About William Dudley Bass

Author, Analyst, Creative Freelance Writer & Editor, Speaker, Storyteller, Adventurer

The Devil in Uncle Watt

Uncle Watt bit off the head of a big, fat, juicy, green tobacco worm, peed on his deaf cousin, and poked mules in the ass with a sharp stick just to see ‘em kick. Oh, yes, he was full of the Devil. And my efforts to untangle dead ancestors lured me into a genealogical exorcism.

“Oh my Lord, he done got the Devil in ‘im BAD,” Raffie, a stooped, ancient man who used to work beside him on the farm once told me when I was a young lad. As late as July 2009, Helen, one of my beloved aunts and a Beatnik artist then in her 80s, when reminded of Uncle Watt called him “quite a character.” And so I tumbled down the dumbwaiter chute of a family mystery. Who was this “Devil?”

Continue reading @ http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/devil-uncle-watt/.

William Dudley Bass
2009, 2012
Seattle & Shoreline, Washington

NOTE: This essay was first published in my earlier blogs, revised on my new website, On Earth at the Brink, @ http://williamdudleybass.com. It is reprinted here with my permission as the Author. Thank you.

Last Night I Dreamed of a Dead Woman from Long Ago

Six nights ago I dreamed about a long-dead friend and have felt obsessed about it ever since. Just finished looking at old pictures of her I found in dusty high school yearbooks. She graduated in June of 1976 a year ahead of me. Her name was Jo Anne.

We didn’t hang out much at all in high school. We became friends many years later after she tracked me down to Richmond, the capital city of Virginia, where I lived and attended grad school in the mid-1980s. She wasn’t my girlfriend. We were never lovers. More like I was her confidante – Continue reading “Last Night I Dreamed of a Dead Woman from Long Ago” »

Seeing Chris Guillebeau in Seattle for his new $100 Startup Book

Yesterday morning I sat down with a cup of strong Irish tea to catch up on a ton of email. I didn’t get very far before I discovered Chris Guillebeau was scheduled to speak that night at Town Hall Seattle. I’ve never met the guy, and his writings expressing his unique way of thinking about our world provoke and inspire me. I love his blog The Art of Non-Conformity: Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work and Travel. He has a book out with the same title that also stirs the pot, your pot, with relish. It stirred my pot for sure.

Fueled up with a late afternoon cup of coffee, I hustled downtown and promptly got lost. I make the same stupid mistake every time by parking in the wrong underworld garage then meandering around in the labyrinthine maze atop the Convention Center lid over the freeways. I caught myself ranting on the phone to my wife as I tried to get her to come meet me, but she was too far away to arrive anywhere close in time.

She listened with more patience than me as I caught myself getting angry. Feeling silly, I burst out laughing at what a fool I was. I cooled off quick and chilled out. There were more important things to do than get wiggy over buses and cars, and, boom, Town Hall. Wow, I’ve never happened upon it so quickly. I could hear the Universe poking me and saying, “So, there!” Continue reading “Seeing Chris Guillebeau in Seattle for his new $100 Startup Book” »

Naked Barbies at the Bus Stop

Tuesday Morning, May 6, 2002

Kate, my 4 year old, crawled around the corner into the room pushing a big, grey, toy horse with a shaggy, black mane. A naked, plastic woman was bent backwards across the saddle of the horse with her large, plastic breasts pointing up and out into the parlor. Unlike her limbs, her breasts were immovable. I was amused by the way Kate had the doll face-up over the horse instead of draped face-down as “in reality.”

Morgan, my 9 year old, stares.

“Oh, my God,” she blurts out. “A naked Barbie!”

Hmmnn, not only is my third grader a self-professed Atheist, who like many Atheists continue to use the Lord’s name, but she has become increasingly self-conscious about her pre-budding figure.

“Kate, are you ready to go to the bus stop with me and Morgan?” I asked.

“You are NOT taking a naked Barbie to the bus stop!” Morgan declared.

“Aw, shoot, Morgan. I’m gonna take us all to that family nudist colony at Snoqualmie this summer so we can all walk around naked with everyone else. There’s nothing wrong with being naked. There’s nothing wrong with your body. Old people. Babies. Fat people. Skinny folks. All walkin’ around naked.”

“Yeah!” shouts Kate. “We all walk around naked inside our house anyway.”

“Eww! Gross!” Morgan makes gagging sounds.

At first I thought it was funny. Then I wondered if I was being disrespectful of where Morgan was in her development. My agenda as her Father was for her to feel that our bodies are natural, normal, and healthy as they are and there’s nothing wrong with nudity. I didn’t stop and think at the time that maybe there was nothing wrong with wearing clothes, either. I just want people to get these are choices, not ironclad moral issues.

