This is my online home for sharing some of my life's adventures, many of which include family, friends and the great outdoors. Hopefully you find it entertaining, useful and/or inspiring. Some content is meant for me and those close to me. Other content is meant to be used as a resource or inspiration for your own adventures. However you spend your time here, I hope you enjoy it.

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Top 10 Recommendations For Hopeful Ski Mountaineers

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With prime ski mountaineering season right around the corner for the Rockies, I've been thinking a lot about my start in this incredible sport.  Particularly, I've been reflecting on how much I've learned since I started, and what advice I'd give to an aspiring ski mountaineer.  So, I decided to write a little article about it.  Regardless of your interest/experience in ski mountaineering I hope you find it enjoyable. 

A young man with a dreams.
High peaks, dramatic sky, steep lines, remote wilderness, massive exposure, varying terrain, incredible views...it all adds to the allure of ski mountaineering.  But, if it were an easy sport everyone would be doing it.  Even in an age when social media displays ski mountaineering exploits to a huge audience, the difficulties of the sport have kept the number of participants relatively small.

If it is so difficult, how does one even approach becoming a ski mountaineer?

I don't want to sound pompous, but feel like I'm fairly well qualified to give advice on this subject.  Despite growing up in the rolling mountains of central Pennsylvania (a great place to grow up, but not exactly a hotbed of ski mountaineering) I have become fairly accomplished in the sport.  The transition from a dreaming kid in Appalachia to a ski mountaineer with iconic descents under my belt didn't happen overnight.  It was a long and tricky learning process.

I want to inspire others who, like me, dream of adventure in the mountains.  I have learned a lot over the years (sometimes the hard way) in my pursuit of ski mountaineering, and I'd like to share some of that with you.  So, without further adieu, here is my top 10 list of things aspiring ski mountaineers should do to make their learning process faster, smoother, safer and more enjoyable.

1 - Take Baby Steps

All the small steps add up.
There are lots of ways to get hurt or die while ski mountaineering.  The risks are too numerous to list so I won't even try.  Attempting too much too soon is a recipe for disaster.  Approach the sport slowly and chip away towards your goals.  Progressing at a slow, steady, humble pace will help you build your physical skill set and your understanding of the ski mountaineering environment.

On a given mountain the weather, social factors, snow pack, group ability level, terrain and much more can change.  With each of these changes comes a change in the risks.  The best way to truly understand the risks is with lots of experiences in lots of situations.  Until you have a large amount of experience YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW.  If you don't know that you are taking a particular risk then you are simply hoping to get lucky in order to avoid it.  I've had my fair share of luck in the mountains (good and bad), and take my word for it; it is better to truly understand your situation than to rely on luck.

There is a classic saying that goes "There are old mountaineers and there are bold mountaineers...but there are no old, bold mountaineers."  Put your ego aside, be humble, and take baby steps.  It will pay off in the end.

2 - Learn From More Experienced Ski Mountaineers

Watch and learn.
This one seems rather obvious, but there are many who begin ski mountaineering alone or with other novices because it can be difficult to find more experienced partners.  To this I say "be patient."  Do your best to ski with those that have more experience than you.  They can help you understand different situations and combat the "you don't know what you don't know" issue.  Your journey from novice toward expert will be faster, smoother, and safer under the tutelage of an experienced ski mountaineer.

If it weren't for my ski mountaineering mentors I would either: (1) not have accomplished many of my goals, or  (2) not be here today because of foolish decision making.

When an opportunity arises for you to learn from an experienced ski mountaineer make sure you are ready.  That person is likely going out of his/her way to do you a favor, so make it as easy for him/her as possible.  Study what you are attempting (see #4), make sure you've trained for what you attempting (see #5) and make sure you have all the necessary equipment for what you are attempting (see #7).  The easier you make it for the people you want to learn from, the easier it will be to find people to learn from.

If you are reading this as an experienced ski mountaineer I'd like to suggest that it is your duty to give back to the sport by helping novices.  Remember, you were once in their boots.  Help them learn, help them be safe, and help them maintain a sense of humility and respect.

3 - Get Formal Training

University students learning about snow.
Along with finding more experienced ski mountaineers to learn from, a great way to understand the risks of the ski mountaineering environment is through formal training.  Take an avalanche class (or two, or three), a mountaineering skills course, or attend a ski mountaineering camp.  Companies like Exum Guides offer camps that will train you for big and difficult objectives.

