paid tribute to the legendary Olympic skier who was murdered alongside his Polish brethren in one of the evilest places mankind has ever constructed.

On Sunday, June 14, Polish officials attended events to mark 80 years since the first deportation of Poles to the Nazi German death camp.

Polish cross-country skier Maciej Staręga, a three-time Olympian, said in a Facebook post ahead of the anniversary that Czech “was one of the greatest and most versatile Polish skiers.” 

Staręga wrote:
Awesome initiative!!! 
Memory of heroes and ordinary people that can now live in our independent homeland is an essential element of social responsibility. So it's worth supporting such initiatives and reminding the person Bronisław Czecha. A man who was one of the greatest and most versatile Polish skiers who was also strongly associated with the Polish Ski Association. 
The National Virtual Remembrance Relay of Prisoners of First Transport to KL Auschwitz has now come to me. 
What is this? 
June 14 is the 80th anniversary of the event that opened the history of perhaps the biggest hell on earth. The day of deportation of Polish prisoners from Tarnów prison to Auschwitz was announced by the Polish Parliament National Remembrance Day of the Victims of German concentration camps and Extermination Camps. However, it remains a holiday, which few people know about, which few people remember and few people care about. 
This year - let's not forget! 
One at a time, name by name, number by number, let's pay tribute to our countrymen - the first 728 prisoners of this German death factory, reminding that Poles, mostly young, members of the Resistance, will represent the elites of the Republic - the first heroes of the fight against totalitarianism. Because it was for Poles that Auschwitz was created and we were the main victims of German bullies for the next two years. Transports with Poles reached here and other German camps until the end of the war. 
I have the honor to represent in the Relay and pay tribute to prisoner number 349. It's Bronisław Czech. Hello to His Memory! Bronisław is m. in three times Olympic, taternik, mountain lifeguard and ski instructor. 
I encourage everyone to join the 14th June Memory Relay on this event website: https://www.facebook.com/events/887874535014762
Grupa Azoty 
PS. Read about this Relay and Bronk Czech, because he is a great format character and an incredible personality...
Before the start of the second world war, Czech represented Poland at three consecutive Winter Olympics in various skiing events, including Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, and ski jumping. He competed without medaling at St. Moritz in 1928, Lake Placid in 1932, and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, Radio Poland reports.

Czech. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
When the Nazis brought war to Poland in 1939, Czech became a courier for the Polish underground from German-occupied Poland to the West. He was captured by the German secret police in 1940.

Bronisław Czech died in Auschwitz on June 5, 1944. He was 36 years old.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a speech that Czech was not only an outstanding athlete but also a loving patriot who was part of a resistance movement organized at Auschwitz by Polish war hero Witold Pilecki.

He, like the other 1.1 million souls murdered at Auschwitz, will never be forgotten. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Hometown Mountain Shoutout: Ski Apache, New Mexico

"Damn Texans!" shouts some menace in the mob of locals zooming past, jumping over the minefield of downed skiers on Lower Deep Freeze. The visitors can only watch in pure terror as the group of mad skiers and snowboarders charge past them at full-speed as they're attempting to recover their scattered skis and poles on one of Ski Apache's most notorious green trails that starts as a bottleneck behind Chair 4.

Ski patrol has been trying to apprehend this group of wintertime bandits all season long, and they'd probably snag all of their season passes if any of those weekend redcoats could actually ski. 

A view from the top of Ski Apache. Skier: Alex Davis. Photo: SnowBrains.

Lo and behold Ski Apache, situated in the bosom of the Sacramento mountain range in southern New Mexico near the sleepy town of Ruidoso, where the lion's share of skiers ski in jeans, cowboy hats, and fur coats. Ski Apache — nicknamed 'the Patch,' because on low snow years that's all you get to ski — is a place where the term 'powder panic,' has an entirely different meaning. Because when the snow starts flying here, visitors panic and turn around because there's "too much snow." Keep in mind that it doesn't always dump at the Patch, but when it does, it DUMPS.

Local skier Alex Davis rips down 'Incredible' at the Patch after a snowstorm. Photo: SnowBrains.

Ski Apache rests on Mescalero-Apache reservation and is owned and operated by the Tribe. On any given long weekend or spring break, it can seem like all of West Texas has relocated to Ruidoso — the place where I grew up skiing and where I call home. It is a place sacred to me, a place where my life has changed more times than I can count, and a place where my life was nearly ended when I was 17 (shoutout to Mike Luna and the other ski patrollers for saving my life in 2014, I was only kidding about the patrol-related remark earlier in this piece, c'mon guys).
It is a place of happiness, a place of good times; where all the locals know each other — whose kids go to school with one another. It's a place of magic, for lack of a better word.

Ski Apache trail map.

