Winter’s liberations — Healing in backcountry snow

 

The air feels alive despite the morning stillness. It’s the remnant energy of the storm trying to find a place in the bluebird morning without much luck. Nine inches of fresh Utah powder, the greatest snow on Earth, embraces the pine tree branches and blankets the low grade slope at the base of Iron Mountain. The only sounds are the squeaking of cold plastic as the three of us tighten the buckles of our alpine touring boots, the zipping of a second layer of jackets and the thud of the pickup hatch coming down.

Maddy Olsen, a 20-year-old Park City native, pulls her touring skis out of the back of the truck and leans them against the bed hatch. The bed is littered with our gear, a lacrosse stick, a few wood planks and a few textbooks. Her 17-year-old brother, Gator, has inherited the pickup since their dad’s license was taken away; his spreading tumors have made it unsafe for him to drive. It’s been a good week for their dad, Tom, one without any seizures. Right now he’s at home, resting, and Maddy and Gator have seized the opportunity to get outside.

Maddy and Gator Olsen halfway to the summit on a December morning backcountry tour in the Wasatch Mountains near Park City, Utah. (Skye Mooney/Peninsula Press)

Maddy and Gator Olsen halfway to the summit on a December morning backcountry tour in the Wasatch Mountains near Park City, Utah. (Skye Mooney/Peninsula Press)

Maddy digs through her backpack to find the orange adhesive touring skins and starts to pull one open. Gator smirks at her as she struggles to unstick the folded skin.

“Really, Maddy?” He raises his left brow.

“Hey if it’s so easy why don’t you do it?” She tosses the skin at him and he catches it before it hits his face. Gator grabs the ends and starts to pull, fighting the glue holding the base together. No luck.

“Really, Gator?” Maddy punches him in the shoulder.

“It’s ’cause you haven’t used them in so long! Not my problem.” The siblings team up. Each grabs an end and they lean away from each other and soon a loud rip fills the empty lot and they both shoot backward laughing as the skin peels open. A pile of snow falls from a branch of a pine nestled close to the road, and for a moment, maybe, they forget about the cancer and the hospitals and the numbness to reality and the struggles that have come to define their family’s life over the past four years.

Maddy aligns the skin with the edges of the skis before pressing the sticky side onto the bases and using the palm of her hand to secure it from tip to tail. Gator has pulled open the other one and hands it to her smugly. She takes it from him and pushes him away, then presses it onto her other ski.

As we finish getting ready and make sure our beacons are beeping, they check each other’s gear and zip up each other’s packs and Maddy reminds Gator to put on sunscreen. We begin hiking up the skin track, skis gliding forward and up as the millions of angled synthetic hairs on the skins keep us from slipping back. It’s a chilly morning — can’t be warmer than 15 degrees — and the sun reflects off the freshly fallen snow, contrasting the dark green pines.

The Olsens are athletes. They glide tirelessly at a steady pace as they continue to talk and laugh. Gator pulls on a branch above his head so that it shoots a pile of snow back at Maddy.

The past year has been the most difficult in their dad’s four-year battle with melanoma, which ended up spreading tumors throughout his body and brain. In the beginning there were moments of optimism when the disease regressed, even a celebration with food and music and dancing to congratulate him on a full year of being cancer-free. But the past two years have been plagued by seizures, radiation treatments, the discovery of new tumors, personality changes due to structural alterations in his brain and the painful side effects of a relatively new trial treatment that has little chance of success.

Tom Olsen taught his daughter Maddy to ski when she was three years old. Those are some of her first and happiest memories. She started competing in in moguls at age 14. Her dad had been a mogul skier and he coached her at every event and encouraged her to move forward with her freestyle career. Gator also competed in moguls, and their family would travel throughout the western U.S. for events. After three years of mogul skiing, Maddy found it to be too much pressure. She wanted to do well for her dad but it became something she had a hard time doing for herself.

