After my brain injury in 2012, before I was cleared for any physical activity I took up knitting, again. Dorothy Fetters had taught me how to knit one Christmas when I was in high school but all of those projects remained unfinished. I guess past Kate knew that future Kate would need something like this at some point. After the panic attack I took it up again as it would at least give me some small task to do that engaged my brain enough that it wouldn’t wander too much. I finally finished the only project, despite all the ones I’ve started, which was a tube top for Alvin and currently working on a baby blanket for a friend’s first baby but at this rate she might have a few more kids before they get it. I asked a cousin for some knitting pointers and she sent me a few spools of yarn and a few books, one which was called Fearless Knitting. Reminding me that even the smallest things can require great feats of courage and fearlessness. The progress in Alvin’s tube top followed my mind trajectory at the time, the rows closer to the panic attack are a little more chaotic, with missing casts and a few more holes protruding, the ones further away from the panic attack are a little neater, less gaping holes and cleaner lines— mimicking the space in my mind during those times. I flipped through the fearless knitting book that I was sent, finding the title amusing but soon realized that I was not in the fearless knitting category with some of the techniques far above my skill level.
I took a workshop from Jennifer England the other week that focused on intention vs improvisation. I hadn’t ever thought of improvisation as a skill that I use in my daily life. Rather it’s something reserved for the stage or outdoor pursuits when you have to pivot or adapt but sitting in this space it made me think of all the daily improvisations that creep in.
I had to write down what intentions I had come into 2022 with– and I thought back to pre-panic attack Kate, what did she want: finding grounding in the uncertainty, a greater sense of community, building out more of my own research, maintaining and building my relationships, getting the Maah Daah Hey course record, getting published in Teen Vogue, and down step energy only. I reflected on this thinking of the chaos I had entered the new year with and the lack of any clear direction or intentions.
Little did I know I would be climbing into a very dark hole mentally at the start of 2022
For the first 3-4 months I felt like I was bouncing off things, like a pin ball that was getting sent in all different directions. And I thought about those days when I couldn’t even conceive being here a year later, existing in this space as I do.
I think so often of the improvisation that happens in the outdoor space— every trip we aren’t exactly winging it but we’re constantly adapting and reevaluating our original intention. Before I left town I had skied with Lang on Wednesday, being mindful of the avalanche conditions, we climbed up towards tequila bowl in Arctic Valley and were rewarded with abysmal lighting.
We talked about the different lines and opted for going near rocks to have some depth perception. Lang went first and when he gave me the all clear I followed. My body knew what to do but it felt lost in space as each turn left me more and more disoriented, and confused. I got to the end and despite feeling the spins told him we should definitely do another lap– probably similar to a little kid who spins herself sick and then after throwing up proceeds to do it again (or was that just me).
We climbed back up talking a bit more about the conditions and weather. We took another line down on the other side of a rock outcropping of what we did before. I let Lang go first again so he could put a line in and I could follow. Again I got to the end with a high sense of spins followed soon by the euphoric feeling. We opted for one more lap of the route we had just gone down before heading further down the valley and skinning back up to get a better line to get back to the car. We got up to the top where we ran into some other friends who had come out for a lap with their dogs. Realizing it’s much easier to recognize dogs than people in ski gear.
That night there were only two of us for Wednesday Worlds (if you build it, they will come…). We opted for just a chill Spencer loop as we had both been out skiing that day. We got about 900 yards in and ran into a moose that was compromising any continuation in that direction. We talked about options and knew of another location we could hop on to maintain the uni-direction of the loop. We headed up and after going about 500 yards on the loop realized that we were going the wrong way (and as I found out earlier this season the loop is in fact uni-directional not just like hey you should got this way). We discussed our options and there really wasn’t a good bail out option so we kept going, given the recent snow fall we didn’t anticipate seeing anyone else. We were wrong and we did, informing them that we had seen a moose and had to go this way. Once we got to the top of where we should have been going down, we ripped our skins and finished the loop the proper way. Improv.
On Wednesday, Lang and I had talked about skiing a line on O’Malley, thinking that maybe there was enough snow coverage to avoid the rocks and have a good line. We wouldn’t really know until we were up there and discussed that option as well. We had another friend, Morgan join us. We headed up a little early know that the skin might be a little long, especially if we had to put the track in. We left Glen Alps and despite the temperature showing 2 degrees when we warmed up rather quickly.
We saw another group headed up the Little O’Malley gully and were happy to know that we wouldn’t have to put a skin track in. We were about halfway up the skin track when I heard a familiar yell, having a friend ski down towards up, I didn’t recognize her until she was closer (as I never recognize anyone in ski gear) and we talked about the line and routes that they were taking and the ones that we were taking. I was glad to know the group as the sun and snow looked so good going down I was thinking I should grab a photo of whoever was about to descend and turns out I could send the photos to them.
We got up to the ridge line and looked at the line we wanted to ski. Ha! Lots of rocks exposed we discussed options as we really wanted the line and really tried to talk through how we could get it but finally realized that even if we avoided the exposed rocks there were probably plenty just below the surface and if we messed up it’d be like going through a cheese grater. Instead we headed up the same line we would have but cut it short to ski down False Peak. It required some boot packing and negotiating around some rocks but we finally reached the line to put in.
No one else had been here. Lang having gone a bit further up dropped in first that way if something happened we could respond. He took the line clean down and then I followed. I pushed off and flowed into the soft powder, trying to follow Lang’s squiggles but improvising into my own turns. Lang is pretty experienced and I still cut my turns pretty wide. After that we watched Morgan come down in untracked powder as well.
