Two rangers were charging toward us like a pair of angry elephants. The massive hull of Mount St Helens loomed behind their khaki-covered frames. A fierce sun burned over the rocky volcano.
“We need to see your permits!” they hollered over a pile of jagged boulders. “We haven’t seen anyone skiing here for weeks!”
My friend Eli and I were both shouldering a pair of skis, parked at the bottom of a blackened snowfield. Our squiggly ski turns revealed a layer of pristine snow hidden beneath the dark volcanic ash – like the trail of a skier’s perfect powder line, but through the remnants of a chimney fire.
“We have permits!” I yelled back, shuffling my muddy ski boot off the snow and onto a pile of sun-warmed rocks. We’d procured the necessary recreation passes back in March when the forest service released them for the climbing season. But, the ranger’s skepticism was warranted.
The rain-or-shine challenge of Turns All Year beckons us to stop looking for that silver platter of fun and powder days and to go outside anyway.
It was July 1 and we were skiing on a mountain covered more with sunburned rock than fields of snow. Just a few sad patches of dirty, crusty snow lingered on the upmost flank of the volcano. My lavender boards matched the lilac bushes that had started blossoming outside our home months ago. And Eli’s split shorts rippled in the alpine breeze.
We were skiing in July for the first time ever because I was on a quest to complete an all-season ski challenge known as Turns All Year, during which skiers try to ski or snowboard every month of the year, for as many consecutive months as possible. I’d never made it past eight.
But, I was interested in changing that and completing at least a streak of 12 – with one caveat: as long as it stayed fun.
I had some commitment issues with the challenge and was skeptical about how enjoyable it would remain once fluffy snow turned to crud on the slopes of the Pacific Northwest and there were more seasonally-appropriate outdoor activities to pursue like trail running or alpine lake hopping. The enjoyment factor of trying to ski every single calendar month seemed questionable, especially considering how rapidly climate change is impacting snow sports and winter generally.
In the four winters I’ve been skiing out West, winter has suffered a noticeable decline. There are years when the local ski resorts can only open for a few days because the snowpack is so dismal. I’ve skied in a t-shirt in January. I’ve cancelled hut trips in February when the trailhead didn’t have a single square inch of snow. A century ago, Oregon used to boast over 40 glaciers across our state but now scientists aren’t even sure how many remain because of how drastically the landscape has changed with our warming earth.
They just held a funeral for a dead glacier on one of the Cascades.
It’s been hard enough to find reliably enjoyable skiing during the winter as the climate changes – was it a doomed idea to try to do it during all four seasons? It seemed like it might be too late to start playing this decades-old game. I’d had my doubts about how much fun this July outing would be earlier in the day, as we cautiously picked our way over the refrigerator-sized boulders that guard the ridgelines of Mount St Helens, with edges sharp as steak knives. Our heavy skis challenged our balance and threatened to hurtle us into the jaws of volcanic boulder piles.
“Toto, we’re not in a smooth skintrack anymore!” I hollered to Eli, as I caught myself on a razor-sharp rock. My clunky ski boot was not designed for volcanic hopscotch. Handfuls of SPF 70 dripped into my eyeballs while my hands focused on protecting my body from a rocky collision.
But, as we crested the summit of the volcano and started changing into our ski gear, the ridiculousness and reward of our objective flooded our spirits with uplifting joy. The summit unleashed the same exhilarative rush as it did on every other mountain outing. I looked around at the panoramic view of the endless layers of Cascades flooding the horizon. Helens’ dramatic crater was piping clouds of steam on the other side of the cornice-covered summit. It was special to be up here, no matter how silly our choice of human-powered travel.
“Eli, this is so much fun!” I gleefully cried, like a third-grader on a field trip to a dinosaur museum. My heel triggered the satisfying click-click of my ski binding being locked and loaded for the descent.
We hiked twelve and a half miles up Oregon’s Middle Sister, just to grab six measly turns on a patch of powder tucked between outcrops of jagged boulders.
We hooted and hollered as we performed a ballet of squiggles down the sooty snow and when we reached the bottom we looked back to admire our handiwork, before reassuring the kind rangers we were equipped with the necessary paperwork.