Along with my formal avalanche training through AIARE, I've taken part in guiding courses and mountaineering skill camps.  Each one taught me something new and different, and they were enjoyable experiences in and of themselves.

Commit to some formal training.  It will be worth it.

4 - Be a Ski Mountaineering Student

I did years of study before this descent.
If you want to be a good ski mountaineer you've got to study ski mountaineering.  Start by learning some of the history of the sport.  Read about and appreciate the accomplishments of those who came before you.  Learn from their successes and failures.  Learn from their good ideas and mistakes.  Read their trip reports and expedition accounts.  You'll be educated and inspired all at the same time.

Along with the history of ski mountaineering, study all the other aspects of the sport.  Study and practice snow science.  Study and practice rope work.  Study survival skills.  Study old and new gear technology.  Study and keep up with current ski mountaineering feats.

If you are planning a ski mountaineering objective of your own, spend hours pouring over maps and pictures of the area.  Search for trip reports from others who attempted the same or a similar objective.

A studious ski mountaineer is a better ski mountaineer.

5 - Develop Physical & Mental Toughness

Poise & confidence under stress.
Climbing mountains is difficult.  Skiing mountains is difficult.  Climbing and skiing mountains as one activity is even more difficult.  The physical demands of ski mountaineering are incredible.  You need cardio fitness for long approaches, enormous climbs and equally enormous descents.  You need strength fitness to haul weight, make technical climbing moves, and resist g-forces on a descent.  You need a high pain tolerance as your lungs start to burn, your feet start to ache, your back gets sore and your legs get gassed.  If you aren't physically tough your body simply won't allow you to be a ski mountaineer.

Physical toughness alone, however, isn't enough.  Mental toughness is just as, if not more, important.  There will be many times when it is easier to continue sleeping in your warm bed instead of waking up and braving the cold at 2:00 am.  There will be many times when taking a long break on an approach will feel much better than continuing to make needed progress.  There will be so many times when turning around in the middle of a climb because you're tired will be easier than continuing to the top.  In order to be a good ski mountaineer you've got to be mentally tough and understand what your body is actually capable of.  Chances are that it is more than you think.

Mental toughness doesn't relate just to pushing your body to it's limits, either.  Mental toughness also has a lot to do with overcoming fear.  Let's face it, there is a lot to be scared of or nervous about when one is climbing and skiing big, steep, exposed mountains.  A total lack of fear is a sign of either naivety or lunacy.  A mentally tough ski mountaineer recognizes this fear but does not let it affect his/her physical performance.  You've got to be mentally tough to overcome your fear and continue to perform at a high skill level.

6 - Rock Climb & Ice Climb

More skills = more opportunities.
You don't NEED to rock or ice climb to ski mountaineer.  Likewise, you don't NEED to understand the stock market to invest in it.  But, in both cases, you'll be a lot better off if you do.

Rock and ice climbing will help you learn general mountain and rope skills.  These skills will open the door to many more ski mountaineering opportunities.  It's pretty straight forward: the more skills you have the more opportunity you have.

Furthermore, rock and ice climbing can help you with your mental toughness.  Even when you're roped in, being on a large rock or ice face with nothing but air underneath you can be intimidating.  But, in order to continue climbing, one must perform at a high level in the face of fear.  The mental toughness developed in climbing will translate to ski mountaineering.

I'm not saying you need to become an expert rock or ice climber.  I am, however, saying that doing some rock and ice climbing will significantly help your ski mountaineering.

7 - Get the Right Gear, Over Time

Steep Denali line...trusting my gear.
Don't blow your bank account, but don't be too stingy either.  In order to ski mountaineer and have an enjoyable time doing it, you need the right gear.  Over the years I've slowly accumulated the gear I need.  Now, I've got the gear for nearly any expedition.  If I tried some of the things I do today with the gear that I started the sport with I would be miserable (it was heavy and cumbersome!) and not as safe.  As I've slowly accumulated the gear over time, I've had the opportunity to really get to know how to use it, and understand its pros and cons.  You trust your life with your gear, so it is important to have the right gear for a given objective, and know how to use it.