With eight chairlifts, including a relatively new high-speed gondola and an all-season Snowfactory, Ski Apache is a fun, flowy mountain with some of the most captivating views in all of New Mexico. From the top of Apache Bowl, you can see white-capped, forested mountains on one side and then white, sand duned-desert on the other. The place doesn't really make sense, but hell, it's beautiful.

See White Sands out there in the distance? That's where the first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity Site in 1945... Photo: SnowBrains.

If you look closely, you can actually see the site where the first-ever atomic bomb was detonated back in 1945. The whole mountain range is an oasis in a hostile land, where once invaders came and fought off the locals to settle the territory. Sure, they robbed them of this pristine area, home to rivers, lakes, mountains, and way too many damn elk for anybody's own good. But I just thank God that someone had the sense to put a ski area here back in the day, when the ski area officially opened on December 23, 1961, after a seven-and-a-half-foot snowstorm delayed the initial opening of the ski area by a week.

A view of Sierra Blanca from Apache Bowl at Ski Apache. Sierra Blanca is the region's' tallest peak resting at 12,003'. Photo: SnowBrains.

For as long as I can remember I've been skiing here. Momentous powder storms would stack snowbanks that towered over my head as a kid. My brain is also packed with memories of the too-perfect bluebird powder days that would always follow after those dumps. On one day, it'd be dumping so hard with wind speeds so high that you could swear the mountain gods were trying to kill you. On the next, you couldn't even feel a breeze or hear a sound other than your skis slashing through low-density powder in the snow-ghosted trees.

Chair 1. Photo: SnowBrains.

It's a spiritual place, especially for us locals who know all the good spots in the trees off of Chair 1. Chair 1 — that's the place to be on a powder day because that's where the Patch's hardest black diamond runs are, meaning that's where the least people will be skiing.

Terrible' really ain't so bad... Photo: SnowBrains.

On a true powder day here, you feel like you have the whole Chair 1-side to yourself. You'll be ripping freshies all day and probably the next day, too — and maybe even the one after that! When I went back home for Christmas and skied the Patch last season, we were blessed with about a two-and-a-half foot storm that made for some fine powder skiing down runs like 'Incredible,' 'Mescalero,' and 'Terrible.' When I got on the gondola with a long-time local this day, we were both on the same page as to what was ripping.
"I've been skiing at Ski Apache since I was four years old which would be about oh.. 45, 46 years... 'Terrible' is the run of the day today." — Tim Keaton
For three straight days around last Christmas, Tim and I skied fresh powder with my father and several other long-time ski bums. It was refreshing, especially after spending the start of ski season in Utah where you have to fight tooth-and-nail for your powder turns in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Here, it was all yours for the taking.

'Roy's Run' at Ski Apache. Photo: SnowBrains.

The skiing at this time flooded me with tidal waves of nostalgia reminding me of epic storms from my past like the historic storm that gifted the Patch with 45 inches of new snow in 24 hours in 2018. But as time goes by, these existential powder storms that have you questioning what you really want to be doing with your life (besides skiing powder) seem to be less and less frequent. And I personally think Little Bear was to blame.

Much of Ski Apache was burned by the Little Bear fire in 2012 and looks like this. Photo: SnowBrains.

The Little Bear Fire burned down 44,330 acres and 254 buildings in June 2012, making it the most destructive wildfire in New Mexico state history. Ski Apache was right at the epicenter, and the resort has never looked the same since. The once superbly green and densely-forested ski area is now more than 50% burnt with charred trees everywhere. It's hypothesized that the fire lowered oxygen levels in the mountain range severely enough to impact the region's annual snowfall, and I can tell you that I've seen this impact personally. It's heartbreaking. But it's not devastating.

The gondola at Ski Apache. Photo: SnowBrains.

As a result of the fire, we received a brand-spanking-new, high-speed gondola that seats eight and shuttles eager skiers and snowboarders to the top of the mountain in about 15 minutes. This is a major improvement from the old, cramped four-person gondola that was slower than Christmas.

Brothers Alex and Israel Davis exploring 'new' lines in the burnt area at Ski Apache. Photo: SnowBrains.

We've also gotten much more access to a bunch of new lines in the trees that were once too thick to ski through, giving this mountain a whole new face. You just have to watch out for the lurking stumps that feed on the bottom of your skis, waiting to blow out those old skier's knees. There'd be even more new ski runs too — like the potential for an entire new bowl of skiing in the area located looker's left of the gondola below Apache Bowl and above Lower Deep Freeze — if the resort would just spend the time and money to clear the fallen trees that have laid inside resort boundaries for much too long.

A photo from the historic 45" powder day at the Patch in 2018. Photo: SnowBrains.

