Chasing El Nino Part 2: Brokedown in Bellingham

Brokedown in Bellingham

I haven’t been active very much for the past week and that’s because my car brokedown in Bellingham, Washington. I’ve been going through the crazy process of fixing my car, selling it, and buying a different one. And while it could be all bad, because I haven’t skied in 8 days and it rains like crazy here, and I’m spending more money than I want. There is a silver lining. Breaking down has given me some much needed time to reflect on my travels thus far and more importantly on my life. I didn’t get to write much about my previous two experiences which included chasing a 40 inch storm to wolf creek and backcountry skiing in Lake Tahoe with my best friends. Those were absolutely incredible and were followed by two glorious days in San Francisco where the weather was 70 degrees and sunny, a rare occurrence for February.

But anyway onto the reflection piece. It’s been tough being broken down since my purpose for this part of my travels is to chase powder. Funny enough nature has provided a sort of respite to the western united states. Bringing warm weather and a lack of snow to most of the mountains of the west. Therefore I’m not really missing much. But this lack of weather presents me with a major problem, where do I go next? Purpose is easy to find when the powder is plentiful. But when it’s not I find my mind turning to other thoughts. Thoughts such as what will I do with my life when this trip is over? Where will I move? Am I just running from something I don’t like or am I running to a future that I love? Will that happy future be possible or are the dissatisfactions in my life only a part of my own mind?

So I did what every questioning person should do. I signed up for a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat that will take place in either late April or early May depending on which one I choose to go to. I do believe that the bedrock of my future lies in meditation as a cornerstone. The foundation upon which I will build the rest of my life.

But there was also another nagging question at the back of my mind as to what I will do with my career when this is all over. I have been imagining starting some kind of spiritual or skiing related business or perhaps a public speaking career. At times these kinds of thoughts can be very overwhelming. I know how stressful it is to start a business and try to get new clients. It’s not fun and to be honest I don’t like it.

Then yesterday morning over a bowl of oatmeal it all hit me like a ton of bricks. Why am I trying so hard to turn my hobbies and my passions into a job? More specifically, something I have to make money from. When I think of things that way, creativity becomes a burden, something that I don’t even want to use my free time doing, because the whole point of taking time off is to be free from the burden of making money. So that’s it, that’s the key to it all. I am going to pursue my hobbies and my creativity and my passion. And if it happens to turn into something monetary, then great. And if it doesn’t? Well. THAT’S GREAT TOO BECAUSE I’M A TEACHER AND I LOVE BEING A TEACHER!! I love getting in front of a room full of kids and teaching them about whatever the hell it is I’m teaching them about. I could be teaching them about frogs for Christ sake and I would still be having a great time. The energy of the room in addicting and contagious. I laugh, I joke, I correct behavior, I teach. When I am teaching I am a version of myself that I strive to be in the rest of my life. Relaxed, engaged, enthusiastic, and morally righteous. And I love who I am when I teach. Now don’t get me wrong, I hate grading and planning, but hey, there are parts of every job that suck. So in the end, no matter what happens I will always be a teacher and no one can take that away from me. And the creative stuff? I’m going to continue doing that because it’s fun, it’s a part of who I am. If I HAVE to make money from it I might as well curl up into a little ball and die because my hobbies will have had all the life sucked from them.

Oh yeah and as for the car? It’s sold. I bought a new one and registered it in Washington. Jackson Hole is forecast to get a foot of snow this Wednesday and Thursday. The rest of the West is dry so the decision is simple. Point my car towards the horizon and see what adventures await!

Chasing El Nino: Part 1: The Dream

Ten years ago I met a Japanese man named Sashto who changed the course of my life. I was 22 years old and backpacking around Europe for 10 weeks after graduating from college. I met Sashto in a small town in northern Romania. Along with a group of other travelers from our hostel, we spent the night drinking and sharing stories from our lives. Sashto was forty and was traveling the world for three years. He had saved every penny he possibly could for five years straight so he could travel the world for three! This simple, but powerful idea stayed with me when I returned home to the United States.


In the years after I met Sashto I did many things. I lived in San Francisco and New York City, went to graduate school, tried to start a number of companies and relationships, all of which failed. I traveled here and there for a month or two when I could afford it. However, the dream of long-term travel never really left me.