There was a time at Orca Landing, an urban cooperative in North Seattle my family lived in for almost 7 years, all the members walked around naked from time to time, some more so than others. Then gradually we started wearing more and more clothes. Events such as having children around with grandparents and other relatives popping over to visit them. An incident occurred at a party with children around where two men and a woman had sex out back in our hot tub. The resulting uproar motivated us to shake our heads at such irresponsible and disrespectful behavior, especially considering the professions of at least two of the folks involved, and caused us to implement new rules regulating open nudity. We banned sexual behavior out in the open in our common areas including the hot tub for sure.

We used to let Morgan play naked in our front yard. Then one summer Gwen decided to make Morgan pull on underwear whenever our daughter went outside. At first I disagreed, and then I relented. Fear of pedophiles and other sexual predators cruising by generated powerful aversions. An article had come out in the daily paper that our Greenwood neighborhood had one of the highest concentrations of relocated “sexually disturbed” men. A housemate remarked it was “socially and developmentally appropriate” for Morgan to now have to wear clothes outside. Morgan, still a preschooler, was deemed “too old” to run naked out of doors.

Is Morgan’s newfound self-consciousness with her body a normal, healthy developmental phase where the biological organism instinctively seeks to protect itself during transition, or is it inculcated from social and cultural conditioning, including what many alternatives consider the aberrations and distortions of mainstream culture? Isn’t peer pressure but the reflection of mainstream culture and media indoctrination, or is it a normal, biological herd-and-pack mentality to protect the vulnerable at a crucial phase of development?

Or, the ultimate cop-out answer, “both?” Because if it is “both,” then so what? What then? Also, if Orca Landing had been a rural rather than an urban cooperative with greater privacy in remote area rather than neighbors next door and across the street, well, would that have made any difference on the idea “its time for Morgan to stop running around naked?”

I realize one thing I appreciate about sex-positive culture is that it honors the body and all body types. Yes, I know, we should not equate nudity with sex ,and not all body types are healthy. But those are not my points. As human beings have a body, and human beings are sexual beings from before birth to (after?) death, I seek to instill respect, honor, and self-love for the human body as a whole even in minors.

And yes, a naked Barbie … and a naked toy horse both made it to the bus stop. But all the real people wore clothes. And not just because of protection from the elements or from imagined predators.

Morgan and I walked to the bus top along Fremont Avenue North with Kate cradling her naked Barbie doll and her naked horsie, too. While we waited Kate crawled around in circles pushing the doll bent back abnormally so its breasts jutted firmly skyward. She clearly delighted in such play, and she clearly delighted at antagonizing her older, more prudish (or should I say “prudent?”) sister.

Morgan would walk away and scowl, then look over in disgust as if her kid sister pushing a naked Barbie doll on a shaggy grey pony horse was the stupidest thing in the world.

Morgan would grumble, and Kate would ignore her. I stood there prepared to intervene if necessary.

And the big yellow school bus trundled up and carted Morgan off to elementary school. I walked back to the house with Katie, who treasured her naked toys with gleeful joy. We never made it to the family nudist camp, either.

 

William Dudley Bass
May 2002
November 2008
Revised March 2012
Seattle, Washington

NOTE: This was previously published on my website, William Dudley Bass on Earth at the Brink, at http://williamdudleybass.com, and reappears here with my permission as the Author. Thank you.

Copyright © 2002, 2008, 2012 by William Dudley Bass.

On Living, Dying, Death, Loss, Grief, Ghosts, and Moving On

The events of my father’s death followed by my mother’s and all that arose afterwards were pivotal events in my life. They are, I would imagine, for the majority of human beings around the world. My writings on these topics took place over time and have evolved into the narrative contained within the following series of essays, ruminations, photographs, and poems.

Death is an everyday aspect of life, and yet in our culture perhaps the least visited, the least discussed, the most disturbing, the most feared, and the most liberating. Bereft of a cultural web of community grief and loss, we nowadays hurry the dying out of view and the dead into the ground or into an urn or whatever just so we can get back to what we really have reduced our lives to: being too busy. In the process of freeing ourselves up to be so busy we have unwittingly robbed ourselves of something intimate, indeed of something which can be a rich affirmation of life and purpose.

Loosely I lump the following as my “Death of my Parents” canon, and it’s much more than the deaths of Mom and Dad. Each is fully self-contained, although they do flow one to the other. Some are long, while others are short. Most have photographs, and a few have lots and lots of pictures. I list them below in the chronology of which I published them on my website, William Dudley Bass on Earth at the Brink, although as with blogs they show up in reverse order with the last one posted at the top.

I invite you to dive on in and join me on a certain timed yet timeless odyssey.

1. “Death with Father,” http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/death-father/.

2. “My Mom & Death,” http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/mom-death/.

3. “During My Mother’s Dying,” http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/mothers-dying/.

