As a ski mountaineer drawn to high altitude, I have been thrilled to call the Wasatch home since 2012. Great for training and playing with friends, the range which runs north south on the eastern boarder of Salt Lake City was something I endeavored never to take for granted. Yet by 2019, I often found myself planning bigger and bigger trips far away from my familiar home range. This is a pandemic story of going deep in my own backyard and the growth, friendships, and joy that ensued.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. Ball sports, ultimate frisbee, and triathlons were my recreational physical outlets. Climbing, backcountry anything, and all things winter were wholly foreign to me. The first glimpse of “adventure” sports came through gym climbing. In college, I convinced my best friend Angela to go to the local rock climbing “gym,” five ropes in the back of a gymnastics studio in Greensboro, NC. In response to her valid query of if I knew how to climb and belay, I replied that I didn’t, but that they would likely teach us in order to not get sued over an accident. The logic held and we scampered joyfully up the plastic holds here and there throughout the next three years in school. When I moved to Atlanta for grad school, gym climbing became the primary social, creative, and physical outlet.
Having fallen in love with guiding, Utah, and my now ex-wife, I knew I needed to figure out how to play in winter to keep my Southern spirit up through the cold months. Free ski training through work seemed like a great option. Thus in 2013 at 24 years old, I showed up for a beginner ski training asking the thoughtful and imperative question of “how do my feet stay on the skis?” Totally gripped on my first chair ride between two therapeutic men named Dan, I realized I’d have a long way to go before skiing would make me love winter and I could keep up with my ski patrol girlfriend.
And yet, I was hooked. Skiing for free on resort corporate passes most days on my “off-shifts” from guiding, I drilled constantly. Wedge Christy, wedge glide, J-turn to stop uphill… by the end of my first season, the resort no longer seemed visually overwhelming and the ski patrollers seemed slightly jealous of my girlfriend that I could somewhat hang while skiing with her. In the following years, touring, chute skiing, and messing around with ropes while skiing naturally entered the picture. Paired with avalanche training and a lot of winter camping through guiding, I was no longer the winter novice from Atlanta.
March 15, 2019 was the first day I skied with the men who would become my bros. Little did I know it in the 6*F weather skinning up Mt. Superior’s East ridge at 5AM that March morning, but I was entering the “Chuting Gallery” era. In this era, I would make the best friends of my life, grow as a person, and set the stage for major ski expeditions to the Himalaya, St. Elias, Karakoram, and Andes.
That first day we skied Monte Cristo Gully. We intentionally cut out a small 24” soft slab avalanche above a cliff, negotiated odd hop turns between rocks, and made plans to get out again. Over the years, these men and I would laugh, listen, and share myriad joys and tribulations on countless booters. We’d collectively witness some primal expressions of fear, flip omelets in Alaska, and hug each other when absolutely everything in life, except for the mountains and company, sucked. In short, we’d become family… a smelly, loud, Pit Viper wearing family.
The bros’ project was to ski all of the 91 steep lines listed in Andrew McClean’s The Chuting Gallery. “The Book,” as we came to call it, provides short paragraphs on each of the lines as well as a rating as to the difficulty, steepness, and technical complexity. Some of the lines are mega classics (e.g., the Hypodermic Needle) and others are simply ridiculous (e.g., The Great White Icicle WI3 and the West Slabs aka Medusa YSD 5.6). McClean’s beta pictures have varying levels of accuracy and the writing makes one second guess the wisdom of one’s choices to ski these lines. “More fun than running with scissors, sticking paperclips in electrical sockets or taping firecrackers to a cat’s tail,” McClean promises of the line, NE Pfeifferhorn. (He’s not wrong.)
By Spring of 2020, my bros and I were cranking. We were thick as thieves consistently ticking off lines, debating which rope to bring (it was rarely a question if we should bring at least one rope), and getting baptized into the practice of steep skiing one Wasatch wonder after another. In the best shape of my life, I was training for an expedition to ski Manaslu in the Nepali Himalaya in the fall.
Enter the chaos of pandemic. Manaslu was indefinitely postponed (I would ultimately go in Fall of 2021 and ski the peak with one of my bros, Fin Keleher). Like the rest of the world, I wondered what would happen next and how to ethically stay close to home while not going insane. Thus, I joined my besties in formally deciding to complete The Book. This multi-year goal served to get me up before 4AM, motivate me when the world was falling apart, and provide the unique solace that I’ve only come to know in the steep places above the daily grind of human life.
