Learning Curves

The process is the point. But just try telling that to your younger, untutored, world-conquering self.

    Photo: Illustration by Tim Bower

I GLIDE THROUGH THE FOREST. As I sink into each turn, the powder rolls up my thighs. My skis carve crescents through the open firs, neither fast nor slow but with ease, like a looping stroke of calligraphy.

This is my third ski tour in Yellowstone. Today I skied from base camp up to Heart Lake and back, traversing a couple of small passes, navigating by compass through two snow squalls, and fording a river. Now it is dusk, and so cold that my beard has frozen into a thicket of ice bristles.

I slide into a broad meadow and cut silently over the drifts. My wax, a blue kicker over buffed green, is splendid. I'm practically levitating. Kicking, floating on one ski balanced like an ice skater, then kicking with the other leg. It's a rhythm so natural and elegant that once you've mastered it, the movement—instead of the speed or the distance covered or the day's destination—becomes an end in itself. Kick, glide...kick, glide...kick, glide...Through this motion, this mantra of muscle, I slip into a state of grace. Everything fits. The darkling sky mirrored in the violet snow. The snow feeding the trees and the hidden creek. The creek cutting the mountains. The mountains and me. We all dovetail together.

The tent comes into view, an orange speck set inside sentries of thin-limbed aspen. I stop. I'm drawn to the tent, but also reluctant. I don't want this long day, so smooth and solid, to end.

My mind goes on ahead. Not far from the tent, steam is rising into the frigid air. Ah, the thermal pools, the deep warmth of summer in the dead of winter. Dan Moe and Keith Spenser, my companions, will already be there. Long johns hung on upended skis, heads back against a mossy log, white bodies sunk up to their sunburned necks in the gorgeous hot water.

Soon I'll join them. In an hour it will be night and minus 20 and dark as only distant mountains can be. Soaking, we'll lean back and stare up at the crystalline stars. Dan will name the constellations: Gemini with Castor and Pollux, Canis Major, Ursa Major, Boštes the Herdsman. An hour later, like a resurrection, the moon will rise and the snow will sparkle and we'll still be luxuriating in the delicious pools. After all but dissolving, we'll climb up the five-foot rim of snow, dash naked to the tent, dry off, and dive into our sleeping bags.

I see myself safely cocooned in down, my toes curled around a hot-water bottle, writing in my journal and plotting the day's travel on the topo. When the coyotes begin to sing, the call and response bounding over the luminous snow like the nimble animals themselves, I'll switch off the headlamp and listen, more at home than I am at home.

Standing on my skis and leaning on the poles, I turn and look back. I can just make out the faint line of my tracks scalloping down the last steep slope, then running straight to me, as if bringing a secret message. This simple line, disappearing backward, gives me a profound sense of satisfaction.

It occurs to me, as I push off and begin again to kick and glide, that I almost know what I'm doing. The next thing that comes to mind is Woody Jensen.



LIKE OTHER CALLOW YOUNG MEN, I took up karate in college. Okinawa-te. Woody Jensen was the instructor. He was fluid, lean as a marathon runner. Every muscle was defined, from his corded neck to his knotted calves. He was spareness itself, every kick, every step, every word precise.

We stretched for 20 minutes before each lesson. Woody could do Chinese splits, slowly lowering his crotch to the ground. After stretching, we practiced kicks. Side kick, front kick, roundhouse. Again and again. Woody would walk among his pupils wordlessly repositioning the angle of an ankle or the twist of a hip.

We spent less time punching. "The leg is seven times stronger and one-third longer than the arm," he told us. We were expected to rehearse the kicks until our legs moved with alacrity and accuracy.

I was always eager to try, if incapable of executing, the more difficult kicks. While other novitiates were humbly perfecting the simple front kick, I would be leaping into the air and spinning like a Bruce Lee wannabe.

Woody also emphasized the katas—formalized, sequential routines that, if diligently practiced, teach one the basic skills of karate: blocks, feints, kicks, punches, steps, turns. My favorite was the Seiuchin kata, but I can't say I worked at it consistently or intelligently. To get it right was a slow process. I was impatient.

One evening Woody was watching me go through the motions.

"You are a fast learner," he said. "It is unfortunate."

I was dumbfounded by this hard-shelled nut of truth. It became my own personal koan, one that would take me years to crack open.

