Archive | December, 2013

Adios, 2013

31 Dec

I’ve never found a good way to express my bafflement of the passage of time. Just trying to answer the question ‘what is time?’ is trouble enough. But yet it goes on, passes us by, even in years like this past one, which for me was one of relative stasis. There were no great adventures, no decisive moves; just the steady rhythms of life somewhere in the vast white north of Minnesota. It’s been an interesting test. I’m a born dreamer, one who often lives in places where I am not, both real and imagined. I’ve always had a tendency to wander, whether down the darkened streets of my neighborhood or through worlds that exist only in my head. There is so much to see, so many little corners to explore and make sense of, and that force has driven most of my decisions to date. But that life up in the clouds of my mind has its drawbacks, and obsessive fascination with the outside can quickly become anchorless, and turn paradoxically inward into self-absorption. And so my retreat to Duluth has, paradoxically, had me fighting against that. So I started to take a few older obligations more seriously. I became a more active citizen. I wrote a novel, and I started a blog; neither one is likely to reshape the world much, but they’ve gotten a few things across, a process that I hope to continue. When it comes to Big Questions About Life, I’ve never been in a better place, and that has started to filter down into other places. Lingering anxieties seem far less important than they once did, old worries rendered trivial by new wisdom and evolving thought, often startlingly simple in its clarity. I had to go home to be set free, but it might, finally, be happening. My twenty-fourth year on this earth will, most likely, involve another venture outward, in one way or another. It’s time. There is no grand vision this time, but that now seems more like a triumph than a failing. It will be less in the ideal and more in the real. I’ll simply ride the moods and try to seize the opportunities that come along. Many of the constants will still be there: Duluth, the family gatherings, the little routines, the old friends worth holding on to, and (of course!) the hockey. I know plenty of people will laugh at the notion of someone my age feeling old, but as the glory days fade into history, I’ll admit to a few moments of angst. This is especially true for someone who’s subjected his own early years to a brutally intense self-examination, and someone who can’t forget the ‘what ifs.’ Still, the time has come, and I’m past the point where I can pretend to be a kid anymore. The good news is that those glory days don’t have to end. That doesn’t mean we don’t grow up; no, we do have to mature, and the march of time will trample anyone who stays for too long. But we can always go back, and as long as we have that, well, what more do we need? And so we head back, for one last time in 2013, for one last evening of youthful delight, a moment frozen in the frigid Duluth night. We carry it with us, unable to forget, no matter how far we wander. I’ll let the last song on the presumptive album of the year have the last word.

A Patient Christmas Message

25 Dec

I’m back in Duluth this evening after my annual Christmas circuit south through Chicago and rural Wisconsin. It’s a trip that includes raucous family parties to more intimate connections to long hours alone on the road, a pattern that suits a person who needs some of everything in his life. Aunts and uncles, wine, cousins, lots of food, more wine, grandparents, beer, an old college friend, Brandy Alexanders, trains and planes and automobiles, presents, more wine…and then, later on, some time to sit back, relax, write, and read. My reading choice this time around was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; I’ve written some about my connection to this author before, and the theme in this book—a family coming together for one last Christmas in its hometown—seemed all too fitting. But despite its incredible potential, the book disappointed; Franzen’s characters just aren’t real enough to inspire any deep connections. It succeeds on many fronts, but it does not work as the thing it sets out to be above all others: a portrayal of family life.

Tolstoy wasn’t off the mark with his opening line in Anna Karenina: “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Families are troublesome, and remain so because they never follow the same pattern. Hence the conceit of a novel like Franzen’s: the design just can’t be universal. To quote another notable author, Flannery O’Connor: “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”

And so family life becomes easy pickings for novelists, especially ones like Franzen who are trying to say important things about the human condition. (He just takes a bad path in trying to get there.) There is no greater engine of supposed “irrationality,” no greater challenge to the strictures of efficient economics, than the ties that bind people to one another. For those who are always asking why things have come to be the way they are, there is a tendency to fixate on the shortcomings of family members, to blame parents or more distant relations for passing along their own foibles, for failing to explain certain things to us, and for any number of possible failings. Many who come from less-than-ideal families are quick to disown them; many who come from strong ones don’t realize how lucky they are. Wounds fester and grudges linger, long after people would have moved on in relationships not bound by blood. Maybe they constrain us and never let us be who we want to be; maybe they give us so much freedom that we have no clue what we’re supposed to do. Appearances from the outside may look nothing like perception from the inside, where oddities can be so familiar that we never notice them. There are indeed some families that are broken beyond any point of repair. Thankfully, they are less common than one might think, and with a healthy dose of humility, people from those families teetering on the edge can find, if not love, at least a snippet of wisdom. Even stable families can be draining, and have their share of differences that can be tough to bridge.

And yet, what is Christmas if not a story of family? It’s about a birth, after all. Finding meaning in Christmas can be very difficult these days, especially for those of us who run in circles where most people don’t put much stock in the transcendental side of the holiday. We’re supposed to give and be generous and take meaning from that, but it is so very easy to stress about what we’re giving: is this enough, will it surprise and delight, how does it compare to last year or the other gifts people are giving? Too often, a focus on the giving becomes overly materialist or status-obsessed. That leaves us with the inertia of tradition and the occasional spurt of serendipity, two forces that are flimsy on their own but given meaning when shared with people we know best. The real meaning is brought out in simple facts of existence, of roots that cannot be cut off: the people we come from. It all circles back to the family, no matter how far we wander from the manger in Bethlehem.

This is, of course, far easier to say than to accept in practice, and also can tip into mawkish sentimentalism. Holidays have their awkward moments, especially when shared with those with whom we are not all that close. In those cases, Franzen might offer some wisdom in characters like Alfred in The Corrections, a man who “had shown his faith in [his daughter] by taking her at face value: by declining to pry behind the front that she presented.” There are times when this is the best road to take. People need to coexist comfortably before daring to go any deeper.

But, being human, we get tired of comfortable coexistence before long. We want more. We want intimacy and meaning; we want signs that our existence has value that goes beyond our own myopic desires. For that, Alfred and the other flimsy Corrections characters aren’t of much use. Instead, we need people who cannot stand to be left in the dark, who want to learn as much as they can, even if that means finding a few skeletons in the closet. Impertinent and even dangerous at times, perhaps, but in search of underlying truth. Honesty, sincerity, and the whole backstory; a willingness to let others be stakeholders in one’s own destiny.  If we can’t give that to one another, what can we give?