It's no secret that Ski Apache faces challenges with the way it is run and operated. Resort closures due to lack of staffing are frequent, and more often than not chairs that need to be open on powder days are not open because of management-related issues. Also, not to mention that the ski area's jump in pass prices in over $50 from one season to the next has had visitors and locals alike infuriated because an apparent improvement that was supposed to be associated with this pricing increase has yet to be noticed. But I'm not here to dog on Ski Apache — I love this place. It just hurts to see a place with as much potential as the Patch failing to capitalize on it year after year.

The crew and I aboard the gondola at the Patch. Photo: SnowBrains.

So, how would we improve this resort, from the eyes of the local community? Well, upping the managerial aspects and making sure it is open every day it is supposed to be open would be a fine start.

I haven't seen Chair 8 open in years, which it certainly could have been last season if an effort was put in to do so. Then, you could clear the fallen trees in the middle of the resort to pave the way for more ski runs. Throw in a high-speed quad to replace the painfully slow Chair 1 and some more snowmaking from the top of the mountain — not just Chair 4 and the bunny slopes — and we'd really be talking. But hey, like many of the other locals here who only want to see this place continually improve, I'm a dreamer.

Finding the goods at Ski Apache circa Christmas 2019. Photo: SnowBrains.

Regardless of the challenges and headaches the ski area has to deal with winter after winter, there will never be a place like Ski Apache. There will never be another place where you can rip the powder-filled 'Fingers' of Apache Bowl with a panoramic backdrop of the desert mountains and the ever-powerful Sierra Blanca peak looming at the resort's side. There will never be a place to me like the Patch where you can have more fun shredding the seemingly locals-only tree runs with your squad that stay good for days on end.

The 12-mile long windy road up to Ski Apache is no joke. Photo: SnowBrains.

Because when the winds whip and the tempests that bring in the occasional 24-hour snow total of 45 inches wreak havoc on this savage land, some may turn around. They'll turn around in their big pickup trucks to try and beat the treacherous road conditions that suddenly appear on the windy 12-mile road leading up to the top of the mountain, so that they can ski another day, safely.

Sierra Blanca. Photo: SnowBrains.

But for us who grew up here, who consider themselves as locals, we don't know any better. We charge forward and wait in line for the gondola that should have already been opened an hour ago, beyond eager to get our powder fix for the day. Because this is our home, and where else would we want to be skiing?

New Mexico: the Land of Enchantment. Photo: SnowBrains.

Resort Stats 

LocationLincoln County, New MexicoUSA
Nearest major cityRuidosoNew Mexico
Vertical1,900 ft (579 m)[1]
Top elevation11,500 ft (3,500 m)
Base elevation9,600 ft (2,900 m)[2]
Skiable area750 acres
Runs55 total
20% beginner
60% intermediate
20% advanced
Longest run"Sierra Blanca Trail" ~ 2.5 miles
Lift system8 total (1 gondola, 3 quad chairs, 4 triple chairs
Terrain parks2


The old man gettin' it at the Patch. Photo: SnowBrains.

The old man gettin' it part two. Photo: SnowBrains

Ski Apache's base area. Photo: SnowBrains.

Views from the Patch after a storm. Photo: SnowBrains.

 Snowboarder and badass firefighter Gage Whipple slashing hard down 'Incredible.' Photo: SnowBrains.

Squad! Photo: SnowBrains.

Chair 1. Photo: SnowBrains.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Radioactive waste could start being dumped near Bears Ears — public comments requested

A uranium mill in southeast Utah has recently applied to the state to accept radioactive waste from Eastern Europe which they would then process for uranium. Locals are concerned. Photo by PBS.
Members of the Ute Tribe’s White Mesa reservation are concerned about a new plan proposed by a uranium mill near Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.


Because this mill has recently applied to the state of Utah to accept radioactive waste from Eastern Europe which it would then process for uranium.

According to the Adventure Journal, there is a metals plant in the Eastern European nation of Estonia that generates a surplus of uranium-laced waste, as much as 660 tons per year. The White Mesa uranium mill wants to process that waste to scrap any remaining uranium it may contain and store it on-site. The facility is located 5 miles away from the Mountain Ute Tribe’s White Mesa reservation.

According to the tribe, groundwater accessed by the reservation has been contained for years and they worry that it's because of the uranium mill. Meanwhile, the state argues it has nothing to do with it.
“I think it would be the tribe’s preference that the facility shut down,”  Scott Clow, the environmental programs director for the tribe, told The Journal. “But that’s a big ask there. The mill has been there for 38 years now, and that’s a pretty short window of time compared to how long the tribe was there before and how long the tribe is going to be there after the mill, and all of that contamination." 
“The mill has already become the cheapest alternative for disposal of low-level radioactive waste in North America. Now, it appears that it may become a destination for the materials from around the globe. That is disconcerting and dangerous,” he said.
The Daneros uranium mine is located near Bears Ears National Park. Photo by Grand Canyon Trust.
Justin Housman with the Adventure Journal reports that "Estonia limits how much of the radioactive material the metals processing plant can store, out of safety concerns, which is why the plant is looking for a place to ship the waste tailings. The White Mesa Mill is the only mill in the country capable of extracting the uranium from the Estonian tailings."

