Kiteboarding: A lesson in humility

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Adventurous types are often defined by their sports and extreme activities. Just take a look at their Instagram feeds. They read something like this: “Check me out. I’m a skier/surfer/knife juggler/fire dancer/world traveler/eater of bizarre-looking food/arranger of well-filtered photos/lover of large, inquisitive-looking dogs.”

I’m pretty much in the same boat. Looking back at my drop in the social media bucket, my biggest splashes are ski related. And a few other summer sports thrown in for good measure. While I don’t introduce myself at parties with a handshake and an “I’m a skier” sticker plastered to my forehead, I realize that it sort of defines me. At least in social media, because here’s a newsflash. Writers like me have blogs and FB accounts and Twitter feeds and an online presence so that when Random House Googles our name because they want to offer us a contract and a big advance for our upcoming novel, they can actually find something about us. (Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself, that all this time on the Internet is really work-related).

My good side

My good side

This only begins to explain why trying a new sport is so humbling. Especially a sport like kiteboarding. Especially when all of a sudden everyone and their grandmother is taking up kiteboarding and exclaiming it to be an elevator ride to nirvana. “You haven’t tried kiteboarding? Ohmygod. It’s the best. It’s amazing. It’s like flying. It’s like flying on heroin. It’s like flying on heroin while simultaneously saving a baby whale.”

So, of course I had to try it. My husband and I both had to try it. Because just like some of the best things in life (ahem, this is a family post here people, get your mind out of the gutter), kiteboarding is best done with someone you love. Someone who isn’t better at it than you. At least not yet anyways.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there exists a small island surrounded by a beautiful lagoon and ringed by a corral reef. This island sits in the path of the trade winds. This island’s country, in an effort to promote tourism, subsidizes cheap flights from Aukland and L.A.  And for some reason, when you search the all-knowing Internet about the world’s best places to kiteboard, this island is never on the list. This island is Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.

Aitutaki is a beginning kiteboarder’s dream. The water is warm. The winds are cranking. You can stand on the soft sand as you repeatedly attempt to fly the kite and get up on the board and there’s no one else around to watch you fail. At least not in May.

Learning to kiteboard isn’t easy. First of all, you have to fly the kite. You don’t want to crash it, although I did that. Numerous times. And you want to keep the kite flying but not so hard that you Jesus-walk out of your board and across the water and face plant hard enough to turn your mouth and nose into a sluice box for the lagoon water to flume down. At the end of five days of perfect winds our little group of kiteboarders voted me Most Spectacular Crasher. So I have that going for me. Which is nice.

By the second day I was actually up. I was kiting. I was even cutting upwind a little. For a brief second, I actually achieved a mini-nirvana. No singing angels or anything. No laughing Buddhas. But just an itty bitty moment of flow when I was flying and boarding all at once.

Just learning to fly the kite is sort of double black diamond

I lost these sunglasses soon after

On my right side that is. In board sports I’m goofy-footed, and attempting a reach to the left is like trying to rub my stomach and pat my head while alternately raising each eyebrow one at a time. No matter how many mouthfuls of water I swallowed, no matter how many times I supermaned into the coral and cut the dickens out of my fingers, even after loosing my sunglasses and with snot pouring out of my nose, I kept after those lefts. You can’t just kiteboard one direction. That’s the thing about this sport. Like with sailing or windsurfing or even skiing. At some point, you have to turn and go the other way.

Attempting a left

Attempting a left

So I sort of beat myself up out there. I kited each day until my beer light was on amber. And sometimes even after that amber turned to a dangerous red light that usually means I must stop all activity and open the nearest beer and sit down and nurse my wounds. And yet I never really got it.

I mean I got it a little bit. I made a few downwind-ish reaches to the left. Once I actually stopped on my own accord that didn’t end in a spectacular crash. But I never really got it. I never turned. I never felt that look-at-me-mom-I’m-really-doing-it rush I was hoping for.

Instead I practiced humility. The diaper-like harness was cutting a nasty wedgy into my board shorts. The salt water stung my eyes. I was cut and bruised and waterlogged. But knowing just how fickle the wind can be, that sports like kiteboarding require the perfect ingredients of wind, water and waves, I kept trying. And I’m pretty sure I made the fish and the sea slugs chuckle. Silly human.

