Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Thinking Back on Boulder and Prayer Flags

Around 30 years ago, I lived in Boulder, Colorado for a spell. Except for a brief, one-day visit in 1991, I haven't been back there since.

Boulder was a remarkable town in those days. This was before the check-of-the-month club moved in, and they blocked off Pearl Street. Everybody knew everybody else, and there was that small, mountain town spirit, universally understood in the West, but difficult to describe -- one of those things you have to experience to understand.

When I passed through in 1991, I didn't recognize the place. I imagine it is all for the worse now. People tell me that Jon Benet thing ruined the town, but I really don't know. Usually, a town gets ruined for a whole lot more than just one reason, and the events that people think are so singular are just catalysts.

Anyway, I was relaxing in Boulder, doing a little climbing and so forth, and it was always my custom to string up prayer flags in the mountains. The problem was, the winds were always tearing them down, so I would have to go back up and re-string them, and after a while, this became tiresome.

So, I started doing what climbers all over the world do, which is cannibalize the gear to hang the prayer flags.

I don't technical climb anymore, but I still hang prayer flags. About the best thing I've found for that is what they call "nuts," as seen in the above photo. These come in different sizes and configurations, but they all work the same way. You wedge them in crevices in the rocks. They go in so tight that you need a special tool to remove them, and that is seen in the photo as well. One chief advantage these have is they are among the cheapest components you can find -- maybe $6.00 to $8.00 -- and you can buy them almost everywhere.

You can also use pitons, but they will rust out over time. Pitons were once the staple of rock climbing, but for some strange reason, they are getting more and more difficult to find. I suppose it has something to do with environmentalism. In the old days, you bashed them in and then left them for the next time. Pretty soon, all the popular climbing spots were like pincushions. The trend these days is to leave no trace, which apart from being environmentally sound is also safer.

There are a number of other anchors available, and the one you wind up using is dictated by the rock you're working with no less than your budget.

You send a loop or a runner out from one of these, and then tie the flags to the runner. It works really well.

Why do you go to all this trouble? Well, if you just tie the flags to a rock or something, the flags saw against the rock in the wind and break.

If you have the right sort of rock, and it is a traditional place for prayer flags, you can even do a permanent installation. You take a 3 pound drilling hammer and a star drill, then drill a hole for a bolt. You can use an expansion bolt or epoxy, or both. You definitely don't want to do this on public land.

By the way -- if you want to know which prayer flags last the longest, I would heartily recommend the ones from Radiant Heart.

We opened this post with a photograph of Boulder's famous Flatirons, which people have been climbing for decades now. In around 1977, a rather celebrated lama friend of mine came to visit me, and we sat out in that meadow you see in the foreground. We were discussing a naturalist's book I planned to write, which was along the lines of "A Day in the Life of A Field." We were having a good time doing that, when all of a sudden we spied a climber way up on the face of Number 3.

"There is a man who likes to make his own obstacles," the lama commented.

I have thought a lot about that remark ever since. I used to think that the sentence was incomplete, i.e., "There is a man who likes to make his own obstacles, for the pleasure of making his own solutions." But, as time went by, I came to the conclusion that we are all bewildered enough without believing in solutions.

You can throw a lot of metaphors off a mountain peak -- as many as sparks from a garuda's beak. Sooner or later you'll get tired of it, and the mountain can go back to being a mountain, and you can go back to being you.

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