“Sign me up for August!” I yelled while surfing the sandy scree back down to the designated trail.
As the months ticked by, the conditions got progressively less reliable for skiing. More snow melted, and the glaciers were stripped down to their bare bottoms under the heat of the scorching summer sun. And the fall ushered in more precipitation – but of the wet, and not frozen, variety. That’s the trend lately in Oregon – the same, steady amount of precipitation, but falling as rain, not snow.
But, no matter what the conditions threw at us or how little snow remained, we persisted. And the challenge of skiing during the less snowy months stayed unexpectedly fun and fulfilling – but I don’t think that had much to do with the quality of ski conditions.
In August, we dug a picnic table into the snow with our avalanche shovels, three thousand feet up a snowfield on Mount Hood to celebrate my boyfriend’s birthday with slopeside mimosas and a raspberry cheesecake that we lugged up the mountain in a tote bag. Our shoulders sagged from the weight of carrying skis, several liters of OJ, and a checkered tablecloth thousands of feet up Oregon’s tallest volcano.
Then we trudged through pouring rain in September that even the most bulletproof Gore-tex was no match for. My eyes could’ve used little windshield wipers to maintain visibility through the thick deluge. And it took days for my boots to dry out. “I think we might be the only people skiing in Oregon today” I yelled to my boyfriend through the pummeling precipitation and soupy fog. We ended our sopping wet descent at Mount Hood’s historic Timberline Lodge, where we rewarded ourselves with gold stars and steaming hot chocolate for completing the “Wet-tember Turns.”
And in October, as we closed in on 12 consecutive months of turning all year, we hiked twelve and a half miles up Oregon’s Middle Sister, just to grab six measly turns on a patch of powder tucked between outcrops of jagged boulders. The snow was just deep enough to shield the bottoms of our skis from the jaws of rocks lurking beneath the powder. And not long enough to grab all six turns in one go. We had to lap it. Twice.
But taking our skis for a long walk through the Cascades was one of my favorite days of that shoulder season, despite the very lopsided earn-to-turn ratio. The need to check the October box led us into an alpine wonderland on a day when we would have probably skipped the snow-dusted mountain trails for a more logical weekend pastime. From a recreation perspective, there was no great reason to be gallivanting up high – there was a bit too much snow for an enjoyable run or hike, and too little snow to justify skiing or other snow sports. So, we didn’t see a single person all day, despite the beauty that assaulted us from every angle, with a playful sprinkling of powder coating the trio of rugged volcanos.
As we were embarking on the long trudge up Middle Sister to scour the mountain for patches of shin-deep snow, we passed through a swath of forest torched by the 24,000 acre Milli Fire two summers before. The blackened trees towered over us as we marched up the trail and delivered a stark reminder of one of the most challenging parts of this turns-all-year challenge: how drastically our landscapes and our environment are changing in the face of the ever-worsening climate crisis.
It’s claiming dozens of calendar days for any form of recreation – including skiing. Those torched firs were a reminder that if we sit around waiting for the perfect conditions to go out, we will go out less. We will spend fewer days immersing ourselves in natural landscapes, fewer days deepening our relationship with the outdoors, and fewer days finding reasons to fight for it.
When I started doing Turns All Year, I was asking the wilderness to deliver guaranteed fun to me on a silver platter. But that was the wrong approach. The rain-or-shine challenge of Turns All Year beckons us to stop looking for that silver platter of fun and powder days and to go outside anyway. And to find a reason to enjoy our time in wild spaces – no matter how difficult the conditions may be, no matter how crusty or shallow the snow, or how penetrating the rain, or how many boulders we have to hop to land on a patch of snow. It’s an invitation we could use more of as the great outdoors suffers under our watch.
Turns All Year certainly isn’t going to save our wilderness or our winters from the climate crisis, but it does give us a reason to go out and to remember just how much we love the outdoors, to see them in literally new light and in different conditions. No matter how many layers of Gore-tex we have to wear to ski through the rain.
Photos courtesy of the author