Timepiece fiction

When I was in college, I wanted to write short stories and poetry. You can see how that turned out. Well, though I realize that my writing strengths are elsewhere, about a year ago I was inspired to flex my long dormant fiction muscles after a trip to Germany during which I was entrusted a rather expensive watch for a week. The result was this short story, which falls into the niche of “timepiece fiction” and thus never found a home. Until now. Figured I’d publish it here on my blog just for kicks.

Up/Down: In Search of a Datograph

When I came to, the first thing I saw was Eric’s worried face. He was shouting my name and slapping my frostbitten cheeks, which likely woke me up. 600 feet up, past his head, I saw the distant shape of the Basteibrucke, that fairytale bridge in Saxony on which, just a short time ago, we were photographing the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Up/Down, possibly the world’s most perfect chronograph. Rendered in platinum, the $89,000 watch looked perfect perched there on the stone bridge railing in the snow. Then it fell.

At first, Eric and I couldn’t believe what had happened and we dumbly looked at each other, as if one of us was playing a practical joke. In fact, losing the Datograph was a scenario we had nervously joked about all week while traipsing around Saxony taking photos on fortress ramparts and on the hood of a luxury car that cost less than the watch. So when it actually happened, I somehow was not surprised, as if we had willed it to happen through our rehearsals.

After a moment of stunned silence, we sprung into action. Having done some ice climbing earlier in the week in the Erzegebirne, we had some abseiling gear in the trunk of the BMW. While Eric hiked back to the parking lot, I scanned the ravine below the bridge for a sign of the watch, hoping that the polished lugs or faceted dial markers might somehow throw a reflection. Fat chance—the snow was two feet deep down below and the overcast sky was darkening in the early winter gloom. To make matters worse, it was spitting snow now, threatening to bury our borrowed timepiece even deeper, so that only some lucky hiker might find it when all of this melted in late April.

Eric returned to the bridge with the ropes and gear, carabiners clanking against ice screws as he jogged across the span. Surely what we were going to attempt was against the rules at this historic landmark but it was a Wednesday afternoon and the few tourists who had been there were now well on their way back to Dresden before nightfall. We had no choice; if we didn’t recover this watch, not only would we be personae non gratae at the Lange & Söhne dinner reception later that night, but Walter Lange himself might have us thrown in the Festung Konigstein for the loss of such a valuable masterpiece.

I anchored the 500-foot 4mm static rope to one of the bridge stanchions with my best rappelling knot. Eric and I flipped a coin for who would go down first but I knew it would be me. It was my name on the watch loan agreement and I felt responsible for finding it and wouldn’t stand by on the bridge while Eric dug in the snow. Sure enough, “tails” showed and I stepped into my harness, looped the rope through my belay device and stepped over the edge of the railing. The rope was already slick with ice from the damp snow and slid through the friction plates faster than I liked. My descent felt frantic and almost out of control. I soon neared the treetops below and Eric’s voice, calling out false encouragement, was fading even as the daylight did. The last 100 feet would be tricky and require that I change ropes. I hung pendulously there, fumbling with my gear sling to find a piton and hammer. Historical monument be damned, this was the only way down.

I wedged the piton into a chink between two bricks, presumably laid by some brave soul (or fool) in the early 1800s, and started hammering it in. The hollow sound of metal on metal reverberated off the adjacent rock formations and sounded ominously brittle in the frigid air. Indeed it felt brittle—the brick and mortar splintered and crumbled as I pounded and did not inspire confidence. But finally I felt some purchase and hammered the piton home until it felt solid. I looped the new length of rope through the piton and then through a second belay device on my harness before untying from the first. Now I was committed.

As I leaned back to test the strength of my new anchor, I glanced down to where the watch had fallen. I wondered then if this was even worth it. Even if I found the watch, surely it would be shattered, hands jarred loose, the movement a jumble of gears and springs and engraved German silver collected within the case. But there was always the value of the platinum, I thought, and started descending again. As soon as I passed the treetops, it started to get very dark. I could hear a stream gurgling below, out of sight, under the ice and snow. It was a comforting sound, something alive and moving in this frozen landscape. That was the last sound I heard. At that moment, the piton silently came loose and I fell 30 feet to the snow below. The next thing I knew, Eric was beside me, waking me up.

