Thursday, January 31, 2013

Banning Uphill Skiing


Not long ago, while consulting the ski conditions on the Stowe Mountain Resort website, I stumbled across this fiat:

PLEASE NOTE-- ALL UPHILL TRAFFIC is prohibited on resort trails during operating hours. This is for the safety of our guests. Thank you.

And with those few, brief lines, a tremendous source of recreation for Vermonters was banned. This was more than surprising, especially considering that Stowe Mountain Resort operates its ski operations on public land, mostly Mt. Mansfield State Forest. The company leases its land from the state, and presumable there’s a clause somewhere in the contract that allows policies like this in the name of safety. 

I asked a friend of mine, who is also a ski patroller, about this new policy. He confirmed the decision, saying, “There was a collision and it’s getting pretty crowded.” I was among many people who contacted our local paper, the Stowe Reporter, about this. They've covered this before, last year, and their recent article expands that coverage: “Mountain Company limits uphill ‘alpine touring’ traffic for safety reasons.” The article revealed that uphill skiers have been stopped and told to turn around. The Mountain Company (which operates Stowe Mountain Resort) called uphill skiing “an accident waiting to happen.”

Uphill skiing--or skinning, so-called because alpine touring skiers and telemarkers can attach climbing skins to their skis and travel uphill--has increased in popularity recently as skiers seek to add to their mountain experience. It’s a great cardiovascular workout, and it allows skiers to see the details of the mountain, instead of blasting by them on the way down. Now it’s prohibited, at least on groomed slopes. 

The safety argument is twofold. First, there’s the contention that uphill skiing increases the likelihood of collisions between downhillers and skinners. It seems that the risk of collisions between these two groups would be no more likely than the risk of collisions between downhill skiers and people who have stopped on the side of the groomed ski slope, which is where uphill skiers ski. While uphill skiing--and snowshoeing, for that matter--has increased in popularity, there’s hardly a line of traffic plodding up the slopes,  obstructing downhill skiers. If the resort wants to increase safety, they can more actively patrol, and target skiers and riders who go too fast down the hill. 

Uphill skiers can usually be found on more gentle slopes, greens or blues, and the skiers there are usually traveling at lower speeds, and lower speeds mean more control. Uphill skiers are also looking up the hill at the traffic coming toward them, the same way a pedestrian walks against the traffic on the road, in order to see problems as they develop, and act accordingly. So from a safety point of view, this first argument fails. If the resort wants to promote safety, it can focus on that most dangerous of demographics: young men. Recklessly fast skiing and riding by young men has been responsible for all the serious injuries among skiers I know.

The second part of the safety argument posits that while groomers are operating in the pre-dawn hours, uphill skiers are at risk for a gruesome death. To my knowledge, this hasn’t happened. But with many uphill skiers hitting the mountain well before dawn, it’s not an unreasonable outcome, even though the groomers have so much forward lighting they can be seen from the village, seven miles away. Restrictions on uphill skiing while grooming operations are ongoing might be a reasonable request. 

But I can’t help thinking that the real reason behind the ban is about something else altogether: money. 

There are two pieces to the money argument. The first ties into the resort’s stated desire to ensure the “safety of our guests.” This is half-true. While the resort doesn’t want its guests to incur injury while skiing, the act of deliberately strapping slippery boards to your feet and pointing them downhill is unsafe. Wicked unsafe. If the resort truly wants to keep its guests safe, they’d lock them in the Great Room at Spruce Base and show them Warren Miller movies all day. And it’s not the uphill skiers who are creating a safety problem in the formula. They are moving uphill, slowly. The downhill skiers, to whom the resort sold a lift ticket to, are the ones engaging in risky behavior. It only seems logical that to guarantee the safety of its guests, the resort should ban downhill skiing, not uphill skiing. 

That leads to what’s probably at the heart of the money matter. Uphill skiers don’t all buy lift tickets--why would they? Yet they are using the slopes that the resort grooms and maintains without paying. That’s lost revenue. That means a lift ticket is more like a user fee in the eyes of the resort: skiers aren’t really paying for rides up on the chairlift all day; they’re paying for use of the maintained terrain. If that’s the case, it’s time for ski areas to call access to skiing what it really is: a fee-based user pass. What kind of legal issues this name and use change would engender escapes me, but it would surely be nightmarish for the resort, so don’t look for this designation shift anytime soon.

But the real purpose of the lift ticket is to indemnify the resort against your personal injury, and that’s something they can’t do with uphill skiers who haven’t purchased a lift ticket--I mean, fee-based user pass. Here’s the language from the back of a Stowe Mountain Resort (SMR) pass:

Holder expressly assumes the risks of any and all injury, including death, which may occur to him/her while participating in sports activities at Stowe Mountain Resort.