A Few December Duluth School Board Notes

20 Dec

I didn’t attend this week’s ISD 709 School Board meeting, but from what I’ve heard about it, any hopes for a more conciliatory Member Art Johnston went out the window. His antics this time around had Superintendent Gronseth apologizing to the District’s new accountants for his incivility. It was the usual song and dance, with Johnston berating people who did not give him the answers he wanted to hear, and in turn claiming to be the victim in this whole mess. The sun rises in the east, the taxman comes on April 15, and Johnston blathers on.

Other than that, it was, I understand, a fairly routine meeting. As expected, the Board voted to increase tax rates; the alternative being a plunge into bankruptcy, the decision was an easy one, and the District’s finances should rebound in the coming year thanks to new levy money and state aid, most likely sparing the need for a repeat next year. The sale of the vacant Duluth Central property would, of course, help immensely.

It was also the last meeting for three outgoing Board members, who will now enjoy Johnston-free third Tuesdays of the month. We’ll take a moment to recognize each of them.

Ann Wasson served District One for two and a half terms, surviving a narrow re-election battle against Marcia Stromgren in 2009 before electing not to run this time around. She joined the Board in the 2003 wave election that dumped opponents of Duluth East hockey coach Mike Randolph, and promptly voted to reinstate him. Later, she became best-known as one of the Red Plan’s more active champions, always trusting the district’s experts and lashing out at Art Johnston for challenging them. She chose her words carefully, and when did speak, she usually did so with force, though never with a whole lot of nuance. Her work on the Red Plan done, she now heads into retirement.

Mary Cameron, meanwhile, will go down as one of the longest-tenured Board members in city history, having served sixteen years as an at-large Member. While she too was a Red Plan supporter, her activity on the Board went much deeper than that, and she was not one to fight battles in public. As the lone African-American on the Board in a very white city, she focused on Duluth’s ugly achievement gap, and was instrumental in getting two minorities into the superintendent’s office. While usually supportive of the administration, she did break away from time to time, usually on human resources issues; she has extensive experience in the field, and was not afraid to call out poorly implemented decisions (as in the Randolph case) or demand second chances (as happened this past summer in the case of axed principal Leea Power).

The last outgoing Board member is Tom Kasper, who served a single term as an at-large, and was the Board Chair this past year. Kasper is an interesting figure, and one whose story sums up the dysfunction of the School Board over the past four years. As a neighbor of the new East High School, he was initially fairly critical of the Red Plan, and ran in 2009 as something of a centrist candidate; he was interested in alternative plans, but unlike some of his fellow anti-Red Planners, he kept a positive tone and actively sought new solutions. Voters rewarded him with easily highest vote total for any of the four at-large candidates in the 09 election, in a field that included two incumbents and a fourth strong candidate. However, once on he was on the Board and the Red Plan came to be inevitable, Kasper became a reliable vote for the administration. Though he showed a little more willingness to listen to Art Johnston than the others, his patience was clearly waning before long. I think that probably says more about Johnston than it does about Kasper, but his term shows just how difficult it can be to hold the center. As Chair, he faced the unenviable task of trying to keep the debates civil, and I do think he could have exercised a little more authority to shut down the rantings of both Johnston and his sparring partners, Members Wasson and Seliga-Punyko. I got the sense that he was very tired by the end of his term. Even so, I give him a lot of credit for the effort, and think he took the most practical course available.

As with the City Council, I’ll have a post previewing the 2014 Board before the next meeting. Blogging will likely be sparse over the coming week due to travel plans and holiday festivities. Merry Christmas, readers!

One Last Time in 2013, and Farewell to the Outgoing Councilors: Duluth City Council Notes, 12/26/13

16 Dec

The Duluth City Council met for the final time in 2013 on Monday night, wrapping up its business in front of an average-sized crowd on a snowy December day. The meeting opened with a public hearing on liquor license fees, but Councilor Fosle was the only person to speak, and he only had one brief line saying they were going up too much; an update on the search for a director of Visit Duluth was similarly not very exciting. There were two general citizen speakers, both on issues that came before the Council at the last meeting; a Rice Lake Township resident made his distrust for the city very clear, and a west side business owner urged the Council not to allow ATV usage in the city.

After passing the consent agenda, the Council moved into five finance measures related to bonding, licensing and fines, and a plan to create a system-wide bikeway plan. Councilor Larson amended the licensing and fines resolution to exempt food trucks from the inflation-tied rate hike, as that permit system had only just gone into effect. There was no discussion save some congratulations on the bike plan and some brief grumbles about spending by Councilor Fosle. All of the resolutions passed with at least seven votes, though Councilor Fosle voted against all of them, and Councilor Stauber joined him on three of the five.

After that, it was on to personnel issues, and three of the four changes were again supported by everyone but Councilor Fosle. He complained about the creation of new positions and the spending of money, leading CAO Montgomery to offer rejoinders on each of them, noting that most did not hire new people but simply re-shuffled and re-defined existing positions. Councilor Fosle conceded most of these points, but voted against them all anyway.

There was significant dispute, however, on the Council’s appointment of a new member to the Civil Service Board. Councilor Gardner, the chair of the Personnel Committee, gave a lengthy endorsement of Ms. Beth Tamminen, whose broad scope and vision impressed her, and filled the niche left by the outgoing committee member. Councilors Larson, Krug, and Julsrud, however, in turn endorsed Mr. Eric Forsman, citing his persistence (this was his third attempt to join), his recruiting skills, and his experience with people from diverse economic backgrounds. Everyone hurried to say that both applicants were very good, and Councilors Hartman and Boyle said they were inclined to follow Councilor Gardner’s recommendations. Councilor Fosle came out of left field to ask if all the applicants were Duluth residents. (They are.) The amendment supporting Ms. Tamminen passed, 5-4, with Councilor Fosle joining Larson, Krug, and Julsrud in dissent.

Next up was an attempt to clarify a variance previously given to a developer seeking to build a duplex on the 3100 block of Minnesota Avenue on Park Point, a discussion that brought out eight speakers. Three were with the development group, and they all emphasized their credentials, talked of their many successful past developments, residency on Park Point, and the refusal of their opponents to compromise. The other five speakers, on the other hand, accused the developers of misinformation, a bait-and-switch change in plans, and inadequate search for community input. Two offered up maps, displayed to the Council Chamber on TVs, showing the differences between the original plan and the subsequent changes. They worried about the size of the project and its environmental impact as well, and their last speaker said she knew and respected the developers, but thought they had more work to do.

The upset citizens soon found they faced an uphill battle. Councilor Gardner, who represents Park Point, said this was the only variance she’s ever supported as a Councilor, and was proud to support it again, citing the recommendations of the planning office. Councilor Krug had opposed the initial variance, and in a rather refreshing concession, said she could have said “I told you so,” but chose not to, as the Council had already made its will clear. She thought the Council had a duty to uphold that commitment. Councilor Larson expressed her regret about the confusion, but also announced her support. Councilor Hanson bemoaned the inability of the two sides to get together and find a compromise, and suggested tabling the measure; Councilor Gardner shot him down, saying that would be “destructive” to the project, which is currently under a stop work order. In the end, the Council voted unanimously to approve the resolution.

