Family Ski Day at Crystal Mountain

Crystal Mountain Ski Resort

Location —  39 miles past Enumclaw, 47 miles from Mt. Ranier, “105 driving minutes” from Seattle, 4 hours from Bellingham.
Skiable terrain — 4.06 miles
Ski runs — 57
Elevation at top — 3912 feet

Growing up at Crystal Mountain

Mom and Dad skiing at Crystal back in the day

I grew up skiing at Crystal.  My family had a room in a 40-family lodge (Skier’s Inc.) from the time I was two until my mid-30s, when my parents finally sold their rights to the room.  I remember vividly Mom and Dad hauling my three siblings and me up to Crystal for weekends or occasional weeks of skiing all winter long.

The lodge was 1/4 mile walk up and down steep terrain from the parking lot. My Dad would haul in load after load of stuff (none of us were light packers!) in stacked, gray plastic boxes, strapped to a contrived frame he’d made for that very purpose. My Mom and siblings would take one load in, then we’d all unpack and get settled into the tiny room we all slept in.

To this day I have dreams of that room — Mom’s Norwegian sweaters hanging in the closet, candy stored in the draws below (somehow, my Mom thought we didn’t know it was there…), the bathroom that was so small you had to move back to the toilet to even shut the door, the four bunks with their old red sleeping bags, and the ancient hide-a-bed I could never get to go back into its proper storage configuration, even once I got to be an adult and was allowed to sleep there.

Kari, Kathie, Dad…gotta love Kari’s ski pants!

As kids we played hide and seek with other kids in the lodge, giggling and trying not to run through the large, community kitchen and living areas. We’d inevitably get reprimanded by the adults who’d then shoo us outside, where we’d play in the snow and jump off the huge, slightly sloping roof to soft snow below. A future celebrity was even in the reckless mix. Stone Gossard, drummer for the band Pearl Jam, was one of the wild crew.

I have especially fond memories of skiing long days from the age of three on. Sometimes with friends from the lodge, but mostly with my Dad and sister Kari. Dad was obsessed with powder snow and took us on back runs and through the trees in his never ending quest to find it. We skied difficult runs just as soon as we were able and I was tackling the top of the mountain from age five on.

A young Kathie and Kari at the top of Crystal Mountain…circa 1969

I learned SO MUCH about life on those back runs with Dad: how to stay warm (as mentioned in the previous post, Celebration Run); how to overcome fear and go for it anyway; how NOT to give up, even when tears and frustration presented themselves. My Dad was an eternal optimistic who never lost his sense of fun, adventure, and passion, even under semi-dire circumstances (serious windchill and frostbite, dislocated joints on the hill, crying daughters, etc.). Those memories bring me to tears every time.

Previous Last Ski Day at Crystal — 2000

Classic Dad in the trees photo

Before this New Year’s Day, the last time I skied at Crystal was sometime in the year 2000. I was a year post-op from invasive back surgery that didn’t go well and I yearned to try for a ski day to prove I was still able. I drove the four hours to Crystal from Bellingham and skied alone for the morning and then with my brother Brad for the afternoon. Brad is an exceptionally good skier and knows the mountain inside and out. I’d asked him to take me on newly opened parts of the mountain I was not familiar with. He took me on several back runs that were fast and icy and I feared I’d lose him. I had to race to keep up and skied at a much harder level than I should have.  The experience nearly killed me! I drove back to Bellingham in extreme pain and went straight to the hot tub and sauna at my gym where I tried to recover. That experience put  me off from skiing for awhile and caused me to stay away from Crystal.

New Years Day, 2018!

Until this New Year’s Day. A month prior, Kari got an inclination to plan a family ski day while my son and his girlfriend were home for the holidays. She envisioned as many family members as possible gathering at Crystal to ski for New Year’s Day and I couldn’t resist joining in. I’d skied a decent bit at Mt. Baker (near Bellingham) since that fated day in 2000, but only once since 2013. I’d spent 3 of the 4 winters on crutches recovering from foot, ankle and knee surgeries. I had no idea how I’d manage, but I grew more and more invested as our plans came to fruition.

The clan of New Year’s Day skiers ended up being:  Kari, her friend David, my daughter Shannon and husband Kevin, my son Kyle and his girlfriend Lauren, and me. Also up there were Brad, his four-year old daughter Maggie and his girlfriend, Liz.

The kids and I stayed at Kari’s house in Seattle New Year’s eve to break up the drive from Bellingham.

