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:
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: 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.