The Loss Column
I have a concession to make: I lost.
I am not even sure what I lost, or to whom. Is there even a winner? What does it mean to win? Is this even a competition? Who am I competing against? I just feel like I lost something.
All I am sure of is this: it feels like the Pacific Northwest has given me one giant middle finger this ski season.
The winter began with so much promise – a double dip La Niña, impressive snowfall in early November. A six-peat of Pineapple Expresses erased that dream of another “Miracle November”, but we had to remind ourselves that it was, after all, still November. “Patience” became our mantra, until we were still uttering those words three months later.
After a truly special period of powder skiing around Christmas, “winter” was a no-show. Even that brief glorious period was mired by my car hood mysteriously flying open while cruising down I90, an omen of the weirdness to come. January and February rolled through, dry and warm, crusty and dusty. It is well known that skiing here can be rather inconsistent, so I played the “patience” card and went trail running, ice climbing, and cross country skiing. Having moved to Issaquah, I bought a weeknight pass for Snoqualmie, but night skiing disappointed with one evening after another of awful refreezing crust in a dense fog on moguled “groomers”. Forecasters kept promising that the next cycle would deliver big, but by late February, the snowpack continued to rot. Is it too late to be praising a warm storm as “good base building snow” in early March?
My experience this winter has been unique because of a myriad of personal challenges. My Grandpa passed away at the end of January. We were close and he helped inspire a love of music in me. I have been frequently spending days at a time with my Grandma over on the Kitsap Peninsula, a two hour journey from door to door. From January to April, I was spending multiple hours per week studying and practicing coding interviews for a job switch, which is a stressful process for Software Engineers. In addition, I had increased responsibility at my current job and more early morning meetings, restricting my flexibility for dawn or dusk patrols. And it was also my first season being back in a long term relationship. My girlfriend Kelly also had a rough winter (too much breakable crust night skiing at Snoqualmie) and decided she was basically done skiing midway through February. I did not have a good ski day for a few months during this period. I am someone who likes to feel like they control their own destiny, but this season just felt out of my control. My internal locus of control felt like it was slipping away. Pessimism entrenched itself in my mind. Last winter, with its endless powder and zero obligations, could not have felt further away.
This winter has been a huge adjustment for me. I went from the guy who would always say “yes” to the guy who always seemed to have something else going on. My friends even stopped asking if I could go skiing on the weekends because they knew the answer would be no. And every time I would consider going skiing I asked myself:
“Is it really worth skiing this weekend? I’m sure it’ll be better in a few weeks… Maybe I should go visit my Grandma. Or spend the weekend with Kelly. Oh, and I really need to study more for interviews…”
The pull of responsibilities and expectations is strong. Maybe it is just “adulthood”. Maybe it is just part of some growing up I need to do. Isn’t life just going to get even more hectic, with more responsibilities, as I get older? But it is mentally taxing to always be weighing the opportunity costs of my decisions. And I fully realize that these obligations – family, work, relationships – are blessings that many people would wish to have. Yet I cannot help feeling envious of others who are free to chase conditions, fly around the country at last minute’s notice, and never have to worry about obligations to other people or their future self. I remember being like that. But certain things – like wanting to advance my career, being a supportive partner – are choices that I have made, choices that I believe will pay dividends in the long run. The key is keeping the gaze on the horizon and not getting lost in the frustration that lies in front of you.
I also understand that some of my frustration comes from comparing this season to last season. As I wrote about, last ski season was truly special for me. Conditions were amazing, my timing was impeccable, and I had the stoke and freedom to live out my ski dreams. After such an incredible season, I knew I should have been prepared for a let down. This season, we had wildly inconsistent conditions, my timing was impeccably awful, and my stoke was slowly crushed with each missed weather window. How do you cherish these wonderful periods of your past without letting them ruin your enjoyment of the present? It is a challenge I will continue to work on.
If not for some trips to Canada, Alaska, and California, I would have felt my ski season was a complete failure. I am incredibly grateful for these trips. With more of the world opening up again, I prioritized seeing new places and made these trips happen. It is not that these places held universally better snow; I actually skied the worst snow of the season in Canada and California. But each of those trips felt like a fresh start, freeing me from the frustrations and negative emotions back home. Each trip felt like a mini ski season in itself, far removed from the baggage that pulled me down in the PNW.
In my endless attempt to optimize my schedule, I planned my escape from the PNW during April, a notoriously bad month for skiing here. Instead, because of these trips and a poorly timed contraction of COVID, I missed out on April – most of the good skiing 2022 has had to offer in the Cascades. It felt like just another slap in the face from our local mountains. I have just felt so out of rhythm, rusty, out of shape, two steps behind. My short adventure to ski the North Couloir of McClellan Butte (the coolest thing I have skied in Washington all season, which is rather sad to admit) is a microcosm of the season: my schedule was dictated by numerous interviews and I got to McClellan just a few hours after all the glorious powder had turned to mank. Once again, I missed the train.