Getting the right gear for a given ski mountaineering goal will make that goal more enjoyable and more attainable.

8 - Be Hopeful, not Expectant

Not what we hoped, but what we expected.
The possibilities for amazing ski mountaineering experiences are endless - steep lines, deep snow, amazing views...the list goes on and on.  Do not, however, let possibilities become expectations.  Doing so is a dangerous practice that leads to disappointment, injury and even death.  

For starters, it is not uncommon for conditions and weather to be miserable, or to make many attempts at the same goal without achieving it.  If you expect things to go your way all the time you'll be sorely disappointed.  If you're regularly disappointed you likely won't stick with the sport very long.  

More importantly, having high expectations can lead to poor decision making, which can lead to injury or death.  The desire to achieve a goal because you're expectant can cloud your judgment.  Clouded judgment leads to dangerous decisions that you wouldn't otherwise make.  You'll end up trying to do what you expected to do rather that what you should do.

It isn't all doom and gloom, though.  Sometimes things work out exactly as planned (or better than you could have imagined).  So, instead of being expectant I suggest that you be HOPEFUL.  Enter each scenario with a hope that it will be great, but understand that it may not.  You'll be much happier and safer if you take this approach.

9 - Don't Compare to Others

Individually bettering ourselves together.
You don't have anything to prove to anyone other than yourself.  I'll say it again...you don't have anything to prove to anyone other than yourself.  Challenging oneself is a good thing, and ski mountaineering is a great way to do so.  But, in this era of internet videos, big egos and constant "one upping," it can be easy to fall into the trap of needing to be like, or "better" than others.  That is not what this sport is about.

Even though the nature of ski mountaineering fosters deep friendships and social situations, it is still a personal sport.  It gives you time for introspection.  It helps you appreciate those things in life which are truly important.  It helps you realize what you are capable of.  It helps you put your ego in check.  It can teach you a lot about yourself.  It can teach you a lot about others.  

Allow others to inspire and teach you, but don't try to be "better" than others.  Simply try to better yourself.  This will make you a wiser, safer and happier ski mountaineer.

10 -  Be Thankful

There is always more to experience, learn and do, but be thankful with what you've already been afforded the opportunity and ability to do.  If you are fortunate enough to pursue ski mountaineering then your life is already truly blessed.  The building of friendships, the use of your body, the experience of the natural world, the thrills and challenges...it's all icing on the cake.

A moment of extreme thankfulness atop Denali.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Update: Family, Friends, Work, Fatherhood and Skiing

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Family & Friends

It has been a while since I've checked in.  I've been busy with many things since my last post, but here are some of the highlights.

I missed the big snowstorms in the western part of the country over Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I don't regret it at all.  I was spending quality time with family and friends back east, and it was wonderful.

Classic Pennsylvania day, the day after Thanksgiving.
Marilyn doing her first sledding on Thanksgiving day in PA (top)
compared to her first Thanksgiving in Colorado (bottom).

Marilyn enjoying the colorful presents and Christmas lights.
My dear friend Phil and I with the "Big Uglies." We enjoyed
the PSU bowl game at Yankee stadium.

My friend Tom (aka The Real Hiking Viking) spent about a month at our house preparing for his upcoming distance hiking season.  Tom is a childhood friend who, after returning from several tours of duty as a Marine, began distance hiking.  He finished the Appalachian Trail in 2013 and the Continental Divide Trial in 2014.  A few days ago he left to start ~500 miles on the Florida National Scenic Trail, which will be followed by hiking the entirety of the Arizona National Scenic Trail (800+ miles), which will be followed by the Pacific Crest Trail (~2600 miles).  When he finishes the Pacific Crest Trail he will have completed the "Triple Crown" of North American distance hiking.  I encourage you to follow along on his journey's through his Instagram account.

Tom being his typical goofy self while getting
some training done in Colorado.


In mid-December I did a little mountain access work for the seismic industry in the Colorado desert.  A unique place to be roaming around the wilderness.  These jobs have me working with a diverse group of people (mountain guides, migrant workers, helicopter pilots, oil industry folks, etc.) and are rather interesting.  It is especially interesting when you come across myriad ancient ruins during the day.

Typical scenes during a day of mountain access 
work in the seismic field.


