Saturday, March 7, 2015

Learning to Ski

This season is my first time skiing as far as I can remember. I say, “as far as I can remember” because I did go skiing once when I was a kid but I might have gotten a concussion because I hit my head and now I don’t remember anything from that day… anyway.

I've started off with backcountry skiing, meaning that I have to “skin up” any terrain I want to ski back down. This is great for getting in a work-out, but not so great for learning to ski downhill. Essentially, I end up skiing uphill for an hour then downhill for 15 minutes. You see the problem? In the six times I've gone backcountry skiing, I've gotten to ski down maybe 12,000 feet total.

Despite the lack of downhill practice, I’m glad I have started learning to ski on a backcountry setup. It has helped me get my cold weather systems dialed and toughened me up quite a bit. With that experience, I was much more appreciative when I finally was able to go to a resort this past Wednesday. In one day, I exceeded all of my prior downhill experience, getting in a total of 14,400 feet.

Skiing at the resort was very different from skiing backcountry, but both experiences taught me a lot. Here are a few of the more humorous lessons I learned from each style…

3 Lessons from the Backcountry

1. Caffeine is your best friend. Until it isn't. Caffeine is a beautiful drug that will help you wake up and get stoked in the dark, pre-dawn hours. But too much will make your heart palpate, your whole body sweat with a sickly smell, and if you are really unlucky, it will make you poop your pants. Not that I have any experience with that or anything. I’m just saying. It can happen.

2. Cold will numb the pain. Have no fear when hurtling down the mountain at unnatural speeds. You may totally wreck and yard-sale your body and skis across the slope, but you won’t feel a single bit of pain. Until you warm back up that is.

3. You will learn to look forward to the screaming-barfies. What are the screaming-barfies, you ask? I’ll tell you. When your hands and feet go entirely numb and your body says “Oh crap I’m about to get frostbite,” it suddenly pumps your limbs full of blood and adrenaline to aggressively warm them back up. Warming up might sound nice and indeed it is good, but the sensation is akin to shoving your hands in a bin of white hot sewing needles, and you feel the need to scream and barf at the same time. Hence the name screaming-barfies. I usually cry and laugh hysterically when this happens, because it’s horrible but at least I’m about to feel my fingers again.

Three Lessons from the Resort

1. Humility. Nothing will make you feel more humble than being out-skied by a toddler. In fact, every toddler you see will ski better than you. Those short, brain-heavy snot machines can barely walk, but they can ski like freaking ninjas.

2. More Humility. When other skiers on the gondola see your rad backcountry gear, they will immediately assume you are a hard core bad ass awesome skier. Don’t worry about this. They will discover the truth as soon as they see you wedge your way down the slope…

3. Don’t get upset by the skiers who get too close to you. Either they are as bad as you and can’t control themselves or they are way better than you but you are just too unpredictable to effectively avoid. Only rarely is it because they are a jerk. And that’s usually when they’re a 12 year old boy on a snowboard and trying to show off for you, at least until they realize you are old. 

All joking aside, I feel like I am finally getting a handle on this whole skiing thing. By the end of my day at the resort, I was charging the churned-up, partially iced-over blue hills with a manic grin on my face. Sure, I still had one or two epic looking wrecks on the way down. But while most of the other resort skiers had abandoned the slopes for hot cocoa in the lodge, I was gaining mad new skills and having a blast. Before I close out today's post, I have one last lesson to share. 

Number One Lesson for Skiing Anywhere

1. Be Avalanche Aware. Everywhere. Every time. When we ski in the backcountry, it is more obvious that we need to be aware of the dangers of avalanches. We always take our beacons, shovels, & probes, and we always check the snow conditions - before and during the trip. While you do not really need a full backcountry setup to ski safely in a resort, you should still be aware of the danger. Avalanches can happen, even at a resort and certainly in the nearby out of bounds areas. 

While we were at the resort on Wednesday, a young snowboarder went out of bounds and triggered an avalanche which took his life. It is a heartbreaking example of why everyone who recreates on snowy slopes needs to be educated regarding the avalanches and why even at/near a resort, you need to be avalanche aware. 

Those of us in the Ogden area can take advantage of the Avalanche Awareness Course offered by Weber State University. I highly recommend it. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Gear Review Icebreaker Flexi Chute

This is my first season skiing, and as such, I am slowly accumulating all of the requisite gear to enjoy my time out in the frozen landscape without freezing myself. I had my eye on the Icebreaker Flexi Chute the moment we stocked it over at Gear:30.

Although I knew I wanted to piece, I held off on purchasing it. Having just moved to Utah, money was still pretty tight and I had a couple of Christmas gifts I wanted to get for Derek. Still, I was pretty bummed when the last Flexi Chute was sold on one of my days off. I figured I would just get it next year.

I was surprised and excited on Christmas day when I discovered that Derek had in fact bought that last Flexi Chute from the store. My husband is freaking awesome.

Since then, I've worn my Flexi Chute on a couple of backcountry skiing excursions as well as on a few early morning jogs. Here is what I like about it…

Pro’s:

It is versatile. I can wear it a number of different ways to protect my face, my ears, or just cover my sweaty hair. I like it better than the typical winter face mask or balaclava because I can adjust it to suit my temperature regulation needs with one simple piece. Also, it’s nice to be able to run into the gas station without looking like I’m going to rob the place!

It handles moisture without freezing up. So far I haven’t had any issues with it getting frozen crusty, which was a problem with my old balaclava. If it gets too wet in front of my face, I just spin it around to a dry spot.

It’s natural. While I am constantly impressed by what humans can invent, it’s pretty neat to have a product manufactured from a natural fabric, merino wool. The merino wool feels soft like cotton but performs like a synthetic. All in all, that’s pretty awesome. It's also a bit easier on the environment to produce.

