October 23, 2021

An Exciting Archaeological Find — Or It Will Be


In foreground: crest of the natural mound containing possible buried pit house.

A guest post from the far future:

Allow me to begin by congratulating my new collegue Mazakan Petasuta on passing her final examinations and earning her degree of Superba in archaeology. She will be joining the Department of Ancient Studies here at Iron Lightning Regional University at the beginning of the fall term.

She is already in the planning stages of a new excavation at a site about 375 versti to the northeast, a recently discovered pit house of a little-known type. It took a sharp eye to recognize that the depression in this small ridge was not a natural feature, and, of course, the original structure is below the Dust and other wind-deposited materials.

Her initial trench, however,  revealed metallic traces suggestive of artisanal work with ferrous materials, as well as domestic items such as buttons. Fortunately, the overall site is small enough that a student crew should be able to exacavate it completely in a matter of weeks.

Most significant—and this ties into my own work with the Anhydrous Ammonia Cultural Complex—are the two plaques found adjacent to the apparent pithouse. Originally on tall, sturdy fireproof pillars, they projected far enough into the Dust deposits that subsequent heavy rains washed them clear. The two scripts in which they are written suggest that they were not contemporary with each other. In addition, the scripts match many found at AACC sites.

I have been working for several years cataloging the anhydrous ammonia containers found at what perhaps are isolated strongholds of rural clan chiefs. Such containers are not found in the ruins of ancient cities, at least so far. My colleagues in chemistry point out that this substance can release combustible gases, so possibly these gases were produced for lighting or heating.

Should Professor Petasuta find any evidence for anhydrous ammonia in her pit house, that would permit me to extend the AACC's beginnings farther into the post. 

Ciqala Ikiliki, senior archaeological fellow

October 21, 2021

Should SAR Leave the Body on the Peak?

A Colorado Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopter
on a mission near Ouray (Ouray Mountain Rescue Team).

Last August, three volunteers from Mountain Rescue Aspen were injured by rockfall on Capitol Peak as they searched for a missing climber.

One was hit by a "micowave-size rock" that smashed into her hip. "She sustained a comminuted femur fracture (broken in three or more pieces), multiple pelvis breaks and a fractured vertebra."

While she was expected to recover, I suspect that she will feel those injuries for a long time, perhaps the rest of her life.

The injured rescuers were airlifted off the mountain by a Colorado Air National Guard helicopter. (The ANG frequently helps out on these situations.)

The climber, a 32-year-old man from Madison, Wisconsin, was left up there. Some of my climber friends on Facebook were deeply disappointed. 

The Pitkin County team told the family it did not see a way to safely recovery the body at this time.

“It was a difficult decision, but we’ve collectively decided to leave Kelly McDermott’s body on the mountain where it currently rests,” [Sheriff's Office representative Alex] Burchetta told CBS4. “We’ve spent the past month or so working on alternate recovery plans and simply were not able to come up with one that provided the level of safety necessary to conduct another recovery mission.”

But how many people should risk their lives to bring down a body? My county's Search and Rescue Group, which is large and active, has done it multiple times. But no one has ever gotten a smashed pelvis in the process. (I realize that the injuried searchers did not know that their missing climber had died.)

It's a different order of magnitude, but many bodies have been left on Everest and other big mountains. One corpse, nicknamed "Green Boots," is a well-known landmark to climbers on the North Face. There may be as many as two hundred others.

There are several intertwined problems here.

Most Search and Rescue people are volunteers. I know some locally. They work hard and pay a lot of their own expenses. Should they climb after corpses, or should friends and family take care of that?

SAR groups are more focused on living people who need help, however. They defend their "no-charge" policies, saying that free rescues save more people. The Colorado Search and Rescue Association states their policy:

The State of Colorado has declared that backcountry search and rescue is an essential service in Colorado.  The Colorado SAR community believes SAR is a service that should be provided to anyone, regardless of ability to pay.  These civic minded volunteers do what they do for many different reasons, including simple humanitarian support for their neighbors and visitors. They enjoy being outdoors, and many of them talk about the personal pride that comes from working as a team to save lives.   SAR teams, in many ways, help sustain the Colorado way of life.  Charging for services, especially in a punitive context, does nothing to further this culture and likely would injure Colorado outdoor tourism. . . .

The Summit County Rescue group tells the story of a young hiker who became stranded on Colorado’s 14,270 foot Quandary Peak. She called 911, but asked the SAR coordinator just to “talk her out of the area,” which was a dangerous, technical part of the mountain. The sun had already set and it was getting cold, but she repeatedly insisted the team should not come to help her. The SAR coordinator finally asked why she didn’t want help, and she replied, “I can’t afford it.” He explained there would be no charge and she finally relented.

