Graduation

This past Saturday marked my graduation from CMC’s Alpine campus.  I received an Associates of Arts with an emphasis in Outdoor Education and also Ski/Snowboard Guide Certification.  While some may chuckle at job prospects for someone with a specialty in Outdoor Education, they might not realize that an AA from CMC guarantees a transfer to and junior status at any of Colorado’s public higher education institutions.  I also shared my graduation with the inaugural class of Bachelor’s graduates from the Alpine campus; who earned degrees in Business and Sustainability.  In the current age of astronomical tuition costs, Colorado Mountain College offers affordable degree options coupled with the benefits of small class sizes and the intangible beauties of mountain living.

Some may call this the intangible beauties of mountain living.  Photo: Kieran Horan

Some may call this the intangible beauties of mountain living. Photo: Kieran Horan

Not only has my Outdoor Education degree helped me gain higher standing with Colorado’s educational institutions, I have also gained a deeper understanding of the world around me.  In a society enamored with labeling, justification, comparing, and ranking, my degree might not seem like much.  However, it’s difficult, nearly impossible, to fully articulate the realizations, knowledge, and understanding that I have received through this program.  Despite this, I know that my time at CMC has deeply affected the way in which I both conduct myself, and look at, the world and its inhabitants.

Learning from those who inhabited the land before us.

Learning from those who inhabited the land before us.

Specifically, I believe that Outdoor Education is one of the best ways to begin to understand the needs, emotions, and desires of human beings.  Backpacking through muddy miles in the rain may not give you the tools necessary to trade on the stock market or create your own business, but I’d challenge anyone to find a better real-life demonstration of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  For those who are not familiar, the Hierarchy illustrates the essential needs of humans.  This starts with shelter, food and water at the bottom and moves up to self-actualization at the top.  Humans without the basic essentials cannot move upward towards self-actualization.  Being out in the wilderness with your peers allows you to gain a deeper understanding of not only your peers, but also of yourself and your connection to the landscape around you.  Ironically,  it is much easier to get closer to those around you the further away from civilization you are.  If you cannot effectively work together in the wilderness, you starve, get frostbite, get lost, etc.  The consequences of not working together in society are not nearly as dire.  The point is that my experiences in Outdoor Education have given me vital insight into the motivations and methods of people.  Outdoor Education isn’t about just about the outdoors, it’s about people.  Any business executive will tell you that if you don’t understand the people who you do business with, you’re likely to not make it far.

Getting closer, further out. Photo: Breyanna Waldsmith

Getting closer, further out. Photo: Breyanna Waldsmith

Not only do I have a better understanding of human nature, I have also gained valuable insight into the relationship between humans and our environment.  This is a skill that is often overlooked in a society where water is readily available and food can easily be bought from the store.  Just because most humans are disconnected from nature does not mean that it can be ignored and exploited with no consequence.  In fact, the American Southwest is at a dire crossroads.  The State of Colorado estimates that by 2050 there will be a gap between the supply and demand of freshwater, largely because much of Colorado’s water goes to highly unsustainable cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas.  Only a society highly disconnected from nature would build a metropolis in the desert.  This is not the only issue facing citizens of the world.  Loss of biodiversity, melting ice caps, ocean acidification, topsoil erosion, and garbage patches in the oceans are only a minute bit on a laundry list of problems encountering our planet.  If people become more closely tied to the environment around them many of these issues could be remedied.  The arrogance of industrialized society is laughable compared to the track records of societies much more closely tied to their environments.  The Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest have survived for more than seventeen centuries while our own industrialized ways are less than three centuries old and already encountering problems.

A beautiful day on the Colorado River. How many will the future hold?

A beautiful day on the Colorado River. How many will the future hold?

While my new understanding of human ties to the environment may not get me a high-paying job right out of college (even though it probably should), it does give me a greater appreciation of the human condition and the trials the human race will face in the very near future.  A connection to the environment creates a vehicle in which it is easier to connect to other peoples and cultures around the world.  Together, all of the world’s peoples and cultures must work to solve the problems that have arisen as a consequence of an industrialized lifestyle.  I know that my time at CMC has sculpted me into someone with a radically different set of values than the typical college undergraduate; simplicity over complexity, real human interaction over pseudo-connection through screens, environment over convenience, and appreciation over ownership.

