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Looking west from Seattle, the skyline of Olympic National Park is defined by the notched peak of The Brothers. “I see it stuck in traffic. I see it from meeting rooms in downtown Seattle. I see it on my evening runs that I use to stay in shape for my days in the mountains. I’ve looked at that skyline and imagined the light, the wind and thought, ‘I could be standing on that peak’ — instead of dealing with ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ is,” writes Fitz Cahall.
It can be easy to wallow in the constraints, responsibilities, and duties of life. It can be so damn easy to play the grass is greener game. When Fitz takes a spring Friday to go and climb The Brothers, he gets a chance to look back in the opposite direction and realizes that it’s not about which side is greener. It can be as simple as going when you get a green light.
To unlock new experiences, you have to go past the parking lot, past the ranger station, past the places you know. Our national parks are our national treasure. Places ancient, epic, and wild. Where moments are simple and friendships come alive. To celebrate the centennial of our national parks, our team at REI wants to help you to go deeper and explore our nation’s most inspiring places. REI, a life outdoors is a life well lived.
You’re listening to the Dirtbag Diaries. A production of Duct Tape Then Beer. With additional support from Patagonia, Kuat Racks and Fireside Provisions.
Story by Fitz Cahall
Fitz: What do you want to talk about?
Tep: Well, it’s not easy. We have to cut stuff. Mom, why did you turn this way?
Fitz: Traffic. Yes, there is the physical manifestation. The brake lights, the bumper to bumper, the slowly building strain and like Tep, it drives me crazy, too. More than once it has defeated us from packing up and leaving town and we’ve gotten home on Friday afternoon and just not had the energy to wade back out into it. There is also the emotional version of traffic. I’m talking about the clutter of the day to day. The To Do List, the blocked out calendars, all of them are by-products of the successful life and while it doesn’t have a physical form, it’s just as capable of grinding our dreams to a halt.
This is the kind of traffic that isn’t just endemic to major metropolitan areas, it can happen anywhere. These mental roadblocks can pop up anywhere because we create them. I feel this on a daily basis. Maybe you do, too.
When we started work on our National Park series, I started thinking, I’ve been lucky in life. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend an incredible percentage of my life exploring our parks and wild places. Some of those places, places like Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia and the Everglades, they had a role in shaping my path. There is a park though, a place that I see almost every day. I see it stuck in traffic. I see it from meeting rooms in downtown Seattle. I see it on my evening runs that I used to stay in shape for my days in the mountains. I look down toward the western skyline, towards Olympic National Park and imagine the light, the wind and thought, I could be standing on that peak or exploring that valley instead of dealing with this, whatever this is. Despite its proximity, despite the fact that it’s a crazy, beautiful skyline that is a constant tap on the shoulder accompanied by a screamed whisper shouting, “You know you want to visit.” I spent fewer days in Olympic National Park than any other park on the West Coast.
Today we present the third installment of mileposts. Sometimes, you can’t wait for the green light. It’s just time to go. I’m Fitz Cahall and you’re listening to the Dirtbag Diaries.
I don’t believe in balance. I think it’s the modern version of snake oil pushed by magazine covers and sponsored blog posts on Facebook, dragging you in with promises of life hacks and great solutions. Balance is the mythical remedy for the fast-paced, ever shifting footing of the modern world. Not a single successful person I know, they wouldn’t say they are balanced. They merely embraced every aspect of their life, commit to it all and ride it out by sleeping less and living more. By doing that they find a state that, from the outside, might look like a measured life, but internally, feels like chaos and they accept that.
In the last nine months, the pendulum swung to extremes in my life. Since September, work has been in high gear. In November, Becca gave birth to our second son, Wiley. Interrupted sleep and diapers became routine. Often after working long days playing with the boys, Becca and I would use the 9 pm to 11 pm timeslot after the kids are down and the dishes are done, the hours every parent cherishes to relax and reset for the next day, to power out some solution to an issue at work.
I just didn’t have the energy for dawn patrols this winter. I kept hoping that the tide would magically retreat to reveal a clear path back to the place where I had time. On a rare, clear winter afternoon, I sat stuck in traffic on I-5 going to pick up Tep at my mom’s house.
