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My wife’s sabbatical is rapidly drawing to a close and we will soon be winging our way back to the warmer temperatures of Melbourne.  During the months we’ve been away, we have spent time in Nova Scotia, Washington DC and Montreal, Canada.  We arrived in Montreal at the beginning of January, unsure if we were going to be able to cope with serious winters after twenty years away. Katherine, our friend with the place in southern Italy, had offered us her condo when she discovered that we were interested in spending a couple of months here.  Katherine likes Montreal, but she doesn’t much care for the months of January and February.  She usually heads back to Europe to catch up with her family obligations and spend the coldest winter months in somewhat warmer climes.

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We would subsidize the utilities and she would have someone in her flat for the coldest months of the year.  My wife likes the food and the culture, the imposing architecture, the mountain within the city and the conviviality that seems to escape the notice of the language police.  She has spent more time here than I have, but we did live here together for three and a half years in the nineties.  One of those winters was memorably cold, like this one.  A bitter North wind brings the cold home in a way that nothing else can.  You know the wind chill factor is off the scale when you are forced to walk with mittens in front of your face to keep your nose free of frost-bite.  It astounds me that brave souls head out on bicycles on wickedly icy streets on the coldest days.

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Katherine lives in an area of Montreal called the Plateau.  It has played the part of Brooklyn in New York, the place where immigrants first put down roots before moving out to the suburbs.  It has hosted wave upon wave of Portuguese, Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles and other populations.  By 1900, Coteau-Saint-Louis had become cosmopolitan counting Protestant churches and synagogues among its religious edifices. Protestant traders opened shops on St. Lawrence Street (renamed St. Lawrence Boulevard in 1905).  St. Lawrence was known as “the Main,” — the linguistic border between the French-speaking east, and English-speaking west.

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The Depression slowed construction in the district, although some work resulted from the funding for landscaping Sir Wilfred Laurier Park. The University of Montreal moved to the northern slope of Mount Royal in 1943, resulting in the relocation of some members of the English and French bourgeoisie to the Plateau. Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen was established in 1928, renowned for its Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches.  Greeks set up many businesses in the decades that followed. More recently, Vietnamese and Portuguese settled in, reflected by the many Vietnamese restaurants in the area and Little Portugal.

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In the 1980s, the area’s bohemian aura and proximity to McGill University attracted both students and professors.  As rents increased, many traditional residents and businesses dispersed to other parts of the city. The neighbourhood continues to thrive, and it is now home to upscale restaurants and nightclubs, and trendy clothing stores located along St. Laurent Blvd. and St. Denis St.   It is the most densely populated borough in Canada, with 101,054 people living in an 8.1 square kilometre area.  The Plateau was the childhood home of Michel Tremblay and Mordecai Richler, both of whom mined their memories for their books and plays. Check out “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” in paper or on DVD for a poignant and memorable evocation of the Plateau in the forties.

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My wife lived in a shabby but inexpensive flat on a famous avenue of the Plateau called Esplanade while she was going to Law School.  Fortunately, she had heat but many flats did not.  The tenants had to buy kerosene heaters, barely adequate to warm rooms in stone apartment buildings.  At that time, the area showed few signs of the gentrification that is so obvious now. Katherine has witnessed an amazing transformation of her little neighborhood since she bought her place.  To her astonishment, the most recent wave of immigrants seem to be young French people who have been courted by Quebec and the Canadian government to come across the Atlantic and take up residence.  Every time Katherine does her “courses” now in the supermarkets, she finds herself hearing conversations in what she calls “French French.”

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Despite my partner’s dedication to her working obligations, we managed to slip down to Ottawa to catch up with Darlene and Fred, (the friends who came to Italy with us) and my brother-in-law, Michael.  It was Winterlude in Ottawa, a period in which the city celebrates every positive aspect of winter weather.  Ottawa has a reputation to maintain as the coldest capitol outside of Ulan Bator in Mongolia.  It was only -16 C while we were there, but the Rideau Canal was quite solid and Michael and I took a brief turn on the ice.  It is a wonderfully photogenic venue.