My time at CMC has prepared me for future college studies and given me a deeper understanding of the world my generation is inhabiting.  It’s provided me with the realization of the enormity of the tasks that lie ahead, as well as the resolve,hope, and resources to accomplish those tasks.  It’s been a great two years and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.  Thanks to all of my friends, my many great teachers including John Saunders, Lindsey Royce, Cody Perry, Dennis Lum, Gary Osteen, and more, the administration at CMC Alpine, and Kate Lapides and the marketing department for providing me with this great opportunity.  See you all in the future!

Flying Over the American Southwest

I recently flew out to Los Angeles to visit my family there.  It was great to be able to go to the beach and soak up the sun, seeing as Spring came a little late here in Steamboat.  While it was sad to leave all of my amazing cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents, I was excited for the flight back to Colorado.

The slopes of Durango Mtn. Resort are visible in the distance/

The slopes of Durango Mtn. Resort are visible in the distance.

I’ve been interested in reading maps my entire life and I suppose this might explain my fascination with staring out the window of an airplane 30,000 feet above the ground.  Seeing the contours of the Earth from such a spot is like looking at a live-action map, with weather, cars, and buildings adding to the scenario.  Our flight only encountered blue skies and tiny tufts of clouds, so the viewing was excellent.

As our plane took off, the metropolis of the greater LA region spread as far as the eye could see.  Tiny buildings and streets in a variety of patterns made a patchwork quilt over the area.  Just as it seemed as though the buildings would spread on forever, all signs of civilization vanished.  The desert took hold.  About 45 minutes after take-off, the Grand Canyon came into view.  The huge canyon system filled up my view of the window, and I pushed my head closer to see if I could get a better look.  Next was Lake Powell,  a reservoir with more coastline than the state of California.  White, arrow-shaped wakes from motor boats could be discerned from the turquoise water below.  The branches of Powell looked like a roots digging into the dry desert Earth surrounding it.

On top of Comb Ridge a month prior.

On top of Comb Ridge a month prior.

At the edge of Powell, I saw Navajo Mountain come into view.  This was the second time in a month that I had gazed at this peak, rising above the eastern shores of Powell.  On my Southwest Field Exploration class, I had sat on the edge of Cedar Mesa and surveyed Navajo’s slopes and Monument Valley to the East.  Comb Ridge, a sharp fin of sandstone rising starkly from the desert washes below, then came into view.  We had explored numerous ruins on Comb Ridge and it was incredible to be able to see it from this perspective.  The ridge stood as a natural obstacle to Mormon exploration in the 19th century, and it was evident why indigenous peoples would flock to such a natural stronghold.

Telluride Ski Area

Telluride Ski Area

My heart almost skipped a beat as the huge expanse of white-capped peaks began to creep into my vision.  The peaks of southern Colorado’s San Juan range rose majestically from the red desert sands.  From my vantage I could pick out Durango Mountain resort and Telluride Ski area.

Maroon Bells

Maroon Bells

The sheer scale of these mountains was mind-blowing.  Peak after peak shot into the sky for as far as the eye could see.  These peaks seemed to deflate the significance of the huge urban sprawl of LA; man and his machines could never manufacture anything as awe-inspiring and purely massive as the enormous peaks of Colorado.  Luckily, the flight was only half-full, so I ran excitedly across the aisle to scout the other peaks Colorado has to offer.  Soon the Elk Range outside of Aspen came into view.  Each of Colorado’s mountain ranges has a distinct aesthetic flavor, and I could pick out the stratified alpine peaks of the Maroon Bells below.

Vail's back bowls are visible in the center of the photograph.

Vail’s back bowls are visible in the center of the photograph.

The jagged peaks of the Gore Range came into view next, and from that identification point I picked out the back bowls at Vail.  Finally, the Ten-Mile Range, host to Breckenridge, came into view, with the Front Range reaching northwards.  The mountain ranges spread out in all directions and dwarfed Lake Dillon sitting between the Ten-Mile and Front ranges.

The Elk Range

The Elk Range

I don’t believe there is any tour that can offer Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and Colorado’s peaks in one offering.  It was incredible to be able to compare the size and scale of these cornerstones of western American civilization in less than three hours.  Next time you fly, I suggest putting down your phone, book, laptop, etc., and instead gazing out the window.  Unless you’re flying over a vast ocean or the Great Plains, amazing views and untold insights will greet you.

Spring In Steamboat: Snow and Kayaking

It’s springtime in Steamboat, although the weather really hasn’t been acting like it.  Consecutive snowstorms for the past couple weeks have draped the Yampa valley in a pale, wintry white.  Despite this, temperatures have been warm enough to melt the snow every few days, and fill the Yampa and the creeks that feed it.

Another snowy spring day in Steamboat.

