Author Archives: Kim Kircher

About Kim Kircher

I'm a ski patroller and author, finding a new balance between my adventurous outdoor life and my writerly indoor one.

Are Avalanches an Inherent Risk in Skiing?


What is Inherent Risk?

The Colorado Ski Safety Act is currently being disputed in the state’s Supreme Court. Salynda Fleury is suing Winter Park Resort after her husband, Christopher Norris, was killed there in an avalanche in 2012. Lower courts sided with the resort, saying that avalanches are covered under the Ski Safety Act, which states, “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” The job now for the state Supreme Court is to interpret the meaning of the term “inherent dangers and risks in skiing.”

Some of the inherent risks of skiing are covered under the act, such as “Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.”

A ten foot crown on Powder Bowl at Crystal Mountain, 2014

A ten foot crown on Powder Bowl at Crystal Mountain, 2014

Are In-Bound Avalanches an Inherent Risk in Skiing?

When the Colorado Ski Safety Act was enacted in 1979, few skiers were venturing into avalanche prone terrain. Much of the Act focuses on merging on crowded trails, riding lifts, use of proper signage and the like. Very little of the Act mentions responsibilities of either skier or resort occurring in off-piste and expert terrain.

Today more skiers and riders are venturing into avalanche prone terrain than ever. In some places, such as Crystal Mountain, this terrain is marked by “Avalanche Prone” signs. Washington State Ski Law does not explicitly require these signs, however.

The question remains: Are avalanches considered an inherent risk of the sport?

It’s no secret that avalanches are tough to forecast. Even when a slope should slide (due to changing weather conditions and slope angle, for example), often it does not. When avalanches do happen, however, it is most commonly due to changing weather conditions. In Washington state those changes are more obvious. We have more direct-action avalanches here. It storms, it avalanches. In the Rockies, where deep slab instabilities can persist, the weather changes that affect avalanches can be more long term. A prolonged cold snap, for example, can weaken layers that lead to avalanches. This can happen even on a sunny day.

The avalanche that destroyed Crystal Mountain's Chair 6

The avalanche that destroyed Crystal Mountain’s Chair 6

Why this matters to the ski industry

The ski industry is watching this Supreme Court case closely. If Fleury wins her case, ski areas will be much more reticent to open avalanche terrain. At Crystal, we try to open our avalanche terrain–namely Southback, Bear Pits, and Northway–as soon as possible. Skier compaction is the name of the game in avalanche mitigation. In essence we tame avalanches one snowflake at a time. Left to sit untracked, slopes often lose strength over time, if those weak layers get buried by deep slabs and become problems later on.

Rider Kyle Miller PC: Jason Hummel

Rider Kyle Miller PC: Jason Hummel

Why this matters to the skiing public

People want to ski and ride in avalanche terrain. In-bound avalanches are still rare. It may seem oxymoronic, but the more we can keep that terrain open, the safer it will be. The safest slope is one that’s groomed or mogul-filled. Of course, someone has to lay down the first tracks, and by my estimation there’s plenty of willing takers for that task.

What do you think? Should avalanches be considered an inherent risk or should ski areas be liable for in-bound avalanche fatalities and injuries?

What Kind of Winter Are We Going to Have?


Someone asked me last weekend if I knew what kind of weather we were going to have this winter at Crystal. It’s timely because I was just thinking about how nifty it would be if I could predict the weather. Well, let’s be real here. I want to do more than predict weather. Any weather forecaster could do that. I want to control the weather.

While I haven’t yet mastered weather control, I have found some historical data that might be interesting to you skiers and riders obsessing/fretting/anxious about the season to come.

NOAA is predicting a very strong El Niño for the 2015-16 winter season. It’s easy to worry over this, especially since El Niño’s tend to mean dryer and warmer conditions in the PNW. But we’ve only been through two very strong El Niños in the past hundred years or so and those years weren’t so bad at Crystal.