The Council moved on to a claim settlement with a bicyclist who’d had an accident involving a misplaced manhole cover, which Councilor Fosle had pulled from the consent agenda. His intent, he explained, was not to vote against it, but simply to show that people got hurt in all sorts of odd ways all of the time, and that worries about ATV injuries were thus misplaced. After that, it was another round of finance measures setting tax rates and the budget for 2014. There was no discussion at all, and Councilor Fosle voted against everything, while Councilor Stauber joined him on two of the five ordinances. Everyone else supported all five, and they all passed. Duluthians should have already received mailings explaining the new tax rates for 2014.

The Council wrapped up with two zoning ordinances and one amending the city code on handicapped parking; all three passed unanimously, freeing Councilor Stauber to “recommend approval” for the final time on the Council. “It warms my heart,” said President Boyle upon hearing his catchphrase for the last time.

Councilor Hanson, eager to have the Council revisit the ATV issue from last week, jumped the gun and tried to bring it forward again while the Council was still on the handicapped spaces. When he finally got his opportunity, he explained that he wasn’t really comfortable with his vote last week. He thought the ATV plan was well-intended, but thought the Council had ceded its responsibility over the matter by passing it off to Parks and Rec, and said he’d heard from many residents in his district who wanted trails in their part of town. President Boyle tried to clarify his intent, but before long Councilor Stauber jumped in with a point of order, saying the Council needed to vote to re-open discussion. It promptly voted not to reopen discussion, 5-4, thus ending the matter. Councilors Hanson, Hartman, Julsrud, and Boyle provided the four votes in favor of re-opening the issue. Councilors Hanson and Fosle went back and forth some about ATV possibilities in the closing comments, leading President Boyle to suggest they meet up and hash this out some other time.

There were also a few more words about the Rice Lake Township annexation talk, which the city had dropped. It involved a lot of repetition of last week’s points. Councilor Fosle said he wished the city spent half the time trying to create jobs that it did trying to annex people, prompting a figure-filled response from CAO Montgomery over jobs created in recent years. While Councilor Fosle’s grandstanding on the issue was a rather curious act by a public representative of a city, I will agree with him on one thing: if the Duluth really wants to grow to 90,000 people in the coming years, annexing townships seems like, well, cheating. It may be a practical idea for other reasons, but when I first heard the 90,000 figure, I thought it was an admirable goal that should inspire the city to develop in certain ways, not serve as an excuse to re-draw lines. But the issue is now dead for the time being, and the Council wrapped up with lighter matters.


With this meeting, we bid a fond farewell to two Councilors, Dan Hartman and Jim Stauber. Many councilors paused to say kind words about both of them, with Councilor Gardner citing Hartman’s growth and Stauber’s exemplary ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Councilor Larson gave them both gag gifts: a monster-sized coffee mug for Hartman, a proponent of Coffee with the Council at Louie’s Café (there’s one more session this Friday at 8 AM!), and a bookmark for Stauber that said “recommend approval.”

In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Hartman served one term, was the youngest member of the Council, and was always upbeat, reliably liberal, and led the charge on any number of initiatives. Stauber served three terms (roughly “forty years,” as Hartman joked), was one of the oldest Councilors, and was a conservative who chose his battles and told many cautionary tales of good intentions gone awry. From what I saw, both seemed to genuinely enjoy their work, and got along agreeably with their colleagues. While staunch in their views, both were willing to take other opinions into account, and took the occasional surprise stance.

Both men were (and are) true politicians, too. They knew how to ask good questions, were precise in their messaging, and were willing to fight back when challenged. Hartman had an uncommon enthusiasm for the minutiae of local government, and when he broke from the majority, it was usually to uphold commitments to processes and defend established ways of doing business, even if those ways weren’t always the most logical. Stauber likewise prioritized decorum, though he was sometimes willing to bend established practices when he saw a course he believed to be more practical. On their own, both were effective Councilors with distinct voices; in tandem, they were an excellent pair, each possessing strengths that counteracted the weaknesses of the other.

They may both be leaving the Council, but I doubt either of them will go away; Hartman is still young and enough of a junkie that he’ll remain active in local politics in some capacity, while Stauber is running in the special election for the St. Louis County Board in January. One of the newly elected Councilors, Zack Filipovich, fills a similar demographic to Hartman; we’ll see if he or someone else can match Hartman’s energy on the Council. Stauber’s departure, on the other hand, leaves the Council devoid of any traditional conservatives. (Councilor Fosle is a fiscal conservative, but often a militant one, and he has some other quirks that make him hard to pin down as precisely as Stauber or former Councilor Garry Krause.)

To get a better handle on the nine Councilors slated to serve for the next two years, I’ll give a rundown on all of them sometime between Christmas and the first meeting of the 2014 session in early January.

Also, I’m going to miss a public meeting for the first time since I started going to them in June, and will not be at the School Board meeting tomorrow night. I’ll be keeping up on what happens, though, and will probably have some sort of note later in the week, which will at the very least offer some comments on the outgoing Board members. For now, though, I’ll settle for recommending the approval of this blog post.

Nelson Mandela and Political Sainthood

15 Dec

Nelson Mandela was laid to rest today in Qunu, a town in the idyllic South African hill country straight out of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. I thought of Paton’s novel several times over the past week, as torrents of remembrances were beamed about the world. Written in just before the South African regime formally established Apartheid, it presaged both the darkness of the decades of repression that Mandela fought so persistently. The characters, white and black, admirable and questionable, were almost certainly straight out of Mandela’s life. But most importantly, it also presaged Mandela’s greatest triumph.

Mandela was an idealist, but idealists are a dime a dozen. He suffered hardship and a long prison sentence, but he’s hardly alone there, either. He was the first president of a reborn nation in the 1990s, but there were quite a few of those in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and some of them didn’t turn out very good. No: like the two protagonists in Paton’s novel, Mandela transcended all of that, and managed to bring some healing to a profoundly broken nation.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. Contemporary South Africa has its share of horrors, from AIDS and crime to ongoing poverty and division. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated Apartheid era abuses did not prosecute those who came forward, a compromise that was brilliant for its political savvy but neither put the past to rest nor brought the worst abusers to justice. Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, has an unhealthy level of control, and, as shown by the boos for current President Jacob Zuma at Mandela’s funeral, politicians in South Africa will long be stuck in his shadow. By the end of his life, Mandela was the closest thing the world had to a political saint.

