Standing in Snow
A little over four months ago, I set out on a hike with two of my closest friends on the Devils Doom loop in the North Cascades. I remember beautiful views of the undulating landscape filled with glacier lilies, snow capped peaks, and the remnants of hillsides filled with wildflowers. Nearly fourteen miles into the hike, the trail broke underneath where I had just placed my foot and I instantly knew something was wrong. I heard a loud snap and found myself rolling down the hillside. Catching myself on a nearby tree, I began screaming for help. One partner ran the fourteen miles back to the road to call for help, while the other helped me scooch a little over a mile to a glacially carved cirque where we waited sixteen hours for help to arrive in the form of a helicopter. Later that day, I learned that I had broken my tibia and fibula in three separate places, requiring a plate and six screws to be inserted into my leg. I was told that it would be at least November until I could run again, and possibly February before I could strap back into a snowboard. It would take a year for me to return to the level of fitness I had at the time of the accident. I am happy to say that I have proven the doctors wrong.
My life for the past six years has been defined by the places I’ve gone and how I have gotten there. From hundred-mile runs to ski touring into snow-shaped wilderness, I have seen and had experiences that few others have. I was unwilling to allow the condition I found myself in to redefine my reality. A week ago, two brave souls joined me on my last goal in my recovery—ski touring on the northwest flank of Mount Baker on Heliotrope ridge. We left Bellingham pre-dawn and drove up highway 542 patiently waiting for the rain to turn into snow as NOAA had predicted in the low lands. We pulled into the heliotrope parking lot around 9am and were greeted with over a foot of snow on the ground—and the snow was still falling. We had tried to time our trip with the report that Cliff Mass had posted on his website the night before which would allow us to ski during a “break” in the multiple storms that were passing through our region. We heaved our heavy packs onto our backs with skis attached and began the trek up the Heliotrope Ridge Trail.
I became interested in ski touring a few years back in order to continue accessing the peace and solitude of wilderness in the winter. Walking through old growth forests while traversing over a carpet of white snow instead of the vibrant green mossy understory that we all know and love instills a sense of serenity I am unable to find anywhere else. The forest provides a calming, yet eerie, quiet in the winter, where typically the only sounds are those of your feet crunching in the snow and the wind whistling through the tops of barren trees. The hike to heliotrope was no different on this day, except as we neared tree-line and the wind barreled down through the woods nearly knocking us off our feet. We only made it about 600 feet on our skis before we had to turn around due to 40 mph wind gusts, and concerns over the prevalent avalanche conditions. As we ducked back into the trees to take refuge from the howling winds, a grey jay greeted us in a nearby tree looking for snacks. My first trip out on my snowboard was short, but it reminded me of the peace and solitude that I can find on a snowy day in the mountains.
This past Sunday, I felt the mountains pulling me out of my bed in Bellingham and back into their comforting embrace. This time we found ourselves on the northwest flank of Shuksan, better known as the Shuksan Arm. Even though the Arm is conveniently located next to the Mount Baker Ski Resort, we were the only group to lay a skin track in the untouched snow. The sun was shining, and the surrounding landscape sparkled under its rays. Clouds rolled in and out of the valley bottom, which only added to the solitude that we enjoyed as we skinned along the ridgeline. The only sound was that of our breathing and the occasional hoot and holler from the group.
The snow conditions were less then ideal, but the surrounding landscape of jagged peaks and hanging glaciers more than made up for it. After a snack of cheese, bread, and a twix, we dropped in and began our descent back to the car where a cold beer was awaiting our day’s efforts. I returned to the car pain free, with a smile on my face and possibly even a suntan. I couldn’t have ever asked for anything more.
I could not have recovered to the level I’m at now without the help of so many amazing and wonderful people. First, to Kevin & Katie—the best adventure partners someone could ask for. Thank you for everything from withstanding swarms of mosquitoes to embarking on my first mountain bike ride. To Kelly Bush—I could never have asked to be rescued by a more amazing person. Thank you for the heli ride and support. To Frankie—Thank you for the multiple rides to the doctor, meals prepared, and unwavering support and friendship. I really appreciate it. To the North Cascades Institute Staff, Grad Students & John—Thank you for making sure the scooter was fully charged, promoting wheel chair excursions at night, providing SO much support, and allowing me to join you on hikes and camping trips when I probably shouldn’t have. To my Bellingham friends & roommates—Thank you for taking me on bike rides, to the mountains, to Caps and for keeping a smile on my face. To my parents—Thanks for putting up with my constant injuries and showing unconditional love. I couldn’t have done any of this without you all.
And if you’re curious: I can now run up to five miles on trails, mountain bike for hours, snowboard, and dance like I’ve never danced before.Leading photo: Watching the helicopter come in for the rescue mission. The last photo taken by Oso. All other photos taken by the author.