Fast forward to 2012. I had been living in Boston for about a year and had just begun teaching math in a public school. Each day was crazier than the last, dealing with student behaviors on a daily basis that would have gotten anyone expelled from the school I grew up in. I very quickly realized I needed an escape valve from the stressful environment that had become my daily life. I thought back to Sashto and hatched a plan of my own. I would save as much money as I could to travel around the world for at least one year. And that’s what I’ve done.


It hasn’t been easy. There have been times where I haven’t gone out for over a month straight just to save money. Then there have been times where my will power hasn’t been so strong. Dinners with friends. New ski equipment. Trips to Iceland and British Columbia. There were even the beginnings of romantic relationships that brought the entire idea of the trip into question. Now that I am ten days away from the greatest adventure of my life, I realize I am lucky to be pulling this off in the first place.


As for the trip, I didn’t plan on chasing El Nino, it just kind of happened. I’ve dreamed up so many different incarnations for my travels that I can’t keep track of them anymore. A year ago I thought I’d be hopping on a plane to Southeast Asia so I could backpack there for two years. However, I’ve gained enough wisdom in my travels to realize that planning too far in advance doesn’t work for me. I need to follow my intuition and my intuition told me I’d want to be skiing in North America in February. As luck would have it, it happens to be the strongest El Nino on record.


On January 27 I will pack up my car and head west.   I will have a tank full of gas, a trunk full of skis and a head full of dreams. I can try to imagine where the road will take me; neck deep powder, huge mountains, new friends. But as my friend Sashto taught me years ago, the best things in life are never planned.

Failing Spectacularly

I didn’t really fail at anything in my life until I was about 22.  I don’t really count what happened before I was about 14, but from 14 to 22 I was good at pretty much everything I put my mind to.  And then in my 20’s I starting failing, over and over again.  Businesses, relationships, businesses again, creative projects gone awry.  Pretty much everything I started turned into a massive failure.  I began to think that I myself was a failure.  It took me  a lot of years to realize that reality couldn’t be further from the truth.  There was a simple quote I read somewhere that put it in perspective.  I know it sounds ridiculous that one quote could help me put it all in perspective, but hey sometimes that actually happens!  It went something like this: The higher your goals, the more likely you are to fail.  And that’s when it hit me.  I haven’t been failing because I’m a failure.  I’ve been failing because I dare greatly.  I didn’t just try and start a company, I tried to raise $2 million at the age of 24.  I didn’t just try and start a hostel, I wanted to start a business that was a deep expression of inner self, as well as a model we could replicate in dozens of locations across the country and world.  And the latest failure?  I didn’t just want to run a marathon, I wanted to run 50 miles through mountains for a whopping total of 11,000 vertical feet.  The grueling training eventually did so much damage to my ankle that I had to stop training.  And this time I don’t feel so bad.  Because this time I realize I failed, not because I gave up, I failed because I dared so greatly that success was nearly impossible.  Does that mean I won’t try again?  Hell no. I’m always going to dream big and go for it.  And if I do fail?  Well, I now see that as a marker of success.  A sign that I’m not living any little uninspired life.  I’m living big and bold and along the way there’s bound to be some serious bruises!

Arrive at Life…ALIVE!


Last night I was driving to my favorite restaurant in Boston.  It’s a little hippyish vegan place called Life Alive.  I had punched the address into my new phone and when I was close to the restaurant my phone proudly proclaimed “In 1.3 miles you will arrive at Life Alive”.  Wow, I thought to myself.  What a profound statement.  To arrive at Life ALIVE!  How many times do we arrive at life like a zombie?  Like someone who doesn’t want to be there?  And I’m not just talking about work , I’m talking about everything in life.  Our family, our relationships, our hobbies, our friends.  How often do arrive at these things feeling dead because we’ve done them a million times before?  I for one know that I’m guilty of doing this quite often.  “The Grind” I call it.  And it sucks.  But for once I’d like to believe that I have a choice.  That I can choose to arrive at Life ALIVE.  So in this New Year I’d like to challenge myself and all of you.  How can you arrive at LIFE….ALIVE?

My Next Step/Adventure in Life: Training for an Ultra.

It’s been a while since I last wrote anything.  I think I became a little too obsessed with perfection in my writing.  I felt like everything I produced needed to be publishable.  But you know what?  I just like writing and am going to write for the fun of it… Which brings me to my next point:  I’m training for an ultra marathon.