So please don’t invite me to go kiting with you in Hood River (although thanks for thinking of me). Not just yet anyways. I’m not ready to prime time, and I guess I’m okay with that. I wouldn’t even mind returning to Aitutaki again. Roundtrip tickets from LA to Rarotonga are only $800 on Air New Zealand. And maybe that’s what’s required: another trip to this beautiful island where the sand is soft and forgiving and the people are lovely and there’s no one else for miles to watch me fall flat on my face.

Getting Accidentally Stranded on a Desert Island

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There will have to be great sunsets on my deserted island

Copper colored sunsets are a prerequisite on my deserted island

I’m not much of a long term planner. I’m more of a winger. Or a wingnutter. Or, as I like to say, a spontaneity buff. 

And when I (or we, because my husband is nearly as guilty as I am of this) do make plans for the future–broad notions that may or may not require a zip code change–they usually don’t last long. These plans don’t stick. One minute we think we’re ready to pick up stakes and move to Montana, and then we look at each other and say, “Who are we kidding?”

It’s sort of like trying on a million bikinis to see if there’s just one that doesn’t make you look fat. But at the very least, we get to entertain some interesting life plans. And, we get to travel well.

Travel plans are made last minute around our house. It’s dumping snow in Japan? We’re on a plane to Niseko in 24 hours. Need some beach time to dry out our cold, wet winter bones? We book a trip for the following week to Aitutaki, an island in the middle of a turquoise lagoon in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

So even with this spontaneity-fueled planning strategy, I’m making plans anyways. Can you see me? Here I am making a plan. A real-life, honest-to-God plan for the future. Ready?

I’m planning on getting accidentally stranded on a deserted island.

All I need are these coconut trees, this blue sky and this white sandy beach.

All I need are these coconut trees, this blue sky and this white sandy beach.

I realize this begs the question: how can you plan to accidentally do anything? I don’t have an answer for that. But what I do know is that the right deserted island could be a great place to spend, oh I don’t know, a month, a year, the rest of our life.

Of course not just any deserted island will work for me. It’s going to need a few essentials. Number one, my husband has to make the journey with me. It worries me a little because every time I mention this new plan, he sort of cocks his head like he didn’t hear me quite right.

Him: Where is this again?

Me: On our deserted island. Remember?

Him: Oh. Yeah.

Me: Anyways, it will definitely need coconuts, I think. Lots so them.

Him: Okay.

Me: And maybe some limes. I think limes are important.

Him: Limes?

Me: For the margaritas. and the ika mata*. That way we don’t have to rely on matches and fire. In case it rains. Which, hopefully it does rain some. For drinking water.

That’s when John just looks at me funny. Then he says, “What was this for again?”

I don’t think John realizes how serious I am. Because I’ve really thought this one through. Just look at coconuts for example. You can pretty much survive on coconuts. The green ones are full of coconut water, which is like regular water on steroids. And the brown ones are full of delicious coconut flesh. Is that what it’s called? Coconut flesh? That seems weird. But coconut meat isn’t any better. It’s just coconut. But it’s amazing. The trunks are wrapped in a sort of cloth that could be great for making shelter for when it rains (and rain is kind of important on an island that doesn’t have a lake, or a stream, or creek, or anything other than sandy beach.) And in case I decide I need to wear clothes on our deserted island those discarded coconuts make a great bra. Plus, Cook Islanders have found a way to turn the palm branches into an excellent broom. So, with the coconut alone, we could have most of our needs met. I’m pretty sure that the hierarchy of needs goes something like this: Water, food, shelter, cleanliness. And then maybe wine. And the Internet.

But we probably won’t have the Internet on our island. And that’s okay. I’m willing to make some sacrifices here. Wine though? That would be harder to give up.

Maybe some swashbuckling Johnny Depp-type pirates left a case of rum buried in the sand of our deserted island (because let’s face it, who doesn’t want a little Johnny Depp on their island?) That would be okay. I could work with rum. It goes well with coconut. And lime.

Truth be told, I actually have found my perfect deserted island. It’s a motu just off Aitutaki. It’s called Honeymoon Island, and it’s a favorite with the newlywed set. And with kiteboarders. And tevake birds. They nest here and seem to have no fear of humans, as if they don’t have a care in the world. Which is important on a deserted island. You can’t really worry about all the Internet and peanut M&Ms that you’re missing.

It only took me 25 faceplants to get this one shot.

It only took me 25 faceplants to get this one shot.