By now it was near sunset and the forested ravine was almost completely dark. Any hope of finding the Datograph was slim but as soon as I regained my senses, we both scrambled up and spread out, digging in the deep snow like madmen, with no search pattern or plan. Just when I was about to give up, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a glint of something shiny. It was under a ledge of ice where the moving water of the stream had kept the ice open. I called out to Eric. It had to be the watch. Indeed, as I stumbled closer, it was clearly a watch. My foot broke through the thin ice on the stream and my boot suddenly filled with icy water but relief flooded through me as I reached out for the watch which appeared to be wrapped around something. As I bent closer I realized this wasn’t the Datograph; the dial was all wrong. My disappointment at this discovery was quickly replaced with horror as I realized that what this watch was wrapped around was a man’s wrist. That’s when we heard the dogs barking.

Sochi

I went to Sochi for the Olympics last week. Had I listened to all the warnings and naysayers beforehand, I would have missed out on a magical experience. To visit Russia alone was a thrill but to also get to attend the Olympic Games, especially the Winter Games, was a lifelong dream. Sure, I take issue with some of Russia’s policies and politics. But I’m in the camp of people that thinks the athletes and the people of Sochi aren’t to blame and to go and support those who put in the hard work to compete is to honor the true Olympic spirit. I wrote up a couple of articles on the Olympics for Gear Patrol, including some impressions from my days there.

In other news, we published our British Watch Issue on Gear Patrol which was not without its challenges but is the direction we want to go more often — themed “issues”. I’m quite proud of what we put together.

I continue to write watch blurbs for Men’s Journal and my quarterly dive watch reviews for Revolution. Altogether, it’s a nice mix of web and print, watches and travel, with a dash of gear reviews to remind me where it all began. There are some big things afoot this year so watch this space…

It’s All One Life

Whites-23

Summit of Mt. Garfield. Photo by Gishani.

2013 was the year I made freelance writing my full-time job. At first it was scary but once the momentum of traveling, writing, chasing gigs (and payments), deadlines and more travel took over, I was able to ride the wave and actually enjoy it. Sometimes I can’t believe that my work involves things like researching New Zealand birds, packing underwater camera gear or pricing biathlon rifles. But it also involves the frustrations of unresponsive editors and the arcane rules of Quickbooks accounting software.

 This was the first year I have achieved any sort of medallion status on an airline, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily something to be proud of. 88,000 miles flown and counting before the end of the year (yes, I’m squeezing in one more trip before the ball drops, though this one is purely for vacation). This was a year of mountains and sharks, of helicopters and caves. I made it into the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, learned how to use an ice axe, jumped in the water with a tiger shark and drove a 500-horsepower Ferrari AND a 17-ton tank. I also learned how precious free weekends at home are, just sitting by the fire or binge-watching an entire season of a British detective series in one go. I also learned how much any travel is better if I can share it with my wife.

When I returned from a trip recently, someone texted me and said, “welcome back to reality” and it occurred to me that it’s actually ALL part of my reality, both the excitement and new experiences and the (sometimes) mundane work of sitting at my desk at home writing about it. A wise boss of mine told me once years ago, “it’s all one life” and I have clung to that belief ever since. If you’re trying to compartmentalize your job from your home from your work from your play, something is wrong. Find something you love to do and there is no separation.

The Mountain Series

mountain-maps

As I mentioned earlier, this was a year of mountain adventures, starting way back in June with my climb of Mount Rainier. By my count, I visited five mountain ranges between June and October: the Cascades, the Rockies, the Alps, the Appalachians and the Southern Alps. All have their own beauty and challenges.