Sainthood, of course, suggests a religious dimension, and while people argue over how much his faith informed his actions, Mandela’s willingness to pursue truth and reconciliation instead of revenge or simply burying the past has religious undertones. It reminds us of religious figures like King and Gandhi; the formal process in South Africa was headed by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Religious people don’t have a monopoly on forgiveness, but most faiths place an emphasis on its virtues, and the moral authority of faith can compel people to transcend base desires. In that sense, it’s easy to see why modern South Africa’s founding father came to be more than just a popular politician.

My first reaction to someone upheld as a political saint, however, involves a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s not that I think politicians are naturally depraved, or doubt the goodness of many of Mandela’s actions; I’m just not one to elevate any one person too high up. Anyone who’s read my political coverage on this blog knows this; I’m often critical of people I agree with, and I’m also the sort of person who could probably find a smidgen of common ground with Pol Pot. (I hasten to add that an instant of shared humanity in no way excuses crimes against humanity.) For everything he achieved, there are things about Mandela that give us pause, from flirtations with communist-backed revolution to adultery.

These critiques, however, miss the point. Sainthood is not and never has been earthly perfection; to say so ignores the biographies of most saints, and is also a horrible misreading of Christian theology, in which everyone is fallen anyway. Dividing the world into sinners and saints is useless, because saints are sinners, too. Traditional saints attain that status by giving themselves up before God; secular saints give themselves to their country, or to the greater good of humanity.

This can be a dangerous road. Commitment to something higher can come at the neglect of the immediate, and leads to painful choices, or choices that should be painful but get short shrift due to revolutionary devotion. We want to believe in causes greater than ourselves, but how far dare we go in fighting for those causes? Are we willing to put our loved ones in danger, and will there be collateral damage? Noble as their causes may be, many freedom fighters battle on without ever stopping to examine their consciences; there is no time for dithering, nothing to be gained from second thoughts or examinations of moral complexity. Mandela, perhaps during those terrible years on Robben Island where he was alone with his thoughts, did not fall into that trap when his time came.

That time was the early 1990s, when the international order that had propped up the Apartheid regime—the dualism of the Cold War—broke down. Stripped of its anti-communist clients, the regime had to change, and though his motives may not have been all that idealistic, President F.W. DeKlerk’s willingness to accept reality took uncommon resolve, and he deserved the Nobel Prize he shared with Mandela. And so he passed the torch to South Africa’s first black president, and Mandela managed to allay the fears of those who predicted further fracture and violence. “The great valley of Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also,” Paton wrote in his novel’s closing lines. “For it is the dawn that it has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” Mandela gave Paton, who died just before his prison release, the answer he’d awaited.

Elevation to sainthood also takes an intense toll on the saint, as anyone who’s read of Mother Teresa’s crises of faith will know. Greatness is often akin to loneliness, and some of the more poignant Mandela memorials revealed the isolation of his later years. He was beloved by his people and genuinely loved them back, but he’d led such a different life from all of them that he was left with a certain emptiness. Some found it a bit odd that the third wife of this champion of the people was the ex-first lady of Mozambique, but as someone who had known and loved another revolutionary figure, Graça Machel was probably one of the few people on earth who could actually relate to the thoughts going through the aging Mandela’s mind.

This loneliness was no sign of weakness, but instead seals Mandela’s greatness. He could have remained a revolutionary to the end, but he was too self-conscious for that, and rather than fight the unending fight, he also sought acceptance, comfort, and assurances that everything he’d done was worthwhile. It was, and his ability to recognize that in spite of his doubts is one of the greatest gifts a person can possess. Humans are neither gods nor beasts, but they can channel both, and at his best, Mandela reached for the former with a rare combination of humility and moral clarity. Both in his triumphs and his complexity, he became larger than life, and his ability to make peace with that role should stand the test of time.

A Changing of the Guard in 7AA?

11 Dec

Section 7AA has been Duluth East’s dominion over the past five years, but last night’s result at the Heritage Center—a 3-2 win by 4th-ranked Elk River over the Hounds—has the potential to be a watershed moment.

It was a big night for the Elks in many ways. It was the first win by a 7AA opponent over East since the Elks beat the Hounds in 2010, and only the second since 2008. It was East’s first home loss since the 2010-2011 season (though that comes with an asterisk, as East was the “road” team in their loss to Duluth Denfeld last season). To find East’s last home regular season loss to a section opponent, we have to go back to a December 2006 game against Cloquet. Even without the history, it was a coming-out party for the Elks, who are now 3-0, with wins over state powers East and Edina. They are now the favorites for the section crown.

It was an important win, but it wasn’t the convincing sort of win that erases any doubts. The game went back and forth, with each team tallying once in the first two periods. The Hounds struck first on a terrific move by defenseman-turned-forward Phil Beaulieu, who dangled through the Elk defense before firing his shot; the Elks watched him closely for the rest of the night, making sure the East captain had little space to maneuver. The Elks tied it on a tap-in by Kyle Badger, and took the lead not long into the second on a blast from the blue line by Grant Bunker that nailed the water bottle atop East goalie Gunnar Howg’s net. After a penalty kill, East began to assert itself, and tied the game on a wicked shot from sophomore Ryan Peterson. The game-winner came with four and a half minutes to go, and was very similar to the first; there was a scrum in front of the East net, and suddenly the referee signaled a goal.

The gameplay was fairly even, though the teams excelled in different areas. Elk River’s forwards showed off their skill, beating the East defensive corps on the rush at times; the Hounds, on the other hand, relied on coach Mike Randolph’s signature puck possession system, controlling play for stretches in the 2nd and 3rd periods with their steady cycling and ultimately outshooting the Elks, 30-24. The difference-maker was Elk River senior goaltender Maclean Berglove; both East goals were tough to stop, and while Howg had some solid saves for East, he couldn’t quite pounce on the pucks sitting in his crease on the first and third goals, and the second goal came from very far out.

Recent history warns us from taking too much away from this game. Back in 2010, the Elks edged East 3-2 in the regular season meeting in Elk River, a game in which a veteran Elks’ goalie outplayed his less experienced East counterpart, despite a large edge in shots for East. The two teams met again in the 7AA final, and the Hounds steamrolled the Elks in a 5-1 win. As is the case this season, East was very young that year, and took some lumps in the regular season before putting things together in the playoffs.

