Welcome to Alaska (aka Crevasse Whip)

I flew from Seattle to Anchorage on a Monday. The weather was mostly clear with a few scattered clouds. The woman sitting beside me in the window seat announced excitedly that she was going on a cruise. After taking in an eyeful of the climbing guidebook propped open in my lap, she asked: are you going hiking? Yeah, kinda.

Normally, I’d be happy to carry on a conversation with whoever wound up in seat 17A or whatever it was beside me. But at approximately the same time that she struck up a conversation, we began passing over the Chugach Range. Looking down, it took me a moment to realize that the seemingly low-hanging cloud beneath us was actually an expansive glacier. Its huge expanse confirmed that I was definitely outside of my home range, which seemed suddenly scaled down by comparison. The terrain beneath us was big and wild and enticing. My jaw dropped and my eyes welled up a little with excited and awestruck tears; a special kind of tear that only powerful natural experiences can conjure. I felt simultaneously small but very much in the right place. The feeling was only slightly reduced when the tiny plane window was overtaken by an iPhone screen, but what little I’d seen struck a deep and resonant chord.

Upon arriving at the Mountain Trip guide house in Anchorage, I was immediately enthralled by stories of big mountain rescues, avalanches and other stuff you might otherwise hear about in Outside magazine. All of the stories were told from a first person perspective. My eyes widened and I could hardly contain my endless questions. I immediately got the sense that I was surrounded by decades of experience.

Not having much to do right off the bat, I tried to busy myself by helping other teams prep gear for the West Buttress of Denali. Tents were thoroughly inspected for tears, zipper snags, adequate rain flies. Unnecessary ounces were shed. “That’s weight,” the lead guide said, plucking something from the kitchen kit. Noted, I thought to myself.

The cast of characters that makes a seasonal migration to Anchorage year after year is a lively bunch. Lots of personality. The backyard keg only served to enhance things, and definitely for the better. While new on the scene myself, I felt like I was among my people. I immediately noticed the bonds forged between folks that had spent weeks together working at altitude, often in the elements and laden with heavy, mandatory gear. There was an evident sense of community and camaraderie. These people were hearty; both physically and in the way they carried themselves. I loved it.

Three days out from our flight onto the Kahiltna Glacier, I began packing with my lead guide Ben for our 12-day climbing course. He’d developed a menu and introduced me to the long list of gear that we would need, most interestingly: seven pickets (we used all of them,) two low-stretch 50 meter ropes and four sleds to help haul our heavy loads. We rigged my backpack with a drop cord so that if I fell into a crevasse while fully weighted, I could get the weight off of my body and onto the rope instead. I sipped a beer and taped more than 50 wands to prepare for low-visibility glacier travel. We made trips to Costco and Carrs and bought what seemed like an obscene amount of meat and cheese (turns out, it was pretty spot on.) And almost suddenly, it was go time.

We met Astrid and Dan at the Lakefront Hotel beside Lake Spenard, which was busy with float planes landing on the lake and departing overhead. In the hotel lobby, the walls were decorated with taxidermy goats, moose, grizzly and polar bears. It felt simultaneously very over the top and very Alaska. Again, I loved it. Dan and Astrid were joining us from New York to gain the skills for glacier travel on their own terms. They struck me as being very prepared and eager to get after it. Things got started on the right foot.

At that time, the forecast we’d been referring to for the last few days looked dubious, at best. I was happy to have a goretex top and bottom shell because it looked like we were going to be subject to near constant rain for the duration of our trip. Ben mentioned that we could begin with a knot review and rope techniques in Talkeetna, since there was a good chance that we would be grounded, possibly for days. Apparently the pilots rely on line of sight only for their glacier landings. No vis means no flight.

We weighed our bags and gear and prepared to settle into Talkeetna for the night when we got a call out of the blue: the plane was ready and departure time is now. It felt like a total curveball, but I threw on my double boots, glacier glasses and a quick layer of sunscreen. I thought I was going to have the night to make minor last minute preparation additions, like downloading additional media to my phone to hold me over for 12 nights, seeking out a few additional interesting facts about Denali, etc. But nope!

We climbed into a Beaver that sounded like a flying muscle car. Our flight took us over deep green and dense Alaskan woods where we saw the occasional cabin with no obvious road to access them by. I watched the service drop off and disappear from my phone, one service bar at a time.

As we approached the Alaska Range, the tears crept back into my eyes like they had for the Chugach Range. I was experiencing full-body “woah dude.” And it only got bigger and better as we flew deeper into the range, impossibly close to house-sized cornices, vast glaciers stretching 40 miles out of sight. I tried to say into my headset: this is one of the best days of my life. But the Beaver’s roar drowned me out and that was ok. I was dazzled. I knew immediately that this was going to be a place that I would return to many times over, for business and for pleasure. That special kind of Alaska heavy-duty dragging pleasure that humbles and forces you to dig deep. That special kind of completely unpredictable weather pleasure that arrests your full attention into the immediate here and now. A special kind of brutal pleasure that I was ready to be smacked down by. Hell yeah. Maybe normal people call it masochism.

The plane eventually touched down on the glacier alongside Annie’s Ridge. I felt the skis dredge wet spring snow beneath us. Momentarily, I imagined the plane catching an edge much like you would on a pair of normal skis and what that would mean for us on the inside. But the thought didn’t last long because we immediately began ripping gear from the belly of the plane so that another team could board and fly out. I recognized another lady guide from back home, Robin, and gave her a hug. As my network grows larger, my world seems more interconnected and smaller and all the richer for it.

I dragged a sled past a party of folks that seemed like they were actually mid-celebration, a true party. Basecamp was a lively and happening place. Again and again, I heard that team after team had summited in 2-week weather windows, while several of our trips are budgeted 22 days to turn a trip around with enough time for acclimatization, weather and come-what-may on the tallest mountain in North America. The load I was pulling didn’t feel particularly heavy, but I was embarrassed to find myself huffing and puffing a bit as I drug it up a short stretch. I wondered how I would fair beneath the weight of my 60 pounds of personal gear with the addition of whatever food and group gear I would need to cary. The glacier was surprisingly hot and I felt myself drench with sweat almost immediately. I mentally prepared myself to grind.