In 1982-83 was a very strong El Niño event. Crystal reported about average snowfall that season. This was back when the weather plot was behind the Alpine Inn, where the tree canopy may have interfered. We had an active avalanche cycle in 82-83, with a slide that started in Kempers breaking timber all the way down to Highway 410.

1997-98 might be a little easier for locals to remember at Crystal. It was the daddy of all El Niños (which, by the way is spanish for “the niño”). It was the year of Chris Farley’s infamous skit on SNL.

During that season, Crystal ended up with about average snowfall. According to Tony Crocker at, we were actually ahead. He has a pretty cool month-by-month analysis that you might want to check out. In a nutshell, we started strong at Crystal, had some spring-like conditions in mid-March, then ended in April with enough snow to get to about average depths.

El Niños tend to be pretty unpredictable. There are other factors besides ENSO at play as well. The folks at Atmospheric and Environmental Research consider the snowpack in Siberia in October as a good indication of the severity of winter in North America.

And then there’s the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which you may have heard is predicting a severe winter in many parts of N. America. The OFA uses a secret formula for long-term weather prediction that they keep hidden in a black box. So you know it’s got to be accurate.

The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders. Which is nice.

One last consideration is the winter in Chile. There’s a “totally scientific” belief at Crystal that the Chilean winters are a prediction of the upcoming winter in the Cascades. The Andes are buried in snow right now. So we’ve got that going for us, too.

So what kind of winter are we going to have at Crystal? One thing I know for sure is that we will have weather, and plenty of it.

If I Could Go Back My Wedding Day, I’d Whisper This Into My Own Ear


Today is our ten-year anniversary. Taken as a whole, a decade seems to have blinked by. But taken in pieces, it has been a long, strange, wild ride. I almost lost John after just our first year of marriage. We fought back from his cancer and liver transplant together. We have climbed mountains together, rafted rivers, trekked through the Himalayas, sailed and surfed and skied and loved each other through worldly adventures and daily rituals.

July 16, 2005

July 16, 2005

When I look back at the woman I was ten years ago today, when I vowed to love and cherish my husband, I was a different person. I was younger, of course, full of optimism and the kind of blind faith that makes us want to cleave ourselves to another person for all of eternity, but I was also pretty naïve. While I thought on my wedding day that I was wise and mature and knew exactly what I wanted out of life, I also wasn’t fully formed yet. Back then I hadn’t been tested like I have now. I hadn’t yet watched my husband lying emaciated in a hospital bed wondering if he would ever wake up. I hadn’t yet held his hand while his mother took her last breath. I hadn’t yet cried in his arms in grief after losing my dad.

Call it an accumulation of experiences—the kind of self-awareness that comes from witnessing ourselves manage crises and joys, trials and triumphs. But when I look back at that bride, I want to treat her kindly, to pat her hand and tell her that while it might not be easy, it will be worth it.

If I could go back and whisper into the ear of that former self, I know what I would say. I would tell that blissful bride to accept each moment, to stop trying to orchestrate her life and simply be present for it. I would remind her to enjoy every moment with this man she was committing herself to. I would tell her that while life can’t be lived easily, it can be lived fully. I would tell her not to take everything so personally.

It is easy to look back at our former selves and access our growth. It is much harder to look ahead and imagine how we will be ten years from now. If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that the next ten years probably won’t be as rosy as I’d like to think. Life always has a way of messing with your best intentions. But there’s one thing I do know. Whatever lies ahead for us we will face it together.

After ten years of marriage, I know that I’m lucky to have John as my husband. He challenges me to be the best version of myself (admittedly, this isn’t something I’m keen to appreciate all that often, but still). He’s strong when I’m weak. He’s even-keeled when I drop my basket. He pushes on towards camp when I want to set down my pack and lie, exhausted, on the hard ground.

Today I celebrate what we’ve accomplished and shared so far. Here’s to the next ten years.

Who Needs Wifi When There’s Lions?


