A Girl On The Road

Why Kalen Thorien is rocking our world.
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Why Kalen Thorien is rocking our world.

A sign at the base of the Magic Mile chairlift at Timberline on Oregon’s Mt. Hood says you’re about to embark on the most scenic 5,500 feet of skiing in the state, but it should include the ride up too. Hop on and soon the brilliant white summit of Oregon’s tallest peak fills your goggles. Turn around and it’s 270-degree views of purple voids and snowy ridges. For one special moment, though, Kalen Thorien has zero interest in any of this.

Maybe you’ve seen Thorien before. As a ripping backcountry skier she’s been featured in photos by pros like Jimmy Chin and Scott Markewitz, and she’s appeared in ski films on Epic TV. She’s pretty hard to forget off the hill too, at 27 years old with pale winter skin covered in tattoos, straight blond hair, and the icy-blue stare of a Viking battle maiden.

Kalen Thorien takes a hike while she waits for weather to roll in over Mt. Hood territory.

Kalen Thorien takes a hike while she waits for weather to roll in over Mt. Hood territory.

Today is mellow, though, just a powder day with friends. She boards the lifts, pulls out her iPhone, and sends Glass Animals pumping through a Bluetooth speaker stashed in her backpack. Below, a guy skins up the edge of the slope in a T-shirt and Thorien focuses her attention on him as the chair draws close.

Wooo-WOOO-oo!” she whistles in a cat-call that could make a construction worker blush. The guy looks up and smiles. Satisfied, Thorien unleashes a goofy laugh, sits back, and cranks up the volume.

Thorien has every reason to be so playful. Last summer, she broke out of charge- hard-in-winter-only mode to become one of Salomon’s first full-time four-season athletes. That means she now gets paid not just to ski big lines but to pack-raft through thundering canyons, hike across soul-filling landscapes, and explore the planet’s most thrilling corners all year long. If Thorien is afraid to do anything, it isn’t whistling at macho men from the lift. What spooks her now are days that feel too normal.

“Kalen’s style is so unique. You know those 25-cent machines at the supermarket that you can drop quarters in all day, and you’ll keep getting something different? It’s the same with her,” Joe Johnson, a friend who used to work with her at Salomon, told me later. “One minute she’s crass, dropping a dirty joke, and the next she’s playing the viola and writing poetry. That same style translates into the way she approaches adventure and life.”

The line between the two is blurry these days. A little over a year ago, back on her feet after a traumatic car crash, Thorien sold or stored nearly all of her belongings, fueled up a 1986 Land Cruiser with 233,000 miles on the odometer, and hit the road with an aluminum Bigfoot trailer in tow. She was already spending a lot of time away from her Salt Lake City abode, so why not cut out the rent and bills? Now, inside her 78-square-foot camper, she has everything she needs, from climbing gear and skis to fly rods, books, and a bed. It’s the non-dirtbag’s dirtbagmobile.

Thorien and Francis, as she calls her rig, are in Oregon as part of a weeklong plan to ski at Timberline and Mt. Hood Skibowl near Portland, and at Mt. Bachelor near Bend. From there she’ll do some climbing at Smith Rock and maybe some fly-fishing on the Crooked River. A film crew is here to make videos about her and provide content for Instagram feeds. In a few weeks she’ll be off to explore a slot canyon in Mexico, raft the Grand Canyon, and ski again in British Columbia. It’s all sort of organized in a Google Earth account with pins and notes tacked to couloirs, rivers, and summits all over the world.

“I think part of this living-in-a-trailer thing comes from my indecisiveness, because I really want to do it all, so what do you do first?” Thorien says as we drift up the Mile. “I definitely have this fear of life ending and having missed something.”

When Thorien says it, the words feel far less depressing than they do joyful, as if she’s marveling at the fact that a life of limitless adventure is actually possible. For her, it all really started in Boise, where she spent her formative years as the younger of two sisters in a happy, stable home. As a young girl, Thorien loved ballet until her teacher said despicable things about her body, so she quit and by 16 she was skiing at places like Tamarack, Sun Valley, and Brundage with friends.

Even from a young age, Thorien had few qualms about confronting authority and questioning the status quo. While she was a teen and considering playing the viola professionally, she also dove deep into punk, listening to bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat. When she started acing most of her high school classes, she skipped school to go skiing, using checks she’d stolen from her mother to buy lift tickets at Tamarack. She got caught, of course. After police shot and killed a well-liked but troubled student at Boise High, her distrust of power only grew. A short while later, police came to her school to arrest a runaway student in the cafeteria. Thorien and scores of other students rioted.

Things began to change for her at around 21, when she climbed 10,229-foot Mount Heyburn in the Sawtooths, the hardest thing she’d ever done to date. It was the beginning of a love affair with wilderness that grew so fierce she tattooed the summit’s coordinates onto her wrist. She fought forest fires in summer and skied all winter, yet she still tangled with police. At 24, after dropping out of music school, she got arrested for interfering in a friend’s arrest. A judge sentenced her to community service and levied a $300 fine.

“After that I learned that you can get much more done in life by being nice,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you let people walk over you, but be nice, and you can usually get what you want.”

For now that means skiing, and Thorien, who can drop heady quotes from Ken Kesey and Primo Levi, is as professional as they come—or most of the time, anyway. The Magic Mile draws into the top station and Thorien wastes no time getting off. She hikes up a short stretch over the lift where cameras wait to watch her rip through such inspiring scenery. When everyone is ready and the mood turns serious, Thorien takes a breath, turns around, and moons us all.

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