Follow your own path

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We had been through dense pine trees for over an hour when we finally hit the snow line. Mount. Lassen towered thousands of feet above us, more uneven than it should have been after a dull winter across the West. It was mid-May and the volcanoes season was upon us. As with any good spring skiing mission, it would be a bit of everything, choked with a good dose of patience.

A micro decision after the next. The team discusses how to cross the ravine. [Photo] Liz Fontaine

I stood by the ravine with my ski partners Kelly and Liz as we weighed our myriad of options. Do we descend into a ravine to our right so that we can graze the dirty, sunny snow that winds through the gut? Were we going to keep walking through the dirt and the plots and maintain our heights? Were we going to bootpack on the snow in front of us or transition now and skin through? Spring skiing is a series of thousands of micro-decisions, and each option has its champions who are ready to die loudly, insistently, and self-righteously on these hills.

Neither of us wanted to lose precious altitude, despite the fact that the ribbon of white snow (rather) in the ravine would provide us with a direct skinning route to the start of the bootpack. Another group passed us, choosing to continue walking on the snow in front of us with approach boots, putting their skis and boots on their shoulders for a later transition.

It’s easy to mentally or vocally ridicule what you see other people doing because it’s not what you would. So often, on the mountain and elsewhere, we are locked into a narrow view of what is “right”. It is obviously more energy efficient to skate on this section than to walk. Bootpacking up that land rather than doing steep kickturns is clearly the call. It is faster to center this face than to gain the ridge and cross. We try to make objective nuanced decisions, and then we congratulate ourselves on being smarter or moving better than others. Or we assume that someone is doing something they know best and we should follow suit. Did the other party know something we didn’t know?

We opted for the transition to skis once we hit the snow on the heights, walking through the patchy snow, dirt and vegetation until we got there. Our plan was to get around the ravine on our skis, but within a minute the three of us had very distinct reactions. I started to contour, digging my edges into the hardpack early in the morning. Behind me, Liz struggled to stay straight on her splitboard and shouted in front of her that she would do her boots to the ridge and walk until the ground leveled off. Dropping my climbing pole to stay fixed on the snow, I turned and saw Kelley follow suit, shoulder her skis and climb stairs to the ridge. I continued, feeling more hesitant about trying to make the transition halfway down than continuing on the skins. In a few minutes the ravine flattened out to meet the north face of Lassen, and the three of us found ourselves next to each other at about the same time.

Each decision contains a number of objective and subjective factors. In some scenarios, there is a route that may actually be safer or more direct. But faster? Easier? More agreable? These things tend to be personal and variable.

Often, each member of a group can choose a strategy that works for them, and everyone will end up where they need to be. Smooth, stiff skintracks are my nemesis, and I’ll often jump to bootpacking before other members of my team. The idea that bootpacking or skinning or walking or skating or double pushing is inherently faster or better or superior can be a myth that we have in our hearts to feel safe.

Carolyn’s ski partners Kelly and Liz are cruising the Mt. Lassen. [Photo] Carolyn Highland

There is no painless path. No matter what we choose, no matter which line we take, no matter what mode of transportation we choose, there will always be joy and there will always be pain.

We encounter this phenomenon away from the skintrack all the time. We have been fed another myth that tells us that there is a right way to do things, on a certain schedule, in a certain order. We are given a set of deadlines, benchmarks, checkboxes. Get married at this age, earn this amount of money, own this set of material goods, make sure your body has this special appearance. Following this path will bring you to the top of happiness.

In reality though, there are so many different ways to do this, and it doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. Of course, there are some objective factors that could be the recommended route for everyone: watch out for avalanche terrain and rockfall, wear safety gear and know how to use it, communicate with your partners. Take care of your body, be kind to others, pay attention to our planet and our resources. But the rest is up to you.

Our team was a perfect example: three women in their thirties, none of whom were on the path that the company had set for us. There were no spouses, no children, no owned homes among us. To stay true to herself, Kelley, a graduate student in counseling, had just ended a long-term partnership and was living in a 1970s trailer named Matilda. Liz owned and ran a cafe and ice cream on the western shore of Lake Tahoe, lived in her van with her dog, Mojave, and nursed a broken heart. I was a teacher and writer who had just published my first book and was looking for the life / adventure partner combo after several solid tries.

Some of us wanted to be mothers, some didn’t and others weren’t sure. We all hoped for partnerships that would nourish us and challenge us. We had all made significant milestones on our own personal lists, and we were all still in the process of hitting goals. We all felt proud of who we were and isolated from our peers because of it. We had all sat in circles of women our age and listened to endless conversations about rings and babies and didn’t know how to talk about adventures and sorrows and having to shovel our own alleys, meander our own pipes and pay our own taxes. How we had to pay twice the rent for half the space, attend seven weddings alone each summer, not having someone to share the driving with on long road trips, and how we got used to it to the wild freedom to be able to follow your own inner compass at all times.

Somewhere along the line we are told that some landmarks, milestones and accomplishments mean more than others and are more digestible by the general public. But starting your own business and ending a relationship consciously and lovingly and publishing a book are moments that should be celebrated just as much. Our paths were inevitably less frequented, less marked and less direct. But what they don’t conveniently tell you is that it will get you there as well.

Liz and Kelly follow in Carolyn’s footsteps. [Photo] Carolyn Highland

After many other micro-decisions, taken individually and as a team, we passed Lassen in a spring squall, fresh snow falling heavily on the crispy refreeze. As we went from crampons to skis at the summit, we discussed our options and gave ourselves the space to do what felt best to us. It didn’t matter how we got off, as long as it was safe and we felt good.

Visibility was poor – we could only see the first few hundred feet of the chute which would later open into a wide apron. Kelley fell first, opting for a side slide until the snow softened lower down. She stopped to the side and waited for Liz to follow behind, staying on the edge of the heel with her right hand strangled by her ice ax. When they were both off the fall line, I made slow, deliberate turns, stopping between each to prepare for the next. After a few minutes of careful descent we emerged from the clouds, the lower half of Lassen extended below us. The snow softened with every turn, and it didn’t take long for us to find ourselves on the dirt, en route to the car, having successfully skied our goal.

Later that evening, we stretched out on a blanket in the sun next to Liz’s van, painting casual watercolors and listening to Stevie Nicks, feeling happy, connected and alive. We were in overalls instead of formal wear, drinking cans of craft beer instead of champagne, celebrating a commitment to living the kind of life that challenged and inspired us and took us to the mountains rather than another. no one.

Maybe we should all decide which days are the most important in our lives for ourselves. Maybe they’re coming at a time we can’t predict. Maybe there are a lot of them. Maybe they’re already right in front of us.


Carolyn Highland is a Tahoe-based writer and outdoor educator who enjoys teaching Grade 4 ski pants, pocket cheese sticks, and deep, meaningful conversations about skintrack. His first book, Outside: the wisdom of the desert, was published in 2020 by Rocky Mountain Books.


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