A Different Kind of Backcountry Journey

It’s now mid May, and though Colorado’s resort ski season has wound down, the backcountry skiing in the high peaks couldn’t be more prime. What’s crazy is that I haven’t even been skiing once since December, making this the least amount of skiing I’ve done since I lived in Florida.

This was not how I saw the winter going. I planned for Backcountry Beacon to be filled with tales of ski adventures from winter 2015/2016, including many skimo races. Skimo, or ski mountaineering racing, is a fast growing endurance sport in mountain states where athletes race uphill on skins and fly downhill on super light weight gear. Not for the faint of heart, the sport is one of the most aerobically challenging workouts I have ever done. I have dabbled in skimo the past few years, but this season I wanted to compete in more races, including the Grand Traverse, and at the race division level (in the past I’ve stuck to the recreational division). Of course, I would be balancing this with my already busy life—helping lead an outdoor ministry in Colorado along with being a husband and dad.

These were my plans for the winter, yet three circumstances quickly derailed them, including a lost ski, a minor back injury, and some interesting health news.

Here’s the story.


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Though my ski days were few and far between this year, I did manage to have a few worthwhile outings, like this December powder day at Butler Fork. 

The lost ski happened on a Monday in early November. A buddy of mine and I decided to ski at Jone’s Pass, which had received a few feet of snow in the recent weeks. Early season skiing is always a little dicey because of the high potential to hit rocks and tree stumps that would normally be buried. I often wait until at least December to ski, but my stoke factor was unusually high this year because of my desire to race. In fact, as early as September and October, I was already thinking a lot about the season and training for it.

After skinning to the top of the top of the pass, my buddy skied first down the moderately sloped face. Then it was my turn. After about 10 decent turns, I tagged a rock and my right ski popped off, sending me tumbling. About 2-3 feet in depth, the snowpack easily cushioned my fall. I stood up, unhurt, and started searching for my ski. After 20 minutes without any luck, I grew I annoyed. After searching for two hours, I grew desperate. What had happened to my ski? It was maddening. Did it get wedged under a rock? Had it shot down hill (my skis had brakes but no leashes)? I felt like a conspiracy theorist trying to pin down the latest hair-brained JFK theory.

Eventually, I gave up looking. Leaving without my ski was extremely defeating, to say the least.

I wasn’t about to give up. I returned the next day, but this time with a metal detector, upon the suggestion of a buddy who heard about the idea on Teton Gravity Research. I hoped that technology might help, but the three-hour search proved fruitless. After 10 seasons of backcountry skiing, losing a ski in such a shallow snowpack was an ironic twist.

I began to wonder if there were forces at work trying to keep me from skiing—at least that’s the way it felt. I considered searching one more time at Jone’s Pass, but then a snowstorm dropped 16 inches of powder in the mountains, thus ending any hope of finding the ski until summer.

Also, a new injury also threatened my racing plans. A seemingly minor back sprain from late October grew much worse. After skiing on a frigid day at Berthoud Pass (wind chill of -21 degrees F) in late December, my lower back muscles tightened and eventually spasmed, which was crazy painful and ended the ski day early.

Physical therapists puzzled over the cause but assured me the injury would heal on its own in a few weeks. As the weeks passed into January and February, the injury kept getting worse. Frustrated, I insisted that my doctor give me an MRI. He was reluctant, but I kept persisting. What they discovered made my ski troubles seem suddenly insignificant.

I will never forget that phone call on Monday, March 21. The doctor told me the cause of my pain was not the result of a mere sports injury, but from a tumor in my spine. Even worse, the tumor seemed like it was spreading from somewhere else in my body. He recommended I see an oncologist, ASAP.

My wife and I were devastated, not to mention scared.

Things moved quickly from there. After being unimpressed with the oncology care in Longmont, my family suggested we travel to my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Midwestern city boasts surprisingly top-notch health care and we knew that we would need the support of family.

Elizabeth and I and our daughter took a direct flight from Denver to Sioux Falls. Meanwhile, my brother and a family friend drove our Subaru from Longmont to Sioux Falls. By Monday, we met with several doctors and took tests to try and figure out answers to some critical questions: what type of cancer did I have? How serious is it? What is the next step?

The next few weeks were a blur of tests and medical appointments (more on the results in a future post). All I can say is that I did not choose this journey, but I am grateful for the Lord’s provision along the way. Though we have felt a bit like refugees being displaced from our happy life in Longmont, the care and support we have received in Sioux Falls has proven pivotal for us.

In the end, I would have much preferred a more typical winter. Anything sounds more enjoyable than cancer and chemotherapy. But here we are. God has my family and I on a much different path then I would have chosen, but I trust his plan and leading in this.

In light of this new journey, the content of Backcountry Beacon will be changing a bit from my original intent. Obviously cancer is a very different challenge than skiing a steep backcountry couloir. Instead of chronicling my latest outdoor adventure, this blog will focus for now on my cancer journey.

That doesn’t mean the essence of this blog will change. I intentionally chose to keep using this blog, rather than creating a new one. Even though I might not be getting outside as much as I’d like to for awhile, I certainly still value it. I am still a semi-serious/recreational outdoor athlete who loves adventuring in God’s Creation. Whether with cancer or cancer free, those values won’t change!

I want Backcountry Beacon to reflect that. I look forward to bringing you along with me on this journey.

IMG_5068.jpgMy wife, Elizabeth, had envisioned creating a snowbird like this for quite some time, in honor of the “Littlest Bird” in our nest. A March snowstorm provided the perfect conditions to make it happen. We used Lindor chocolates for the eyes and fallen tree branches for the nest. 

One thought on “A Different Kind of Backcountry Journey

  1. Chris, I’m so grateful you are choosing to invite us into something as personal as this. Having left two jobs I love since October–one for the other job and then leaving the second job for no job at all–I feel like I’ve spent a few hours searching fruitlessly for my lost ski, too. I look forward to reading more.

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