Ben asked me to start digging but didn’t get around to telling me why. He requested a 3 foot by 3 foot dig site. I hopped to it. After digging to roughly knee depth, I asked him how deep he wanted the hole. “About five feet,” he said nonchalantly. I couldn’t remember the exact figure for how much a cubic meter of snow weighs from my avalanche education, but I can tell you that it’s more than you’d think. I dug in and moved as much snow as quickly as I could and felt my heart rate rise with the piles of snow accumulating around me. In my mind, this was an audition for a Denali trip. I wanted to show Ben that I could dig up there alongside the best of ’em.

The days wore on and we covered snow skills like cramponing and self arrest, running belays, crevasse rescue, snow anchors, roped glacier travel and so on. Some days were exceedingly hot and our days began between 2 and 5am to accommodate. Oh, and it was never dark. No headlamp required. Around 3am, you’d get a bit of twilight but never full-on darkness. It wasn’t as weird as you might think, but it made falling asleep hard at times. That, coupled with an ever changing sleep schedule: 2am, 3am and 5am being the choice times, made for a disrupted sense of general time as well as “time on” and “time off.” I discovered roughly four days in that I really needed the occasional solo tent time to relax and unwind. Around camp, there’s always something to straighten, always water to melt, always something to dig, etc. There’s always something. And the methodology and process was all new to me, despite the time I’ve spent in the Cascades. I felt out of rhythm but not necessarily out of control. I was literally out of my element and doing everything I could to embrace the differences.

Eventually, we moseyed up to Kahiltna Pass, establishing camp at 10,000 feet. We were parked beneath Kahiltna Dome, which has a beautiful ridge, zebra-striped with crevasses. After many consecutive days of lots of skills and not a lot of movement, my body was craving exertion beyond shoveling snow (trust me, I’d had plenty of time to practice that. So it goes out there.) Finally, more than a week into our adventure, it was time to climb.

Ben lead the way gaining the ridge and over a spicy looking bergschrund. He kicked again and again into soft Alaska corn snow that wouldn’t quite consolidate. The couple-inch surface layer felt firm beneath crampons, but once you punched through, there was a relatively uniform layer of mushy, wet, soft snow, unlike anything I’d experienced previously in Washington.

Just beyond the ‘schrund, we paused to discuss our plan for the day and any hazards we might want to consider. When asked to weigh in, I saw no ‘red light’ reason to stop climbing and recommend that we continue on. We were well ahead of our turnaround time and on a broad ridge. If anything, we had every reason to continue on. We did. I got to lead and picked my way through textured terrain atop the ridge. The snow was wind-affected and funky; I could tell that we were traveling alongside some pretty sizable cornices and was keenly aware of our exposure off the backside of the ridge away from camp. Occasionally, I placed a picket to guard against a fall, equally for psychological and physical security.

Eventually I came up on a snow bridge; the epitome of a snow bridge, almost like something out of a Japanese garden. I could see a dark space on the left side of the ridge beneath where the route meandered. As I assessed the surface snow, I felt assured by the firm snow crunching beneath my crampons. I gave the dark hollow space several feet of distance and probed first with my basketed ski pole and then with my ice axe. The feedback I got from my initial probe strikes was confidence inspiring. I stepped exactly where I’d probed and began to probe further. Not wanting my basket to interfere with the depth of my probe, I leaned forward to plunge my ice axe into the snow. To my great surprise, the world fell away beneath me and my world went white. The fall stopped just as quickly as it had started and I found myself slumped over, hanging in my harness deep inside a crevasse. My hands had locked themselves down around my ice axe and ski pole.

A nervous laughter gurgled out of me. My system had been rebooted by a wave of adrenaline. Ha… Haha… Ha… “I’m OK!” I yelled to my team. I heard nothing back, so I yelled again louder, “Guys, I’m OK!”

Besides finding my self sharply arrested by the end of the rope, there had been no impact and no consequence to my fall. While I’d had the wherewithal to process the potential for a serious accident in the plane landing on the glacier, hanging in the bottom of a crevasse, I felt surprisingly unafraid. This thing that I’d been teaching about and preparing for, for years had gone as well as it possibly could have. I was fine. I was grateful. I was actually really stoked that things had turned out as well as they did.

As I looked around, I noticed that I’d fallen through several feet of what looked like cob webs beneath a 7 or so inch layer of firm snow on top. I remember looking at the firm layer and thinking that it was trustworthy because of the surface texture. Obviously, since I was actively probing when I fell, I didn’t inherently trust the surface appearance, but this seems like a free lesson that I can pass on: don’t trust what you see at the surface! Probe earlier than you think you might need to – it’s better to find the edge and solid ground instead of spooky hollow cob webs, you know, before it’s too late and all.

Almost immediately, I began stemming in a full straddle-stance to climb more than 15 feet from the depth of the crevasse (15 feet per Ben’s assessment; my wigged out brain registered 20 feet, but who knows.) The rope had caught me inches above what appeared to be solid ground. Not sure what to trust with bodyweight and not wanting to know what was lurking beneath apparently stable snow, I trusted my crampons to the walls of the crevasse and used my ice axe to climb higher. I captured progress with the prussic that was pre-rigged to the rope. After clambering up what I estimated to be a body length, I tied a knot in the rope beneath my prussic. And then again. And again. I had no desire to trust my full bodyweight to a single prussic alone, even if it absolutely would have held. When I was just a few short feet from the lip, Ben poked his head over and asked me how I was doing.

“I’m fine!” I was happy to report. He padded the lip, anchoring his backpack to his ice axe and vector/plucked me out over the edge. Our size difference is comical; he may as well have used a pinky to lift me out.