4. “Mom Passes On: Ruminations,” http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/mom-passes-on-ruminations/.

5. “The Morning After We Buried Mom,”http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/morning-buried-mom/

6. “Daddy’s Ghost,” http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/daddys-ghost/.

7. “Barreling Across America with my Daughter Morgan,”http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/barreling-america/.

8. “Dad’s Old Chair,” http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/dads-chair/.

Thank you, dear Readers.

William Dudley Bass
March 5, 2012
Seattle, Washington
http://williamdudleybass.com/

NOTE: This posting and all the articles, photographs, and poems listed first appeared on the Author’s website, William Dudley Bass on Earth at the Brink, @ http://williamdudleybass.com/ & reappears here with his consent. Thank you.

Copyright © 2012 by William Dudley Bass.

 

Swimming in Avalanches

Click on any photo to ENLARGE it.

Lightning Storms are common in the Mountains. Photo from a free wallpaper/stock photo set.

Lightning struck the mountain as the heavens cracked with thunder. Snow and ice burst loose like boiling water, and I was swept down the couloir, a steep gulley plunging down the flank of the mountain. It was a hell of a way to spend a summer vacation.

It was mid-July 1986, and I was in the Wyoming Wind River Range toward the end of a 30-day Wind River Mountaineering Course with NOLS, the world-famous National Outdoor Leadership School. Headquartered on the edge of the range in the cowboy town of Lander, Wyoming, NOLS was the premier outdoor adventure school of my time.

Back then I was considering a career in outdoor adventure and sought concentrated training in hard skills such as alpine rock climbing and glacier travel and in soft skills such as teamwork and leadership under pressure. Along with those skills NOLS also taught natural history, science in the field, environmental responsibility, wilderness navigation, and backcountry first aid, all knowledge I desired.  I had one semester left in grad school, too, back east in Richmond, Virginia. And, to be sure, what I most wanted as an ol’ farmboy from Virginia was an immersion adventure in the Wild American West. And I got it.

A veteran NOLS instructor, Michael “Mike” Collins, a decorated ex-Marine with long blonde hair from New Hampshire who found his soul in the Wyoming wilderness, led our expedition. He told us of sitting in a wheelchair all grogged out from painkillers being awarded a medal by then-President Ronald Reagan for being wounded in the combat in the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Mike thought the little war was stupid, but he gave it a gung-ho go-go-go and got shot up for it. The mountains called him West after he got out of the Marines. It’s where he healed himself out among horses, rocks, stars, sun, snow, and climbers. Mike was never rattled and always seemed calm, collected, and solid even if somewhat fatalistic.

A veteran NOLS instructor, Michael “Mike” Collins, a decorated ex-Marine with long blonde hair from New Hampshire who found his soul in the Wyoming wilderness, led our expedition. He told us of sitting in a wheelchair all grogged out from painkillers being awarded a medal by then-President Ronald Reagan for being wounded in the combat in the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Mike thought the little war was stupid, but he gave it a gung-ho go-go-go and got shot up for it. The mountains called him West after he got out of the Marines. It’s where he healed himself out among horses, rocks, stars, sun, snow, and climbers. Mike was never rattled and always seemed calm, collected, and solid even if somewhat fatalistic.

John Toll of Iowa served as Mike’s assistant and second-in-command. He was full of grit and gumption, as short as an ear of corn, and most intense. John thrived under pressure and seemed determined to throw off the gravity of being from the cornfield realms of Iowa. In turn, Fergus McCormick, who carried a guitar in a blue case lashed to his backpack, assisted them as an apprentice trip leader. I don’t remember where Fergus was from, maybe New York, other than he went to Reed College in Oregon.

Some of my favorite memories were of Fergus grinning after lugging his big guitar up and down across big mountains, unzipping his blue case, pulling out his guitar, and start playing. He’ll strum and sing way out there on the side of the mountains amid rocks and trees and wind. Intoxicated with music, we would feel like a million miles in the middle of nowhere but in the heart of everywhere.  All three young men were remarkable in their own way. To all us students they were Superheroes. God-like, even.

Called the Wind Rivers or the Winds for short, these mountains paralleled the Tetons to the West as part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. After surviving a hellish blizzard on the Fourth of July in subzero temperatures, we continued our off-trail traverse of the Wind River Mountains from the northeast to southwest.

After another fierce storm cleared the skies we successfully summitted Gannett Peak on the 12thof July. At 13,804 ft Gannett is the highest mountain in Wyoming, even taller than its more famous neighbor the Grand Teton.

John Toll of Iowa, Assistant NOLS Instructor, atop Gannet Peak, WY, 13,804 ft., July 12, 1986. He named & led our Iowa Peak climb 4 days later. Jenn H. is in front. Photo by William Bass.

