Category Archives: Adventures

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?

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.

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.

What Does it Mean to be a Woman in the Outdoor Industry?


When SheJumps asked me to be a part of the defineFEMININE event this week at the Seattle Artcteryx store, I wasn’t quite sure what I had to bring to the table. Sure, I’m a woman in a pretty testosterone-heavy industry. Only 20-30% of ski patrollers are women. But I’ve never really thought of myself as all that unique.

I just finished my 26th season as a ski patroller at Crystal Mountain. That’s more than half my life (just barely, but who’s counting, right?). While considering what wisdom I might have to add to a group of amazing ladies offering support through participation in outdoor adventures, I realized that my attitude toward myself and my job have changed over the years. I never used to think about what it meant to be a female patroller.

The women of Crystal.

The women of Crystal.

I just put my head down and acted like one of the guys.

In fact, I probably pushed the testosterone level up a notch. If a group of us were headed into Southback for avalanche control, I’d be at the head of the pack, breaking trail in waist-deep snow. If another patroller laid down an auger challenge*, I’d be the first one out the door with my skis on. Race to the top of the Queen via hiking up from Powder Pass? I’d push myself until my lungs burned. The stairs to the Summit House were buried in two feet of snow drift? I’d be out there with a shovel and Pulaski until ever speck of ice was gone.

I didn’t want to be known as a good female patroller. I wanted to be known as a good patroller, period.

And I still do.

The climate for women in the outdoor industry is changing. Through groups like SheJumps and with the examples of badass professionals like Lynsey Dyer, Lel Tone and Elyse Saugstad, women are banning together to create a sisterhood.

Today’s sisterhood is supportive and inclusive. The rules of engagement haven’t changed. Professional outdoor women still have to be twice as strong as the guys, and we can never blame our PMS. At least not in front of the guys. Instead, we can rely on the burgeoning sisterhood of others like us–those that have forged the way and those that are just dipping their toes in for the first time.

At the defineFEMININE event Thursday night, I shared the stage with some amazing women. Diane Hoff paved the way for female climbers in the Northwest and served as the first female president of the Mountaineers. Kristina Ciari found her outdoor passion in backcountry skiing and is going on 43 consecutive months of turns all year, all while wearing a pink tutu. Jenny Abegg is coming off a year of van life, chasing the climbing dream across the globe. One of my favorite moments of the evening was Jenny’s description of some of the setbacks she had on her trip. She said, “the way I react to this matters.” And she’s right. We make our reality moment to moment. Claire Smallwood, co-founder of SheJumps shared her journey of shifting self-perceptions. Sometimes we never truly see our best self until we risk jumping in. Claire did that with SheJumps and a sisterhood was born.

I was honored to share my story with this amazing sisterhood. My hope is that more women can find their true strength by jumping into adventure.

*The auger is a designation held by the patroller who most recently fell while skiing in uniform. If one holds the auger (or actually is wearing the wooden auger bit around his or her neck), he or she can challenge other patrollers for a run. If the other patrollers refuse to join the challenge, the auger holder can simply pass it over to the refusee.

El Avalanchisto: The Dirtbag Diaries


I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to assume that you, dear reader, are familiar with The Dirtbag Diaries. If not, then click on the link and go check it out for yourself. Created by Fitz Cahall and–as the legend goes–recorded in a closet in Seattle, The Dirtbag Diaries is a podcast for adventurers. Fitz covers the kinds of stories you’d want to hear over a campfire, the kinds of tales you hope to hear on a long road trip. He gathers up adventure into a 30-minute podcast, cinches it tight and delivers it to you in your ear. No campfire or road trip necessary.

I just came back from a long boat trip and I finally had a chance to catch up on podcasts. While motoring up the BC coast, my husband and I binge-listened to our favorites. El Avalanchisto, a recent episode from The Dirtbag Diaries, was played not once but three times. Just for good measure.

It’s a compelling story, and one that resonated with me for obvious reasons. Matt McKee decides to take a job forecasting avalanches for Minera Pimenton, a gold mine in the Chilean Andes. He thought it would be his dream job. Instead it turned into a nightmare: a den of avalanche paths, a mine full of workers who didn’t believe in avalanches and a country that looked for someone to blame if things went wrong.

