Category Archives: Writing

Is There a Cure for Re-entry Syndrome?

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Porters carrying loads below Kabru Massif

Porters carrying loads below Kabru Massif

I just returned from a long trip abroad. Three weeks in the Himalayas. It was glorious. It was magical. It was horrifying.

Moments of grandeur and high-mountain beauty slice against images of filth and extreme poverty. But what endures as I try to sift through my everyday life, is the memory of smiling locals and a feeling of what can only be described as re-entry syndrome.

I’m no stranger to re-entry syndrome. When I got off a three-week trip on the Grand Canyon several years ago, I stumbled around in a fog for weeks. My usual sense of purpose and industry had vanished. I was left with the big questions that had arisen while floating the Colorado, but none of the simple answers that had reverberated off the canyon walls.

It’s the same now.

Sikkim is a state in India. Wedged between Nepal and Bhutan and butted up against Chinese Tibet, Sikkim was a separate kingdom until 1975. In some ways, it is more Nepali than Indian, and our trek took us along the border between the two countries. Goecha La, our high point, after two weeks on the trail, brought us to within 5 kms of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world which borders Nepal and Sikkim.

sikkim himalayas

Prayer flags mark the pass into Dzongri

Yak herders bring the animals back to camp

Yak herders bring the animals back to camp

I loved walking amongst these giant mountains. Every morning the sun rose to reveal new ridges and glaciers, taller peaks than the day before and rows and rows of sharp beauty. I especially loved the “not-thinking” required in trekking. We had porters and yaks to carry the heavy gear. My job was only to eat, sleep and walk. I’d pictured spending hours on the trail sorting through the minutiae of my mind–plotting my upcoming book, making a final decision about whether or not to continue my radio show, figuring out how and where and if I could manage to create some significant work.

But that’s not how it worked.

Whole days went by and I just walked. No mental plans were made. No epiphanies found.

Chortens above Dzongri, Sikkim

Chortens above Dzongri, Sikkim

I wondered if I were squandering my chance. After months of research for my latest book and years of plotting and scheming, this was my opportunity to catch up. To let my mind wander. To come up with my next big idea.

Camp, 14,000 feet

Camp, 14,000 feet

Instead I just looked around. I gaped at the mountain view. I cried at the scenes of poverty in the cities. Some days, while hiking along the base of towering peaks, the tears flowed for no apparent reason. Maybe this was gratitude, I told myself. But even that thought vanished in the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe it’s an altitude thing. Perhaps I was a little hypoxic.

Or maybe the physical act of walking was erasing my need to analyze and understand every little emotion and idea that entered my brain.

Maybe I simply needed to be.

Now I’m home, and I’m experiencing reverse culture-shock. There should be a to-do list on my desk a mile long getting checked off one by one. I should be getting back into the groove, preparing for the ski season, stocking up at Costco, obsessing over the weather forecast.

Instead, I feel like I’m floating. Somewhere between the Himalayas and my old life is a new path twisting in front of me like a toy snake. I’ll find it soon enough.

But I’m not in any hurry.

The Kind of Person that says WOO HOO

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kim kircher

Woo Hoo!!

“I wish I was the kind of person that said, Woo Hoo.” A college friend once told me. Sandra is elegant, she is sophisticated, she is well put-together. But she’s not the type of person to sling high-fives around and you know, yell at the top of her lungs.

Over the years I’ve wondered myself about the importance of the Woo Hoo. Am I the kind of person that says, Woo Hoo? What is the virtue of maximum enthusiasm?

What’s the value of not being cool and instead letting our excitement wash over us in an embarrassing vocal outburst?

When Sandra made that declaration all those years ago, I had agreed in a sort of “humble brag”. Too bad we aren’t like those pathetic frat boys getting all excited about the smallest little thing.

Dude! That was awesome! High-Five!

Instead I melted under a blanket of cool, blended into the gray surroundings of Evergreen State College, and didn’t make waves.

