Ski Meditation

‘Life is a journey. Meditation ends it.’
                                              Ajahn Brahm

 

1200, 800, 1700, 1800, 2000m. I have been skiing five days in a row now (and eight days out of the last ten). Actually when I say ‚skiing‘, I mean ski touring, or back country skiing, which means that the uphill parts are achieved by ‚skinning’ up. The figures at the beginning of the paragraph represent the daily elevation gains of these five consecutive days. Fitness has come quickly. I have never before done 2000m of vertical elevation in one day. Now I happened to do them on the fifth day of consecutive ski touring, after already having completed considerable elevation gains on the two days before. We actually could have done another 500m lap if it had not been for the fading of the daylight and the monotony of repeating the same ascent for the 10th time in three days.

Ski touring in the Kootenays differs from the back home in some important aspects:

  • First of all, each and every time we had all the mountain to ourselves(!). This means that a) uphill, you have to break trail frequently and b) downhill, the only party to track out the powder is your own.
  • Second, reaching a peak is not so important. Our Canadian friends look for good downhill runs, they hardly care about reaching mountain tops. Many ridges we ski off have no name and forget about the summit crosses you find in the Alps.
  • Third, most of the times, there is a rather long access of poorly skiable road. Canadians love to use snowmobiles to shorten the approach time spent on this. I am not so convinced of their usefulness: On day two it took as longer to by snowmobile than it took me on day three when I skinned. The snow mobile had gotten stuck in the deep snow four times, and each time, three of us had to dig it out with our avalanche shovels.
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Snowmobiles. BC people have them like we have cars.

Only then comes the actual ski hill. Once you get there, you go up and down in laps as long as you please and your legs last. Doing multiple ascents has both advantages and disadvantages: Every hour or two of hiking, you get five to ten minutes of downhill skiing excitement in between. This really matters: Often you are so stoked after a run that you alter your previous decision of ending the day ‚after this run‘. But it also means that you need to take your skins off and put them back on more often. Not only does this cost time, it also requires you to handle your skins with a much greater deal of care, if you want them to keep sticking to your skis properly.

If you ski(n) every day, everything developes into a routine: You get up, do your hygiene and have breakfast (lots of it), you prepare your skis, you hike up. You ski and hike three laps. When it starts to get dark, you go down the mountain. You get back to the cabin, relight the fire, change cloths. Eat. Cook. Eat some more. Eat some more again. You go to bed. Repeat. Routine, together with the huge amount if time spent hiking up the mountain (as well as the absence of mobile reception and other forms of internet access) actually give you a chance to calm your mind, to quiet the voice of your own thoughts in your head down a bit. I have collected a few pieces of advice for anybody who whishes to follow this trail:

Early season advice for the ski meditation adept

  1. Contrary to those concerned mostly with general safety, my advice is actually to go ski touring by yourself sometimes. It will allow you to find your own rythm, go faster or slower as your body demands. You can find out when and how often you need to eat or drink. By the fourth day, I knew exactly what amount of food and liquid to pack to get precisely to the end of the day. If you don’t want to go by yourself, pretend you do it: hike ahead of or trail the others. Let them go by you if they are faster. Why all this? In order for you to be able to
  2. Become aware of the voice in your head. Your mind produces an endless stream of inner chit chat – your thoughts! Let them become loud. Hear them. But don’t listen. These are just your thoughts. They are not the reality. The reality is the mountain under your feet, the cold air around you, the sweat on your front and now
  3. Concentrate on your deep (and probably accelerated) breath. That is something you can focus on. Feel the airstream enter and exit your mouth and nose, feel it go up and down your lungs. As you concentrate more and more on this, the voice in your head will become weaker and weaker. Your thoughts will vanish… for a moment or two. Then you will again think about what you will eat when you get back to the cabin, how great that gopro video will hopefully look or how you need to remember to make that dentist appointment… or any other more or less serious worries and hopes you usually keep yourself busy with. There is only one remedy:
  4. Repeat. Don’t give up. Return to your breath. Fortunately,
  5. There is a short cut. You get to the top of the run, you pack away your skins, take a sip of tea, buckle your boots. Ahead of you is a steep powder run. You want to go fast, you dont want to stop, you want to go down in one flowing motion. You are a anxious now. Because the voice in your head is on a rapid fire: ‘It’s steep! You could release an avalanche! You don’t know this run! You could end up on a huge cliff! And what about the tree holes? And why the hell have you still not bought a helmet?!’ But once you go, maybe after taking a deep breath, all of a sudden the thoughts are all gone. Silence. Your attention is now fully centered in this present, very demanding moment as you fly down between the trees, trying not to hit one while not losing control of your skis or your balance. You have now officially reached a state of Satori.  For a brief moment, you are enlightened. Until you have to stop at one point. Every run ends or maybe it just takes you to a point of hesitation.
  6. Enjoy the glimpse of enlightenment you have just been granted an smile. Then, return to your breath. There is another hike waiting for you. Eat that granola bar, but than forget about it. And about that facebook post you are planning to make about this run, too.
  7. Mangia, Madonna santissima, mangia!! If you want to do this again the next day, eat. And forget about low carb: You need to fill your body up with carbohydrates as much as you can. Eat pasta, rice, potatos like there was no tomorrow. I guarantee, you will remember the day of ski touring after the night you only had meat and veggies for a long time.