What made me want to listen to this one over and over again was not the human nightmare, but the natural one. The tale was a familiar one to me. Avalanche paths going bigger that ever seen before, snow falling nonstop and filling in the previous slides, and the feeling that the world above you just wants to bury you–I know what that feels like.

Have a listen and see what you think. Click below to be taken to the podcast. Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 2.16.28 PM

Surfing: The Power of Trying Something Hard


Let’s face it. Surfing is hard.

This is the least embarrassing photo, which says something

This is the least embarrassing photo, which says something

I just returned from a week surfing with Hillary Harrison at Peaks and Swells Surf Camp in Costa Rica. In the four years since John and I first went to Hillary’s camp my surfing hasn’t exactly improved. Granted, I’m a fair weather surfer. From the get go, I knew that surfing would never replace skiing as the sport I obsess about. I never planned on checking the swell forecast as carefully as I follow low pressure snow-producing storms in the Pacific.

kim and jk sunset 1

Smiles, sunset, surf and fresh coconut

But now, that might be changing.

First, let me tell you about the surf camp. It’s not just about surfing. There’s also yoga, massage, and all-organic meals. And of course, the daily walk to Montezuma for gelato. This place is more like a retreat than a “camp.” Every detail is handled for you, and once you arrive there are no real decisions to make. We attended the family camp with John’s daughter. One of the most appealing components of surfing is the fact that we can do it as a family. I’m not the kind of parent that truly loves watching the kids while they do their own sport (is anyone?). I’d rather be in there too, cheering alongside them.

The coaches at Peaks and Swells are fabulous. Each one of them exudes positivity. Lead instructor Victoria Ross actually smiles the entire time she’s talking. I tried it on for size, but it sounds ridiculous on me (and I’m okay with that). Victoria is an Aussie, so the accent helps. But her happy vibe infected every of her students. Even in the midst of their own cool surfer style, somehow all the instructors bring you along with them on the ride. This is a very special place.

Learning the pop up

Victoria teaching the pop-up

What I learned at Peaks and Swells is the importance (and the power) of sucking. It’s okay not to excel. It’s fine to look clumsy and awkward. It’s normal to be embarrassed. The first day of surfing at Peaks and Swells ends in a photo and video viewing of the day’s adventures in the water, and those feelings of awkward embarrassment are impossible to avoid. So I figured that I might as well embrace them.

If you never let yourself look like an ass, than you probably aren’t learning anything new. Which means you probably aren’t growing. The pressure to look good, and stylish, and coiffed, and camera-ready at all times is higher than ever. It’s only when you stop worrying about what you might look like that you really drop into flow. Only when you cease thinking of yourself from the third person and truly step into who you are in the moment, can you find happiness.

beautiful sunset

The sunset is always stylish

Trying something hard, like surfing, is a risk. There’s a risk (albeit small) of getting injured. But the bigger risk is simply embarrassing yourself. One of the surf coaches last week quoted a recent student you asked her, “when does the sexy part of surfing start?”

Let me be clear. Surfing is not sexy when you’re a beginner. There’s nothing sexy or stylish about that roll of wet snot dripping from your nose when you first pop up on your board. Nor is it very sexy when your bathing suit comes unseated from around your backside. The red eyes from that surprise wave that crashed on your head and the bruises on your hips and elbows from your failed pop-ups don’t scream sexy either.

Beginners are just surviving out there. We don’t care about what we look like. That is, until the photos go up on the screen during happy hour and we wonder yet again, so when does the sexy part start?

Evelyn makes it look easy

Evelyn makes it look easy

But I applaud every single person carrying their ungainly boards out into the surf to give it a go anyways. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re trying something hard.

I’ve written about this before, but adversity is good for you. Trying (and even sucking at) something new changes your brain. We crave novelty. Our brains release dopamine when we have a new experience. It’s the brain’s way of telling us to keep at it. When old habits and skills no longer require much of us, it’s time to pick up a new skill. In addition to surfing this week, I learned another important skill. Humility.

But there are moments that make it all worthwhile. When you catch the wave just right–for me it was catching a green wave and popping up in time to feel myself drop into the trough–the feeling buoys you up. You are in flow. You completely forget about what you look like from the outside; instead you are focused entirely on the task before you. And when surfing is the task before you, there’s nothing quite like it.

Except, of course, skiing powder.