My 2021 Ski Season
Here we are at the summer solstice, and I can confidently say that my 2021 ski season is a wrap. It was truly a special season for me, not just in terms of volume (62 days touring, 5 lift-served days), but more significantly in the quality of my experiences. My season took some unexpected twists and turns, but in the end, I ended up right where I expected. Here is the story of my 2021 ski season, a season to remember.
La Niña held the promise of a cold, snowy winter. Here in the PNW, we know to take seasonal forecasts with a grain of salt; there would be the periodic rain events and dry spells, despite climatology. But the excitement in the community was undeniable. And ski season started with a bang – we were touring all across the Cascades by late November. Usually we are just trying to not core shot our skis at this time, but instead we were skiing couloirs and farming stable powder. At a time of year that can feel frustrating and depressing in the Cascades, we were given grace.
I came into the ski season with an overuse knee injury from the fall. This injury has followed me throughout the season and been a constant annoyance. It limited my ability to train by running and often made my knees feel weak when booting or skiing heavy snow. But I was so grateful to be able to ski again and give my knees time to heal. I could not have asked for a better year for ski season to start early. Gratitude – this is a common theme I will come back to.
An early start to ski season naturally meant an early start to ski mountaineering season. By December, we were itching for objectives and bigger lines. Call it greed, call it wanderlust, call it seasonal confusion. We had a few wonderful adventure days like the Commonwealth Triple Double and Chair Peak Adventure Zone. But the most memorable early season day was definitely the Big Chiwaukum Couloir. It was my first time really trying to go ski a more remote objective at this time of year. It was intimidating to enter a snowpack with fewer observations and more unknowns. But the level of adventure was a step up from what I had experienced before. Clouds threatened to ruin our day, but instead they elevated the day to greatness. It could not have been any more perfect. Pure magic.
In late January, I had to undergo another followup mouth surgery, cleaning up problems from my original facial surgery after Sloan. It set me out two weeks as I anxiously watched the best alpine ice climbing conditions of the season slip by. Part of me wanted to get back out there on the ice, but honestly, part of me was content to avoid any alpine ice climbing all winter. I wanted to prove to myself I was ready to get back at it, but I really wasn’t sure. It was hard to be honest with myself, but everyone heals at different rates and there should never be any expectation of a timetable for recovering from a traumatic experience. It is okay to not be okay – or in this case, to just be a coward and ski easy pow.
Despite the early season snowfall, La Niña had up until this point been hit or miss. February brought the true arrival of La Niña. The storms started rolling in day after day and snow piling up. I was skiing both weekend days and one night session each week, getting as much as I could after the two week hiatus. The passes frequently shut down, but if you could make it up there, the skiing was incredible. A real cold spell hit in late February, there was a lowland snow event, and it went absolutely blower in the mountains. It was the deepest, lightest snow I have ever skied. Could this really be the PNW? Cascade Concrete, eh? La Niña delivered.
But all roses have a thorn, and our thorn this season was a persistent weak layer. The dry period during late January allowed a weak faceted layer to develop. Then February into early March brought prodigious snowfall, cold temperatures, and strong wind. Avalanche forecasters started warning of an extremely rare deep persistent weak layer present throughout the Cascades. Ironically, we were finally hoping for a rain event to help the snowpack heal, but by this point, the weak layer was buried 10 ft down.
It was frustrating to deal with such an abnormal avalanche problem in the PNW. Certain periods were more active, but for over a month, the layer just would not heal. During peak danger periods, historic avalanches broke, running through old growth trees, across highways, leaving destruction everywhere. Honestly, it is a miracle that the community only had one avalanche death this winter with such historic, unique conditions. There was a close call in the Alpental Valley where a 12 ft deep avalanche broke randomly in the middle of the night. Had it gone during the day, it likely would have taken out dozens of recreationists. Even though I was not there that day, it felt like a close call for me and really everyone, because it was a place that most of us would not have really thought twice about visiting, especially with no specific trigger for the avalanche.