I would be lying if I did not admit that social media and skiing culture has not worsened my mindset this season. It is funny, because others have remarked that my Instagram makes it seem like I do not even have a job, while contrarily it feels like I am focusing most of my energy on my career and I hardly ever ski anymore! I guess I perpetuate the problem also. It feels like there is a propensity in skiing culture to glorify conditions, brag about powder (but not share their location – that’s a whole different topic), and create a sense of scarcity. Some people publicly count their ski days, and naturally those are the people that ski the most, so the rest of us feel like we are no skiing enough. Skiing is so condition dependent, and if you scroll Instagram or Strava, it will inevitably seem that the best snow is one state away, or even just one day away, and you missed out. It is so easy to get caught up in the rush and feel that FOMO, sitting on the sidelines. I certainly felt that way frequently this winter, choosing people over skiing. There is so much more to life than skiing, and I dislike the part of skiing culture that ignores that. It is a good thing to challenge yourself in new ways, stay multi dimensional, and cultivate growth.
I debated not writing this because I know that I will just seem whiny and privileged to some people. And I certainly am. It feels wrong to have these feelings when nations are getting invaded and family members need support. But the mountains have become an important part of my identity, for better or for worse, and so inevitably I will face challenges like this. I know that others have felt similar conflicts too and it is not going away so easily. No matter what our ability level is, how much we ski, or how hard we ski, we can still face the same struggles. I believe it is unhealthy to invalidate our own feelings – or others’ feelings, for that matter. Instead, it is better to acknowledge feelings and begin to unpack them, as I am trying to do.
I know that skiing is not a competition between me and the mountain or me and others, but I just feel defeated. That is the most disappointing part. I am not the best athlete or most talented skier or strongest climber – what separates me is my mindset. I am usually able to stay one step ahead. I can remain positive and see the opportunities through the fog. I have a vision of where I am headed and I execute the plan to perfection. This season, I have lost that edge. I felt it return briefly, first in Canada, then Alaska, then California. But here in Washington, everything about this season just wore me down. It was not a defeat in the mountains, but a defeat in the mind – self defeat.
Perhaps these were the real losses:
I let myself make unfair comparisons between this season and last season, when circumstances were much different.
I had unrealistic expectations of skiing for my partner Kelly.
I compared myself too much to other people who have fewer responsibilities and different lifestyles.
I put too much faith in long term forecasting and statistical normalities.
I placed too much pressure on myself to sustain a high level of success in the mountains.
I struggled to accept the many parts of my life that I do not control.
But with every loss, there were also many victories:
I spent time with my family when they needed me.
I was a supportive and understanding partner for Kelly.
I got multiple job offers and landed a job I am very excited about.
I maintained the friendships that were important to me.
I got to travel to and ski in some incredible places.
Kelly and I both discovered an enjoyment of skate skiing.
I had a successful ice climbing season, lead a bunch of climbs, and even completed an alpine climb.
I am in better running shape than I was a year ago, thanks to the Issaquah Alps. I have come to appreciate the Issy Alps, my backyard, more and more.
Now we are seemingly stuck in an endless winter, just when we were hoping for spring sun and corn. The irony – and cruelty – of this season continues. With a fat snowpack and cool temps for the foreseeable future, you might wonder why I am throwing in the towel so early. It is not that I am done skiing for the year. But I am conceding the season. I am giving up on the game. I am tired of playing it. Honestly, it feels relieving to admit defeat. I have two weeks off coming up between jobs (for those curious, my next job will be at a startup called Rupa Health) and I doubt there will be much corn and epic ski mountaineering like I had dreamed, but I will make the most of it. First, I will be in the Methow Valley for Kelly’s race. Then I will be heading down to Smith Rock with Daniel, pretending to be “Climber” Kyle once again, trying to evade rain in the Oregon Desert. Sure, I will bring skis, and maybe a few ski days will be in the cards, but I am zeroing my expectations. Anything will be a victory. Everything will be a victory.
Happiness = Reality – ExpectationsTom Magliozzi
To the outside eye, it may seem like I have been up to business like usual, but I feel quite differently. This season has been humbling, frustrating, and complicated. There is so much more to life than just mountains, and I feel like I have grown more out of them than in them recently. My dad used to always tell me that we learn more in defeat than victory. He meant that for eight year old Kyle, but I guess it still applies today.
To greater heights, to unforgettable sights.
The only way is up.