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has asked for public comment before final approval of the shipments can proceed. The deadline for comment was originally June 5, but it has recently been extended until July 10, The Adventure Journal reports.

You can email your comment to this address: dwmrcpublic@utah.gov. Instructions for commenting can be found here, in the public notice about the project.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What I learned from triggering an avalanche in the backcountry last season

You think you're slick until you're not. On April 16, 2020, I unintentionally triggered a small (but terrifying) soft-slab avalanche while skiing 'Little Chute' on Mount Baldy at Alta Ski Area in Utah. This happened in the heart of a pandemic. It was my first real encounter with an avalanche and, needless to say, I learned several valuable lessons that I'll carry with me in the mountains for the rest of my life.

The objective of this piece of writing is to show just how and where I messed up today — on more occasions than once — so that I, and hopefully you, can learn from it and travel in avalanche terrain more safely. So let's start right from the very beginning, shall we?

I went to bed the night before this fateful morning late and didn't sleep well. When I woke up, I was tired and groggy. I didn't put much cognition into reading the avalanche forecast thoroughly and checking weather conditions for the town of Alta. As a matter of fact, I just glanced at the avy forecast and didn't check the National Weather Service forecast whatsoever, which I always do before getting on the skin track. I was rushed.

The avalanche danger this day was ranked as 'moderate' and there were moderate, westerly winds.

To make matter worse, when I arrived at the parking lot at Alta and met up with my touring partner for the day, I almost forgot to switch my beacon on when we started the tour. And these two previous points I just mentioned aren't even the real 'red flags' I'm going to discuss, even though they could and should be regarded as such. The obvious red flags I'm going to focus on are below.

A shot of the April 16, Little Chute slide path captured by a webcam at Alta Ski Area. Photo by Alta Ski Area.

Red Flags

1.) I didn't confront my misgivings about the terrain my touring partner and I had decided to ski this day.  When I got to the parking lot, I thought that skiing the Baldy Chutes would be a bad idea because it had just dumped fairly heavily and there was an observed, ice-crust layer situated directly below the new snow. The Baldy Chutes are steep and very avalanche-prone. I should have voiced this concern to my touring partner, but I didn't.

So when my touring partner suggested that we ski Main Chute, I was hesitant but submissively agreed to ski it without voicing my thoughts/concerns on the decision at all. This was the first major mistake of the day, primarily by me for not saying anything but also by my touring partner for not addressing my obvious uncertainty about our terrain choice. We both should have communicated more.

2.) We broke the cardinal rule of skiing the backcountry with a partner by splitting up from that partner. I am still wondering why we did this. You could probably use terms like "powder fever," or "expert halo," since my touring partner had a lot more experience in avalanche terrain than I had, but it also could have just been plain ignorance. Who knows.

When we got to the top of Mount Baldy I went over to look at Little Chute while my partner stayed behind and looked at Main Chute. It should also be noted that during the length of our nearly two-hour tour through Alta up the Mount Baldy shoulder, not much conversation was going back and forth between my partner and I. In fact, we were both pretty spaced out from one another and hardly said anything at all. I thought I heard distant rumblings resembling the sounds of avalanches, but I wasn't sure and I didn't say anything. This was another red flag in itself, and I should have brought it up in a conversation with my partner. 

My ski partner eventually walked over from Main Chute to where I was positioned above Little Chute and suggested that we could both ski each one of the neighboring chutes if we wanted to, doing so solo. Without putting much thought into it, I said I'd ski Little Chute and he agreed to ski Main. This was the last time I had visual contact with my partner.

3.) In order to get to where I wanted to drop into the couloir, I exposed myself to dangerous, high-consequence terrain. I walked all over a very big cornice that could have easily broken off onto the wind-loaded slope below me given the day's conditions. Then, to add to my great decision-making track record this day, I skied a section of the "Taint" located directly between the two couloirs in order to get to my drop-in point on Little Chute. This slope was steep enough to slide and had very high-consequence, cliffed terrain below it. This was an overly aggressive move and exposed me to yet another potential slide path. 

4.) I chose a poor — very poor — spot to drop into the chute. I was originally thinking about dropping in on the skier's right side of the chute which was steeper, rockier, and seemingly scarier but also less impacted by the wind. I did not take this that last point into proper consideration when I walked over the cornice to the taint on the skier's left side of Little Chute, so I'll repeat it in italics.