When I looked at myself and others from a distance, it was easy to see how greedy we were to be complaining about avalanche conditions when there was so much unusually good powder lying around. Take what the mountains give you. After all, when I started skiing, I never had any expectations to ski big lines in winter avalanche conditions. So I passed the touchy times farming low angle powder, hopping off bumps in the trees, trying to ski with as much stoke and style as I could. Although this was my fifth ski season, it was really the first season where I truly felt like a skier. Up until this point, I was just someone who used skis as a means to an end. But this was the year where I started to feel one with the movement, where the movement became less about survival and more about expression. Some of my favorite days were lame little laps in the trees, skiing hard with style, and pushing myself with other sendy friends. It was not about fitness, or adventure, or ego. It was simply about joy. It was like we were kids again, running through the playground, the giant wonderland of the Cascades.
Even during a La Nina winter, there were still plenty of marginal days. I have learned so much more about predicting snow conditions and have also gotten better at taking rest days when conditions are uninspiring. Skiing generates a lot of FOMO because conditions are so fleeting and unpredictable. Sometimes I would second guess my choice to skip a day of skiing. But over the course of a season, what is one more so-so day of tree skiing in low visibility? With a season as long as ours, we have to pace ourselves. While the terrain out here may seem infinite, our energy and stoke is not. But it can be moderated, replenished, and saved for the days we need it most.
Just when it seemed we would never leave behind this wicked persistent weak layer, it passed. And just like that, high pressure rolled in and we flocked to the alpine. We skied the blood-pumping, nerve-wracking NW Couloir of Shuksan – what a way to return to avalanche terrain! The Rock Howard Mastiff Traverse gave us a taste of spring ski traverses, priming the appetite. And Ruby Mountain felt like falling in love, over and over, with the North Cascades.
When I look back on my entire season, the frustrating period of dangerous avalanche conditions feels so short and transient in the grand scheme of things. But in the moment, it can feel like it will last forever. A narrow minded view of the present can induce riskier behavior and irrational decision making. In a way, this avalanche problem was like a gift to me, a gift of patience and perspective. This too shall pass. The mountains will always be there for us, maybe even sooner than we dare dream.
In early April, my ski season took an unexpected turn. Daniel had invited me to stay with him for a week near Smith Rock to work remotely and climb. I thought it was a good opportunity to avoid some of our mush season in the mountains and take a break from skiing. In reality, it turned out to be an Oregon Volcano tour. A 13 hour push of the Three Sisters Traverse would ultimately turn out to be my cleanest performance of the entire season – a perfect execution of this big traverse with a complete stranger.
I am so grateful for all my talented partners and our abilities to team up for epic objectives. Honestly, sometimes it feels like an embarrassment of riches to have so many proficient and eager partners, when just two years ago, I had to tour by myself because I really had no one. I have so many great partners that I cannot give each of them as much time as they deserve, but I try my best to always be present and positive and give them my best version of myself. It has made me acutely aware of inequities in access; because of the people I know (and the people who know me), I have access to the latest conditions reports, route beta, and partners. Finding a way to share some of those benefits with others is a good thing. In particular this year, I have made an effort to connect people who are eager to get out and might be compatible together. This mountain match-making has been very successful and it makes me happy to see people forming new relationships when I cannot provide my time and attention.
Up until this point, my knees had not given me much trouble. But with more booting required during ski mountaineering objectives and a sprinkling of trail running, my knees started hurting again. Snowking provided one of the best sunsets and sunrises of my life, but the steep hiking with a heavy pack was no good. Suddenly, it was painful to walk up and down the stairs at home. My injury was back. It was frustrating. I felt like I had followed my PT’s advice and done most things right. I had six months to heal and still could not handle a little trail running and booting. How was I going to run and hike this summer, let alone finish ski mountaineering season?
This was a reckoning period for me. I realized I needed to be more deliberate with increasing my running vert. I needed to be more judicious about hiking in rough terrain to ski objectives. I needed to give more days to rest and recover before and after big days. I am not indestructible like I was in the past.
I took it easy for a few weeks, recovering my ski stoke and rediscovering my rock stoke just in time for summer. Then Washington Pass opened and provided me with the perfect opportunity to keep skiing from the car, minimizing the impact on my body.
