19 March 2014

Losing a Friend to The Mountains

On February 19, I lost a friend to the mountains. Loren Miller was an expert telemark and downhill skier and an accomplished mountaineer and rock climber. While I was not one of Loren's closest friends, I have known him for many years and spent a few days chasing him down the ski hill, where he often made me feel like a lowly beginner. This guy Loren. This guy could ski.

We were actually supposed to ski together on the 18th, and even saw each other in the ticket line, but he headed down early with his ski partner to return the next day with fresh legs. Loren did return to the hill the next day, and skied some of the same lines I had been skiing in similar conditions when he fell into a tree well. He didn't make it home.

Loren was an expert skier traveling in-bounds with a skilled and experienced partner. By all measures he did everything right, and his passing is still pretty hard to fathom. The last month has been difficult for all of us - his friends and family - as we try to adjust to the new "normal" without him; reconciling our lives before with our lives after. I feel lucky that I knew him, and am honored to have been e a part of his memorial ceremony.

As I become more and more enveloped in this outdoor community, my sphere of friendship gets both larger and smaller, and really it's only a matter of time until I lose another friend to the mountains. I view this reality with a heavy heart. A few other bloggers have written thoughtful pieces recently on losing loved ones to the great outdoors. Their posts are more eloquent than I can be right now, and I'd like to quote their words with the hope that they will touch you as they have touched me (my highlights in bold):

Sean Leslie, in Learning to Tie the Most Important Knots, says:

One of my best friends died in a climbing fall at Temple Crag in the Sierra. Linnea was climbing by herself, soloing a route called Venetian Blind when she fell....I know some people think Linnea died doing something reckless. I’ve heard people say that before, and sometimes I agree with them. But that was Linny. That was the life she led. She was constantly pushing herself, constantly defying what other people told her she could and could not do. Linnea was herself a force of nature.
The day before the funeral, there were hundreds and hundreds of pictures of Linnea on display at her mother’s house. I still remember thinking—looking at those images of Linnea summiting snowcapped, jagged mountains and topping out on wind-blasted sandstone cliffs—besides my own loss of a friend, an amazing wealth of knowledge and experience had been lost to the world. She had seen and done so many incredible things.

Mary Emerick, in On Mountains and Avalanches and Risk, says: 

The mountains are our barometer and our playground, and, on occasion, our tomb. “We don’t live here to stay inside,” my friend says, hearing the news. She is right....The mountains are the first place we look at sunrise and the last thing we see before darkness closes us in. The mountains are part of us, not separate.
So when an avalanche sweeps down in the remote backcountry and two people never go home again, it feels almost like a betrayal....I love the mountains, but I am reminded again and again that they do not love me back.
I came to the mountains as a brittle young girl, afraid of just about everything, and the mountains taught me to be brave. They taught me when to back off and when to go for it...I still have plenty to learn from the mountains....each death in the wilderness brings back all the other ones, all the other people you have known or maybe not even really known, but heard of... and each time someone is taken from us, it is a rip in the fabric that makes up our personal landscape. 
We still stare up at the mountains. We still love them. Somewhere inside, there is still delight.

I feel all of these things about Loren. He had so much more to share with the world. His wealth of knowledge and passions for skiing and climbing and cars are now lost forever. I feel like the mountains have betrayed me, and as Mary said: no matter how much I love them, they will never love me back.

But then I look outside. And I'm reminded of the beauty that surrounds us every day. I'm motivated to grow my skills and knowledge so that I can continue to be as safe as possible while outside. I'm inspired to continue to seek adventure.

And I hope. I hope that Loren found happiness in his final moments. I hope that we can come to terms with his passing. I hope the mountains will continue to greet me with smiles when I am lucky enough to find myself there.