Another snowy spring day in Steamboat.

When I pictured a River Kayaking class in my mind, the scenes were full of sunshine and blue skies.  Apparently, April 19th was not quite late enough (this year) for Mother Nature to release winter’s grip on Steamboat.  Luckily, our first day of class on the water was conducted at the Old Town Hot Springs.  This made the introduction into kayaking a much more comfortable one.  While there, we were taught basic paddling skills as well as various types of rescues including the combat roll.  The combat roll is a self-rescue where the kayaker, after tipping their boat upside-down, uses the leverage of the paddle, along with a hip snap, to right the boat.  This is a particularly tricky task, especially for someone’s first time in a kayak!  The warm springs kept the cold at bay, and the weather cooperated for the most part.  Although, I did see a few flakes every now and then.

Our next day was spent on the Yampa River that runs through downtown Steamboat.  The river is low for this time of year as the majority of the snow pack is still held in place by the winter-like temperatures.  We spent the day meandering down the Yampa River, scooting around rocks, pulling into eddies, and getting comfortable in the kayaks.  We would need as much practice as we could get for the next day in the Colorado River.

Our last day brought us to the upper Colorado River outside of Kremmling, CO.  The snow-capped peaks played a surreal contrast to the group of twelve kayakers bobbing down the river.  The Colorado would bring us bigger rapids and quicker flows.  The river started out flat, winding lazily through open plains.  As we neared the mouth of the canyon, the sounds of rapids began to grow.  Anticipation mounted as we practiced our eddying-out and other moves in the final eddy before the rapids.  Everyone made it through, although not everyone stayed dry!

The snow returned to Steamboat after our final day of kayaking.  The snow falling from the sky called at me; I knew that it would soon be only a desire in my mind. The ski area has been closed since April 15, but the frequent snow has beckoned the powder-hungry up the slopes.

Atop Storm Peak on 4-23-13.

Atop Storm Peak on 4-23-13.

Today, April 23rd, 2013, will be a day I will always remember as one of my best at Steamboat Ski Area.  My buddy Liam and I seemed to have the place to ourselves besides the stray snowcat or snowmobile working on renovating the new Four Points Hut.  We began climbing from the base of the Thunderhead Lift at around nine a.m., with new snow falling and covering our splitboard skis.  After an hour, we had reached the Rainbow saddle, and after thirty more minutes we reached the base of Storm Face.  The new snow height had steadily increased as we ascended in elevation.

Riding down Closet with Steamboat Ski Area all to ourselves.

Riding down Closet with Steamboat Ski Area all to ourselves.

As we arrived on the summit of Storm Peak at near 10,000 ft, the new snow had stacked to more than twenty inches.  We sat above an untracked Closet, one of the most classic tree runs at Steamboat, drooling at the powdery perfection we were about to destroy.  We dropped and my mind clicked off.  I would tell you what happened, if only I knew.  I imagine a floating sensation, a stupid grin across my face, evergreens cloaked in obese snow-robes, hoots and hollers emanating from my lungs.  Thankfully, I had my camera to record some of the fun.

SAM 0601 from Dustin Eldridge on Vimeo.

There aren’t many places, or times for that matter, in the world where it’s possible to go kayaking one day and ride world famous tree runs in white-wine powder the next day.  Steamboat in spring is a special place.  Not only because of what you can do, but because of the amazing variability from one year to the next.  Steamboat is almost drowning in snow this April, but we can use every drop we get.  Last year, Steamboat was completely brown by April 15th, compared to the green and whites abundant this year.  Make sure your powder cravings have been fulfilled, because there won’t be many days left like this until next year!

SW Field: Sunrise Thoughts From Sitting Above the Navajo Nation

Here’s an excerpt from my journal on the last morning of my SW Field course.  I’m preparing a video documenting the class, so stay tuned!

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I woke up with the sunrise this morning.  I’m especially glad because last night’s events were too hectic to record at the time.  We were sitting as a group atop a mighty cliff on the southern edge of Cedar Mesa looking over the Monument Valley of the Navajo nation.  It was after sunset; the lights of the reservation scattered few and far between in the vast desert landscape.  A storm cloud, with fits of lightning and wind, was slowly working its way toward us.  Cody was reading aloud a passage about the survival of the Pueblo peoples over 17 centuries.  In comparison, our own nation is just two centuries old.  The storm seemed to reinforce the message of fragility with lightning strikes punctuating each morbid detail Cody read.  The storm passed us to the East, but gave us some excitement with winds, seemingly out of nowhere, tearing tents out of the ground.  