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We couldn’t leave Montreal without renewing contact with friends and colleagues.  We connected at various restaurants around town as well as cozy living rooms with warm, wonderful fireplaces.  Winter brings people together in a way that summer simply doesn’t.  Getting together for conversational catch-up is a wonderful treat in and of itself.  Good food and drinks are the icing on the cake.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who were gracious enough to make time for us during our winter sojourn.

There is a very good piece in the most recent New Yorker about Montreal’s influence on Leonard Cohen.  Check it out at: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/leonard-cohens-montreal.

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Finally, what can I say about cross country skiing in the Laurentians that does justice to the experience.  Despite the back-handed compliment by the man in his fifties who told me that I was an inspiration, he hoped he would still be skiing “at my age,” it was soon obvious that the desire for sport had never left us.  My wife and I have such fond memories of slipping through the snow that we had to try to recapture some of that magic during the last couple of months.  Unfortunately, our bodies have aged and our skill on skis has suffered from neglect.  Our final trip took us up the far side of Mount Tremblant to an area known as la Secteur du Diable.   It is an area where you can still spot oldsters on wooden skis.

I wrote a poem about it years ago when we lived in football friendly Florida.  I don’t think I’ve  pasted a poem in this blog before, but there is always a first time.

Please enjoy the best of the rest of my pics by clicking on any of the photos running alongside this post.  That will take you to Flickr.  Au revoir.  A bientot.

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Cross Country

 

I like to travel on pine tar

its odor redolent as sex

flashing me back to cold Iowa mornings,

crunching through corn stubble on crusty snow,

under watchful eyes of neighbor moms.

 

From the time we take a tentative step,

self-propel ourselves across a steep carpet,

we all fall forward.  It’s the falling that counts.

 

Handsome hickory planks, golden as syrup

and smooth as kitten fur.  Cut and crafted with

lignite edges, they inspire disdain in eyes

obsessed with lycra and the look of speed.

 

Skis have taken me wild places.  Snow covered spots,

branded in memory— Lake Michigan’s frozen shore

at sunset, down snow-cat tracks in Yellowstone,

face to shaggy face with buffalo.

 

North of Montreal, near Tremblant, a trail called

Le Poisson.  One whiff of hard wax and I am there,

panting as I climb.  Forcing myself up hard slopes,

working arms to exhaustion.  All for the thrill

of the fall.

 

Freezing and frozen moments of exhilarating down,

past pines and fir, feeling the grace of

gravity pulling faster and faster.

The glorious glide, the wind on skin,

the sense that we were born to do this.

 

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Considering the fact that we both took the trouble to obtain flu shots before we left Canada, it would seem only right that those responsible for the spread of such diseases would see that London got the same virus as North America. Such is not the case. Yours truly is sick as a proverbial dog and the sun is shining brilliantly for a change. I did hold off for a week longer than my better half, but I can no longer regard the effort as anything more than a foolhardy attempt to stave off the onset of the headache, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, wheezing and general misery. Better never than late, if you ask me, but I was not consulted.

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The snow is gone, which is absolutely astonishing considering the weekend before last, everyone in London seemed to be out on Parliament Hill. It was complete chaos, children and adults taking off on anything that would slide. While we were there one guy made his way into the melee on downhill skis, another arrived on a snowboard. They seem not to have heard that sledders are supposed to climb up the hill on the sides, leaving the middle section for those intent on coming down. It was a free-for-all. These are Londoners, after all, and they don’t get a lot of practice at this sledding (or sledging) business.

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Despite the freezing temps, the ponds were open for business. The water was just above freezing and the men’s swimming group, amusingly known as the East German Ladies Swim Team, was out in force. If I had known about it, I definitely would have gone over for pics. One local bather was quoted in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “It was amazing, but so is every time you swim in the ponds. You think you’re in the middle of nowhere, but actually you’re in one of the biggest conurbations in the world.” Only a Hampsteader would think of dropping “conurbation” into a conversation.