This frames the situation in the context of liability. And liability equals money. Stowe Mountain Resort is owned by insurance giant AIG, so minimizing insurance exposure can’t be far from their hearts. (AIG sold Stowe Mountain Resort to its subsidiary Chartis in 2009; Chartis has since been rebranded back into the AIG name.) An increase in uphill skiers alerted SMR and AIG to a potential problem with liability, which they decided to squelch immediately. 

While this is deduction on my part, it’s hard to argue with the logic. When Stowe Mountain Resort says it’s looking out for the safety of its guests, they’re telling the truth. But they mean their paying guests, not the ones visiting without a lift ticket. And to be fair to the resort, a growing interest in uphill skiing could conceivably cut into its profits and potentially put it at legal risk from skiers who are injured or killed while using their maintained slopes without paying. But isn’t there a solution short of an outright ban? Here are a couple of ideas.

First, require anyone using the maintained slopes to have ski pass. This is only fair. The resort maintains the slopes, and if skiers use them for recreation, they should pay for the privilege. This is easier said than done, however, and it’s unlikely that the resort will fence the base area in order to prevent poachers. Again, ticket checks could be the domain of the ski patrol: ever time they encounter an uphill skier, they can check for a ski pass. 

Second, limit uphill skiing to daylight hours after grooming operations have ended. This would address the potentially gruesome outcome of an uphill skier meeting a groomer in the dark. Along with this, uphill skiers should be required to stick to the edge of the slopes. This too can be enforced by ski patrollers in the course of their regularly scheduled duties.

Third, limit uphill skiing to designated slopes. There are many slopes that are appropriate for skinning--they’re the slopes that uphill skiers are seen on all the time. They include Toll Road, Gondolier, and Sterling. Prohibiting uphill skiing from busy slopes like North Slope, Lord, Perry Merrill, Lift Line, and others, will cut down on the opportunity for collisions, small though it is. The counterargument to this is that by limiting the activity to certain slopes numbers will be concentrated unnaturally there. But that’s where the skiers are traveling uphill already, and it doesn’t seem that bad.

Finally, make downhill skiers aware that they may encounter uphill traffic. Educate downhill skiers with signage; include it in the language of the liability disclaimer on the back of the ski pass. But don’t ban it outright. That simply brands Stowe Mountain Resort as bottom-line giant, something anathema to the spirit of Stowe (the village) and Mt. Mansfield, the God-given resource that SMR operates for its own profit.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Arts of Grammar


While building my English Composition I class for the spring semester, I did something I do before every semester: I consult a raft of reference books, looking for new ways to teach my students proper grammar. A book I’ve had for a long time, but didn’t pay much attention to, was A Grammar of the English Tongue, by Dr. Samuel Johnson, which is the preface of his Dictionary of the English Language. Aside from its archaic title, what kept me away from it was its publication date: 1755. What good is an ancient grammar book?

A lot, it turns out.

Grammar--according to Dr. Johnson--is the art of using words properly. Think about that: the art of using words properly. We hear a lot about the art of things: the art of motorcycle maintenance, (from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance); the art of war (from Sun Tzu’s seminal work of the same name, still studied by military leaders today); the art of dealing or negotiating in business (from businessman Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal); and any number of other “art of”s pertaining to various life skills, the most popular of which can be seen by entering the words “the art of” into a Google search, which then lists the most popular arts-of in this order: shaving, war, manliness, and flight. That list should tell all that needs knowing about which gender is more concerned with the “art” of things--further interpretations are left to the reader.

But what does it mean to study the “art” of doing something? After all, art doesn’t imply a strict set of rules, which is what most people think of when they think of grammar. Yet art does require adherence to form, structure, and execution--in essence, rules. Great painters don’t simply throw paint across a canvass (the stretching of the canvass requires a protocol--rules--that even Jackson Pollack followed). Great musicians work within a system of musical notation and common structures (verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge, verse-chorus, for pop music). And even great writers need to write sentences that readers can understand--otherwise, how will the writer share the story? Telling a story--communicating--is the point of writing. Mastering that “art”--the arrangement of words so that they’re understood--is the point of studying grammar.

So to think of the art of something is simply to think of its methodology--how it’s done. Once you learn the basics of how grammar is done--by studying its rules, then practicing--you’ll be able to employ this skill in your own writing. The employment of those skills according to your own needs is the art. The art of grammar is the proper use of words to communicate effectively. Effective communication includes artistic communication. 