I took a moment to sit on a pad on firm snow and collect myself. I held my hand out to see if it was shaking with adrenaline. Surprisingly, it wasn’t quaking that bad. I guess I felt some nervous laughter, but my nerves quickly subsided when I realized that I was going to be OK. Best worst case scenario.

Not surprisingly, we decided to call that our high point and turned around for camp. I lead the way back and felt myself grow nervous as temperatures rose. At that point, it was just after 8:30am. Not necessarily late, but given the less than confidence inspiring snow, high time to head out of there.

After all of that, I thought to myself: that’s quite the welcome to Alaska.

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The Birthday Tour: Washington Pass

Hey world, it’s me again. Today, I asked folks on Instagram what they wanted to read in a blog post and the results are suggesting that folks want more trip reports, some climbing stories, a few skiing stories and lots of pretty pictures.

My goal here is to write stuff you actually want to read. So here we go: a trip report.

It’s my birthday and I’ll ski in a dress if I want to

Yesterday, Amber and I skied the Birthday Tour at Washington Pass. In case you’re not a loyal blog follower (yet) reading this the moment that I post, yesterday was Thursday, April 25. On Monday this week, I turned 26 and it only seemed fitting that I ski the birthday tour in my birthday party dress. Dress skiing on my birthday is becoming a tradition, since last year, I skied Shuksan in a dress and it was totally awesome. But, as spring weather would have it, Monday was rainy so Tim and I climbed a few pitches in my backyard until it rained and ate cake when we couldn’t climb anymore. Not a bad plan B.

birthdaydress
Birthday Tourista!

The Birthday Tour

On Wednesday, Amber and I climbed Outer Space in Leavenworth. Knowing that the Birthday Tour would only take us a half-day-ish to ski and trying to time our corn descents properly, we knew that we could start a little later than a usual mountain outing. Our goal start time was 9:30am. But with the long drive from Leavenworth, coffee stops, trailhead breakfast, etc. we actually started our day at 10:30 from the Blue Lake trailhead. And then I had a mini panic 5 minutes after we left the car about whether or not I had locked the doors. So actually, actually, we started closer to 10:45.

Not wanting to burn much more daylight, we skinned at a pace that precluded conversation. There were several skin tracks through the forest that lead us to the clearing in the trees beneath Blue Lake. We might have ended up a bit low when we came out of the trees, because we skinned on some kinda steep, kinda icy, kinda precarious snow. But it ultimately leveled out and was fine.

Amber Pro Tip: An alternative to the Blue Lake approach would be to park at the Hairpin Turn on Highway 20 and boot up some steep snow on the south side of South Early Winter Spire. This would take some navigation skills out of the day; eliminate the need to hitchhike back to our car (given that we had one vehicle); and shorten the tour. You might want crampons for this option, however. Snow on north-facing slopes was still firm at 3pm.

WAPassSki
Amber climbing the bootpack up to the Blue Lake cornice.

We arrived beneath the Blue Lake cornice just after 12. Between the two of us, Amber had a pair of crampons and I had an ice axe. I did not remove my ice axe from my backpack because the bootpack was so established that I did not feel the need to. If I had somehow slipped out of the bootpack, I would have slid into a snowy bowl beneath the cornice and likely bruised my ego, worst case scenario. I will say that I wish I had a whippet for the spicy skin track on the way up to the cornice, but it wasn’t mandatory. The climb up to and above the cornice was the steepest ascent of the day, given our route. This is all to say: you can leave your sharp stuff at home if you stick to the standard Birthday Tour route.

From our perch above the cornice, we could see much of the tour ahead of us. Any sense of time crunch was alleviated. Ultimately, we did the whole thing in less than 5 hours. I’ll list all of our trip stats at the end of the post, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Since we were skiing the birthday tour in celebration of my birthday, our transition included a few extra steps. Amber pulled two San Pelegrino sodas out of her pack and I was stoked. Then came a tiny Nalgene with a tiny bit of gin in it. I was extra stoked. We ate some snacks and prepped our skis for the downhill. Then came the dresses.

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Amber looking freaking fabulous in her party dress for the Birthday Tour.

The snow had corned up perfectly when we dropped ‘Madison Avenue’ from the Blue Lake cornice down to Copper Creek around 12pm. At the time, there were no indicators of instability in the snowpack that we observed. We skied fall-line to the creek and it was a couple hundred feet of bliss.

As we climbed back up to the ridge that would take us to the highway, we were confronted with options: a skin track climbing up to the left or to the right to the col/ridge beneath Copper Mountain. We had been encouraged to trend left and I’m glad we did, because we got to ski a cool, low-angle and wide-open couloir.

neatocouloir.jpg
I’m mildly disappointed that you can’t see that I’m wearing a dress WITHOUT pants for this descent. Totally worth it. And yes, this north-facing descent was a little icy-crusty. High stakes.

There was a bit of crusty avalanche debris beneath the couloir that made me question – only momentarily – my decision to ski in a dress without pants. But I survived, my legs survived and it was good fun. I think I skied better for it.

After the couloir, we traversed left back to the Hairpin Turn on Highway 20, careful to stay above the creek. An icy luge took us nearly all the way to the road.

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Will belay for food! At the Hairpin Turn on Highway 20.

TL;DR: Trip Stats

Distance: 6 miles

Blue Lake TH to Blue Lake Cornice: 1.25hr

Copper Creek to Copper Mountain Col/Ridge: 1hr

Ridge to Road: 1>hr

PERFECT Corn on Madison Avenue: 12pm

Not-so-perfect snow on Slot Couloir to Hairpin: 3pm

Pace: Cruiser. Chill. No pressure. Highly enjoyable.

10/10 would recommend!

 

Bootfitters are the Real MVP

Good people of the internet: I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT. I’m here, right now, to tell you that boot fitting is modern day alchemy.

If you thought that buying a pair of multi-hundred dollar ski boots would translate to a good fit, bless your heart, that’s only the start. You could say that a stock boot, straight off the shelf, is essentially lead. Boot fitters turn that shit into gold.

Perhaps you’ve been on a similar journey. Does the following sound familiar?

