Many people expose so much of their vulnerability with me when creating a Deeper Image photo session that I wanted to share my story too. I have written about falling in love, and also about breaking my ankle all in one long story. It is my hope to continue to work with people and create photos that have a deeper meaning and symbolism in their lives, both for the experience and the images themselves.
It was Valentine's Day 2020 and I woke up saying "this is the best Valentine's Ever." I was not only celebrating the day of love with my boyfriend Chris of eight months but also with 10 of our mutual friends on a four-day backcountry/yurt ski trip near Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. Chris had already organized and been on 11 other ski trips to the yurts, and had, in fact, invited me on this trip the previous June before we had even kissed. At the time I took it as a good sign that he liked me, given that spots on the trip were limited, and we were just getting reacquainted. I thought to myself that we would see how things went between us since it was still eight months away.
Let me back up a little. Chris and I re-met 9 months earlier at a wedding in the Applegate Valley in Oregon. We were equally surprised to see each other, as we had only seen each other one other time since high school. You see, Chris's younger Sister Sierra was one of my best friends starting in middle school. I had a crush on Sierra's older brother Chris when we were freshman (back when my name was still Leah) and Chris was a senior. I probably never told Sierra about my crush, because that would have been too weird. But I distinctly remember when I was at their house for a sleepover, and Chris came out of his room to use the bathroom wearing only his boxer shorts.
It turned out that Chris had a crush on me too in high school and neither one of us knew it was mutual until 25 years later! It took us both getting degrees, starting careers, marrying other people, each having a daughter, getting divorced and eventually showing up to the same wedding on the same day to have our paths cross again. The reason Chris, his daughter, mom, and stepdad were at the wedding was because the bride was Chris's stepbrothers' mother. I was at the wedding as the photographer, my mom had introduced me to the bride Diana several years earlier. The three of us visited the property in the Celestine Valley in California that my mom and Diana had lived on 43 years ago when it was a hippie commune before I was born. In fact, the commune was where I was conceived in a hogan, a geometric structure traditionally made by the Navajo of wood poles, tree bark and mud, roughly resembling a yurt. This meant that Chris's family and my family had been interacting intermittently our whole lives, but it wasn't until now that we would get to know each other as adults.
Finding myself on the ski trip meant that things were not only going well for Chris and I in our new found love relationship, but we also were about to head out into the snowy wilds of Oregon with 10 friends that we both knew independently from our lives in Mt. Shasta, but who neither of us had ever spent time with together. What brought this particular group of friends together was a mutual friend of ours, Leif Hansen who had tragically passed away in May in a Kayaking accident. Almost everyone on the trip knew Lief who had been on the previous years' ski trip, so this trip was to be in honor of our friend and to carry on the adventurous spirit of a man who loved friends and outdoor adventures with all his heart.
Chris and I had skied at Mt. Ashland, Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Shasta together on day trips, but this would be 4 solid days of adventures without ski lifts, with coolers of food and good friends to ski and make meals with, all in the comfort of two 20 foot yurts and a sauna. The ski season was well underway at this time, but given that Chris lives in Bend and me in Ashland, a 3.5-hour drive apart, this was really our first big ski adventure together and we were very excited. Everyone was.
By 9 am we met Anna and Jonas in the sunny, but frosty parking lot with two of their snowmobiles and sled that we filled with 4 days worth of food and gear. The guides were super friendly, they helped us load the gear and had us sign some wavers. Our skis were ingeniously secured to the upper length of the sled, creating higher walls in which to stack more gear within. Five of our friends brought their own snowmobiles, the rest of us stood on the side runners of the sleds, designed for standing and we held onto the luggage for the 6-mile snowmobile rides to Three Creeks Lake and the yurts. The snow was sparse at first, just enough to cover the ground until we gained elevation. The views of the volcanic mountain ranges stretching all the way up to Washington were stunning. There was Broken Top, the Three Sisters, Black Crater, Mt. Washington, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. Washington...Mt. Batchelor was only 6 miles away, but just out of view. A recent wildfire had scorched the forest in places, leaving wide open areas that were great for seeing the mountain view.
Jonas and Anna stopped when we got to the lake, killing the roar of the engines and returning the winter air to its fresh, clean and silent state. Jonas pointed out the names of ski lines and the terrain we would be skiing along the Tam McArthur Rim over the next several days. There was some snow in the forecast which we all felt hopeful about, but as Jonas pointed out there would probably not be any need to be overly concerned about avalanches because the new snow would adhere to the solid base that had settled in the period of weeks that had remained sunny. I could see the Prow, a pinnacle that looked a bit like a nipple when viewed slightly further north, Chris had pointed it out to me last summer when we had hiked beneath the ridgeline amongst the wildflowers and lush green meadows.
