The blog of the adventures (or mis-adventures) of an active mountain woman.

Outsmarted by Skiing Seven-Year-Olds

Over the “rush” season at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, I once again returned to teaching 7-14 year-olds how to ski. This is a source of endless amusement and wonderment, especially in the private lesson sector. At a fantastic $600 a day for a full-day private less0n, these kids (and their parents) occupy a higher tax bracket than I knew as a child. This became glaringly apparent when I entered the gondola with two children and they began arguing whether the gondola box was bigger or smaller than the little girl’s closet. “Your closet is NOT this big”, scolded the big brother.

“Yes it is, yes it is. My closet at the Cape House is really big” she taunted back. “The Cape House.” Right. Some instructors turn this into a game. The level of bluntness depends on the age of the child, but a favorite question when I taught skiing at Beaver Creek was, “did the plane you took here have just your family or other people too?”.

While the younger children unquestioningly volunteer information, those persnickety tweens offer up unsolicited chatter like, “my dad drives a Porche-Audi-BMW. What do you drive?”, to which I responded (years ago) with, “a Sonoma. Does he have one of those?”. Confused, the child would usually drop the subject, and with this sort of child this is a good thing.

Last week I was skiing with a beautiful feisty Venezuelan girl who asked to see my phone while we were on a hot chocolate break. “How do you know I have one?” I questioned. Rolling her eyes, she let me know that her seven-years was far beyond that sort of naivety and said “I just want to see it.” Quickly locating my pictures, she asked, “Who’s that?” at a snapshot of my boyfriend cooking eggs. I answered honestly, which was my first mistake.

“Where does he live?”. When I responded “five hours away,” she asked where I stayed when I visited him. Uh-oh. And for that matter, why was he in pajamas? Did we sleep in the same bed? Realizing that I was in way, way over my head, I decided now would be the perfect time to change the conversation to English and speak with the other, more naive seven-year-old in my class. I can only hope that when I have kids, I’ll be smart enough to invent a fictitious older brother.

I Only Go Up To Go Down

After years of living in athletic towns like Vail and Boulder, Colorado as well as Jackson, Wyoming, I have noticed two distinct camps of athletes which I have affectionately named “cardio freaks” and “adrenaline junkies”. In case you’re new to this blog, I belong in the later category.

“Cardio freaks” were often on the triathlon team in college. These heart-rate-monitor wearing, leg-shaving guys and gals get their high from breathing hard and harder. Drugs of choice include road bikes with impossibly skinny tires, any running race with a “K” on the end, and little itty-bitty skinny skate-skis. Often eschewing motorized travel in favor of their own two legs, this rare breed of mammal appears to actually enjoy discomfort and is loathe to long days on the couch.

“Adrenaline junkies” breathe hard for one reason- it gets us somewhere cool. We skin up the mountain ridge because we get to ski untracked snow on the way down. We peddle up the gigantic hill because the single track on the other side is oh-so-sweet. In truth, I have the most fun mountain biking when I’m on the edge of crashing. I know there is a science behind all of this, but I’ve experimented enough on myself to know that I respond very favorable to adrenaline. It’s either my chemistry or practice, but in an emergency situation such as swimming Class V whitewater (read: very, very big swirly water), I am calm. Sound is suppressed and I have the mental space to think through my current situation and respond accordingly. The trick is not getting addicted to my calm (or finding other ways to access it), like Dean Potter in this photo.

Dean Potter solo at Taft Point, Yosemite.

Dean Potter solo at Taft Point, Yosemite.

There are some athletes who take the adrenaline too far, most of which I have encountered in the climbing community. Often running from a divorce, death or other significant life event, these athletes become addicted to the singular focus that high-intensity athletic endeavors demand. When life is quite literally on the line (pun intended), there is no space in ones mind for the nasty breakup last month, unpaid bills or where dinner is going to come from. Body and mind have a singular purpose, and that is perpetuating life. As athletic skill increases, these situations must get more severe to have the same consequence, hence Mr. Potter slack-lining (tight-rope walking), leashless high above the Yosemite valley floor. As with everything in life, moderation would appear to be key once again.

Word of the Day: Flibbertigibbet –  a silly, flighty, or excessively talkative person. Use it in a sentence.

To Bishop and Back

Touring the East Face of McGee Peak

Touring the East Face of McGee Peak

Before starting a seven-day ski school work stint, I shot down to Bishop, California hoping for a little fun in the sun. However, this little town of 3,500 impressed beyond all expectations.