Being a savvy skier, you decide, “I should probably invest in some footbeds.” And oh my god, game changer, your boots suddenly feel amazing. (Thank god for the good people at Superfeet. Especially Jeff Gray – you’re my hero. I can’t preach the precision and power of the Custom Cork any louder. BRING THEM BACK!!) As you continue to ski with feet happily nestled into footbeds, you notice improvement… But there’s still something missing…

Ok, so then comes the socks. You know the ultra-plush-padded-comfy socks that make you think, “Yeah! This should do the trick!” No. Put those down. You want to get an ultra thin sock so as not to crowd your feet inside of your boot. I’m partial to Smartwool PhD’s, though I can’t say I’ve gotten any smarter since using them. Side note: I have never had an issue with temperature control since switching. Try it. Thank me later.

Ok, so we’ve put some quality insoles beneath your feet. Wrapped your feet up in the right sock. But we’re only just getting started my friends because boot selection is EVERYTHING. If we were in person, my eyes would get all big and I would throw my arms up in the air as I said it. Let me repeat: EVERYTHING!

And allow me to talk you down before you just spring for the boot with the best reviews, the right flex, etc., etc. and just say: DO NOT think that because you read about the features of the boot, you read the good reviews, etc. that you’re going to purchase the right boot from the modern bazaar that is the internet. No, no.

If you want to feel good, look good, ski good, go visit a retail shop and you have the dude (or lady) have a look at your feet and talk to you about their boot line up. If you do not feel that the person looking at your feet is actually talking to you about features or aspects of your feet that correspond with the boot, don’t waste your time and for the love of god, do not buy their boot. No chemistry? No boot. Go find another boot fitter.

I have been to a few people. I have had a few peoples’ hands on my feet. I’ve gotten a few suggestions. But it wasn’t until recently that I had an experience that resulted in an excellent fit, a new friendship, and the right fit for my foot. Brandon at Evo, you are amazing and as of Friday, this girl’s new best friend because you completely transformed the way I experienced skiing and ski boots. I now know SO MUCH BETTER how a ski boot should fit and feel. I appreciate you.

Allow me to recap so that you too can find an excellent boot fit:

Step one: Don’t be afraid to visit multiple boot fitters until you find your guy.

And your guy doesn’t have to be a guy, it can definitely be a lady, but emphasis on that special person that is giving you their undivided attention to talk to you about all the weird things that you didn’t know about your feet. This person should not be partial to any particular brand. Instead, they’re going to couple the unique deformities of your feet that make you, you and then they’re going to have you try on a couple of different boots to see which is going to be your Cinderella slipper.

Step two: Be uncompromising in finding a good fit, but go in with an open mind.

Turns out, I’m the greenest gumby of my skiing friend group. For the last few years, (SIX YEARS, people) I’ve watched the homies rip everything from backcountry lines to chopped up resort chunder and I have wondered how TF do they do that?! Well-fitted boots are a great place to start.

When I waltzed into Evo to talk to someone about honing in on the right alpine boot for me, I went in with a short list of my expectations for my boot: nothing softer than a 100 flex, nothing that looked soft, maybe a size down, and something with decent reviews that I was going to be able to jump in. Truthfully, I’d already purchased a boot and discovered that Miss Guide Girl had been misguided by her own preconceptions of what her next boot should be. #plzhalp

Brandon gave me a line up that resembled what I was asking for. But none of them felt right. He asked me to flex the boots. I kinda crouched down and tried to push the tongue out and then later confessed that I really didn’t know what he meant when he asked me to do so. (Like I said, baby skier. I’m still learning, even 6 years after my first day on skis.)

He then told me that he knew the boot for me. Taking care to not set me off about putting me in a boot that was softer than my 100-flex-minimum, he assured me that the boot would feel stiff and that it was going to fit my high-instep, medium-volume foot.

I slipped it on and felt secure, but not crowded. When I flexed the boot, I felt it respond to my movement. A light bulb popped on for me. Even though it was a fluffy-liner, soft-blue boot, it was the right one for me. (The aesthetics are a whole different rant. In sum: I don’t want cute gear. I want gear that looks good. Would a man wear a boot with a fluffy liner? No. Do I want to wear a boot with a fluffy liner? No. But here I am, loving my fluffy-liner boots.)

Step three: Acknowledge that the right fit is a journey that might take time.

My first pair of ski boots were given to me for free: hand-me-downs from my little sister’s friend. I skied them without insoles, with thick socks and without much joy for a few years. Then came the size 25.5 touring boots that I bought from a second-hand shop with zero guidance from the sales rep who sold them to me. (Face palm.) I remember asking, “How should they feel?” And he assured me that if they felt ok, they were probably the right fit. That was dumb.

Then, I got fitted by someone in a busy shop at a resort who essentially stuffed their hand into the back of my boot and confirmed for me that I should ski a 23.5 boot. So I hopped online, found the seemingly right boot at the right price, and bought it. Heat molded. Got the custom footbeds (thanks Jeff!) But…

OUCH. OUCH. OUCH. It has been SUCH a painful journey breaking these boots in. I one time accidentally hiked 10 miles on a trail in them (don’t forget your approach shoes, folks!) After all of that, I have learned:

Signs that your boots don’t fit:

1.) You feel like you’re constantly fighting them to stand/ski/exist in a comfortable position. They either put you too far forward over your skis or too far back. This can be remedied by a boot fitter.

2.) You can lift your heel up and down. An insecure heel leads to an insecure skier. I can’t entirely speak to the physical damage, but the emotional damage of having a shitty day on the hill while everyone else seems to be having a blast is enough to make you reconsider the sport. Give me an amen in the comments if you’ve ever had this unfortunate experience.

3.) If it feels like flexing your boot is being resisted by the Great Wall of China conveniently located in front of your shin, honey, you’ve got the wrong boot. I previously thought that I would eventually grow into a hella stiff flex (120) because I had planned on jumping and dropping cliff features. Nope. I was wrong. Your flex should correspond to your height, weight and ability. If you feel like you’re fighting your boot, you probably are, and you’re probably giving up some control in the process.

