Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Vallee Blanche Adventure

Bertrand Oustry’s morning routine usually includes meeting clients at the base of Aiguille Du Midi cable car base station in Chamonix France.  Auiguille Du Midi translates to the eye of the needle, and at 12605 ft, it is the highest peak in the world served by an aerial tram system.  As a high mountain guide, he spends his days guiding clients through the high peaks in the Mont Blanc massif of the French Alps.

Oustry says the first time he skied down from Auiguille Du Midi was at the age of seven with his father.  Oustry described how the level of the glacier has receded over 500 meters (1640 ft) over the past 30 years.  His father was a mountain rescuer in the French Alps of Chamonix.  Bertrand also started his career in mountain rescue.  He and his father now both work as mountain guides.  He said in rescue you help people at their worse in the mountains, and that he put himself in many dangerous situations.   Oustry said he prefers guiding.  It gives him a much safer way to share his love of the mountains and glacier.

On March 11, 2016, Oustry guided me and 6 friends up the 2 cable cars up to the top of Aiguille Du Midi to start our adventure via the Vallee Blancheski route down to the town of Chamonix. At the top of Aiguille Du Midi, Oustry waved his hand and said “voilà welcome to my office.”  The view was breath taking. It was a bluebird day with no wind, and it felt like we could see forever.  We saw peaks from the Swiss, French and Italian Alps and looked down to the town of Chamonix in the valley below. 

When it was time to gear up, we all put on climbing harnesses and carried rescue transceivers.  Even though we had crampons, Oustry said the snow was soft packed on the arête, and we didn’t need them. The arête was a narrow ridge that connected the top of the Aiguille Du Midi to the trail where we would begin to ski down.  The hike down the arête was the most challenging part of our adventure.  The path is about three feet wide with steep 50 degree pitches on either side that dropped into what seemed like the great obis.  There were many other groups making the same single file descent before and after us.  

The eight of us were connected by a long rope.  We were lucky that day.  There was a thick rope strung through posts on the side of the trail.  We hung on to the rope to help balance as we made our way down. There were two snowboarders in our group, Mitch and Rachel slowly led the way followed by Eric an expert backcountry skier.  Kathy came next.  To say she was nervious is an understatement.  We could hear her praying as she slipped in her ski boots down the narrow path.  I came next, and I tried to keep the rope taught between us, hoping I would help steady Kathy’s slippery descent.  Betsy and Jean were next, with Oustry at the rear.  He had on crampons.  If we were to slip or start to fall, it was up to him to stop us from falling into the abyss. When we finally made it down the arête, we put our skis and snow boards then followed Oustry down a short moguled pitch toward a big rock where we regrouped.

From there Oustry led us away from the crowd and to a large expanse of untracked powder.  He would say “I find the powder, follow me,” and we did.  Initially we were in untracked light powder, but as we continued down the trail the snow became heavier and eventually it had a crust on top. 

He would give us perimeters of where we could ski in relation to his ski tracks.  He would usually ski down first.  In a wide open snow field he might say, stay within 30 meters (98 ft) of my tracks.  At one point we were in an area with many crevasses.  Oustry said stay close to my tracks.  Mitch was the first to follow, then Rachel, then me.  I stopped when I saw Rachel stopped waving her arms, calling stop.   When I looked ahead, I saw Oustry and Mitch stopped a short distance from a crevasse. I called to those behind me to stop.  Oustry, Mitch and Rachel had to walk back toward us, snow up to their knees, to a safer path.  We skied over a five foot snow bridge to the other side of the crevasse.

We would take periodic short breaks to look around, enjoy the scenery and to hear Oustry’s tell us the history of the glacier we were on.  We would look on the remains of previous avalanches.  There were large chunks of blue glacier ice, ranging from the size of a large SUV to the size of a tractor-trailer, along the side our trail.  There were also boulders and rocks.  He said water would get in between the layers of rock and ice on warmer days, than refreeze when it was cold.  This cycle loosened the bond between the layers and caused many of the avalanches.  He pointed up to the top of one of the peaks in the distance, and boulders along the side of our trail.  He said a few years back a piece of the peak, the equivalent of a five story building, came loose and fell off.  He said the force from it measured 5 on the Richter Scale. The boulders on the side of the trail were part of the remains from that avalanche. 

Eventually we funneled into to a path that met up with many other groups.  In one area a deep crevasse went along the left side of our narrow path.  After we had passed it, Oustry told us if we had fallen into that crevasse, it was so deep there would be no way to find us.  When we skied to what we thought was the end of our trail, we looked left and up and realized that was where the trail continued.  I took my skies off and strapped them back onto my backpack and started hiking up the hill following in the footsteps of a long line of skiers.  It went on and up for about 1.25 miles.  Oustry ended up carrying not only his own skis, but Jean and Kathy’s as well.

At the top of the hill there was a large group of people, and a small outpost selling food and drink.  We stopped for a well deserved lunch and rest.  After lunch we put on our skis for the final leg of our adventure.  We skied on a snow pack trail that wound around the bottom of the mountain.  About a half mile from town the snow turned to dirt.  We took off our skies and walked the trail until we reached the Les Planards beginner ski area.  We skied down the gentle slope and into the parking lot.  Happy and exhausted I took off my skies and shouted big WooHoo to my friends and guide.  We returned the climbing harnesses and transceivers to Oustry, and then we made our way to the closest bar for beer and to celebrate.