I was originally thinking about dropping in on the skier's right side of the chute which was steeper, rockier, and seemingly scarier but also less impacted by the wind.

As a result, I ended up dropping in on the most wind-loaded part of the line
The morning's westerly winds were rapidly loading this slope already, and this portion of the chute I dropped into was by far the most dangerous. I dropped in like I was doing a half-assed ski cut (which, looking back, might have actually saved my ass), and the slope propagated in line with my skis across the length of the chute, about 30 feet. That slab popped out so damn fast it was like it was already traveling at full speed (something like 70 mph!) before I even realized what was happening.

I screamed "AVALANCHE!" at the top of my lungs as I watched the entire chute get stripped down to the ice-crust layer beneath by this high-speed slab. The avalanche left behind a 16-inch-or-so crown. After nearly shitting myself, I hung out on the rocky outcropping adjacent to the chute for a minute and got ahold of my ski partner via cell phone, letting him know what had just went down (quite literally). I recomposed myself and skied the bed surface of the slide down to a safe spot below.

The avalanche ended up traveling almost 1,000 feet all the way to the groomed run below Mount Baldy. When I was at the bottom of Little Chute and out of harm's way, I re-convened with my partner and talked about what I just experienced. Some skiers traveling on the groomer below saw the slide erupt down the mountain and asked us about it. They were not happy, nor was I.

The crown of the avalanche I triggered. It was approximately 16 inches deep. 


The skiing-related decisions I made this day were aggressive —  too aggressive for a day with as high of avalanche danger as this one. My terrain selection and travel technique were poor. The lack of communication between my partner and I was acute.

Looking back, this avalanche may not have actually been deep enough to bury a person — but that's not the point. If it were a bigger, hard-slab avalanche that broke above me and carried me through the narrow, rocky chute — with no one watching me go — it could have been worlds worse. I am thankful that it was not worse.

My goal now is to use this experience to learn from it in as many ways as humanly possible, addressing all the red flags present this day and promising to be more consciously aware of them the next time they appear. I'm only 23-years-old and the 2019/20 winter season was my first true season navigating avalanche terrain. And if one thing is for certain, it's this: If I don't learn from this day — if I don't learn from these mistakes — then I will surely not last long doing this inherently dangerous yet rewarding activity that I love. And neither will you.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Man Becomes First Ever to Snowboard All 90 Couloirs in the Legendary ‘Chuting Gallery’ Guidebook for Northern Utah’s Steepest Lines

'Snapdragon' — #32.
On April 28, 2020, Mike Meru became the first person ever to snowboard all 90 Northern Utah couloirs in the famous Chuting Gallery guidebook when he successfully completed the final descent of his project on the NE Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn.

The two-year-long mission took him through ups and downs and valleys and mountains — quite literally.

But his story as to why he began this project is much deeper and meaningful than you might think. It's not all just about powder turns and shredding sick lines.

'Grunge' Couloir.
SnowBrains reached out to Mike via email to ask him some questions about his recent triumph and he was more than happy to chat about his journey of determination and growth with us. Here's what we asked him and what Mike had to say:

SnowBrains: Can you give a little bit of a backstory as to what got you interested in this project?

Mike: As I've sat and reflected about finishing the gallery and all of the experiences over the past 13 seasons in the Wasatch, the biggest takeaway is that there is no way I could have done this alone. My main ski partners Michael Aasheim (most talented big mountain photographer in UT), Justin Morgan, Eduoard Saget, and so many others have been there each step of the way. We rely on each other and I literally trust my life with them. There are countless other great individuals I ride with and am grateful for, but two others are would be remiss if I didn't mention. A great friend and absolute all sport slayer Taylor Palmer who led the Ribbon, and Don Hatch who was a huge support and inspiration for me right after I broke my back.

In the end, there are so many absolutely inspiring splitboarders in the Wasatch who rip harder than I do. I just feel honored to be listed amongst the names of the guys and gals who get after it here.

Mike on the 'Ribbon.' Photo taken by Taylor Palmer.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, and how long you been skiing the Wasatch?

My name's Michael Meru. I'm from Thousand Oaks, CA and I've had two stints in the Wasatch totaling 13 years. Most recently, I've been here full time since 2012.

'HOD' — #15
What initially inspired you to embark upon this quest?

