Wasatch Tigers

True story about a true story.

wasatch cat sightings

Was that something moving in the trees??

I’m reading a nonfiction book called The Tiger. It’s about a siberian tiger and a couple of unfortunate people who suddenly discovered themselves being eaten and digested by this aforementioned tiger. The story eloquently lays out the gory details in a way that is always enlightening. For example; a primordial roar that shakes the earth and freezes the soul, claws that latch on to running reindeer like grappling hooks and enough massive ferociousness to pick a man up and shake him till his legs break. And as I’ve been a traveler of Grizzly bear country, it was also humbling to read about tigers attacking, dispatching, and obsessively scattering the remains of Russian grizzly bears solely for the sake of maintaining their unwritten “feline principles”.

Needless to say the story is fascinating to backcountry skiers as the events unfold in the snow shrouded wilderness of an land far away. As the story progresses, the author describes one of my new favorite pastimes; reading animal tracks in the snow. This passion started last year in the La Sals. I had no real interest in tracking animals until that day when I realized that I had been tracked myself…

Our first day in the La Sals, we broke a fresh trail on firm snow. We completed a traverse of the range, never backtracking, always moving forward. On the second day, we returned to use our ascent trail again.  It was impossible not notice the large cougar tracks pressed into the snow that followed our path. How closely had she followed us? I couldn’t say for certain, but the tracks appeared as old as our skin track did.

cougar print in the la Sals

The cougar’s tracks that followed ours in the La Sals.

This winter, one of my first tours followed the tracks of a bobcat for over two and a half miles. The longer we followed the tracks, the more a story developed. At one point it was clear that the cat had hidden in a small tree well until a ferret came by. The ferret tracks came to a sudden end where the bobcat had pounced, then leisurely continued on. After reading the bobcat’s story written in snow it was easy to agree with the author of The Tiger when he surmised that animal tracks were the first marks that man learned to read and even inspired the designs of our original scripts.

On my latest tours in the Wasatch, the book has me wondering what it would be like to ski in an area with such deadly preadators on the prowl. Would I run through the trees to get above treeline? Would I carry an elephant gun? Would I give up skiing entirely to take up knitting or snow globe collecting? Best of all, would the most seasoned backcountry skiers be identifiable by their missing appendages?

Last weekend on a ski outing I was pondering this and my relationship with nature. Noting the absence of Man eating Tigers in the Wasatch, I began to feel rather high up on the food chain. I began walking tall, looking at the pine trees and the mountains a with a new confidence. I remarked to a friend, “We’re lucky. Without tigers to worry about, we’re pretty much kings of the wilderness here.”

Just then we both noticed a dark, massive form jump to life ahead of us on the trail. With a focused curiosity that’s been evolutionally refined to promote our own survival, we watched as a huge tree branch cracked off an old growth pine and crashed down. It landed dead center on our fresh new skin track, pressing deep into the snow in between the members of our group. We were all unscathed.

The irony of this moment landed as hard as the thick, 15 foot long branch itself; Be it puncture wounds from the fangs of a cat or caved in skulls from timbers that fall from the sky when you least expect it, nature itself always has been, and always will be king.

wind scalloped cougar tracks in snow?

Wind scoured animal tracks. A good example of direct registration (rear paw lands directly on top of the front paws track), this track suggests a feline origin. Photo by Jimmy S.

The Waddington Whip-Crack

Powderprincess near Mt. Waddington

Photo taken of the PowderPrincess moments before the tragedy.

My hat had fallen out of my jacket and was rolling towards a gaping crevasse below. It was a new hat, but after several days of foul weather and even some blistering sun, I had grown rather attached to it. I wasn’t ready to see it go.

“Bruno! Let’s get it!” I suggested.

But this was no easy task. Bruno, PowderPrincess, Ilsa, and I were roped up together, in the middle of a steep crevassed slope.

Bruno took off in a hurry, pointing his skis directly at the tumbling hat. With a yank, PowderPrincess followed behind. I tried to time my acceleration so that I wouldn’t pull her from behind, but then I felt a tugging from behind me. Ilsa wasn’t ready, but I had yanked her off on our journey. The four of us were hurtling towards my run-away hat.