There are a few caveats to the no-charge-for-rescue doctrine. First, if you are rescued by a backcountry SAR team, they may call in other resources that do commonly charge for services, such as ambulances and medivac helicopters.  Health insurance plans may offer coverage for these kinds of medical transport.

Colorado charges a fee on hunting, fishing, and all-terrain vehicle licenses that helps to fund Search and Rescue groups. I wonder what percentage of hikers and climbers buy the stand-alone COSAR card. It is a fundraiser, but it is not "rescue insurance."

A recent New York Times article states,

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge of inexperienced hikers venturing into the outdoors. And that in turn has increased the pressure on search and rescue teams, as well as the costs. Increasingly, states are looking for ways to penalize people who take unnecessary risks. But some question whether these laws might also discourage people from seeking help soon enough after putting their lives at risk because of an honest mistake.

New Hampshire passed a law in 2008 that allowed it to seek reimbursement if state officials deemed that a rescued person was negligent.

 Colorado's SAR community is resisting this movement, so far.

When I took National Outdoor Leadership School wilderness first-aid classes, one question always bounced around in my head. The instructors always seemed to assume that the helicopter — or the SAR team — would be there when we needed them. But what if they did not come? What happens when they have too many incidents to cope with, "essential service" or not?

Would people be more careful if they knew that help was not just a cell phone call or beacon activation away? 

My neighbors like to say that if a violent crime occurs, the nearest sheriff's deputy is at best twenty minutes away, so you had better have your own Plan B. And we rural volunteer firefighters are not as quick to respond as an urban fire department either. What will you do until we arrive?

Is it fair to ask that of mountain hikers and climbers? 

How would it change things if you went up the mountain knowing that no one—except possibly your friends—would come looking for you if you did not return on time?

October 19, 2021

Everybody Thinks Something about the Resort-Town Housing Crisis

Victor, Colorado, had lots of houses when it was a mining town.
Not so many second-home owners back in those days.

Mountain and resort-town housing — the lack of it — is lighting up Rocky Mountain news sites. Town councils are suddenly turning nasty and seeing seasonal homeowners as the obstacle to year-around workers finding a place to live. Or they start cracking down on short-term rentals. Breckenridge, for example:

Breckenridge, with its ski slopes reaching into the middle of town, is a short-term rental haven. The town has 3,945 privately owned homes and condos that vacationers can rent. The town council, in an effort town leaders described as a way “to protect our quality of life and the fabric of our community” and “fiercely protect the character of Breckenridge,” on Tuesday unanimously approved a 2,200-property cap on so-called exempt short-term rentals in the town. Those are the homes that are not part of a larger hotel-like complex that offers a staffed front-desk and security. . . . The vacation-rental strategies deployed in Aspen, Breckenridge, Chaffee County, Crested Butte, Eagle County, Grand County, Steamboat Springs, Telluride and  Summit County all differ, but one thing is clear: The largely unfettered growth of short-term rentals in Colorado’s high country is coming to an end.

Hotel owners must like the idea of capping short-term rentals a lot.

I feel like I have been on all sides of this issue. I have sought Colorado small-town housing in situations of "Take it now, it's the best you can get." 

Then not along ago, I was walking down a street in Taos, New Mexico, and recognized a little apartment where as a twenty-something I had a short-term relationship with a woman who lived there. I don't remember how we met or how she supported herself. What I thought instead was, "I bet that's an AirBnB rental now."

Yet my wife and I were staying in an AirBnB rental nearby ourselves! We like to be able to cook our own meals, for one thing. Sneaking an electric hot plate into a motel room gets old.

On the other side, we were short-term rental landlords from 2002 to 2020, when our county briefly shut down all short-term rentals because of the pandemic — just when we had decided to change from a do-it-yourself approach to listing with VRBO

When we switched our "guest cabin" from long-term to short-term, we knew we were taking a rental property off the market in an area where rentals are very difficult to find. But there were advantages from our end:

  • Short-term renters do less damage. They don't leave junk cars on the property or mysteriously acquire extra dogs.
  • The cabin's well is a little unreliable. It is easy to call someone to haul water for the cistern for short-term guests, but that would be really expensive to do for long-term renters.
  • The short-term approach let us block out times for family and friends and for our own occasional travel. 

Financially, we probably did not do as well, since the business was highly seasonal, but we paid the taxes and insurance and got the income-tax write-off for rental properties. But we could have rented it to that newly hired schoolteacher that you read about in all the news stories, the one who ends up turning down the job because s/he can't find a place to live.