Stating that publicly scares the absolute living shit out of me.   Hell, even stating it to myself is scary.  Because here’s the reality of the situation: I DON’T KNOW IF I’LL BE ABLE TO COMPLETE THE RACE.  And that is the downright truth.  I’ve read a lot from ultra runners who say you need complete confidence that you can complete an ultra in order to do it, but you know what?  I don’t work like that.  I’m a human being with doubts and fears just like everybody else.  And in fact it’s often these doubts and fears that keep me grounded and allow me to achieve big goals.  When I put too much rigidity on those goals, such as the idea that I “Have to be 100% confident I can finish”, it puts so much pressure on me that doing what I love begins to feel like a job.  And if it feels like a job, why the hell am I doing it in the first place?  And when it feels like a job, I can only get through it with will power, and will power is very finite my friends.  The thing that gets me through most of the long training runs is inspiration, love, beauty, sadness, loneliness, fear, hope, and mindfulness.  I know when I run with my whole heart that I can run forever.  When I feel like I am a part of the earth, I feel like I can run forever.  When I feel like I am running because I have to run, I can run for about 10 minutes and then I want to go eat some ice cream.  Is it always great?  NO!  Sometimes running sucks.  But there are times when I see things that are so beautiful they fill my entire heart up with gratitude, and all I can do is explode with tears because I am so damn lucky to be there in that moment.

So as I continue on this journey towards running an ultra.  (Specifically this one on February 6 in the mountains of Malibu, CA I’m going to write about it and share my thoughts and any insights I have along the way.  After all I love writing and I love running and I love adventure.  So why not mix all of them up and put them out into the world for other people to learn from, get inspired, and just plain enjoy!  So…enjoy!

Can We Keep the Number of U.S. Avalanche Deaths at Four?

co-authored by: Blake Keogh

Pat yourselves on the back, American backcountry skiers and riders. It’s February and the total number of avalanche fatalities currently stands at four, less than half of the nine deaths we had at this time last year.

There are numerous explanations for why the numbers are lower. First is snowpack, or lack of it. Anyone who’s been to over the past few weeks has seen a whole lot of green. With almost no snow in the Sierra and very low snow year in many other locations, the pack has been relatively cooperative. However, let’s not forget the early season danger that persisted for quite some time both in Montana and in Utah.

Another possible explanation for the decrease in U.S. avalanche deaths is the passing of high profile athletes JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson, and Liz Daley. With the loss of three skiing heroes, perhaps the community as a whole took an unconscious step back to evaluate our collective decision-making processes. Powder’s dynamite The Human Factor also helped focus attention.

Of course, it’s always possible that the lower number of deaths is just due to dumb luck. Statistically speaking, avalanche deaths will never be completely linear. They are the result of very complex systems involving weather, mountains, and human psychology, which, when combined create a tremendous amount of statistical variation. It is entirely possible to have large pockets of time with no avalanche deaths simply due to this variation.

Which brings us to our next point: It’s time for a midseason gut check.

Fifty people have died so far in avalanches this year in the Alps. That’s 50 sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters whose families will never see them again. Looking at these accidents, we realize how easily this could have been one of us. We owe it to our European (and in some cases American) counterparts and our own families to look at our decision making process and ask some hard questions. What have we been getting away with so far this year? Poor planning? Ignoring obvious signs of instability? Skiing terrain that doesn’t match the conditions? Poor group dynamics? Remember, the backcountry is a wicked environment, which means that we are interacting with a system that rewards us for poor behavior. This creates a false-positive feedback loop that is often imperceptible to detect. Good guides and skiers guard against this trap by continually assessing what might have gone wrong, and where they were most at risk even if the day was a “success.” The fact of the matter is that all of us have, and will continue to make mistakes in the backcountry. The midpoint of the season is a good time for all of us to adopt reflective strategies, take an honest look at our behaviors, and make some adjustments to stay safe for the rest of the season.

1. Use a Decision-Making System Every Day
The human mind is highly prone to error and in backcountry terrain those errors can have deadly consequences. As the Utah Avalanche Center’s Bruce Tremper says, “Systems are the solution.” One easy to follow and effective system is the AIARE fieldbook. If you follow the checklists and the planning process in the field book every day you venture out into the backcountry, you are much more likely to make good decisions. Another system, created by Tremper and outlined in his book Avalanche Essentials, is the Avalanche Smart Card.

2. Remember Human Factors
Ninety-three percent of fatal avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party. Consequently, we have to ask ourselves how and why we so frequently are the cause of our own accidents; the answer often brings us back to human factors. Ian McCammon’s acronym FACETS is a useful tool to help us remember the six most common cognitive variables that get us into trouble.