Soon, we were coming up on it, but we were going to fast. Bruno scrubbed off a quick turn to reduce our speed. His little turn threw PowderPrincess into a wider arc. PowderPrincess’ wide arc flung me faster into an even larger arc, which in turn catapaulted Ilsa into a huge sweeping carve at warp speed behind me.

The forces were more than anyone could handle. Ilsa went down, busting through the breakable crust with her heavy backpack into a deep crater as her sled tumbled into her from behind. The rope went taught behind me and I stopped, my feet practically lifting up off the snow beneath me until I landed on my side. In front of me I saw PowderPrincess go down as the rope suddenly went taught on her.

Bruno was close to the hat, but the rope pulled him to a stop too. He remained standing, his legs in a super wide snow plow, his sled dangling down the slope in front of him.

“Guys, Come on!” He urged.

The hat was rolling closer towards the big frown of a crevasse. Soon to be swallowed whole, but there was still time for another attempt. We became determined, newly focused. We jumped up, back onto our skis. Ilsa somehow quickly untangling herself from her sled. Again, Bruno picked a direct line for the hat. We were moving in on it fast. The line was taught between us all.

skiing downhill while roped up in crevassed terrain

Hold on to your car keys! Photo by Eric Gignoux.

All our legs and skis were thrust out widely into giant snow plows. We were holding on, carefully balancing our skiing along with the actions of each other. We were moderating the forces between our feet, our weighty backpacks and the tensions of the rope. We were watching Bruno, full of hope as he neared the hat. He arched a perfect turn, lining himself up to grab it. He had both poles in one hand. His right hand free to grab the drunkenly rolling hat.

Again, I felt his small turn throw the rest of us into a wider, gyroscopic swing. I saw PowderPrincess skittering out to the left, skis bouncing wildly off the crusty snow. Her poles were dragging on the surface throwing up chunks of ice. Her humungous backpack threatening her delicate balance.

I too was sliding off to the left. My legs bouncing off the snow in a ridiculously wide stance. My movements were caught in an odd limbo, stuck between the actions of PowderPrincess in front of me and Ilsa behind me. I wanted to sluff off some speed to help stablize the group, but I was caught up with simply trying to stay upright.

I was holding on, giving everything I could. The odd weight of my traverse backpack had my legs screaming, but we were closing in on the hat. Bruno was gaining on it. We were gaining on it. It was rolling near the tip of his ski. He was squatting down to grab it.

I was still being catapaulted to the left. I dug my edges in as best as I could to keep from spiraling out of control. My skies richoched off the icy crusts. Bruno was reaching out. I could see each of his fingers extended, the hat inches away from his grasp.

He went for it, just as I felt the rope go taught behind me. Ilsa had gone down. I was yanked down, into the crusts, as was PowderPrincess before me, and Bruno was after her. We had all stopped completely. The hat rolled away.

We sat in the snow, roped up together, watching it go. The Crevasse loomed even larger, closer. Bruno, always the optimist, appeared to be gearing up for one more attempt.

“Let’s forget about it.” I suggested. So we sat. We watched it roll in it’s care-free yet suicidal course.  It was oddly fascinating after the high speed game of tug of war. It rolled once, twice, a third time. Then without a sound, it disappeared into the blue depths of the crevasse, never to be seen again.

It’s demise was so easy, yet so absolute, I shuddered with the sudden reminder of our mortality and the real perils of glacier travel. To lose a hat is a miniscule sacrifice to make; I was glad to be above the surface of this icy river. My tired legs and the thick grey sky above no longer seemed such a menace.

Mineral Bottom before and after

I just found out that Mineral Bottom road in Canyonlands washed out. When I saw the photo in the Salt Lake Tribune, I realized that I had a very similar “before” photo. So, with no further ado:

Before

Mineral Bottom before it washed out

Mineral Bottom before it washed out. Photo by Foothillfreak

After

Mineral Bottom road, washed to the bottom

Mineral Bottom road, washed to the bottom. Photo by sltrib.com

La Cabeza

“What is that?” I asked in Castillian.

There was a large chunk on his plate. It was about the size of a childs fist. Earlier in the dinner I had assumed that he had ordered chicken, but now that I took a second look, I wasn´t so sure.

“The head.” He replied.

The table was silent as he and his father watched me for my reaction.