Since returning from Christmas travels I've spent amazing time taking care of Marilyn during the week.  I've got memories that I'll cherish for a lifetime from the last few months with her.  She and I have a special bond that has grown deeper during this time.

Marilyn and I enjoying some of the unusually warm
February weather (this day was in the 70's F).


Oh, I almost forgot to mention...I've been doing some skiing.  I've only been on a lift one day this season and that was to spend time with my friend Aaron Howell (a Marine veteran and sit-skier) in Aspen.  Other than that, it has been all backcountry skiing and earning my turns...I love it!  Lots of skiing in Colorado and some skiing Wyoming as well.

Finding the snow when it hasn't for a while.
Backcountry skiing in the full moon = beautiful.

Spring conditions came early.

Mini couloirs.
Really got to get on some bigger lines during the draught.

More night touring.
Lovin' some Wyoming.

Got to check this aesthetic line off my list.
Earning turns.

I've made several short videos of my ski exploits this season to share with everyone.  I hope you enjoy.

I thank God for my many blessings every day.

I'm incredibly fortunate to have such an amazing wife and daughter, WITH ANOTHER DAUGHTER DUE TO ARRIVE IN A MONTH!  Add the many friends and other family members that I love and getting to experience some outdoor adventure at the same time...God has truly blessed me.  I'm very thankful.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

First Day of the 2014/2015 Ski Season

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Had a good first day of the ski season with Norm and Eric.  Really mellow terrain, but really soft snow.  Looking forward to a season filled with fatherhood and freshies!

A little snow in the face.
Norm enjoying a little soft snow.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

SKI DENALI - An Expedition to Climb Denali and Ski the Messner Couloir

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I decided to consolidate everything from the SKI DENALI expedition into one place to make it easier for people who want to use it as a resource.  And, since I've been hobbled by an injury for the past week I decided to use some of my would-be exercise time I put together a new, short, highlight video.  Here ya go.

SKI DENALI - Highlights (Summit, Messner Couloir and More) 


Part 1 (Getting to Kahiltna Base Camp)

Part 2 (Ski Hill Camp to Motorcycle Hill Camp to Camp 14)

Part 3 (Skiing Rescue Gully and West Rib/Orient Express)

Part 4 (Summit Cimb and Skiing the Messner Couloir)

Part 5 (Denali Departure and Getting Home)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

SKI DENALI - PART 5 (Departing Denali and Getting Home)

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"See 'em sit there, and as they always do for some reason after they touch the yellow gate the last time,
they just kind of, it's like you cut the strings on a - what is it that, a marionette? - they just pfft.
Someone will be there with a chair and they just sit there, and you can see this...
the extremes of joy that can come with sports, that you only get when failure was probable."
-Gary "Laz" Cantrell (race organizer for the Barkley 100)

Joyful in a harsh landscape.

Ski Denali - Part 5: Denali Departure

We had done it.  The years of planning, preparation, learning and training, the long days waiting in Denali's weather, the continual upward push with dehydrated bodies and tired legs had all paid off.  North America's highest point had been reached and descended on skis via the Messner Couloir.  The conditions were what dreams are made of.  We were blessed and we knew it, feeling truly content in what we were fortunate enough to experience.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

SKI DENALI - PART 4 (Summit Climb and Skiing the Messner Couloir)

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"Further up and further in."
-The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis

Way up and gettin' into it!

Ski Denali - Part 4: Denali Summit Climb

This was it - summit day.  We had been on the mountain for 18 days and most of those were spent waiting in storms.  So far, all the clear weather windows had been short, and today's was no exception.  After talking with Joel Gratz (meteorologist for OpenSnow.com) the evening before, it looked like we had a weather window of roughly 18 hours before another series of storms was set to blast the mountain.  It was now or never if we hoped to reach the summit.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

SKI DENALI - PART 3 (Skiing Rescue Gully and West Rib/Orient Express)

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Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!"
-Oh The Places You'll Go, Dr. Seuss

On my mountain.
On my mountain.