F = Familiarity – Parties traveling in familiar terrain often make significantly riskier decisions than parties traveling in unfamiliar terrain. In his book The Black Swan, uncertainty guru Nassim Taleb provides a useful way of understanding the dangers of familiarity in his graph of 1,001 days in the life of a Thanksgiving Turkey. For the turkey all experiences leading up to day 1,001 confirm that they are leading the good life, then unexpectedly, their world is drastically changed. Similarly, backcountry skiers who frequent the same zone or line over and over again can become lulled into turkey type thinking. A good way to guard against this trap is to keep in mind that the alpine ecosystem is complex, ever evolving, and sensitive to small changes (e.g. temperature fluctuations, added weight on a snowpack, change in wind speed/direction, etc.).

A = Acceptance – People want to be accepted by others in the group and don’t want to be seen as an outsider for saying “no” to a decision. These effects are often pronounced in mixed gender groups.

C = Commitment – Having a specific goal, such as reaching a summit – especially in bad weather -can adversely affect group decision making. “Well we’re already out here, we skinned this far, we might as well ski it.” In the financial sector this is known as the sunk cost fallacy, which manifests as individuals continue to invest in a losing proposition even though in the long run, disengaging from the system is a more lucrative alternative. Backcountry skiers often struggle with goal abandonment because of the physical effort it typically takes to reach a particular zone or line. We can all do a better job of reminding ourselves that the mountains will always be there.

E = Expert Halo – Many touring parties often have a de facto leader: someone perceived to have more skills and experience than the others. This heuristic trap occurs when one person’s decision making goes unchecked by other group members because of the leader’s perceived elevated social status. All of us consciously or unconsciously try and maintain our social positions even when we are uncomfortable with how a system is evolving. Employing thinking out loud techniques, frequent check-ins, and democratic decision-making processes are simple and effective ways to mitigate the pitfalls of the expert halo.

T = Tracks/Scarcity – When tracks are more scarce or there is a perception of scarcity, backcountry riders are often willing to take more risks.

S = Social Facilitation – “They did it and got away with it, so it must not be that dangerous”. The behavior of other groups greatly affects our perception of risk. Be aware of groups taking dangerous risks.

3. Look Out for the 5 Red Flags
New Snow. Collapsing or “whoompfing” snowpack. Rapid temperature rise. Signs of recent avalanche activity. Strong winds and blowing snow.

4. Know Your “Personal Disaster Factors”?
For example, “I am competitive, I quickly fixate on goals, and I struggle to walk away from yellow light terrain/conditions. I do a good job of using checklists before I begin my skin or climb but don’t like to stop once I get going; I’m always in a rush.” Tremper and McCammon suggest writing a list of the most common traps that we as individuals frequently fall victim to when in the backcountry. This is an effective risk-management tool to develop at the beginning of the season and then update at various times throughout the winter and spring.

As a community we have a responsibility to continue to find ways to stay safe when recreating in alpine environments. As individuals, friends and ski partners we have agreed to reflect on our experiences this winter to determine which behaviors have positively contributed to this season’s low rate of avalanche related incidents and which one’s simply haven’t caught up with us yet. We hope you will do the same. Have fun and ride safe!

Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Lose, Sometimes You Ski…

Backcountry Skiing

Ready for the skin..

Yogi Berra once remarked about baseball, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains”.  With that short sentence he boiled down what appears to be an overly complex game; with it’s huge stadiums, millions of fans, sponsorships, fame and bright lights, into something so simple a child could understand it.  Skiing sometimes feels the same way.  With all the weather forecasts, new skis, bindings, backcountry gear, layers of clothing, youtube videos, GoPros, and social media, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important; skiing.

Sometimes You Lose

I’m a teacher in the Boston public schools.  When I woke up Sunday morning January 25th and saw the forecast for Winter Storm Juno, 24-36 inches of snow, I knew school would be canceled.  Likely for a number of days.  I had not planned on returning to skiing until mid-February due to an ankle injury I sustained in South America this past summer, however 3 feet of powder was enough to convince me to make an early comeback.  I promised myself I would be careful and not repeat past mistakes with regard to injuries.  I made a “Ulysses Contract” with myself to reduce the likelihood of injury: no closed runs, no tight trees, no moguls, if I feel any pain stop skiing immediately.

On Monday night I left Boston just as it started dumping snow.  I drove up to Gunstock, NH to meet my friend Blake Keogh.  I met Blake on my trip to Mt. Washington last February, and to say we are kindred spirits would be an understatement.  Blake just finished a master’s degree in snow science, is a middle school earth science teacher, and is just as crazy about the mountains as I am.  Like me, he doesn’t think twice about sleeping in his car to score some powder.

