First snow and pizza: September 9th

Well, it happened again. I’d done so well for most of the summer, and then the yearly release of new ski content got me all fired up. As if the weather knew that I was particularly vulnerable to walking a long distance in search of a little new blanket of fluff, a bunch of moisture combined with cooler temps rolled through over the past week. Thus, I wandered up to Comeau Pass in the clouds on the theory that there’d be something fresh to ski on the old snow patches.

Pretty interesting snow structure even for the early season. Rain soaked slush makes up the bottom in the old snowfields, with 3-8″ of groppel under a melt/freeze crust above that. The new snow I was skiing was pretty well welded to the freeze crust down lower. Get it before it’s hot.

#winteriscoming

Closing the gap: the community’s role in outdoor learning

Every activity, for every one of us, had a starting point: where we were wandering in, excited, and looking to make a good start at something new. And to make that start easier, many of the sports or activities out there have quite a bit in terms of structure. Coaches, leagues, a team or group of similarly minded people, referees to watch the rules—these are familiar things to our broader society.

Many outdoor pursuits have their similar share of organized entry points: scout troops, university clubs, climbing gyms, mountaineering groups. Maybe an uncle introduces you to rock climbing or a family fascination with the outdoors teaches you to backpack or ski while growing up. Parents impart their knowledge, and you learn from them what to pack and when to turn around because of weather.

But unlike soccer or speech and debate, most of what we do outside doesn’t require a membership or any kind of organization. There are some rules, but largely, it’s free form. Even with no prior experience, you could drop the coin for a trad rack or downhill bike right now and proceed to kill yourself with it this weekend. It’s a bit harder to pull that off with a soccer ball in a rec league.

Thus, the dark side of the freedom of the hills is that an uninformed beginner faces a vacuum of knowledge complimented by risk, without a mandatory community or the safety net such a community can help to provide. There’s a gap between experience and excitement.

It’s very possible to bumble and luck your way to some level of experience in nearly any activity outside; I’ve certainly done my share of it. However, I’ve had plenty of situations that I look back on as excessively risky. Margins of safety got too thin. I trusted things to work out, and they did. But the byproduct is that I want my risk-taking to be calculated, not just the product of chance and hoping. Decisions about risk, for me, should be the result of knowledgable processing that considers and knows the factors involved whether it’s travel in avalanche terrain or making decisions about what to pack for a backpacking trip.

Getting better requires an open mindset—we have to admit that we make mistakes, that we can improve. That’s the first step. Any veteran will tell you that they are constantly learning and applying new things, as the risks dictate that those who don’t won’t last long in the mountains. An open and engaged mind is the most essential piece of gear you’ll need, even though it’s never listed in the buyers’ guides.

The second logical step is that, just like in soccer or any of the organized activities in this world, it falls to the skiing, climbing, or whatever outdoor community to close the gaps in people’s experience. Once you want to learn, you need people to teach you, challenge you, and push you to build your skills and enhance your decision making whatever your level of knowledge.

There are the schools, guides, or clubs that can get you going, and there’s much to be said for groups and professional instruction. I’ve spent two weeks this spring learning from professionals (a three day AMGA Single Pitch Instructor course with KAF Adventures and an eight day Wilderness First Responder course with Aerie Backcountry Medicine) and every single minute was very well worth the expense and time. I’d highly recommend both of those companies to anyone interested in what they offer.

However, you shouldn’t live your outdoor life paying to be constantly guided, or doing things only within the comfort of one organized group. It’s important to own the experience and make the decisions that determine success and failure, because without doing it yourself, those the trips, ideas, and successes aren’t truly yours.

The best way to own those experiences and learn outside, to my mind, is to participate in that outdoor community. I’ve made explicit the general, informal structure of how my outdoor world works in hopes of creating a loose model for understanding how we play different roles for different people. My theory is that when we identify these categories, we notice who we need to spend more time with, who might be missing from our experiences, or grow to understand our own place within the community of our less formal sports or activities. These roles break down into three broad categories that anyone can occupy, sometimes simultaneously—while you read, think of who fits these spots for you, or where you fit for other people.

Cohorts

These are your buddies, often about your age: the co-conspirators on speed dial. They’ve got a similar bent, similar amounts of experience, the same goals. These gals or guys send you pictures of ski lines or new singletrack that get you dropping house chores to get in the car. Maybe the ones you ditch your boy/girlfriend/spouse for, or if you’re lucky, they include your significant other.

Without them, you’ve got no belay, no shuttle driver, and nobody to share the experience when you puke and have to walk out in the rain. They want to learn, just like you. You watch their back: you ask to check their harness or you want to dig the pit they want to skip. They watch yours: took their Level II avie cert or swift water rescue in guide training, and since you’re definitely coming with, you’ll practice crevasse rescue at camp tonight. They push you to learn, call you on your faults, and genuinely care about you and what you’re doing together.