4.) It should go without saying, but if you feel pressure points as soon as you step into your boots, something is wrong. Some of these can be remedied by a punch by a talented individual like Brandon, but sometimes the geometry of your feet just doesn’t match the boot. Pay close attention to where buckles sit relative to your pressure points.

I think that’s about all I’ve got for you today. And I think there’s probably still lots to learn. All I can say is that I’ve embarked on this journey of learning the intricacies of a good fit in a climbing shoe, and I cannot believe how much more complicated fitting a ski boot is. That’s why good people like Brandon have jobs. I assure you it is completely worth your time to make the time and financial investment.

THANK YOU BRANDON! And in case you’re wondering, I went with the Dalbello Chakra.

Thanks, Guys

SATURDAY

One after another, I watch the guys throw big tricks off an improvised jump. I often volunteer to film them partially to support them, but mostly because I’m in awe of what they can do. Before I get into position and pull my phone out, they tell me that I have to hit the jump too. Oh boy. “Okay.” I quietly hope that I’m not getting in over my head.

Will: Backflip. Ashton: Backflip. Drew: 360. Tim: Lincoln loop. Suddenly it’s my turn. I stuff my phone into my chest pocket and pick my way through trees to the starting point above the jump. My skis slide hesitantly a little lower. Then a little lower. The guys cheer me on from below. I point my skis downhill and feel myself blast off the thing.

My air wasn’t huge, but it was pretty big for me. Somehow, my body knew what to do. Rather than spazzing mid air, I felt controlled. I crest the highest point and come back down to a plush, powdery landing. Ooh, it felt so good. And it set the tone for the rest of the day.

A few laps later, I look up from the skin track and see another opportunity to feel the air rush beneath my skis. A sizable cornice had formed above a cliff feature that wrapped around into a sweeping left turn. The time was right and the cornice was calling.

Tim and I climbed above it, keeping our distance from the edge while we determined precisely where to drop off. From above, the landing was somewhat blind. Suddenly my fun cornice drop became a scary question mark in my mind. I paused a moment, balking at my seemingly brash decision. Tim directed me to the sweet spot and encouraged me with his phone out, ready to film my drop.

I often get too caught up in willing myself to jump off things and struggle to announce my drop: “Three… two… one… dropping!” Most times, I’d rather just push off at two so that I don’t have to confront the fear of getting to one. For this reason, I often don’t get the shot, haha.

The air whooshed beneath my skis as I plunged from the cornice above, to a small intermediate rocky cliff, to smooth powder snow below. It all happened so fast. I link a few swooping turns and look back to see Tim perched above the cliff, only higher. He asks me if I want to film. In the interest of saving transition time, I shout back, “No!” And watch him push off, tapping the edge of the cliff before dropping 15 or more feet to the snow below. I immediately regret not taking my phone out.

Tim is my boyfriend, but he’s so much more than that. Most of his boyfriend duties practically stop once we leave the frontcountry. From there on, he’s my partner. Tim rarely pushes me to do things I haven’t set up myself; but there’s something about his encouraging smile that gives me the courage to trust my skis and will myself into the unknown. Often, into the air. It reminds me of when I was learning how to slackline; if there’s somebody there beside you to rest so much as a single finger on, you suddenly find the stability you need to make tiny steps forward. Progress.

couloir

We skied until sunset, pausing before we ripped the skins from our skis for our last run of the day. I looked across the valley and pointed out a couloir saying, “I’d like to ski that.” To my surprise, the guys thought it sounded like a good idea and said that we’d come back for it tomorrow.

SUNDAY

My nervous mind had played out several crash reels on the skin track on the way over and up. What if there’s a mandatory drop and I catch an edge immediately? Will I tumble to the bottom? Will I learn what it feels like to tomahawk? Are there any cliffs I need to worry about? Trying to estimate my margin for error, I asked Drew, “Do you think I should do this? I don’t want to chicken-shit-out at the top.” He reassured me that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Drew’s vote of confidence was good enough for me. My doubts melted away as we crossed over to the peak.

We began to climb a face too steep to skin; Ashton and Drew ahead of me rapidly kicking steps, and Tim right behind me. As we climbed a semi-steep bootpack together, I felt well aware of the fact that I only had a shot at this line because I had the comfortable buffer of their experience to insulate me from poor decision making. Especially Tim.

About halfway up, Tim asked, “Are you nervous?” I can’t remember what I said verbatim, but I remember telling him with paradoxical confidence in my answer that I was. Yeah I’m nervous, but not scared. I was comfortably pushing it. I felt aware of my exposure and risk; I was accepting. There were still opportunities to bail, but so far, no reason to.

Drew and Ashton took a steeper, more committing couloir that split the center of the peak. The ride down looked like what it would feel like to drop a bouncy ball down a stairwell; from either side, step-like cliffs protruded just enough into the narrow corridor before letting out to the valley below.

Tim encouraged me to check out another couloir to the west. Our line was less steep and wider. I could see that this line was definitely going to go for me. Even though it was just the two of us standing there, we didn’t say much to each other. He encouraged me to look out for rocks and stay low in the couloir. And then he was gone.

I paused a moment. Alone. I looked out from my perch, keenly aware of my exposure. There’s something magical about being alone in the mountains. It’s not a feeling that readily lends itself to description; it’s the combination of recognizing your own mortality, and esteeming it with such vigor that it motivates repeat encounters with the ineffable: the vast masses of granite, impossible icy plunges, wilderness as far as the eye can see.

I click into my bindings, well aware that I could kick a ski from my perch 1000 or so feet below. I buckle my boots down. Check all of my zippers. Gloves on. Goggles in place. Okay. It’s time.

My hand fumbles for the radio at my shoulder. “Dropping in 30, boys,” I say, trying to feign my usual casual confidence, but my voice comes out small and higher pitched than usual. I don’t know how long I waited, but I pushed the fear from my mind as I simultaneously pushed my skis over the edge.