By the time I arrived in Gunstock I had driven straight out of the storm and into a very cold North wind.  Blake and I were a little concerned that it wasn’t snowing yet, but those concerns melted away after a couple of beers and several hours of great conversation about skiing, avalanches, backcountry travel, psychology, philosophy, and just about every single one of my favorite topics.  By the time midnight rolled around I was fast asleep.

I awoke the next morning expecting to see knee to waist deep powder.  Instead all that was on the ground were a few crummy inches of snow.  I was a bit bummed as was Blake, but we made the most of it.  After all it was my first day skiing in over six months and I was simply excited to get out there and make some turns.  Blake and I skied all day and enjoyed ourselves despite the fact that there were only a few inches of snow.  All in all by the end of the day it had snowed about 6 inches, most of which had been blow away by a vicious north wind.

Shortly after 2 PM we decided to call it quits.  Blake drove back to Portland Maine to watch his beloved New York Rangers and I headed back towards Boston.

Backcountry Skiing

Empty Wachusett Parking Lot

Sometimes You Win

I felt satisfied as I started my drive home.  I had gotten out there for my first day of skiing and it was a success.  However, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed that a three foot storm didn’t deliver the goods.  I had imagined myself skiing waist deep powder, hooting and hollering like a little kid.  Instead I skied mediocre conditions on a really small mountain.  So I pulled over to the side of the road and used my phone to research where the snow had fallen.  Apparently central Massachusetts had received 30 inches and it was still coming down.  That meant Wachusett mountain, which has a vertical drop of 1000 feet had received more snow than anywhere else.  I checked their website and it turns out they had been closed all day because of a travel ban put in place by the Governor.  I quickly considered my alternatives:  Drive back to Boston and spend two hours digging out a parking spot for my car so I could sleep in a warm bed.  Or drive to Wachusett, sleep in my car and wake up before dawn to skin up the mountain and ski 3 feet of blower powder.  There wasn’t really a decision to make.  I programmed Wachusett into my GPS, and away I went.

The drive was white knuckle.  I stayed off of major highways because of the travel ban which meant I was behind plows and cars on local roads for most of the trip.  The snow was so light and fluffy that the vehicle in front looked more like a traveling cloud than an actual car.  If I drove too close to the car in front of me the visibility would drop to zero.  I had to channel my 14 years of snow driving experience just to make it there safely.

When I finally arrived at Wachusett it was after dark and surprisingly the entire parking lot had been plowed.  There was one other car in the lot, but not a soul to be seen.  Since it was only 6PM and I likely wouldn’t fall asleep for a few more hours I decided to take a look at the conditions.  I walked over to the base of the lift and was quickly sinking into snow up to my mid thighs.  Whoaaa….this snow was deep.  I ran back to my car, put on my boots, skins on my skis, water bottle filled, food in my pocket, headlamp on my head, extra layers in my backpack along with my goggles and helmet and I was off.

As I started skinning I could not believe the quality of the snow.  There was over a foot of light dry Utah quality powder on top of a one to two foot deep wind slab that had been created over the course of the blizzard.  And the best part: IT WAS STILL SNOWING HARD!  The ascent was hard work, but it was joyous.  With each step my skis sunk one to two feet into the snow, but it didn’t feel like sinking, it felt like floating.  My headlamp was the only source of light on the side of that lonely mountain in the pitch black.  As I took step after step I realized: These are the moments I live for.  The ones that are so far out of the realm of every day reality that I might as well be dreaming.  But that dream is real.  And I am the one that created it.  We are all the dreamers of our own dreams and the creators of our own reality.

Backcountry Skiing

Unbelievable quality snow…

Sometimes You Ski

When I reached the top of the slope, I de-skinned and prepared for the descent.  Before I pushed off I reflected on my day and all of the decisions, experiences and people that had brought me there.  I thought about the weather forecasts, the new skis, bindings, backcountry gear, layers of clothing, youtube videos, GoPros, and social media.  I also thought about the long line of people, without whom I would not have been standing on top of that mountain.  I thought about my father’s friend Bob who had bought me the pair of skis that changed my life, my cousin Murray who inspired me to ski no matter what, and even that silly zen master Yogi Berra.  In that gratitude filled moment all of the complexity of life fell away and I dropped into a deep dream filled with powder, hoots and hollers.