By July 14 we arrived at Bull Lake Glacier atop a wide plateau. This glacier was connected to the large Fremont Glacier complex. There on the edge of Bull Lake Glacier at around 12,120 feet our NOLS group set up camp. Across from us to the west was Indian Pass, which looked steep and slick with a cloak of heavier than usual late-season snow and ice. To our right the northern gate was guarded by the shoulder hump of Jackson Peak, at 13,517 feet the eighth highest mountain in Wyoming. We actually had to descend off Bull Lake Glacier to the base before climbing it.

South to our left an unnamed tower of rock pierced the sky. Although at about 12,836 feet it wasn’t as tall, the unnamed mountain looked steeper and more challenging than more massive Jackson Peak. As tired as we felt, a group of us wanted to bag it. I wanted to bag it. Back then I kept lists of all the mountains I climbed and all the rivers paddled, states I’ve visited, and all the national parks and wilderness areas I’ve entered.

Our course broke into rotating small groups over the next couple days. It was a pleasant change of pace from the relentless marching. Feeling bony but strong, we engaged in day climbs with ice axes and had science classes in the fields. One day the mini-group I was in climbed and summitted Jackson Peak. We actually had to descend off Bull Lake Glacier to the base before climbing it.

The ascent was primarily a wickedly steep snow slog. One step at a time with each plunge of the ice ax shaft. At one point we had to chop steps out of the ice, which was a bit nerve wracking. It wasn’t a severe climb by any means, but the exposure was deadly. And it was a cool climb except that visibility was bad with rapid changes in weather. Another climb of nearby Fremont Peak, third highest in Wyoming at 13,745 feet, was aborted when another storm hit us partway up.

The Author, age 27, atop Jackson Peak, 13,517 ft., July 15, 1986. Photo by team mate for William Bass.

July 16, 1986 found my small group following John Toll down off the glacier to climb the unnamed peak. There were three of us students: Ray, Laura, and me. They were characters, too. Ray was a jovial older guy built like a bear who declared himself an avowed Marxist from New England.

Laura was from somewhere in the Northeast, too. With a thick head of orange-red hair, she was quiet, studious, and totally game to have at these mountains. Younger than me, Laura became famous on our expedition for going snow blind. She refused to wear her glacier goggles one day on a glacier crossing because she didn’t like the way she looked with those big goggles on and went blind. It was our fault, too, because no one including our NOLS instructors caught it until it was too late. Her eyes healed from placing cooled tea bags upon them. Took a day and a half. Today, though, she could see so well as to behold the storms. And laugh at her self, too.

Although I waggled my head and chuckled, I understood. Whenever I wore huge, slipover sunglasses over my big spectacles people point and shout, “Hey, look! A man in rilly HUGE, li’l ol’ lady GRANMA sunglasses!” For a few years after the movie of the same name came out in 1987, people would look again, laugh, and shout, “Hey, look! Robocop!”

Iowa John led us over to the base of the mesa-like rock tower just south of Indian Pass. We had to have a name for this nameless – at least on the map – mountain. As John hailed from the rolling flats of Iowa, he flippantly called out “Iowa Peak!” And the rest us of embraced the oxymoron with laughs and shouts. “Yeah!” we cried out in agreement, “Iowa Peak!”

Morning of July 16, 1986. Left (S) to right (N): "Iowa" Peak, Indian Pass, flank of Jackson Peak. Photo by William Bass.

The three of us students arrived with John at the base of Iowa. We were clearly not the first climbers. In fact we were a little shocked at the quantity of human feces clumped among the rocks. With a wry grin, John launched into a brief lecture on minimum impact ethics.

“Well, whaddaya do out here?” one of us asked. “You can’t dig a cat hole in all these rocks.”

“Pull up a rock, shit in the hole, then cover it up,” John said. “If you absolutely have to shit on top the ground, then cover it up with rocks. Even better, smear your own shit around first. Preferably with flat rocks.”

We nodded in agreement. All of us have been out in the field too long to say “Eww.”

After a debate on the best configuration for rope teams for the four of us, we decided to do the unusual and put all four on us on a single rope. We had a mix of skill levels and abilities, and decided the whole group would move faster this way. Off we went, clawing our way up a multi-pitch rock climb with helmets and backpacks with ice axes strapped on.

July 16 had dawned blue and clear. We were all excited, even eager, for climbing this tower represented a true unknown. Yet all four of us remained relatively calm and matter-of-fact. Being out in the field for so long had matured us with a certain wisdom. And, to be honest, we were all tired. And we were focused and upbeat.

It’s been almost 23 years now as I write. I can’t remember if we took turns swinging leads, or for the sake of speed we all stayed clipped into the rope in the same order we began. I can’t remember if I was the lead climber or the second. I know Laura was usually in the middle and John the Instructor stayed tied in at the end.