RIP Loren Miller | April 5, 1980 - February 19, 2014

17 March 2014

A Quick Weekend to Mt. Shasta

The plan was thus:
  • Drive to Mt. Shasta Friday after work (a mere 8hrs, 39mins from Seattle sans traffic)
  • Make it to Bunny Flat trail head (6,940') and camp at some point on Friday night/Saturday morning
  • Get up and skin to high camp at Helen Lake (10,443') on Saturday
  • Make camp, eat food, go to bed early Saturday night
  • Sunday morning have Alpine-ish start, depending on expected sunrise and snow conditions
  • Summit! Complete with cheers over a Rainier Beer just to let Shasta know who's really the big 14'er in the area
  • Ski back to Helen Lake, break camp, ski to car
  • Make long drive back to Seattle (a mere 543miles post 14,000' climb/ski)
  • Work on Monday - be sleepy all day and not care cause our weekend was epic!
And that's more or less how it went. Minus, unfortunately, the summit. We did drink our Rainiers though. And my tutu and I were nearly blown off the mountain! I should also mention 70-degree temps, overnight freeze fest, icefall, and epic windburn. Here is the full report:

Mt. Shasta, California

Friday at 3pm four Seattlites loaded up a Chevy Silverado in Kent and departed for Shasta. I'm not going to lie to you - the drive was long and not super awesome. But we took turns napping and driving and listening to RadioLab podcasts, and hey, 10-hours in a car (stupid traffic) is really just a first-world-problem.

We arrived at the trailhead around 1:30am and had setup camp by 2:15am. I'd like to report that we slept well, but all four of us were freezing and got very little sleep until the sun came up and warmed our shelters. This did not bode well for the upper mountain.

I crawled out of bed at 8:30am, and we were off the the crack of 10:30am. We were met by two buddies who drove up from Berkeley, and our group of four became six. As we set off on skins the sun was up and blazing, and it was HOT. Like, 70-degrees hot. The snowfield felt like a fiery inferno, and I put on lots and lots of sunscreen!

View of Shasta from Bunny Flats at 10am on Saturday.

Tutu makes it's California debu. Check out the undulations of Avy Gulch -> called The Serpent. Photo by Pam Spier.

The crew making the climb to Helen Lake at 10,443ft.

Nearly there. Ryan, Nick, and Pam charging toward the lake.

We were able to skin directly from the parking lot following the standard Southwest Route via Avalanche Gulch. From Bunny Flat we ascended 3,500' covering just over 3 miles to get to Helen Lake. I arrived at Helen Lake around 3pm, so it took me 4.5 hours to cover the distance. I am not sure if it was the heat, the lack of sleep, or the fact that I had been sick earlier in the week, but I was definitely not having my best day on the mountain physically or mentally, so I was happy to have the leisure to take my time.

The route finding was very straightforward with lots of people out on the mountain although it seems like mere pittance compared to the hordes of folks I'm used to seeing on Rainier. The snow was perfect for skiing - spring corn - and not as perfect for skinning but wasn't too sloppy either. An avalanche had been triggered earlier in the week, but we saw no signs of it or any other instability.

Once at Helen Lake, we dug right in - literally - and built some pretty substantial snow walls to protect us from the anticipated wind. My tent partner and I ended up digging an extra few feet while trying to figure out how to set up the Nighthaven (a floorless tent from an outdoor retailer who shall remain nameless due to the amount of swearing that took place whilst trying to set up said tent), but we eventually set it up and relaxed to eat some food and enjoy the view.

We were in bed by 7:30pm (and it was awesome).

Camp! We were not lacking in color.

Owly posing in front of the Red Banks.

Yet another volcano in the distance. D'oh. The ol' summit list just keeps getting longer...

Nick taking in the sunset

Imran enjoying the view.

Sunsets do not disappoint in the mountains. Here's the view from my tent.

The alarm went of at 4am, and we (the four of us from Seattle - as we were slower than the pair from Berkeley) were off by 5:20am. I know nearly an hour and a half seems like a long time to get ready in the morning, but for some reason things always take longer in the mountains. And at elevation. And when the wind is blowing 20-40mp against your tent begging you to stay inside just one. more. minute.

