Skiing a wildfire zone in Oregon
The last time I had been on snow with my brother, he was getting the big mountain baptism that is a person's first time experience riding in the alps. I was living in Austria for the winter, and we had no idea we were staring down the barrel of an oncoming global pandemic. Fast forward almost exactly a year, we had now totally switched roles. I was the visitor, he was the guide.
Wildfires are immense weapons of natural destruction. They are an ecosystem's way of purging all life from a region; a way of ridding the old to make way for the new. Sadly, in recent years what used to be more of a natural phenomenon has been exacerbated by changing climates and human carelessness. Oregon is now synonymous with out of control fires that overwhelm entire mountain ranges. Seeing the devastation left behind was dumbfounding.
My brother Cole had called me and explained in zealous detail about how unique it would be to go riding out in an old burn zone. It isn't hard to fathom just how much potential lies in a landscape that has been left scorched, now resting under a fresh blanket of snow. A black forest, no small branches, not even bushes and shrubs on the ground. Our lines would weave between the charred pins that stick straight out of the snow.
We left early, racing the sunrise as we weaved through the mountains where some of the fires had previously raged. I knew we were driving through some of the worst parts of the previous season's destruction. The hue of morning sun started to reveal just how all encompassing it was. Through the still air we were passing empty foundations, black mountains, and even the remains of charred fire trucks. To picture the entire area once drowning in flames was overwhelming.
The plan for the day was simple, we were just going to go exploring. Most potential runs were low angle, and the presence of the forest, though burned, still made it low avalanche risk especially come spring. We had the opportunity to do what few get the chance to, to turn devastation into recreation.
“Deafening silence” is the only way to describe the slow approach through the lower parts of the forest. The only interruption being the steady slipping of the skins across that frozen early morning spring corn snow. Step by step we made our way up. Breezes would slowly navigate the sea of black pin needles adding a faint background to the soundtrack of our steps.
This location turned out to be even more unique than I was hoping. Yes, it was a burn zone, but the entire area sat almost perfectly between two giant volcanic spikes. Not mountain ranges, but lone fangs bookending the charred remains of the forest in each direction. Our path led us in the direction of the jagged Three Finger Jack. But in the eerie silence, every time I would turn around I would be reminded that we are in central Oregon, a landscape built by volcanoes.
After a slight miscalculation we reached our initial drop point, and sat enjoying the view we had earned. The morning had warmed to soften the snow and warrant removal of layers down to bibs only. Spring skiing at its finest. In the quiet moments my mind would often return to how odd it was to have switched roles with my brother. Most things had been flipped 180 degrees since the start of the pandemic. But this was one I did not expect.
For the last four years Cole had played lacrosse at Springfield College in western Massachusetts, rounding out a long career as a hard nosed goalie. In that same time I had committed fully to the world of travel. Both with and without skis on my feet. Crossing six continents in that time, and always having calls home to a brother who supported every step, every sacrifice, and always said that one day he would join.
The pandemic planted me at home. For the first time in years I was still, and I did not know when I would be able to leave again. In that same time Cole graduated and decided it was time for his big change. His post college plans had gone up in the flames of the pandemic, instead he decided to make a gamble for himself. He moved to Oregon.
We had changed roles, he sought out a new chapter of adventure. A place where he could finally put all of the physical energy he once put into lacrosse into finding new passions amongst new horizons. I sat idle, overwhelmed by the thought that the horizons I so desperately wanted to hunt down might be off limits for years.
And in life's funny way, the first new horizon I would see would be shown to me by my brother. The roles reversed, he pulled me out of my frustration. In Oregon my brother brought me out of my desperate state. He took the lead and all I had to do was follow. Through the camera I saw his transformation from just starting to get his big mountain legs, into a true backcountry rider.
Amongst the charred trees spring saplings were managing to reach their first bit of sunlight. Often the only color to be found in the landscape of stark black white and blue. It was only in hindsight I realized how powerful a metaphor lay in this trip. Not all well laid plans are meant to stand forever. Even things as seemingly permanent as a forest can go up in flames. To keep moving forward is the only way. With patience and time new ideas will take hold, roots nourished by the debris of the previous concepts that didn't quite make it. Sometimes in a confusing world all you can do is go for a walk with your little brother to try and make sense of it.