At the end of each pitch we would regroup briefly on little ledges. The views across the mountains and valleys were spectacular. But it was too scary to dig out my camera. My camera was an old Canon AE-1 and was deemed a bit heavy for this trip, but I carried it anyway.

We grunted over big rocks and shimmed up little handholds. We tiptoed and shoved, pulled and laughed, scraped our helmets against rock, and laughed and farted. We handled our rope systems as seasoned experts, belaying, placing pro, removing pro, and slinging gear.

Halfway up Iowa the storm hit. Within moments we were enveloped in swirling wet clouds. Visibility dropped away. Snow fell, first as soft flakes, but faster and harder as frozen white pellets. We had the beginnings of a whiteout. And it was our first whiteout while climbing. We laughed at our pathetic attempts to celebrate and John just shook his head at our silliness.

Into the Whiteout! Laura on the 4th Pitch of Iowa Peak. Photo by William Bass.

Our team came to a halt on a ledge to consider the situation. The rocks were getting wet and our hands were cold and getting colder. Climbing in soggy wool mittens over slick wet stone did not appeal to us. Should we start downclimbing and rappelling off? Hold up and wait it out hoping it’s just a brief, passing storm? John called the decision quickly.

“The fastest way down is climb up to the top and glissade down that couloir we saw on the other side of the peak,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Quietly with renewed focus we pushed ahead, helping each other as needed. At this point we didn’t care about climbing in good style such as not cheating with our knees as much as we cared about getting safely back to base camp. The snow fell harder. Distant thunder rumbled.

With a grim satisfaction I hauled myself up onto the summit of the mountain and stood up into the sky. Ray and Laura were soon at my side. We relished standing atop this 12,836 foot-high pile of rock, ice, and snow. Then John Toll popped up, short and elf-like in the storm and radiating confidence. He seemed to relish the challenge. Ray and I nodded. We knew it would make a good story. Laura just grinned and took a drink.

“Iowa Peak!” we all shouted. “Woohoo! We made it!”

“Not yet,” our NOLS Instructor replied drolly. “Once we’ve all returned to base camp then you can say that.”

The storm seemed to clear briefly as clouds swirled open. Snow scattered in the breeze. It was cold. And yet I felt strangely jubilant and just a bit anxious. Something didn’t feel right. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I brushed it aside as simply fear of the unknown. We took a quick break to eat and drink, add layers, and coil the ropes. And take summit pictures, of course.

Atop the summit of Iowa Peak, Wind River Mountains, in a break in the storm. Left to right (clockwise): The Author, John Toll (in yellow), Ray H. (standing), Laura B. Group Self-Portrait by William Bass.

“Time to go,” said John.

We got out our ice axes, slung on our backpacks, and then slid the rope coils over our head. To speed things up I took two ropes, coiled like circles in the classic mountaineer style, and threw them criss-cross over my trunk. I looked like a guerrilla chieftain with two rolls of bandoliers. My goodness, they were heavy. But I was strong and in great shape. Together we marched over the summit, had to downclimb over wet rocks a bit, and soon found ourselves standing at the head of a long skinny couloir filled with snow. We could see all the way to the bottom where it ran out into Indian Pass. I shivered with a mix of fear and pleasure as I felt the call of adventure and the challenge of the moment.

“Dudley,” John called out, using my middle name, which was what I went by back in those years. “You’re the second most experienced one here. I want you to stay back and take sweep.”

Ray and Laura were fine with that. They’ve had very little outdoor experience before taking this NOLS Mountaineering Course. But they knew how to self-arrest with their ice axes should they glissade out of control.

“We’re going to glissade all the way down. Glissade in control,” John said. “I’m going first. Then you, Laura. Next, you, Ray. Spread out a little so you don’t get on top of one another too fast. It’s a long ways down but not too bad. Faster than setting up pro and rappelling down wet rocks, that’s for sure. After Ray, it’s you, Dudley.”

“OK, let’s go,” Ray said.

“Any questions?” asked John.

“No,” Laura shook her head.

I nodded the all-OK. The snow was falling much harder now and the wind was gusting through the Pass between Iowa and Jackson Peaks.

John stepped off the rocks onto the snow at the top of the chute, sat down while gripping his ice axe to steer by, then scooted off. He masterfully shot on down the mountain and soon was at the bottom. He stood up, shouted, and waved. Laura went next. She scooted and stopped, shuddered and scuttered, and then away she went, zipping down the snow with a yell. Soon she was standing up next to John and wiping snow off her pants.

Ray, a big guy, jumped on with macho gusto, turned around and gave me a grin. We nodded at each other, the tired equivalent of thumbs up, and off he went. Ray glissaded down the ravine toward Laura and John. Sometimes he went too slowly, then too fast, bouncing a bit toward the end, skittering to a halt in a spray of snow. My turn.