I first moved to the Wasatch right after high school in 1999 to shred pow, build jumps, and hike in the backcountry.  I remember hearing about this couloir book that had just come out. I took a look but didn't give it much thought at the time as my focus was elsewhere. Fast forward 8 years and my passions had turned to splitboarding, so I grabbed a copy, stuck it in the bathroom, and would peruse the lines every so often. I wasn't focused on getting them all at the time, but I looked to it for inspiration and new ideas of lines to ride. Fast forward another decade or so to the beginning of last winter and a few of us were talking about how many of the lines we had already ridden. I hadn't counted them until that day and when I did I realized I was already about halfway there. It was then I decided I wanted to finish and from there it was on.

A bit more backstory. In March of 2013, I broke my back freeriding. I jumped off a cliff, landed on my feet but hit something hard underneath, blacked out, and when I woke up I was paralyzed from the waist down. For an hour and 15 minutes, I had zero feeling in my legs as I lay in the snow with my friends holding my head. I thought my life was over, but after about that 1:15, I started to be able to feel my toes again. We got to the hospital and I had to have emergency surgery to place a cage in my back and fuse T11-L3 together. My neurosurgeon told me I may never walk properly again, let alone snowboard. It was during the lengthy recovery that I told myself I would never let this end my life and I pushed hard to accomplish a lot of things many thought I couldn't. Snowboard off the summit of Denali, do huge days in the backcountry, and shred lines that pushed my limits, not ones chosen by them. So a couple of years ago when I looked at the book again and how many I had left, I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it despite the injury and years of recovery it took.
As for the time it took, the short answer is It took about 18 years of not thinking about it, and another two seasons of focus to finish.

'White Pine Couloir' — #29.
"We got to the hospital and I had to have emergency surgery to place a cage in my back and fuse T11-L3 together. My neurosurgeon told me I may never walk properly again, let alone snowboard. It was during the lengthy recovery that I told myself I would never let this end my life and I pushed hard to accomplish a lot of things many thought I couldn't."
What were some high and low moments during this project?

Oh man, I'd say that most of the lines were high moments. The Wasatch and specifically the Central Wasatch is this tiny little compact range with so many absolutely incredible lines in it that I honestly enjoyed most of them. I think the main challenge for me was trying to get back into shape both physically and mentally after breaking my back. Another moment that was pretty wild was when Taylor Palmer was leading the Ribbon on Devils Castle with Justin Morgan and I behind. Taylor was at the crux where literally half of your board is hanging off an 800' cliff when a 4'x3' chunk of the wall came off and hit him. His board creased, his binding high back snapped, and he came unstrapped. Such a scary moment. He held his composure, strapped back in, and took a selfie haha. That's Tay. All while Jamo and I were about to drop a load in our pants haha. 

'Montgomery's' — #14
"Taylor was at the crux where literally half of your board is hanging off an 800' cliff when a 4'x3' chunk of the wall came off and hit him. His board creased, his binding high back snapped, and he came unstrapped. Such a scary moment. He held his composure, strapped back in, and took a selfie haha. That's Tay. All while Jamo and I were about to drop a load in our pants haha."
How does it feel to accomplish something of this magnitude?

This one meant a lot to me personally, simply because I was able to prove to myself that I could still shred and ride big lines after the broken back. And whether it was me, or one of the slew of other absolute crushers splitboarding in Wasatch, I think it's great to show that snowboarders are also pushing the limits of big mountain riding, and that despite having only one edge, we can get into technical and consequential terrain safely as well. 

Salt Lake Twins with Mike Meru and Tanner. 'Crow' — #8

What's next?

Well in the immediate future: get out and start canyoneering in the desert with the three ladies in my life (my wife Melissa and daughters Elle & Emme). But as far as snowboarding goes, the overarching goal of finding solace in remote and beautiful places remains. My drive in snowboarding is visiting remote ranges in search of striking couloirs. My main ski partners, Mike Aasheim, Justin Morgan, and Eduoard Sage have a very similar mindset, so I'd love to get out with them next season in search of big lines! 

'Snapdragon' #29.
Oh man, that's a tough one! I'd have to say the best line in the Gallery in my eyes is the Grunge Couloir on Timp. It's one I go back to at least once a year. When you get it in pow it's hard to beat! A few others that are high on the list for me are Montgomery, Lone Peak's NE Couloir, and Lisa Falls. And for the worst... I know I'm going to offend someone with this, but I'd have to say for me it's the Hallway. It's just my personal opinion, but I don't love it. Still better than a ski resort though haha.

Mike walking towards 'The Grunge' couloir on Mt. Timpanogos.

Do you have any advice you’d give for people who want to do what you did and ski all the lines in the Chuting Gallery?

Get the education, find partners you trust, be patient, and make it happen! 


Pfiefferhorn with Mike and Kirsten — #4
'Little Pine' — #8.
'Tuscarora' — #10

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Utah’s ski community roars on in a now quiet world

Alta Ski Area had to shut down mountain operations over a month sooner than planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Alta Ski Area

When ski area employees across North America went to bed one night in mid-March, they still had a job. By the morning, thousands were out of one.