 

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Spaghettata around the stove with my friends from Bolzano.

And don’t forget to fill yourself up properly for breakfast too. You need the fuel. Especially if you want to practice emptiness of mind, not emptiness of stomach.

Am Morgen, am Abend

Spaghettata for the mind.

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All I wanted

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This is it! Backcountry skiing and new hippie friends dreams come true for me in my first days in the Kootenays.

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Virgin powder.

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Hucking a frozen waterfall with a little help from my friends…

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New weapons: G3 Empire + Fritischi Vipec

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Philipp and Kim hiking up at dawn.

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Arrival at the Lost Ledge cabin.

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Magic Kootenays at sunset.

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The Lost Ledge cabin at night. 

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Coziness above 2000m.

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Let’s have some water.

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Care for a Sauna?

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Our tracks from the day before.

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With Nora and Philipp, who not only share their cabin in Rattelack with me but also extended their invite to the Lost Ledge cabin to me and whom I owe these fantastic skiing days in the Kootenays.

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Well said.

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A few days earlier: 

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After nine hours of continuous driving from Vancouver to the Kootenays…

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… I lost track.

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After almost six months, my first full day of work at North Valley Huts, my workaway “employer”.

 

There are certain places you get to, and you just know it. This is what you really have been looking for all along. And now that you are here, you just want to be part of it. Badly. So it happened to me when I arrived in Retallack, BC after a 12-hour nonstop-drive from Vancouver. But not so fast:

Vilma and I decided it was for the best for both of us for her to fly home. The symptoms of Dengue fever had become unambiguous in the meanwhile and although it had passed already, Dengue commands a recovery period of at least ten days up to many weeks. It was not an easy decision at all.

The next morning, I packed up, got in the car and started to drive out towards Retallack, a place in the heart of the Kootenay Mountains. A very nice couple of young South-Tyroleans, Philipp and Nora, whom we had met at the hostel in Vancouver, were already there and I had contacted both them as well as their landlord Cindy, who runs „North Valley Huts“ and offers board and lodging for a few hours of work every day. The job was defined as „help prepare cabins for ski touring guests“ and was directed at dedicated skiers. No doubt, absolutely ideal for me.

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A day’s drive for Canadians. With all that snow and sliding off the road, 12 hours nonstop for me…

The drive was supposed to last 7 hours and a half and included a lot of mountain passes and one ferry crossing. I left Vancouver in heavy rain that lasted until I reached the mountains. I started driving up, up and even more up towards Kelowna. As I passed the highest point, snowfall started. Canadians drive extremely fast on snowpack in their 4×4 Ford F-trucks. I was hesitant, but when it turned 7pm and I still had an hour to drive, I increased my speed. On an uphill slope, the car started to skid despite the 4×4. A few dreadful seconds later, the car was in the roadside ditch, firmly stuck in snow, wheels turning but without moving the car not even an inch. The adrenaline subsided, a road service car passed by and called a towing service for me. I continued the drive at half the speed. Retallack is not a town, it is actually more of a mountain pass that once was home to a town, a century ago, when miners lived here. To date, there is no running water, no electricity and no network coverage and no buildings at than a few cabins and one lodge. No shops, no gas station, no traffic lights. I actually passed by it the first time I drove in. There was nothing you could see from the street. Just pine trees, and one wooden sign with a red eagle head. The writing „Retallack“ below the eagle’s head was covered in snow. I arrived just before my hosts would have given up on me and would have gone to bed.