We ascended via Avalanche Gulch under the light of the full moon. The snow was firm, so we opted to boot pack rather than skin, which was absolutely the right decision. The snow was crunchy and mostly-solid, and when we did punch through it was only a few inches.

Pam climbing with the sunrise

Going was steady, but I felt particularly slow. About an hour out of camp, big ice chunks started raining down on us from afar. Unsure if it was coming off of the Red Banks, or just from the climbers above, we (Pam, Nick, and I) all moved to climber's right to try and get out of it, but it was pretty sketchy for a while. Three of us (myself included) got charlie-horses on our thighs from rocks. Pam and I were hit in the stomach. I was also hit by a really large chunk on the boot. As the smallest target, I am not amused I took the most abuse. 

But we assessed the danger and opted to keep going, taking the longer route to the right mostly out of the danger. One other party had ascended before us in the morning, and we later found out that they descended due to the icefall danger. 

The wind was at our backs and every now and then it would blow you up the mountain! I felt so strong in those moments. The winds were sustained at 30-40mph in the gulch, over 40mph at the ridge atop the Red Band, and gusting to 60mph. Not ideal.

Even with the help of the wind, I felt like I was moving too slowly. I don't yet own an altimeter, so I wasn't sure of the time or of my elevation, and I continued to get more and more frustrated as it appeared that everyone was pulling away from me as huffed and puffed on the way up. I was caught and passed by the two super-freaks from California (okay, they just have really good fitness, and do not, like me, suffer from shortness) who checked in on me, but continued up. 

With the foreshortening that makes things appear both closer and further away in the mountains, I felt like I wasn't making any progress. And due to some bad math on my part, I was discouraged to think I'd only gone a mere 1,200ft, when in fact it was closer to 2,220ft. Thankfully, I was close to Pam, and we stuck together to the very end. I remain thankful for her kind words of support.

When we finally crested the col to the climber's left of The Thumb, a prominent feature climbers right of Red Banks that we all agreed looked more like a middle finger on this day than a thumb, both Pam and I were nearly blown over crossing the ridge to meet the boys who were huddled behind a rocky outcropping in shelter of the wind. The ridge crossing wasn't exactly corniced or overly exposed, but it wasn't a place you really wanted to fall either: 

Ridge crossing. You can see the spindrift blowing off the top of the ridge.

The route up through the red band.

A view of 'Misery Hill' and the false summit from our protected rock.  It's hard to see the snow blowing off the top, but it was significant.

Finally all together again, we discussed our plan of attack, or rather, plan of continuation. Once again, I was proud to be part of a group with honest communication in the backcountry, and all of us had our say. I was the only one who definitely didn't want to continue (I was feeling very weak from my ascent, which was not as bad as I thought: I covered 2,500' in 3 hours). Everyone else "could go on if someone really wanted to". Everyone looked up at Misery Hill and the false summit with the huge spindrifts coming off in every direction we could see, knowing the summit was somewhere beyond and 1200' further up, and lost motivation. So we opted to call it a day at a high point of 12,900', transition to skiing, and make our way back to camp.

In what can only be described as The Most Impressive Group Transition of All-Time, the 6 of us, plus one snowboarder who climbed up right behind us, managed to pull our skis off our packs, pull the skins off the skis, hydrate, fuel ourselves, pull on and off countless layers, and ready ourselves to ski down, all in about a 3'-square space.

I mean, it was tight. We couldn't even get everyone in a picture:

Imran, Nick, and Me

It was roughly 9am when we started down. I'd like to say the ski down was pleasant. Blower. Super fun. But sadly, it was not. It was unpleasant. Icy. Survival Skiing. I'm pretty sure Imran won the award for best side slipper, slipping down at least 1500'. Who knew he was a snowboarder in a past life?

But the sun was out, we were in a fun group, and by golly we were going to have a good time. Here are some of the "skiing" photos:

Leaving our shelter


I know what you're thinking. That looks like powder off his tails. It is not.