But these Elks are not those Elks, and the 2013-2014 edition looks like one of the best teams in the state. Their third line scored twice last night, showing off their depth; they also did a superb job of blocking shots in front of Berglove, making his job much easier. With ten seniors on the roster, they have plenty of experience, and they play disciplined, smart hockey. Their second-year coach, former Minnesota North Star Gordie Roberts, has himself a team with no weaknesses. The Elks’ program seems be in a very good place right now, too. After five Tournament berths in seven years around the turn of the century, they moved to 7AA in 2005-2006, and haven’t been back since. They hit bottom near the end of the 2012 season, when longtime coach Tony Sarsland, a man who made Mike Randolph seem cute and cuddly, was axed by the district. Last season ended in pain, with Grand Rapids tying their 7AA semifinal with ten seconds to go and winning in overtime. But now, having done their penance, the Elks look like a force: their youth program has been on even terms with many of the state’s best in recent years, and the Twin Cities exurb will host Hockey Day in Minnesota 2014.

Still, several teams in 7AA could spoil their party; it’s a deep section, and even some of the weaker teams have shown they can stick around with the two top-ranked squads. East only has four seniors (one of whom is out hurt), and they have some correctible problems to fix don’t really have much of an identity yet. Randolph’s teams tend to improve as the season goes along; over the past nine years, they have a December winning percentage of .699, but up their game to an .857 clip in January and February. They may continue to take some lumps; they don’t have a whole lot of offensive firepower, and as a narrow win over Cambridge showed, East will probably get stuck in some close games against less-than-stellar opponents. But the East program continues to put out quality hockey players, and they’ve already shown that this young group can skate with the state’s best.

All we can say for now, then, is that the 7AA race will be as good as any in the state. Elk River and East are very even and are top ten teams at the moment, and a yet-untested Grand Rapids team has some stars it could ride into the conversation as well. It’s a bit early to be saying much about section seeding, and teams like Forest Lake and Andover won’t be easy wins, but at this point, there’s good incentive to grab the top seed and avoid playing one of the other top three in the semifinals. The Elks now have the inside track for that spot.

For both teams, it’s back to work now. Elk River travels to face a quality Maple Grove team on Thursday in a Northwest Suburban Conference game, while East visits archrival Cloquet. The Elks must be careful not to peak in December, as senior-heavy teams sometimes do; the Hounds cannot take future improvement as a given, and while there were no glaring weaknesses on Tuesday night, there were no clearly pronounced strengths, either. We have a long way to go, and whether East extends its dynasty or another team emerges, it’ll be neck-and-neck to the end.

In Which the Councilors Talk for a Very Long Time About Lots of Different Things: Duluth City Council Notes, 12/9/13

10 Dec

On Monday night, scores of Duluthians braved brutal roads to attend a three-hour marathon city council meeting. It was the largest crowd I’ve seen yet, even after the thirty or so high school kids—there on behalf of the Duluth delegation of Youth in Government, as one of their number explained as the sole citizen general speaker—cleared out after the first few issues. No one spoke in a public hearing on the budget, and CAO Montgomery was happy to announce that southbound I-35 would re-open this Wednesday, following extensive repairs. Councilor Larson also plugged two events rescheduled after last week’s snowstorm, a community development public hearing for today (Tuesday) and the Libations at the Library fundraiser this Wednesday at 6:30. (I’ll give that one a strong endorsement.)

Councilors pulled two items off the consent agenda, and Councilor Fosle was confused for confusing reasons over why a third item had been pulled, but once that was over with, it passed unanimously. Councilor Gardner’s pulled resolution concerned an agreement with a law firm for legal services in grievance arbitration with unions; she wanted to know where this money would go, as she’d heard on the news that some of it might go to a case involving a Duluth police officer recently acquitted on charges of brutality for this. (Warning: violent video.) Councilor Fosle took her concerns a step further and made it quite clear he wanted the officer removed, and somehow this became grounds for voting against the resolution. A citizen speaker came up (rather unusually) in the midst of this discussion to say that outside legal help would be a good idea in this case due to perceived conflicts of interest. This prompted CAO Montgomery to give some history on past outside legal help in arbitration cases, saying the city has moved to keep them internal in recent years, and only uses the outside law firm when it needs specific help. This satisfied everyone but Councilor Fosle, and it passed, 8-1.

Next up was a return to the debate over whether to use Community Investment Trust (CIT) funds to service street debts, a proposal that twice failed to reach the necessary 7-vote supermajority needed when Garry Krause was on the Council. He has since been replaced by Councilor Hanson, however, and he made his intentions clear right off the bat, breaking the silence of his first two Council meetings to introduce an amendment guaranteeing that any funds from a court settlement with the Fon Du Luth Casino would go back into the CIT. While technically a redundant amendment due to city charter stipulations, the Councilors liked its clarity, and, after some wrangling about the wording that Atty. Johnson settled, the amendment passed unanimously. The actual vote generated a little more debate, as Councilors Fosle and Stauber reiterated their opposition, with Councilor Stauber noting that the city’s bond rating has actually improved in recent months despite the measure sitting in traction. Councilor Gardner and CAO Montgomery had immediate rebuttals, saying the rating agencies had specifically noted this measure’s likely passage as a reason. Councilor Hartman pointed out that the CIT is designed to pay for streets and is nowhere near as liquid as the general fund, while Councilor Hanson talked about the amount of thought he had put into the issue before deciding to support it. The measure passed, 7-2.

The Council then moved on to a resolution exploring the feasibility of creating an ATV trail in Duluth. ATVs have been banned on city public land since 2004, but now a group of ATVers, with help from Councilor Fosle, is looking for a place to ride in town. There were six citizen speakers on the issue. Four were from the ATV community, and gave various reasons to support the measure; one was disabled and could not hike city trails well, another talked about efforts to train young people (whose illegal usage of ATVs was at the root of the initial ban) in responsible ATVing and new legislation that has gone into place, and several talked about the economic benefits of bringing in ATVs. A fifth speaker, a representative of the COGGS biking group, took no clear stance on the issue, but made it clear that he expected any ATV trail to go through rigorous assessments, and should not share an existing bike trail. The final speaker, Mr. Erik Viken of the Parks Board, asked for some clarification from Councilor Fosle, and said the ATVers should develop their own proposal rather than handing it to the Parks Board at this time, lest they place an undue burden on the Board.

Councilor Larson then introduced an amendment to focus the review to sites to the west of Cody Street. As Councilor Fosle explained, the likely site for the trail is the former DWP railroad line, which can certainly handle the impact of motorized vehicles; the amendment would allow the planners to focus on that specific area. Councilors Julsrud and Stauber expressed their opposition; both thought it neglected the rest of the city, while Councilor Julsrud added worries about the resolution’s vagueness and the burdens on the Parks Board when the city had already identified other priorities for parks. Councilor Krug declared herself open to being persuaded; Councilor Larson said focusing on the west side made sure the project would move forward, and Councilor Hanson pointed out that people will have to take ATVs to trailheads on trailers no matter where it is. The amendment passed, 7-2.