About four hours east of Los Angeles and an elevation of just over 4,000 feet, Bishop gets only 5 inches of rain a year. Yes, it’s an arid environment, but this stat mostly indicates sunshine – so much that friends who live there call it “the blue hole”. What this meant for me that the recreation possibilities were so numerous that choosing what gear to bring and which day to use it was a challenge.

With only four full days to play, I forced the gear quiver down to two sports – skiing and climbing. My playmate had wanted to also include mountain bikes and kayaks, to which I promptly responded that four sports for four days was ludicrous. Day one started with a back-country ski tour up a sagebrush infested gully. While the snow coverage was less than stellar, the expansive Sierra views were truly exceptional.

Day two was what I was really excited for as I hadn’t been climbing outside since the spring. Owens River Gorge is a popular climbing destination with over 2,000 bouldering problems as well as sport and trad climbs on volcanic tuff and granite, but I was equally excited about the prospect being outside without gloves and still maintaining full dexterity in my fingers. At 55 degrees, I made the experience as much about absorbing the warmth for a long winter ahead as I did about climbing.


Cabin at Champion Mine.

Day three we skied at Mammoth, which may be the most diverse ski area I’ve ever seen as it draws from L.A. At more than 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, Mammoth has a little something to keep most everyone happy, including me. Day four brought an interesting hike to Champion Sparkplug Mine and Black Eagle Camp ruins. Maintained by volunteers, this deserted mining town now allows hikers to stay a night in the spartan cabins and enjoy a bit of history in a mineral museum. The drive up and approach can be a bit confusing and the approach has some seriously sketch washout sections, but if that doesn’t scare you off click here for some fairly poor directions. The easier way, of course, is to go with some rockin’ locals that welcome you into their guest home/garage. After years of traveling adventures, I have learned that friends living in cool places practically guarantee an amazing experience. So who wants to come to Jackson?

Bishop Coffee Shop of the Day: Black Sheep at 124 S. Main St.

Mammoth Tidbit: Mountain employees aren’t allowed to have beards. Hmm.

Vibrating with Women who Rip

The Tetons from Idaho. From

The Tetons from Idaho. From

The title may seem a bit scandalous, but here “vibrating” is defined as something to do with a  sudden intense sensation or emotion. In this specific instance, it refers to Sunday, when I ventured over Teton Pass to ski nine inches of brand-new powder at Grand Targhee. And the three rippin’ women I went with just made the day better.

A day with the girls is something special indeed in a ski town. An article in the Tahoe Quarterly titled, Sex and the (Ski) City cited that “According to the National Ski Areas Association, the male/female split remains 63 percent male and 37 percent female. Men comprise 70 percent of participants who will ski or snowboard 30 or more times in a season. These are comparable to nationwide surveys of outdoor sports in general.” Ladies in the ski towns sum this up with the succinct saying, “The odds are good but the goods are odd.”

When us rare breed of ladies ventured over to Grand Targhee, it lived up to its nickname “Grand Foghee” at the top of the main lift. However, we were just happy to be off the white strip in Jackson and on some real, honest-to-goodness powder. Even after 9 years (gulp) out west, the sensation of my skis floating atop powder still catches me off-guard. It’s magical and maybe the closest I’ll come to flying. Seeing my friends rip down ahead and behind me on tele and alpine gear made the flight even sweeter.

Appetizer of the Day: Asiago Twists from Vegetarian Times. So deliciously easy. Click here for recipe.

24 Below and No Water

GettySnowflakeSometime I go looking for an adventure. Sometimes it finds me. Yesterday, it found me bright and early at 6:30am.

My sister was getting ready for work and said, “Michelle, there’s no water.” Bolting out of bed and cursing all the way, I wondered why I had stopped just shy of pencil thick when I left the water running the night before (standard practice in a log cabin during a Wyoming winter). I should have gone for the full pencil width, but that didn’t matter now. We were officially frozen. When the neighbor knocked on my door at 7am (having seen the lights on) to ask if I had water, he commented that it was currently negative twenty-four outside. I began to worry if the problem was a little bigger than a pencil width and briefly contemplated moving to Miami or Phoenix. By 9am I had confirmed that all four cabins were frozen and had began texting the landlord. Meanwhile, I talked to a sympathetic friend who asked if I was going to get water from the creek. “Yes,” I responded, “I’m going to fill a bucket so I can flush the toilet. The drains aren’t frozen and ice on the banks of the creek looks new and not very thick, so I think I can break it.” His reply was a serious sounding, “I was joking”. Oh. I wasn’t.