I looked down at the Olympics, my gaze pulled to the centerpiece of the range, the Brothers. I wish I was there and then I almost rear-ended the car in front of me. In that second I realized that the pendulum doesn’t always swing magically. It’s a heavy thing that requires brute force, not a traffic light you can count on to turn green.
At the age of 19, I came to Seattle because it had two things in spades, mountains and music. To young me, this place felt like opportunity, where a person could never realistically have an excuse to be bored. That first rainy winter I slept underneath a parked car while waiting for the REI garage sale while the rain fell and hundreds of people milled about through the night for a crack at deeply discounted outdoor gear. I bought a pair of climbing boots, crampons, and an old rental ice axe. I never looked back. While the young climbers at the UW talked incessantly about Rainier, I bought the climbing guide to the Olympics. One day, one day soon, I thought, I’m going to climb the Brothers. That was almost 20 years ago.
Later that week, while up in the middle of the night taking care of one of the boys, I started flipping through the guidebook out of boredom or curiosity and found the description for the Brothers and was hit with that cliched realization that I wasn’t getting any younger. I knew that in terms of big missions, this year would be difficult. Becca and I would need to get our feet underneath us. We have become as committed to getting our family outdoors as we are to getting ourselves outdoors. So there would be many weekends spent camping, teaching Tep to ski, and getting out on mountain bike trails, while one of us could hike with Wiley on our back.
As much as I wished otherwise, my life work here has only intensified. Growing and sustaining this creative team of the Diaries and Duct Tape Then Beer is one of the most rewarding and wonderful responsibilities. One that gives me great joy, but can also be consuming. A less polite, but honest word might be exhausting.
Becca and I have cultivated a wonderful garden of life. It requires constant care. We know that the days dedicated to filling those wild, carefree, hard to achieve, personal outdoor lifetime goals, the ones that some might deem selfish, well there’s only a handful of days for that in a year and we need to split them evenly so that the other one can take care of the boys. These 4 days a year are reserved for the objectives that will push us. That will likely leave us wasted and a little late for curfew. Those 4 days are reserved for missions where the likelihood of failure matches the probability of success. I decided to put the Brothers at the top of the list.
While most parks are bisected by roads that allow for easy access to their interiors, Olympic National Park’s roads only access the periphery. 95% of the park is wilderness. Raw, vibrant wilderness with unruly, unkempt trails which vegetation would erase in a few years if it weren’t for the efforts of trail crews. Much of the climbing, and for even the more dedicated / borderline masochistic, ski mountaineering is defined by long approaches at low elevations to steep rugged climbs on crumbling rock and variable snow.
Compared to its sister range of the Cascades where trip reports and conditions pour in on Monday mornings from the weekend adventurers, information is sparse. Even so, I was surprised when I started calling my network of potential ski partners that no one had skied the Brothers. These twin notch peaks defined Seattle’s western skyline with the same authority that Mount Rainier defines it to the south. These peaks grace countless postcards bought by visitors. We all imagine what it would be like to stand on top of them and look back into the city, yet unlike Rainier, few visit.
Those that do, tend to head for the famed Hoh Rainforest, the Beaches, or take short day hikes from the easily accessible Hurricane Ridge. For most, the park’s skyline simply becomes the backdrop rather than the destination. I think all of us are drawn to the improbably, but with the reality of the day to day. The small window the weekend provides, the traffic guarding easy exit from the city, we often settle for the likely where the straightforward approaches weight the odds toward success. I’ve been no different. The Brothers has always fallen down the checklist when I’ve started making calls for weekend plans. The conditions were finicky. To ski them, avalanche stability needs to be spot-on. Slivers of snow reaching steepnesses of 60 degrees cut through the rock walls of the eastern flanks. Preferably, the snow line would be low, about 3000 feet, but not too low for the long, flat approach through dense forest or it would become a nightmare.
During the often tumultuous Spring weather, you need a solid patch of fair weather in order for the snow pack to consolidate. The window for success is small. You need a green light or so the thinking goes.
It was a strange winter. Warm storms pounded the mountains. There would be a few good days of skiing with big snowfalls and considerable avalanche danger followed by rain. In late March a window appeared, but between family commitments and partner availability, I couldn’t make it work. Again, another one in April. I started making frantic calls for partners, but the temperature spiked in the low-80s and the mountains became a tangle of avalanche debris. We called it off. Then our family traveled, and by the time we returned, the mountains had been doused by rain and hot weather. The Spring thaw was 6 weeks ahead of schedule. It looked like the dream I hatched at 19 might have to wait for another year.