Discussion then moved on to the resolution proper, and Councilor Fosle insisted that these were merely baby steps. Councilor Stauber, hoping this would be a gateway to further ATV trail-building, announced his support as well. Despite reservations over ATVs, Councilors Hartman and Gardner said it was only fair that the city go ahead with the feasibility study; the “city has a mandate to represent everyone,” including ATV riders, Councilor Krug added. Speaking more pointedly than usual, CAO Montgomery said that if this really is a gateway to broader ATV usage in the city, environmental damage caused by illegally-ridden ATVs is very real, and that the trail is unlikely to change this fact. He said local ATV groups must rein rogue riders in, noting that snowmobile groups had successfully done so in the past, so it is possible. Councilor Julsrud reiterated her points about priorities, but was the lone ‘no’ vote, as the resolution passed, 8-1.

One of the ATV people spoke on the next issue as well, which asked the state to raise a speed limit on rural St. Louis River Road. Councilor Fosle took up the cause, and found supporters in Councilors Stauber and Gardner; given the road’s location and apparent usage, they thought the 30 MPH speed limit unusually low. CAO Montgomery did not recommend approval, however, saying that city engineers and police both had their reasons for the lower limit. The rest of the Council agreed, saying their process ought to be respected, and deferred to the experts. The resolution failed, 6-3; Councilor Fosle asked if roads could be annexed to neighboring communities, and got a ‘yes’ out of Atty. Johnson.

Six hardy speakers had waited out the discussions for the next Council issue, which was a proposal that restored the Heritage Preservation Commission’s (HPC) ability to bestow historic landmark status on local buildings. All six supported the ordinance; their most convincing speaker was Mr. Tony Dierckins of Zenith City Online, who told the Council not to be “afraid of landmark status.” He said the HPC was merely an advisory committee to the Planning Commission and the Council, which had final say, and that owners could always appeal. Ms. Caroline Sundquist added that threats of lawsuits were overblown, as HPCs’ authority to bestow historic status has been upheld time and time again in courts.

Councilor Gardner then expressed her support, saying the original removal was an error that had to be fixed. She worried about the city losing its status to certify historic sites, and pointed out several projects that had benefitted from landmark designation, such as Sacred Heart, Fitgers, and Tycoons. Councilors Larson and Hartman agreed, while Councilor Stauber, though joking that his age made him well-aware of the importance of old things, did not. He said the HPC’s loss of authority was “no accident,” and that the administration had known what it was doing in stripping away its powers. He thought the HPC had gone too far in the past; any property owner not wanting historic status foisted on their building would have to “go on the defensive” and hire lawyers. The HPC’s role, he concluded, should be limited to working with owners in a cooperative way to establish historic status.

Councilor Fosle asked CAO Montgomery if this was an accurate portrayal of the administration’s past stance, and he said it largely was. He added that the administration was okay with the changes, so long as the Council understood that these processes require care. While there are obvious benefits to historic status, he added that they can sometimes add costs and tie things up. (This suggestion had the pro-HPC people in the audience throwing up their hands in disbelief.) Councilor Julsrud counseled a pragmatic approach, saying the Council should support the HPC unless it starts throwing around designations in an undisciplined way, in which case its status could be again revoked. The ordinance passed, 7-2, with Councilors Stauber and Fosle in opposition. The remaining ordinances passed unanimously, despite Councilor Larson’s joking threat to filibuster one of them just to make the meeting drag on even longer; one of the ordinances in question adapted a historic church for use as a dance studio.

Despite a lengthy meeting with plenty of debate, the Council saved its biggest fireworks for the comment section at the end of the night. Councilor Gardner reminded the Councilors that anyone hoping to be Council President or Vice President in 2014 had to declare their candidacy by the end of the next meeting. Councilors Fosle and Larson promptly threw their hats in the ring for VP, while Councilor Krug said she would seek the presidency; Councilor Julsrud said she would wait until 2015, despite having had several people encourage her to go for it. Councilor Krug asked CAO Montgomery for an update on plans to annex part of Rice Lake Township; he assured her that they were merely in a conversation stage, and that the township will certainly vote on the measure if it moves forward. The measure would be nonbinding, though he said he had no interest in a hostile takeover.

Councilor Fosle made his opposition to the annexation immediately clear, saying he’d be at a Rice Lake town hall meeting the next night to “tell them the truth”: that Duluth is just trying to add population for government aid purposes, and that this would saddle them with all sorts of new fees and taxes. “There’s more going on here,” he said, not for the first time. This drew an upset reaction from CAO Montgomery, who said that it’s “not all conspiracies and black helicopters.” He insisted that the township’s residents would be consulted, and that their taxes would be lower in the end. He lived in a township, he said, and understood the emotions at play in the debate. Councilor Gardner likewise lashed out at Councilor Fosle, saying it was “not appropriate” for councilors to attend township meetings and try to influence an emotional discussion. She reminded Councilor Fosle that he is a representative of the city, and that he should not pretend otherwise by referring to the city government as “you guys,” thus excluding himself.

Councilor Krug apologized for bringing up the annexation debate, though she was nonetheless happy to see dialogue, while Councilor Julsrud offered cautious support for annexation, hoping rationality would prevail over emotion. Councilor Fosle got the last word, simpering that the Council’s reaction had already “let me know that I don’t stand a chance at being Vice President.” He insisted these were just the facts, not a conspiracy theory, and that CAO Montgomery and people like him moved to townships to escape the big government found in cities.

On that cheery and friendly note, the Council wrapped up its business. It’s hard to sum up such a busy night in a few short words, but it was largely a productive meeting, with many predictable sparring lines, and also a few mild surprise stances. Councilor Fosle’s busy night, I think, showed why he should not be in Council leadership, though I don’t necessarily say that as a condemnation: the man is an eternal insurgent, and is most effective when lobbing bombs from places where people don’t necessarily expect. I think it’s healthy to have that on the Council, but probably not in a leadership position, especially since he has few allies. The efficient Councilor Krug and consensus-building Councilor Larson are probably better-suited for leadership roles.

The final meeting of the year takes place next Monday, and will also be the final meeting for the outgoing Councilors Hartman and Stauber. I’ll wrap up the year and say a few words about them in next week’s write-up.

Say it Ain’t so, Robbie Cano

6 Dec

(If you don’t care about baseball, read this post anyway and see if you can find all the Jay-Z allusions! Sorry I’m not sorry.)

Jay-Z’s blueprint for his newest client has come to fruition. Robinson Cano, the star second baseman of the New York Yankees, is headed to Seattle, to the tune of 10 years and $240 million.