COVID-19 hit the world economy hard, but it hit the ski industry especially hard. The ski community in Utah was not exempt. Some seasonal Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon workers were given severance pay when they got laid-off or furloughed, while others weren’t. But almost all were told to go home, or at least, elsewhere, as ski areas were shutting down and no longer had means or a reason to house them. But Alta Ski Area, doing what it had to do by closing down a month earlier than anticipated, made their employees their primary concern.  

Alta marketing director Brandon Ott said over the phone that shutting Alta down on Saturday, March 14 was “absolutely the right thing to do,” and coronavirus concerns had been on the skier-only mountain’s radar since March 1. He said that it may have seemed dramatic at the time to close down so suddenly, but then clarified that it wasn’t. 

“You’d think ski areas are safe, with skiers wearing face masks and goggles but that’s not the case,” Ott said. “Really, you’re sharing chair and gondola rides, waiting in lines, and touching things.” 

Alta Ski Area typically operates for 151 days during the winter season but, due to an invisible foe, lost 25 percent of their season. But while many ski area employees around the world were kicked to the curb when their employers starting shutting things down, Alta approached the situation a little differently.

The ski area offered seasonal workers a few extra weeks of pay even though they were not working. And — to Alta’s luck — they didn’t have to lay-off or furlough any single one of their full-time staff, according to Ott. Instead, they kept them onboard by adapting their work routines to new precautions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

According to Ott, they’re “taking care of the Alta family” by limiting the number of people working in offices, spreading out schedules, and vigorously disinfecting surfaces. Because of the way the ski area is managed and operated, Alta was in a good position to handle this sudden pandemic. 

“It pays to be a little smaller — to be a ski area and not a resort,” Ott said.

Because Alta doesn’t have a large-scale summer operations program, and because it doesn’t actually own any of the lodges around the mountain, they were in a manageable position to shut down a month early. Many other ski areas rely on the profits driven from their summer operations, which at this time are uncertain as to whether they will still happen. In the meantime, while snow continues to fall from the sky, Alta is allowing the public to earn their turns at their ski area. 

Uphill travel is allowed at Alta at this time, and snow-cats are grooming a select few trails every morning. According to Ott, this is a major key to prevent bottlenecks at popular backcountry trailheads in Little Cottonwood Canyon — by letting the public rip the wide-open ski area. Employees are also cleaning ski area bathrooms daily and Utah Department of Transportation crews are still plowing the roads when they need plowing. 

It should also be noted that Alta has seen a solid amount of snowfall this season, despite closing early, with 540 inches of snowfall at the time of this writing. To put that into perspective, Alta’s 40-year season average is 548 inches. 

Yet, no one really knows what all is going to come of this pandemic, and what next season is going to look like in the Little Cottonwood Canyon. What will pass sales be like for the 2020/21 ski season? When asked about the uncertain future, Ott said:

“Really, we’re taking care of our employees first. We’re in no rush to talk about pass pricing just yet.”

A time-lapse photo of the town of Alta tucked away at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Photo by Alta Ski Area. 

With that in mind, Alta is doing what it can for the many skiers that call this mountain home. Across the Wasatch traveling north, Powder Mountain, too, is doing what they can for their family of full-time and seasonal employees. 

Powder Mountain had an original closing date of April 12, 2020, but like Alta, the virus shut them down a month early. The ski resort responded initially by adapting operational measures while keeping their mountain open. They closed down lodges, spaced out lift-lines, and discontinued ski school. But, by remaining open with strictly enforced social-distancing measures, they ran into a new problem that they’ve never faced before: More people than ever were coming to ski Pow Mow because it was the only ski resort open for hundreds of miles in every direction. 

“We had a really good plan,” Powder Mountain’s marketing manager JP Goulet said. “But the issue with all the other ski resorts closing was that people were now coming from all over the U.S. and Canada to come ski Powder Mountain because we were one of the last bigger ski resorts open. Which is the last thing you want, you know, people traveling to other places in a time like this.” 

The final nail in the coffin for Powder Mountain’s season abruptly came when Utah Gov. Gary Herbert proceeded to issue the stay safe, stay home directive on March 27. That’s when Powder Mountain made the swift decision to cut their losses and shut resort operations down. 

Conveniently enough, most of the resort’s J-1 employees had already left the week prior and Powder Mountain was actually looking to hire new employees before ultimately deciding to shut down, according to Goulet. So, although some of Powder Mountain’s employees were laid-off, the resort didn’t have to let go near as many employees had they been forced to shut down a week or two sooner. Like Alta, too, Powder Mountain doesn’t have an extensive summer operations program. They have cross-country bike trails, which are open to the public, and should remain open this summer, according to Goulet. 