Gator is now a lacrosse player for Park City High School and Maddy is now a member of the U.S. Freestyle Aerial Ski team. They don’t travel together anymore, and their dad can only make it to the occasional home competition. But the brother and sister have found a way to continue to find peace in the mountains. Backcountry skiing, or touring, is their shared passion, and they talk about it as if it is a spiritual experience rather than a sport.

Maddy (center-back) and her younger sisters, Hailey (left) and Dani (right), with their father Tom, at the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City, Utah -- after a surgery in response to an obstruction from a tumor in his intestine. (Photo courtesy of Em Olsen)

Maddy (center-back) and her younger sisters, Hailey (left) and Dani (right), with their father Tom, at the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City, Utah — after a surgery in response to an obstruction from a tumor in his intestine. (Photo courtesy of Em Olsen)

“Touring is an escape,” Maddy says. “It makes me appreciate where I am.”

Recent brain research confirms Maddy’s claim that she feels mentally, emotionally and physically invigorated after she’s been in the mountains. An 2015 study co-authored by researchers in Stanford’s environmental sciences and psychology departments found that spending time in nature promotes mental health by shutting off neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program.)

In the study, researchers had two groups of people take 90-minute hikes. One group strolled through grasslands studded with oak trees, while the other walked beside a busy four-lane highway. Before and after their excursions, participants received brain scans and filled out questionnaires. The results revealed notable differences in brain activity between the two groups. People who’d walked through the pastoral setting showed less neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain that’s active during “rumination,” which is defined as repetitive thought focused on negative emotions.

In other words, a hike up a snow-covered mountain can serve as holistic medicine for the body and spirit. Maddy calls it her “productive escape.”

Alcohol, on the other hand, is what Maddy classifies as her “unproductive escape.” She started drinking socially when she was 17, never too often or too much and always for fun. When she was 19, her dad spent the summer in Houston for more serious treatment, and that was when drinking became something more than a way to have fun.

***

We get through the relatively low-grade gully and the skin track cranes to the right, a neck twisting up the mountain. Gator is in front with Maddy right behind him. Gator pulls on the end of a pine branch and shoots another pile of fresh snow into his sister’s face. She laughs and takes off after him, leaning back with every step as the ascent steepens to make sure the skins are engaged with the snow. She gets close to catching him as he scrambles up a vertical face and she bends over to pick up snow to throw at him. It’s too light to pack, horrible for snowballs but perfect for skiing. We will be floating today when we begin our descent.

Gator stands on top of the face smiling and panting and waiting for us. Maddy stops for a minute to bend over and loosen the bottom buckle of her right boot. She has a lot of hardware in that foot — the result of a season-ending injury she suffered two summers ago, when she shattered her foot while training. The morning it happened had parallels to the morning she found out about her dad’s sickness. Both events were preceded by her growing confidence in nailing a new trick, and both moments seemed to happen out of nowhere. It was July 5, 2012, when Maddy’s coach sat beside her at the training pool and told her that her dad was in the hospital with a brain tumor. Maddy left training for the hospital in shock. It was September 19, 2014, when her coach kneeled beside her and tried to stabilize her leg as her dislocated and shattered foot remained encased in her ski boot. Maddy left training for the hospital in shock.

Maddy Olsen competing a full-full, double backflip with a 720-degree rotation, in Aerials at a World Cup Event. Her top finish for the 2015-2016 season was third place at the World Cup in Moscow, Russia. (Photo courtesy of Steven Earl)

Maddy Olsen competing a full-full, double backflip with a 720-degree rotation, in Aerials at a World Cup Event. Her top finish for the 2015-2016 season was third place at the World Cup in Moscow, Russia. (Photo courtesy of Steven Earl)

The injury had heavy repercussions. She couldn’t travel with the team on the World Cup Tour or compete at all. As surgeries progressed, the damage was found to be worse than initially thought, and she would not be able to train the upcoming season, nor ski, nor run, nor hike long distances. Maddy had postponed college to pursue her Olympic dream, but now she was confined to the couch with a bottle of hydromorphone pills and a long recovery ahead. “I wasn’t drinking for fun at all anymore. It was just an escape from reality.” A combination of booze and the potent painkillers proved an effective way to forget about her foot and her dad’s progressing illness.

