Friday, April 15, 2011

Mammoth Ski Trip 2011

The Caltech Alpine Club, already such a productive font of adventure, has delivered yet again. This time, the order of the day was skiing, instead of trudging into thin air.

I packed in the usual frantic way, made rendezvous with two geologists, and proceeded to a high speed 4 hour guided tour of the Owens Valley. I had previously driven here to climb Mt Whitney, but the days were shorter and I had not seen much of the fascinating scenery in one of the world's most seismically active regions. Previously, for instance, I had had no idea that I didn't properly understand how columnar basalt forms.

As we wound up the road to about 2500m it began to snow heavily, and by the time I'd hired my gear and we'd found the apartment, the roads were quite dodgy. More than 12 inches fell, which was terrific! We were condo stacking, so I picked out a nice patch of floor for my sleeping bag, traumatized everyone by walking around in thermals, and waited while everyone arrived. By breakfast, 18 people had slept over, which certainly kept the place warm. We even had someone sleeping under the table!

Before long we'd driven to the lift and started up the mountain. A few easy runs to make up for 3 years of inactivity, then we hit the turbo quad to the top and powder heaven.

I had last skied 3 years ago while training through Bulgaria, and wearing jeans etc managed to get stuck somewhere in the back country. I survived that time, only to be chased by hungry streetkids that evening at the train station in Sofia...

We decided to traverse to the other side of the mountain and my companions D and E got stuck, as snowboards have poor glide characteristics. Soon after we negotiated a series of ungroomed
nirvana. I stopped to catch my breath, disguised behind ski glasses and an outlandishly enormous Russian fur hat, only to hear a nearby skier say "are you a Caltech grad student?" Why yes indeed.

A, her friends C and T skied with us for a while, with several hilarious crashes and no tree collisions. I got thirsty so filled a ziplock bag with snow and put it in my pocket.

At length we returned to Eagle lift and met with two beginner boarder friends of ours, Z and H. Both were already exhausted, but we convinced Z to go up the lift and come down the run, about 10 times slower than usual. Z was wearing jeans, which were already pretty wet, as were his gloves. His intention to go down the easiest run was dealt a serious blow when he lacked the turning skills necessary to turn away from an intermediate slope. But he stuck it out and by the time he reached the bottom was edging well enough to carve down the last bit. Spectacular took a turn for the sublime when he collided with a lift tower! Fortunately he was moving very slowly. The next day he was still improving, but managed to take out a sign that said 'slow', again, right in front of me.

We headed off the mountain and I passed out back at the lodge. Next came dinner, again everyone wearing their best thermals, white wine chilled in a pile of snow on the balcony, and mountains of food to replenish our reserves. After failing for the 50th time to get the
wifi working, we fell asleep.

Next morning, D decided to try skiing, so after an awful breakfast of corn flakes and mineral water (it seemed like a good idea at the time) we hit the slopes. D stepped into his skis, and boarded the lift with the confidence of man who knows he's wearing 10lbs of body armor. Which he was. The first order of the day was the run Z tumbled down the previous afternoon, and D did not disappoint. He decided to skip the snow plough and start paralleling, and within 30 minutes was linking turns like a pro. I demonstrated how to carve turns for speed (or 'rail'), and succeeded in my efforts to fall over.

A few runs later we decided to maintain the learning curve by heading up Cloud 9 to Ricochet, also known as McCluskie's Eternal Regret. In my mind, at any rate. The first few turns in particular were hair raising, but D didn't fall until the flat bit at the bottom. Meanwhile more than a few hair raising beginners coasted past in outrageous snowploughs, ignorant of their total lack of control. D worked on his pro-valley stance and we tacked inwards to main, caught up with
primary organizers extraordinaire D2 and D3, and ate lunch. During this run D achieved his penultimate and 13th fall on skis, right next to the Mammoth fumarole. It smelt like volcano and made me happy. Mammoth is, to the best of my knowledge, an eroded but active lava dome.