Oustry ended this day, the way he ended many of his guiding days with a beer with his guests before he headed back up the mountain.  Only this time he planned to climb it.  He said he needed to get in shape for his next season as a mountain guide, and for competing in professional mountain climbing competitions.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Wilbur Wright, a local Pittsfield artist crafts didgeridoos

The didgeridoo is thought to be the world’s oldest wind instrument. It was originally made and played by Australian Aborigines to imitate the sounds of nature. Recently, the didgeridoo has made its way from old world to new age music.

Jeffrey “Wilbur” Wright, a Pittsfield artist, was intrigued by the sound of the didgeridoo, after watching the 2008 movie “Surfer, Dude.” The musical score was written by Australian musician and surfer Xavier Rudd. Two years ago, Wright saw Rudd live in concert at a small theatre in Seattle, Wash. Rudd played the didgeridoo accompanied by a drummer and bass player. The music had a raw, tribal, rhythmic quality that stirred something inside Wright. After the concert, he was inspired to learn to play the didgeridoo.

Traditional wooden Aboriginal didgeridoos are naturally made from pipe-like eucalyptus branches that are hollowed out by the termites nesting in them. The branch is cleaned out, and a mouth piece is formed from beeswax. The wind instrument is usually about five feet long, and it has the sound of a low drone, reminiscent of the sounds of nature. A type of circular breathing is used to play the instrument. Aboriginal Australia Art & Culture Centre - Alice Springs website is a good source to learn more about the history of didgeridoos.

Wright started making his own didgeridoo after not being satisfied with the ones he found for sale. He experimented using different materials and decided on PVC pipes as the base material for his didgeridoos. He heats and shapes various size pipes until the desired sound is created. His instruments are either in the key of E or F, and the longer the instrument, the lower the tones. After, he creates the desired sound, he coats the pipes with a shaping material and paints a faux wooden finish on the instruments that are accented with aboriginal designs. Each one is a unique work of art. 

Wright says he initially made the didgeridoo for his own pleasure, but other musicians were interested and have wanted to buy them. He is now selling them on a very limited basis at Fire on the Mountainin Killington.

Wilbur working in his Pittsfield studio

Finished didgeridoo

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Students of all abilities included in Killington Elementary School’s Trailblazer program

            After lunch on Thursday, January 21, 2016, two busloads of students of all abilities departed from Killington Elementary School (KES).  They were going to Killington Mountain to participate in the second week of the Trailblazers 2016 ski/ride program.  The program has run most Thursday afternoons from mid-January thru mid-March since the early 1960’s.  
Volunteer instructors from Vermont Adaptive arrived early to prepare ski/board lessons for three of the Trailblazer students who have emotional behavioral, cognitive, and/or developmental disabilities.  They discuss the students prior skiing experiences, teaching strategies, and trail conditions to come up with individualized lessons for their students.   The instructors greet the three students as they arrived.  As they booted up, the Trailblazers voiced their readiness and excitement to get out on the snow.
Sharon Nelb, a Vermont Adaptive volunteer said; “it’s a wonderful opportunity to bring my love of skiing to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.”  She shared a story to explain why she loves teaching skiing with Vermont Adaptive students; she skied with a 4 year old student who had autism, who was also non-communicative, about a half dozen times.  At the end of their last lesson together, the girl’s father came up to her with tears in his eyes.  He and the girl’s brother had followed them during the lesson.  He told Nelb, the girl’s brother exclaimed how proud he was of his sister skiing so well.  Since then they skied together as a family.   Bob Boothroy and Wendy Paterson, two other Vermont Adaptive volunteers involved with Trailblazers, said they volunteer as a way to give back to their community and share their love of skiing, What they get back from their students is priceless.
Lisa Laird a KES second grade teacher thought the impact of Vermont Adaptive with the Trailblazers was “a blessing to be given a lifetime experience-sport…  It gives them exposure that they might not have otherwise, taking advantage of what’s right here in our backyard…  It allows all students to be included in what is a way of life.   To people who live in Killington, skiing is a way of life.”  Laird said, there has been a ski program at KES, since she started working at the school in the early ‘90’s.  It has always been the school's goal to be inclusive of all students. 
Skiing is part of the KES school curriculum.  Originally the program was run by the Killington Mountain Ski School.  Now the program is run by twenty four parent and community volunteers, along with KES staff.  A private pre-school housed in the school, has started including their students in a ski program at Killington Mountain on Thursday afternoons.
Tom Alcorn, the Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports Southern Program Coordinator, says Vermont Adaptive has been “working with KES for 4 years.”  The goal is the “integration of differing ability students into an existing ski program.”  Alcorn went on to say, “It gives them a chance to recreate with teachers, counselors and support people…   a chance to develop a deeper connection which facilitates a better learning environment.”   He feels the “ultimate goal is to get kids out skiing with their family members.  Not just school.”  Vermont Adaptive volunteers also works locally with ski/ride school programs at Suicide 6 with Zack’s Place, and at Pico Mountain with Mill River Union High School and East Valley Academy. 

Last winter Vermont Adaptive statewide gave over 1300 snow sport lessons. With the help of over 400 volunteers in their year round sport and recreational programs, they gave over 2500 total lessons to individuals with mental, cognitive and physical disabilities.  It is their belief that “sports and recreation provide a physical, mental and social experience that is immeasurable in promoting self-confidence and independence in an individual.  More information about Vermont Adaptive can be found at vermontadaptive.org.