23 June 2018

The Volcano Conundrum: Summit or Skiing?

Volcano Season in the PNW is a special time for backcountry skiers. This magical season from April-July is full of opportunity and the prospect of sunshine, summit celebrations, and slaying corn. It's our annual harvest, with each trip promising a rich bounty for 5,000 continuous vertical feet (or more).

The challenge of volcano season – aside from the fitness reality check – is volcanoes. They're massive. Big and tall, the ones around here are so grand they create their own weather patterns. Washington volcanoes house 376 glaciers, the second most after Alaska. These badass miracles of frozen H20 are the reason we can ski here year-round

As I've become more seasoned in Turns All Year, I've come to learn the cadence of the local stratovolcanoes. You want to start at Mt. St. Helens, as it's the lowest and melts out quickly. It also doesn't have glaciers which can be easily accessed. Next you want to go for the big lines on Mt. Rainier, like the Fuhrer Finger or Kautz, before they pass their prime. It's a good idea to get the Pearly Gates on Mt. Hood early too. Then comes the SW Chutes season on Mt Adams, te Squak/Easton season on Mt. Baker, and the Emmons Route on Mt. Rainier. From there, the world is your oyster.... burly, bumpy, and requiring a lot of effort for a small, slimy piece of adventure which may or may not be good by the time you taste it.

When you're covering 5-10k of vert in a day, you experience a wide variety of conditions. You often start out on dirt with your skis on your back. Then you ascend through snow conditions including, but not limited to: slush, mush, schmoo, glop, chunder, chunk, sugar, breakable crust, unbreakable crust, ice, rime ice, penitentes, and frozen pinwheels - all of which present their own unique hell. As you climb, the conditions below you change, and nothing will ever be the same on the way down as you remember from the climb.

By the time you get to the top, or to the point where you decide to turn around for the day, many hours have gone by. The crust you saw on the way up may very well be schmoo by the time you get back to it. Trying to time your descent for primo conditions is the ultimate goal. So how do you make a decision when you have the glory of a summit ahead and a harvest below that will bring a perma-grin to your face?

On a recent trip to Mt. Baker - where we ultimately picked skiing - we used these parameters to help with our decision:

When to pick summiting:

  1. The weather is clear.
  2. Climbing conditions are primo.
  3. The view will be stunning.
  4. Everyone is feeling strong and motivated.
  5. The skiing will be shit no matter what, so you might as well summit.

When to pick skiing:

  1. The weather is unfavorable.
  2. Climbing conditions are sub-optimal.
  3. The corn will be epic and potentially worth lapping.
  4. The group is full of unmotivated weaklings.
  5. The skiing will be shit no matter what, so you might as well get it over with so you can get back to the beer at the car.

We made our choice for the "skiing" reasons #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.1 (beer). It was absolutely the right call. Thanks to Ian Dryg for all the great photos in this post!

16 June 2018

The Backcountry Tutu Is Dead

No one is saying anything. It's as if this pink, pouffy, tulle-tastic monstrosity is not adorning my waist. Do you not see me? Or are you pretending not to see me so you can avoid saying hello you passive-aggressive, Pacific Northwestern, son-of-a-bitch?!

I have been skiing in a tutu at least once a month for the past seven years, and I am sad to report that the instant icebreaker has officially lost its magical power. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, or why, but over the past half-decade the frequency at which I walk by someone who doesn't even say 'hello' has increased dramatically. Gone are the trips of yesteryear where I enjoyed frequent, near-constant on trail chats. Now I'm lucky if 10% of my fellow travelers say hi. I'm just any other hiker with a teepee of skis on her back.

Discussing this phenomenon with my friends, we ventured three theories as to why people ignore the tutu:

Tutus are overdone

Thanks to groups like SheJumps and companies like Sparkle Athletic, tutus are everywhere. They're part of half-marathons, group mountain bike rides, and mid-mountain cocktail hours. If you go on an adventure these days, you are 39% more likely to see a tutu than you were 5 years ago. Women wear them. Men wear them. Dogs and babies wear them, and even a few discerning cats have been spotted en tulle. As a result, they're not all that special anymore, and people pass them by without remark. They are unremarkable.