We ducked back to the car so D could get his trusty board (recently repaired after a nasty run-in with a rock), then hit the slopes on the back side of the mountain. The mountain remained uncrowded and supremely awesome. The vertiginous couloirs above us beckoned 'test yourself!', but it wasn't until we headed back that we found ourselves by accident on the edge of a rather steep slope. We dropped over a cornice and traversed the worst of moguls that seemed to grow from cornices and then ripped down the side of the mountain. We raced down the mountain at terminal velocity, reaching the home lift 25 seconds before it closed. One final run on empty sloped, catching some persistent freshies between trees, and then down to the carpark.

Back at the place we packed and cleaned, piled into a car with R, F, H, D4 and me, and herded aggressively back to LA to the tunes of Iron Maiden. We stopped at Lone Pine to stare at Mt Whitney in the sunset and eat some buffalo burgers. The conversation shifted to the pros and
cons of dating within Caltech (hypothetically, of course), and by midnight I was back on campus with only 72 hours of work to catch up on.

Photos and video are in the usual places.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Maska Scorbi

The mask of sorrow is a large concrete sculpture sited on a hill
overlooking Magadan. In broadest terms it is reminiscent of the moai
statues on Rapa Nui, but exceeds them in both scale and scope.

Originally conceived as one of six similar statues arrayed in a
hexagon throughout the former soviet union, to the best of my
knowledge it is the only one that has been completed. In purpose, it
commemorates the terrible lives and deaths of the prisoners who passed
through Magadan as part of the dalstroi (Far Northern Construction)
effort which began in 1930, expanded enormously through the prewar
purges of 1937, and was officially ended by Kruschev's pardon of
Stalin's prisoners in 1956. At its height, more than 12 million
Russian citizens were convicted under article 58, for political
crimes, and were sent to work camps for the 'reforging of the criminal
spirit' to labour for 10 years or more. These works camps were arrayed
throughout the soviet union, but the most infamous by far were the
mines of Kolyma. When people refer to mines of Siberia, they refer to
Kolyma. This is not the self imposed exile of the intelligentsia after
the failed uprising of 1839 to cities in Siberia such as Krasnoyarsk
and Irkutsk that subsequently became centers of learning.

Kolyma is a region in the far east of Russia, well beyond Siberia. A
number of great rivers flow from the central asian highlands through
Russia to the Arctic Ocean. From west to east, they are the Northern
Dvina, the Pechora, the Ob, the Yenisei, the Lena, the Indigirka, and
the Kolyma. With the exception of the Indigirka, all are navigable
along most of their length from source to ocean. Each is a story in
itself, however here I am concerned with the Kolyma river. Like many
of its northern cousins, during the bitterly cold winter it sometimes
freezes all the way through, leading to the formation of ice dams and
flash flooding. From the ocean it rises towards the south, and
eventually tracks west at the point where it meets the highway at
Debin, which is also known as 'Left Bank'. Debin was the headquarters
of dalstroi for most of the 1930s, and remained an important center
with a major hospital until perestroika. When I visited, nearly every
building was abandoned, and its population currently stands at about
80. During the WW2 the hospital was frequently home to (inter alia) a
convicted nuclear scientist called Kipreev who managed to build an
xray machine. Shalamov worked as an orderly in the hospital prior to
his release after 17 years of labour, and eventually returned to the

It is hard to describe the isolation of these places. Magadan is a
town on the coast of the Sea of Okhost. Within quotation marks, it is
the only town. There have been other towns at other times on the shore
since the 1600s, when the Russian sled route first reached the
pacific, but with the exception of Sovgavan', more than 1000km away,
it is the only one of any size that is left. Magadan, which I have
written about before, is an astonishing city, the gateway to the
Russian Far East, to Kolyma, and the still productive mines in the
region. Even today, in the age of trans-oceanic jet liners, it remains
remote. I will describe the usual path of convict to these places to
give an idea of how remote these places were - prisons like convict
Australia, from which escape is meaningless.