The sun’s rays have begun to fill the landscape.  The monuments, buttes, and spires standing miles out on the horizon have taken on schizophrenic properties; glowing red-orange east faces contrasting pure black shadows on their west side.  Closer, the winding San Juan river canyon walls are bathing in sunlight where the other folds of the canyon are not prohibiting the sun’s light.  Sedimentary layers in perfectly uniform heights encircle the entirety of the canyon’s walls.  Thousands of feet below me, the San Juan slithers through the shadowed crevasse it has dug over millenia.  What will be the legacy of the America of today?  Will we learn from the lessons of those who inhabited the Southwest before us, or perish with the water and oil as it runs dry? I have hope fore America, but I also have my doubts.  Perhaps a more egalitarian and sustainable society will take its place.  America is just a name.  The people who compose it, with strength and unity in their diversity, have come too far together to lay down without a fight.  People will inhabit this land we call America forever, but it is our decisions now that will decide who, and how many, will get to enjoy the splendors of this great land.  

Quinzhee City

The inhabitants of Quinzhee City drying gear in the sun.

The inhabitants of Quinzhee City drying gear in the sun.

Quinzhee City. Population 16. Built in one snowy night deep in  Routt National Forest, the city consisted of four dome-shaped snow shelters inhabited by Colorado Mountain College students and instructors.  The goal: learn to embrace the harsh conditions of winter; become one with the snow-covered landscape around us.  This is Snow Orientation.

On the way in...

On the way in…

Camping in the snow is not for everyone.  Most people in our current society view snow as a threat; it’s cold and wet, makes driving a hazard, and inhibits many of our daily routines and entertainment.  Snow, like many other random parts of the American cultural spectrum, polarizes our nation into two groups.  There are those who embrace it, and those who hate it.  However, a hatred of snow and the cold would do one no good on an expedition of this sort.  In order to live in the snow, as well as to truly understand the importance of it, one must embrace the snow.

The inhabitants of Quinzhee City, pilgrims escaping civilization, were without many of the comforts of home.  In order to survive, they had to adapt and study the creatures around them for clues to thrive in this harsh environment.  While the natural inhabitants of the forest have had their bodies adapt over millenia, we had to make mental adaptations.  We used the insulating qualities of snow for our shelters, stoves to melt water, and delicious concoctions of jello and butter to keep us warm during the frigid nights.

I had made my first pilgrimage to Quinzhee City the year before.  I made the choice to go back again this year, in order to help the uninitiated make the difficult transition to a winter environment.  Not only would I help the others learn, but I had much to learn myself.  Leading a group in the cold of a Rocky Mountain winter has many challenges, especially in a diverse group of 16 people.  Once the sun goes down, the sounds of backcountry stoves laboring against the cold fill the air around camp.  To make dinner, melt drinking water, and make the ever important hot drink takes up a lot of time and energy.  Keeping feet and other extremities warm during this time is a challenge, and can be the most difficult part of the trip.  Imagine standing in the snow for one hour; let alone for fourteen hours a day over four days and nights.

Our quinzhee.Photo: Breyanna Waldsmith

Our quinzhee.
Photo: Breyanna Waldsmith

However, once dinner was over, we retreated to the warmth of our quinzhees.  Quinzhees are essentially igloos that are built by piling snow into a dome shape and hollowing it out from the inside.  The ability to go from single-digit temperatures outside to a cozy quinzhee of 40 degrees is an empowering feeling.  Not only are we surviving in the snow, but we’re living pretty comfortably as well.

Looking East to the peaks of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.

Looking East to the peaks of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.

Our days would start with rays of sunshine poking through the small quinzhee entrances.  After putting all my layers back on, sliding like a penguin through the front door, I would be greeted by  a row of jagged peaks running across the horizon, all sorts of clouds puffing and dancing above them.  Some days started with a skintrack up the ridge behind us, with some amazing powder turns back to camp.  Others started with coffee, simply enjoying the sunshine and company of the people around me.  After breakfast, we would delve into the world around us for more clues about survival in this unforgiving world.

We spent much time learning about the very thing we were living and walking on, and even drinking; the snowpack.  The snowpack plays a huge role in almost everyone’s lives, even if they don’t realize it.  It’s not only a source of recreation and employment for the hundreds of thousands who flock to ski areas and mountain passes around the western United States; it’s the life-blood of society for everyone who lives from Colorado west to California.  Without the spring runoff from the high mountains, farmers couldn’t grow their crops, streams and rivers would run dry, and life in the American West would become almost impossible.  Cities as far away as Las Vegas and Los Angeles are dependent on the runoff from mountains contributing to the Colorado River basin.  After an exceptionally low snowfall last year, and already amidst a drought, this lesson is as important as ever.  By 2050, the state of Colorado has already determined that there will be a gap between the demand for water and our supply.  Our life is dependent upon the snow storms that bring snow to our mountains.

