I can remember two times before this season that I skied. When I was a kid, my parents took me night skiing at Snoqualmie Pass. I snowplowed the bunny hill all night, scared to death. I went skiing again with a church group in high school. Also, scared to death.
You see, I’ve never been a fan of fast-moving activities. My hesitation and fear was engrained in me when I was young. In the sixth grade my friends and I built a bike jump. It was a big jump. I certainly wasn’t going to be the guinea pig. Jake, the bravest of us all went first. With good speed, he launched gracefully off the jump, landing perfectly. Peter, was next. Success. Despite these two successfully making the jump, I was still uncertain that I could do it. I determined that if I go slowly and cautiously I would be safe. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I never gained enough speed to launch off the jump. Instead my front wheel immediately thumped down, flipping me forward, and hurling my bicycle down the street. This would be the first of six broken bones that I’ve tallied to this point in my life.
I didn’t recognize that it was a lack of gung-ho and speed that caused the spill. Nope, instead I decided that fast moving, and particularly aerial activities just weren’t for me. It amazes me how much is engrained in us when we’re young. Had I understood that to make the jump I just needed to go for it, my childhood, and even life may have been different. In the following years I’ve gravitated towards activities that involve moving nice and slow, such as hiking. I’m comfortable on steep terrain, just so long as I’m moving nice and slow, and in control.
It took me 5 months last year to lose 90 pounds. Sure I may have been starving myself. It may not have been the healthiest lifestyle. But I set a tough goal and I met it…seemingly for the first time in my life. This experience, much like my bike crash changed the way I think, but in a positive way. I didn’t recognize it at first, but my success at weight loss gave me a new-found confidence in myself and my ability to accomplish things that I set my mind to. In November as climbing season winded down, I decided to try skiing. I dove right in and bought a backcountry ski setup before I had even skidded down a bunny hill. In hindsight this may have been foolish. But It ended up working out.
In November I took a two-hour lesson at Mount Baker Ski Area. I learned how to make turns on the beginner hill gaining some confidence. After the lesson I met up with Dave, a ski patrol friend. He took me to the highest chairlift, convincing me there were some blue runs that he could take me down. Well, there weren’t any. So I flailed my way down a black diamond losing all the confidence I had just built up. Was I scared and hesitant to point my skis down that steep slope? Absolutely! Was I unprepared and unequipped to handle that kind of terrain? Absolutely! Could my ski career have ended right then and there with an epic wipeout and a sled ride behind a snowmobile back to the ski patrol hut? Almost Definitely! Although I expected more of a gradual learning curve, I had known what I was getting into when I decided to learn skiing. I knew I would be scared at times. I knew this moment would come, just not so soon. So I went for it. And I survived, with all my limbs intact.
My immediate immersion into tough skiing should have scared me away. But it didn’t. My next ski trip was in the backcountry. I went out with my adventurous friend Kelsey on a moderate route to Herman Saddle. Again, biting off more than I could chew, I flailed my way down the icy slopes, skidding, flopping, and twisting.
Throughout the winter I regularly pushed my limits at the resort and in the backcountry, rarely feeling at home and comfortable in the terrain that I was skiing. There was something addictive to it though: the act of pushing myself beyond the limits of my comfort and into the unknown. I regularly found myself at the top of steep, difficult slopes staring down with hesitation, just wanting to take things nice and slow. And regularly I had to just point my skis down and go. Although I was usually able to convince myself over the edge, often enough I would become that 10 year old Thatcher again with no confidence or commitment to the move I just made.
This changed one day when I was skiing Diamond Head at Blewitt Pass. The snow was soft and forgiving. The slope was moderate, but still beyond my comfort zone. For the first time in my short skiing career I tipped my skis downhill with determination and confidence. And guess what? I nailed it. I cruised down the soft powder, floating smoothly through each turn. This is when I let out my first ski-induced “whoop!” of elation. If I had hesitantly jumped, I would probably have face-planted with a mouth full of snow. The decision to go with confidence (or false-confidence) is what made the difference. This was a huge lesson. Even if I’m not confident, act confident. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy either way. This isn’t to say that you can accomplish anything as long as you have confidence. I had the skill. I had the muscle memory, but I wouldn’t be able to access that skill if I didn’t believe in myself. Maybe if my sixth grade self had confidently flew off that jump he still would have crashed and burned with a lack of bike-jumping skills. Who knows!
I began to regularly put confidence in my skiing. This didn’t come naturally. I had to actively choose confidence. And sometimes I would fail, reverting to my old ways. As winter rounded out I skied more committing, big-mountain routes such as Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens. I was constantly pushing the envelope of comfort, confidence and skill. Spring came and I stepped it up once more to glacier skiing, completing two different routes on Mount Baker, both of which were littered with crevasses and cliffs. Here is where things really get serious. Confidence is no longer just an option. It’s a necessity. The Coleman and Easton Glaciers, while fairly moderate, still present serious hazard and no-fall terrain. I learned quickly that confidence wasn’t just the difference between smooth, whoop-filled skiing and flailing gracelessly down a mountainside. Confidence was now a matter of whoop-filled skiing, and death. High on the Roman Wall of Mount Baker I passed the test putting confidence in my turns on a slope that leads steeply towards deep, dark ice chasms.