Woody knew I was far more passionate about the outdoors than about karate. One spring day when it was snowing hard—huge flakes dashing themselves against the windowpane like desperate hummingbirds—Woody called me out of a kata and told me to leave class and go cross-country skiing that minute.

After I had been in karate for about six months, I was allowed to spar. I was fearful and reckless. One evening I sparred with Woody. I was fighting—kicking and punching and spinning. He was dancing—swaying his hips, deftly bobbing his head, sweeping his arms. Nothing I did touched him. Exasperated, I attempted a spinning back kick—a committing move. Instead of ducking out of the way (I telegraphed badly), Woody slipped inside my flailing offense a bit too far, stabbing his foot on the little toe of my pivoting foot. My toe broke instantly and I fell to the mat. Woody used athletic tape to bind the painful little digit to its neighbors.

"It will heal in a few weeks," he said. "In the meantime, I'd like you to use that time to think about why you are studying karate."

I tried, but abandoned the soul-searching to play outside. I went skiing despite the toe, and did a winter ascent of Medicine Bow Peak.

A week after I returned to lessons, Woody asked me to stick around after class. When everyone had left, he sat down in front of me.

"So, Mark, why are you studying karate?" he asked, peering up.

I told him I liked it.

"You like the image of karate, or karate?"

I started to protest.

Woody stood up. "One day perhaps you will teach me how to cross-country ski."

He held out his hand and we shook.

"Good-bye, Mark."



TWO YEARS LATER, still in college, I did my first ski tour of Yellowstone: an ambitious one-month circumnavigation. It was meant to be an epic.

Skip Mancini was my partner. We mailed food drops to the park's east, north, and west entrances, and went superlight—so light we took summer-weight sleeping bags, and froze almost every night. But we were greenhorns, and anxious to suffer. How far we skied every day was paramount, so we cruised right past the elk and buffalo. Absurdly, we passed up every chance to relax and soak in the park's hot pools. We were in a hurry to do something big.

On the last night of the trek, we cooked in our tent. We were tired of fixing dinner 100 yards away, hunched against snowstorms, stomping our feet to keep warm. We hadn't seen any grizzlies anyway, only the occasional long-clawed prints. Skip mixed up a batch of biscuits and we ate one honey-and-butter-smothered delicacy after another. It was heaven.

Later that night, I woke up hearing snapping in the forest. I wanted to believe it was merely branches breaking from the weight of snow. Nope.

Something was circling our tent. Several big somethings were circling our tent. I woke Skip. We didn't have to say what we both knew: Our tent smelled like a biscuit. Our bags smelled like biscuits. We were like pigs-in-a-blanket.

I told Skip that I'd heard grizzlies were afraid of fire. We both lit our Bic lighters as if we were at a Grateful Dead concert.

"I don't think this is the kind of fire they meant," Skip whispered.

"I got a plan," I squeaked. "We'll light the tent on fire. Nylon burns like anything."

"They don't care if their meat is cooked or not."

"I'm serious."

"You're stupid."

"OK," I said, "what if we light our sleeping bags on fire and swing them around our heads screaming at the top of our lungs—"

"Listen!" Skip said abruptly.

"I don't hear anything."

"Exactly."

I feel certain we set the world speed record for breaking camp. Shimmying out of our bags, we dropped the tent, crammed everything onto the sleds, tiptoed past the griz tracks encircling our camp, and frantically skied away.



AFTER COLLEGE I was fortunate enough to be unemployable (a degree in philosophy helps) and moved into a 12-by-12-foot mountain cabin in Wyoming. It seemed the natural thing to do.

One of my treasured books as a boy was Charles Sheldon's The Wilderness of Denali (1930), which describes the three years he had spent living alone on the slopes of Mount McKinley between 1906 and 1908. Sheldon was an indefatigable hunter and naturalist, a consummate observer of wildlife. His book records everything from the cannibalistic habits of shrews to the mating behavior of Dall sheep. Five species of mammals were later named in Sheldon's honor, and his crusading work led to the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park in 1917.

Sheldon preferred temperatures in the minus-30 range, so he could snowshoe hard without overheating. He regularly covered 30 miles in a day lugging a rucksack heavy with specimens.