This group can never get big enough. You want cohorts with similar schedules. You want people who are your skill level in every activity you want to do. Easier done in SLC or Boulder then in Podunk-hasn’t-blown-up-yet-but-the-touring’s-sick (this is where I live). Introduce yourself, share your beer, be friendly/outgoing at the campground/trailhead, and don’t forget to grab numbers so you can follow through on that idea you realized you both had. I’ve met a ton of my cohorts while out in the middle of nowhere.

You can spend, as far as I can tell, as much time as you want with your cohorts outside without feeling the drain of teaching/being taught.

Skip the jerks, the batshit insane, and the ones you don’t trust. This goes for every group, but definitely don’t let them into this circle.

Mentors

These are the people you respect. Often, they’re older than you. They’ve been around. Been placing passive pro since long before you were born. Skied everything you’ve been drooling over in the Chuting Gallery. Since some of their Cohorts have probably died out there, they’re more careful than you, and manage to have just as much fun.  They don’t like to suffer like they used to, so they got efficient and went lightweight.

Most importantly, they have to want to pass their knowledge off to squids like you. Not all of them do, so when you find one, keep up, learn fast, offer to carry the heavy stuff, and curb your inner, puppy-like enthusiasm when it annoys them. Introduce your Cohorts to them, and add to the learning and fun.

If you’re a Mentor, the inexperienced are your opportunity to give back. You’ve made it this far, and you know the joys and sorrows of doing what it is you do at a high level. In my mind, getting to know such joys means I owe it to people looking to learn to help them raise their personal bar. You the don’t want the future to place cams wrong, ski without their avie gear, or—heaven forbid—take up soccer instead. So dive in and help them get there.

Find Mentors who understand and respect your limits, and will gently push you to better them occasionally. Believe in yourself when they do this.

You’ll learn more from these folks than you ever will in a book. Listen, watch, and ask intelligent questions. Pay for gas, coffee, whatever it takes, and for the love all the adventures you have under the wide sky, thank them.

You might be the best XC rider around, but if you’re headed out climbing for the first time, it’s good to listen to Mentors—who may be younger than you. This goes for any switch in activities: it’s a great opportunity to get humble and remember what it’s like to start out.

Mentors will probably teach you life lessons too. Things like how to check in with your wife. When the housing market is better. How to organize having kids and still crushing you on the skin track. Maybe they’ll even get you your next job.

Be wary and skeptical—mentors can and have made mistakes before. Do your best to understand what they’re thinking, and if it’s consistently outside your comfort zone or downright wrong, find somebody else. A good mentor welcomes questions and clues you in to their thinking.

Respect that Mentors are probably doing less difficult/rad/interesting activities so that they can bring you along, and that too much of this may drive them a little crazy. There’s an ease to playing with your cohorts and peers, to not explaining everything, that sometimes doesn’t happen in the Mentor/Up and Comer dynamic. Thank them, and don’t feel slighted when they want to go and do things that hit more on their level.

Anyone with experience can be a Mentor. Teaching what you do helps you learn it better. That said, be damn sure that what you are teaching is dialed, and that you know enough to teach it properly.

Up and Comers

These are the friends or acquaintances who haven’t been out the backcountry gate. Maybe younger than you. Only climbed indoors. Never backpacked, but done a couple day hikes. Maybe they’ve no experience at all, but are keen to try it out. They’re slow, they’re clumsy, and they don’t know this yet, so be patient. They stalk your Instagram or heard a story about you and wish they could do the same cool stuff.

So if you’re a Mentor, cool your jets for a day, help them sort the gear, and take them out. Pack the lunch. Carry the rack. And somewhere between the trailhead and top, you’ll realize that, as a Mentor, sharing what gets you so stoked is a thrill just as cool as doing it yourself. When they unlock the crux or safely make the summit, you got to contribute to that look in their eyes. You want to change someone’s life? Want to change the world for someone? Help an Up and Comer do the things they dream about.

Success builds on success. Good experiences keep Up and Comers coming back excited, while bad ones nip fun in the bud. If you’re a Mentor, keep this in mind during your trip planning. Don’t push them too hard, but don’t slight them either. Pick good weather. Ask dumb questions to make sure they brought the right stuff. Be extra dialed to allow for their junkshow.

Up and Comers need their Mentors to focus on their experience, so a Mentor can’t be too personally invested in making the top or sending five projects that day. Encourage communication, consistently check in, and if your bizarre idea is too scary or wild or too far outside their comfort zone, you need to be willing to turn around.

Up and Comers: too much time with Mentors will drain you, tire you out, or maybe even lessen your enjoyment. Maybe they simply go harder than you ever want to. Notice this, and be sure to form your own Cohorts that are on the same page.

To me, a healthy, multi-activity outdoor life includes active participation with Cohorts, Mentors, and Up and Comers. It’s the best way to receive and give back to the communities you play in. Anything else seems like poor stewardship of getting to go and do these kinds of things—it seems like hoarding the gift.