Now, as I embark again on the book publishing process, I’ve decided to make a change. I am going to be the kind of person that declares, Woo Hoo! anytime my new project gains even a slight bit of momentum. So, here I am waving my freak flag, because I have a new book and I have a new agent and he’s right now, as I type, sending it out to publishing houses.  And you know what? That deserves an all caps WOO HOO!!!

enthusiasm

Jumping for joy on the banks of the Salmon River

What is this new book about, you might ask? (I can hear you asking, and I’m letting out a very tiny woo hoo right now.) The book examines the risks and rewards in extreme sports. Looking at athlete’s stories and going beyond the “adrenaline junkie” stereotype to examine the brain science and experience of getting out on the edge.

One thing I’ve learned so far about the book publishing world, is that there’s no final destination. Instead, I have learned to celebrate each little milestone, every little moment and encouragement along the way. I’ll be keeping y’all posted on the book’s progress, and taking the time to high-five myself along the way (which isn’t as awkward as you might think, it’s kind of like clapping, but even better).

So you know what?

WOO HOO!!

We’re ALL Winners: Free E-Books, The Next 15 Minutes

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Get Your Free E-Book Today

Get Your Free E-Book Today

Today I’m celebrating. My memoir, The Next 15 Minutes, has been honored by the North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA) with the Harold Hirsch award for excellence in journalism in the Book category. The Next 15 Minutes, if you’re new here, is the high-octane story of how lessons learned as a ski patroller helped me get through my husband’s harrowing cancer diagnosis. More adventure-story than medical-memoir, this book reveals what it’s like to make the ski industry your life and how to use our voluntary adventures to get through real-life disasters. I’ve always believed that we get out on the edge to see what we’re made of. But we don’t expect to use that expertise in a real emergency. Until we have no other choice.

If you haven’t yet read the book, now’s the time.

Harold_Hirsch

Thanks NASJA!

The Book category is only given every three years. Judges are chosen based on their expertise in the field, and are not members of the organization. The award is named for Harold Hirsch, a long-time ski journalist, and member of the NASJA Board.

I’m thrilled to be honored by NASJA. My late father-in-law, Everett Kircher, was given NASJA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Mammoth, CA in 1999.

My husband and his brother, Steve, accepted the honor in their father’s name. It’s fitting that I received my award in Mammoth 14 years later.

To celebrate, my publisher, Behler Publications, is giving away free e-books of THE NEXT 15 MINUTES today and tomorrow. Just email Lynn Price at: lynn_at_behlerpublications.com (replace “_at_” with @ symbol) and put FREE NEXT 15 MINUTES in the Subject line. Hurry. This special celebration ends tomorrow.

Yea!

This Proves it: Skiers Make Better Lovers

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Let’s face it. I’m a lucky woman. When not getting paid to ski around, start avalanches with explosives and help injured skiers and snowboarders, I write about it (see, I’m learning to include snowboarders in the discussion, maybe I’m not such a Bad Kim after all.) While researching my new book on risk and action sports, I’ve talked to thrilling athletes, interviewed fascinating scientists and unearthed interesting archives. Yesterday I found this 34-year-old newspaper clipping about skiing and risk, and why it makes us better lovers and well, quite frankly, better people. Of course, this was written before snowboarding, so I’m sure it would apply to them as well. This article was originally published in New London, Connecticut’s Daily The Day January 20th, 1978. It’s a keeper.

Skiers Are Better Lovers Part 1

Skiers Part 2

This sort of proves it. Skiing is good for you. What Sol Roy Rosenthal didn’t know about back in the 70s was the connection that dopamine played in our reward system. The euphoria experienced by extreme athletes is connected to dopamine, which makes us want to keep coming back to the slopes or the waves or the rock walls and experience it again. But most intriguing in Rosenthal’s research is how he claims taking calculated risks increases our awareness while pinpointing our focus, sort of opening us while honing us in all at once. If seeing the big picture with the ability to focus on the moment doesn’t make us better people, better lovers and better skiers (or snowboarders), than I don’t know what will.

Doing it for the Thrill

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Verbier Extreme Spectators

Verbier Extreme Spectators

“Sensation-seekers”, according to psychologists, fill their days with thrilling adventures and novel experiences. Their brains seek more sensation, more of a dopamine kick, more of that optimal flow moment than the rest of the population.

