I used to be one of those people who hated skiing in the rain, with its miserable combination of soggy baselayers and sloppy snow. Growing up in the Sierra, I spent a lot of days on the mountain when the snow line was a couple of thousand feet too high, the rain creating runnels on the steeps and washing out the snowpack. Dampness infiltrated every layer, like wearing ski boots in a swimming pool. I’d rather read a book, I’d say, or I’d head out, complain, then call it quits early.
It wasn’t until I moved to the Northwest that I learned to appreciate skiing in the rain. And it was all because of Chris. He’d be out schussing Washington’s Stevens Pass when the rain was coming in sideways. He didn’t care about getting soaked; he just loved being out there. “Worth skiing today?” I’d text him from Seattle. “It’s raining and awesome,” he’d respond. “Come on up.”
At his encouragement, I’d dive in, night skiing after work in a wet storm that would instantly turn my gloves into sponges. Or skiing on a drizzly, 40-degree Saturday when goggles remained permanently fogged and lifties wore garbage bags over their jackets. When it’s raining, I began to learn, the mountain is empty, the snow is surprisingly grainy, and you feel tougher than everyone who bailed.
Chris once wrote an essay about skiing in the rain. “Crappy Diem,” he called it. “Given the choice between driving this desk all day or spending time with friends outside in the mountains, regardless of the conditions, the decision is simple,” he wrote. “It’s 36 degrees and raining…again. By all accounts it sucks outside. But ahead lies a fork in the road, and I know which direction I will take. Grab a poncho, put your spare goggles in a Ziploc bag, and get after it. We are all subjects of a natural cycle. What we do with the time we are given is our choice.”
A year after he wrote that, I met up with Chris and some other friends for a backcountry lap on a cloud-covered powder day at Stevens Pass. He was delightfully happy that day, too, just pleased to be on his skis and in the mountains.
When the avalanche came down, it killed Chris and two others. We did everything we could to save them, but they were gone. After that moment, it felt like the rain pelted hard and didn’t stop for months. A darkness settled in, and the sun seemed to disappear altogether.
Eventually, I had a choice to make. I could give up the sport I loved because I’d seen firsthand how cruel and savage snow could be. I’d seen how the mountains could take our brightest spirits and turn out their lights. Walking away from it all seemed like the easy choice.
Or I could grab a poncho and head back outside. Now, when it’s January and raining in the mountains, I don’t waver for a second. I load up my spare jacket and gloves, and I head out there for as long as I can handle it. That’s what Chris would want me to do. That’s what he would do if he had the chance.
Megan Michelson is a former Skiing editor and a world telemark freeskiing champion. Her daughter, Nora, was born in August.