However, there are plenty of people who want to be in their little clique, don’t want to share what they do or where they go, and aren’t interested in the broader community of their sport. I disagree with this ethic, but I do respect people’s time and personal relationship with the things they do outside. So when you meet folks who don’t want to be part of the broader community or won’t let you in, just know they’re having less fun in their little corner and keep marching on.

This post is dedicated to all the Mentors who have spent their time and energy and money to teach me their cagey ways, the Cohorts who called my bluff or pushed me hard or believed in my crazy idea, and to all the Up and Comers for flashing those grins and sharing the stoke when they made that little breakthrough with big results. I would be dead or way less happy without all of you. Thanks to all of you for making this outdoor life so much sweeter, and here’s to the next time we get out.

A tale of two parties: skiing Appistoki

There are places where the ski touring community tours elbow to elbow. They farm powder wiggle turns down whole mountain faces to maximize fresh snow. They deal with the safety and sanity issues caused by tons of backcountry users in one spot: folks leaving packed trailheads at 5:30am only to have helicopters drop clients above them.

I don’t live in one of those places. So this is yet another trip report from a remote, joyous day of backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering with a twist–a group that included some of my friends skied the same line the day prior. They had some issues that we didn’t. Most interestingly, I didn’t find out about it until after we got back.

The line is question is located in the Two Medicine section of Glacier National Park. Appistoki Peak offers a couple different descents, but the east face has two connected, broad faces with some thin middle cliffs to keep you honest. While not a dream line by my interest, Appistoki as a summit remained one of the few I haven’t been on in Two Medicine. It seemed reasonable to get in by bike, given that the east side of Glacier has seen such a spare winter. So like I do, I started watching schedules, weather, and hoping the two would align to get a window.

Weather didn’t quite cooperate. Well, that’s not fair–the forecasters didn’t seem to know what was going on, and though I’ve known this for a while, it didn’t quite ring through this time. A friend and I tried two days before: loaded our bikes, drove two hours to the east side, then found ice on the road and rerouted to another objective. The biggest take away from that day of sun patches and snow squalls was that the forecast was predictably irregular: there’d be a bit of everything, including windows of blue sky to move about in. So a day after, I got ahold of Ben, he said the road was clear, and I set off early the next morning.

True to what Ben had heard, the Two Medicine road was open all the way to Trick Falls. Such luck cut our bike commute down to only a mile and a half before we hit the Scenic Point trail–but not before seeing what we think was a lynx trotting down the road way ahead of us.

I don’t quite know why putting skis on bikes boggles peoples’ minds. Much like ski touring instead of hiking, it’s another way of making things way more efficient on a given day of playing outdoors. Maybe thinking like this only confirms how far gone I’ve gotten. Even more, what I typically do with friends here at home is nothing like the bonkers activities of Brody Leven’s Pedal To Peaks trip last year (Portland to Seattle while summiting and skiing St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier) or what Chris Bangs does, well, constantly on his fat bike.

Ben hits his hooves. Appistoki is above him.

Booting along through varying amounts of snow, we headed up the Scenic Point trail for a ways, then detoured off it to head up the valley towards Mt. Henry. I’m no East side expert–but there’s no question that there’s way less snow than usual. The ravine at the bottom of the valley was the only consistent skinning, so we dropped down there and made transition number two of the day into ski boots.

Walking with skis and ski boots on my pack is a fact of what I like to do. Most of my spring objectives will require this bizarre type of fun. Much like the bike, it’s way more efficient to ski tour than hike, so I relish the springtime options where the approach is covered. If my boots are on the ground in April, it’s a bad sign of things to come. Thankfully, the snow-filled ravine made for great skinning, and we made quick work of the walk into the upper basin.

There’s a thin line between ski touring and scrambling–I tried walking it here and had a little fall before I succeeded.

All this traversing took us below the line we’d be looking at, but with new snow and wind loading just a couple days previous, I wasn’t too keen on going up it. We saw some ski tracks emptying into the snow ravine, but couldn’t see the upper line due to flat light. Our route passed way around to the saddle of the ridge between Appistoki and Mt. Henry.

Though when we arrived there, the promised vista was hiding behind a thick veil of fog and snow squalls. Thinking we’d have no interest in skiing, we stashed our skis and continued up to tag the summit. Gaining the false summit, it was clear that it was, well, clearing out just fine and we’d been fools to leave our skis behind.

Our descent to the top of the line revealed to us what Ben had thought earlier: the skin marks and ski tracks lead up the line we’d wanted to ski. Tight hash marks descended from a break in the cornice, moved through the cliff bands, then cut through the zig zag of the skin track they’d used to get up the face. A pile of avalanche debris was stacked up on the skier’s left of the lower apron, the result of what looked like a point release slide. I remember thinking, “The face probably cooked more yesterday. But we’re way back here, and somebody else skied this. What are the chances?” Sun shown down, and we started poking around in the snow below the cornice to see if the wind slab had filled in. A hasty pit later, and I wasn’t super sure what I thought. Ben and I headed up to the summit to eat some sandwich and think about it.