Then last week, a little window appeared. Somehow it fell in sync with my work calendar. I had a Thursday afternoon and a Friday just before Mother’s Day weekend, a little sliver of opportunity. I called my friend Shane who’d been ski-guiding for the last 2 weeks and he warned me that I’d probably missed it. The things had melted out too fast. Becca dug up a rare report from the Olympics that featured words like rotten snow and low coverage and the ever-damning line, ski season is over. It seemed like while the weather and work offered a green light, the Olympics had other ideas and, yet, stuck on I-5, in the horrendous cluster of Seattle traffic, I looked west and there they were. Big, intimidating, kind of just maybe snow-covered enough. I’d certainly never be able to ski off them from the safety of Seattle.
Ice axe, snowboards, skins, poles, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, boots, food, stove, tennis shoes, clothes, goggles, sunscreen, helmet, whippet, ice axe, check. My odds of success were diminishing. I calculated the hours I’d need. My goal of being at treeline by nightfall was ridiculous now.
I was three cars away from making the boat. An hour goes by. In line, I repacked the bag. I need to get lighter. I get rid of the extra jacket. I wouldn’t be standing still anyway. Forget the tarp, if the forecast doesn’t hold I’m screwed. Out with the stove and the backpacker meals and coffee. Breakfast is over-rated.
Yeah, here we go. Getting off the ferry. Few hours of light left. Definitely a little bit behind. That’s cool.
I stopped to fill up the tank and grab a Gatorade and potato chips before return to the car. Checking out, I looked up towards the wall of lotto tickets. I had the overwhelming feeling that the odds of succeeding on the Brothers were about as good as winning one of the scratch-off games. Not good.
Whenever one of the jackpots gets real big, the stats people love to point that the odds of winning if you buy a ticket are just as good as if you don’t. But, you know what? You can’t win if you don’t play the game. So for the first time in my life, I bought a ticket and stuffed it into my backpack and hit the road.
It’s 7:30, a little bit later. I hoped to be camping right now, but that’s cool. Yeah, take what you can get, beautiful out. I sleep underneath the giant cedars in the Valley of the Silent Men. Here, the river goes underground and there is only the slightest murmur. I fall asleep looking up at stars on a moonless night.
Let me paint you a picture, I am crawling underneath about a quarter-mile of downed timber. My swearing has gone up, but I’m pretty stoked.
I’m getting my first good, good glimpse of the Brothers and it’s pretty big. I think it’s getting bigger when you get closer to them. It’s pretty cool.
Rolled up above treeline. Can look back and see the city, see Mount Rainier, pretty sweet. I could be going to work right now. Kind of feels like the endless rooting session, but making ground. Did not refreeze last night. Doing some serious post-holing. Almost to summit. Yeah, it’s getting hot. Phew.
The last 1000 feet kicked my ass. I try skinning, but the soft snow won’t hold an edge. Every third or fourth step, I post-hole. I try to find a rhythm and stick to it. Kick step, kick step, plant the axe, breathe. Kick step, kick step, plant. I start counting my steps trying to take 100 at a time. The route reveals itself slowly curving between rock gullies. It’s steep enough that it’s hard to tell whether what I’m aiming for is actually the summit. It’s a long hour of maximum exertion. At the top of the ski-able terrain, I drop my splitboard and scramble between exposed ribs of rock to small patches of snow.
Almost to the summit. Nice. There’s a goat waiting for me on the summit. He gives it up reluctantly and skitters over to another sub-peak while I slump into a pile of gear one tired human.
I made it to the summit. A little tired, the last thousand feet were a little slow post-holing. Pretty psyched. Should I scream? Summit yell? Seems sort of weird when you’re by yourself. Woo!
It’s a perfect day in the Olympics, not a cloud in sight, no wind. To the west, the heart of the park extends outward in a maze of deep valleys, glaciers and rocky peaks. I stare at the glacier cloud on Mount Olympus situated in the dead center of it all. Maybe I could drag my board out there, too. I look at a series of gentle ridges and imagine a day when the kids are older and Becca and I are regular adventure partners again. It would make a perfect backpacking route. I imagine taking Tep and Wiley along the rolling Deer Park Traverse when they are old enough to carry a pack and the thought, all those thoughts, they make me happy.