At the yurts, we unloaded the sleds, divided into two groups, the couples yurt, and the bachelor yurt, whipped up some sandwiches, grabbed bars, and filled water bottles. As with any large group, the process of getting ready was a slow one, but there wasn't a big hurry as far as the snow was concerned and the temps were still below freezing in the shade. I put on my skins and skies and heading up the ridgeline with the group for our first ski tour. The conversation was light, I was able to catch up with old friends, hear about what the kids were up to and find out what was new after not spending much time with these friends in the last 10 years since I'd moved to Ashland.
As we crested the ridge, layers came off, the sun offering a warm ascent to our lunch break on the Prow, a prominent pinnacle of dark volcanic rock with a great view. While walking to the edge one had to cross sheet ice formed by the melted snow that had then frozen again in the cold night temperatures, a reminder of the firm conditions in the shade. The wind was calm and we posed for some group photos that Jonas took of us after our lunch.
At this point, our larger group split up into smaller groups with varying interests of where to ski. Sean asked what I wanted to ski and I countered with my own question, "can you guarantee me that my skis will hold their edge in these conditions?" Shawn replied with, "Oh Sequoia, I'm not buying that, I have seen you climb straight off the couch." He was referring to the past mountaineering trips we had been on for an organization that had raises funds and awareness for breast cancer and made annual climbs up Mt. Shasta. But those had not been ski trips, and at this point, I didn't make a conscious decision of what I actually wanted to ski although I liked being reminded that I used to be strong.
Instead, I followed Chris and continued along the Tam McArthur Rim, the going up was pleasant and I pushed my nerves aside at the thought of any of the decent options, all of them being steep with mixed and firm snow conditions. Sean and Devin radioed in that they were descending down a chute called Moon Shot. Dennis caught up to Chris and I and after cresting another ridge, we took off our climbing skins and prepared to ski down a line called Anna's line, named after one of the yurt guides after she nailed the run. I have a fear of heights, which is natural enough, so in order to will myself to stand at the edge of a slippery slope, I have to trick my mind by telling it I will enjoy myself and not to be scared. I put all my energy into laser focus, getting my boots as snug as they would comfortably go, and making sure all my clothing was comfortable, and my pack was secure.
Dennis went first, Chris side slipped over the edge to watch Dennis, I couldn't even talk myself into doing that to watch, it was too sketchy, so I couldn't even see Dennis because it was so steep below, I could only hear his ski edges on the ice... When the snow did not get softer even as Dennis got off the windblown top, he was able to change course and traverse back out of the upper section without committing to it. The line was too firm, we backtracked to find better snow conditions. I felt hugely relieved about this, but I also realized anything we skied would be about the same as far as snow conditions were concerned.
We ended up deciding to ski the same line Sean and Devin had just skied, Moon Shot. The approach was different. The snow at the ridgeline was soft, with about a 2" layer of fresh snow on a firm layer, providing a false sense of security. I followed Dennis slowly over the edge mainly because there was a small tree below the route he chose that I thought might catch me if I were to begin sliding. I inched my way down as Dennis took his first turn into the hourglass-shaped terrain. Chris came up to my left offering up, "it's not too late take off your skis and hike back up from here."
My single focus was to keep my skies on the traverse in front of me, watching the soft snow slide away and wondering if my edges would hold as it did. It hadn't crossed my mind to hike back up, even if my slow, timid progress made it clear I was afraid, the thought of taking my skis off was terrifying and not something I considered. I think I managed an incredulous. "No." Chris then asked if I knew how to self arrest with my ski poles. I said I did, and at that point, I took my pole straps off before taking my first turn, and then shortly after another. I had more speed than I wanted as I successfully made it past the narrow section and was granted the open snowfield. But choosing to take my extra speed and ski in reverse proved to be a poor choice. I must have caught an edge while sliding backward because the next thing I knew I was falling down the slope. I said, "no, no" out loud and though no one heard me, it was clear to me that I didn't want to be falling. My first thought was to self-arrest on my ski pole, which meant letting go of the other pole and sliding my hands together to try and make a purchase on the snow with the tip of my pole to slow me down. The pole was ripped from my hand as I gained speed. I then tried to get my legs below me, but when I managed, my ski edges caught, catapulting me into two pinwheels, the centripetal force of gravity causing my arms and legs to splay out like a starfish. "This is like one of those ski movies," I thought.
And then I came to a stop. My first thought was that my head felt intact and unharmed. As I recalibrated my bearings, I did not hear Dennis or Chris's calls from below and above me, asking if I was ok. What I noticed were chunks of solid snow raining down on my head as Chris side slipping down, gathering up my gear as he came. I sat up then, rolling onto my knees signaling to Dennis that I was ok. I noticed a large amount of cold snow down my pants and in my gloves. I noted that the cold snow felt good on my knee that had been wrenched in the cartwheels.
By the time Chris got to me and I tried to put my skis back on, I became aware of another feeling, besides feeling deeply embarrassed and apologizing to my fellow skiers that they had to witness me fall, I also noted that my ankle hurt. I couldn't put weight on it, and although there was still great skiing in an open bowl below us, it was clear that I was done skiing for the day. First I just needed to get myself back to the yurts.
It took over an hour and was more than a mile of traversing first the mixed snow bowl and then the seemingly endless trees before we finally made it down to the lake. It was extremely fortunate that the whole route was a right-hand traverse, which meant I put all my body weight on my left leg as we skied. When the terrain flattened out, we put our skins back on. We heard a call through the trees and merged with Dennis briefly before he continued to the yurts. When I could no longer avoid making right turns in the warmer, sticker snow at lower elevation, I took my skis off. Chris carried them and I post-holed to the lake, which was painful each step. Sean, Scott and the other Chris were waiting in the sun, parked on their snowmobiles. They fired up the loud engines and gave Chris and I a ride the short distance to the yurts. Once there, I was offered a Hot Toddie, and an ankle exam by not one, but two of our doctor friends. Scott, a Physicians Assistant, helped get my ski boot off, we pulled off my steaming sock to find a bulging ankle. Stacia found an ice bag and supplied me with arnica cream and a topical anti-inflammatory gel. Out by the fire pit, Sean, an Internal Medicine doctor also had a look at my ankle. He gave a look at Scott and asked me, "do you think it is broken?" I had never broken a bone in my life, so I said "no." But Scott and Sean both knew that the source of my pain contained only bone, there were no muscles or ligaments where it hurt that could have been sprained, which probably meant that my ankle was broken.
The following 3 hours were spent shuttling us back down the snow-covered road on the snowmobiles to town and back. I suddenly felt so grateful that our friends brought their own snowmobiles since our shuttle service would not be back for us for another 3 days. We took the truck to the small town of Sisters, but the facilities had closed. Calling on a friend who's wife worked in medicine, Chris found out that an Urgent Care Facility was open in Redmond, where we found what I needed, an x-ray, assessment, a soft cast, and crutches. The x-ray confirmed that my fibula was broken at the ankle.
We were happy to arrive back at the yurts and welcomed with a surprise shower of fireworks over the lake. Not only were we served hot burrito bowls, but the sauna had been stoked, the outdoor fire pit was lit, and Chris and I were both in agreement that we wanted to be at the yurts, not anywhere else. The next 3 days were filled with friends pitching in to do the cooking and cleaning. While everyone went skiing, I held down the fort and found other ways to spend my vacation, that mostly took the form of keeping my leg elevated at all times, and eating things I don't normally eat, like peanut M&M's, because, "why not?"
Chris was right by my side through the whole ordeal. He gave up his ski run the day I fell and the next morning, but he went out on all the other adventures, and I enjoyed hearing everyone's stories when they returned. I drank Hot Toddies, ate delicious meals, saunad with an ice pack on my ankle, and watched a crazy ski movie called Into The Mind on Chris's iPad that had a way crazier ski accident than mine had been, I found this comforting. One day I started to watch the movie The Princess Bride, but the truth was that even when the crew was out skiing, other people who came to the area just for the day would stop in, so I was never alone for long, and that meant I could play Quarkle, or some other game with my friends when they came to warm up from their adventures.
That snowstorm that was predicted didn't amount to more than a few centimeters. But as we lay in our bunks under our sleeping bags, the sound of the snow sliding off the roof of the yurt was very dramatic as the woodstove heating up the inside of our abode. We ate breakfast burritos heated on the top of the woodstove on that snowy morning.
Through the experiences of falling in love and breaking my ankle-two totally different spectrums of emotion, I felt vulnerable in both cases but for the same reason. Any time I am shown what I can loose, whether it is someone I love or my life flashes before my eyes, I feel vulnerable. I value and appreciate what I do have by knowing it can be lost or taken away. I feel very fortunate in both finding love and in that I only broke my ankle and nothing worse! This is not to say that I need to seek adrenaline-pumping adventures in order to feel purpose in my life, but to find the balance in sharing life adventures with those I love and keeping me and my loved ones safe and healthy.