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Hampstead Heath has witnessed some amazing sights over the years, from the hanging of highwaymen in the late 1500’s to horse racing in the 1730’s and 40’s. In the early 1800’s Byron, Keats and Shelly came often to visit fellow poet, Leigh Hunt, and sail paper boats on one of the ponds to amuse the children. Karl Marx used to take his children out for donkey rides when he wasn’t buried in books. Now, he’s buried in Highgate.

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In the late 1800’s the Heath became a place for working class entertainment and recreation, from family picnics to huge fairs which took their impetus from the ‘Bank Holiday Act of 1871.’ There was music and dancing, food vendors, stereoscopes and silhouette artists.

But the event that trumped them all arrived much later, in March, 1950– a downhill ski jump! It seems to have been triggered by the odd idea of increasing British tourism to Norway in winter. Twenty-five Norwegians came to London with 45 tons of snow packed in insulated wooden boxes with dry ice. The jump itself was supported by a tower of scaffolding 60ft (18.29m) high, giving skiers a 100ft (30.48m) run-up to the jumping point, 12ft (3.66m) above the ground. Modern ski jumpers reach 200ft – 300ft (60m – 90m), but skiers on Hampstead Heath only had enough room to jump about 90ft (27.43m).

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The London ski jumping competition, as it was known, held a trial contest the first day involving only the Norwegian skiers. This was followed by a contest between Oxford and Cambridge University, whose teams had trained for two weeks in Norway. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the sunshine to watch the University Challenge Cup. A broadcast commentary on the competition kept everyone informed of the quality of each jump, but the spectators seemed to be more interested in how deep each skier disappeared into the straw at the bottom of the run.

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In the end, the Oxford team, captained by C. Huitfeldt, won the competition, while the London challenge cup – open to all competitors – was won by Arne Hoel of Oslo. It was estimated that 52,000 visitors came to the event, hosted together by the Ski Club of Great Britain and the Oslo Ski Association. The plan was for another event in 1951, but it seems fairly clear that it never came about. Perhaps the costs were too high for the revenue, or everyone came down with the London flu.

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Hampstead has never seen its like, but the urge to get out and enjoy the Heath in winter has never gone away. Only the snow.

Check out the Pathe footage at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKZ3yzPZer0


New Year’s Day took us to Halifax airport, once again, for a flight to London. The wintry weather in Nova Scotia had cancelled a number of flights that week, so we considered ourselves lucky that our particular flight was still on the board when we arrived at the airport. Unfortunately, a two plus hour delay put us into the early hours of January 2. It was going to be a long day’s journey into the new year.

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It has been only two years since our last stay in London during the dark months of winter, but my previous absence from the City had stretched to 43 long years, so I do have some catching up to do. My peripatetic professor spouse had found us a new place in Hampstead for this visit. Not quite as convenient as Kensington, perhaps, but far less congested with tourists and frenetic shoppers. Once again, we have been blessed with a charming flat, a good heating system, and a fine place for long walks. This time in the “lungs” of London, Hampstead Heath.

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Despite our nomadic natures, it always seems to take forever to settle in. Yesterday, I finally had the feeling that we had made the transition at last to the new city in the new year. Imagine my surprise when I looked out the window this morning. Snow! It may have snowed on parts of London in 2011, but I’m fairly certain it didn’t snow in Kensington.

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The enticement of Hampstead began with its mineral springs. Their alleged medicinal quality, combined with with the clean air from the heath, attracted Londoners north from the unhealthy, smoke-filled city. According to the Wikepedeans who make it their business to know such things, the word “chalybeate” is derived from the Latin word for steel, “chalybs” coming from the Greek word “khalups.” Chalybes were mythical people living on Mount Ida in north Asia Minor who invented iron working.

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Early in the 17th century, chalybeate water was said to have health-giving properties and many people promoted its qualities. Dudley North, 3rd Baron North discovered the chalybeate spring at Tunbridge Wells in 1606. Dudley North’s physician claimed that the waters contained ‘vitriol’ and the waters of Tunbridge Wells could cure:

“the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours; it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain.”

