Jun 28 2013

Profile: The Right Reverend Bardini

As if Gravity is become locally less important than Rapture.
—Thomas Pynchon

Alan Bard high on the Redline Traverse.

The Editor stopped eating; he leaned across the table with that expression. This was going to be a serious question. I read his magazine all the time. I know that he’s totally committed to imparting the soul of backcountry skiing with all its ups and downs, open minded enough to ride a snowboard when that’s a better tool, and questions everything but the passion that goes into earning your turns. His question: “why is this guy a legend?”

That was nearly a year ago. Suddenly Allan Bard is dead. He fell while guiding the Grand Teton on the iciest Fourth of July weekend local guides could remember. He was 500 feet below the summit on the Owen-Spalding route, leading a snowed-in chimney. Neither his client anchored safely below, nor the party of Brits climbing above, heard rockfall nor any sound from Allan. He pitched backward out of the chimney and came to rest at the end of his rope 130 feet below. He had a concussion through his helmet, and a broken femur had cut his femoral artery.

The Editor’s question has since gained dimension. To say that Allan Bard was my friend and I loved carving turns with him is not a good enough answer. Neither is the fact that I liked just hanging out with Bardini, as he styled himself, drinking and smoking, telling stories, trading insights and carrying on, plotting, scheming, dreaming, and toasting our good fortune to inhabit a planet together that includes gradient, snow and friendship.

What I said to The Editor—I had to give him something to chew on—was, “Ever heard of the Redline Traverse? It’s the highest and wildest of all the lines ever skied along the Sierra crest, a 200-mile linkup of north faces that doesn’t stray more than half a mile either side of the crest all the way from Mt. Whitney to Mammoth. That’s Allan’s inspiration. And in 15 years since he and Tom Carter and Chris Cox laid down the Redline, it has never been repeated.”

…beyond the reach of all laws except the ones that matter, like Gravity and Rapture.

It pissed me off, at least a little, to have to mention something so obvious, a high line that’s the crowning achievment of ski touring in the Sierra, if not ski mountaineering across the continent. During the 70s and 80s there was a strong tradition of touring here, of using light nordic gear and traveling across country rather than just climbing to descend peaks and bowls. The Redline managed to do both, and it may be difficult for modern telemarkers to appreciate the skill inherent in the first ski descents made along the way on gear that could still be called Nordic.

The fact that the Redline is unrepeated by skier or boarder is all the more remarkable considering that it was also the height of a more difficult style of skiing. Only a few of the individual north faces along the way have been repeated, and some of those were by punker extreme skiers on alpine boards, supported by the unbelievably cheeky and illegal decadence of snowmobile lift service. A far cry from Allan’s skinny Karhu Comps and pins—the classic nordic mountaineering rig—liberally supported by skill, balance and balls.

Allan Bard makes tele look easy — even with skinny skis.

But I was beginning to rave. The Editor, after all, was young. And the Redline was old news when his magazine was just a newsletter. Besides, that was merely Bardini’s best ski trip out of a life that included being a brilliant mountain guide, inventive ski teacher, widely published photographer, inspired writer, artist of the slide show, and friend. When 400 people showed up at his memorial service, and so many letters poured in that began, “I only met Allan Bard once, 12 years ago, but…” it is clear that he enriched the world with a generous measure of friendship.

Allan Bard grew into the Sierra on family camping trips to Tenya Lake in the Yosemite high country, back when you could still drink that cold mountain water right out of the creeks. He came from Oakland, from a Coast Guard family where his father ran a tight ship. The annual doses of high Sierra took hold; Allan’s brothers Gary and Dale still orbit their lives around Sierra skiing, whitewater boating, and technical wizardry on steep rock.

The man who would be the Reverend went to Seminary for six months, but the pull of Yosemite was stronger. He hung out in Camp 4, climbed walls, and eventually taught for several seasons at the Yosemite Mountaineering School, but it was hard to settle into a place where he was known mainly as Dale’s brother. One winter working a climbing bum job at Keystone, Colorado he stepped onto skis for the first time. It was 1972, Allan was 20 years old, the skis were skinny, the bindings were wee pins. America’s surge of interest in cross country skiing was just beginning. Allan recalled: “During that first season I still only skied on my pins. Everybody there thought I was crazy. Actually I just didn’t know any better.”

Allan posing with a message during his Seminary days.