The couloir didn’t seem all that long, or steep, but once I sat down atop the snow it felt very long and steep. For a moment I felt fear. Then I took a deep breath. This was what I lived for. Adventure! Adventure in the wilderness! Doing things few people ever get to do! Yeah!

The couloir went straight down then bent right to left like a dog’s leg before straightening out again. A thin rim of rocks that dropped steeply over cliffs marked the edge of the dogleg. More snow fell and the clouds grew darker and stormier. It was time to push off, and I did.

Lightening struck the mountain at that moment. Thunder boomed as if a giant pounded heavy war drums. Snow exploded around me and before I knew exactly what was happening I was being swept down the mountain.

Avalanche!

The snow seemed to boil up and liquefy. I was head up, feet down, and shooting straight toward the edge of the cliffs in the bend of the dogleg. I could see snow shooting up to spill over the cliffs. And I did not want to get blown over those rocks.

Quickly I turned over as I’ve been trained to do on a stable mountainside and self-arrested with my ice axe. Except this mountainside was moving. Bad idea. I just sank down into the snow. It continued to carry me down the mountain. After a second or third attempt I gave up in frustration and then had a brilliant insight.

An avalanche is essentially a river of snow washing down the mountain. I was also a whitewater kayaker. If a paddler ends up coming out of the boat, there was a specific way to swim whitewater rapids. You floated on your back, arms outstretched backpaddling to slow yourself down, head upstream to protect it from smashing into rocks, and your feet pointing downstream to avoid foot entrapment and to bounce off boulders. The lifejacket would protect your spine.

So I rolled over onto my back and began backpaddling with my arms, still gripping my ice axe in one hand. I rose back up and floated on top the moving snow as I got swept down the mountain.

All thought was crystal clear. No praying or screaming or looking back or second-guessing. Just instinct and intelligence working together in perfect pitch. Responding to what is.

Suddenly I came to a stop. The avalanche had carried me about 200 feet down the mountain. I did not go over the cliffs. Everything was quiet. Silent. I was buried up to my chest, but my feet were not far from the surface. Heavy boots weighed them down. For a moment I sat absolutely still, afraid to move, concerned that any movement would trigger another slide. Little trickles of snow began to roll and slide down the chute all around me.

“Get down here now!” John shouted up at me.

“Come on!” Ray shouted.

“Hurry!” Laura shouted.

“Now!” John ordered. “Quickly!”

Scared but with no time to be afraid, I wiggled loose and fought my way free. Fortunately, the snow was a mix of powder and clumps, so I got out quickly. In a blur of action I moved down and out of the main slide, a big pile of loose snow, and glissaded the rest of the way down. In no time at all I was at the bottom. I stood up, shaken but feeling a little bit like Superman with those two climbing ropes coiled across my chest.

“Are you alright?”

“Man, you don’t know how lucky you are?”

“Good thing lightening didn’t strike you!”

“Did you see that lightening bolt?”

“You realize you have a metal ice axe in your hand, right?”

The questions came fast and furious from Ray and Laura. Another rumble of thunder boomed through the Pass.

“Let’s get outa here!” John said.

We had to get out of the way of the couloir and back to camp. Halfway to camp the storm turned ugly. Thunder cracked every few minutes and the ground shook. Lightening struck all around us. I imagined rocks exploding. Flashes of light lit up the clouds.

Snow fell in wild, crazy flurries. Lightening flashed so much around us we could see the electricity crackling through the air. It reminded me of hot afternoon thunderstorms back in Virginia, but I felt as if we were in the midst of an artillery bombardment.

The storm raged after we got back to camp. Eventually it cleared, and we awoke to a beautiful, clear day. Our entire NOLS course was scheduled to cross over through Indian Pass to the other side of Titcomb Lakes this day. After we broke camp, packed up, and began a long trudge up to the top of Indian Pass, someone shouted out. Maybe it was John Toll.

“Hey, look over there,” I remember someone pointing out. “Over at the base of Iowa Peak.”

“What?” I asked as I squinted across the way, looking at where the avalanche occurred.

“You are so lucky. We are all so lucky. See, the entire couloir slid clean during the middle of the night.”

My eyes followed the pointed finger. Indeed, the couloir appeared swept half clean. A mound of snow stood piled up at the bottom against a ring of boulders. Apparently during the peak of the storm more thunder and lightening had triggered another and much bigger avalanche. Big enough to not only kill me but also bury my companions at the bottom. There would have been little hope in successfully digging people out under such remote and stormy conditions.

“My” avalanche was a relatively small and narrow one. Instead of an enormous shelf or slab cracking away from the flanks of some gargantuan mountain, it was basically a snow slide in a gully. Technically speaking in the vernacular of climbing I was in a “loose snow avalanche,” one that starts small at the top then grows bigger and wider as it descends the mountain like a growing waterfall. It was my first and only true avalanche.