And I’d be perfectly happy with this island. Especially if we also had a few kites, say a 5 meter for those days when the trades are cranking and say a 9 meter for the rest of the days when the trades are still kind of cranking. Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Don’t let it fool you. I owe it all to a few Aitutaki locals who are teaching us this elusive sport of kiteboarding while we fantasize about ways to claim this island for our own.

Come to think of it, kiteboarding is a crazy sport. It’s the latest thing. The new SUP, the cooler version of windsurfing, the less hostile version of surfing, the current sport, the fastest-growing-watersport-etc, etc, etc. But after a few days it seems like a more difficult version of wakeboarding. Because you’re also flying a kite at the same time. But it’s fun in that sort of how-many-sports-can-I-simultaneously-do-at-once-while-making-it-appear-absolutely-effortless sort of way. It’s frustrating enough to make you want to keep doing it, just to prove to yourself that you can.

Maybe I will revise my aforementioned future plan just a tick. Perhaps John and I can make an annual pilgrimage to our deserted island once a year and play with these kites and boards and pretend that we are taking up this challenging new sport, when in reality we just want to come back to our deserted island and pretend that we live on coconuts and rum. Maybe that’s what we’ll do.

See? That’s why I love you people. Because you help me focus on the truly important things. 

 

*The Cook Islands version of ceviche or poisson cru, a raw, lime-cured tuna concoction served in coconut milk that is so good it should probably have a sin tax on it.

Project Zero: An initiative to reduce avalanche fatalities

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projzerologoProject Zero, a collaborative effort by premiere avalanche forecasters and professionals in North America, is on a mission to reduce avalanche fatalities. Through crafting an effective safety message and a straightforward method for decision-making, they hope to educate all backcountry users to understand the risks in the backcountry and make better decisions to mitigate those risks.

This season, Project Zero launched Know the Snowa social media campaign that included a video contest aimed at engaging the lift-served backcountry skier and rider. You can find out more about the contest winners here

Crystal Mountain SouthbackLocal videographer Jacob Hase won fifth place for his video based at Crystal Mountain. On his vimeo page, Jacob describes the video as, “a day trip into the Crystal Mountain Washington back country with additional avalanche beacon training. Video is narrated by Crystal Mountain ski patroller Kim Kircher.”

As many of you know, Crystal Mountain is a great launching pad for backcountry terrain. Not only do we have the hike-to controlled Southback, but numerous true backcountry lines nearby as well.

Many of those lines can be accessed from the lifts. With the current phase of Project Zero focussing on lift-served backcountry, Crystal terrain is a perfect fit for Project Zero’s first initiative, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

Congratulations Jacob!

 

New and Improved Chair 6 for 2014-15 Season

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As promised, Crystal Mountain will rebuild Chair 6 this summer. The chair, formerly known as High Campbell, was demolished in an avalanche earlier this year. I happened to see it firsthand since I was on the avalanche team that set off the slide. It was an historic wet slab avalanche that slid well down onto Queens Run, the green circle groomer below the slide path. The avalanche occurred at 4:40pm on March 10th after the ski area was closed. If you’ve been to Crystal in the last month, then you’ve seen the destruction not just on The Throne, but in Bear Pits, Employee Housing and Powder Bowl. (During the same time that these explosive-released avalanches occurred at Crystal, natural avalanches of similar size were happening around us in Crystal Lakes Basin as well as on Governor’s Ridge, both in Mt. Rainier National Park.)

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

The new Chair 6 will be a new double chair made by Skytrac, the only American ski lift manufacturer. Both terminals will be in the same place as the old High Campbell chair. The old concrete footings for the towers will also be used, which will reduce cost and materials. The capacity will be the same as the old one, which means it won’t get tracked any faster.

The chairs themselves will be more than double the weight of the old chairs, which means that the new Chair 6 will operate better in high winds. John Kircher, my husband and Crystal’s GM, expects to run the new chair in higher winds. He says that winds exceeding the chair’s ability to run would be too strong for skiers and riders anyways. In addition, the unload area will be bigger and will ease the double black diamond offload of the old days.

Gazex Exploder

Gazex Exploder

Since we’ve got the helicopters hauling materials to the summit, we might as well make the most of it. Crystal is also installing three Gazex exploders in Powder Bowl to help mitigate avalanches. These exploders, ubiquitous in the Alps and relatively new to North America, use propane and oxygen to deliver a 360 degree blast. The mixing shed that houses the tanks will be at the summit of the Queen and the three exploders (which look like bent-over lift towers) will be spread out on the left side of Powder Bowl.