The landlord suspected that with all of us running water and all of us frozen, the problem might be at the well house. Blasting a small heater on the pipes exiting the ground, he had us thawed out by 11am. Still, it was enough time to appreciate the marvel that is modern plumbing. When the water froze, I adapted the mind-set that I was on a posh camping trip and knew that I could happily camp for months on end (because I’ve done it). This is a liberating feeling.  While it was true that this camping trip had the added benefit of a warm(ish) house, a stove and drains, I began seriously eying my water consumption. When your water is measure out in actual gallon jugs, you get a real sense for how much you consume. Some sources say the average American uses 80-200 gallons per day. Why the large discrepancy? A large bathtub is 50 gallons alone, so consider the water suck of a nice green lawn in the aforementioned Phoenix.

So for now, I’m trying to appreciate the frugality of water consumption that my no-bathtub cabin forces upon me and start to look at my water consumption on a gallon basis. As for the freeze, the positive spin would be that a gentle environmental awareness reminder is never a bad thing.

Book of the Day: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. An NPR correspondentt travels the world over measuring the happiness/location correlation. Funny and interesting.

From the White Strip to the White House

Inside the fence at the White House

Inside the fence at the White House

With dismal snow conditions and no signs of immediate improvement, I accompanied a friend for a long weekend in Washington D.C. and Boston. While there, an old kayaking buddy arranged a few fantastic tours through his employer that resulted in a) my deliberation of jumping the White House fence and b) leaving my Smith sunglasses on top of the Capitol.

Through my new, appropriately themed book, “In the President’s Secret Service” by Ronald Kessler, I have learned that I am not even close to the first person to have such thoughts. These thoughts are, however, a very bad idea.

At eight-foot-high, the reinforced steel fence surrounding the White House doesn’t look very intimating. While I was waiting in line for the White House tour, I didn’t see a single security guy on the grounds. Of course, the agents are purposefully hidden but my impression was that the property has a rather unguarded appearance. This thinking is, of course, asinine. My book has informed be that agents “…know right away if there’s a fence jumper. There are electronic eyes and ground sensors six feet back [from the sidewalk] that are monitored twenty-four hours a day. They sense movement and weight. Infrared detectors are installed closer to the house. You have audio detectors. Every angle is covered by cameras and recorded.”

And if I had actually jumped the fence? “If somebody jumps that fence, ERT is going to get them right away, either with a dog or just themselves. They’ll give the dog a command, and that dog will knock over a two-hundred-fifty-pound man. It will hit him dead center and take him down. The countersniper guys within the Uniformed Division are always watching their backs.”

As for the lost sunglasses, I grabbed a serendipitously timed spot on a very special dome tour of the Capitol where you must be personally accompanied by a congressman. As I was meeting folks for a cocktail directly afterwards, I wore a semi-formal dress and heels. Let’s call this “bad idea number two”.

Proper Attire for a Stair Hike

Proper Attire for a Stair Hike

The Capitol has 365 steps leading to a balcony at the base of the tholos approximately 210 feet above the Capitol’s east front plaza. This is a lot of steep, narrow stairs. Heels are technically not allowed, but being a climber I’ve worn far worse on far steeper. The entire dome is cast iron and truly a beautiful building in a stunning location with sweeping views of the capital city and its neighboring states. Taking pictures on the balcony outside, I removed my sunglasses and set them down. Oops. With visions of sniper teams descending from helicopters to test my poor sunglasses, my vivid imagination estimates that I may have cost taxpayers $500,000 in tactical assault team and bomb detection charges. My pledge to you, my blog readers, is this: I’ll stay away from Washington for a while. After all, heels aren’t even my style.

The White Strip of Death

The White Strip of Death at JHMR

The White Strip of Death at JHMR

Today I received my very own, unrestricted ski pass to (trumpet fanfare) “The White Strip of Death” at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “The White Strip of Death” is not unique to Jackson, but a technical skiing term to describe man’s attempt to open a ski resort on a predetermined date come hell or high water. In our schedule loving society, this is accomplished with numerous artificial snow machines directed along one trail. Skiers, jonsesing after nearly four months of snowlessness, flock to this solitary rock-flecked trail in droves. This is where the death part comes in.