Looking back towards the false summit.

Given what I’d seen, and thinking about it, we decided to walk back down and grab our skis. To give it a shot. Here’s Ben as we came back up:

Skis on, I knocked off about fifteen feet of chunky cornice blocks to see if the wind pillow at the top of the chute would react. Tiny pockets came out, but there didn’t seem to be much cohesion, and I felt better about the upper slope. We agreed on a safe waiting spot, Ben saddled up, and dropped in.


The middle cliffs made for a few seconds of no visibility, which worried me, but with no safe spot to stop above them, Ben made good moves down and he arced out onto the lower apron. A little yodel of joy floated up to me, and it was my turn.


Somewhere between 6-8″ of new snow was bonded to the older crust underneath. On hard turns, I’d scrape, but once in the apron, it was simply glorious. I did some yodeling of my own as I met Ben at his perch.

Things weren’t quite as primo further down, but the exit ramp still made for fast, slushy turns. At the bottom, Ben told me that the line had been really high on his wish list for quite a while–bonus points there. The summit seemed like a pretty lame accomplishment compared with the great ski we’d had. Another quick jaunt to the bottom followed, and we refueled and counted our options, still aglow with the neat line.

Just above our stopping spot, a line the locals call Y Chutes headed up the other side of the valley from Appistoki. Skipping the nap that sounded nice, we headed up there, cutting a nice zigzag that started in slush and ended in some of the most variable skiing I’ve done in a while. It was a neat spot to practice a skis on transition without any sort of kick turning, being not very scary, but certainly something I want to get better at for other places.

After that, we headed back down the snow ravine, transitioned, and started the walk out. Appistoki opened as a sort of curtain as we skied down the valley, progressively revealing the snow clad upper slopes and giant bulk that is Rising Wolf mountain (behind Ben in third photo below). Upper center of the first photo shows the top of the Y Chutes.

Back at the bikes, I took a couple minutes to load up my skis and boots the way I’ll want to for longer rides later this spring. Aligning the bindings on the top tube to allow freedom to pedal takes a little fiddling, but with some ski straps, it’s not too hard to hold them on there. The booster strap of your boot works well to secure the cuff to the back rack, and some rope threaded around the uppers holds them fast. It’s possible to layer the pack on top of all of this, but given the short ride out, it wasn’t an issue.

Driving out to East Glacier, I reflected on how awesome the day had been. Good weather, safe route finding, and plenty of skiing with some pow as a cherry on top. But once back in cell reception, I casually checked my emails. The Flathead Avalanche advisory was in there, so I clicked on it, and found my jaw hanging open. Near the top, I read: “On Friday, two skiers were caught in a cornice triggered, loose snow avalanche on Appistoki Peak in Glacier National Park.”

Essentially, a group of five skinned and booted up the same face, same line we skied. While three of the party were on top, a natural cornice collapse near the false summit entrained loose snow and swept the other two, who were still on the face, about 200ft through a series of small cliffs. Then, when the three on top went to drop in, they triggered a small wind slab during a ski cut.

“Whoa. Friday. So yesterday. So the tracks we saw were that party. So the avie debris we saw carried people down the cliffs we flashed through. Maybe we made the wrong calls and got lucky?” The whole day flashed back through my head, every decision taking on a new cast in the light of the observation . I hadn’t thought to check the advisory before we left, as Two Medicine is outside the forecast area, otherwise the day would have started off on a very different note–so much so that I probably would have canned the trip for another objective.

Coming away, it serves to highlight the variability that happens over only perhaps 24 hours in the alpine: the cornices we dropped didn’t yield anything like the wind slab that broke on the prior party. We’d taken a long route to get there, but doing so lessened the possibility of being in the path of the cornice fall slide that hit the other other group. Even more, the events of the observation took on a much more real cast: these were friends of mine. It brought the situation home. There’s such a wide range of possibilities out there, and when so many good days stack up, the vicious feedback of avalanche terrain can make you feel like you’ve been nailing the decisions. There’s such a delicate balance between poking holes in human factors and cultivating courage to send when the conditions are right; I find it hard to square the two easily. For me, it’s another reminder that we’re fragile casings of soft flesh playing in a cold world of steep snow, ice, and rocks–respect isn’t optional, and doing our best to debrief our decisions is the only way to move confidently AND safely forward.

Thanks to Ben for his great company, hospitality, and photos. Thanks to the other party (let me know if you want to be recognized by name) for submitting the observation and letting us know.

Headlamp backflips and other nighttime phenomena

Back toward the beginning of January, I went on a four day, three night film trip for Epic Montana to Yurtski, a six person shack of coziness on the southern edge of the Swan Range. We were met with wonderful hospitality by the hosts at Yurtski. Our group of four skiers (Brody Leven, KT Miller, Rachel Delacour, myself) and two filmers (Bobby Jahrig and Tyler Swank) made for an outstanding team, accomplishing quite a lot of safe skiing during a massive storm and the warmup afterward.

