Tuesday, January 26, 2010


(Diary Entry January, 2010)

Henry Block, Tom McCray, Bill Ryder, and I were in Peace Corps in the early 60’s in the outer islands of Micronesia. They were in Truk District, now called Chuuk. I was in the Marshalls. Henry and Tom were island mates (Peace Corps volunteers on the same island). The four of us shared similar experiences of living on very small atolls with very small populations of locals, about 65 individuals in my case, up to 250 in the case of Bill and Henry. Those shared experiences provided a bond for us and have helped keep us together over the years.

Since the late 70’s, some combination of the four of us has gotten together each winter for 2 or more weeks to ski and relax. Henry died from natural causes 2 years ago, so now there are 3 of us. A couple others have joined us for shorter periods in the last few years (Tom’s brother, Rob, and our good friend and ski-mentor, Fred Torrence, who we met in Teton Valley, ID in the 80’s). The point is that we’ve kept in touch with each other over the years, and have gone out of our way to make these winter get-aways happen. They comprise a highly valued anchor for my life and this is one of the times of the year I most look forward to.

This year’s trip began last weekend when Bill arrived from Hawaii, where he spends late fall and early winter. The 2 of us drove from my house in Irvine to the place we’ve stayed in recent years. We have one of two apartments that Ted and Shana Kasper built over their garage to supplement their income. The place is small, but just right for us, with a living room/kitchen, bedroom, and bath. We rent it for a month, and it’s very reasonable. The cost of these excursions is minimal since we do our own cooking, and don’t have to buy expensive lift-tickets to ski at the resort, preferring to ski backcountry where we earn our turns, by ski-hiking to the top under our own power.

Backcountry skiing is like chairlift-serviced skiing, except we ski-hike to the top of our ski destination rather than riding up in a chairlift. It’s not unlike bicycling, where you spend a long time riding up a long ascent, then enjoy a short, often thrilling, ride down from the top. Modern backcountry skiing gear allows the heel to lift up from the ski's surface when climbing (with alpine gear, the heel is fixed to the surface, preventing raising the heel to go uphill), and climbing skins (synthetic fabric that adheres to ski bottoms with fibers that extend backwards along the ski, preventing the ski from slipping when pointing uphill) allow you to climb uphill. But it’s not ski-gear, or the skiing experiences, wonderful though they may be, that I want to talk about. It’s friendship.

What’s the value of a friend? It’s the value of life itself. Without the close contacts of friends and family to share with and confide in, life hardly has any meaning at all. Take today: this morning a friend we’ve known here in the valley, Glenn Vitucci, called in response to an earlier call of Tom to him, asking if we could get together for a visit, or a ski. Glenn returned the call this morning, and we arranged to meet him at one of our favorite backcountry ski locations.

We skied at a place we call Henry’s. It had snowed about 2 feet over the last several days, and the snow was heavy and almost too deep to ski. We did our best, and after several runs, headed back to the trail-head about 4:00 pm. On the way back we stopped at our favorite pub for a basket (of French fries) and a pitcher (of Sweetgrass IPA Beer). We talked about the day, and about the prospects for skiing over in the upcoming days. We also shared news about mutual friends. One of whom was Heny, who isn’t with us any longer. By the way, we call the place we skied today “Henry’s”, because it was one of his favorite places to ski.

Henry never gained the level of fitness of the rest of us, and always carried a considerable amount of weight. I’d guess his weight fluctuated between 180 and 200 pounds. Being large makes gravity sports, like ski-climbing, more difficult. It’s never as easy for a 185 pound person to work against gravity as it is for someone lighter. Fred (damn him!) weighs in at not more than 125 pounds, dripping wet. And he can climb like a mountain goat. None of us can keep up with him if he wants to get to the top of the hill.

Henry’s is the lower portion of a backcountry ski area called Lone Pine, named for the single tree (actually a very small group of trees) toward the top of the open ski slope. By the time Henry got to the lower portion of this area, he had exhausted his strengths, and didn’t want to go any further. He would ski there, even when the conditions weren’t great. Because he always wanted to stop there, we named the spot “Henry’s”.

Henry was a bigger-than-life kind of guy. He went out of his way to make everyone comfortable. He was the eighth of a family of 10 children (Henry, the eighth), mostly males. Growing up in a large family like that, he learned to get his share and have his voice heard, while still protecting his siblings. He started a men’s support group at one point, and kept it active for years. His wife (second wife) was a counselor and Henry soon learned that the informal support structures that women develop are frequently lacking for men. Men grow up competing with each other, and often don’t know how to ask for help and offer it to others. So Henry jumped in the fill the gap.

Henry was something of an iconoclast. One of my memories of him is one winter, about 1999, when driving through Jackson Hole on one of our excursions. Likely, we were on our way to the Visitor’s Center at Grand Teton National Park. We stopped in Jackson; perhaps to enjoy the wonderful sourdough pancakes at Jedediah’s Restaurant, named for Jedediah Smith, one of the wilderness pioneers of the Jackson Hole area. On the way, a hat made from a badger skin caught Henry’s eye. After admiring his image in the mirror with the hat, he looked at the pricey $175 tag, and returned it to the shelf. But on the way back through town after having completed our excursion, he bought the hat. He said he couldn’t resist getting it, partly because it was so politically incorrect. Here’s a photo of the four of us:  Bill, Tom, Henry wearing his badger hat, and me.