And so it goes. My first true couloir.

Just Say Yes

Recently, I learned what it feels like to be emotionally, interpersonally and spiritually malnourished. The feeling developed over the course of a year in which I failed to connect, I stopped feeling inspired and I felt like I had stopped growing. My ambitions toppled over. My opportunities felt like they’d dried up. My heart felt withered and I retreated into myself most every night to wait it out until things would finally get better. Turns out, this isn’t a good coping strategy.

I’ve changed several aspects of my life in the last few weeks, including a move and a new job. I made several of these changes against the well-intentioned advice of people that I love, trust and respect. This isn’t a flagrant middle finger so much as a revelation: you gotta carve your own way sometimes.

It all comes down to one little word for me: Yes.

For the last year, I fought really hard to fit. I swallowed my climbing ambitions and tried to substitute them for superimposed career ambitions; I translated my native dirtbag tongue into office banter; I relinquished an important piece of myself to pursue the comfortable and conventional. First world problems acknowledged, I suffered all the while.

In trying to smash myself into a tiny box, into abbreviated dreams, into comfortable complacency, I became bitter. In tamping down my inner flame, I lost my drive and my passion. I became vapid. Disinterested. Bored. And I needed help. And I found that in a fabulous therapist by the name of Charlotte. Thank god.

The greatest gift that I’ve been given in the last six months is that tiny word: Yes.

When I would hone in on everything that was wrong; all that I wasn’t; all of these walls that I’d built around myself to contain my loud-laughing, obsessively passionate, utterly determined, unruly personality, Charlotte asked me why?

When I shared my dreams, my hopes, my aspirations, Charlotte asked me why not?

When I followed up with all of my anxieties and insecurities, she acknowledged them and encouraged me to employ my flame and passion to problem solve around obstacles. Without ego stroking, she simply did some fire stoking. Charlotte told me yes. You can.

Previously, I’d been trying to survive on a steady diet of disregard, disinterest and disconnect. My contributions to my tiny box world felt like trying to fit gloves to feet. Obviously, I didn’t fit. And unfortuantely, I experienced a bit of soul rot for it. But I think soul functions very much like your liver and can repair itself when cared for properly.

There’s something incredibly powerful about someone telling you: yes you can. I think this experience will have enormous implications for me in how I request and provide mentorship. I think that this newfound understanding of “yes” has enormous implications for me as a female athlete. I want to project the yes-you-can feeling to any woman up against any obstacle; any challenge; any personal pursuit; because goodness gracious, a little belief and encouragement feels like the first rain to my soul garden after a long drought. It’s been a short 3 weeks in my new life and I’m already beginning to see the bloom. More details to come.

Why You Should Climb with a Girl

This weekend, I had the special opportunity to guide on Mount Baker leading a rope team of women. We were fast. We were strong. We summited on Friday via the Coleman Deming route in just over 5 hours.

After coming back to Bellingham, the mother of two sisters on my team — who also climbed and summited Mount Baker with my co-guide Arthur Herlitzka — told me that it was special to her that her girls got to climb with a female guide. I smiled and told her that I was excited about it too; but I didn’t realize exactly how important it was to me.

On the way down from 10,781 feet, Michaela, Tatum, Scarlett (my rope team) and I began to talk about feminism, outdoor media and climbing. At first, I didn’t have much to say beyond that I thought it was important to see more women outside and in positions of leadership, like guiding. And then I recalled and talked about the post I’d written about a bizarre and frustrating encounter with someone essentially mansplaining in a classroom environment how he understood the plight of all women in outdoor leadership because his wife had been slighted too… Yeah, I’m still a little salty.

But anywho, I wanted to share a few thoughts with you — as a female guide — about how climbing with a girl might differ from climbing with a guy. I’d also like to add the disclaimer right up front: the traits that I’m going to list are not necessarily gendered nor does gender exist in a binary. These are just my observations of climbing with women in the last couple of years and are not absolutes (i.e. women always X, men never Y, etc.) I mean nothing more than to highlight the things that I’ve really enjoyed about climbing with women. Also, I use “women” and “girls” interchangeably and don’t mean any offense by it. That said:

Girls are so fun to talk to. I’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations with women while climbing. I think that having a steady conversation while grinding uphill for hours on end is an impressive feat in and of itself. It definitely helps with the passage of time and mileage. I’ve also observed that women are more inclined to uphold their end of the conversation.

Breaks tend to happen right when they need to. Seems to me like a lot of women aren’t afraid of speaking up when they need to take a sec and adjust their pack, their boots or whatever comes up. When climbing with girls, I find that I’m well-hydrated, well-snacked and comfortable cruising at a sustainable pace. I find that girls tend to be more communicative about how they’re feeling and what they need before something like blisters become an issue. And I appreciate and respect that.

Speaking of snacks… Besides taking breaks for snacks, it seems like girls like to take a little bit more time with food prep and tend to bring the goods. And by goods, I mean chocolate. To be honest, I think most of my climber friends — guys or girls — are keen on summit chocolate. And post-climb beers. Yeah.

Girl-stoke is different than boy-stokeGirl stoke comes out in giggles and shrieks and proclamations of love for the mountains. Boy stoke seems to come in the form of hoots, hollers and whoops. Stoke, regardless of the source, is often contagious. But as a lady, I find girl stoke to be especially infectious.

Oh man, can we take a second to reflect on the awesomeness of lady-beta? Yep. It’s happening. Right now. First, I’d like to say that I really appreciate when people pause to ask you if you actually want beta. Props to the people that deny it. Props to people who don’t automatically spray you down. However, I gotta say that I love getting the crucial lady beta that gets you through the crux (because I’m not 6′ with a 6′ wingspan and man-powerful-muscles. I’m 5’1″, short & powerful, but sometimes require a more delicate sequence.) I don’t know if there’s any way to describe in words how great it is; but when it happens for you, you’ll know.