I was lucky in a number of ways. For instance, the fact the snow was Rocky Mountain powder. Years later I got caught in a little snow slide on a winter climb on Red Mountain in the Washington Cascades. I was stuck up to my knees and hips in what local mountaineers dubbed “Cascade concrete,” wet, heavy snow that traps you and is difficult to escape from. According to my old Seattle Mountaineer climbing notes, most avalanches occur on 38 degree slopes, and 50% of all avalanche deaths are climbers (although they’re roughly the 5th cause of death among mountaineers, with simple falling being number one.).

All of us stared across the way at the avalanche chute on Iowa Peak as we slogged up Indian Pass. It was a solemn reminder that in the backcountry anything could happen. Anything. Such as later on that day I and two other guys unwittingly and unknowingly walked out onto a frozen lake covered in snow only to feel our weight drop with a muffled crack. That, however, is another story.

Iowa Peak by Indian Pass. July 16, 1986. Photo by William Bass.

Afterthoughts: All mountain peak elevation measurements listed above reflect the traditional measurements then in usage. Recent surveys since then have determined the entire Wind River Range to be on average five feet higher in elevation. During the time of our course we couldn’t discern the exact height of our unnamed peak from the tools at our disposal other than to know it was over 12,500 feet but shorter than the 13,000-footers.

Years later as I scanned newer maps, some listed the height as 12,836 feet, others at 12,838 feet. Perhaps the latter number stems from the reset of traditional measurements. We certainly weren’t the first to climb it, and we found out later we had unusual winter-like conditions that summer. I haven’t been able to find a designated name. To our group of climbers from that particular NOLS Course, however, it’ll always be Iowa Peak.

Global climate disruption is also affecting the Winds with more severe storms, less precipitation, and more droughts. As a result there has been increasingly rapid melting out of the glaciers. Many I experienced that unusually snowy summer of 1986 have shrunk drastically. Photos from the 1920s to the mid-1980s (when I was there) to the 2000s show the sad loss of all that snowy ice. With warming temperatures come unpredictable conditions, flash floods, and encroaching, invasive plants, animals, and especially insects from now-hotter climes.

This essay was composed from old, pencil-&-paper journal entries and photographs from my trips in the American West in the Summer of 1986. The camera system I used was a handheld Canon AE-1 with a 35 mm SLR lens and Kodak Kodacolor Print Film. Unfortunately, my old journals and photographs of that wonderful and pivotal Summer Adventure were destroyed in the house Fire of March 2010.

Life goes on, of course. And I will always remember my NOLS Wind River Mountaineering Course. It changed my life. I miss the Winds and wonder if I’ll ever return. I used to think I would, but so many other responsibilities and distractions exist. I miss my former coursemates, too. The magick of deep friendships forged between strangers in the wilderness got us through difficult moments and allowed us to appreciate the sacredness and the unique beauty of the Winds.

 

William Dudley Bass
May 15, 2009
Revised and Reposted February 17, 2012
(Almost 26 yrs after the climb)
Seattle, Washington

NOTE: This article was first published in my earlier autobiographical blog, Cultivate and Harvest, on May 15, 2009, at http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2009/05/swimming-in-avalanches_15.html with the photos published separately as “Photos for ‘Swimming in Avalanches’” at http://cultivateandharvest.blogspot.com/2009/05/swimming-in-avalanches.html. It was revised and re-published on my new website On Earth at the Brink  this February of 2012, and is also a modified chapter from a book in progress narrating epic outdoor adventures in wild and beautiful places. It is reposted here with my permission as the Author. Thank you.

 

Copyright © 2009, 2012 by William Dudley Bass.

Derailed (The Fire, Part 3)

Click on any photo to ENLARGE it.

My Camera Post-Fire (the memory card with ~ 800 pics survived) at the Burn House. Photo by William Bass.

Derailed

Fire changes things. Destroys. Creates. Transforms.

Think of metamorphic rocks, rocks such as gneiss, slate, quartzite, and marble. Think of transmutation of elements. Transmutation as illustrated by the old alchemical striving to turn lead, the base metal of Satan the Devil, into gold, the metal of Gods and kings, or modern nuclear reactions, explosions, and radioactive decay. One forgets among the unleashing of atomic demons the alchemists were more esoteric than literal as they sought to transform their very souls.

Sometimes those who spend lifetimes in search of such divine gifts never obtain their goals.

Sometimes those who don’t seek these Gifts of Fire end up in flames anyway.

Sometimes life spins out of control.

It feels that way at times. Certainly within our minds. Even if Life goes on until Dead.