I had skied a few times at WA Pass previously, but this year felt like discovering a new, magical place. The terrain around Highway 20 is so steep, beautiful, and aesthetic. Over the course of just over a week, I spent five days in this skimo paradise, pushing beyond the classics, becoming intimate with under explored little nooks and crannies, linking lines and soaking in the never ending views. The Life is Good Tour felt like a streamlined, sexy creation, while shredding the Buttcrack Butt Naked felt like a skimo comedy. From one side of the highway, we spotted a beautiful line on the other side, beckoning for adventure – witness Whistler Mountain. By the end of the period, Highway 20 felt like another Snoqualminix to me, just bigger and more beautiful, yet still homely. Just when the injury was draining my stoke, I let myself be inspired by a place, and the wonderful people I got to share it with.
If my 2021 ski season was really many little seasons within a bigger season, then I was done with my WA Pass season and rapidly approaching the crescendo of my season. The Wasatch Boys were in town and so I pitched to them my Snoqualmie Haute Route: an epic ski traverse from Snoqualmie Pass to US2. I dreamt it up last fall. It is one of those ideas that feels so big and scary that part of you never wants to attempt it, but another part needs to attempt it. For is there any worse feeling than leaving a question mark like this unanswered?
For the first third of the Haute Route, it was going too well – my drawn up route was working efficiently and playing the aspects perfectly. Then I broke one ski, and then both of them. Limping through a massive day like this with broken skis made for one of the most challenging days I have had in the mountains. I had to dig deeper than I have dug in a long time. But the team pulled through and finished strong. This is a day I am deeply proud of. We likely became the first people ever to ski from Snoqualmie Pass to Hinman and out to US2 in a single push. Will was certainly the first splitboarder to ever do so.
My ski season was reaching a climax, but there was still one thing left to do: a big overnight traverse in the North Cascades. KJ and I had been planning the Easy Pass to Cascade Pass Traverse for the entire year and miraculously, the Memorial Day weather obliged.
The Easy to Cascade Pass Traverse was by far the most continuously stunning ski traverse I have ever done, and quite possibly the most scenic trip I have ever done of any kind. It traveled through the Heart of the North Cascades, weaving through peaks and glaciers, visiting remote places I had dreamt of for many years. The actual skiing conditions were generally bad, but I honestly did not care that much. In retrospect, what I remember is the sweeping views, the morning alpenglow, and the calm evenings spent at camp with good friends. After zooming through so many day trips, it felt so fitting to slow down, sit still, and just take it all in – the scenery, the experiences, the resolution of an unforgettable ski season.
Five years ago, I decided I was going to learn to ski. My journey into ski mountaineering has been challenging and rewarding beyond all expectations. My goals as a skier have evolved, but I think this year encapsulates just about everything I dreamed of. Ski season now occupies the majority of my year. It has given me a new way of moving in the mountains and a new way of envisioning my experiences. As crazy as it sounds, it is hard to imagine life without it anymore. Sometimes I wonder if I am no longer “Climber Kyle” but rather “Skier Kyle”. Does it even matter? What good does it do to put myself in a box? Really, I am just seeking to move through the mountains in a way that feels natural and in tune with the seasons. Reflections like these fill me with gratitude for the people who gave me the opportunities to pursue this wild sport.
When I look back on my 2021 ski season, I see a story with a whole lot of ups and only a few downs. I see many beautiful chapters – an early season surprise, a powder frenzy, a historic avalanche cycle, a recurring injury, and primo skimo. I feel gratitude, satisfaction, resilience, belonging, and most of all, joy. I fully recognize that I may never have another ski season that eclipses 2021 from a wholistic perspective. There are certain periods in life where you get this sneaking feeling that you are in the midst of something truly special. In those moments, you should let yourself be fully immersed and ride the wave as it crests and falls. But afterwards, I believe it is worthwhile to look back and reflect, appreciate, and treasure those special periods of life. Perhaps it is the very fact that they are so fleeting that makes them last forever in our hearts.
Here’s to the 2021 ski season, a season to remember.
To greater heights, to unforgettable sights.
The only way is up.