Psychologists have been watching sensation seekers for decades, comparing skydivers to reckless drivers and gamblers, lumping them all together into a wide category of “risk-takers”. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman created a personality test for sensation seeking, check it out and see where you stack up.

Neuroscientists have recently dipped into the “sensation-seeking” brain and found more enlightening discoveries. I recently interviewed Cynthia Thomson of the University of British Columbia for my upcoming book on action sports. Thomson focused her PhD study on skiers and dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s way of offering motivation in the form of a reward. It provides that nice kick of good-feeling reverie after we accomplish something big. And it turns out, not all brains handle dopamine the same way. Thomson found that skiers tend to have a variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor that affects the way their brain handles dopamine. In other words, they needed more thrill to get the same kick.

Just another day in Chamonix

Just another day in Chamonix

Where psychologists and neuroscientists diverge is by lumping together athletes and addicts. In Thomson’s initial study, she didn’t separate them either. But she was able to determine the difference in later work. In addition to being sensation-seekers, addicts also score high for impulsivity. This is not so for high-risk athletes. At least not the ones that stick around. Just imagine an action sport athlete that was also highly impulsive. He or she wouldn’t be around long. Involvement in a risky sport, such as skiing, skydiving or surfing requires careful planning and extensive training. Anyone jumping off cliffs without first checking the landing (acting impulsively) isn’t going to live very long. Impulsivity tends to fade as we age, whereas sensation-seeking remains more stable.

Stevens Pass Boundary warning

Stevens Pass Boundary warning

I believe that as we get older and log more experiences our judgement overrides our impulsivity. This is evident in my job as a ski patroller and EMT. I’ve seen enough head injuries to wear a helmet while skiing. I’ve watched avalanches rip down slopes and break apart trees enough times to choose my line carefully. In many ways, I’ve gained judgement by learning from others’ mistakes. But I’ve also had my fair share of close calls.

My new book project, which I’m calling Crystalized: Finding Clarity on the Edge (but that title probably won’t last, so don’t bother googling it just yet) will take a look at the hows and whys of participation in action sports. I will especially look at my own experiences with dopamine-inducing sports and try to determine where I stack up against the experts. Most of the time I wonder what they have that I don’t have. Why are they able to huck bigger jumps, surf bigger waves, run scarier rapids and overall scare the shit out of me watching them from the near sidelines? Maybe it’s their DRD4 dopamine receptors. Or perhaps it’s their training. Or maybe I’m just a natural born scaredy-cat in comparison.

The best part about this book is the opportunity to interview some amazing athletes and brilliant scientists. I will be sharing some of these interviews here. I will also start hosting a radio show next month at Voice America, an internet radio site, where I will have many of them as guests on the show. (Hopefully you will join me for those interviews.)

Cynthia Thomson’s research suggests that some individuals need more thrill than others. If so, she posits that skiing and other action sports offer a viable avenue for sensation seeking, rather than the more destructive types of negative risks often associated with the term. Either way, her research shows there could be a genetic link to sensation seeking after all.

As if I needed another reason to go skiing.

Are You a Thrill Seeker?

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Skydiving: pure transcendence

We all take risks. Whether schussing down a snowy couloir or speaking in front of a group, we  have all known the feeling of pushing our own envelope. Stepping into our fear can bring moments of great enlightenment. The thrilling edge between danger and suicide found in today’s surge of outdoor adventures has replaced religious asceticism as the way to transcendence.

Jumping out of airplanes and flying off cliffs is the new Nirvana.

Marvin Zuckerman, a psychology professor from University of Delaware, termed the phrase “sensation-seeker” for those that search for novelty and excitement. Chemicals in our brain govern our risk reward calculus. When we enjoy a thrill, our brains are flooded with dopamine, our own personal pleasure cocktail. Dopamine sits on our shoulder woohooing and heehawing while we walk the thin line of danger. Other chemicals, namely MAO monoamine oxidase, temper that enthusiasm. MAO gobbles up the dopamine sluicing through our brain, all the while whispering into our other ear, telling us to “watch out, this could be dangerous.”