Now that we know what the art of grammar is, it’s time to look at the structure of grammar. What are the underlying elements define and control grammar? According to Dr. Johnson, there are four:

  1. Orthography. Orthography means to write (or spell) words correctly. It comes from the Greek roots orthos (correct) and graphia (writing). If you don’t spell words correctly, readers won’t understand what you’re trying to say in your writing. 
  2. Etymology. This is the study of the origins of words. If you know what the history of a word is, you what its root meaning is. For example, if I tell you that I’m going to defenestrate you, you might not have the foggiest notion what I mean--who uses the word “defenestrate” in their daily speech? But if you recognize the prefix “de” from the Latin meaning “out of” or “away from,” and the Latin root for the word window “fenestra,” you can figure it out quickly--I hope: it means I’m going to toss you out the window. (French speakers recognize the French word for window in the word: fenetre. French speakers also know that the difference between the words fornication and formication is substantial and potentially unpleasant.)
  3. Syntax. These are the rules that govern sentence structure in a particular language--in this case, English. Syntax is how we arrange words into grammatical (or sensible) sentences. For example, you wouldn’t say, “The to walked store I”; instead, you’d say, “I walked to the store.” Both sentences have all the elements of a sentence: subject, verb, and a preposition phrase containing an object, making the thought complete. But only the second makes sense, because it follows English language syntax. Children who are just learning to speak--and thus just learning syntax--often butcher syntax with hilarious results: “Store go I walk.” 
  4. Prosody. This is the rhythm and sound of a language, and it’s made up of two elements: Orthoepy, which are the rules of pronunciation; and orthometry, which are the rules of meter, as in poetry, meaning the cadence of the words. There are rules for pronouncing words so that others can understand them. There are also rules about pronouncing words within a sentence so that others can understand them. 

So don’t think of grammar as something treacherous and foreign. Think of it as an adventure of discovery, a destruction of mythology and mystery, where we’ll learn not only how to write good sentences, but why

Works Cited

Johnson, Samuel. (2013-01-21). A Grammar of the English Tongue. Kindle Edition. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The State of Winter


Winter’s off to a strong start. Those who don’t live in the North Country might not understand what I mean by “strong start,” so let me explain: A strong start means cold and snow before the end of the calendar year. In November, we had several stretches of fine, cool weather--not blistering cold; just cool enough for the snow makers on Mt. Mansfield to blow snow nightly. We also slid nicely into a pattern of sporadic but persistent snow showers in early December. This set us up for a proper pounding just after Christmas: two feet of snow. That cemented this winter’s robust beginning.

A beginning does not a winter make, and certainly the past few days have served to remind that winter--in the context of the warmest recorded year in the past 100 or so--faces many challenges before the ski lifts stop turning in April. Temperatures have been in the high 30s for a couple of days, initiating an early January thaw. From a snow removal point of view, this isn’t a terrible thing. The snow has been working its way off the Auberge’s roof, and walkways have been widening. Even the mailbox is accessible for our carrier.

The forecast is for a return to cold and snowy conditions by the end of the week. The word is that several Alberta Clippers will be overpassing us, touching off persistent by light snow events for the next week. An Alberta Clipper is weak cold front that traverses Canada after originating over the western provinces. It’s typically fast moving, without much oscillation, and as it gathers up what little moisture there is in the atmosphere, it dumps it out upon encountering the northern Green Mountains--in other words, Stowe.

All that said, skiers and riders should, at this point, be thinking about one thing: March.

It’s safe for me to say that the amount of snow blown onto the trails at Mt. Mansfield will guarantee excellent conditions throughout March, whatever the rest of the winter brings.  There will be more natural snow; there always is. And that combination makes March the best time of the year to ski. Here’s why:

First, there’s the snow. Statistically, March is the snowiest month of the year up here. Our first year in Stowe, we received over ten feet of snow. Even last year, a tough snow year, we had snow. Second, there’s the light. The angle of the sun and the length of the days can’t be overstated as a benefit to skiing in March. Sun equals happy, and more light means trails are easier to see for longer in the day. Gone are the flat-light devils of early January. More light begets better skiing. Third, there’s the temperatures. While the nights stay cold, days warm--not quite into spring conditions; that’s April. But sunny, milder weather that’s still below freezing send the skiing, riding--or even snowshoeing or dogsledding--into a different plane. It’s sublime. And by the end of the month, the sugar houses are cranking away, filling the air with the sweet smell of boiling sap.

March means a general detente, the knowledge that winter’s worst is over, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. If you still need a reason to make a trip up here in March, here are two more: Chantal’s birthday, and St. Patrick’s Day. So come on up and enjoy the Ides of March with us, and grab the best skiing of the year.