Gut-wrenching as it may be for Yankee fans, the team was right to not compete with the Mariners’ offer. Decoding the difference between the Seattle deal and the Yankees’ 7-year, $175 million offer, the Yankees actually offered Cano more per year; the difference is in those last three years. The Yankees, burned in recent years by a number of players tied up in huge contracts in their late 30s, know Cano won’t stay young forever. For years 8-10, Cano will probably be a shell of his former self. Of course, this can be worthwhile if he puts up MVP-type numbers in the first few years. He might. But while Cano’s physique may make him more likely to age gracefully than Albert Pujols (who signed a very similar contract two winters ago), he also has never quite been at Pujols’ level. He’s a very good player at a position that doesn’t have many great hitters, but he has yet to carry his team in the way you’d expect out of someone getting the third-richest contract in baseball history.

The move is also bad for Cano for a number of reasons: he goes from one of the best ballparks for left-handed hitters to cavernous Safeco Field; he probably could have made back the difference of the contracts in endorsements by staying in New York; and unless the Mariners continue to spend a lot of money, he probably won’t be sniffing the playoffs anytime soon. The contract looks an awful lot like the one the Texas Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez ten years ago, and that isn’t a comparison that should inspire much optimism in Mariner fans. For Cano, the Holy Grail was apparently the guaranteed money in the last few years of his career. Baseball is a business, man.

The Yankees may have 99 problems, but the payroll ain’t one, especially with Cano out of the picture. The 2014 Yankees will look very different, but they could still be a pretty good team. They’ve already gone shopping this offseason, luring in catcher Brian McCann and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and while both deals are not without some injury-and-aging risks of their own, the Yankees are in decent position to have an offense that is stronger than last season’s. They’re now free to spend even more, though the free agent market isn’t ideal for filing all of their needs if they want to stop watching other teams mount the throne in October.

The infield, which was one of baseball’s all-time greatest just three years ago, is now a mess. Mark Teixeira is aging and coming off a major injury—and he is the most reliable person here. Derek Jeter is forty and coming off a lost season; ideally he should move to third base, given his diminished range (which was never good, even in his prime) and the decent shortstop options available, but he may have too much pride for that. The options at the other two positions currently consist of Eduardo Nunez, Kelly Johnson, and Brendan Ryan, with perhaps a splash of Mark Reynolds for good measure. They’re going to need another player there, but Omar Infante is probably the best they can do.

Still, I’ve long believed that teams tend to overpay and go awry when they fixate too much on their weaknesses instead of going after the best options available. (Bill James will back me up on this, too.) Hence the Ellsbury deal: who cares that the Yankees already have a decent left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder in Brett Gardner? Go get one of the best out there, move Gardner to left, and have two of them. The 2014 Yankees may not have the Murderers’ Row heart of the order we expect out of the Bronx Bombers, but they’ll have two of the fastest players in the league, and one of the best outfield defenses. And to that end, it now makes good sense to lock up the likes of a Carlos Beltran. He may not be young, but it’ll be a short deal without the deadweight one sees in these ten-year contracts, and he once again improves the defense, bumping Alfonso Soriano to DH and adding a switch-hitting power bat. With enough good outfielders, they can handle bad offense at an infield position or two.

After that, they should train their attention on the pitching staff, where Masahiro Tanaka should be their priority. He comes with some risk, but 24-year-old potential star pitchers don’t come along every day, and this team needs to take some risks to be successful. Add him to Hiroki Kuroda, CC Sabathia (he can’t possibly be worse than last season, can he?), and some intriguing younger options, and you have the makings of a passable rotation. David Robertson, as the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera, could use an established presence to set him up and take his spot if he flounders. Complete that checklist, and the Yankees will have had a very strong offseason, considering where they were just a few months ago. They may not be a great team, but they’ll have enough storylines to fill the seats, and if enough of the veterans bounce back from lost seasons in 2013, they’ll contend.

Cano’s legacy in pinstripes will be an oddly incomplete one; it’s hard to think of a Yankee star who came up through the system who chose to go elsewhere mid-career. He could have run the town; made himself an icon in that concrete jungle where dreams are made of, but he’ll be big pimpin’ in Seattle now. (Three in one line! I’m on fire now.) During Cano’s time in New York, it was common to compare him to his Boston counterpart, Dustin Pedroia. We Yankee fans got pretty sick of the comparison: the scrappy, impish Pedroia with dirt on his shoulders (and everywhere else on his uniform) versus Cano, a man of impeccable physique whose smoothness led some to charge him with laziness; despite his clear edge in talent, some argued, Cano was never the leader or the gamer that Pedroia is. It played into the tiresome scrappy-white-guy-vs.-lazy-but-talented-minority storyline, too. In the end, though, Pedroia took a smaller contract to stay in Boston; he chose to stay true to an organization, and something larger than himself. Cano, while not lazy, chose to chase the money. I don’t blame him for that; you can’t knock the hustle. But while Cano may become a Hall-of-Famer, he will probably never be the icon Pedroia is, unless the Mariners do shock us all in the next few years.

In a deal that looks murky for the Yankees, the Mariners, and Robinson Cano, one person did come out a big winner: Cano’s rookie agent, the man who informed the Yankee brass that they could refer to him as “Jay” during the negotiations. The man knows what he’s doing, and after this contract coup, the clients should come pouring in. On to the next one.

Image from the aptly named

Climbing Everest: Into Thin Air Revisited

4 Dec

Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world.

—José Ortega y Gasset, in the epigraph to Into Thin Air

The first snowstorm of the year has engulfed Duluth, and I have rather fittingly spent my snow day re-reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a bestselling account of a 1996 disaster on Mount Everest.

Krakauer, a longtime outdoors writer with a thing for prepositional phrases (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven), was sent to Nepal by Outside magazine to do a piece on the increased commercialization of mountain climbing. It was also a chance for a longtime mountain climber to pursue a life goal, and while he had no Himalayan mountaineering experience prior to his trip, he was clearly one of the strongest client climbers on the mountain that year, being the first to summit on May 10, despite having to wait for and pass countless slower climbers along the way. His piece, however, took an entirely different turn when tragedy struck that day, leading to the deaths of eight mountain climbers.

Of course, Krakauer’s apparent prowess despite his lack of experience points to one of the key issues with the 1996 climbing season: many of the climbers on Everest that year had little business being there. His book centers around two private companies, Adventure Consultants and Mountain Madness, each comprising of three guides and eight client climbers. The clients had some experience, but only one was a real mountaineering champion; most were wealthy doctors with a climbing hobby. The Mountain Madness expedition included Sandy Hill Pittman, a New York socialite and journalist who had Sherpas haul luxuries into base camp and a satellite phone most of the way up the mountain. After the book came out, she was brutally caricatured and ridiculed, but it’s hard not to diagnose naïveté in a woman who set out on a journey known to pose great risks as if it were a sightseeing tour in the Appalachians.