Turns out, dopamine to MAO ratios differ in each of us. Risk-taking behavior is 60% determined by our genes, while the rest is shaped by our environment. Thrill seeking tends to run in the family. And yet, it too, can be learned.

I am fascinated by this slackline between risk and reward. As predicted by neuroscientists and psychologists, as I’ve gotten older, my tolerance for risk has diminished. Still, I score high on Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale. This test was developed to determine factors in all risk-takers, only one of which is thrill-seeking and adventure. But as we grow older, we develop more MAO, and that whispery voice warning us of risk grows stronger.

Find out where you stand on the scale. Just click on the image below to go to the test. Were you surprised by the results?

 

My Cat is Cheating on Me

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I have only myself to blame, really. Tucker, the black and white cat I picked up at the Humane Society in a moment of animal weakness a year ago, has been cheating on us. I had thought he was just catting about. I assumed he was hunting the neighborhood for mice, a cat on the prowl, a man about town. I worried, sometimes, when he didn’t come home after

Injure the heart and the wound lasts a lifetime

dark. Our closest neighbor feeds the raccoons and keeps his own cat, Weed, in the house. But Tucker always made it home in the morning. I figured he expertly kept his distance from the raccoons and eagles, scurrying beneath the rose bushes and rhododendrons. I assumed he made a bed of dried ferns, piling up last year’s dead leaves, sleeping soundly in his little cat nest.

Sometimes he would come home only to be fed, meowing at the back door moments after he’d finished his Fancy Feast Savory Classic Salmon. This should have been a sign. I should have paid more attention. But I trusted him. I thought he just wanted to go out and play. I assumed he loved our family, imagining that even though it had been I that pointed to his little checkered face behind the bars, telling the overwhelmed Humane Society employee that I wanted that one and no other, that somehow Tucker had chosen me. That he wanted to be with our family above all others. That he would never want to live with another family.

I was wrong. I realize that now.

Our neighbors two doors down also have a cat–a short haired female with yellow eyes named Sophie. Sometimes, when I called Tucker, shaking dried food in his metal bowl (a last ditch effort I’d begun to use more and more) he’d come running from Sophie’s direction. A mere infatuation, I figured. A summer fling. It was Sophie, not her family of humans, that held his attention, I convinced myself.

After all, Sophie was a member of his own species. And so what if they touched noses in the lush grass in front of her human’s house? It wasn’t like he’d taken a liking to her humans?

Tucker has gained weight. I can’t deny it any longer. Even though I have carefully measured his food, following the Vet’s guidelines of “one mouse-sized portion” in the morning and one at night, no longer letting the fiend self-feed like the heady days of last summer, still he packed on the pounds. And still, it never dawned on me. Not once did I assume the worst. Not once did I admit the obvious: someone else, some other family, was feeding my cat.

So Saturday, sitting on the dock, with Tucker asleep under the lawn chair, we watched Sophie’s family get on their boat. Anyone living on the lake feels the end is nigh. Any sunny afternoon could be the last chance to take a cruise around the bay. People will start pulling their boats out of the water for the winter any day now.

Et tu, Brute?

We waved at our neighbors, talking about the weather and the kids’ first week of school, and the imminent change towards colder days. Their boat drifted towards us as we talked. One of the kids noticed Tucker, his eyes bulged open and he blurted out, “Your cat! Is the checkered cat your cat?”

I smiled and told them yes, figuring they must have seen Tucker courting their Sophie in the grass. Boys will be boys, after all. I shook my head and crossed my arms. Those darn cats.

Our neighbors all begin speaking at once. My eyes widened. Had I heard them right? They had assumed he was a stray. He came in their house? Like he was the King of the castle? The boys fed him saucers of milk? Something inside me just stopped. A ringing in my ears blotted out other sounds. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and yet there was no denying it. The evidence was all there. I smiled automatically as our neighbors took off; I think I waved before turning back to the cat.