Everyone arrived at the lift area around 9:30 am on New Year’s Day.  I was thrilled and all smiles with memories, while nervous anticipation simultaneously filled my core. Kari and I wanted everything to go well and my nerves were about wanting everyone to be happy as well as my anxiety about skiing.  I was excited to re-introduce my adult kids to my favorite ski area (Shannon is 27, Kyle is 25). Shannon and Kevin, previous snowboarders, planned to rent skis. Lauren and Kyle were coming off several days of skiing at Whistler and felt confident, although Lauren was quite sick and not at all sure she could ski.

Rentals and organization accomplished, we all met in the day lodge just before 10:00 to organize into groups for the morning.

Morning Skiing

Kathie, David, Kari, Top of Crystal, New Year’s Day, 2018

Kyle offered to teach Shannon and Kevin some basic skills, even though he has only been skiing for four years. That left the four of them to start on the bunny slopes and Kari, David and I headed up together. I hadn’t skied with Kari in over 20 years, and we had a great time reminiscing as we rode up the first chair. What used to be a two-person chair now serviced six!

The first run, everything felt weird. It was my first time skiing post-knee replacement and the other knee is also more arthritic than previous ski days. I was acutely aware of both. The feet, once in my boots, were tolerable. My initial worries that I might not be able to do it quickly turned to a fear of falling and I obsessed on this for a few runs.  But as with running when I first started back last June, the fear of falling diminished with each successful run and quickly I was back to skiing with confidence.

The three of us skied several classics:  Green Valley (one of Dad’s favorite areas, and hence chock full of memories!), Grub Stake and Snorting Elk, all serviceable by the Green Valley Chair. David was having knee trouble and unfortunately hurt himself in a fall trying to protect his knee. He and Kari headed in early for lunch and I was left to do a couple fast runs on my own.

Young Kathie contemplating skiing…and life?

There are so many things I love about skiing and those few runs alone gave me time to reflect. I cherish the environment, both for the spectacular views from the top of the mountain and for the nostalgia. I spotted places where Dad, Kari and I would take our lunch in backpacks on sunny days, off into the trees,  eating sandwiches, fruit, and red licorice ropes slope-side, skis propped up for a back rest. I think part of my current draw to the mountains as a place of quiet, solace, and great joy comes from the early years being enveloped in a mountain environment at Crystal.

Another reason I love downhill skiing is that it requires full focus when I am going for it. It’s like yoga now or rock-climbing in my past, challenging to the extent that I have to concentrate fully on how my body and mind work together to pull it off successfully. I have always been able to ski well, even with long lay-offs, and I think part of that has to do with the present-moment awareness required to do it. I am not a pretty skier, but I can make it down anything and I love the challenge of standing at the top of a run that looks crazy impossible, yet figuring out how to make it happen, a turn at a time. So much of life takes place that way, one step or moment or action at a time, pulled together to deliver success by the end.

Family Lunch!

I headed down to the lower lodge to meet everyone for lunch, still contemplating the wonder of being in the mountains in winter, after multiple summers spent hiking and backpacking. It’s a different feel. The weather cooperated fabulously at lunch, and we were able to sit outside. An inversion caused temperatures at Crystal to be warmer than they had been in Seattle, and blue skis and warm temps created a spring-like environment. Two of Kari’s friends joined us for lunch so it was a big group. Sadly, we did not hook up with Brad, Liz, and Maggie.

After lunch, reconfiguration and more planning took place.  David was now officially injured and out for the day, and Lauren was too sick to keep skiing. Shannon and Kevin felt comfortable with their conversion to skiing and confident enough to ski on their own for the afternoon. That left Kari, Kyle, and me to head back up to the top for more exploration and adventure.

Afternoon Skiing

We got in line for the gondola, which runs from bottom to top, an experience I wanted to have as that lift was new to me. But just as we approached, the gondola unfortunately quit running, so it was back to the chairlift. Once on the lift, we discussed strategy. Kyle had yet to do a black diamond run, but felt ready as long as it wasn’t too hard. “I feel good after my three days at Whistler.” He declared. “I want to see what I can do.” I hadn’t skied with Kyle since he was in 6th grade and I also wanted to see what he could do. Similarly, he was excited to watch his dear old Mom ski!

Kari and I opted to take Kyle down a classic black, a run I grew up calling “Iceberg” which had been renamed “Ferk’s” (after a long time ski patroller). I noticed that Kyle’s style had changed little since sixth grade — he was still fast, a little reckless, and tended to point his skis straight down the hill. But he had mastered long, sweeping turns, and learned to play to his strengths to maximize his skiing ability.  It was great watching him, and his excitement for the sport reminded me of skiing with Dad.