Another improvement slated for the top of the new Chair 6 is–get this–snowmaking! We won’t be installing the snowmaking this summer due to some necessary environmental work, but we hope to get it going for 2015-16. Gone will be the rock-hopping, ski/board removal and side-stepping of yore.

We are hoping to solve a myriad of problems with this new lift. Moments after that ill-fated avalanche ripped off The Throne over a month ago, I was sick to my stomach. We’d destroyed an iconic lift. We’d cost the company tons of money. An entire pod of skiing was done for the season. My husband wasn’t going to be happy with me.

But as it turns out, the insurance is covering the replacement cost and the new lift will be better than the old one. It will operate at higher winds; the off-load will more user-friendly; and it will give us a chance to install Gazex and snowmaking.

So things are looking up.

 

Maybe It’s Just Me

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CIMG8719Lately I’ve been seeing turds everywhere. I’m not referring here to “turds” in the abstract sense of angry commuters taking it out on other drivers just trying to get to work or even too-busy mothers yanking their kids through the cereal aisle.

I’m talking about real, live turds. The human excrement kind.

Recently I saw a frozen one on the floor of a gondola cabin. I was beside myself with disgust. There it was, smooshed into the diamond plate, hidden (almost) behind the seat, as if someone just thought it would be okay to lay a douce while being whisked to the top of the mountain in a cabin that cost more than a new Chevy truck.

I couldn’t believe it. Some people. I mean really.

Then yesterday, after being out of town, I got a little surprise at my front door. What at first sight appeared to be a red rag like the kind you get in bulk at a service station turned out to be a pair of maroon panties. With a turd in them.

I didn’t know what to think. Were people really crapping their pants and leaving it on my front door step? I immediately wondered if this was something personal. Was someone trying to send me or my husband a message here? That’s so out of bounds I don’t know where to start.

Later that day I was talking to Scott, the Mountain Manager at Crystal. He said, “remember when you texted me about the turd in the gondi cabin?”

How could I forget? I was so disgusted. You’ll never guess what I found in cabin 8, I’d texted. A turd. F***ing people.

Scott laughed. “Turns out it was a rolled up towel.”

“Someone crapped in a towel and left it in the gondola cabin?”

“No.” He smiled. “It was just a brown paper towel. All rolled up and shredded.”

I was relieved to hear this news. A flood of relaxing fluid flowed briefly through my body. Then I remembered the present I’d found at my door that morning.

As it turned out my neighbor was standing nearby. I recounted the latest turd news to both of them. I told them about the maroon panties with black lace, how I’d thought at first it was one of those cloth rags used to wipe a dipstick, how I realized with shock and horror that in fact that wasn’t just dirt encrusting those panties, how I wondered if maybe I should be taking this personally.

My neighbor nodded. “Nala.”

“Your dog?”

He nodded again. “She’s disgusting.”

Turns out Nala had been eating his girlfriend’s underwear, and sometimes he didn’t know about it until the evidence went through her entire digestive tract. It had become quite a problem. Nala had chewed and eaten most of his girlfriend’s underwear and they’d recently had to make a trip to Victoria’s Secret to restock.

Needless to say, that might be a problem for Nala, but I was quite relieved.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe when you suddenly see turds everywhere you have to stop and take a good, hard look at yourself and wonder if maybe its time to put those rose-colored glasses back on.

Or perhaps I’m just ready for some good old spring skiing. This isn’t anything that slush bumps and perfect corn can’t fix. The forecast for the next few days looks perfect for continuing the current corn cycle. In fact, I think its about time to get out there and sample the goods.

 

 

Are Extreme Sports Too Risky?

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Each one of us has our own risk/reward calculus. Or perhaps we just weigh risk differently. Some people feel the sharp tang of risk just taking a stroll in the woods. Others can surf 30 foot waves or free-solo El Cap without breaking much of a sweat.

Chuck Patterson catches some air

Chuck Patterson catches some air

Regardless of where a person is on the risk continuum, others are always standing by to put that person in a box. Thrill-seekers take too many risks for their sport, say some. The risk-averse aren’t truly living, say others.

Since when did we care so much about the risks (or the lack thereof) that other people take?