Ski Denali - Part 3: Camp 14

Planning and patience - key elements for a successful ski-mountaineering expedition.  Up to this point, our entire time climbing Denali had involved storms with short windows of clear weather.  This pattern only continued upon our arrival at Camp 14.  The storminess was a double edged sword.  It simultaneously made the lines we wanted to ski both skiable and un-skiable.  The lines needed snow to cover the glacial ice, but we could not ski the lines (or get to them) while it was snowing.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

SKI DENALI - PART 2 (Ski Hill Camp to Motorcycle Hill Camp to Camp 14)

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Ski Denali - Part 2

Ski Hill Camp - Motorcycle Hill Camp - Camp 14

"The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge:
but fools despise wisdom and instruction."
-Proverbs 1:7

The imposing massif of Denali standing more than 12,000' above Ski Hill Camp.
The imposing massif of Denali standing more than 12,000' above Ski Hill Camp.

Ski Denali - Part 2: Ski Hill Camp

Paradoxically, in order to climb the peak with the largest vertical rise in the world (from base to summit that is entirely above sea level) we had to start by going down.  The brisk descent of Heartbreak Hill, roughly 500 vertical feet that separates the main Kahiltna Glacier from Kahiltna Base Camp, was a pleasant way to begin the day.  Finishing the short descent put us at the lowest point of our climb, roughly 6650'.  As we turned north and began skinning up the Kahiltna Glacier we were on the expedition's opening battle against gravity.

This was our first opportunity to test our set-ups and truly feel the weight of all our gear.  Fortunately, from the bottom of Heartbreak Hill to Ski Hill Camp the terrain climbs for ~5 miles at a very mellow and consistent angle.  The heavy loads, although significant, were not a torturous burden.  We made great time as we skinned past those walking in guided groups.  Hooray for skis!

The scale and grandeur of the mountains really set in as we moved up the Kahiltna.  We were surrounded on all sides by enormous crevasses, seracs, cornices, cliff bands and ice-falls.  God's fingerprint is uniquely stamped on this dramatic, severe, no-nonsense landscape.  Listening to what it is telling you, learning from it and acting accordingly is of the utmost importance.

This place will humble you...if you're arrogant you are dead.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

SKI DENALI - PART 1 (Getting to Kahiltna Base Camp)

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DIA - ANC - TLK - Kahiltna Base Camp

"May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand."
-Traditional Gaelic Prayer

The Alaska Range rising up to meet us.
The Alaska Range

Ski Denali - Part 1: DIA

Saying goodbye at DIA
Saying goodbye at DIA.
I was ready to go.  This was the moment I had long been anticipating.  I had prepared for years, sorting out the details of what it took and what I needed to climb and ski from North America's highest point.  

It was something that my grandfather had told me about as a youngster. 

It was a life goal I had written down as a Cub Scout.   

I had stared at pictures, read stories and dreamt about it since my childhood.

I had long prepared physically and mentally for the challenges of such an expedition.

I wanted to do it to continue a family legacy and do something that my children can be proud of.

I had an inexplicable feeling that it was something I needed to do.

So why wasn't I thrilled to get started?  The departure is usually when my heart starts to race and I imagine the fantastic adventure that lies ahead.  But, I didn't have that usual feeling of exhilaration as I stepped out of the car at DIA's massive circus-tentesque terminal.

Waiting for the flight...thinking.
Waiting for the flight...thinking.
Perhaps my lack of excitement upon departure was because this trip was different from the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other mountain adventures I've been on.  For starters, I was now a father and I was about to leave my wife and nearly 9-month old daughter for an unknown amount of time.  Would I be gone a couple weeks?  A month?  Longer...?  I already missed them as the security guard ushered them towards the terminal exit.  Not knowing when I would see them again seemed to amplify that feeling.  Additionally, I had invested so much into planning and preparing for this trip that starting it made me nervous.  What if things didn't go well?  Would I feel like I had wasted all that effort?  Would I feel like a failure?  Would I ever get to attempt this lifelong dream again?  Would my family be disappointed if I wasn't successful?  Would my family be proud of me even if I was successful?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Skiing Denali - Gear and Packing

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The time is upon me.  I get on Denali in less than 24 hours and I have a mountain of gear packed up and ready to go.  It was not an easy process accumulating all the necessary gear, nor was it easy to get it all packed.  Here's what we've go going up the mountain with us.

I hope you enjoy my "MTV Cribs" version of showing you some gear.

Denali Gear Packing from Joel Bettner on Vimeo.