In a way I’ve been completely unprepared for my life to return after trauma but thankfully my friends were prepared enough for me. I thought this the past weekend when I cancelled my therapy appointment because there was a weather window for one of the ski objectives Charlotte and I had this year. It’s been a year since I started working with my trauma therapist. I thought back to that first session– it was almost 3 months after my panic attack and the dark abyss I had been lost in was a lot. My therapist had her work cut out as this wasn’t a narrative I had ever envisioned having to navigate. The faulty narrative I was carrying around was holding me back, in that period I had no flexibility around the story and couldn’t see anyway it would ever be reframed. Now I figured a long day out in the mountains would do as much good as a 1 hour therapy session– plus the weather window. And if anything over the past few years Charlotte has seen me in most emotional and physical states of being.
Charlotte and I discussed the logistics for the day, we’d leave town at 7am and I decided to bring my heavy/wider skis. I’m still waiting on a replacement part for my race skis but also with the variable snow conditions that we’d potentially run into figured that would be a better bet. We headed out with our (Charlotte’s) Gaia track following the trail up to Gold Mint Hut. It was a mild grade and we chatted along the way and also making note of potential routes up and slide paths. I had never been back in the area in the winter and only once in the summer. The summer trip was in July 2020 when I was in the throws of it, I remember being out there overnight and sobbing in the tent because of how much uncertainty I felt– every time I went into the backcountry at that point I was always worried about what I would be coming back into when I gained service. The silence and solitude did not provide comfort then, instead only amplified how much noise I was missing out on. And then I cried harder for ruining the trip for others. That’s what I was bringing into this space.
We traversed the mild slope before reaching a point to start climbing up towards the Mint Hut. We talked about the different routes, opting to cut more to the left and to try and avoid extra time under a slide path and headed up. The line we took was a little icy and the side hilling didn’t provide for great traction. We kept space between us just incase something released. I was navigating up first when I saw a hole in the snow and looked in, some animal waste was by the opening– my mind thought to a bear den, is it too early, hopefully it doesn’t cave in and I wake whatever might be sleeping below me.
I know those of you outside of Alaska reading that are probably thinking what an irrational fear (like riding over a snake and having it get caught in my rear wheel and flung up on me) but this actually happened where a skier disrupted a bear den and the bear attacked him. I moved past the hole and waited on the shoulder for Charlotte to come up. We weaved our way up towards the hut and then stopped before we started our approach of backdoor gap to get some food and make some gear adjustments.
We kept our skins on and headed up but it soon became apparent that it was too steep and icy to skin so we’d have to switch to boot packing. I had been waiting for Charlotte to traverse so stayed put while Charlotte transitioned. Our plan was that only one of us would be exposed to a potential avalanche at a time while the other stayed out of the slide zone underneath some rocks. Charlotte started the first leg of the boot pack and I stood watch not wanting to transition too early in case something happened. She crested and was tucking back into the rock section when I had started to transition and looked up and didn’t see her– is that avalanche debris new or old, surely I would have heard something if it released. I transitioned quicker and called to her on the radio. No response. I got my skis on my back and crampons on my boots and looked up, she had popped back over the zone I couldn’t see her and was perched below a rock. I took a breath and started making my way up. Because she had put the bootpack in, my ascent was a bit faster and less laborious. I got to the top and we diagnosed the issues with our radios and got them working. I stepped out and navigated a route up towards another rock outcropping to take shelter in. I’m not great at boot packing and deployed all the tricks I had been working on, heel down, knees forward, push up, disperse weight over the polls. As I got near when I said I would stop, Charlotte radioed to see if I was still going, “yeah, almost to the spot.” I got up and radioed down to let her know it was clear. She came up and met me and we kept working towards the top with only one of us moving at a time.
We crested the top and looked at the other side, a nice little cornice. We talked about the boot pack and the choices we made and then talked about the next section. I offered to drop in first, telling Charlotte the line I would be taking to another meet up point on the slope.
I pushed off after finding a small opening that didn’t seem like it was right on top of the cornice and cut left before turning right while trying to get out from underneath the potential area of snow fall fast enough. We regrouped and then party skied down the more mellow slope finding some nice snow and turns. We headed down but the slope was gradual and we tried to keep as much speed as possible to make it to the valley floor. It mostly worked with some awkward side stepping to get over humps but we made it down and then put our skins back on to head up to snowbird glacier.
The skin up was pretty uneventful, we had a track from someone who did it last year and just made sure that we were climbing towards the right ridge. We got onto the glacier no problem and traversed up to the ridge line to drop down. After transitioning we talked about lines and started skiing.
The snow was anything but powder and cutting through it proved cumbersome for turning. The views were incredible but hard to take in with all the survival skiing going on. We looked at the slope of what we’d need to go down and realized all the avy runs we’d have to cross. Fortunately, they had released at that point but the avy debris we had to cross made me realize how fatigued my legs were.