Will, Logan, and Ryan became the ninth, tenth, and eleventh finishers respectively. On May 8, 2022, I became the twelfth person and second woman to finish The Book.
Reading through my notes, journals, and excel sheet record of the lines, my stats for The Book are roughly as follows:
91 lines completed over 3 years (2019-2022)
Muffins consumed - approx. 1203
Watershed fecal violations - approx. 19
Rescues declined – 1
Naked lines – 3
Sex acts – 2
Vital gear broken – 5
Bushwhacks – unknown
Lines skied in good conditions – 50%
Because I couldn’t write an article without mentioning them by name, here are my bros and the number of lines we did together:
Will Thomas – 19 lines
Logan Tuura – 13 lines
Ryan Walker – 24 lines
Fin Keleher – 22 lines
Eli Holeman – 4 lines
Joe Nagle – 14 lines
Ken Tharp – 11 lines
Max Rosette – 3 lines
And yet the stats only tell some of the story. They don’t tell of the time I primal screamed in fear while lowering off of double whippets gripping the ski baskets for full bodily extension while grinding granite with my skis in low snow on N. Pfeiff above a cliff and then hugging Fin in relief at the bottom. The stats do not allude to the joyful whoop while pointing it over little chunky cliffs in Homicide Chute and high-fiving Eli. The stats make no mention of belaying my bestie Will in four 70m pitches while skiing the Ribbon at Alta as he plugged scarce pro with one hand and held his ski poles with the other. I hesitate to say how many times I called Ryan lost after banging in a piton while climbing and wondering if he could please share the GPS coordinates for whatever line I happened to be woefully inadequate at finding. Needless to say, the misadventures taught as much or more than the successes and further cemented the bonds of our crew.
I’ve called McClean’s book the graduate school syllabus of steep skiing. And like any good syllabus, the assignments provide not only the lesson itself, but offer a foil for deeper knowledge. Fear, risk assessment, self-efficacy, and leadership all became consistent pieces of each day, each line, each group process. There is a beauty to a collective goal and the intensity of a sharply determined reference group of peers. They say that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Well, when the five people who you spend the most time with are actively growing, learning, and pursuing the same goal, I can attest that the results are pretty wonderful.
A note here on gender is worthy. While I have several cherished deep friendships with women and genderqueer folx, I have shared very few big ski lines with other womxn. Is it that far fewer women and queer people enter the sport? Or is it something else? I’m not sure. While I’ve certainly felt misogyny, exclusion, and judgment from other men on other mountains, my bros have a deep emotional intelligence and sense of family in which I’ve never felt othered. With them, I am happily my own version of a “bro,” a queer cis woman. I am welded tightly to my bros where our differences create diversity of strengths not division.
As a mental health therapist, I’ve reflected often on the very embodied learning of assessing what is in my control versus not, accepting my limits, and reorienting toward choice. For example, after cramponing up bullet-proof snow in Little Pine East solo and facing abysmal conditions for the descent, I couldn’t wish my way out of the situation. I nearly blew a turn, sunk my axe, and traded the skis for crampons, downclimbing 3000 vertical feet. I had gotten myself into this situation and no amount of wishing, striving, or avoiding would fix it. As with my four years guiding and managing guides, the robust realization of simply dealing with what is became a core and often repeated lesson from The Book.
As a therapist, I often work with people struggling to figure out a true North towards which to orient their life’s compass. They ask some version of Mary Oliver’s question for themselves, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Passion doesn’t just fall out of the sky and into our lives. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and researcher, notes in her book, Grit, that passion = interest + practice + purpose. While my life’s purpose isn’t steep skiing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that steep skiing has better informed it. Growth through challenge, curiosity toward the unknown, deep embodied community, belly laugher, adventure, and unapologetic owning of my identity add to my capacity to love the world and help others, which is the best current draft of my true North.
I am grateful for the push that the pandemic gave me in leaning in to the goal of skiing The Chuting Gallery and to all my dear bros for their love and friendship born in the mountains and continued in the valley.