And while we’re on the beta note, I’d just like to briefly comment on the numerous times I’ve been on trail and people have asked either my male clients or my male coguide for beta on a route — not me, despite wearing the patches and gear to suggest that I’m a guide. While it might seem like no big deal — and often isn’t in and of itself — I raise the issue because it’s happened on more than one occasion. While I can’t say conclusively that it relates to being a lady, I just wanted to mention the observation and I’ll leave it at that.

The bottom line is that I’m psyched when I get to climb with women.

I’m psyched when I get to climb in general; but it’s extra special to climb with an all-lady rope team. It’s different and it doesn’t happen very often (at least not in my climbing thus far.) I know that more and more women are getting outside and getting themselves into positions of outdoor leadership. I think it’s awesome; it’s necessary. I look forward to roping up with them.

My Job

My job as a mountain guide is probably not what you think.

As I’ve reflected on before, my job is not the one that my journalism degree from Western Washington University prepared me for. But here I am, still writing.

My job isn’t playing in the mountains on the regular; it is a lot of preparation and anticipation with regard to route finding, dietary restrictions, food shopping, coworker coordinating, weather observations, gear packing, van driving, etc. It’s preparing myself for all of the questions my clients might have and being truthful when they ask me something I didn’t plan for (this comes with a little embarrassment.)

The perks of my job are sunrises and sunsets in the mountains; conversations about life with people from wildly diverse backgrounds; the occasional nap while technically “on the clock;” all of my Trader Joe’s snacks are paid for; incredibly savvy, humble and inspiring coworkers; the opportunity to grow into my profession and simultaneously as a living, thinking, breathing human; the chance to do what I love, with love, as much or as little as I choose to accept work. (I want ALL of the work.)

The challenges associated with my job are working with people in emotionally challenging circumstances from the minute I wake up until the minute I fall asleep. I have to coax people into completely trusting me when they’ve only met me 24 hours prior, when they have little to no experience with what we’re doing and when they’re completely exhausted by the physical exertion and possibly the numerous questions I’ve asked them on the approach (I can’t help myself; I’m just so curious.) It’s (obviously) a lot of grinding up and down hills; it’s been a little hard on my body at times. The pay is something people often ask about; all I can say is that I make it work, whether it’s a second restaurant job for the off-season or forgoing a splurge or wearing the same clothes until they literally fall apart. (Actually, it’s all of the above.)

With each trip, I learn so much. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people that are incredibly talented — technically and interpersonally — and done my best to keep up and offer what I can. Besides my coworkers, I’ve had the distinct challenge of working with clients that didn’t seem interested in working with me; the joy of reaching the top when it seemed unreachable; and the bittersweetness of relinquishing a summit and savoring a high point more than 1,000 feet beneath our intended objective.

My job is so much more than a job. It’s being a relatable, conversational person; a source of inspiration when the client thinks they’re too tired to go on; a sense of emotional security when the going gets tough and scary; the voice of authority when difficult decisions need to be made; a backcountry chef in the wee hours of the morning and after a long day of climbing; all in all, it’s a lot. It’s not easy.

I heard a joke that cracked me up the other day that I think is especially relevant right now: “How can you tell someone is a mountain guide?… Because he or she will tell you.” In case plain text doesn’t convey the humor, it’s funny because it’s true! When what I do for work comes up, people generally either look at me with awe or ask plainly:

“So you take people hiking?” Yeah, something like that.

Sometimes that hike involves moving through terrain that you might not survive without adequate skills and preparation. Not trying to be dramatic, but it’s definitely more than just hiking. You get the idea.

One thing that has occurred to me in this career pursuit is that I no longer seek to put down the 9-to-5er. And it’s not just because most of my clients are 9-to-5ers — though I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a consideration — it’s because it takes all types to make it happen; whether that’s the climb, the company I work for or the community that I recreate in. I hope that in my life decisions, I’ll be taken seriously even if I’m not a suit-wearing professional. I’m a professional in my own right in that I keep people safe in alpine circumstances; I give people the opportunity to have impactful experiences in high, wild places; I get to share what so many mentors have given me along my own journey into alpinism.

The bottom line is that I’m lucky to do what I do. I am so grateful that Mountain Madness decided to have me on this season. I love the line of work that I’m in. I’m living my dream with all of the hang-ups and challenges that come along with it.

The Edge

You know that feeling when you’re standing beneath a climb, when you’re trying to puzzle out the movements, when you start to wonder: Can I actually pull this off?

Maybe it’s a project you’ve attempted several times before. Maybe it’s a string of long, strenuous pitches. Maybe it’s at your grade limit. Maybe it’s your anti-style.

But you begin all the same.

Sometimes, the first few moves are easy. You’ve psyched yourself up enough that when things go smoothly, your guard begins to drop. You’re flowing. Maybe I can actually do this…

Sometimes, the first move off the ground is heinous. You position your hands, your feet, begin to pull… Then come down. You reposition, begin to pull… And come down again. Maybe I don’t got this…

But you climb on. You go for it. And then:

Sometimes, you reach the crux, breathe really hard, grunt a little and barely make the move.

Sometimes, you reach the crux, grunt a lot and then take a whip. Having eliminated that possibility, you figure out the sequence and get through the crux second go.

Sometimes, you reach the crux. You give it hell, but it’s relentless. For whatever reason — excuses or otherwise — it’s just not going to go for you today. And that’s ok, because at least you tried. Guess that means you’ve got a new project.

That is climbing.

Besides the physical act of pulling yourself up a rock, you climb by pushing your limits. You discover what you are and are not (yet) capable of. By allowing yourself into that headspace, reaching complete physical and mental exertion, you discover the extent of your inner strength, grit and capabilities.

Encounters with “the edge” aren’t just limited to climbing; I can tell ya that much. But it’s good to take yourself there. It’s how we climb and how we grow.

Lessons Learned

I am in the middle of a wilderness first responder course. It’s been awesome. The human body is absolutely fascinating. All of the structures, systems and interactions sustaining you at this very moment are incredibly complex and intricate.