After the usual formalities of accusation, constant interrogation, and
beatings, a person convicted under article 58 would be transfered to a
holding prison, which in Moscow was the famous Butyr prison. From here
they would be loaded on a prison train car and taken by train to
sovgavan', probably a 20 day journey in those days from one side of
Russia to the other. From here they were loaded on steamers to take
them to Magadan, a 3 to 5 day cruise, and in Magadan they were placed
in prisoner camps before being divided up, allocated a work site, and
sent there. Before that, of course, they came to terms with the nature
of criminal life in Russia, which to this day involves a
semi-exclusive language, a strict hierarchy, and complete degradation.
Usually clothes would be confiscated before prisoners were marched
500km up the highway to Debin, where they would be fanned out to one
of hundreds of work camps in the area, most accessible only by river
(at least in the early days). As the decade progressed, punishments
for escapees and transgressors became more serious, the roads were
improved and lengthened, and by about 1938 it was possible to travel
from Magadan to Yakutsk via the original Kolyma highway. Still, travel
without freedom or permits was almost impossible.

I don't intend to dwell here on the conditions suffered by the
prisoners, or try and give any account of the experience. There are a
number of excellent books on the subject by survivors, including
Varlam Shalamov's "Kolyma Tales", and Alexander Solzhenitsn's "The
Gulag Archipelago". The bottom line is that more than 3 million people
perished at the camps, mostly between 1937 and the early 1950s.

This is a legacy that cannot be forgotten, marginalised, or undone.
Kruschev's 'rehabilitation' meant little except for a small number of
survivors who, having been released years previously, were finally
permitted to leave the far east and return to their homes. Despite
this horrific past, the taiga and the extremes of climate have all but
erased tangible memories of the camps, few of which were built to a
lasting standard in any case. In the 20 years since perestroika, the
region has depopulated by more than a factor of 2, and some cities,
such as Kadykchan, have been completely abandoned.

Which brings me back to the mask of sorrow monument. It is large in
scale, and depicts a stylised mask. Within the interior of the
sculpture is a small one room museum. One eye is the bars of a prison
cell. The other eye, weeping, has tears in the form of people crying.
Around the sculpture are a number of concrete plinths with religious
symbols of the faiths of people who died, some of whom were prisoners
of war. Some of the main camps are also named. Yet for many locals and
visitors, the most important question is of its fundamental nature.
Why a mask, and not a face. Why is the mask sorrowful, and not an
actual person. In my mind, the mask symbolises a disconnect between
the people changed by suffering into something different, between the
horrific history and the need to go on with life, and between regret
and an inability to rationalise, explain, or otherwise understand the
profound pointlessness of the spilling of that much blood. In a way, a
mask can be used to express a desired emotion, while concealing
conflicting feelings which continue to lurk deeper still.

Nearly everyone who lives in Magadan today is unrelated by business or
blood to the gulag. They are as aware as anyone of the past and its
weight, but Kolyma remains a perilous place to live and work. One
cannot dwell excessively on the past and still expect to make a
success of the present. Most of my exploration of the history has
occurred since I returned. When I visited, I was more interested (and
remain so) in the people living there today, rather than the all but
vanished history of the place. Yet the character of a city and its
inhabitants cannot be divorced from their awareness of the past.
Ultimately, however, the past is too confronting to worry about every
day. The lessons to be learned are either too obvious or too subtle to
be taken in one sitting. In every way, the human tragedy in Kolyma
exceeded any person's will to survive, to be tough, to be human. In
the opinion of a number of people I talked to, even the people who did
not die, did not survive. And that, if anything, is the reason why the
mask of sorrow is a mask. Why it, as a work of art and a monument,
encompasses so much of the dissonance of that part of the world. A
dissonance that will not be understood until it is forgotten.

I visited in August 2010, though I did not see the mask up close
during the day time. Here are some photos I took:
Better photos can be found here: