Charles Dickens in the Age of Corona

February 7th is Charles Dickens' birthday. The writer of classic ominous stories and his birthday hosted an ominous snowpack event for the Ogden Wasatch mountain range that we never really recovered from in all honesty. Rain and rime iced the top of the snowpack taking on the name of the author becoming the Dickens crust. A crust so thick that it persisted the rest of the season only to be one-upped by an invisible layer of sickness and fear that blanketed our society like nothing I have seen in my lifetime. The novel corona virus Covid-19 finished off the winter in unprecedented fashion a month and a half early completing the destruction of the winter of 2019/20 completely... for me at least. 

^Ice formed on the tree branch in this picture above is a
good visualization of the Dickens crust. I was in the U.P. of Michigan when the unseasonably warm storm came to the Ogden Wasatch mountain range. I read about it on the internet, but when I returned and went out for my first day back on an observation day forecasting for a guide outfit I work with, Whisper Ridge, I found out just how bad it really was.

^I had to beat it with so much force to get it to break to illustrate its presence in this picture.

^In the picture above the thickness of the crust is visible and also a thin layer of shear ice in the middle. This crust would prove to plague our snowpack the rest of the season. February also did not produce enough snowfall to overcome it either. One of the worst February snowfall totals we'd ever seen in northern Utah. The Ogden Wasatch mountain range tops out at around 9,600-9,800 feet above sea level, and there was not a single aspect or elevation left unaffected.

^I had a pair of my friends, Zach Houston and Neil Catton, come into town from San Diego to do some touring and the Dickens crust had not let us from its grasp. The good news though is the Central Wasatch mountain range is a solid 1,000 feet higher in elevation. I figured it was worth a shot. With a small storm on the horizon we cruised down to Big Cottonwood Canyon to take advantage of the one-drop program at Brighton Resort to have a relatively chill backcountry tour into Wolverine Cirque. This way we could cut-off some vertical climb in our ascension by using the lift to get a proper warm up tour and see how the crust was reacting at higher elevations. 

^We found tacking on an extra 1,000 feet made a good amount of difference. Above 10,200 feet above sea level the crust was much less persistent and breaking down. We had a good day in the sun, and the California boys got a chance to acclimate. That night a small storm delivered some fresh snow. We were hopeful that it would be enough to cream over the crust, but not too much that it would result in reactive avalanche conditions on top of the crust bed surface. We did a day in the resort at Powder Mountain the following day in the storm as the totals began to increase throughout the day, and by the end of the day we were indeed just barely staying on top of the crust. 

^The following day the sun came out and we had a really great tour in a local Ogden classic zone that I had been longing to take the fellas to for quite a few years, but it had just never really seemed to work out when they'd come to town in previous years. I was able to show them a first descent in the distance that our mutual dear friend, the late great Ben Geiger, had put up just a few years ago with two mentors of ours. It felt good to get up in the zone that Ben and I had spent so much time together, but had not had the chance to share with them. I felt like Ben was smiling down on our day as I finally got them up into the zone. 

^Zach on the ridge.

^All smiles on my face in this picture above as some cloud cover moved in. We managed to stay on top of the crust on some settled creamy snow. Lower angled slopes were skiing the best as steeper terrain did not hold up the thin blanket of creamy snow as well as lower angles did. 

^Zach getting creamy in the trees.

^The last day we had some quality sunshine. We went after some of our old usual suspects on the Mt. Ogden ridge line. 

^It was a chore to find the last vestiges of the decent skiing as big winds overnight scoured a lot of it away to Wyoming leaving us little but our friend... the Dickens crust. However, I had a hunch and despite their doubts we ascended through some nasty climbing conditions and on a wind loaded southeast aspect we found some good snow that was thankfully not too loaded to have become reactive from an avalanche perspective. 

^Pictured above, Neil leaning to a beauty of a turn, and learning to trust my judgement a little bit more too. I don't lay claim to knowing much about many things anymore as the trials and tribulations of life have beaten me into an ever-more humble nature, but powder hunting is indeed one of the only things I am still confident that I am good at. No one gets it right all the time, but I did this time. 

^Despite the Dickens crust, we managed to have quite a spectacular weekend of skiing and touring. I was feeling pretty nostalgic about the whole thing. Typically, our buddy Ben would have been the fourth wheel of this group, and it was indeed feeling a bit like something was missing the whole time without him. At one point I remarked to Zach, "he would've loved today." I do believe though that he did, and that he was looking down on us with a big smile the whole time. 

^Not long after the San Diego boys left I was back on the road driving down to Taos, New Mexico to judge the Telemark Freeskiing competition there. It is quite a drive at 12 hours of rolling time, but these comps are near and dear to my heart. I have been the Director of Freeski for the U.S. Telemark Ski Association for over a handful of years by no. This comp is our one event of the year geared towards the youth of telemark. IFSA hosts these kids all winter long competing against alpine skiers, but this event is the kids' one event just for them. I have a hard time watching the kids push themselves in consequential terrain since having my own kids, but I do love these comps and these kids. The way the kids love these events keeps me going. Nick Cherney is one of the Aspen Valley Ski Club coaches, and he has taken on a lot of the leg work for me the last few years as my guiding career has gotten incredibly busy. There is no way this event could happen without him at this point. Kaela Gillum, at Taos Ski Valley, does incredible work and is so dialed that we are able to slide right into their system. The event went off without a hitch this year. I was super proud of the kids and how they handled themselves throughout the weekend. 