An edit from the trip is forthcoming soon, but I wanted to use a post to talk about my mindset and the nighttime shenanigans it lead to.

Film trips are first and foremost a group of skiers and filmers working together towards a common goal of the final product. Add that to the reality that backcountry skiing is complicated enough without the logistical hurdles posed by trying to film it all. Money and time are spent to get everyone there, keep them happy, and produce something worthwhile. In our case, folks drove from Salt Lake City and Seattle to be there. The trip was an opportunity to gather footage not only for the edit, but also whatever film projects come from my whole season of skiing. The stars of making good content align for a brief period, and all of this engenders pressure to perform well.

I’ve driven away from too many shoots feeling like there was more that I could have done, or a trick I should have tried a couple more times, or some other aspect of effort that could have yielded a better product. So in heading to Yurtski, I felt duty bound to drop the hammer as much as conditions and the crew would allow. We found stability in our pits and during the day, communicated well, and managed the avalanche hazards as a group. So with fresh snow, I found myself at the end of our first day wondering about going out for a night ski.

Headlamps are one thing. But fully lighting up the skiing enough to see it well on camera would need a bit more. Tyler provided the perfect solution in a 125 LED array box designed to be mounted the hot shoe of a camera. We rigged it to attach to a tripod, put it atop a selfie stick, and then rigged the whole thing to the back of my helmet with voile straps.

That first night, I toured up and skied a couple laps down to the yurt. The next evening, the whole crew got in the act, and we did some party skiing through a couple neat areas. We all traded the helmet around–here’s KT digging in.

The next day, we woke to clear weather and sendy conditions. Our first lap went fine, and as I was hustling back to the top, a backflip on my mind, when the whole face started to roller ball. It was a bummer, but the warming conditions meant increased stress on the storm snow, and it wasn’t anything to mess with. The day went out with nothing upside down happening.  Dinner came and went, and while sitting at the table stuffed with delicious pasta, I realized that it was probably that night or not again on the trip. Thoughts of the moment and regret I’d feel later flashed through, so on went my boots, and I headed out to find a spot. The landing was zipper crust. The transition was so tight that my skis held me in the air while standing in it. The lip would probably hold. And once the jump was built, I came back to the yurt, the filmers rallied, and we headed back out.

On my first hit, I straight aired to give Tyler and Bobby a sense of where the light would be. Once skinned back up, I dropped in and gave the flip a try, only to underrotate, catch my feet in the pow, and flip forward. On their cameras, the light of my lamp disappeared as I rolled only to pop back up. The second try was the same, and I cursed in snow caked frustration.

Because the lamp lit what was ahead of me, it didn’t extend to the uppermost horizon of my vision–the part most important for seeing the snow surface and then reacting to pull my feet forward and land the flip. Both times, I’d seen the snow too late to land and couldn’t make it work in time. Up I went again, got the snow out of my helmet, and did the flip more by feel than by vision. Trees and Bobby were on either side of the runout down to the traverse road, though they’re hard to see in the video.

I was tired before I even left the yurt. The failed attempts had built up the anticipation. All the fear of not really being able to see what was happening each time, being so exposed in the backcountry, and needing to get this done brooded every time I was skinning back up. So when it all came together for the magical moment, and I rode away down onto the traverse, the yell of excitement became the release of all those tensions into the success of notching something cool there in the midnight darkness.  Landing something scary always creates this feeling of instantaneous euphoria, because the work is all in the prep and then not thinking while you do it–the riding away is all wonderful afterglow.

And as we skied back towards the yurt with its three sleeping skiers, the excitement of adding another solid shot to the edit kept me awake. But as I lay down in my sleeping back, it was the satisfaction of doing something bizarre and making it work that lulled me off to sleep.

Thanks to Bobby and Tyler for staying up late and freezing while I got it done, and thanks to the rest of the crew for dealing with our clanking when we got back.

Check back soon for the full edit.

Lemonade on Little Dog

The Spirit Bear didn’t have my phone number. So the message popped up on Facebook: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

My car’s on its last legs. Christmas presents to buy. Emails to send. A whole string of dangling conversations to finish or move a few texts down the line. Things that could maybe lead to sustaining the ability to question what was next in my schedule. Plenty that wouldn’t fall into place until I actually took it head on. Neglect wouldn’t help. So I had plenty to do tomorrow.

However, as winter has sputtered to life here, we’ve been dry-docked with a snowless spell. Stages of ceased snowing include denial, attempting to find stashes, acceptance of tracked out/ravaged snowpack conditions, and then ski mountaineering. Things seemed primed for a trip into the scoured, buffed alpine. If you’ve got no pow, and just scapey, crusty lemons–make lemonade.

So Spirit Bear’s message was the conversation I picked up. The next morning, Ben was at my door, with his fully functional and recreational vehicle, which solved the “brakes don’t work” issue for the moment. He was also on top of the pastry game, so we stopped to pick up sticky buns before heading north.