The never-ever skiers. The “honey, I’ll teach you to ski” couples. The nine-year-old straight-liners. The full-face helmet “I’m here to huck” shredders. All of these personalities converge and attempt to share one trail. Some of us refer to this as “the human slalom”, but that’s a desperate attempt to make lite of a sad situation. The situation being, of course, snowlessness. With a 24″ base and 0″ new in the last 144 hours, we optimistically report the mountain as “open” (as of yesterday) and skiing conditions are “packed powder”. Of course,  those paying $2,000 for a pass (and those working for it) would appreciate some “real powder”.

So did I pony up $’s for the privilege of a chair carting my happy self up the hill? Nope. For my pass, I’ll be skiing with those wonderful 7-14 year-olds during peak times. If you’re planning a ski vacation, make note. Peak times at a ski resort (any U.S. ski resort) are between Christmas and New Year’s, President’s weekend (February 13-15) and Spring Break (otherwise known as “March”). The rest of the season, us locals get the mountain to ourselves. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is just the way we want it.

Bookmark of the Day: Bridger-Teton Backcountry Avalanche Hazard & Weather Forecast

Makin’ some Turns

Less than stellar coverage, but I was just happy to be out.

Less than stellar coverage, but happy to be out.

As previously discussed in “The Sicky Sick Gnar Gnar Vocab of J-Hole”, most anything specialized come with its own unique vocabulary terms, and skiing is no exception. We skiers often employ the term “making turns” to denote that we are skiing, because turns is really what the sport is about. As many a nine-year-old in Michigan can attest, going straight on skis isn’t hugely difficult. Although there is some amount of strength and balance involved, straight lining an entire run is typically a fair helping of stupidity coupled with disillusions of invisibility. Straight lining anything in the Rockies is ill-advised as one usually ends up careening off a mountain rather than hitting a car in the parking lot (my sister was just the nine-year-old who would forgo turns in favor of stopping via impact with cars/buildings/adults). So in my desperation to do something, ANYTHING in the off-season I decided to make some turns. Two, to be exact.

The ‘off-season’ in Jackson (fall and spring) forces residents to become increasingly creative with their outdoor endeavors and I attribute the first day of my 09-10 ski season directly to this fact. The snow line was high enough to make Teton Pass, at 8,431 feet, marginally acceptable. We parked the car at the top with another dozen wishful thinkers and started skinning south. For those of you who don’t backcountry ski (and I wouldn’t recommend it without avalanche safety classes and a good group of backcountry friends), “skinning” involves attaching synthetic skins to backcountry skis to make purchase when going uphill. Along the ascent, we passed bowl after beautiful bowl. Like a siren call, these sections tempted me with their illusions of white, fluffy coverage, but a thorough love of my intact knees and face told me to wait until those logs were buried under a solid snow pack. But not everyone up there thought the same.

Another couple had veered off the skin track and were waiting, contemplating a partial downhill descent. Wishing them luck, we wondered if we weren’t being overly cautious but quickly dismissed it as wisdom and experience. On the way back, however, we stopped and chatted with them skinning back for lap two. “There’s a good 10 inches of faceted snow off the ground and a nice light fluffy layer off of that. It’s pretty good!” was the report. It was enough to make me seriously consider following them, but I wondered how much sheer luck was involved with their line. So feeling wiser than lucky, we removed our skins and glided back towards the car. I only made two turns in the skin track on the way back, but man did they feel good.

Pro Deal of the Day: up to 60% off Horny Toad. If you want the details, send me an email by filling out form here and I’ll email you the goods.

Animal Planet – In My House

So it’s not a conventional house – it’s a real-deal old log cabin. And it hasn’t been updated a whole lot since its inception in 1920 (aside from electricity and my high-speed wireless). As such, there is an appropriate flow of what I’d like to think of as “wildlife”.


Snowflake, the weasel.

It all started with the weasel. I was sitting at the kitchen table, reading, when I heard a noise coming from the bathroom. Looking over, I saw a small white face peeking out from behind the toilet. Like any rational being, I promptly jumped on top of the chair (because a weasel couldn’t possibly climb a chair) and started yelling at my boyfriend that there was “something” in the bathroom. He froze on the couch for a moment and the weasel cocked his head as they both wondered, “what’s wrong with her?”.

The boyfriend was beyond excited saying nonsensical things like “that’s why there’s no mice!” and “we can feed him- he’ll be like a pet”. I warmed to the idea that this was the reason there were no mice and we were careful not to startle him when he showed up every few weeks. Sadly, we never saw Snowflake past that winter, but he was only the first in a long line of critters that have acclimated me to life in a log cabin.

