Sunday, February 22, 2009

Avalanche Training and Earning a Run at Kirkwood

This season, one of my goals is to improve my knowledge about safe travel techniques in snow, because I've gotten used to somewhat steep terrain, and I've also enjoyed some out of bounds terrain on a trip to Chile last August. Trouble is, the angle at which snowboarding is the most fun is also the angle at which snow likes to slide, to the point where one can get buried by an avalanche. Within a ski resort, the ski patrol controls this danger, and while they usually do a great job, on steep slopes, you trust them with your life. Also, on my Chile trip, we had a great guide (Travis from CASA tours) who navigated us through terrain where we could see plenty of avalanche evidence on adjacent slopes yet our lines were safe. Interestingly enough, the choices our guide made were not always intuitive to me and it left me wondering why one route is safe while the other one isn't. Here is an example from the Chile trip (Santa Teresita): In the left part of the picture, you can see the evidence of avalanche activity - and in fact if you'd look further left than the picture you'd see some more activity there at the same angle / aspect.

We avoided this left part of the slope and instead went along the ridge line, only cruising around the last few rocks in the shade. At the time when we sailed down there I thought: what's the difference - why is this route safe while there's avalanches right next to it? And if it's not safe - why not just go for the avalanche terrain - aside from the avalanches it looked even sweeter (a little steeper) and had some tracks, actually. After the training, these choices are far more intuitive to me: First, the ridge line is lower angle, so snow is less likely to slide. Next, we stayed high in the start zones of avalanche paths or even above the start zones so even if they did start we would not get caught in the middle. Finally, even though the lines we took did eventually steepen and traverse around some rocks (whoohoo!), due to the different aspect, the snow had much less sun exposure there which means it was more stable than the adjacent slope in the left part of the picture. Furthermore, the rocks in the slope on the left would act as trigger points for avalanches if we were to sail down there, because with the sunshine they puncture and therefore destabilize the snow. Of course, given how many rocks we can see on this slope it is likely that there will be more hidden rocks, covered by some snow that the wind blew over them. Not that I'm claiming this analysis is perfect, but I sure feel more knowledgeable about this now than I did before.

So, here is Geoff Clarke, our Avy I instructor explaining how to dig a snowpit, how to measure the angle of the slope, and how to carry out a compression test. These procedures are a bit of a drag but they help with understanding the avalanche danger on a particular slope, which hopefully lets us make better decisions about where we're riding and which line we end up taking. Geoff made even this informative session entertaining and therefore easy to follow - more than once he suggested (perhaps jokingly?) that we'd "build a kicker"... He is someone who finds a reasonably safe route through potential avalanche terrain every day while having plenty of fun, and he shared both his wisdom and some of the fun with us.

So, here comes the fun: the Saturday session involved "earning" a run in the backcountry. This was the first time I've used a splitboard. On the way up, the board splits into two skis to which I attached climbing skins. The skins are made out of magic material that sticks to the skis, and makes it so they only slide forward, that is, up the hill. As far as climbing up the hill goes, as the only snowboarder in the group I didn't see any disadvantage compared to others. Certainly my heart rate went up a little bit but that's to be expected when you're skiing uphill. On the way down, you put the skis back together and it's a real snowboard! Overall I was surprised how well it worked. It felt a tiny bit too stiff and weird when making a turn on packed snow (we did a couple warmup runs on groomers) and it was harder to take the nasty traverse from the Cornice lift toward Palisades on my heel edge (perhaps because the Voile system adds extra space between boots and board - the regular bindings slide onto metal rails), but for the backcountry powder there was no significant difference to my regular board - I'd say it turns and floats equally well. The main downside compared to backcountry skis appears to be the time it takes to convert between climbing mode (split apart) and snowboard mode (put together), because one needs to remove all snow and ice from the inner edges and the rails onto which the snowboard bindings slide. Perhaps it's not a silver bullet, but for a snowboarder a splitboard still seems like the ticket to the vast majority of fresh terrain that cannot be accessed via lifts. Sweet.

Driving a Solar Car to the Arctic Circle - Xof1 visits the Google Campus

I've once before posted about a car that impressed me, the Terrafugia Transition. It happened again: Last Friday as we were making our way to the cafe, a solar panel whizzed by us. If I hadn't seen this apparatus at the Google campus, I might have thought that the alien invasion was upon us - the car has a very low center of gravity and other than the solar panel there's really nothing you can see when it's rolling.

After lunch I got a few cellphone shots of the device. The driver (guy in the center of the first photo) explained some of the stats and the circumstances in which he has driven this car. The most impressive trip led him to the arctic circle. The car has Li-Ion batteries which deliver about 900 Watts. It can travel at freeway speeds (~60/70 miles per hour), but the driver likes to avoid the freeway because other drivers get a bit excited about this vehicle and it's more efficient and pleasant to drive at ~40/50 miles per hour. He never plugs it in - so Google was his gas-station, pretty much; good for him that we've got such a sunny campus. More technical details are available at their website.