We picked up Jason in Columbia Falls and were off through the Middle Fork, discussing topics of importance with our mouths full of sticky buns. Things are certainly low tide, and followed that in the cross loaded, rocky first-glance at our objective atop Marias Pass: Little Dog mountain.

When I think about about the local outdoor community, there’s a series of branches that start with my immediate friends and then spread into the people that live in this little corner of the world. Though I’d known Ben since I was in high school, and knew of his exploits in Glacier, we’d never climbed or skied together. He and Jason had raced biked years ago, but I hadn’t skied with Jason since two years back. The newness didn’t bother me–we had strong, fit skiers. We were joking and chatting and just enjoying ourselves as we skinned through the forest and detoured up a creek towards the lower slopes.


The day was my second in a new pair of boots, so I was a little tentative about how that’d shake out. No hot spots appeared on the flatish walk in, or on the ascent up a rib to the west of the saddle between Little Dog and Summit. Jason and I were chasing Ben, which is a pretty common thing to do, given that he’s one of the fastest uphill people in our little corner of the world. Some folks like to switch leads when skinning or bootpacking, because they get tired. Ben, however, does not get tired. As far as I can tell.

Somewhere in the past couple weeks, I switched my touring setup over to wider Steeples, thinking that I’d probably be skiing pow in the near future. The rib we followed was either scoured, baked, massacred, faceted wind drifts that were hard enough to not hold an edge, or rocks and scree thinly coated in a couple inches of fluff. It made for such interesting skinning that Jason eventually gave up and started bootpacking. He caught up to where I was trying to finesse my way through the drifts, so I joined him. Judging by his face we caught him, Ben wasn’t having any fun at all. None.

From there, skis went on packs. The wind drifts made good footing, and it didn’t take too much time to make the ridge.


The last time I was bootpacking up a big face, tiredness and dehydration dogged every step. But as we climbed, it just felt good to plant each foot above the next, drifts and outcrops passing along from above to below.


Spindrift had been blasting off the ridge all day, and the wind howled over us. Since things didn’t look too promising, we left our skis and continued up. Jason ahead of me, and Ben way out there.

The view back towards Summit. On a bigger day with better conditions, I could see skiing the N face of Little Dog, ascending Summit, skiing its SW face, then heading back up to the saddle.

Looking across Ole Creek.

All the sculpting and rock hard drifts evidenced the wind hammering the outside of my hood. Spindrift would occasionally come around my glasses and stick to the warmer, insides of the lenses. And it was just wonderful to be cruising along up Ben’s boot prints, snug and happy in my gear as the wind raged and sun shown down.

But the same wind was a bit unsettling to Jason. As I caught up to him, he told me that he’d had enough, and was turning around to wait for us at the saddle. With Ben a bit higher on the ridge, I started juggling the thoughts in a hard situation. On one hand, it’s good form to stick together in case something happens. With one member of the crew retreating, perhaps we should all head back. But Ben wasn’t part of this decision, so it was the two of us. Jason was fine with me heading on. He had crampons if he wanted to use them, and I felt he could make the descent. But since I felt fine, and had Ben forging ahead, I felt good to catch up with him. We’d all regroup to ski from the saddle.

Looking back on that decision, it made our margin for group error much slimmer. Jason was more or less solo on his walk back to the saddle, and if something went wrong up high, Ben and I would just have each other until we could get word to Jason. Given how we felt, the competencies of the group, and the conditions, I don’t feel bad about the decision now–but I would have liked to make it as a group, instead of choosing between scenarios in my head. We had a range of speeds, and that was beneficial in exposing fewer people to concentrated hazards, but it limited our communication. This hindsight is the kind of thing to bring to future trips. Reflection is positive, when acted upon.

After I caught up, Ben and I negotiated a couple chutes, kicking through thin, unconsolidated wind drifts to the firmer stuff underneath. Around the corner, up the edge, and there we were. Clouds roiled to the west, with their puffy tops catching a golden glint from the sun. To the south, they broke up over the Divide, leaving us with blue sky over the plains in the east. Our  perch was right on the break point. It was pretty dang exciting.

It was also extra windy. I threw on crampons for the walk down, took a few swallows of water, and we marched back down to meet Jason. Ben snags a group selfie back at the saddle:

Ben and I dug a pit, revealing a seriously consolidated snowpack on the lee, cross loaded slopes we’d be skiing.

I swung in first, found a little bit of loose, crusted snow on the margin, and made it down a ways.

