A faint ribbon of orange kissed the horizon line. Stars shimmered, flickering in the darkness above the high desert to the east as John, Brady, Aidan — my then 17-year-old-son — and I pulled skins under the southeast ridge of the North Sister. We were a few hours into what we thought would be a big day on the Three Sisters Traverse.
This was a repeat trip; a redo of sorts. We had skied the trifecta of local volcanoes, the North, Middle, and South Sister in a single push the season before. On that go, we were inefficient. We were, in fact, too slow. Our sluggish pace was compounded by flawed route selection and a raging sun.
This time, clicking into our bindings and securing headlamps before dropping onto the Hayden Glacier, everything felt dialed.
The week before, on a training ski up the South Sister, my ski popped and slid 1500 feet, despite the binding being locked out, as I kicked-turned on a sketchy, bulletproof pitch. I hadn’t bothered to secure my leashes.
My plummeting ski mishap on the South Sister left me overly cautious. Perched above the Hayden, on our traverse attempt, I reminded everyone to leash up, like an overbearing dad. One by one we skied frozen corn, trending high on the sidehill to minimize elevation loss. Aside from a lack of sunlight, this was cruiser.
Like automatons, after drifting to a stop on the lower Hayden, three of us popped skis and began transitioning. Aidan glided in on his 6’3” frame, and was the last of us to initiate a process he’d mastered as a tyke.
Standing there in the dark, with my thin beam of light broadcast on the snow, only this much was clear: Aidan unleashed. He ripped skins. He momentarily let his right ski rest unattended on the nearly flat moraine, as he finagled with the other ski. The right ski began sliding down. He lunged for it. At that exact moment, amidst a cacophony of soap-in-the-mouth language, his left ski made an equally sickening slide down the glacier. (We later found out, after sunrise, that his left BOA lace was cut, and the leash had slid off the lace.) Right ski, then left ski: Goodbye.
I allowed myself one unproud moment of parenting during which I’m almost certain I sardonically asked, “What were you thinking?” Not having witnessed the trajectory of the skis arcing away in the dark, our hour-long search was a goose egg. For this father and son, the day was over. We decided to boogie out before the snow softened and Aidan post-holed the four miles back to the trailhead. John and Brady went on to have a stellar day.
As far as life lessons go, this one simply slashed an ego. Not such a high cost when questing in the mountains.
We moved to Bend, Oregon, from Colorado in 2008. Bend’s western viewshed is punctuated by the Three Sisters, Broken Top, and Mt. Bachelor. As far as referring to mountains as serrated teeth, these are mostly rounded-off molars, with occasional jagged peaks and face-splitting couloirs thrown in for balance. Although the backcountry skiing is world class, this range is certainly not vast.
And that, it turns out, is a good thing. The mountains here are discrete, and mountains are Aidan’s obsession. But ours are not so vast as to overwhelm a child’s brain with mountain-top sensory input. When topping out, it’s easy to see where one mountain begins and another ends.
If you are skiing from one end of the range to the other — say, the Three Sisters Traverse plus Broken Top and a final skin up Bachelor — in total that’s roughly 33 miles and some big vert. Once you gain an initial high point, it’s relatively easy to discern a path from one summit to the next. These volcanoes are insulated by lush forest to the west and a run of high desert to the east.
Had we lived in the heart of the Elks or the periphery of the Wind Rivers, with their sea of endless summits, I’m not sure that I would have known where to start exposing my kids to the mountains. You start small, sure. I get that. It’s simply that I think I might have been overwhelmed by the menu.
Scores of jaunts together up the quick-trip Tumalo Mountain laid the groundwork. The South Sister, the tallest but most benign of the Sisters, with its southside slog, proved a lovely place to experience some low-level spiciness. I would haul up Aidan’s heavy downhill gear, while he skinned and booted along in a lightweight cross-country setup. With a 360-degree ring-of-fire view, waiting for the higher elevation snow to corn-up was a pleasure from this throne room. You can literally see the weather coming in from the Pacific — no sneaky storms to worry about — and I can still flash-back to imagining Aidan’s brain popping with the dream of it all.