The class takes a closer look at the snowpack. Photo: Breyanna Waldsmith

The class takes a closer look at the snowpack. Photo: Breyanna Waldsmith

Like the snowpack, our time in the mountain playgrounds outside of Steamboat came to an end.  However, like the cyclical nature of the snowpack, this trip initiated a deeper understanding of our place in this world for 16 individuals.  This understanding will lead to a sharing of knowledge, and to others understanding.  Soon, not only the knowledge and importance of the snowpack, but our place in the American West as humans, will be better understood by everyone.  Only then can we hope to create a system in which we can all live harmoniously in this magnificent environment, in this place we call home.

Splitboard Mission on Rabbit Ears

With my first weekend off from school trips in three weeks, I knew it was time to go off on my own adventure.  But where?  With an abundance of new snow (13″ reported at Steamboat’s summit the day of) I knew that Rabbit Ears Pass, located about 20 minutes outside of Steamboat, would be the perfect place to enjoy the deep powder.  SAM_0129

When we arrived at the Walton Peak Trail Head, we were greeted by mild temperatures and a stunning bluebird Colorado sky.  We began the 2.5 mile trek to Walton Peak’s summit, breaking trail through about 2 new feet of snow.  While the new snow would make the skiing and snowboarding great, it made the trek in a much more arduous affair.  After making it about 3/4 of a mile, another group of skiers overtook us and broke trail ahead of us (Thanks guys!).  Sometimes it’s not always best to be the first ones to the trail head!  We continued on, with blue skies and deep powder beckoning us onward and upward.

SAM_0125

Breathtaking views greeted us once we reached Walton’s summit.  From our vantage almost half of Colorado’s major mountain ranges were visible; the Park Range which we were in, the Flat Tops off to the southwest, the Gore and Ten-mile range to the South, and the Never Summers of the Front Range to our East.  It was incredible to see the vast differences in the geology of the mountains in such short distances.  On one hand there is the plateaus of the Flat Tops, then the jagged points of the Gore Range, and the massive alpine peaks of the Never Summers.  Colorado’s such a special place.  I’m lucky to have spent my entire life in such a diversely beautiful place!

The Flat Tops

The Flat Tops

After digging a snow profile and analyzing the different weak layers in the snowpack, we decided to ski on some more conservative slopes instead of the wide open bowls off of  Walton’s summit.  Not everyone who ventures out into the backcountry is prepared for the danger’s of avalanches.  So be sure you’re properly educated and check the state’s avalanche report (avalanche.state.co.us) before you leave home! Don’t become another statistic!

The Gore Range outside of Silverthorne.

The Gore Range outside of Silverthorne.

Finally, it was time to slap the board back together and get some turns in.  While I only took less than twenty turns that day, the great snow and beautiful day made it all worthwhile.  When going out in the backcountry, the day becomes less about skiing or boarding and more about enjoying the solitude and sights.  It’s not often enough that people are able to escape the chaos of civilized life, and the feeling of being the only person for miles is one that will always have me coming back for more.

Looking across North Park to the Never Summers of the Front Range.

Looking across North Park to the Never Summers of the Front Range.

We arrived back at the trail head with tired muscles and labored breaths, but knowing it was fully worth it.  The day had come together magically between the sun, snow, and sights.  We were ready to return to the comforts of our hectic society, but only so that one day we could again escape from it.

Walton Peak Snowboarding from Dustin Eldridge on Vimeo.

Snowy Scenes from Steamboat

Steamboat Springs has had an incredible past couple weeks.  Over 50 inches of pure fluff fell from the sky, making Steamboat the place to be to ski and ride in Colorado.  Prior to these storms, Steamboat had received almost no snow through all of January.

Terrain in Steamboat's backcountry.

Terrain in Steamboat’s backcountry.

Here’s a little edit I made with some GoPro footage over the month of January.  I decided to make a quick edit, so there are plenty of interesting GoPro sounds for you to hear.  If you’re familiar with Steamboat, you’ll recognize some classic runs like East Face and the trees off of Vagabond.

January in the ‘Boat from Dustin Eldridge on Vimeo.

Here’s to more snow in February!