Ten years ago, when John and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for the first time, we decided that someday we’d bring his kids. Last week, we returned from that family trip to Tanzania. It was a trip of a lifetime.

Evelyn, Kim, Andrew and John at Stella Point on the crater rim

Evelyn, Kim, Andrew and John at Stella Point on the crater rim

Climbing Kilimanjaro is no easy feat. At 19,341 feet, Kili is the tallest mountain on the African continent. We took the Machame Route, also known as the Whiskey Route because it’s hard, and spent six nights and seven days on the mountain. The climb is really more of a trek at altitude. The entire route is on a trail. Most days the trail is steep, but the views are stunning.

Sunrise just steps below the crater rim

Sunrise just steps below the crater rim

When we first envisioned it a decade ago, John’s daughter, Evelyn, was three years old. Instagram wasn’t even invented yet. But today in the summer of 2015 both Evelyn, and to a lesser degree her older brother Andrew, suck in wifi bandwidth like we used to draw breath.

Andrew sucking up every last breath at sunrise near the summit.

Andrew sucking it up at sunrise.

Before we left, my concern for the kids focused more on fitness level and blister-proofing their new hiking boots than on how often they’d need to update their social media sites. Between dance classes and end-of-school-year sleepovers Evelyn couldn’t find the time to break in her new hiking boots. Even while I imagined blisters and bloody toes, I had to admit that her new boots didn’t even seem that difficult to break in. Andrew, on the other hand, is a college ski racer. Toughness runs in his blood, and I knew that his biggest challenge would be waiting for the rest of us to catch up with him.

The toilet at 16,000 foot high camp

The toilet at 16,000 foot high camp

What I didn’t think much of before we left was what happens to kids without a constant Internet connection. Do they shrivel and die, like a raisin in the sun? Or would they revel in the beauty of mountains, humming the Sound of Music soundtrack to themselves while sipping tea in their tents?

Another long day on the trail

Another long day on the trail

The climb was a challenge. It was also beautiful and amazing and inspiring. Evelyn told me the day before the summit that if she didn’t make it to the top, she’d be disappointed at herself. When we were just steps from the top, and she wanted to turn back, I reminded her of her promise to herself. She continued on. Andrew made it to the crater rim while his lung were filling with fluid. The guides turned him around at Stella Point, but he’d done the hard part. He didn’t let on to any of us the depth of his struggle, and it turned out to be the most herculean physical effort I’ve ever witnessed. I will forever be in awe of him, even while I wish he would have turned around earlier for his own sake.

Feeling revelatory at the summit

Feeling revelatory at the summit (who put those Crystal and Big Sky stickers up?)

Climbing a mountain is simple. You just put one foot in front of the other until there’s no where further to go. When John, Evelyn and I stepped onto Uhuru Peak, the highest peak on Kilimanjaro together, I felt something new. The air is so thin, it feels like floating a inside a helium balloon. But attached to your feet are lead weights. There’s a strange disconnect between your head and your heavy boots, and it cracked open something inside me.

All of the challenges of the past few years came streaming out of that crack. The worries, the anxiety, the loss and pain just leaked out.

Where there be lions

Where there be lions

A few days later we camped in Serengeti National Park. We stayed in luxurious wall tents complete with running water (real toilets!) and big beds. At night we could hear lions. They exhale in a low rumble, then call out to the other cats in a long hooooooo sound. It’s strange and eery and totally amazing to listen to amidst the myriad of other African sounds.

"If you can't climb it, drink it!"

“If you can’t climb it, drink it!”

Evelyn isn’t the kind of kid that’s going to raise her hands and proclaim the “hills are alive.” She’s subtler and a whole lot wiser than that. The first morning after sleeping with the lions, she said something even better. She claimed this as the best trip she’d ever been on. “And you know what?” She went on. “Lions are better than wifi.”

Coming from a 13-year-old that’s about as high of praise as you can get. Trip of a lifetime indeed.