And, all in all, those two firms were better than many of the others. The lead guides, Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness, were very experienced climbers who had made an art of helping inexperienced climbers up Everest. Many of their fellow expeditions could claim no such expertise. The Montenegrins who attempted to summit the day before were supposed to lay down rope on some of the highest reaches of the mountain, but wasted all their rope on relatively easy stretches. An incompetent Taiwanese leader shrugged off the death of a member of his party the day before and tried to soldier up the mountain on the same day as the two firms, adding to the bottleneck and later needing to be rescued by Sherpas from the Mountain Madness team. And then there was the South African expedition, led by a complete con man who tried to profit off of a post-Apartheid reconciliation scheme; he refused to loan out his satellite phone as people died on the mountain, and a member of his expedition died a few weeks later, on the day he successfully summited. On the Tibetan side of the mountain, a Japanese party climbing the subsequent day ignored three half-dead Indians, with one of their number claiming there was “no room for morality” at that elevation.

Mountain-climbing is frequently employed as a metaphor for many other things in life, and usually in a positive light. It involves the overcoming of obstacles, or even the attainment of grace, as in Martin Luther King’s final address, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.” I’ve never climbed anything that requires any technical skill, but I can certainly identify with the thrill of racing up a large hill or mountain and standing astride its peak. It taps into some primal human instinct to conquer and lord over things, a drive that we never can get rid of, no matter how hard we may try.

Actually climbing the world’s tallest mountain, however, is an utterly miserable experience. Everest’s summit, at 29,000 feet, is at roughly the same cruising altitude as an airplane. Simply getting to base camp requires a trek at altitude that is enough to cause health problems for many. Nothing grows on the mountain, save a few patches of moss; it is a heap of rock and ice, with glaciers shifting and office tower-size chunks falling unpredictably. The mountain is littered with garbage such as spent oxygen cans, though people have tried to clean it up in recent years. It is also littered with feces: the lodges along the trek to the mountain are absolutely putrid, often causing sickness that has nothing to do with thin air. And then there is the climb, with threats of severe altitude sickness along the way. Many people can only go a few steps without resting once they near the top, and no one can think half as clearly as they can at a lower elevation, even with bottled oxygen. Rescue attempts by helicopter are very dangerous undertakings; there is barely enough air for a chopper’s rotors to generate any lift, and the rescue of two severely frostbitten climbers from 20,000 feet in 1996 was, at the time, the highest rescue ever staged. Temperatures far below zero and near-constant hurricane-force winds make a mockery of this Minnesota winter that’s driven me under a blanket with a cup of tea.

And yet the desire to climb Everest consumes people, even when they know the odds they face. Three of the four deaths in the Adventure Consultants party might be partly attributable to the drive of Doug Hansen, a man who had twice failed to summit Everest and would not stop, despite lagging severely due to several ailments. Hall, perhaps understanding that drive, ignored his own protocols and never tried to turn him around; junior guide Andy Harris, who was already dazed to the point of delirium after losing his oxygen supply, stayed high on the mountain to make an ill-advised rescue attempt. All three men perished when a storm pinned them to Everest’s highest ridges.

Krakauer is meticulous in detailing everything that went wrong on the mountain, as best as he could from the oxygen-starved memories of his fellow climbers. Though he tried not to assign too much fault, his account rankled many people, including the family of the deceased guide Scott Fischer, who thought no one deserved to be blamed. Krakauer makes note of Hall’s criticism of the way Fischer handled his Sherpas (one of whom died of injuries sustained in an avalanche lower on the mountain earlier in the expedition), and also presumes Fischer was responsible for asking his most powerful Sherpa to practically tow Pittman up part of the mountain. (If successful in her climb, Pittman’s celebrity would have been a boon to Fischer’s business.) The Sherpa in question would otherwise have been laying rope at the head of the column, which could have spared the climbers several bottlenecks and conceivably gotten most, if not all, back to Camp Four by the time the storm hit. To be fair, Krakauer also notes that his own presence might have spurred Hall to push his team farther than he should, and also talks of his guilt over failing to notice Harris’s troubles and twice being wrong about his whereabouts.

Perhaps the greatest controversy revolved around Anatoli Boukreev, a Kazakh guide for Mountain Madness who was arguably the most skilled climber on the upper reaches of the mountain that day. Boukreev, claims Krakauer, had a different concept of guiding from everyone else, summiting the mountain without oxygen and sparring with Fischer some over his relative inattention to clients. Still, Boukreev was strong enough to return to camp long before the others, and recharged before heading out on a rescue operation in which he saved two climbers’ lives. Fischer, who was probably very sick before the ascent, was the only person in the Mountain Madness party to die, whereas four Adventure Consultants team members died, and a fifth was left for dead before miraculously wandering back into camp.

The upshot of all of this was the fact that the 1996 climbing season was, in fact, less deadly than the average up to that point. (The average has improved since then due to much higher traffic on the mountain, though the raw number of deaths on the mountain still hovers around 5.4 per year, including ten in each of the past two years.) The trash and the feces are not the most glaring things left behind on the slopes of Everest. Those would be the human bodies frozen in place all along the route up the mountain, a graveyard that only grows as the years pass.

The easy conclusion here is that people who try to climb Everest are insane, and there is some truth to that. But insanity endures. The commercialization of Everest hasn’t slowed one bit since 1996, and with such a high demand, Nepal and China are unlikely to stop issuing as many permits as they can. For many local Sherpas, the mountain offers the only road out of poverty. In an age in which practically everything has been climbed, mountaineers have to contrive increasingly crazy ways to achieve fame: fastest ascents, ascents without oxygen, skiing down the mountain, or summiting at unusually old or young ages. (A 13-year-old made it to the top in 2010, though Nepal and China did crack down on age limits after the controversy surrounding that expedition.) Mountain climbers are creatures apart from the rest of us, perhaps, but they feed off a desire that transcends simple egotism. Anatoli Boukreev died in an avalanche on the world’s deadliest mountain, Annapurna, just one year after the Everest disaster. Here is his memorial at its base camp:


“Mountains are not stadiums where I practice my ambition to achieve. They are cathedrals where I practice my religion.” Lofty words, to be sure. But they also go to the root of that still-poorly-understood part of the human psyche that drives people to achieve great things; that part where our love for some thing or someone becomes a religious drive that gives life meaning. We need not all take it so literally, but we do need mountains to climb, and while we cannot remain at the top for long without running out of air, the moment of victory can last a lifetime.

In the meantime, though, excuse me as I pull the blinds on these gale-force winds and massive waves on Lake Superior, and crawl a bit further under my blanket. The next book I read is going to be about an adventure in the Amazon or the Sahara or something.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.