The frozen waterfalls under the gondola
are blessed with green dye on St. Patrick's
Day each year. Another good reason to 
come skiing in March. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

My Favorite Nonfiction Book


Everybody’s got favorite books. Books that must be owned, books to read again and again, books that offer new discoveries every time through. Some of my favorite works of fiction include Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, Islands in the Stream, by Ernest Hemingway, The World According to Garp, by John Irving, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, and anything by Charles Portis.

But my favorite nonfiction book is The Beatles: The Biography, by Bob Spitz. The book is a tour de force of many of the things that mark great writing--and great writers. Among them are its strength as a research document, its powerful story, its creative craft, and the structure and detail used to present and illustrate it. So let’s look at the elements of The Beatles: The Biography that appeal to me as a writer and a reader.

Research

As a research writing instructor, I love this book because it is one of the great pieces of research writing I’ve ever come across. Spitz is exhaustive not only in the amount of cited material he provides, but in the details of the notes themselves. His preface for the "Notes" section gives further insight into his approach to source material, and while his notation method isn’t my favorite (there are no in-text superscript citations, as in, say, Chicago Manual of Style; readers are forced to find the corresponding text in the sequential notations broken up only by chapter), it demonstrates a commitment to disclosure, which is the transparency at the heart of all good research writing. I emailed Bob Spitz about this citation style, and he told me that it was his own creation.

Story

The story of the Beatles is the story of all of us. It’s our hopes and dreams made manifest, with all their triumphs and pitfalls. It’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Adventure, over and over. It’s rags to riches and falls from grace--and every cliche in between. We connect with the Beatles because they were tough little “Scousers” from Liverpool who had a dream, and few other options. And if we’re the landed gentry, we connect with the Beatles because of their astonishing success. We connect with them on a dreamy, fantasy level, and we connect with them because of all their missteps. They are a concentrated expression of humanity, and their story is ours.

Craft

I admire this book because of its craft. Spitz contextualizes the individual quotes he uses--nearly 900 of them--building them into scenes, and a scene is to a story as a paragraph is to an essay: the basic unit of composition. Scenes are how we make sense of the world, stringing all these little episodes into an uber-narrative that becomes our life stories. After the Beatles’ Philippine fiasco, Spitz paints the scene of the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, cracking under pressure on the plane ride out. An interview with one of the Beatles’ entourage describes Brian as “seizing with tension” (624). The scene concludes when Epstein “(f)inally, blew a gasket” (625). Minor scenic expressions like this weave throughout the book, building the characters, allowing the reader direct access to the story.

Structure

Those scenic building blocks allow Spitz to construct a solid framework upon which he attaches the larger story of the band. While the narrative--any biographical narrative--will be governed by chronology, Spitz has the ability to drill down into the story and pick out the relevant events. The book is divided into three parts--Mercy, Mania, Mastery--representing Spitz’s interpretation of the three major parts of the Beatles’ lives, from their origins to the demise of the band. Having major divisions allows the author to work within them without distraction, while still focusing on the larger story. Each of the book’s  37 chapters is further broken into sub-chapters (I, II, III, IV…). And these sub-chapters were divided into detailed scenes. Chapter 13, section IV, for example, comprises two detailed scenes. The first details the direction the Beatles took after Stuart Sutcliffe’s departure: recording. The second describes their recording session with Tony Sheridan (249). That structure--the scenic building blocks--make the story elements manageable, allowing the author to elaborate where necessary without seeming tangential.

Detail

The details presented in this book are wonderful, and they give the reader access to the mood, the feeling of the story. For example, Spitz discusses the circumstances of an early performance by the Quarry Men (the ur-Beatles): “By Liverpool standards, the Levis program was an extravaganza” (57). This is the kind of line that a reader might unconsciously consume without a second thought. But it’s the first line in a paragraph, classifying it as a topic sentence, and it’s followed by details that define it as an “extravaganza.” This sounds like a small thing, and it is--that’s why it’s a detail. And the research required to discuss whatever the Levis program was shows how much probably didn't end up in the book. But it’s the details that build the story, and the ability to linger within them marks a truly great narrative.

Bob Spitz has created a thorough, fresh, and complete picture of the Beatles. He’s plotted a story easily allows a reader to become drawn in, and he’s supported it with wonderful details. But most of all, he’s told a story that we want to hear, and that's why I love this book. Even the epigraph rocks:

When the mode of the music changes,
the walls of the city shake.
--Plato



Spitz, Bob. The Beatles: The Biography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005,

Spitz, Bob. Personal correspondence. January 7, 2013.