Con’s:

So far I don’t have any major complaints with the Flexi Chute itself, except for perhaps its name. Can we please just call this a buff? Holy mouthful batman!

It’s also worth noting that I found some reviews where folks asked for multiple sizes rather than the one-size-fits-all model. I imagine more sizes could be a positive thing. I have a pretty average sized noggin though, and it fit me just fine.

Summary:

I recommend the Icebreaker Flexi Chute for its versatility and performance. I have found it to work better than other things I have tried in the past, and I can’t wait to get outside with it some more.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Graaarrrr Mountain Kitty!!!!!

I take a fortifying breath before I step out of my warm car and into a cold, dark landscape. It is 5:45 am, and I hope to hike to the top of Malan’s Peak and back before I have to head into work later today.

Since we have moved here, Derek has hiked this peak in the pre-dawn hours numerous times, so I had thought this would be a reasonable goal for myself. But as I approach the trail head, I am struck by some major differences between Derek and me. Primarily, Derek doesn't get scared unless there is a reason to be scared. And second, Derek doesn't have night-blindness.

Despite the icky feelings building in the pit of my stomach, I start my hike. I can only see within a circle of grayish light cast by my headlamp, but it is just enough for me to see where the trail goes and to avoid stumbling on any rocks. As I follow this circle of light, the open trail progresses into a steeper wooded area. In my peripheral vision, I see a tall figure ahead. Startled, I look up, expecting to see a hiker in front of me. It is only the trail though, dark dirt against the lighter outline of trees around it.

I try to calm my pounding heart. As I continue to walk, two different voices begin arguing in my head: the Wimpy-Susan voice and the Bad-Ass-Susan voice.

Wimpy-Susan points out that I forgot to bring a back-up headlamp and if my current headlamp fails I could become completely lost, as I am literally blind in the dark. Bad-Ass-Susan reminds us that dawn is only an hour away, so surely if my (brand-freaking-new) headlamp fails we could just hang out until it lightens up enough to see.

Wimpy-Susan points out that I also failed to bring my pepper spray or a knife or anything really to defend myself against predators like mountain lions and sleazy old men. Bad-Ass-Susan reminds us that mountain lions don’t eat people and, for goodness sake, it is before dawn and below freezing, all the sleazy old men are home in their warm beds. Nobody is lying in wait to ambush me. No one was out here at all.

I ignore both my alter egos for a minute and continue walking, thinking for a bit about fear and anxiety. I wonder if Derek is ever scared of running into other men on the trail, and I suspect not. However, I also realize that there are people who would never hike alone during the day, much less in the dark. And here I am, doing just that.

Logically, I know that it is perfectly safe for me to be doing so. I have my headlamp, the right clothes, plenty of water, and a cell phone with service. I've hiked this trail before, Derek knows exactly where I am, it’s too cold for snakes, too populated for mountain lions, and too early for creepy old men. Yes, it is okay to be afraid. Many people would be. But yes, it is also safe to continue.

I felt a blissful moment of peace at this realization and stop to savor the moment before I start into a particularly dark, deep section of the canyon hike. When I stop, I hear what I couldn't hear when I had been walking and talking to myself. Footsteps behind me.

I freeze for one panicked second, picturing a crouching mountain lion, ready to eat me. The footsteps stop behind me. Human footsteps. I almost giggle I am so giddy with relief and a small bit of embarrassment. I turn, excited to have another hiker to walk through the dark with and hope they are going to the top of Malan’s as well.

My headlamp hits an empty trail. There is no one there. My anxiety rebounds, hitting me hard in the gut. I am certain there was someone behind me. I had heard them walking. I glance around the trail, looking for maybe a hiker who has stopped to pee and is sheepishly hiding from me or maybe the green glowing eyes of an innocent mule deer. Nothing.

“Hello?” I call out, my voice unsure. Still, nothing.

“Hey!” I call out, annoyed now because I am certain someone is there and just not responding. I had heard them behind me.

Wimpy-Susan is ready to start walking, no – running – back to the car. I wait for Bad-Ass-Susan’s opinion. She is mulling it over. Finally, she say f*** this, Malan’s isn't that cool anyway. Wimpy-Susan thanks the good Lord but then freaks out more because if Bad-Ass-Susan says it’s time to go home then there really might be a reason to be scared. Bad-Ass-Susan just rolls her eyes.

I resist the urge to run. I don’t really think there is a mountain kitty nearby, but IF there is then running would only incite it to chase me. Plus, I can't see well enough to run without tripping anyway. I stomp my feet as I walk to make myself sound as big and mean as possible.

I cross a trail intersection and take the lower path. I call out greetings a couple more times just in case there was a friendly human nearby. I get no responses and see no headlamps anywhere but I do still hear the occasional shuffle of someone else’s footsteps. There is someone or something on the trail with me. If it’s a person, they aren't responding to my greetings. If it’s a creature, it’s clearly not afraid of me. So, I do the only logical thing I can think of: I start making growling noises at my possible mountain kitty.

“Graaarrrr Mountain Kitty! I am big enough to eat you! BRAawwwwrrrrrrrr!” Yes. I really say that. Quite loudly too.

Shortly after, I hear laughter. A lot of laughter. Mother f***ers. There were at least two hikers somewhere on the trail above me now. Older women from the sound of their voices. I hear them mutter something to each other as they continue along the upper trail. They aren't using headlamps, so I can’t see them despite the lack of trees here. If I didn't have night blindness, I probably could see them.

I sigh. I debate telling them thanks so much for scaring the shit of out me (cause really? They couldn't just say hello back when I called to them?!), but I continue stomping my way back to the car instead. So much for facing my fears. I know, as I think about confessing to Derek why I'm home early, that I'll need to come back and try this again. Just... not today.