All winter my mind turned over and over the idea of skiing Mount Rainier. In November I would have laughed at the idea. By February I had ski partners talking about skiing the Fuhrer Finger, a winter-only route and the longest ski descent in the lower 48 states at over 10,000ft. I knew this route was committing and could be dangerous for the unprepared. At that time I didn’t think my experience and abilities were enough to take on the challenge. Later in the winter during a climb of the mountain I crossed paths with a couple snowboarders, and once again I considered skiing the mountain. It wasn’t until my ski of the Coleman glacier on Baker that I felt ready for Rainier. I knew it would be a step up from anything on Baker. I knew I’d be pushing that envelope farther. But I also knew that it was something I could handle.
The road to Rainier’s east side is open, the weather forecast is promising, and mountain reports are favorable for the Emmons/Winthrop Glacier route. The climb is simple, and straight forward to the summit. The ski down on the other hand is a challenge. The top thousand feet are covered in rime ice, which is basically upside down icicles created by the sun and wind. Here the skiing is most difficult, but also with very little hazard. It’s a good warmup for what comes next. At the edge of the summit ice cap there is a ledge that bridges what will, in a couple weeks, become a massive crevasse. Below the ledge the slope get steep. Losing control here will almost certainly mean a swift slide down the glacier and off a cliff. I’m at a level ten pucker factor as I approach the precipice and look down. Getting over the snow bridge and onto the steep slope isn’t straight forward. It requires jumping down and making an almost immediate turn to avoid an open crevasse twenty feet away. I study my partner Dustin making the leap and turn. I pass another skier who is frozen and talking to herself, clearly not excited about the move. I know that if I stop and think too much I could freeze up too. I could shrink into the childhood me staring down a bike jump, losing confidence with every passing moment. It’s all come to this. I have to decide here to trust myself, and decisively take the leap. Or else I’ll likely bungle the turn sending myself uncontrolled into the abyss. I lean forward letting gravity do the rest. I swiftly dig my edges into the firm snow as I lean inward making the turn. With elation I let out a “whoop!” (pucker-factor still engaged) and continue to make smooth, but cautious turns down the technical terrain that eventually eases into just plain fun skiing.
Six months ago I stood on my skis on level snow awaiting my instructor. And I fell over…twice. Until November I was ruled by fears engrained in me from childhood. What changed? It wasn’t my sudden ability to be coordinated. What allowed me to progress so quickly as a skier? It wasn’t a natural talent and acuity, quite to the contrary. Ask any of my ski partners. So what was it? It was a constant willingness to defy my deeply engrained tendencies. It was pushing myself ceaselessly to the edge of my comfort and ability. It was saying yes when so many other forces said no.
I am far from an excellent skier. Again, ask any of my partners. But I have become a proficient ski mountaineer over the course of one season, going from falling on level snow to not falling on the icy flanks of Mount Rainier. Does skiing itself really matter in life? Not really. But my path to skiing has been an invaluable lesson in how I live other more important parts of life.
A note about risk:
After some feedback, I thought I’d add some clarification. A couple of times here I mention potential fatal falls. This isn’t to dramatize the moment and show off how brave I am. My goal is to bring the reader into my mind, and in these moments it feels quite dramatic, even if reality isn’t so dramatic. It expresses the challenge that I face mentally when on the precipice.
Don’t get me wrong. Ski mountaineering is dangerous. The idea of “I could die here” usually means something like this: If I have confidence in what I’m doing, understand the terrain, am prepared for what’s coming, and proceed with caution, there is a very high probability that I’m going to succeed and stay safe. If I don’t succeed, I’ll fall. If I fall, there is a chance that the fall could end fatally. I can’t put odds on it, but it’s higher than I’d like when gambling with my life. Maybe in Vegas I’d take the odds, but not on a mountain with life at stake. I liken it somewhat to driving a cliffy mountain road. I can sit there and say, “If I stop paying attention, get sleepy, start texting my friend, I could run off the road easily and die.” This is true. But the reality is that if I keep my attention on the road and proceed with caution, there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t run off the road and die. Skiing a serious mountain is clearly more dangerous than driving a cliffy road, but the relative safety of confidently and skillfully edging through turns makes falling a low probability in the way that paying attention while driving makes launching off a cliff a low probability. And this is kind of the point. When I’m high on Mount Rainier, I know that to stay safe, I MUST overcome my fears and have confidence in my ability otherwise it quickly becomes unsafe. I can flail down a black diamond in a ski area all I want. But on an icy glacier, I must have confident composure. And if I don’t have confidence in my abilities, or am looking at terrain that truly isn’t something I can handle, no problem. I take my skis off and walk down.
Why don’t we think about the worst case scenario when we’re driving? Driving is such a regular activity. We feel comfortable in our cushy little cage. It’s only when we drive past an accident that reality may hit us. Staring down a steep and cliffy slope is the “accident” that we drive past. The reality of the worst case scenario high on a mountain is stark, tangible, and in my face all the time. And this is good. It keeps me diligent to do everything in my power to prevent the worst. I did fall on Rainier. I fell on a low angle, fun slope near camp. I fell because I let my guard down, and was skiing less cautiously. Apart from some embarrassment, this was ok. I’m still learning how to ski well. And it shows me that whether I fall or not has less to do with easy vs hard slopes and other external factors, and more on caution and my ability to control risk.