“The head of what?” I asked cautiously. Then,  suddenly I recgonized the two long front teeth and the shape of the skull.

The father made a bouncing motion with his hand, then put both his hands to the side of his head to simulate the long ears of a rabbit. He raised his eyebrows excitedly.

“Oh…” I paused…

“You´re not going to eat that?” I asked.

“Oh, yes! The head of the rabbit is very good!” Replied the father. “This is just how my grandmother used to make it. It´s so good, I ordered one for myself too!” He had already finished his dinner. But as if on que, the waiter arrived with a second plate of broken rabbit parts piled on a thin pool of broth.

Knowing how he likes to share the flavors and textures of his culture, I quickly took a gulp of red wine and prepared myself for the worst.

“You never see the head of the animal on the plate in the United States.” I stammered in Castillian.

Within seconds of the new rabbit landing on our table, he had forked a small object onto my empty plate. It rolled around like a marble before coming to a stop in the center.

“Uh oh. Organ meat!” I silently thought to myself.

The father´s eyes lit up as he excitedly pointed to his own back and smiled, “How do you say this part?” He questioned in english.

“Kidney.” I replied.

“Yes!” He said, then smoothly added in Castillian, “It´s very rich, No?”

Trying not to think too much about it, I quickly forked it into my mouth. Indeed, it was very savory with a pleasant firm texture.

“Yes, it´s very good.” I admitted.

“The cheek. You must try the cheek. This is a very special part.” He dug into the face of  the rabbit and pried off a small chunk of meat that he deposited on my plate. Again, I found it to be delicious, smoothly textured, well seasoned.

“And now, you try the brains.” He informed me.

“No! You don´t truthfully eat the brains?” I suggested, hoping not to find out.

“Oh yes. This too is a very special part. You must try it.” He insisted.

A lump of grey matter was forked onto my plate.

As I think back on this moment, I´m pretty sure everyone in the restaraunt stopped what they were doing or saying so they could watch the American eat rabbit brains for the first time.  I was so focused on the burnt and basted substance before me that I´ll never know. At that moment, the small, pulpy lump was larger then the jagged peaks I´d seen in the distance, more mysterious than any of the high mountain passes I´d been crossing to get to the valleys on the other side.

I hesitated.

Then I went for it.

As opposed to finding something to  savor, I discovered a disconcertingly textured, offensively flavored mush that tasted miraculoulsy, exactly how I feared rabbit brains would taste.

“No me gusta!” I exclaimed, and reached for the wine.

Hay Ere Onthi

The GR 11 is indicated by a red and white stripe painted on rocks, trees, ruins, and iglesias.

He looked at me and said it again, this time with noticeable frustration and urgency, “Hay Ere Onthi!”

I was puzzled. This word did not sound spanish and I was pretty sure that I’d never heard it before in my life. Maybe it was one of his odd Catalyan phrases. Something Latin?  But I could tell by his exasperated expression that I should know intimately what he was talking about.

With a long sweep of his index finger he pointed down along the muddy trail and off to the eastern horizon, where the high Pyrenees were beginning to jut up out of the foothills like a disheveled pile of sharks teeth. As I looked eastwardly down the path, towards an unseeable Mediteranean sea some 430 miles away, I realized with great embarassment that he was talking about the path we had been walking together for the last 4 days, the GR 11.

I had read that the spanish call it La Senda, or the Gran Recorrido, but “Hay Ere Onthi”,´which I´d finally realized is the lispy Castillian pronunciation of GR 11, is what I´ve been hearing. The GR 11 is one of a variety of long distance trails in Europe that traverse the mountain ranges, follow the coasts or retrace pilgrimages to battered old iglesias. But the GR 11 is the most special to me as it starts at the Atlantic and finishes on the Mediteranean, all the while wandering the foothills and jagged peaks of  the Pyrenees mountains in between. It passes through at least four distinct cultural areas of Spain, Basque Country, Aragon, Andora,  and Catalyunia, all people of soaring individuality and pride. The trail also boasts ancient Spanish villages unknown to most North Americans, some of the best breads, wines, goat cheese, coffees and olives in the world, right along the path.

I had learned how to follow the trail, looking for the red and white stripes painted on trees, rocks, and ruins. But now, best of all, I´d finally learned how to say it.