Fast forward to Friday morning, when I was laying in the place halfway between asleep and awake. I vaguely recognized a gnawing noise and thought I had a mouse. Forcing my brain towards alertness, I tried to identify the source of the gnawing from bed. Was he on the food shelves? The floor? The gnawing seemed to turn to a fluttering and I began to think perhaps I had a bat. Grabbing my phone and tentatively stepping into the kitchen, I dialed my boyfriend and said, “something is in my house.” He replied that if it was a bat, I would need to put on gloves and get a towel to capture him. My weak response was, “I don’t think I can do that.” He responded that since he was about 6 hours away, I would have to do it. I now have a new appreciation for pioneering women. It’s not that they were inherently fearless and courageous- it’s that they had no choice. So as a women with no choice, I approached the rustling area to discover a field mouse in the bottom of the trash. I covered the trash and brought it outside, where I spied my neighbor’s cat on their porch. Grabbing the cat and placing it directly in front of the garbage bin, I tipped it over and let the cat sniff. She smelled nothing and ambled away as the mouse ran the other direction, probably looping back towards my cabin.

Anyone know the type of spider?

Anyone know the type of spider?

The very next morning I was washing breakfast dishes and became aware of a buzzing happening in the kitchen window a few feet from my face. A crazy black and orange spider had just caught a common fly and was moving to wrap him up. I snapped a few pictures, and while I was reviewing them she disappeared with her kill to somewhere unbeknownst to me.

This is the wild Wyoming world I live in, but I’m feeling like my cabin could be portrayed in a pretty negative light. When my computer maladies are over, I pledge to post pictures of the fabulous views I share with rodents and bugs large and small. At the end of the day, there’s no place I’d rather be.

Kayaking in the Snow

When I worked with the public, people were constantly mistaking me for a meteorologist. “We’re thinking about coming in Aprtober, what will the weather be like then?” was put on me several times a day. My steady answer was “it could be warm, it could be snowing. I would come prepared for anything.” If you want to get out regularly and live in the mountains, these are words to live by.

A few flakes in the sky turned to a full-on flurry

"Well, we're here. Who knew it would be snowing?"

When visiting Casper, my friend suggested we go sea kayaking on a cold October day and I thought “sure, that could be interesting”. After all, I’d kayaked class III in 20-30 degree weather, so a little fall chill on a peaceful lake didn’t seem like a bad idea. However, when it started snowing hard enough to prompt a last-minute purchase of hand and foot warmers at a gas station on the drive, I began to get slightly concerned. Our end destination was Lake Alcova, about 40 miles Southwest of Casper. We may have used four-wheel-drive to pull into the parking lot. By the time we ready to put the tandem kayak in the water, it was damn near approaching a blizzard.

I warned my friend that I’d spent too much time in cold water to put up with it for long. If things were just plain sucky (a technical term), I would want to get back in the warm car a lot sooner than later. He agreed, but I suspect he was secretly overjoyed that I didn’t call him nuts from the get-go. Donning a dry suit (previously known in my whitewater days as a “drowning bag” from their tendency to fill up with water when torn), brimmed hat, two pairs of gloves and sunglasses to stand in for goggles, we stupidly pushed away from shore.

I really began to think we were crazy when the ducks started giving me looks. However, the intense fog, snow and my unfamiliarity with the area made the lake magical and more than a little spooky. The excitement kept me going. We would silently paddle up to towering shadowy figures that would reveal themselves at the last second to be brilliantly red rock islands or looming canyon walls. Unsuspecting duck flocks scattered as they quacked, “just when we thought tourist season was over, these two dumb asses get a bright idea.” At least, that’s what I think they were saying.

I finally threw the towel in when the water dripping down the shaft of my paddle soaked my outer gloves and my hands were more involuntarily curled around the paddle than physically capable of independent movement. On the way back, my friend asked how the foot pegs were working out. “Foot pegs?” I said, “What foot pegs?”. A quick shuffle of my feet revealed conveniently located foot pegs that would allow me to get brace myself in the boat and get much more weight in every paddle stoke. We were 10 minutes from the take-out (river talk for the end of the trip), but boy did we fly. So the lesson is this: familiarize yourself with the gear before your adventure. Just because you’re a whitewater stud doesn’t mean you know jack about a tandem sea kayak.

Song of the day: Another Way to Die (click on song name to listen, then hit “back” in your browser to return to blog) by Jack White and Alicia Keys. It’s from Quantum of Solace and has some rockin’ piano.

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