He yawned and stretched his paw out at my foot, claiming me as his own. I shook him off. He wasn’t fooling me. I wasn’t born yesterday. No sirree. One part of me wanted to shoo him away. To tell him to go find Weed or Sophie or that dried leaf kitty nest I’d once imagined he frequented. Obviously he didn’t need me. He didn’t need us. All those mornings we’d spent together–me at my computer, him trying to sleep on my keyboard. I’d thought we had shared something. I thought what we had was special. But apparently not. Apparently what we had could be gotten anywhere. If I hadn’t plucked him from behind those kitty bars at the pound, he wouldn’t have been euthanized. Some other family would have chosen him.

But another part of me, that romantic side–the soft (call it feminine) part of myself that cries at Coke commercials and Obama speeches–wanted to believe in what we had. That part of me wanted to pick him up and hold him tight. To open a can of tuna and pour the entire contents in his bowl. To pour him saucer after saucer of milk warmed just enough to satisfy the deepest, most primal thirst for domestic kitty love on the planet.

Tucker looked up at me and meowed. Reading my thoughts no doubt. He jumped into my lap and purred. My heart melted a little. He pressed his head into my palm so I had to pet him. He started to drool, pieces of fur came loose and floated away on the breeze. He had cheated, and I would forgive him. The heart is a lonely place, sometimes.

Faux Outdoorsiness

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Early summer sunset over the Cascades

I am flipping through the Sundance catalog in a speedy staccato of magazine pages while sipping a cup of coffee. I don’t want to look at the pile of bills I’ve also retrieved from the mailbox, so instead I glance through the expensive litany of stylized offerings. A person could spend a lot of money to make herself and her home look rugged and outdoorsy. Mountain towns across the west are splattered with distressed barn wood siding and reclaimed flooring. Roofs are pre-rusted and copper gutters are pre-patinaed. Leather jackets and jeans come pre-faded now, rubbed soft by machines instead of greasy palms and cans of Copenhagen. I pick up another catalog full of Carhartt look-alikes (about three times as expensive as the originals). These, too, come pre-softened, complete with fake creases and a tool pocket just the right size for an iPhone.

I am not fooled. This faux outdoorsiness is not the same as the real thing. We want to feel rugged. But not live rugged. We just want to glimpse it from the comfort of our 700 thread-count sheets, not sleep on the ground with the dirt and the mosquitoes.

Camping in the Himalayas

Even as I write this, knowing that the sun will soon fade behind the gunmetal clouds of a PNW winter, I worry that I haven’t slept enough nights on the ground. I haven’t, yet, walked enough trail miles or surfed enough waves or flown enough bush miles. More nights than not this summer, I’ve slept in a comfortable bed. Not once has my puffy jacket saved my life, or have I drank water tinged with iodine. What’s next? Fake Carhartts?

I suppose, I could say I’ve challenged myself in other ways. Not every hike has to turn into an epic. Sometimes you make it home. I could remind myself that I’m not traveling away from my core so much as expanding it. I’m working on a new book; John and I flew to remote places in the Beaver; I rafted the Salmon River; I hiked miles and miles in the Cascades; I spoke to large groups about taking risks and getting through hardship just 15 minutes at a time; we’re saving up for that surf trip to Indonesia next month. This summer was more than just a chance to work-in those old canvas pants. It was an indoor-outdoor kind of summer. Sort of like that polyester carpet from the 70s.

But something inside me yearns for one more cool night under the stars with my hands wrapped around my faded Outward Bound coffee mug. I long to watch the sunset over jagged peaks and crawl into my sleeping bag knowing that I’ve done all that I can do–for the day, for the evening, and in the world. The weekend weather looks good for one more backpacking trip, and my down jacket could use another duct-tape patch or two.

Puffy jackets and coffee mugs

The catalog I have in my hands shows a pretty woman in a red dress and what look like very old cowboy boots that she found in her grandfather’s barn. Except they’re $450. She leans against a faded wood door hanging slightly off its hinges.  I have to admit. The dress is nice. It would be perfect for my friend’s outside wedding coming up in a few weeks. It would project that perfect mix of mountain girl and gauzy femme that my husband claims is my “style”.

By ordering from the catalog I could avoid a trip to the mall. Instead I could drag my husband out for one last night out under the stars.

I pick up the phone and dial the number at the bottom of the page, press my finger against the style number and wait to be connected.