After a few minutes, I turn back east. Mount Rainier casts a shadow. Mount Baker to the north and all the other Cascades summits I’ve stood on are in between. At the center of it all, sunlight pours through the canyons created by Seattle’s skyscrapers. I follow the city skyline north past the Space Needle. I think I can pick out the glaciated hill where we live. Tep is at school, looking forward to a weekend of Saturday cartoons, wrestling with Dad, and riding his bike. Becca has reconfigured her workweek to have Fridays off to spend time with Wiley. If the rest of the day goes well, I’ll be home in time to put them to bed. This thought, it makes me happy, too.
That’s the funny thing about it is that I’ve sat here and looked at this thing for all these years and it just was always, I don’t know, not enough time or whatever. Kind of far out, kind of a long objective, kind of a lot of walking. That is definitely the farthest I’ve ever carried skis, but it’s pretty damn worth it. It’s cool to stand up on that peak that I’ve looked at since I was 19 years old. It’s funny how things like that just can kind of escape you. There’s this beautiful park that I look at every day and I look at the summit that defines this skyline and I’ve never been here before. Feels good. Now it’s time to ski.
If there were ever a metaphor for my life, it’s this moment. To the west is an entire range of ideas and dreams and potential memory. To the east all the wonderment, joy and belonging I’ve struggled to build. It’s an important reminder, one day could almost always be today. I’ve imagined being here before. On one hand, this perspective was hard-earned. All in all, I’ll walk 16 miles with 12 hours of almost constant movement. Gained almost 7000 feet of elevation. Stumbled through slide alder and crawl underneath downed old growth. I’ll ski for about 15 minutes. On the other hand, though, it strikes me how close these two places really are both physically, spiritually, and emotionally. The true gap between them is our perspective on their distance from one another. The hidden corners of the parks of these wild places can only become part of the fabric of our lives if we choose to weave them in.
Ten minutes later, I scramble back down to my snowboard. I clip in and edge the board out into the exposure. I study the terrain and the potential hazards and safe spots. I imagine my first series of turns where a fall would be bad. And, like always, I take 3 deep breaths and then drop. The light is as green as it’s ever going to get.
Fitz: Okay, are you ready? So what I want you to do …
Fitz: Take this penny.
Fitz: Scratch these off here. Like, watch this.
Tep: Oh yeah, I see.
Fitz: If we get the right things, we’ll win it all. Big time. Dad will retire.
Support for Mileposts comes from REI. Check out their new app, a crowd-sourced guide to the National Parks. With beautiful photos and maps of the best trails, they’re making it easy to find your park. Nearly 2 dozen park guides are completed, and another 3 dozen are in the works. Now that’s a lot of parks to explore. To learn more, visit www.REI.com/nationalparks. REI, a life outdoors is a life well lived.
Additional support for the Diaries comes from the good people of Patagonia, from Fireside Provisions, mouthwatering meals for campfire or cabin and Kuat Racks, the little team of avid cyclists and fine ale connoisseurs who believe that they could build a better bike rack. Our NV rack is just coming into its high-mileage season and that means more time on the trails. Sweet. Check out their line-up at kuatracks.com.
Support for the Diaries comes from you. Your contributions really do help in making the Diaries better. Thank you. I’m raising my Dirtbag Diaries coozie to you. Coozie, you ask? Yes. You, too, can have one. To pledge your support, visit dirtbagdiaries.com and click the button in the upper right hand corner.
Music today from Publish the Quest, Woodrow Gerber, Jason Tyler Burton, and Black Pistol Fire. The tracks are courtesy of free music archive, nebulae’s music alley, and Jacob Bain. Jacob and Nis Kotto composed our theme song. As always, you can find the links to the artists at our website, dirtbagdiaries.com.
This episode of the Diaries was mixed and edited by Jacob Bain and written and produced by Fitz Cahall.
Fitz: No, Dad’s not going to retire.
Fitz: (laughs) Because we didn’t win.
Well, since it sounds like we’re not retiring any time soon, we’ll keep working on the next episode. Our annual live from 5Point.
I’m Becca Cahall and you’ve been listening to the Dirtbag Diaries. Thanks for tuning in.
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