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From the mountains to the sea: Searching for relief in fresh places

Exhaustion builds in a long season, providing a reminder to slow down

Columnist Kayla Heidenreich watches as the sun rises above the top of the line on the Cropley Chute, near the Eaglecrest Ski Area on Douglas Island — west of Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)
By Kayla Heidenreich CDN Contributor

JUNEAU, Alaska — The 7 a.m. air feels sharp against my skin and cleansing to my lungs. I watch as the sun slowly wakes up our tiny corner of the world, softly creeping its way up the mountain walls and glistening off the ocean’s surface.

I take one last sip of my warm coffee, throw the Thermos into my backpack and strap into my split board, teetering on the edge of the 1,500-vertical-foot line. I close my eyes, releasing any superficial chatter that usually nibbles at my mind, and let myself tune in to the mountain.

I drop in right as the sun finishes painting the whole mountain face gold. My first couple of turns are scratchy, as I expected, knowing the wind howled through the mountain peaks the night prior and transported snow off the ridges. I go slow, ensuring confidence in each turn I make.

As I make my way down the first third of the line, the snow deepens and I no longer feel the bottom. I widen my turns, increasing my speed as if shifting gears in a car. The sunlight dances as it bounces off the untouched snow. Adrenaline intertwines with the feelings of freedom, creativity, confidence and trust as I fly down the face of the mountain — kicking up clouds of sparkly white with every turn I make.

My line squiggles its way down the gut of the chute — an ephemeral co-creation between the mountain and me. I watch my two friends, and fellow ski patrollers, hoot and holler as they leave their own squiggly pieces of art in the snow.

Columnist Kayla Heidenreich and crew boot pack the steep final pitch of their morning ascent. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)

We got the line in pristine conditions, and it wasn’t due to luck; rather a whole season of studying the snowpack and waiting for the right time. When the portal opened, we jumped in. It was well worth the wait.

I look down at my watch; we have 15 minutes to clock into work. We traverse across a frozen lake, duck Eaglecrest Ski Area’s boundary line and dart our way down the mountain, into the lodge. We shimmy into our patrol jackets as I fight back a yawn and our patrol director starts our morning meeting.

This season, I have deepened my connection with the mountains. From riding more technical lines to diving into the world of snow science, I am starting to understand the language mountains speak.

Funny enough, the more I learn, the more fear I have.

I’ve learned that fear is a good thing — a superpower that keeps you alive. It heightens your senses and helps you pick up on subtle changes. Every time I am teetering on the edge of a line, I focus on harnessing that fear and using it to help me tune into what the mountain is saying.

I have been on the mountain almost every day this season, whether it be for work or my own recreation. With how wacky this winter has been, I have felt the pressure to make every day and every weather window count, even if it means a 4 a.m. wake-up to hit a line before work.

While this has helped me strengthen my relationship with the mountains, it has also started to take a toll on my body. My knees ache from the repetitive stress, my back winds tighter each day, and some days, my feet are too swollen to shove into boots. I know I need to give my body a break.

Floating in the ocean for an unknown amount of time, columnist Kayla Heidenreich is reminded her joy isn’t from the adrenaline of snowboarding, but from “the feeling of solitude” the environment brings. (Photo courtesy of Malia Kellerman)

As I sit in the patrol shack, looking out at our morning mission’s tracks with my feet up, boots off, fighting to keep my eyes open, I know I need to take a break. I grab a piece of paper and scribble, “Goal this weekend: Find a new way to move my body that is not snowboarding and be happy about it.” I shove the note in my pocket and leave my skins in the top shack, making snowboarding inaccessible to me for the weekend.

I wake up on my first day off, feeling the overwhelming weight of missing out on a prime weather window. The sun pulses in the sky for the last time in the next forecastable period. It is supposed to warm up and rain all week, chipping away at our already lean snowpack. I can’t believe I left my skins in the patrol shack. I need something to distract myself. A new way to move my body.

The crisp 20-degree air bites my cheeks as I let the small waves lap at my ankles. My wetsuit clings to my body and, in a weird way, feels comforting.

I’ve never been a big water gal, and that familiar feeling of fear — mixed with excitement — bubbles up in my chest, reminding me to slow down, take a breath, and tune into my environment.

I let the ocean cradle me, the current loosening my tense body one pulse at a time. I am reminded it isn’t always about the next big line, but rather the feeling of solitude that comes with immersing myself into the environment — mountains or sea.

CDN outdoors columnist Kayla Heidenreich writes monthly, of late from Juneau and beyond. Reach her at

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