There’s no affordable housing in Mancos. Zero rental units. Nearly no houses on the market. The town’s school district struggles to hire teachers because they can’t find a place to live. It’s the same story with the town government, the hospital and the nursing home.

Maybe if we get the well-situation worked out, we can do that. And new flooring downstairs. Et cetera.

Small towns that want to build municipally funded housing find problems too. Some have to go with geology, others with the construction economy.

Pagosa Springs, for example, has earmarked land for affordable housing but struggled to get the attention of developers. After receiving zero responses to a request to build a dozen units last spring, the town this fall expanded the development to include up to 64 units on three plots of land, offered at little to no cost. It got three responses. 

“These guys are making good money right now building custom homes,” Pagosa Springs councilmember Mat deGraaf said of developers. “If you’ve ever worked in the trades, you make hay when the sun shines. And right now the sun is shining so I don’t fault them.”

So even when towns want to spend money on housing, there can be obstacles.

I don't think it does much good to beat up on that out-of-state person who owns a "Christmas house" in Blue River or Telluride though. They can rent short-term (given a local property manager), but they are not going to rent to that cop or schoolteacher because they themselves want to use the house or condo at certain times. How do you get around that problem? (And don't suggest expropriating these "exploiters"' houses at gunpoint—not likely to happen.)

Playing the "quality of life" card and capping short-term rentals, however, might be politically feasible, but there will lots of pushbacks from people who depend on that income to pay for the "Christmas house." And there is an economic argument.

One short-term rental manager said,

“All the business owners in Breckenridge who rely on visitor spending, they are getting it from my group,” said Carol Kresge, the manager of the sprawling home that was originally built as a B&B but now can be rented short-term by vacationing groups who pay as much as $4,000 a night. . . . “Hearing that short-term rentals are destroying the character of Breckenridge is disturbing and it’s just not true . . . The visitors who visit the lodge are the character of Breckenridge. They come into town and they spend their money at the local restaurants and shops. A cap on short-term rentals is a broad brush approach designed to solve a problem that hasn’t been well defined.”

The economic argument leads to a larger question: Can outdoor recreation "save" small towns in pretty places. Some economists say no. But that is a separate blog post.

October 10, 2021

Down-on-the-Ground Local: A SE Colorado Tarantula Photo Contest

At the SECO News (southeastern Colorado*), an irregular news site for that corner of the state, they are marking tarantula migration season with a photo and video contest. It seems unclear what the deadline is, if any, but here is the contest information.

First you have a photo contest, then in a few years there will be a festival with street food and a Tarantula Queen beauty contest, judged on best costuming and tattoos.

Tarantula-themed street rods and lowriders. Talks by spider experts. Ghost stories. Archaeology and rock art. T-shirts, leather work, and all that. Salsa made from Pueblo chile peppers.

Pizzica would be good too, but too few of the Italians who settled in southern Colorado a century or more ago seem to have come from Salento. Can't have it all.

What lens for tarantulas?

* Did this abbreviation trend start with SoHo in Manhattan? Denver is so proud of their LoDo that they have now started RiNo, a name which you know was picked by a committee. My Missouri relatives mostly live in Mid-Mo nowadays. And there are SoCal and NorCal, if you are into that.

October 05, 2021

Who Will Make Me These Old Skis?

Skis from 1300 years ago (Secrets of the Ice.)

I have always enjoyed messing around with old cross-country ski gear. In high school, I picked up some World War Two-era ski boots as used by the famous 10th Mountain Division. These boots were fearsome—they must have weighed five pounds apiece. 

As for their skis, you would be better off siding your house with those planks rather than skiing on them.

Nevertheless, I do intend to be one of the last skiers in Colorado with bamboo poles. I am on my second pair. The first pair was recycled as trekking poles.

Lately I've gotten into the Altai skis, using a long stick.

But forget about those. These are old skis. Prehistoric skis! From the Secrets of the Ice website:

We have found [in Norway] the best-preserved pair of skis from prehistory! Back in 2014, the Secrets of the Ice program found an exceptional pre-Viking ski, 1300 years old, at the Digervarden Ice patch in Norway. The ski was complete, including the binding – one of only two skis from prehistory in this condition. Ever since, we have monitored the ice patch, hoping and praying for the second ski of the pair to melt out. Now it has happened! The new ski is even better preserved than the first one! It is an unbelievable find.

"Fate of the owner still unknown" says this Science magazine article.

The skis, which would have been used as wintertime transportation tools, were extensively repaired, a sign they were too valuable to easily replace. They’re not identical, suggesting a set cobbled together from other pairs. And although researchers once thought the skis might have been lined with fur on the bottom for grip going uphill, a wide groove running down the center of the newly recovered ski would have no purpose if it was covered—suggesting fur wasn’t part of the design.