The next morning, we joined Tom and Kim for a three-day backcountry skiing trip at their club cabin. The pictures above are from these wonderful days deep into the remote backcountry of the  Kootenay mountains.

At the Gates of Wonderland

We’ve arrived in Vancouver two days ago. Vilma has contracted (Dengue?) fever somewhere along the way, which started to manifest just the day we flew in (for the immigration record: after we passed the controls), meaning that she had medium to high fever and is pretty tired all the time. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but start to get amped for the wealth of snow and mountains that is waiting all around.

I bought a car on the first full day in Van. It was so straightforward, I became the owner of a licensed and insured car only 30 hours after we’d arrived here. It’s a 2001 Ford Explorer 4×4, and it cost me no more than 2500 CAD (or 1700 EUR) with the odometer at 171.000km. The rear seats are fully collapsable, so even a tall guy like me can sleep in the car if needed. It is actually the first car ever licensed in my name. Seems I had to become 35 years old and come all the way to BC to get that accomplished!

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So I’m a ‘Ford man’ now?

Yesterday we’ve been to the MEC store, looking into skis, sleeping bags, guide books etc. We both got really excited about getting on skis. I’ve chosen to buy new skis after thoroughly checking that Craigslist wasn’t offering anything suitable enough… well, almost nothing. I let the lust for brand new gear have the best of me in the end. Stupid.

I started reading this guide book yesterday night and my anticipation went uphill immediately: 450 pages of mountains and corresponding ski trips. And that’s only the coastal range of British Columbia. Let me quote you some of my favourites:

“Snow Conditions: Deep and lots of it! … The Coast Mountains receive the heaviest snowfalls of any mountain range in Canada. The annual snowfall is typically about 10m…”

“One of the most outstanding features of the Coast Mountains ist their wilderness. Roads cross the range only four times along its entire length between Vancouver and Skagway. … Few other areas except Antarctica and the Far North can offer the same degree of pristine mountain wilderness as the Coast Mountains.”

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Source: “Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis: A Guide to Ski Mountaineering, by John Baldwin

A Swiss shop clerk living here already for 15 years advised me to start by going to the interior until mid February, then go up north, and come back to the Coast Range in March and April. Quote ‘stupid amounts of powder’ are to be found in places like Revelstoke and Whitewater right now, ‘the stuff that you come here for’.

The allure of an almost endless country of snow covered mountains and true wilderness is fueling my inner fire already fiercely. Unfortunately, it seems like I have developed a little illness too now, and and that delays any advance into the inland for the moment.

 

A taste of decadence

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Eventually, my birthday passed in style. The little hostel where I arrived the first night in San Francisco was in a street crowded with bums and drug addicts, and the inside was nothing to write home about either. So I went online and found a last minute deal for 2 nights at 5 star hotel Clift.

I have to admit that I enjoyed the place; and I wasn’t even aware how fancy it was when I booked it. The good, perfumed smell in the lobby, the fancy interior design, the redwood bar designed by Ralph Lauren. A spacious 24/7 gym. Treats sent to our room by the receptionist after I had told her that it was my birthday… it was all familiar, it was that kind of hotel I sometimes could stay at when I was a banker. Also, it felt a bit like the christmas we didn’t have two weeks ago in Costa Rica: cold outside, warm and cosy inside. A day spent lazily, with lots of nibbling all day and some cocktails at night.

On the other hand, only a few blocks away, urban San Francisco was a shock. I had asked my parents to send a pre-prepared package with my ski gear to 94102 San Francisco for ‘general delivery’ (which is a truly fantastic thing: you send a letter or a package to a post office and you can go pick it up there). I had chosen this postal code for no specific reason, just because it was sitting on top of the list I guess. In any case, to collect it, we walked down Market Street on Friday afternoon, and what we saw reminded me of the too many zombie movies that come out of Hollywood in recent years. The streets are filled with people obviously suffering from one or more of the following: drug addiction, homelessness, miserable health, absurd poverty. Even the post office dealing with general delivery – located in the Tenderlon area – was filled with homeless and drug-addicts, hanging out in the post box corridors.

My social and political views have never been the ones most people would expect from a banker. And in the face of what I saw here in San Francisco, I even more failed to understand how anyone in the US could endorse tax breaks for the ultra-rich and oppose national healthcare, when poverty and misery are so obvious that you can’t look the other way even if you want to? How is this possible?