After a couple successes on Ferk’s, Kari suggested a harder, non-groomed run in the trees, Memorial Forest. We followed her there, the memories of past ski days flooding my thoughts. Kari went first, me second, Kyle bringing up the rear. The snow on the steep slope was thick and chunky, with trees to navigate around. We all struggled some, but in descending order of our progression — Kari least, me next, Kyle most. Kyle attacked the hill in his typical fashion, but had no experience with the combined challenging factors. He fell several times, each time losing his skis. From below Kari and I would call encouragement and watch him struggle to get his skis back on in the steep, sloppy snow. He’d go for it again, get thrown off balance by the tricky snow, and fall again. It was hard as the Mom not to want to hike up and rescue him…but I was also relieved I did not have to. Age 25, stronger than me by a long shot, I knew he’d manage.  After several falls, Kyle was hot, sweaty, and pooped. He finally put his skis on his shoulder and walked down to where we waited for him, positive disposition still intact.

Kyle and Kathie selfie

After that challenge, Kari headed down to check on David, leaving Kyle and me to ski the rest of the afternoon together.  We went up and down Green Valley Chair and Rainier Express (REX), for eight more runs, and Kyle increased in confidence with each one. He kept saying how much he loved trying Memorial Forest , as afterwards everything  seemed easy by comparison.  Again his energy and enthusiasm totally reminded me of Dad. Kyle was able to keep up with me on every run. At one point, I told him, “It’s just like my Dad used to say to Kari and me;  ‘In no time you girls will pass me skiing, which will be sad, but that also makes me very proud.’ That will happen with you, Kyle, and soon I’ll be left in the dust.”

Top of Crystal, Mt. Rainier in background

We laughed at that, as skiing together was unexpected and fun, the perfect circumstances allowing the opportunity to happen. We skied until we ran out of time, our last run being as epic as the rest.

Somehow I led Kyle to a steep and very icy run close to the bottom, which we came upon with great speed. Unable to stop smoothly for some kids doing wide traverses on the hill, Kyle took a spectacular fall. I looked back up in time to see him fall, skis flying off, one ski sliding down the hill. The mother of the kid who Kyle had stopped for caught it in spectacular style. Then, as Kyle was trying to get organized, the other ski went flying down, fast, toward the kid. Kyle yelled, the mom scrambled again, and caught the second ski. The two communicated (I was too low to hear, but watched) and Kyle once again walked down the hill while the lady skied down with his skis on her shoulder.  I can honestly say I’d never thought of walking down a ski hill, and now my resourceful son had done it twice in one day when it seemed the only practical solution. I thanked the mom profusely as she skied by once Kyle was safely back in his skis, embracing that sense of community and mutual purpose that a day on the ski hill brings about.

All good things must come to an end…

One of my all-time favorite Crystal photos: Dad, his red ski pants, and Shannon, at one month old

In someways, I wanted the day to never end. In others, I was really ready when we reached the bottom at 3:30. I’d skied hard, both knees were feeling it, and I wanted to get my boots off. And I was tired. I felt relieved that the day had gone mostly well, with the exception of David’s injuries and Lauren being sick.

Kari and David had left early, so the four of us decided to stop for Mexican food  on the drive home. Over dinner at Las Margaritas in Auburn, we talked excitedly of the day. Shannon and Kevin said they wanted to trade their boards for skis, the skiing was that successful. Kyle and I recounted his stories to laughter and head shaking. We consumed tons of food, and all agreed that we will have to do it again, maybe next year. I felt sad that Kari and David couldn’t join us, as the fantastic day would not have occurred without Kari’s commitment to planning the project.

Thanks to…

Kari for organizing and allowing us to all crash at her place New Year’s Eve, Brad who so nicely provided tickets for the five of us from his abundance of Crystal Mountain Stock, and Mom and Dad for introducing me to skiing at such a young age. The excitement hasn’t dulled and I can’t wait to go back!

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    1. Thanks, Ann! That touches me that it touched you 🙂 I LOVED writing it, as well as experiencing ALL the events that contributed — with the possible exception of the ski day with Brad that I feared might kill me off!

  1. I really enjoyed this post and your previous one, probably mostly because so much of what you are writing about is familiar to me. Even though Mark and I don’t have a long history at Crystal, we still call it Iceberg as well. We haven’t been up to Crystal yet this year, but this makes me want to go (in blue sky/sunny weather of course!). Thanks for so eloquently sharing your experience. Happy New Year Kathie!

    Carrie Stewart

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