Jason linked turns down to me, and on his go, Ben blew out of a ski. It rocketed down the slope as he yelled, then caught a bit of snow, rolled, and thankfully stopped. Ben doing some downhill walking:

From there, we traversed skiers right into some of the ramps of the lower mountain. Ski cutting the soft, thin drifts as we went, the angle decreased and got downright fun as we skied back into the creekbed we’d come up. Ben enjoys some just desserts:

Bopping along the creek, the whole day took on a nice afterglow. We’d started with winds, and that sinking feeling of low tide, but here we were, having skied some legitimate crust and actual pow on the bottom. Only a little bit of skinning ensued on the trip out, and as we crossed the tracks back to the car, I couldn’t help thinking that the best recovery drink for the evening was resoundingly lemonade.

Thanks to Jason for motivating, Ben for his photos, and both for a wonderful day in the park.

October slush and a little girl’s bike

Chairlifts, as a technology, present a strange paradox: on one hand, it’s super easy to do a lot of skiing without much effort. On the other, the people who run them dictate when the “ski season” will start and end. So when you leave the resort and start walking or skinning around, the question of definition is no longer filled by somebody else’s schedule of spinning chairs. Theories abound, but for me, I start the new season when I can ski new snow.

It’s also been helpful these past couple years to skip skiing in September. While easily the hardest month to go skiing in my part of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s come down to a question of quality. It’s just not worth it unless I’m super itchy to scratch out a couple of icy, bumpy turns on a remote snowfield. And the whole “ski all twelve months, and then link that up into a preposterous number of years to impress people” thing is all about numbers and less about actually having fun and skiing. Abandoning my Continental Divide project in late August taught me something important about these sorts of “projects”: don’t do mountain things for contrived, unreasonable reasons. Do them because you want to.

So it’s October. I’ve been itchy. And when a relatively typical fall storm came through, I managed to convice Myke to ditch whatever obligations he had the next day and head for Logan Pass to see about harvesting the leftover schmoo.

Myke had procured a “Pixie” bike for an informal downhill race that took place on the things. Instead, he missed the start but still had the thing in the back of his car. So we rode it around the parking lot once up top. We attempted switching out a seat post off of both of our regular size bikes, but they were too big.

True to shoulder season ridiculousness, we put our ski gear on our bags and started walking up the paved trail and boardwalk.

This time of year, the Hanging Gardens are open to walking wherever you please, so we detoured off and headed up the moraines. I finally walked through a bit of snow, which was encouraging. The fact that the pass was open to driving had worried both of us about ski conditions on the way up.

This was my first test of my new pack towards what my mom calls “lunatic-fringe” activities. Ie, hiking in with a full ski setup aboard. The Variant did a killer job with the extra weight, carried comfortably with skis strapped A-frame or just on the side, and I’m excited to do longer, stupider trips with it now.

First skinning with bear spray of the fall season. In short sleeves.

Skins were perhaps a bit excessive. We were skiing new snow on top of old on perhaps 500 ft vertical drop, but hey, these sorts of fall excursions are all about scratching the itch. That doesn’t seem to take much. The first lap is all euphoria, and by the third, I was thinking, “this is fun, but I’d like to take a nap on the rocks.”

Schmoo. Ah schmoo. The remnants of what was fresh snow, refrozen and melted several times. A veritable blanket of gooey, sloppy stuff that mimics powder but really isn’t. And prone to making slow moving wet slides on refrozen, icy suncups. This is what happens when you try to skin it on the higher upper angles. Although, it did lend itself to some fun once atop the silly thing.

Myke drops in.

I didn’t get a nap, but we did take this follow up picture to my shirtless Kahiltna episode.

Then comes the transition back into shoes and the walk down. I need to figure out a better way to rig my skis for down climbing or walking downhill–the tails always seem to bang on ledges or steps. There’s a compression strap a bit higher up on my pack that I could use, but that might not give that much improvement. Either way, scratching the itch feels good but the walk out reminds me that it’s not really the season for this yet.

It’s hard to advocate this time of year, but seasons do give perspective. If skiing was easily accessible all the time, it wouldn’t feel as precious. Waiting makes the first few turns much more delicious. Perhaps in an era of instant gratification and NOW NOW NOW it’s good to have to wait for something so essential to our lives as skiers. It’s also well and good to extol such high minded ideals on my blog but be positively vibrating with anticipation around my friends and family. Eh. Here’s to our addictions and our ideals, both at once.

Then again, it was a perfect time to ride the Pixie bike down the Sun Road. Myke took it from the parking lot to Oberlin Bend, and had difficulty sitting down comfortably. Since I’m more hobbitylike, I squeezed on and rode down to Triple Arches.

By the time I got there, the coaster brake had heated the back hub enough to make it too hot to touch. Turning wasn’t really a good idea, as the bike clearly wasn’t designed for nimble maneuvers at 20 mph. When I stopped, a skid went for a few yards, resulting in a flat spot on the wheel. Ridiculous? Certainly. But the looks on the faces of people going the other way in their cars were absolutely priceless.

Thanks to Myke for bringing the fun and shooting such nice pictures. And to whoever it was that donated the bike. No little girls were harmed or stolen from in the making of this blog post.