Things That Remind Me of My Dad


My dad made me feel like a million dollars. When I was a girl, he convinced me that my presence in his life–and by extension in the world–was essential. If I ceased to exist, I came to assume, the world would stop spinning.

At least that’s how Dad made me feel.

Today is Father’s Day–the second one since my father passed away. The pain and loss hasn’t gotten any easier. I miss him more now than ever. But now the memories of him bring up fewer painful barbs and more mirthful chuckles. Everyday objects, words that blurt out of my mouth, snippets of songs, and adventurous activities conjure his larger than life presence.

Here are a few of those things that remind me of my dad:

Cherry Chapstick: At 6’6″ tall, Dad didn’t worry about looking like a sissy. My high school boyfriends referred to him as Conan the Barbarian. But the man loved him some chapstick–the Suzy Chaffee kind–and only cherry flavor would do. Never mind that Cherry Chapstick will leave a pinkish residue on your lips, and perhaps the skin around your lips if you aren’t careful. Dad didn’t care. To this day I have at least ten tubes of Cherry Chapstick lying around the house.

Skiing: Dad taught me to ski. His motto was, “if it’s green golf it. If it’s white ski it. We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.” Every time I ski, and that’s pretty much every day in the winter, I chant that mantra in my head. Every great turn reminds me of him.


Mom, Dad, me and my brother JD in Sun Valley circa 1983

Fishing: Dad was a third generation Washingtonian. He loved to fish. He also taught me to love it. I must have been about eight years old when we went out in the Sound to fish for salmon. He would wait until he had a fish on the line and say, “Kimmy Kim! I don’t seem to be having any luck. Let’s trade poles and see if have any better luck than this one.” Sure enough, I’d grab that pole and feel that fish on the line. He convinced me that I had the golden touch. I remember coming back that day with a bunch of fish that “I’d caught” with dad smiling broadly.

Hey Ho: I’m not sure where he got it, but dad used to always chant this little cheer. I think it came from back when my brother played high school basketball. For years dad would just blurt it out at the most random times, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Let’s get that ball and really go!” Funny thing is that the other day I was getting something out of the fridge and found myself chanting the same little cheer. It made me smile.

I heard once that we don’t really die until the last person who remembers us dies too. If that’s true, my dad is still alive and kicking because even Cherry Chapstick is keeping his memory alive.


Thanks She Jumps


sj-logoI’m honored today to be she a SheJumps jumper. Thanks SheJumps for for publishing my profile and including me in such great company.

SheJumps aims to get more women in outdoor activities.They accomplish this by creating high-visibility “Get the Girls Out!” events, Outdoor Education, Youth Initiatives and grassroots recreational gatherings. Kim-Kircher-222x300The SheJumps community consists of females of all backgrounds and ages who help one another reach their highest potential through outdoor adventures and education.

Jumping into adventure and not turning away from risk teaches us to be resilient.

SheJumps embodies this same ethos. When we push ourselves to take risks, we are actually doing more than just that activity. Skiing a hard line is more than just friction and gravity and cold snow. It’s a lesson in the value of pushing ourselves. It’s a little nugget that we can hold onto later when life’s vagaries—large or small—threaten to topple us.

I owe all of my strength to the mountains.

This is Great Storytelling: Dorais by Fitz Cahall


It is true that we become our truest selves when things go awry. The way we respond to the tumult that often passes for real life speaks volumes about who we are. But it is also true that our character is not fixed. Even if we break from the pressure today, that doesn’t mean we can’t hold ourselves together tomorrow. We can always strive to be better. Dorais, a video by Fitz Cahall and produced by Duct Tape Then Beer, tells the story of the Dorais family. The two Dorais brothers, Andy and Jason, both ER docs and mountaineers, are skimo champions. They are strong, they are fast and they are badass. This is not a story about them. It is a story about Jason’s wife Amanda. She has stage 4 cancer. I understand what it means to stand by a loved one while battling cancer. I know, too, that the lessons wrought from the experience almost make it worth. Almost, but not quite. This is a beautiful story. Please watch.