Today I learned about how to respond in the event of a cut, a burn and even an evisceration – definitely got a little queasy during that part.

Today, we also talked about leadership as informed by NOLS 4-7-1 model. We talked about the importance of each of the seven aspects of a strong leader. Communication being one of those 7 traits.

… and then we talked about women in leadership. We were told that the qualities of leadership are not gendered traits. We were told that a leader isn’t necessarily a “broad-chested drill sergeant-type.” However, we have implicit biases (we were encouraged to discover our own implicit biases using this tool designed by Harvard.) These biases can be overcome, but the instructor told us that we’re conditioned to expect certain traits of leaders. Y’know, like how society thinks your gender might effect your judgement and leadership in an emergency situation.

I should specify, a male instructor told us that women might experience push-back in leadership roles. Which got my gears turning because I know this to be true.

He warned us of the possibility of coming off “bitchy” or “bossy” in leadership environments and to be careful of our tone and the way that we approach leadership. Generally, he addressed leading with confidence without being overbearing. (He also mansplained how he gets it because his wife is an emergency responder.) However, the instructor failed to address men in the same way. Hmm.

What happened next is laughably ironic:

He did not open the topic to discussion. Women in the classroom were not invited to discuss the topic – despite healthy conversation throughout the entirety of the morning lecture.

A woman with guiding experience in the back of the classroom raised her hand to address the other women and said: do not be afraid of the push-back. It will happen. You do not need the approval of the one or two guys who will resist your leadership. If you have control over a situation, proceed.

To which the instructor then said that cohesion is important — and I’ll admit, at this point, I was frustrated. I’d raised my hand to contribute to the discussion to simply say that we should move away from gendered words like “bitchy” and “bossy” because they’re seldom – if ever – applied to men. If we want to reverse some of society’s conditioning, we must knowingly utilize vocabulary that can be applied to any obtuse, overbearing leader regardless of their gender.

I was told that we were going to move on and that the topic was closed for discussion. My question or comment was denied. Another male student raised his hand. His question was answered.

At that very moment, I became a feminist and advocate of women in outdoor leadership. Call me what you want, deny me how you will. I will rise. I will speak. I will overcome.

Hard as Tuff

Recently, it dawned on me that it has almost been two years since I finished college. Here’s a quick recap of things I’ve done, jobs I’ve had and places I’ve lived:

  • June 2015. Diploma in hand. Bought myself a couple more cams, sights set on Squamish.
  • Ended up spending most of my summer in Washington Pass.
  • Got a job coaching my high school girls’ dive team. (I dove competitively in high school.)
  • Moved back to Bellingham. Started working at the climbing gym.
  • Opportunity popped up for me to work full time, 4-10s and use my degree. Hopped right on that… Until I realized that I wasn’t climbing enough, despite being out every weekend in the Cascades.
  • Climbed lots of rocks and a couple peaks with my partner in-and-out of the alpine: Tim Black.
  • Hello, Smith Rock! Fell in love with sport climbing. Hard.
  • Sent it down south to Mexico with megababe and lady crusher friend Carey. Climbed my first 12a (still pretty hyped on that.)
  • The plan was to return to Oregon, return to Smith and return to cold rocks. But my housing arrangement fell through (long story) and I found myself with a job and a place to live at Crystal Mountain.

And that brings us to the present: January 2017. I guess I still have 5 months until it’s been two years since I graduated college… But my brain isn’t always the best at time.

Today, I was inspired to write because I got to thinking about where I’m at in my career, given that it’s been almost two years. I put in my four years’ time, got my piece of paper that suggests I know how to read good (joking) and now look at me: I’m a part-time ski bum, part-time climbing bum and grappling with what to do with my personal process as time flows all around me.

I haven’t been working for material wealth; I haven’t been building the career that Western Washington University envisioned for me; however, I have been working. Hard.

Instead of doing professional networking, polishing my LinkedIn profile and collecting business casual blazers, I forced myself to move to a new place where I had to make new friends, new climbing partners and admit that I was a weak sport climber in a word-class sport crag. I got rid of most of my nice work clothes (most of my everything else, too.) I swallowed my ego, pushed aside my pride and suffered up a lot of spooky 5.10s.

When I could have easily stayed local (Bellingham) and climbed my way through the grades at Squamish — which I did, to be fair, but still have quite a ways to go — I chose instead to drive to Index, drive to Leavenworth, drive to Washington Pass where I knew that the climbing would be unfamiliar. I knew that the skills I’d collected from my previous experiences would come in handy, but I also knew that continuing my progression was more important than settling into a comfortable rhythm.

That’s also one of the main reasons why I quit my cushy desk job in Bellingham (I only lasted about 6 months.) I could have continued climbing on the weekends and pulling plastic during weekdays, but I knew it wasn’t enough for me. I knew that my climbing wouldn’t improve as rapidly as I wanted it to if I had just stuck around and been patient. That’s not how I operate. So I put in my two weeks, packed my life into my car and drove 7 hours by myself to a climbing area I’d never been to before.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know that there are times when I doubt myself. And if this is the first time you’re reading my work, welcome to the mindful madness that is Mallorie. I think a lot, so I write sometimes. I have boundless energy so I climb mountains. I climb mountains because things are much simpler up there. Out there. I belong there.

And that, in a long and roundabout way, brings me to who and where I am today. By no means do I climb the hardest; by no means do I shred the hardest on the ski hill; by no means do I even work the hardest; but by all means, I’ve worked damn hard to get where I am. I don’t waste my time doing what I think I “should” or worrying too much about what lies ahead. Instead, I work hard to carve my own path, to climb the rocks, to reach the peaks, to make meaningful connections and to make my limited time on this planet count.

I have the utmost respect for people who work hard at whatever they do. If your chosen career, hobby or activity brings you joy, passion and purpose, you know you’re on the right track. And while there may be moments of indecision, disjunctive plot twists and bumps along the way, ultimately, I think we’re all here to serve a purpose.

My calling is in the mountains and I fully intend to answer that call.