Jeff Shushan, a brilliant and insightful psychotherapist Kristina and I worked with off and on through the latter part of 2010 into 2011, used the term “derailed.” An unexpected and traumatic event occurs. It is a life-changing event. Circumstances feel overwhelming and throw people off course. Yes, you can be alert, awake, aware, present, mindful, and choose to respond rather than react. Still, to full heal one must take time to grieve, to reassess, to determine what steps to take next and in what direction, with whom, and how.

To see lots more photos and continue reading, go to: http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/derailed-the-fire-part-3/.

William Dudley Bass
February 2012
Seattle, Washington
http://williamdudleybass.com

 

Copyright (C) 2012 by William Dudley Bass.

 

After the Fire (Part 2 of 3)

Click on Photos to EXPAND.

Keeping the Fire Down. Edmonds, WA. 3-20-2010. Photo by William Bass.

William & Kate goofin' around 7 days after the Fire; Woodinville, WA. Photo by Morgan Bass.

After the Fire

“Sometimes I can’t even feel the ground under my feet anymore,” my wife Kristina cries. “I can’t feel ANYTHING!!!”

Days and weeks wheel by in a blur after our house burned down in the Fire. Frenzied action is broken by spells of dazed inaction. There is too much to do so soon. We move through it all anyway. Sometimes we even laugh. Sometimes the Fire seems years ago, or feels it never happened at all, or worse, just yesterday. March 20, 2010, however, was only 30 days ago as I first write this blogpost for the bassfamilysupport.ning.com website friends set up to organize help.

To continue reading the rest of the article and see more photos, go to: http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/fire-part-2-3/.

NOTE: This was first published on my website On Earth at the Brink. It’s reposted here with my permission as the Author. Thank you.

Copyright (C) 2012 by William Dudley Bass.

William Dudley Bass, Philosopher & Storyteller On Earth at the Brink @ http://williamdudleybass.com/.

 

 

 

 

The Fire, Part 1

Fire! Our House in Flames with 1200 temps & toxic smoke

The Fire; March 20, 2010

One week ago our house burned down. It was traumatic. Thank goodness everyone is alive. No one got hurt. Not even the firefighters. But we lost just about everything else. And the response of our communities of family and friends from all around the world was and is deeply generous, much appreciated, and unexpectedly overwhelming.

We got uplifting responses not only from all over the Northwest but from folks from Japan to Norway, Virginia to California, New York to South Carolina, Alaska to Vermont, Mexico to Canada, Jordan, Turkey, Spain, Germany, Italy, China, Kentucky, Florida, Connecticut, North Carolina. Texas. Tennessee. Illinois. The list goes on. From Christians to Muslims to Atheists to Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Pagans. Amazing. We were reminded not only how lucky to be alive but we’re all part of one giant family of humanity sharing one small, beautiful planet. And, yes, the Internet was the primary tool facilitating such communications, especially Facebook.

Saturday, March 20, 2010. It was 11:00 in the morning in Edmonds, Washington, a waterfront city north of Seattle noted for its small-town feel with lots of trees. It was an unusually warm and sunny day. Morgan, my oldest daughter, had recently turned 16, and we were hosting a post-birthday slumber party for about 12 of her friends. The celebrations began Friday evening after school and work. Her younger sisters, Kate, 11, and Talia, 7, were at their own sleepovers back in North Seattle. I left to drive down into Seattle to pick up Kate and Talia and bring them home while Kristina left to take our dog Jo to the vet. There were 8 teenage girls left in our home by then.

They’re great kids, these girls. We’re delighted Morgan had a great circle of fun, funny, artistic, and responsible friends. They were hanging out upstairs playing chess and preparing to cook breakfast. First they noticed a thin smoky haze and remarked how pretty the sunshine was. Then they realized it was smoke. Were pancakes burning on the stove? No, no fire from the stove. No one was even cooking. There were no candles, no incense, no smoking, none of that. Thick, toxic smoke rolled out of the heating vents and roiled up the stairs from the basement, our first floor. The smoke was so thick they couldn’t even get out the door.

A few kids wanted to run down and rescue items: shoes/boots/clothes/cell phones/iPods/sleeping bags/coats/birthday presents. It easily ran to about $1,000 a teenager, mindboggling for even us parents when we tallied it all up, and among our guests were twin sisters, so, yes, many wanted to race downstairs, just once, running just really, really fast, y’know…and Morgan took a stand.

“No!” she shouted. “We need to get out of here NOW! This way!”

To see more photos & read the rest of William’s essay including thoughts and feelings by Kristina K Bass, the Author’s wife, go now to: http://williamdudleybass.com/MyBlog/fire-part-1-3/.

NOTE: This was originally published on the Author’s website http://williamdudleybass.com and is reprinted here with his permission. Thank you.

Copyright (C) 2012 by William Dudley Bass.