Living in a cabin through the winter, I tried snowshoeing, but found it slow and cumbersome. Snowshoeing is to skiing what rowing is to sailing. You have this vast ocean of snow to traverse. Why muscle every inch of it when, with practice, you can sail? I didn't know how Sheldon did it, but I wasn't going to.

I skied every day and thought I was improving, but I didn't have a teacher. I didn't think I needed one. I believed in the nobility of being self-taught. It wasn't until I took an on-snow test in Colorado, hoping to become a certified cross-country ski instructor, that I suddenly saw myself as I really was: a yokel with the strength and endurance of a mule, my technique inversely proportional to my ability to suffer.

Bill Hall was the examiner, a tall, tan master of the planks whose technique was so effortless, so flawless, that he flowed over the snow as easy as the wind.

"You're kicking backward instead of down," Bill told me. "Imagine there's a nail going straight through your foot. Kick down. Try it."

I did.

"Good, good—but you're still dropping your back leg too soon. Shift your weight." He stepped forward, raised my leg, and pressed my chest down.

"It's all about balance. Try it again."

I did, and suddenly, miraculously, I was skiing correctly for the first time.

In the optimistic zeal of youth, it is our right to shun teachers and passionately reinvent the wheel. This, too, is part of the process. Without mentors, we make mistakes by the bushel, and often make ourselves miserable. Still, it can be a wholesome way to toughen our mettle and create our own tall tales. For a while we believe we are going where no human has gone before. When reality eventually wears through this illusion, we seek out teachers.



APPRENTICESHIP—taking the time to thoroughly learn the fundamentals—is a sedimentary, accretionary process. For such an old-fashioned concept, it took me an embarrassingly long time to get it. As Americans, we're almost trained to be impatient. Fast this, fast that, we can too easily rush our lives away.

Here's a rule I try to remember: Rushing is almost always wrong. Rushing robs you of the charm of the moment. To rush is to have your mind always out ahead of your body, which is so unnatural that stupid mistakes are inevitable. The opposite of hurrying is not slow, but swift. To be swift you must be efficient. Efficiency in the outdoors is a form of mindfulness. It's about focus and having the knowledge and ability to make the right moves—and that requires experience, which, alas, takes time.

Cross-country skiing is a craft. Kayaking is a craft. Mountain biking is a craft. Pick your sport or adventurous avocation: To become competent takes us all years of practice. So why do we climb the bump in our backyard and immediately want to take on Everest? Climbing Everest without actually having incrementally developed the requisite skills is like putting a quarter in a player piano and pretending you are a pianist. Who're you kidding?

So here's another rule I'm trying to accept: Shortcuts are pointless. If you're engaged in an activity because you truly enjoy it—the motion of your body, the refinement of your skills—what's the sense of skipping ahead? It's like skipping the middle of a novel or the middle of a song. The power of any experience is a function of its depth, a depth that can be fathomed only through dedication and discipline.

To apprentice is to accept the unfolding beauty of progression. To become at ease with where you are in the spectrum of expertise. I have a good friend who has killed the simple, visceral joy of cycling and climbing because he never believes he's good enough. He sets his sights so high that his performance is always a disappointment to him. Being covetous of what you are not is corrosive. Enjoy the slow blossoming of your own expertise. This is the craft of developing a craft.

Last rule: The process is the point. It's a cliché, I know. It's also what Woody was trying to teach me so many years ago.

Mastery is an illusion, grace a momentary gift.



AND APPRENTICESHIP is endless. Case in point: that third Yellowstone trip.

The morning after my excursion to Heart Lake, I went for another long jaunt. (This in itself was an insight gained from the previous Yellowstone journeys: Instead of touring in a circle, thus being forced to drag the whole heavy camp along every day, we had skied in for two days, then set up a base camp from which we could do fast, light, all-day tours.) I planned to retrace yesterday's tracks for several miles, then veer south. Approaching the slope I had so leisurely carved down the evening before, I was stopped dead. My tracks were buried. They still came swooping over the crest, but then vanished at a long, deep shelf in the snow. The entire slope had avalanched. The crown wall was two feet deep, the debris pile at the base enormous. If the collapse had caught me, I would have disappeared without a trace. When I'd crested the slope, it had briefly occurred to me that I should probably dig a snow pit before skiing down.

But I'd been telling myself I knew what I was doing.

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