He also apparently said, in verse:

“These waters youth in age renew
Strength to the weak and sickly add
Give the pale cheek a rosy hue
And cheerful spirits to the sad.”

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Hampstead’s chalybeate springs were originally managed by trustees, but an attractive piece of land was leased to a man named John Duffield in 1701. Duffield laid out the amenities of a spa, along the southern side of a promenade, Well Walk. The chief building was the Great Room, for assemblies, with its east end partitioned off as a pump room, where a basin held the waters. Concerts and dances were advertised.

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Soon afterwards there were a row of raffling shops for bets, a tavern, and Well Walk chapel. To the south were gardens, with an ornamental pond and a bowling green. Duffield’s enterprise allowed the world of fashion to combine the quests for health and pleasure. So successful was he that in 1705, the year of Beau Nash’s first visit to Bath, a comedy called Hampstead Heath was played at Drury Lane. London was shown as deserted in favour of Hampstead, where ‘the cards fly, the bowl runs, the dice rattle.’
The entertainments soon began to deteriorate, however, perhaps because rough crowds could easily make the journey from London. The music was interspersed with popular entertainments, including acrobatics and comic turns, and by 1709 there were complaints about swindlers and prostitutes.

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Needless to say, the ebb and tide of Hampstead’s fortunes have changed considerably over three centuries. Fortunately, perhaps, it has not always been as prosperous as it is now. The village has been home to important writers and artists at various stages in their careers; some never became wealthy enough to live here in its current incarnation.

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John Constable, John Keats, H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Agatha Christie and Ian Flemming all called Hampstead home. John Harrison, the clockmaker who solved the seemingly intractable problem of longitude, and Laszlo Biro, the inventor of the ball-point pen are buried here.

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We are in a little hamlet rich in history and the attractions of London are only a few tube stops away. We could hardly ask for more.

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Appearances to the contrary, your author/photographer has not been in Australia for the last two months. He has been back at the old family house in Nova Scotia, Canada. I have written most of the posts about the central Australia adventure during our sojourn here. While I escaped the heat of an Australian summer, I have not been so lucky with the cold. Fall and winter in the Maritime provinces of Canada offer every kind of weather under the sun, warm and balmy one day, chilly the next, snow followed by rain followed by snow followed by freeing rain. It is the wind that matters most.

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The night before last a storm came through from the Northeast that triggered a memory of the one day while we were living in Montreal when traffic actually came to a halt. It was called the storm of the century, but that was back in the nineties before the weather gods turned into terrorists. The city was over budget for snow removal, so they simply left in the streets until Monday morning. On that memorable Sunday, traffic came to a halt. We could have cross-country skied or snow-shooed to the city centre.

The doorbell rang and we looked at each other, astonished. It was our friend, Eric. He had skied from his home, a few kilometres to the west of us, up the mountain for which the city is named. He did a tour around the top and was stopping off for a visit on his way home. He put down a backpack and we heard a little yelp. It was his new Golden Retriever puppy, along for the ride. He popped his head out, ready to melt hearts.

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A more recent memory of a vicious winter wind takes me to the Alpine region of Australia, in between Melbourne and Sydney. I will never forget heading out for a snow camping adventure in a blistering blizzard. I have written it up in this blog. It is another four parter, if memory serves me well.

“Even with goggles, I could barely see the person in front of me. When it looked like I might get left behind and disappear in the storm, the friend who roped me into this adventure suggested I lead the group for awhile. I promptly put my foot wrong, plunging my ski through a snow drift and into water. We had just crossed a bridge over a reservoir, and I had missed the path.”

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The snowplow had not yet made an appearance and it was already past nine when we started out on our morning walk in a bellowing wind yesterday. It was a Sunday and the storm had arrived around midnight. Our daily walk here in Grand Pre usually takes us about forty-five minutes. We head out the door and turn left, usually, but it depends on the wind direction. If we have the time we’ll head up Mitchell Hill and down again, turn right at the Sangster property and head down to the dyke road. That leads us behind the Grand Pre Historic Site, with its recreation of a church dedicated to telling the story of the Acadian expulsion.