While it's a great accomplishment and an awesomely cool looking car, I should also mention the obvious downsides: Where's the cargo space? For a large share of my car travel I'm moving my snowboard, boots, and clothing to and from the mountains. Also, in winter driving situations, having traction on a single very thin tire at 90 psi seems a bit problematic, to put it mildly. Oh wait - amazingly enough - they drove it in the snow. Besides, this car only weighs 300 kg with driver so when it slides off the road I imagine you can just kick it back yourself, no assistance needed...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Kilimanjaro Trip Report: Arriving in Arusha, Tanzania

I arrive with KLM at 8:30 pm on Dec 29, 2008 at Kilimanjaro International Airport. Stepping out of the plane onto the stairs and into the night, a strong warm breeze blows and moves the flags in front of the terminal building. We wait in a long line outside for our visa. The building must have been constructed in the late 60s / early 70s and never been modernized. Eventually the line moves further inside. The waxed hardwood floor creaks. Two immigration officers sit in booths selling visas. They add the necessary stamp to my passport and I collect my luggage. The driver is already there, but we have to wait for other clients to share the one hour ride to Arusha. Smalltalk. Eventually we are on our way, with the other passengers missing some luggage. I sit in the front seat of the Toyota Land Cruiser, tired from the flights. This would be non-exciting, except that Tanzanians drive on the left. So, whenever I wake up from my nap - Tanzanian roads and drivers provide reasons for waking up from naps - I find myself sitting in the left front seat, looking out of the windshield into the fast moving road lit by the low beams. I wonder whether I should advise the driver to use the high beams when no other traffic was present but decide against it.

In Arusha, the driver makes a right turn from the paved road into a bumpy road. This stretch is poor and somewhat dirty - people prepare food with small stoves in the street - and even though I know that Tanzania is a developing country it shocks me since I have never seen poverty this close. The driver uses the horn and people move to the side as our Land Cruiser leaves a cloud of dust in their street. The Toyota climbs up the hill toward the lodge; this remaining, longer section of the road looks green. I check into the lodge, a nice, large building behind a guarded gate. My room is in one of the round cottages behind the pool. Without asking, staff members grab my luggage and carry it into my room, so now I'm obliged to tip them. The most interesting sight on this first evening are the beds, with mosquito nets preinstalled. If you are not scared about getting Malaria yet you are sure a bit worried now that you see how much effort people spend to avoid mosquito bites.

The next morning, I decide to hike up the road from the lodge to explore the area a bit, and perhaps get a view of Mount Meru. As I'm walking up the road, people greet friendly. Of course they know instantly that I am a tourist: I'm the only white guy around and I'm wearing a fancy Gore-Tex hat and a camera around my neck that costs about three times the annual Tanzania GDP per person. I feel safe though. Eventually I get to see Meru, the 14,980 ft volcano that towers behind Arusha.

Back at the lodge after this little adventure, my next move is to visit the downtown area. The friendly receptionist offers to call a cab, but I decide to walk instead. She photocopies me a map which covers the downtown area itself and indicates roughly from which direction on the map I'd be coming if I start by walking down the street. The walk is pleasant, and it feels nice to share the road with so many other pedestrians.

Eventually I get to a point where the map becomes useful, and find my way to downtown. It feels a little bit messy and dirty but also very diverse and certainly alive.

I hike back to the lodge since Stefan is arriving from the airport. Here is a picture on my way up the road toward the lodge. Undoubtedly the most memorable part of the road is the electrician (not in the picture); this little shop has a huge loudspeaker that blasts music into the street.

Later in the day, Stefan and I travel to downtown again, this time in a cab. We checkout a few stores, including the Shoprite, which is a grocery store. While Stefan checks out the internet cafe I observe Tanzanian soccer from a distance, with multiple balls in play.

Tomorrow, we have a walking safari in Arusha National Park.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Acrylic Paint on Canvas

I made some acrylic paintings a few years ago and since they're colorful I thought they might fit well in here.

I made this first painting in 2004. It plays with primary colors, since I wanted brightness and friendliness, but of course this choice of colors is even less accidental. The shapes are perhaps reminiscent of Mondrian's work; but the strokes are a bit more alive and there are no white areas or black lines. I took this picture with a 50mm lens to play with its shallow depth of field.

I think I made this second painting sometime between 2004 and 2006 - not sure when exactly. Like the first one, it's an abstract painting - however, one possible interpretation of the shapes and colors is an ocean with a beach. This is not surprising because one of my favorite paintings is Caspar David Friedrich's "Mönch am Meer", and I'm quite sure I was remembering it as I was painting. Why does this situation fascinate me? It's the ambiguity that makes it interesting - while it consists of simple shapes and colors, one can easily interpret a wide range of emotions into it.