My calendar year has been revolving around the heli ski season in Alaska for the past 20 years. In February, I make my migration back to Alaska to prepare for the fast and furious heli ski season. It is a strange addiction, I struggle with on several levels. Skiing has defined me and my life since I taught myself when I was 16 years old in Southern California. I found my niche at Valdez Heli Ski Guides with Doug and Emily Coombs in my formative years. I became a well trained and good ski guide. I take a lot of pleasure in providing my guests with the experience of a lifetime. I love flying. Even after surviving a heli crash, I can’t wait to get back into the heli with my favorite pilots. The balance of risk and reward is ever present. The challenges of making good decisions in avalanche terrain with the growing number of users become more difficult. The pay wages stay the same. The consumption of fuel for pleasure is glutinous. It is a yin and yang of emotions that I return to year after year. As I reflect on it and the past year, I see the struggle of balance and harmony in everything. I look forward to being with my heli ski family in the same ways I do with my blood family. There is a lot of love and respect and a lot of differing opinions, especially in these changing political times. At the end of the day, I’m always looking to find the joy. I’m searching for fun and the balance to keep it coming.
At the end of last years heli season, I worked a couple of drastically different jobs to money up so I can live my Gypsy style life of adventure. The first was in May with a company called Timeline Productions making a ski movie about a couple of rad Euro ski girls, Eva and Nadine. It followed their lives through competitive skiing and into the big mountains of Alaska, where I worked as their guide and liaison on a 10 day ski trip into the Alaska range.
I went back to Chickaloon after that job and worked on home projects and stocking up on salmon. Tim and I built a smoker and a small garden before taking our caravan over to Healy for a couple months of exhausting work on the night shift. We spent long hours on ropes trundling rocks down above the highway with various tools. Definitely not as glamorous as being a heli or mountain ski guide, but certainly better paying.
As you can see, my lifestyle and my ways of making money and a living are not exactly 9 to 5. My only consistent job is heli skiing while the other jobs come on the fly. I try to live frugally, which is easy in a cabin without running water or electricity and on the road camping out of various vehicles. The Copper river reds are an amazing supplement to my diet and growing greens is so basic, even I can do it. Living in Alaska in the winter takes alot of effort and I’ve resorted to traveling which is much easier. My travels revolve around climbing. I like the adventure and simplicity of life it provides. I love the places and people that become intertwined in this type of lifestyle. The connection of lasting friendships made through adventures in the outdoors is the balance and backbone to “fun” as I know it. Which reminds me of one more job I worked for Camp 4 Productions on a Yeti commercial featuring my good friend Leighan Falley. It was in August this past year, just before Doug and Berry’s wedding. It was meant to be an overnight in the Alaska range, but due to weather, we were stuck on the glacier for a week. Being at basecamp that time of year with that eccentric group of people was a welcome escape from the grind of being a professional rock trundler on the highway. After missing my first flight to Jackson, we made it out of the mountains just in time to catch the wedding. It was absolutely beautiful and such a joy to see so many friends.
Of course, I’d have to make a climbing trip out of the journey to Jackson. My good friend, aka my wife, Lisa Vansciver took some time off from Jackson Hole Mountain Guides to go climbing in the Wind River range with me. Our weather was a bit unsettled, but we managed to get some excellent climbing in the Cirque. The highlight was certainly our outing on Pingora and Wolfhead which involved snow and an all nighter. We have had a lot of type 2 fun together including sleeping on top of The Lotus Flower, descending through the night on The Mooses Tooth and hanging in our harnesses through the night on Mt. Huntington. “Why do you always do this to me?” Lisa asks as we slowly walk through the night on our way down the Wolfshead. That is a good question. Yesterday, Tim asked me which I liked better, “climbing in PATAGONIA or Spain?” “They are completely different, but if I have to answer, PATAGONIA because you are closer to death”, I respond. Back to the risk reward theme. It’s funny like that. What are your best memories? Are they the best or just the most burned into your memory because of how much you felt Alive?
Partners are such a huge part of life to me. I love sharing the adventure with someone. I have been so lucky in my life to have so many incredible partners and experiences. For the past three years, I have had Tim Stephens be my partner on countless adventures around the globe. We have been able to work on many jobs together and climb a baffling amount of terrain together. This years climbing adventure started a little later than normal due to work. We started our journey by driving to Tobey and Cortney’s wedding in Jackson, Wyoming. Another beautiful Jackson wedding with an after party in the City of Rocks, Idaho. We then followed the newlyweds to Yosemite. Cortney had solicited myself and Lisa to climb El Cap with her. This turned into a bit of a comedy as well as a huge learning experience for us all on the Salathe Wall. We did manage to stand on top of El Cap spire, before descending the route with our monster haul bags. After some storms and a Rope Access course, we returned to the valley and climbed El Cap with our significant others. Tim and I were slightly ahead of Tobey and Cortney on The Nose which was perfect because the sleeping ledges were too small to share. It was November now and the crowds were gone. On the Salathe Wall, we shared a ledge with 12 people! Now, we were blessed with the whole route to ourselves. Yosemite is also a yin and yang experience for me.
This year, it was the dying trees that set me into a depressed state. Two thirds of the trees seemed to be dead or dying. The previous droughts and warm winters mixed with the beetle made for a deadly combination. The camping situation is also desperate as people run their generators and cars and consumerism steal the true beauty, while in the same breathe it is the easiest access to the most amazing church of granite in the world. Being in the valley made me miss dead friends. Watching the ravens on the summit of El Cap made me appreciate life and the art of flight.
We climbed so many awesome lines in Yosemite and my heart was filled with joy to share this place that means so much to me with Tim. We had both climbed here so many times, but this was our first time together. It was powerful, like the raging waterfalls after the storm. We tried to climb on The Hulk before arriving in Yosemite, but the temperatures turned it into a camping trip. We succeeded on many climbs and got beat up and turned back on others. Some of the strongest memories are not the ones that went smoothly with picturesque summits, but those that ended with scrapes, blood and defeat.
We headed south for an EMT re-certification course and a visit with my Mom. Next stop was Utah to catch up with my brother and his family for Thanksgiving at my Dad’s cabin. Luckily, those days in my youth really rubbed off on me at Dad’s cabin and I find myself permanently living the cabin lifestyle. Pooping in the woods is easy and preferable. Having more, costs more. How much do we need? What things do we buy make us happy? Well, the new mountain bike Tim bought me sure did make me happy. Until, I crashed on the first ride and hurt myself. Then I got better and it got real fun. We headed to Moab for a little climbing and riding next. Pulling our little house behind us, living the high end Gypsy life.
The beginning of December was spent in Driggs, Idaho for guide training for Valdez Heli Ski Guides. Followed by the Bozeman and Cody ice climbing trips. Living was starting to get a bit chilly in the house on wheels and I was pretty stoked Tim changed his mind to sport climbing in Spain. We’ve had an amazing trip so far, but unfortunately the only reason I have so much time to reflect is that we got some nasty Euro flu. We haven’t climbed in a week and I’ve been watching way too much news to keep a person sane. The pipeline and water issues as well as drilling in National Parks has my panties all waded up and at the same time, I’ll be back at the gas station and in the helicopter and on airplanes. I’m finding it hard to find a good balance. I also find change to be a real challenge for me. When change does happen, I always seem to adapt and move forward in a positive way, but it takes time. I’m finding joy in the masses of people who are displaying love for humanity and the planet. Change is inevitable and I hope we move forward in a positive direction despite the current crisis. In the meantime, I’ll try to appreciate more, love more, and live more simply. Viva Espana!