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There are often a number of bald eagles perched in a towering line of trees extending out from the Park. A few of them take flight when we pass, either spooked by our presence or checking us out as possible snacks. They make a high-pitched chatter, sounding like smaller birds. Occasionally, we’ll flush a pheasant from the underbrush. They can fly right past you, making a heart-stopping racket.

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After we cross Grand Pre Road we’re really out on the dyke land, fully exposed to the wind. When it comes from the Northeast, there is nothing to stop it but our bodies. Sometimes it does the psyche good to throw your body out there, get a sense of the elements that never quite reach you in the city the way they do here. To really see the bright winter stars, to shovel great buckets of snow, to feel frozen and grateful for the sacrificial geese whose feathers made your coat. That is what winter is all about.

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Every once in awhile, our local newspaper ( not known for outlandish or salacious stories) comes up with a headline that could be straight out of a supermarket tabloid.  This morning’s paper had one of those.  The mysterious “spy” apparatus that contributed to the successful rescue of Tim Holding, Water Minister for the State of Victoria, was not revealed, but it did catch one’s attention.

It has to do with some thermal imaging technology being developed for the Australian Federal Police to track fugitives. No one at any level of government would actually fess up to providing it for the search, but authorities insisted that Tim was treated no differently than any other lost citizen.  Right.  I’m sure they would have sent out a spy plane for me, too.  And I could have been there.  I’m just as foolish as the minister, maybe more so.  And nowhere near as fit.

The story began a couple of days ago, when the thirty-seven year old cabinet minister decided to go hiking.  It is still winter, here, remember, and the mountain he chose to climb is notorious for bad weather.  At 1922 meters (6306 feet) Feathertop is only  the second highest peak in Victoria, but when the weather is clear,  the views are stunning and  it is a magnet for hikers in summer and winter.

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Faithful readers who followed my misadventures in the Victorian Alps last year may be wondering why I have not followed up with another snow camping expedition.  The answer can be summed up in one word– Feathertop.  My companions had decided (without consulting me) that they were going to carry nearly thirty kilos (66 pounds) of skis, boots, tents, food and gear up a steep mountain in order to camp out, melt snow for water, and hope the weather gods would give them one good, clear day.  It did, but the snow was too treacherous to summit.

Their tents were just outside Federation Hut, Tim Holding’s last abode before he disappeared.  Here are a few excerpts from Alan’s report on the trip I missed– “5 hour up, the last 2 km very hard through probably not that much steeper… needed frequent stops to get breath.  On the last day [we were there] one fit guy climbed it in 3 hr with a full pack plus two 4 ltr wine casks…. wind buffeting us as we climbed feathertop, so retreated and skied part way towards MUMC hut but stopped before getting onto NW spur ridge as intermittent whiteout, and would be steep decline on windy ridge…

“Howling gale last night but hut, tents mostly protected.  All but 7 cm snow blown off leaving icy surface in most places… When we arrive to climb feathertop we find boilerplate ice, too difficult for skis or plastic boots.  The man [they had seen earlier at the hut with his fifteen year-old son] is further up with bloodied face, frozen with fear, standing at the bush that saved his fall but afraid to move.  We kick in steps… and get him down to the saddle….”

Tim Holding set out from his car to tackle Feathertop on Saturday afternoon.  At 6:30 that evening, he sent a text message to his partner that he was at the hut, 200 meters from the summit.  Sunday morning he headed for the peak, telling other walkers that he would turn back if the weather conditions were bad.  He didn’t have snowshoes, crampons, an ice ax or an emergency beacon.  And he was alone.

“In those conditions I made good progress, made it on to the summit and in fact the summit’s not marked and I walked over the top and started walking down the other side,” he said. “When I realised I’d gone too far I turned and walked back over the summit and as I came down the other side to return to the Federation Hut I slipped on some ice and fell.

