ODE TO EARL
Oh, who can change the cloudy skies to blue?
Who's responsible for rain and snow and dew?
A virgin we would sacrifice
If you'd just make the weather nice.
We hope you hear our prayer to you,
First, let's get the names straight. I am Bill. Heinz is my snow-cave mate. Tenzing is our trusted guide, cook and ode composer. He is not a Sherpa but a former social worker from Detroit. Lannie is an eternally cheerful strawberry blonde who is chief instructor for a NOLS course in ski touring and winter mountaineering. NOLS rhymes with trolls and stands for National Outdoor Leadership School. Alexander Hamilton was Lannie's great-great-great-great grandfather. Drew and Gary are the other two NOLS instructors. The names of their ancestors were not discussed. Rod, Dave, Steve, Russell, Paul, Bob, Daryl, Mike, Elizabeth, Ken and Linda are NOLS students on the course. Earl is the god of weather.
That is the cast of characters for this saga of a trek last winter into The Winds of western Wyoming—"The Winds" being the local nickname for the awesome Wind River range, which lies on the Continental Divide, just southeast of the more famous but less beautiful Teton range.
Now, even though there are a lot of people involved here, you will come to see—as I did—that there is no character more important, more pivotal to winter in The Winds than Earl. And, like all gods invented by men to explain away the horrendous vagaries of nature, Earl has the morals of a mugger. He is mean, unpredictable, sneaky, a rotten apple to the core. One never knows what irks Earl, just as one can never be sure what will please him. Tenzing (whose real name is Will Waterman) told Heinz and me of the occasion a couple of years ago that inspired part of his Ode to Earl.
It seems that a party of NOLS students, led by Tenzing, had been forced by one of Earl's fiercer blizzards to dig into snow caves and stay there, cowering before the force of the weather, for three days and three nights. "We got a little uneasy eventually," Tenzing recalls, "but there wasn't anything we could do to make Earl back off. At least I never thought there was anything to do. Then, on the third day, this one fellow on the course began to spend more and more time out in the storm. Finally, he was gone so long I went out to check on him. There he was, wind roaring around him, building this big snowman. I thought he might have gone around the bend, but then I looked more closely at what he had built.
"There was this big figure, with an arm and fist pointing upward, wearing a belt with a huge buckle on which I could make out the letter 'E'. It looked kind of like a Norse god. And lying at the feet of this big guy was the figure of a woman. Naked. At first, I couldn't make head or tail of it. Then it dawned on me. This student had built the image of Earl and then sacrificed a virgin to him." Tenzing shook his head in awe. "Next day, we skied out in beautiful sunshine."
Earl made no demands for virgins on our first day in The Winds. We began our trek in sweet sunshine from a roadhead located miles from any recognizable sign of civilization. We had been transported from Lander, Wyo., NOLS headquarters, in a fat yellow school bus and had then been rather unceremoniously unloaded along with skis, poles and our monumental backpacks. The packs each weighed about 60 pounds. The first impression you get when you strap something that heavy on your back is that an unconcious Sumo wrestler has just fallen from the sky onto your shoulders. Thus, we were introduced to the very sound, though highly ungainly, practice called "survival skiing." The point of this technique is not to be swift, not to be graceful, not even to cover a lot of ground efficiently. The sole aim of the survival skier is not to fall, because to fall means that you have to get up again. You say, so what? You say that you have known how to fall and get up again since you were a small child?
Wrong. You have not been getting up after falling in soft, seemingly bottomless snow at an altitude of 10,000 feet with a pair of skis lashed to your feet and that Sumo-sized pack squashing you down, down, down. That kind of getting-up-after-a-fall is the very stuff of high-grade nightmares.
So, early on, we learned to sacrifice all athletic elegance to the hope of staying erect. And instead of long glissandos and swift, swooping curves, we found ourselves proceeding along our first leg into The Winds at an ignominious trudge.