During the summer of 2014, Tom’s cancer spread to his spinal fluid and he was admitted to a program in Houston. Doctors warned that the experimental treatment would not be worth the pain he would have to endure; he was going to die anyway. “But he said he didn’t want to die without trying for us,” Maddy says.

The family relocated to Houston for months at a time to be with him, staying nights in family friend’s homes and spending their days in hospital rooms. The treatment was physically unbearable, and the girls and Gator and Tom’s wife Em would watch as nausea followed the pain, and as the need for morphine outweighed his desire to remain awake.

Maddy says that finding love in the deep pain has brought their family closer. She even regards her injury as an unconventional gift. “It allowed me to spend time with my family and my dad … who I might not have for much longer.” She and Gator grew closer than she could have ever imagined, and she said her little sisters saved her. “They helped me find the joy in life and appreciate the family I had. We had a lot of ice cream dates. You can’t cry with an ice cream cone in your hand.”

As the older siblings, Maddy and Gator have had to step up. Gator helps with Tom’s contracting company and puts in hours after school and practice driving him to different sites. Maddy helps Em with the girls and remains a top member of the U.S. ski team. She also plans fundraisers for causes she believes in. Last summer, she organized a fundraiser to benefit the Shade Foundation and Camp Kesem, a camp for kids who have a parent suffering from cancer.

***

We’ve been climbing for about two-and-a-half hours. Maddy and Gator are still chatting as though they are catching up about overseas adventures. As we hike over the saddle, the valley on the other side opens up and white-blue mountains radiate before us. “Pretty incredible,” Maddy says.

We’ve accessed the mountain in a way that’s available only in winter. We glided above dense foliage and climbed faces we would not have been able to navigate without snow. In summer, these peaks become backpacking destinations, but trekking to the summit seems much more complicated and less pure; when you get to the steeps, you have to battle rocks and navigate cliffs. In winter, everything seems to flow to the same rhythm. Each step glides the ski forward. Cliff bands become more accessible as you sneak through couloirs and less intimidating when their bases are cushioned with snow. We’ve “earned our turns,” as the saying goes, but the expressions of gratitude on the Olsens’ faces make it seem as though we’ve been given something greater.

Maddy Olsen competing a full-full, double backflip with a 720-degree rotation, in Aerials at a World Cup Event. Her top finish for the 2015-2016 season was third place at the World Cup in Moscow, Russia. (Photo courtesy of Steven Earl)

Maddy Olsen competing a full-full, double backflip with a 720-degree rotation, in Aerials at a World Cup Event. Her top finish for the 2015-2016 season was third place at the World Cup in Moscow, Russia. (Photo courtesy of Steven Earl)

We’ve worked up a sweat coming up, but the reminder that it’s early December quickly finds our damp skin through the openings in our base layers. We double-check our beacons, and Gator passes Maddy a water bottle. We drink, eat the energy bars I’ve packed and look out at the teeth of Wasatch in silence.

We don extra layers, check safety gear one last time and peel the skins from the bases of our skis. Finally, we hear the six satisfying clicks of bindings as our boots bond to our skis.

The avalanche danger is moderate, which is why we’re on a low-angled slope and in the trees. We skate along the ridge for a bit until we get to the north face. This is the face we’ve come to ski. We stop and decide on our order and talk through our exits. It’s going to be fresh tracks for everyone. If skinning up the hill was peaceful, carving arches through Utah powder will be existential.

Maddy looks at me and makes on “O” shape with her mouth. Her eyes light up and she says, “First day touring in two years!” Later she’ll tell me that the mountains are much more than just a replacement for the tequila and vodka — they help her grow. Out here is where she feels most alive.

She pushes off toward the ridge, bumping her brother as she passes.

“What a weirdo,” Gator says, and then skis after her.