“I fell a long way, a long, long way. It wasn’t a controlled descent and I fell until I reached a small ledge, slipping and sliding on the ice and there were unbelievably three other walkers.”

The group checked to see if he was alright and asked if he wanted to join them but as they were headed towards the summit and dressed in snow shoes, he decided it would be too dangerous for him to attempt to walk along the slippery ice.  So, he headed down to lower ground, thinking he would walk in the snow and follow a creek down the mountain, find the Owens River which would lead him to the Alpine Road and safety.  That was his second major mistake.

The following day there were around eighty members of the police and volunteers out looking for him, including helicopters and the mystery plane.  He was found by a helicopter over 2.5 kms (1.5 miles) away yesterday morning.  He was cold, out of food, and a bit disoriented, but otherwise fine.  And he still had water.  He was a very lucky man.  In a TV interview, he said that he thought he was going to die.

Alan’s take on the high profile misadventure goes like this– “We turned back 3 times at the lower end of this very rise. [where Tim Holding slipped and fell] Once for extreme wind and twice because each time we judged it too slippery without crampons, especially for coming down when you can’t kick your toes in to make a grip. We obviously made the right choice.”

My fellow cyclist and avid back country skier did his very best to make the adventure up on Feathertop sound appealing, but unless he promises me my very own helicopter,  I think I’ll pass.  Life is short enough, and there’s plenty of wine down here in the plains.  And water comes right out of the tap without having to be melted.  Stay tuned.  Life is always interesting down under.


It was all going wrong. I had deviated off the white path just far enough to plunge my boots into icy water. The gale force wind I had battled to get here now seemed the least of my worries. Floundering in the soft snow, I wriggled out of my pack to get a grip on myself. The whole world had suddenly turned threatening.  What had seemed a bit of a lark in the planning stage now conjured up dark clouds in my brain. If my socks were soaked I would never make it.

If I could have had Dorothy’s wish at that moment, I would have abandoned my companions. I would have clicked my boots together and disappeared back to Kansas, my real birthplace. Back to someplace warm and dry. friendly and safe. After a summer in North America, winter down under was proving much too real.

In the Alpine region of Australia, in the Great Dividing Range, the first week of August is mid winter.  There can be some serious snow. And it gets cold. Not frostbite cold, but cold enough to kick you out of your comfort zone and make you think twice about thermals.

I had gone winter camping exactly once before. It was in Spring in the Sierra Mountains of California. The weather was above freezing and I don’t remember feeling even mildly uncomfortable. It was part of a Sierra Club course.  To get us in the mood, a sardonic physician showed us slide after slide of bodies he had helped recover from the mountains,  narrating the grisly show with the facts leading to each disaster. It was a litany of despair.

A number of the victims had made simple mistakes in preparation or judgment which cascaded into errors that cost them their lives. These were not candidates for Darwin Awards; simply ordinary young people. His mission was to jar us out of our feelings of invincibility and especially out of blue jeans.  Wet cotton is worse than death.  It can leach warmth out of a body quicker than melting icicles.

It was the rapelling (abseilling in Australian) that terrified me. The girl who fed me rope as I lowered myself off the face of a cliff told me later she had never seen such sheer fear outside of a horror movie. I was older than most of the others, old enough to realize that I could actually die. Walking backwards off the edge of a precipice seemed like the height of folly.

What was I doing now floundering waist deep in snow, hapless as a newborn seal.  Hadn’t I learned over the  years? I remember being captivated by Alan’s snow camping Polaroids.  He had passed them across the table like dirty pictures, his secret life.  We knew one another from cycling.

He was getting me hooked.  Winter is not something you get a good sense of here in Australian cities.  It gets chilly and it rains but it never snows.  The days grow shorter and the nights longer.  People hunker down as if it were something to be endured.

But I have lived in cold climes.  I love cross country skiing and the prospect of seeing winter in Oz had irresistible appeal. And Alan was very experienced. He’d been doing it for thirty years. He wouldn’t let me die. Would he?

This is the first part of a few posts on my recent adventure in the Alps. Stay tuned.

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