People are self-absorbed and summit-oriented

A recent survey published by The Seattle Times showed that "the number of hikers [in Seattle] is seven times greater than our population growth over the past decade." Since we're all out there to HYOH - Hike Your Own Hike - people are on a mission when they're on the trail, a mission, it would seem, to get to the summit at all costs. If you happen to be walking by, tutu or no, you are just another obstacle in the way of future Instagram fame. Or something like that. All this thinking about other people is exhausting to be honest, and I'd prefer to focus on my own issues.

Cell phones have rendered us incapable of human interaction

Technology was not a part of my childhood, but my niece turns twelve this summer and she will never know what it means to take a picture without being able to see it immediately. On a trip to Seattle last year, we walked by a phone booth and she asked what it was.... Technology has quickly and dramatically changed the way we view and interact with other humans. It's also changing our evolution, with the invention of the term Tech Neck (among other cell-phone induced maladies). We have all of the knowledge in the world at our fingertips, and yet the art of connection and conversation is dying (dead?). Instead of saying hello, we make a mental note to text all of our friends about the weirdo we saw on the trail, or better yet we send a quick Snap and continue on our merry way. We'd rather have a million un-meaningful communications than one genuine interaction.

Maybe one of these theories is right, or maybe they are all true. Regardless of the reasoning, the power of the tutu has passed. I mean, I'll probably still wear one on the trail because reasons, but I have to be honest, it's just not the same as it used to be.

So what say you, people of blog-land? Is the tutu dead? 

09 June 2018

Ski Mountaineering Through The Five Stages of Grief

The depth of my anguish as measured by the disappearance of my chin. Photo by Peter Dunau.

My shoulders ache, my hip belt is digging in to my fleshy bits, and I think I have a rock in my shoe. It's the middle of the summer and I've once again strapped my skis to my backpack to schlep them up the hill until we find snow, then hike some more until we've gone high enough that we can turn around and ski down. I don't want to be here, and can't believe I'm doing this again.

I can still see the car.

Ski mountaineering is often an exercise in suffering. Whether going out for a few hours or a few days, I spend the first 12% of the trip in mental anguish, questioning why the hell I'm on a godforsaken mountain doing this, again.

It turns out, I'm not alone in my silent torment. On a recent trip on Mt. Hood, neither one of my partners would talk for the first 90 minutes. I made an attempt at conversation, to which one guy replied, "I'll be chattier after the sun comes up." Memo received buddy. Like me, you are in the midst of your angst, and would prefer to work through the process in silence.

In my experience, this process closely follows the Five Stages of Grief:

  • "There's no way I'm going to be able to carry these all the way up there."
  • "I can't do it. I just can't."
  • "It's. Just. So. Far!"

  • "I cannot fucking believe I am doing this again."
  • "I hate my skis. I hate my boots. I hate my backpack. I hate snow. I hate mountains. I hate beautiful sunsrises. I hate my stupid life."
  • "This. Is. The. Worst!"

  • "If I can make myself throw up right now, maybe everyone will feel bad enough for me that we can turn around."
  • "I think he has new boots. Maybe he's getting blisters? I will send him a telepathic message that I will buy beers on the way home if he turns around right now and proclaims the blisters are too much and he can't go on!"
  • "Just. Need. One. Injury!"

....during this time your mind goes blank. You have lost the will to fight. The will to think. The will to give any more fucks about anything at all...

  • "This isn't so bad. I feel pretty okay I guess. Looking back we have come a long way I suppose. Maybe we will make it after all."
  • "Whelp, I guess we are just going to do this."
  • "Here. We. Fucking. Go!"

You can tell when the fog of the five stages has lifted by the general look on your partners faces and the slow uptick in conversation. With alpine starts, the end of the process tends to correlate with the sunrise/morning poop break.

Rest assured you aren't alone in your suffering. Like all things in life, this too shall pass. And if it doesn't, you'll eventually turn around because you'll reach your objective or your protests will make their way from your mind to your mouth and you'll convince everyone else that endeavoring on isn't worth it. Either way, you win. The car will still be there, and when you eventually reach it, the sweet freedom of flip flops will be waiting for you.

26 May 2018

When Outlandish Becomes Ordinary

The flashing "new" button draws me in to a never-ending cascade of cached shows waiting impatiently to be watched. I'm completely addicted to The Bachelor, Real Housewives of Orange County, and America's Next Top Model, among others. I don't so much enjoy watching TV as I'm consumed by the false-sense of accomplishment gained by checking another show off of this imagined "to do list", fulfilling an unrealized need to actually do something.