Camp down below center of ridge mound. Shows you just how far we have come.

We all made it back to camp in one piece, with only one ski going rogue on an adventure of it's own. No one was happier to be back than Imran, who showed us his best mountain man pose:

I don't always ski Shasta, but when I do, I prefer "blower ice".

We asked our new friend Andy to take a group picture. He's not so good at capturing the jumping photos, but don't we look like we're having a damn good time?


Team Tutu!

Finally out of the wind and in the sunshine, we lounged, ate, shared a 'Cheers' over our not-summit summit Rainiers, packed camp, and headed down.

The ski descent to Bunny Lake much reflected the ski descent from the Red Banks. The snow was hard, icy, and unforgiving under our now-heavier packs. It eventually softened up around 7,500', and we were grateful for the mercy it showed on our legs. People who were just skinning up as we were skiing down (at 11:30am) definitely had the right idea.

Even Matt brought a special tutu for the occasion! I'm corrupting the ski community one tutu at a time. 

Back at Bunny Flats we got some strange looks from the people at the trailhead for our heavy packs, bright tutus, and epically windburned faces. They were just jealous! 

Epic Windburn

All in all I give this adventure weekend an "A-". We win for planning, group decision making, and fun-having. We lose for wind, wind, and Windy McWinderson. Thanks everyone for the great adventure! Let's pick another big stupid adventure and do it soon!

Not-summit summit beer. Yes I am wearing plenty of sunscreen. 

Check out those tights!!!

Turns All Year Month 28

After months of uber dry weather, mid-February brought us some serious dumpage, the likes of which haven't been seen in these parts for years. Theresa and I celebrated by hitting Crystal mountain in our Seahawks-turquoise tutus on February 1, the day before we won the SuperBowl. We're pretty sure that's why they won.

February 1: Crystal Mountain, with a clear view of Mt. Rainier (which we plan to climb together this spring, in tutus).

Theresa and I also skied together the following Thursday night as participants in the City-League race night. She kicked butt and I came in about the 55th percentile for our race group. Hey, with 110 people, 90% of whom are men, and having not raced since over-half-my-lifetime ago, I'll take it!

Saturday we once again loaded up our tutus and headed out to Mazama Ridge, a low-angled slope near Mt. Rainier with lots of trees. Avy danger was high, but we made some great decisions and had a good day lapping a short 400ft slope, with fresh tracks all day.

February 8: The boys laying in our skin track on Mazama Ridge.

Gorgeous snow.

Nick's photo. His original caption: OY! I've spotted tutus in their natural habitat!

Over President's day weekend, I trekked up to Whistler village for my sporatically-annual group. We had 11 people originally, but then Matty came down with the flu and headed home early. We tried to do him justice by having a fun time and skiing our tooshies off before 9/10 of us were also similarly afflicted. Oh well, fun times all around.

February 15: Sans tutu + neck warmers. Hexar gets a shoutout cameo in the back.

February 16: Overnight dumpage. Just the beginning of a week-long storm. 

Ladies all bundled up for a night out on the town.

12 March 2014

Turns All Year Month 27

In the last installment of Turns All Year: The Tutu Adventures, I spent November and December skiing almost every weekend in sub-par conditions. January continued the trend, staying dry and keeping us powder hounds seeking new adventures.

To start the year off right, I joined my friend Dave and three of his bros for a weekend "skiing in the enchantments". What we ended up with...well, was decidedly NOT skiing. I posted a full trip report here, but as an overview we hiked 18 miles wearing crampons and skiboots, carrying big packs, and never even got to ski. The views were pretty though:

January 4: The road was closed due to ice. Should have been our obvious sign to abort...

Colchuck Glacier center sloping up right.

January 5: Climbing to the col sans skis.

Rewarded with amazing views.

While technically the suffer-fest doesn't count as skiing, I feel it's enough time with skis on my back to be counted as a fair try. But to assure that my January turns were in the bag, I headed to my favorite tree-ski stash with Imran, to the Tatoosh in search of spring corn (we found breakable crust), and then finished the month off with some evening ski races at Alpental.