California and the dollar are expensive though, and the Canadian dollar is irresistibly low right now. So we booked flights to Vancouver for tomorrow. Whistler is only 125km away. Sorry, Lake Tahoe.

 

35!

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One day, I will tell my children that I skied 100+ days the year I turned 35.

Today is my 35th birthday. And I am quite fit! Among the many things I lost, gave up or sold in the course of 2015 is one size in board shorts – actually I lost it in only one month in Costa Rica.

35 is a landmark. It is when you start being closer to 40 than to 30. It is the beginning of the ending of your second (or for those who enjoyed their teen age, already your third) youth, and somehow, the youth of fully developed adulthood.

Turning 35 to me means something completely else today than it would have meant one year ago. By having taken huge chances to do what (I thought?) I wanted to do, I don’t have the same regrets I would have had then about the passing of another year and the reaching of another landmark age.

One year ago, not only didn’t I know where my life was leading (in this, the status quo is not so different), but also I didn’t feel like I was doing what I desired to do the most if time was short. The truth is, time actually is short, even if we reach old age.

Today, I am following my dreams. It may not always feel as great as it felt when I fantasized about it (just look at the picture below, this is where I woke up on my 35th birthday 😉

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Not really the stairway to heaven.

But I am following my dreams, and I had the guts to follow them. And this is meaningful, even if it poses many risks and is not the same as being happy all the time at all.

Straight ahead lies one of my greatest dreams: Skiing all winter, and skiing in places like British Columbia and Alaska. Mentally I have prepared for this for a long time. Physically, unfortunately not so much – my arms have become my legs in the water, and I could barely exercise my legs on land due to the oppressive heat in Costa Rica. Who cares! This will be awesome!!

PS:Many thanks for all your kind birthday wishes! It feels good not to be forgotten.

The magic of the good sale

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The moment the last ride on my first surf board ended. It was undertaken by this beach beauty.

 

Today felt like the last day in Costa Rica, although it actually is tomorrow. But this morning I got up and returned the car in Tamarindo (not without hustling to find eye liner or car polish to get rid of the scratches), and in the evening, I walked to the next surf shop to sell my board. I never really loved this board since I didn’t appreciate the weird and somewhat random design. But I really started to appreciate – and even love it a bit – here in Costa Rica, it gave me a lot of wonderful rides. (I think it might have been 200-300 rides in total in the roundabout two months I went to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with it.)

When it comes to the parting words with Costa Rica, I have my difficulties… No doubt, this is a country of stunning natural beauty. But I never fully warmed up for this very – actually, too – hot place. It never quite gave me what for example, Portugal gave me so much of. Or Mauritius before that, or some places of Spain like Tarifa have been giving me for years. Maybe the geomantics here just don’t work for me. Maybe I never fully digested the almost-attack of the deadly yellow-bellied black water snake in the lineup on day three of my stay.*  But it could just as well simply be the crazy price level of almost everything from food items to car rentals. Most of all, it was the feeling of being one of too many tourists in a country crowded by holiday vacationers, with no possibilty to exit from this  status.

It is almost symptomatic for my trip to Costa that it was a guy from Uruguay who reconciled me with this place just before I left. This man, a surfer for life, surf shop owner and, as I would find out, surfer poet, bought my board from me after a long and skillful, but friendly negotiation from both sides. With a good deal (that is to me, one that is toughly negotiated, if not contested, and serves both buyer and vendor), often an atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine interest for the other party is created. I think this might have happened, and we embarked on a long conversation about surfing and life in general after the sale was done. It was the first time someone who lives here revealed something truly relevant about themselves and their personal history to me. My spirits felt renewed after that conversation.

 

 

* This incident probably raised my awareness for all the many species of animals here that ‘don’t mean well’, as I would point out to a a friend in the line up some week thereafter. There are many of them to choose from: Sharks (theoretically), crocodiles (quite practically – even in the sea, on some surf beaches too), a nice range of venomous snakes on land and on water, scorpions, spiders, mosquitos with various diseases, or the ever-disgusting and severe-disease-transmitting kissing bug. If you are a turtle, you also tend to hate the vultures which prey on your freshly laid eggs. On the positive side, you will see turtles, pelicans, many different species of birds, howler monkey, sloths… the main thing about the Costa Rican fauna is that it is much richer in both quantity and variety than the central European.