Scoop up a mountain of rock and soil. Dish out a little fun. Ladle on plenty of irony and even some sarcasm, if you wish. Then mix in a dash of adventure and tragedy.
What you have is the Mount Madison Volunteer Ski Patrol - a tongue-in-cheek organization that believes in the outdoors, living life to the fullest and that a good meal doesn't involve a fancy restaurant.
And careful trying to swallow that concept in one bite.
The western chapter of this loosely based group, created in New England in the '60s, got together for a rare winter potluck Jan. 24 at Rob and Pat Blair's crowded and cozy Durango home. The occasion was a presentation by the Blairs' son, Kurt Blair, who showed slides of his expedition to climb Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-highest mountain.
Such exploits generally are not what bring together the Mount Madison Volunteer Ski Patrol. But if you hang around for a few paragraphs, you'll learn why this particular climb did.
Where does one begin to make sense of this group of mostly retirees who have acronymed themselves the MMVSP?
First off, know that 5,367-foot Mount Madison is in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire.
Next, realize that Mount Madison is no hotspot for
Now you're ready. The Mount Madison patrol began as a poke at the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, a real group on a mountain that attracts serious skiers. Seems that in 1965, a well-known local, Tony Macmillan, was wearing an unauthorized Mount Washington patrol patch, which the gruff Mount Washington patrol leader noticed and ripped off the interloper's jacket.
In response to this rebuff, Macmillan founded the MMVSP.
The concept grew, albeit slowly. Group members created their own patch and flag - using purple as a main color. Now there are hats, shirts, even a pin.
Charlie and Mary Sue Burnham moved from Boston to Durango in 1996, and brought the MMVSP with them. Their Durango friends and neighbors embraced it. Fifteen people joined the first year, 1997, and more than 40 took part in 2008.
Their one shindig occurs in the summer, when they take to four-wheel-drive roads above Silverton, find a suitable scenic spot and lay out a fancy picnic spread. Picture a fancy tablecloth and candelabra against a backdrop of tundra and rocky outcrops, and you get the idea.
As the members finished their desserts at the Blairs' home, Charlie Burnham, wearing his official T-shirt and thin-rope necklace with a dangling carabiner, introduced Kurt Blair. (Yes, we're still getting to how the September expedition to Cho Oyu fits in.)
It was at the 2008 MMVSP gathering that Burnham, a former Harvard University geology professor, learned that Blair planned to climb Cho Oyu. Would you consider taking our flag?, he asked.
"Sure," replied Blair, information technology manager for the Southern Ute Growth Fund. After all, he was still giddy from being inducted into this "august body."
You may know that Cho Oyu lies in Tibet, a fact that threw an added challenge into the trip, Blair explained. The political situation was, and is, touchy, and expedition members didn't know until five hours before the trip if they'd be issued a permit.
Over the next couple of weeks, Blair and the 24-person group, led by the renowned Dan Mazur, climbed and acclimated as they rose up the 26,906-foot mountain. The window to summit was narrow because of the Chinese constraints on their permit. Blair had one day to give it a shot, and was blessed with good weather.
On the flat summit, with Mount Everest in the background just 12 miles away, he and another team member traded photos in the minus-15-degree chill.
And here, he told the MMVSP members, is "the moment you've been waiting for." The next slide: Blair, posing with an unfurled MMVSP flag atop Cho Oyu. The room erupted in cheer. The flag has been to most continents, including Antarctica and the South Pole, and many worthy mountaintops, but never before an 8,000-meter peak.
The 40-year-old, who did not use supplemental oxygen, recalled no summit euphoria, just a businesslike approach.
"At the time, it was kind of the next step in the overall trip. ... What's required to get back down?"
All did not end happily on the mountain. Two climbers in other parties died of accidents related to altitude, and another was struck with cerebral edema and had to be helped down.
Blair descended with no huge difficulty, and was out of the country and back in Durango sooner than he could even savor the summit. Now he's giving others a vicarious taste of glory.
The western chapter's 2009 summer picnic date is still uncertain, Burnham admitted awkwardly to the 32 gathered members. But at least until then, the group has something meaty to chew on.
John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.