With the mountain closed, resort employees have a lot of time to think. Everything is still up in the air about how the ski industry is going to be affected long-term by the coronavirus, and a lot of uncertainty lingers. But Goulet is confident about next season. 

“We’re in a really good position to open [next season] because we never put that many people together anyway,” Goulet said. “We average three acres per skier.” 

Three acres of skiable terrain is more than enough for one skier, providing adequate space for social-distancing. The best Powder Mountain can do at this time is remain hopeful and play on their strengths, like their limited pass sales and very-spacious ski resort that boasts the most skiable acreage in the United States. But ski areas aren’t the only ones playing their part to help the ski community at large in the midst of a global pandemic. Several Salt Lake City non-profit organizations have taken matters into their own hands. 

A snow-cat at Powder Mountain. Photo by Powder Mountain.

Becca Fenander has been with the Alta ski patrol for 26 ski seasons and is the current president of Amazing Ski and Snow People, a non-profit organization that’s mission is to “support the physical, social, and mental health, education, and infrastructure needs of the ski patrol community.” Her organization helps the Little Cottonwood Canyon ski community with an emphasis on Alta ski patrollers.

When the going got tough with the pandemic and canyon employees were suddenly out of a job, Fenander and her organization stepped up to the plate. They started what’s called the “Little Cottonwood Canyon Coronavirus Relief Fund,” which is a fundraiser designated towards enhancing the wellbeing of the community by swiftly responding to the emergent needs of canyon employees who have lost wages and housing because of the mandatory shut-downs.

Fenander said that the easiest way to help the LCC community is simply by donating to the fund. “Anything helps,” she said. The relief fund has a proposed goal of $20,000, and, so far, Fenander is only $3,450 away from hitting that goal. To donate, click HERE.

“It’s about more than just money,” Fenander said. “It’s about an upwards spiral of wellbeing.” 

Fenander said that any surplus donations will be split 50-50 with Alta Community Enrichment (ACE) and Get Us PPE which are other non-profits. 

Amazing Ski and Snow People is adapting their organization as best they can, like everyone else during these strange times. ACE is too, and they’ve seen much recent success with the way they’ve been handling the situation. 

“We intend to create a community even when we can’t be near each other,” Sara Gibbs said, the executive director of ACE. 

Alta Community Enrichment is a non-profit organization that has the vision of creating a strong community by bringing people who live, work, and play in Little Cottonwood Canyon together to share the arts, culture, and education. According to Gibbs, ACE has four clear goals that help the community take interest and become involved. They are:
  1.          Supporting local arts and artists.
  2.          Bringing opportunities in the arts, culture, and education to the community.
  3.          Increasing awareness of the variety of activities that take place in our community. 
  4.      Having a strong, high-functioning Board of Trustees. 
Gibbs said that ACE was actually the very first entity in Alta to shut down because of the coronavirus before the rest of the town followed suit. As she put it over the phone, the early shutdown of canyon ski areas was “absolutely crushing,” not only to her but to everyone affected. That includes ski area employees, lodge workers, cooks, bartenders, maintenance crews — the list goes on.

“The average worker in Alta makes about $150 a week. That’s barely enough to live,” Gibbs said.

That’s why ACE gives back as much as they can to the community because without that community, the non-profit wouldn’t survive, according to Gibbs. Like Fenander with Amazing Ski and Snow People, Gibbs also had to step up to the plate and make drastic changes to the way ACE does things when the entire world changed overnight. 

ACE had 34 events planned before Alta Ski Area hurriedly closed. They were all painfully canceled. Yet, instead of giving in to change, ACE embraced it. They’ve moved many of their scheduled events to virtual outings online via social media platforms like Instagram.

For example, the Alta Gala is a staple for end-of-the-ski-season events and is basically one big party of rowdy skiers dressed in costumes, dancing and drinking, with the event's proceeds going towards philanthropic purposes in the Alta community. ACE reoriented it as a virtual event this year. Instead of meeting up at the event, party-goers logged into their Zoom accounts and partied on from home. And that’s not the only instance where ACE has shown resilience in the face of adversity. 

Gibbs said that ACE has already created 16 virtual events since the pandemic began, and plans to create more. Of these virtual activities are a downloadable coloring book, free for all, and ACE-sponsored yoga sessions taking place via Instagram Live every day with Alta yoga instructor, Marie “Sunshine” Heywood. 

“ACE doesn’t pause for the community,” Gibbs said. 

So, even when the global economy pauses, when the ski industry comes to a standstill, and when the world seemingly stops spinning for a moment, there remain those who continue to push back against the creeping tides of change. And luckily for us, those people are skiers.