Instead of being active or generally working to better myself, I spend my evenings and weekends parked on my roommate's red couch with the remote control wearing a groove in my right hand. I am beholden to my TiVo. I don't know how to escape its gravitational pull. 

Then one day everything changed. In August of 2008 I finally got off my ass and hiked to Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier for the first time. The experience was a true sufferfest, a word I didn't even know existed at the time, and it opened my eyes to the 'other' - other activities, other opportunities, other ways to spend my free time.

Today, I have a different community full of active, motivated, crazy people who I cannot imagine my life without. These friends do a myriad of things that seemed so outlandish a few short years ago, things that are, admittedly, pretty damn crazy to most people. As an exercise in appreciation for progress, I put together this list of activities that I find fairly normal these days. Should you find yourself needing similar perspective, I encourage you to make your own list to help appreciate how easy it can be to re-calibrate your life.

Outlandish to Ordinary:

  1. Running a half-marathon
  2. Climbing to the summit of Mt. Rainier, skiing down
  3. Skydiving
  4. Going more than 3 days without a shower
  5. Running a full marathon
  6. Pooping into a bag, sealing it up, and carrying it many miles on your back until you find the next trash receptacle
  7. Living in your car, often for months at a time
  8. Bragging, online or in person, about your catastrophic injuries and resulting scars
  9. Running more than a marathon, say the Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim ultra
  10. Setting up camp, going to "sleep" at 7pm, getting up at 1am, climbing through the night to see sunrise on the summit, climbing down, hiking out, driving home, passing out, and considering it the best weekend you've had all year

What's your new ordinary?

17 May 2018

The Birthday Twofer: Helens + Hood for 34

She was 40 weeks + 10 days pregnant, the size of a house, and mowing the lawn on a sunny Saturday in May to encourage the baby to hurry it the hell up already. Maybe it was the smell of freshly cut grass or the heat of being crammed inside, but the baby began to make its move. The contractions started in the late afternoon. Ever the thrifty individual, the soon-to-be-mother labored at home as long as possible to avoid extra time at hospital. At 11pm she could stand it no more and they checked in. They'd have to pay for the full extra day.

That's how, at 5:26am on May 13, 1984, I came into this world. The first born, I chose an auspicious day to mark my uterus independence: Mother's Day. My birthday changes days of the week yet Mother's Day does not, so when the 13th actually falls on the second Sunday of the month, I like to celebrate it extra big. The solution for this year: climb Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood back to back as an homage to my mother's own suffering to bring me into this world. Just like her, I did it without painkillers.

Mount St. Helens + Ape Caves

Jordan and I left Seattle on Saturday morning to drive the four hours south to St. Helens. Every year, hundreds of adventurers climb the mountain on Mother's Day in honor of Moms. I was looking forward to being a part of the party!

En route, we stopped by the Ape Caves. They're an easy drive from Portland and were quite crowded, but we still managed to find solitude and have a good time exploring. Quote of the day, "Kristina you're unbelievable! The first sunny day of the year and you want to go crawl around underground in the dark!".

At the lot for Mt. St. Helens, we parked and re-parked until we found the perfect spot, then settled in and waited for our friends to arrive. Arrive they DID! Clad with cakes, wigs, hammocks, and one very memorable disco dress and matching ball, we drank, danced, ate, had a conga line, and were generally merry.

Kevin Koski leads the conga line. Photo by Ben Cote.

Sunday morning - Mother's Day - we awoke at the crack of 3:45am and were on the trail by 4:30am. Wearing trail runners, we hiked through the dirt and the snow and the mud for 30 minutes before transitioning to ski boots and skins. In another 30 minutes, we were above tree line, standing in full view of the mountain. Looking up at her, it's hard to believe she used to be 1,300ft taller.

We started early (4:30am is at least an hour earlier than I would normally leave) because it was supposed to be hot. The forecast was accurate, and high-temps gave us easy skinning conditions until things got steep. At the standard rib where most folks scramble up the rocks, I transitioned to booting and continued to boot for the final 3,000'. The kick steps were in, the going was quick, and I had great ladies to keep me company.

Before we knew it, the summit ridge was within view, then we were at the top. 