In Yosemite Allan met Ned Gillette, a former Olympic cross country ski racer, and followed him out east to teach at the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont. Gillette turned out to be a master at self promotion, so the next spring, in 1977, Allan found himself on a high-profile Arctic ski expedition with skis, boots, bamboo poles and money compliments of the Norwegian Ski Council. Ellesmere Island is the closest land mass to the North Pole, and the group made a 450-mile circuit of its northern coast pulling supply sleds that started out weighing 240 pounds apiece. Team-hoisting their loads over pressure ridges, the trip took 52 days. Allan was 25 years old and just winding up his fifth year on skis.

The sponsors loved it, so the next spring found Allan, Ned and Doug Weins joined by Galen Rowell for a circumnavigation of Mt. McKinley on skis. The route consisted of long stints of travelling huge valley glaciers punctuated by steep roped climbing on snow and ice to get up and over the three major ridge systems radiating off the peak. Again they used skinny edgeless skis controlled by a nylon track shoe lighter than what you’re probably using for trail running these days. On McKinley Allan felt that their climbing boots would be more apt for skiing. He couldn’t help poking fun at their “upside-down packs,” with slippers on their feet and these heavy boots strapped to the top of their loads.

When you ski the trees, aim for the spaces, not the tree.

Something about the style of those ventures was beginning to bother him. On Ellesmere as they skied along the coastline hassling their sleds over the plentiful irregularities in the pack ice, they were always within sight of beautiful rolling peaks. And on those peaks the snow report was often eight inches of fresh—the light snow blew around, but didn’t age very fast in arctic conditions. If these were considered ski expeditions, there just wasn’t enough skiing.

New Zealand in 1979 was the last straw. In 32 days they managed to ski only a hundred miles of the Southern Alps. Sixteen of those days they were stormbound in a single tent with heavy weather and avalanche conditions raging outside. Worse, though, was that Ned had brought along his girlfriend, so Allan and Tom Carter had to endure the sounds coming from the two of them burrowed under the sleeping bags together through the long stormy afternoons. And when it cleared they tiptoed through avalanche terrain. “We skied through all these magnificent mountains,” sighed Allan, “but we couldn’t ski on them. It was sort of a ski hiking expedition. We might as well have been on snowshoes.”

So Allan Bard came home to his “Promised Land,” the high Sierra, and began plotting the Redline Traverse. They let the sponsorships follow their choices of gear instead of leading them, and whittled the loads down to 25 pounds by spotting frequent food caches. The tone became hedonistic. With no rush to finish, the trip lingered through the best spring conditions of 1981, 82 and 83.

You want a cookie?

Allan would get positively rhapsodic describing the special convergence of weather and geographical features that bless the Sierra with such a high, wide and handsome spring corn season. He’d been around the world and pronounced this the finest anywhere, the perfect canvas on which to inscribe the ultimate Red line. The name in part refers to the boundary on the topo maps that divides counties, national forests and other political irrelevancies along the Sierra crest. More important was “Redlining the fun meter.” So after yet another breathtaking corn run, perfectly timed, they would fetch up onto a warm granite slab complete with sandy sleeping spots and a timberline tarn for brisk afternoon dips. “There’s no place like home,” Allan grinned, “It’s sunny and there’s corn snow, and you can ski out to get a milkshake if you want.”

Powder Magazine called the Redline “200 miles of the most radical, high committment skiing ever attempted. It is possibly the highest/longest ski tour in North America.” Outside placed the Redline, “at the outer limits of Nordic ski mountaineering, probably the most rapidly advancing of all the alpine arts.” Thus the highlights of Allan Bard’s ski record. Plenty of breathtaking turns there to become a legend. But that isn’t what we—clients and friends alike—kept coming back for. It’s tempting to say we were drawn to hear Allan’s inexhaustible stock of stories. But being with Allan wasn’t the least bit like the joke about people with a reportoire so set that one would only have to say “number 14” to crack up the assembled listeners.

No. It was a question from another editor—Powder this time—that snapped it into focus. All he asked for was my favorite Bardini story. I stammered and couldn’t answer, and finally realized that it wasn’t the storytelling itself, but rather the way Allan customized it to whoever was with him. It is the essence of good guiding to reach out and meet people wherever they’re at, join them there, put them at ease, and only then begin to lead them onward. The Right Reverend’s stories lubricated that process, and did so as effortlessly for friends as for clients. In that sense he was always guiding, and what we all seem to miss most are his very personalized little nudges of direction.