The find leaves one big question: What happened to their owner? Perhaps, the long-ago skier took them off to hunt and lost them in the snow, the researchers speculate. Or maybe an early skiing accident left the hunter too injured to descend to safety from the frozen heights. In that case, the ice might hold yet more surprises.

The researchers who found them say,

Another possibility is that there was an accident. Maybe the skier fell and destroyed the toe bindings in the fall? The skis could no longer be used and were left behind. An argument against this explanation is that the skies must have had a significant value. One of them had repairs. In addition, they have holes at the front which would have made it easy to drag them behind in a rope when exiting the mountains. So why leave them behind when they could have been brought along and repaired in the lowlands?

Perhaps there was an accident that left the Iron Age skier dead or seriously injured? Is the skier still inside the ice at Mount Digervarden? This is probably hoping for too much. What we can say for sure is that we have not seen the last finds from the Digervarden ice patch. We will be back.

You can read about the first Digervarden ski and other ski finds from the ice here.

So who will replicate them for us throwback skiers? Yes, I am thinking about winter. Just a little.

October 01, 2021

The Wisdom of the Hackberry: Reflections on a Weird Gardening Year

One day this past week our little hackberry tree turned golden. It was alone in that—true, the aspens are turning at higher elevations, but here the lanceleaf cottonwoods, the Gambel oaks, the various berry bushes, are  all still green. 

We got it a few years ago at some nursery in Taos, possibly the now-closed Blossoms in Ranchos de Taos, or possibly Petree, but I think it was Blossoms.

I nearly lost it one year to drought, but it has come back up to where — although the picture does not suggest great height — it is a couple of feet taller than I am. Hackberry is supposed to be fast-growing. That is true in the good years.

"Hackberry," says the University of Nebraska Extension Service, "Celtis occidentalis, is a native tree to the region. It grows up to 60 feet tall and has a spread of 50 feet. It is in the same family as the elm tree, Ulmaceae."

Another site notes that hackberry "can withstand high salt, acid, sand, clay and alkali levels in soils, as well as survive extended flooding and drought." 

"Flooding and drought" summarizes the 2021 growing season. Spring and early summer were soaking. In an article celebrating this year's hay harvest, one of the county weeklies said the core growing area received more than 19 inches (4.75 hands for the horsey set, about one cubit for you Mesopotamians) of rain in the spring in summer. At my place, I saw water running downhill in places where I had never seen water before, not even when big spring snow dumps melted.

"Ah," I thought, "this will recharge the soil moisture, and we will have wildflowers and vegetables and mushrooms and all of it."

Not so fast, hopeful foothills gardener!  

Our "Holderness" (that's its name) clay soil holds water if you apply it slowly, which nature often does not. As my old Soil Conservation Service book on local soils says, 

Holderness "loess and residium that derive from sandstone . . . . the native vegetation is mostly foothills grasses. . . . . Permeability is slow, and the available water capacity is high. . . . runoff is moderate or rapid, and the hazard of erosion is high. Gully erosion is common. This soil is suited to pasture and grazing. (Description updated here.)

M. was at the grocery store two days ago, and someone else was describing her vegetable garden this year as "crappy." I think that happens when you plant late because it's cold and wet — and then the weather goes dry and hotter than average in late summer, making it almost impossible to keep up with watering plants.

As for the local wildflowers, they were not all that spectacular. Maybe they need more recovery time. Up a little higher, about 8,500 feet, I saw amazing flowers in an area that burned in 2016, however, with aspen saplings coming up everywhere.

Mushrooms down here were not. The usual Agaricus campestris never popped (well, there was one I left alone) and the normal Suellus "slippery jacks" never appeared. 

But up in our usual mushroom grounds, the harvest was spectacular, so no complaints.

Instead, this was the Year of Tall Grass. To come up our driveway is to experience driving between banks of grass like grain waiting for the scythe — I say scythe because I mean tall stuff, not like dwarf wheat bred for combine-harvesting.

I let much of the cabin lawn go unmowed (the deer bed down in that high stuff, feeling hidden). It was a tough choice—tall grass is more of a fire hazard, but I wanted all those seeds! It sure beats buying seed, and now the mower can spread them. 

Everywhere, grass thicker than I have ever seen. What Holderness wants, it gets.  It wanted the early summer lambsquarter and amaranth; it did not want beets, and it was sort of indifferent to tomatoes, which are bearing but not heavily.

Meanwhile, the hackberry, in its weather wisdom, is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, and now it is the first one to cash in its chips when autumn comes. It knows that abrupt changes from cold to hot and back again are commonplace and always have been, as long as there have been hackberries. As the saying goes, "normal is just a number."