Feeling successful at getting first tracks we decided to opt for a few laps off of the gully of Little O’Malley. As we traversed we talked about skiing back to town and to either of our houses, we went through all the options and logistics as we took Lang’s car to the parking lot and our other car’s were at Lang’s. We talked about skiing to my house, and then skiing to a parking lot and finding a shuttle, and then we finally got to the point where we realized that both of our keys were in Lang’s car and the way we parked would require way too many logistics and a lot of improvisation. We decided to scrap it although we did give it a good go as even into our second lap we were still talking about how it might work. We got one final lap in as the sun was starting to tuck behind the mountains and then headed back to the parking lot.
The next day I headed out with Tyler to what ended up being Corn Biscuit but we thought was another mountain for most of the day. I’m always grateful for Tyler– he’s one of the people who convinced me I could live in Alaska just by the way he exists in Alaska. I always felt a little manic during COVID and with other things happening and felt like I was constantly running out of time to do what I wanted to do. Tyler has big days in the mountains and even more epic trips to glaciers and Denali (with Charlotte) but also takes ‘day of contemplation’ where he will chill at home and get caught up on life. I realized that this manic feeling of having to go go go didn’t have to exist and well I’m still here aren’t I.
We navigated through some alders as the snow had limited coverage and used his old Gaia track to figure out where we needed to be. We skinned up to an overlook but couldn’t exactly see the line below and how soon we would hit the alders so scrapped that for a place to do laps. We kept going up and found a good spot that would give us a pretty clean line down to the overlook we had just been at. Tyler went first and after getting the clear I followed. I was on different skis than the day before, these ones are a little lighter and wider so still adjusting but they perform well for me in the untracked powder we had found. Having another pair of skis has helped me to figure out what I like and don’t like. Last year I always lamented about how heavy my old set up was and got a lighter one this year. Except I’ve found myself taking the heavier one out more times than the lighter one, some of it is because rock exposure and some of it is the snow conditions but it’s been nice having the comparison to understand how exactly a heavier boot drives the ski or the different turn radius. I got to the bottom and we went up again, this time going a little bit further and off to the side. We got to the end of the run and talked to some of the avy forecasters who were out digging a pit about the snow conditions. We decided to do one more lap and then use that to head out on a different out track that Tyler had taken the time before. We got to the top and Tyler was talking about how when someone goes the person behind them can try and alternate their “S” turns. I took that as a challenge and after Tyler went I followed down but contradicting his turns and alternatively trying to match where he would start turning. It was a good challenge for me as I still struggle with control all the way through my turns. I got to the bottom and we decided to take a different track out to hopefully avoid some of the bushwhacking we had with the alders coming up, spoiler alert we did not avoid and in fact maybe found more. It resulted in a somewhat comical exit from the trail but we made it back to the car without too much fanfare.
After I got back to town I had just about an hour or so to pack before my I needed to leave for my flight– I ended up being later than I was planning as my roommates came home and we were catching up and swapping stories before we all scattered again. For living with 3 other people it’s very rare that we’re all home, and as it was there were only 3 of us at the house. I got to the airport and was the last one in line to check my bags but made it only to have my flight delayed. I spent time thinking of all the ways I had improvised in the past year– not just in the outdoors but how untethered I felt at the beginning of the year. Drifting aimlessly I was passive towards everything and felt like I was constantly improvising as I would wake up and feel “not healed” and spend the day in survival mode. I improvised trying not to word vomit everything all the time as a way to get the chatter out of my head, I improvised when the word vomit came out, I improvised through nervous laughter, and fumbling into the dark depths of my brain. And then I improvised during the 600 mile bike ride. And then I slowly started being more intentional, finding shallow bits of ground to base off of while the improvising continued. I feel like in June I started putting more things out into the universe, intentionally. I’ve also thought over the past year of all the people in my life who have face different/similar challenges and the resilience they have shown, the flexibility, creativity, adaptability, improvisation that comes with meeting those challenges. As I sat and thought about the intentions I had started 2022 and the improvisation that had resulted I realized that in a very round about way I had met a lot of my intentions, I have a greater sense of community, I feel more adaptable in the face on uncertainty, I’ve found a deep sense of gratitude towards my friends and family who have supported me, I got the MDH course record, and starting to build out some of my own arctic research. I’m still working on the Teen Vogue publication (if you have an in) and down step energy only is really more of a lifestyle commitment (#IYKYK). But thinking back on what brought me to this was also a lot of pain, grief, sadness, confusion, and uncertainty, in going to the darkest places without a light and sitting for a while as my eyes adjusted and finding solitude there.
In thinking about my intention for this year one of the words I keep coming back to is ‘burn‘. I told my therapist this and she was like um, okay, I think she thought I was going to go on a tirade and burn all the bridges but instead I told her how for most of COVID (and probably for a multitude of reasons) I felt like my flame was diminished and/or completely out and so now I’m only burning for those things that burn me back, that set me on fire, that give me energy instead of taking it away– everything from work, to relationships, to outdoor pursuits. To be more intentional in how I show up and where I spend my energy. After being in the dark for so long it’s nice to get the light back.
I’m grateful for the darkness, the dark embraces everything just as it is and in that space without a light you can see things as they truly are, there are no shadows to dance with just the tranquil solitude that greets you as your eyes adjust to everything that is around you. I traveled to the messiest parts of my mind and have finally found beauty there. And I hope that if you ever find yourself on a similar journey you too remember that you are a living extension of the moon in the night a light that shines the brightest during the darkness.
Here’s to 2023 and setting the world on fire (but like not literally because climate change is already kind of doing that– sorry not full Pollyanna yet, Jane).