Going across the avalanche debris made me grateful that I had taken my wider skis, having to navigate around chaotic masses of snow, ice, and whatever else had been picked up during the slide. I always think about this when I’m out in the backcountry, if one releases (again, Mom, I’m never in those areas) and the turmoil of getting carried only to then potentially be buried under this massive weight (compacted avalanche debris will weigh in excess of 500 kg per cubic metre). It’s like the snow just settles and immediately becomes like concrete, something like 60% of avalanche victims who died whilst buried show something on the surface but it can take a large effort to extract them– and that’s if they survive the potential trauma. So at least there was some reassurance that they had already slid, until we reached a gully that had only had small tracks of avy debris in it. We stopped and talked about how quickly we could get across and which line. I went first and skied in and popped out as fast as I could hitting ice on the other side and traversing down the hill side to the next debris field where I turned and watched Charlotte. There is always a moment in these situations where you run through worse case scenario, if something slid. But worst case scenario didn’t happen and Charlotte popped up the gully and traversed down to where I was.
We both agreed that being in a gully in Hatcher is the worst thing and have deep reverence for the whims of mother natures. After that we linked up with Archangel road and mostly skated back to the car. We did it in about 11 hours, I ate 6 donuts among other treats. We talked about how we probably wouldn’t have gone too much faster on different skis and we were both really happy with the day and our set up. We debriefed on the spots that were worrisome and how we could have done things differently but some times you’re just responding and figuring out how to best move forward with the information you have.
A long day in the mountains did help and also when you’re out there for 11 hours lots of time to think about things—especially a stark contrast to the last time I was out there. In some ways I feel like my awareness has never been sharper and taking that to the mountains allows me to be fully present. I think about the COVID times and often think of it as my life was on pause—a friend recently corrected me saying it wasn’t on pause and showing up in that space how I did was just as authentic as I am being now. But in some ways I felt like my life was on pause because it didn’t feel like I was growing or able to. How I showed on that summer trek of the Bomber is how I was assumed to keep showing up– all these negatives assumptions piled up against me until I started to believe them too. I sat with that for a while because I think of how I show up now versus then and how different it feels, in all aspects. But that girl during COVID while in some ways felt like a shell of who I can be was still me—it’s like going out into the mountains and not having a blue bird day but still appreciating just being out there—or enjoying the darkness without having to contrast it to the light. And all this duality can exist and growth can happen, someone’s best day in the mountains can be your worst—I can hate a trail and then love it– I can be a shell of a human and still have light in me—someone can be a not great partner and still exist as a good friend– I can be upset that I had a panic attack and also so grateful for it shaking me into being. This growth exists in the mountains and in a way it’s easier to hold space for –the days that fall short of the objectives, leaning into the progression, the changes, the trails that I’ve come to love that once destroyed me—the spaces I inhabit that no longer scare me—the solitude that no longer comes at the expense of peace. And I’m able to hold all these dimensions together–I don’t assume a trail I’ve once taken will remain the same and instead meeting it each time where it’s at.
I think of the growth that has happened– the lens that I view things in and those that view me. For most of COVID I felt like my internal and external value systems were out of sync, what I valued internally wasn’t perceived externally. That’s been hard to stomach, like a coworker that told me she was startled when she heard me laugh for the first time (we had worked together for over a year before that happened)– or another unprovoked telling me how much happier I seem now– but harder to stomach is the conversations with friends, where things felt one sided, where I showed up with good intentions but my actions still caused pain. The negative assumptions that were held against me– if I hated this trail I will always hate this trail– if I didn’t enjoy something one day I would always feel that way– this growth that was paused, no new information was allowed. Realizing the friends that have extended grace to me in this period, those that allowed me to exist without ever knowing or suggesting I would return to my old (new) self– the darkness they invested in without knowing if there would be an endless summer to come. Now, figuring out how I can extend the same grace to others that fall short of my expectations or assumptions– I cannot anticipate the harm I will cause, we will cause, or that will be brought onto me, even with good intentions we have no idea what we are bringing into a space, what they are bringing into the space. Here’s the thing, you can show up in someone else’s story as the hero or the villain for the exact same behavior. We are neither the hero nor the villain in our own story but instead the narrator– and it’s our story to tell and rewrite, and edit, as we learn and grow and acquire new information. It’s like being on a long slog (more on those later) where you end up in a spot you didn’t anticipate and you can’t go back but only move forward, make the best decision for you in that time with the information you have but being flexible and adaptable as you make your way down the trail. At the end you look back and think wow, what a crazy story that is, but in the midst of the trail you can’t conceive how it will all unfold– and only when you get to the end do you finally feel like you can make sense of all the chaos in the midst. Anyways, thanks for staying with me on this one and for embracing the weird, chaotic amazingness that comes with being human– it’s my first time being alive (that I remember- haha!)