Those glissade chutes are deep, I guess.

Nice dress J! Hotdog leggings for me!

Thailand Reunion!

We cheered our accomplishment of summiting in about 5 hours, hung out for a while, then skied down with many whoops and hollers. The corn harvest was one of the best I've ever had on Mt. St. Helens! Seven hours after leaving the parking lot, we were back at our cars. What a way to celebrate 80 months of Turns All Year!

#SkiSquad. Once again paired with ladies who rip! 

It was so hot, tank top skiing was necessary.

Mount Hood
Next up - J and I drove to Mt. Hood where we met our buddy Mitch in the parking lot. We had obviously just climbed Helens, and Mitch was coming from a Nisqually Chutes run at Mt. Rainier, so everyone was on board with an 8pm bed time.

The winds howled throughout the night, shaking our trucks in the parking lot. The alarms at 3:45am came early. A quick jaunt across the pavement found us on snow by 4:33am.

Sunrise is coming.

The mountain comes into focus. The light is from a grooming machine.

You can see the remnants of the triangular summit shadow in the distance. 

The wind continued to howl as we climbed the 3,000ft up the Palmer Glacier through the middle of Timberline Ski Resort. Not long after we reached the top of Palmer Lift at 9,000ft, the chair started spinning. For $60, we could have slept three more hours, ridden to the top, and been only a half-hour behind schedule. In our case, some trips are better when earned.

Temps remained lower than expected due to the constant onslaught of air in our faces. Every way we turned, the wind turned to push against us as we struggled uphill. Each of us kept our thoughts to ourselves, lest we let the others know we were ready to call it a day. Ski crampons came out about 8,000', followed by boot crampons from 9.500' to the summit, just over 11,000ft.

Mitch skins the last bit before we have to boot.

The diagonal ski carry. So superior to the tent carry.

Wind rushes above the rhime covered ridge.

As we passed the active volcanic cone, we were overcome by the smell of rotten eggs. Fumaroles below the Hogsback spew sulfurous gas, burning your eyes and souring your mouth. We were still blissfully in the shade, but finally emerged into the sun just as Mitch took out his fancy camera.

I wanna be a skiingmodel. Photo by Mitch Pittman. 

From here, we had about a thousand feet of more difficult terrain to the summit, culminating in a crowded trip up the Pearly Gates. A beautifully aesthetic line through mounds of rhime ice, the Pearly Gates take you roughly 60-meters up through a chute.

Approaching the Pearly Gates. Photo by Mitch Pittman.

Looking down from whence we came. Photo by Mitch Pittman. 

In climbing you'll find two types of photos: ass shots and top-down head shots. This is an ass shot. Photo by Mitch Pittman.

We wore crampons and each carried and an ice axe and whippet (ski pole with a pick on the end, as seen in our photos). When we reached the chute we found a guided group coming down attached to a fixed rope. Thankfully they let us scoot past. It's always eye-opening to see people who are new to the sport, worried about the safety and exposure, and contrast that with more experienced folks like us who scrambled up in a few minutes with skis on our backs. Before we knew it, we were on the summit. It took just over 6-hours to travel 5,250 vertical feet!

Helens is behind us. We were there yesterday! Photo by Mitch Pittman.



We skied down via the Old Chute (for a better look at it, check out this trip report from my first visit to Hood, the fateful day I met Theresa). This descent is common for skiers and lies down a ridgeline to the west of the true summit. Getting there is spicy, navigating the start is spicy, and getting down the first few turns is spicy. I've been skiing for 32 years and the boys only have a collective 10-years between them, but they navigated it like champs. In short order, we were enjoying corn.

Jordan coming out of the top of the chute!

Mitch celebrating his survival of the spicy first pitches!

I heart skiing!

Jordan slaying the corn.

A quick hour later and we were back at the parking lot, gaping at the far away summit. It was hard to believe we had been standing on its point a leg-burning 60-minutes before.

We had brews, ate food, and drove home, blissfully avoiding the standard Seattle traffic and somehow arriving in the driveway four hours after we departed. Following The Shower Rule, we unpacked our gear and started laundry. Ater a year-long battle with the house's outdated electrical system, Jordan installed our dryer, just in time for my birthday and the best gift of all. If that isn't something to celebrate in your mid-30s, I don't know what is.