The New York Times recently published an article about the risks in extreme sports. The author cites the soaring popularity of extreme sports and claims that, “many young people eager for an adrenaline rush are trying to copy their extreme sports idols, putting themselves at terrible risk.”

Injuries related to extreme sports are on the rise, and the participants are younger than ever. Overall, the author of the article urges participants to use safety equipment—especially helmets. The article quotes Dr. Sabesan, an orthopedic surgeon from Western Michigan School of Medicine, who recently presented her findings on a study about head and neck injuries in extreme sports. Her advice to parents of young rippers is to require “children who skateboard to wear a helmet and elbow and wrist guards.” She also recommends that snowboarders wear wrist guards and that the participants for other activities wear a helmet.

This debate has been going on for some time. Most people seem to agree that children should wear helmets, either because they are too young to decide for themselves or because they are too impulsive and tend to take bigger risks.

Motorcycle fatalities on the rise

Motorcycle fatalities on the rise

But what about adults? Should adults be required to wear a helmet while skiing or riding a motorcycle? Another recent article in New York Times cites a study that as motorcycle helmet laws are weakening, deaths are increasing.

Should we require helmets like we do seat belts? What about at ski areas? Legislated helmet use at ski areas is on the rise. Should we require our customers to strap on a helmet when they strap on their skis or board?

It would certainly help reduce head injuries.

But should we require it? Or should adults have the choice? I wear a helmet. But does that mean I make my friends wear one?

We’re all adults here. We should decide for ourselves. Even if helmet use could guarantee a safe landing, should we force people to wear one? I don’t know. I always get a little squeamish when I hear about requiring helmets.

Readers, what do you think? Should helmets be required? What are the pros and cons of legislating safety equipment? Is there a difference between making kids wear one versus adults?

What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Chairlift?

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“What were your immediate thoughts when you realized the avalanche was so big?”

That’s a question I heard a lot yesterday.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

On Monday I was on the avalanche control team that demolished the High Campbell Chairlift (aka Chair 6). We knew there was a potential for a big slide. Other slopes had slid to the ground in the past 24 hours. The skier’s right side of Powder Bowl had produced a full-depth avalanche and left a 10 foot crown. The Employee Housing slide path produced another big one. The snowpack was saturated with over 3 inches of rain. A weak depth hoar layer still lurked at the ground.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

But we didn’t know it was going to go this big.

Sure, we made sure no one was below. We lowered our 25 lb. explosive well after hours. We worried that our results could be big. But I never thought we’d destroy the lift.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

Talking to the old time patrollers who managed these slopes decades ago, nothing of this size has ever slid before. Maybe back in the pre-Crystal, pre-skier-compacted days this kind of thing happened. But not since Crystal has operated at a ski area.

So what did it feel like to let loose such a big slide?

Scary.

Seeing a big avalanche up close is an awesome thing. There’s nothing like it. As soon as the shot went off, my route partners and I ( we were a team of three women that my husband now calls the Three Shivas) knew it was big. We approached the ridge and looked down. The avalanche was just separating from the slope and noisily tearing down the mountain. At first all I heard was a low whoosh. Then a deep rumble. Next I heard the terrible sound of trees snapping. Finally I heard the sound of twisting metal.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

The visibility was poor so we only had the noise to go on. And it was horrifying.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Outside of our boundaries large natural avalanches have been happening. When we decided to use explosives on The Throne, we all knew the consequences. But it was much better to destroy a lift when it was closed than to risk an avalanche when it was opened and occupied. We didn’t have a choice. Upper management knew the risk too, and my husband was all in. We had to do this thing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, watching an avalanche is awesome, in the sense of massive and awe-inspiring. Seeing the aftermath yesterday with our first clear skies in weeks was horrifying.

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

All day yesterday we continued to test the slopes with large explosives. We dropped charges from a helicopter and hung them on trams. But we got virtually no results. Does that mean the slopes are now safe?

It means I slept better last night. The snowpack is adjusting to its load. We aren’t out of the woods yet. If we get a big rain event, this could happen again.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

We are contracting our terrain at Crystal. What is open has been deemed safe. Don’t duck any ropes and respect all closures. Now isn’t the time for backcountry skiing either. Let’s remember who’s calling the shots here, it’s Mother Nature.

Here’s some footage of the Throne avalanche and it’s aftermath. This video is courtesy of patroller Andy Harrington.