^A youngster crushing the steep rocky venue in picture above. 

^In this picture above, parents and teammates cheer on the skiers from just beyond my perch in the judge's booth. Local judge, Jake Herrera, was on point for us yet again as head judge. I have really come to enjoy seeing him every year. He has family up in the Ogden area, and I really hope he makes it up to Ogden some winter so I can repay some of his kindness and generosity by showing him around some powder turns in the Ogden Wasatch mountain range some day. 

^After a long drive back to Ogden from Taos, I was elated to have my wife and kids come visit for a long weekend. I miss them so much while I am gone. A year ago my wife and I decided that since our oldest son Amos was beginning school that we should take them home to our hometown in Wisconsin. It was also starting to feel like time to have them near our parents and families so they could grow up with them and especially with my brother's kids. I travel a lot in this guide life as well and the help with the kids for my wife became an apparent benefit too. It really does take a village, and there is no village for us like the one that raised both of us in our tiny little corner of Wisconsin. 

^The Dickens crust is not an issue when your chasing little ones around on the groomers either. It was a relief to just hang out with them for a while and not have to be chasing conditions in a time of horrible conditions. Sunshine, kiddo giggles, and groomers felt like the world to me. Amos was really starting to get the hang of how his skis run too. It was mind blowing to see him break through to a whole new level. 

^So much so that we decided that it was time for him to take his first ride all the way to the top in the gondola. He was so excited, and so was I. 

^He is getting so big right before my eyes. 

^I put him on the backpack straps just to be able to keep him wrangled as there are some unavoidable relatively steep sections for his ability, and I was grateful I did. Despite him really getting the hang of his skis and controlling his speed I was glad to be able to reign him in a little when he got going a little too fast for my comfort. Maybe not too fast for his comfort, but definitely for mine. 

^Then in a flash my family left and I was back on the skin track for some observations to get ready for another long stretch of guide work in the snowcats and helicopter with Whisper Ridge. 

^Ugh. Crust-tastic. Otherwise known as a "shit sandwich". A nasty olĂ© Big Mac triple decker pictured above. The next few weeks on the guide train were looking tough, but this is when we earn it most I guess. 

^I recruited my buddies, Rob and Maya, for the scouting mission tour. In addition to the snowpack, we checked out putting together a new low-angle circuit that I have been meaning to put together. It is off the beaten path near a usual suspect zone, and as such we ran into some locals we seldom see in the busier areas of this zone...

^...the locals.

^Then it was back on the mechanized guiding program for a spell. It has been a learning curve with Whisper Ridge this season getting the opportunity to do a lot more mechanized guiding. I have been doing human power guiding for a long time, but mechanized is a different animal. I have a good amount of experience in helicopters as an athlete from my pro days going up to Alaska every spring, but that was as a passenger. It has served me well as I am very comfortable around helicopters and know how to handle myself, but the added skills calling the shots and managing guests as a guide has been really cool. Snowcat ski guiding has been an entirely different learning curve as well because in the snowcat we are managing really large groups of a dozen to fourteen guests between two guides each day. I am used to the four-to-one guest-to-guide ratios as a human power touring guide, but fourteen-to-two comes with a different set of challenges on top of the usuals. 

^Mornings like this one pictured above though... this is what all my childhood dreams were made of. Funny I still laugh out loud at the grandeur of it each time I find myself in one of these situations. Even amongst the difficult conditions I find myself overcome with gratitude on a regular basis doing this work. I will spare you all the cliché "nice day at the office" malarky that always makes me wanna puke when I see it on the social media channels of my other industry friends, but I understand where they are coming from. Not sure why those puns irritate me so much, but they annoy me for some reason. Maybe it is because I indeed have a cubicle in my off-season job as a trail coordinator for the local county government in my hometown in Wisconsin. Thankfully, I don't have to spend but about 30% of my work in that cubicle, but the days that I do I fully feel the "cubicle itch" as I call it. I am not really built for that lifestyle, but I respect the people who do that kind of work everyday. I don't like to poke fun at their existence. My wife works incredible hours from a small office in our home. I could not do it. She crushes it. She also makes more money than me, and has much more stable work than me too. So who am I to make puns about it.

^This lifestyle suits me. It also takes me away from my family more than I'd like. It also beats up my body. Nothing is perfect. Every choice has trade-offs. In economics they call it "opportunity cost", the cost of doing one thing versus another. My alternate life as a financial advisor that I walked away from would indeed have had a variety of different pros and cons. I made that decision. I don't regret it often, but I'd be lying if the pros of that lifestyle don't occur to me from time to time. We all get caught inside our own heads from time to time considering greener pastures elsewhere. All-in-all though, I feel like I have made good decisions for myself. This work suits me more than it doesn't. When I have moments of sheer gratefulness like in this photo above as I relish in my position in the front passenger seat of this snowcat cruising to the next slope I will deliver fourteen guests too, I hold on to it. I hold on to the realization that I made a good decision to take my life in this direction. 