January 12: That's one sexy, powdery skin track.

Owly! She looks right in her element.

Anne and I with our hands in the air. That's how you know we're having fun!

January 20: Coming down from Unicorn peak. Once again hands in the air for FUN!

Trying to get artsy near the top of Unicorn.

Hands in the air (we're totally faking fun having - the breakable crust was...not awesome).

January 23: City League race qualifying night. Totally socked in. But if you got above the clouds the view was magical.

10 March 2014

Why I Embrace Being Ridiculous

This may come as a surprise to most of you, but I didn't always ski in tutus and travel with an action figure mascot. In fact, I wouldn't even consider myself 'outdoorsy' prior to about 2008. Sure I grew up skiing and hiking in Montana, but what you haven't heard about are the countless mornings I opted to forego the ski hill in favor of sleeping in (lazy teenager), or the amount of complaining I used to do while trudging up a hillside somewhere (typical teenager).

A photo has been circulating on Facebook for some time, and this week 2 people posted it to my wall. That's after 3 other people posted it a few months ago....

Know what that photo was?:

My life mantra

As a young person trying to make your way in this big, confusing world, you don't always have the confidence to do things that make you happy. Instead you think, "what will my friends say about me if I do this? if I wear that? if I admit how much I love the Spice Girls?"

So you go through life doing what everyone else does. You dress the same, eat the same, read the same, look the same, be the same.

And then something happens. For me, I hit my mid-twenties and what everyone else thought didn't matter anymore. I couldn't be bothered with their opinions. I was going to be weird and wear ridiculously bright colors and finally accept the fact that I'm bossy and am willing to take on the additional work of being "the organizer" who keeps detailed spreadsheets and writes out hourly schedules and pre-trip to do lists because that just MAKES ME HAPPY DAMMIT!

It was like one day I just woke up and said, "yeah, this is me." This fact was driven home when I attended a party of mostly 30-somethings and the hostess brought out a box of costumes. Not only was everyone excited about said box, but we were clamoring over who got to wear which outfit. This NEVER would have happened at a party in my early 20's, and I was fascinated by the behavior change. Then I began noticing as more and more of my friends hit the same point of self-discovery and acceptance. In some cases it drove us closer together, and in other cases it drove us apart. But you know what? That's okay. We all have to find what makes us happy in life and go for it, even if that means growing up and growing apart.

I am now known as 'that girl who skis in a pink tutu'. People recognize me in the mountains. I participate in a web forum called Turns All Year, and have completed 29-consecutive months of skiing. This puts me in a group of people who are random and fun and awesome and active and happy. Even better - last time I was backcountry skiing in the tutu three people recognized me, and all of them stopped to say hello. One wanted to compliment my writing in Mountaineer, one wanted to tell me they enjoyed my trip reports on Turns All Year, and one just wanted to say, "hey, are you Kristina that crazy girl who skis in a tutu? Yeah? I thought so. Nice to meet you."

And I don't stop there. I also climb in a tutu. And skydive in a tutu. And influence my friends to ski and climb and skydive in tutus, or do anything else wearing something ridiculous if that's what makes them happy.

I also travel with an entourage of tiny action figures who all have distinct names and personalities; I talk about poop way more often than your average American; I make my friends line up by color to take ROYGBIV photos; I read and write and don't watch much TV and have seen 3 movies in 5 years and you know what? I'm not apologizing anymore. Instead - I'm happy. Not every day, but most days. I know myself well enough to put my hair up in pigtails when I'm having a bad day because, while I'm pushing 30 and those types of hairstyles aren't really appropriate for someone "my age", it automatically puts me in a good mood. And there's nothing in this world more powerful than spreading joy and happiness, and yes, just a little bit of ridiculousness.

Because really, life would be better if we wore more tutus.

Rainbow Girls Ski Day