I wrote three features for Gear Patrol that were packaged together as “The Mountain Series” and laid out in such a way that they really showed off the photography. While I took the photos for the Bugaboos trip, my wife, Gishani, was along for the Alps and White Mountains hikes and her photos really take it to the next level.

I can’t say that 2014 will bring as many mountain adventures as this year did–that would be nearly impossible to do.  But after a few years of doing mostly underwater exploring, it was nice to vary things a little and get in to the high country.

Sea to summit

Bugs_heliA summer that began on the solstice with an ascent of Mount Rainier ended with a rainy hike in the Alps. In between these mountain excursions, I dove with a tiger shark in the Bahamas, was a grinder on a 12-meter former America’s Cup boat and went heli-hiking in the Bugaboo mountains of British Columbia. While normally autumn is a time to hunker down by the hearth, further adventures await: a three-day hut-to-hut hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a trip to trek the famed Milford Track in New Zealand and exploring the jungle and reefs of Belize. All before Christmas. And I just got word that I’ll be going to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Not to compete, mind you.

While it may all sound like fun and games, these trips are work, always having to look for the right photos to take, experiences to note and contacts to make, in the service of writing and career development. In between the trips, there’s the matter of staying fit and not getting injured, since making a living writing about adventures requires one to be able to do the adventures in the first place. Not that I’m complaining. 2013 has been a truly epic year (yes, that word is overused) and one I’ll always remember.

Apex Summer

Rainier-9It’s been a while since I’ve blogged but I’ve got a good excuse.  I’ve been too busy adventuring and writing about adventuring! The high point (sorry) of my spring was a climb of Mount Rainier, which appropriately culminated with reaching the summit on the first day of summer. It was one of the most difficult physical challenges I’ve done, right up there with my Alcatraz swim, but very rewarding. I wrote up the climb for Gear Patrol, along with a couple of companion articles about gear and other American peaks to climb. Here’s the feature article:

Climbing the Volcano

The photos really make that article, most of which were taken by my guide, Brent Okita, who was carrying my Sony RX100 pocket camera. Mountain photography is predictably awesome, given the thinner atmosphere, bright sun and contrasts of snow and blue skies.

Speaking of apexes, I also just returned from a trip to the Bahamas, where we shadowed a shark research team for a week, catching, taking samples from, and tagging, a variety of these amazing and endangered animals. Despite some bug bites, sunburn and a cracked rib (hoisting myself over the gunwale of a pitching boat), it was a great trip and one I’ll be writing about very soon.

Epic summer, and it’s only half over! I’ve got trips to the Bugaboos in Canada, sailing off of Marblehead, and a trip to the Swiss Alps all ahead in the next few months. But first, a few precious weeks at home to rest up, refuel and write!

One foot in print, the other in Web

photoHaving been in this freelance game full-time for six months now, I feel like I’ve reached a good position. I’m running about half and half between writing for print and writing for Web and have winnowed down my clientele to three or four regular outlets which has greatly simplified the administrative side of the business.

I’m now officially a Contributing Editor at Revolution magazine, a quarterly whose work requirements ebb and flow and usually require a bit more in terms of research, word count and technical depth. This is in addition to my more full-time gig as Section Editor of the Timekeeping series at Gear Patrol. The latter job also allows me the flexibility to write articles on topics other than watches, for which I’m grateful. I also write the odd piece for Men’s Journal, AskMen and Motor Trend, which are great occasional assignments.

The first issue of Revolution came out and I have no less than seven articles in it, ranging from new watch write-ups to longer pieces on watches in space, a dive watch review and the tale of an historic Lange & Sohne grand complication pocketwatch that was lost and then found. Meanwhile, at Gear Patrol, I’ve done a couple of interviews with famous adventurers, a listing of great summer adventures and a roundup of seven great dive watches. This summer should be diverse, fun and challenging, with a climb of Mount Rainier, a trip to the Bahamas to film a shark research project and a trip to Switzerland for a photography workshop and some Alpine hiking. All will be duly documented, as one might expect. Watch this space!