^Plus, helicopters are awesome machines... 

^...and yurt villages full of happy guests are my kind of hospitality work. I am doing it my way. My family is onboard with it. I am blessed beyond belief. It literally stops me in my tracks at times. I feel like that is a good sign overall. It is not all rainbows and butterflies all the time, but for the most part... it is great...

^...and I am grateful.

^This spring a friend of mine linked me up with a company that I have been keeping an eye on for quite some time. MountainFlow Eco Wax makes plant-based ski and skin wax products. I have loved the concept from the moment I first saw it on the internet. I am excited to have these samples and an opportunity to test out the product line. Unfortunately, basically the day that I opened the box the news was just starting to spread that the novel corona virus Covid-19 was beginning to spread throughout the U.S. and I was facing the very real threat that the winter may be coming to a grinding halt. My wife and I were in constant contact as our eldest son, Amos, is a cancer survivor and the data was suggesting that he may be among the highest risk strata of our society. I still had a little bit more work to do, but more and more the outlook was beginning to look grim. 

^One of my regular visitors, Rick Sojkowski, was in town and I had scheduled a ski day with him down in the Cottonwood Canyons of Salt Lake City. So I carried through and we had a beautiful day in the sunshine. The crusty conditions were still incredibly prevalent, but we had a bunch of fun none-the-less. Blue skies and ridge lines are a glorious combo no matter what. 

^Rick's daughter, Julie, and a gang of his friends joined us as well, and I always enjoy new friends regardless. Even when conditions are not the greatest a good group of people sharing laughs and tall tales is fun. The day was a bit overshadowed by more and more news trickling in about the dire situation of the virus, but we did our best to make a good day of it no matter what. However, as I drove back north from Salt Lake City to Ogden listening to the radio the realization of the coming weeks was sinking in. The ski resorts were starting to close. My guide shop partners that I work with were following suit. The prospect of deeper shut down sanctions from the governments were looking more and more evident. I began to come around to the very real situation that if I did not get back to my wife and children in Wisconsin that it would become more and more difficult to do so. My guiding work was looking like it could be drying up, and the trip that my wife and kids were supposed to be making to come to Utah to visit me was off the table. My mountaineering goals for the spring to continue training for my AMGA track was looking less likely and borderline irresponsible. My instincts were telling me to get back to my family. My wife finally agreed with those feelings, and that was all I needed to hear. Within a few days I was packed up and ready to drive eastward.  

^The steering wheel, the white lines, and an Iowa landscape in this picture above. As I drove, the news became more and more bleak with each mile. The virus was spreading. People were getting really sick, and dying. The government was in a tailspin, shutdowns across the country were getting deeper and deeper. My instincts were proving more and more prudent. It broke my heart to cut-off my winter goals a month and a half early, but I could not justify any other conclusion. I could not bare the thought of my family going through this scary time without me there. 

^Fifteen hundred miles later I was back making a hearty breakfast for my boys...

^...and instead of building tour plans I was building blanket forts. Stay-at-home Dad life is not in my nature, but I am doing my best and trying to relish in this time with my boys. My wife is still working from her home office, but Amos' school is cancelled and Walt is home from daycare. 

^We're trying to get creative... 

^...and building a lego snowcat to guide tours around the kitchen seemed like a fitting irony to me. The smiles on their faces as we spend so much time together like this photo above of Amos showing off his creation mends my broken hearted feelings for the abandoned work I love to do and the career goals left unachieved.

^I am leaning into stay-at-home Dad life. I am not perfect at this job either. Despite my love for them I do get frustrated still. Then, I feel guilty for feeling that way. I am not as good at this as I wish I was. I am okay admitting that. I am also okay being a work-in-progress. I get better at it with each passing day between work. Self-quarantine and government mandated lifestyles are not easy for any of us. I trust in the process. We are doing our best to live up to the task. By now we have been literally staying home for weeks. It may be weeks or even months more to come. This is unprecedented times in my lifetime, in all our lifetimes really. We can do this though. I am certain we can. We have love, and we have come back from the brink of societal panic at this point. The government is assuring us all in the assistance we may need to forge through the economics of this pandemic as well as the healthcare many of us will need. There is hope, there is light, there is a reason to believe in each other. We will only get through this together, and when we do we should all come back to gratefulness yet again. We should be grateful for the smaller things again. The things we may have taken for granted before this all began. It is the little things in life that if we allow ourselves to take a moment to appreciate that can bring more and more opportunities for joy in our lives. The morning sunrise from my snowmobile at work seems even more golden to me now. Being awoken by the little voices of my boys in the morning rather than the chime of an alarm clock with the time and opportunity for a hearty breakfast with them seems more precious to me now. These are all gifts. The mindset to see them that way is a gift as well. I am still blessed with so many gifts. Charles Dickens, this age of the Corona virus, anti-social cooped-up frustrations, none of it can overcome that mindset if we set ourselves up to see it, and to be it.