On brutality in the mountains

A box of old notebooks still lurks in my closet. Recording the capricious and hormonally charged span of years from high school into college, there’s a pile of angst and unformed emotion via poetry. In light of studying and gaining perspective in the craft of writing, they now seem so raw and reckless in their vicissitudes as to be pretty dang useless. However, their true testament is to the simple fact that writing, for me, is an outlet for emotion.

And when it’s pared that simply, there’s nothing wrong with those notebooks. Many of the blog posts here are a sort of decompression or reflection on trips involving various levels of stress or enjoyment. If you’ve read them, you know. Writing is not the dictation of finalized thoughts–while we write, we rethink and generally clarify the things we’re trying to get down. There’s a therapy to words in that sense, because to write is to continually reconsult about a topic until the final catharsis of the finished product takes some of the burden with it.

As of today, the ski mountaineering community has experienced a couple weeks of tragedy:  Sebastian Haag and Andrea Zambaldi died in an avalanche just short of the summit of Shishapangma. Yesterday, snowboard mountaineer Liz Daley died in an avalanche near the Fitz Roy massif. Also yesterday, ski mountaineers Andreas Fransson and JP Auclair have been presumed dead in an avalanche on Monte San Lorenzo (or Mount Cochrane) on the Chile/Argentine border. No rescue party has been to the latter, but with helicopter reports of inert bodies and a minimum of 48 hours in the cold, it’s a pretty slim chance. I hope that I’m wrong.

But as the notebooks attest, these times of emotion trigger a written response. Instead of being speechless, or submitting some excuse about words not being adequate, here’s a try.

“We [climbers] demonstrate in the most stunning way of all–at the risk of our lives–that there is no limit to the effort man can demand of himself. This quality is the basis of all human achievement…it can never be proved enough. I consider that we climbers–that I–serve all humanity. We prove that there is no limit to what man can do.” -Walter Bonatti

My heart goes out to those who knew and loved these wonderful people. I thank all of them for their proof.

And the rest of us, who watched on as they did incredible things, as they redefined what could be done via a pair of skis ridden by the human spirit, are now left to ponder the course our aspirations will take. On one hand, I question whether I have any legitimate claim on the sorrow in their deaths–after all, I didn’t know any of them personally. Jumping on the bandwagon of a dead icon as if an imagined connection means as much as the loss of a spouse or real friend only demeans their deep grief.
On the other, these people are my people. People in the mountains. Exploring on their crampons; sending it down on their skis. The ski mountaineering community is, and will probably continue to be, niche enough that the effects of these deaths reverberate. And for international ski icons like Fransson and Auclair, their passing reflects not only the loss of an individual and the bright creativity that made them so worthy of their status–it also marks the loss of people I looked up to. It makes final their progress into difficult, dangerous terrain. It stops their ability to continue showing us “what man[kind] can do,” and because I cherish them for their abilities in that realm, it represents a loss of a leader in a small community.
On yet another hand, such losses bring home that the sheer bliss and joy that comes from our good times in the mountains has another, darker, equally as sheer side in brutality. If Fransson and Auclair symbolized pushing forward, this is the rebound. It is so hard to acknowledge, as it forces me to reflect on all the close calls. This spring, a broad wet slide aired off a cliff above and took out a face traverse we’d put in only ten minutes prior. In another incident highlighted at the start of my season edit, I kicked off a wet slab/corn slab of two week old snow on June 30th. In both cases, luck figured heavily. And to hear of people dying when they have much more experience makes going out again a complicated pile of emotions for me.

Danger is such a part of what I do. It’s somewhat relative–driving in cars at 70mph only a few feet from people doing the same in the opposite direction is considered very normal. People knowingly eat food that may cause disease or early death, or readily expose themselves to chemicals that do much the same. So perhaps there’s some variability and danger in skiing down mountains, but I don’t see it as that much worse than many real dangers that we take for granted. I make calculated guesses and try very hard to be safe in the mountains. Even so, the truth is that the consequence of death isn’t something I understand, and it’s hard to weigh that kind of thing honestly. I think it gets covered over, and much like the drop under one’s feet while leading or the exposure that you can’t afford to fall off, I try to hold it in value without letting it paralyze my moves.

During college, a ski buddy took his life. The day after I found out, I skipped my classes and drove I-90 up to Snoqualmie Pass and the PCT. Once up high, I took a detour to a rocky outcrop that doesn’t see much traffic, wrote him a note, and tucked it in a crack in the rock. I said goodbye to him aloud up there, the wind carrying my words off to the north. In retrospect, it was exactly what I needed to do.

In 2012, an avalanche swept down Tunnel Creek at Stevens Pass. It killed three pillars of the local community, including Chris Rudolph. He’d been the one to lure me to Stevens, the one who had gotten me a job, the one who was constantly stoked to get out and play. I wrote this in his memory, and though I’d rework the beginning, it still fits with how I felt then.

So I don’t know what I’ll do this time. But the writing is there, and as with these other knocks to the heart and to confidence, the start is as simple as a sentence.