Yes, at its best the dialogue transcended storytelling. Allan’s sweetheart, Jane Dulaney recently captured one of those moments:

“I would pose some inexperienced conjecture, and with great ponderance Allan would put his first two fingers up to his lips, purse them for a moment and get tickled by his mustache. All the while he was looking off into space above my shoulder. I often times expected to turn around and see an Archangel holding up cue cards for Al to read—but without falter the words would boom out of Allan’s strong voice as though they were coming straight from the man on high.

Allan would have the ability to rip you a new asshole with a great deal of tact. And somewhere in the middle of his masterful speech you would realize that what indeed was going on was the passing of a great knowledge from someone who cared enough to tell you the absolute truth.

Among the most memorable is the first time I heard him pontificate about being Reverend Bardini of the First Church of the Open Slopes. It was on my first ski trip with AB. Sunday morning we took a break at a lake in front of Temple Crag. Allan was in rare form—or his finest Bardini form. And most assuredly his message was that the world would be a better place if more people spent time in the mountains.”

Though know for promoting telemark, Allan knew it was about where you skied that mattered, not how.

It goes almost without saying that Bardini carried the art of mountain guiding considerably beyond the technicalities of roped skiing and beacon drills, or the teaching of lateral-projection-through-the-fall-line, stages where many of his contemporaries continue to be hung up. He knew that technicalities are mere prerequisites to the art. When you know avalanche forecasting and how to coax a telemark turn out of a parallel skier, then you are ready to begin learning to be a guide. He was outspoken as a critic of the current method of certifying-by-exam, and generous as a mentor to young guides, which he saw as a superior system.

Now please, don’t anyone give me any of that crap about how Allan Bard died doing what he loved. Fellow guide John Fischer said it best: “He hated to fall.” What Allan wanted to go on doing, according to his recent manifesto “The Backside of Beyond,” was the great work of “bringing people and mountains together to the greater benefit of both,” to create room for others “to think of nothing and reflect on everything,” and thus bring into focus “the importance of a quiet mind and a satisfied soul.” He wanted to keep on giving and receiving friendship. He wanted to finish a few things begun so well in his last couple of years, like closing some old personal wounds, finishing a book of his stories, bringing a hut system into the Sierra to guide more folks to the backside of beyond, and finally, fulfilling the rich promise of a new relationship that he needed, cherished and deserved, and for which his dues were paid in full.

But he knew the risks. He was the safest guide around, and he still knew as well as anyone can what is at stake. On high, icy peaks the risks are greater, and they’re accentuated by the normal practices of alpine guiding: hustling the party, leading without a belay or protection. Still vivid after two decades is a moment of instability I had on one of the high alpine ridges of Temple Crag. I was 80 feet out, leading without a belay, expediting the climb. It was dry and sunny. For just an instant I lost my balance, then caught it again. That’s all that happened, the whole story. My clients never knew. But in that instant things nearly turned out very differently. Unfortunately, we will never know what happened with Allan. Yesterday I ordered a better helmet.

Allan Bard liked to say that above 10,000 feet he was beyond the reach of all laws except the ones that matter, like Gravity and Rapture. He knew that up there lurks a hard kernel of risks that are irreducible, and a profound flowering of benefits that are incalculable.

Allan’s attitude was infectious.

On July 18th, 114 of us joined hands in a long line snaking across the Dana Plateau and down to where the edge drops abruptly away into the Cocaine Chutes. At the head of the line Allan Bard’s ashes were held aloft in an ordinary cardboard box, then tipped over the edge. He was released into the high Sierra country, his Promised Land. But Allan wouldn’t stay put. The wind coming up off of Mono Lake picked him up and carried him out over our heads. I breathed in, knowing that I would carry Allan with me for as long as the privilege lasts of clambering up and sliding down the flanks of this bright little planet. When Allan Bard took off he was headed south, right down the Redline toward the highest crest of the Range of Light. The last words in his article about that tour leaped to mind: “The Redline…was something we had always wanted to do—take a long, low-level flight over the Sierra crest.”

© 1997
This profile/obit first appeared in Couloir magazine, Volume X-1, October 1997. Republished with permission from the author.

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