As a parent, and I’m pretty certain for this kid, these tidy mountains have been a gift. Aidan has had a gradual introduction into increasingly more technical and demanding ascents and descents. It’s hard here to inadvertently get yourself into high-risk terrain. You have to seek it out. And then there’s the relatively stable Pacific Northwest snowpack. I cannot imagine the psychic weight of routinely bringing a child into a realm of persistent weak layers. Less is sometimes more.
There were, of course, deeper tours as we aged. Jaunts to ski off Mt. Hood and lines to ski on Mt. Adams. Mostly, though, we were content to stay local. This adds a layer of comfort. If he were seeking out steeper terrain in the Three Sisters, Aidan had the knowledge and concrete expectations of known approaches as the range’s tidiness is also a function of limited winter-time access points.
The truth is, our children outgrow us. And allowing them to take calculated risks as they light out on their own is, at once, both liberating and a gut check. When Covid hit in March 2020, the schools were shut for weeks. Even when remote schooling kicked in, let’s just say that as parents, we loosened the reins corresponding to the rather loose academics.
Logical? That is debatable. But, Aidan was still learning and without dad looking over his shoulder.
I recall a string of weeks when, on many days, Aidan would text me from a high ridge on Broken Top at sunset. “Hey, just checking in. Taking photos. I’ll be home late,” was the usual sparse-but just-enough info we needed to let it slide. I felt no need to reply and ask if he had a headlamp, a puffy, a helmet, beacon, shovel, or probe, an inReach. He knew that drill.
I struggled to create new boundaries. There was a new force on the tightrope tensioned by a 17-year-old’s sense of what was appropriately independent and an old parent’s need to simply have their kid safe. But, I cannot recall a time during the pandemic when we shut him down.
Fingers crossed, however, is no way to think about your child navigating mountainous terrain. Just like any reasonable parent, we were letting him go and grow and learn. But as that progresses, new steps emerge. His skills and confidence blossomed. He was starting to outgrow me.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned social media is good for, it’s this: The curated spray from a teenager can catch the eye of some experienced and well intentioned friends. And who doesn’t want a big-lunged skin track setter? Aidan, it turned out, had some partnership assets in his fitness and cool head in the mountains.
Kevin, the head of the local avalanche center, became a go-to partner. The charging alpinist Graham, training for a moonshot ascent of K2, often trained with what he liked to refer to as “the youth”.
Let’s be honest — I’m sure “the youth” was stoked with no dad tagging along. And this dad appreciates the gift of friends shouldering the heavy lift of mentorship.
Several weeks after Aidan’s skis shot away in the darkness, we were back at it again. John, Aidan, and me, trying to close out the season’s Three Sisters Traverse. The ego mended and new sticks underfoot, Aidan had packed extra food, as he wanted to ski all five major peaks that day. The thought of three peaks was enough endurance, at least, for me.
Somewhere in the vicinity of a frozen Camp Lake, we took a break. At 9 a.m., with only the South Sister remaining, Aidan reminded us that he’d be heading out solo after the South to ski Broken Top, and then Bachelor. Already at our limit, John and I knew Aidan’s extra bite of summits would in fact be alone. Aidan flew ahead up the final 1,000 feet of the South Sister. My only complaint was how Aidan’s long-legged stride made for a somewhat unsuitable bootpack for me to follow, though I was grateful. No lecture from dad.
Cloudless and windless near the summit, John and I plopped down to refuel. I knew that over the years, John, my primary ski partner, had heard me parent-to-death Aidan in the backcountry. “OK, dad,” John would say in a mock teenager’s disgust when I offered unsolicited advice to Aidan.
“You should put on your puffy. You should take a sip of tea. You should stop and eat. You should drop your heels a bit when frontpointing.”
Like an alpine-sprite, Aidan skied off the summit and skidded to a stop by John and me. I handed him my spare Snickers and a few Gin-Gins. Where we were spent, Aidan seemed indefatigable.
“Bye John, see you Dad,” was all he said as he descended down towards Green Lakes and the base of Broken Top.
Postscript: By July, after the lower altitude snow had melted, our friend Bernie Nelson located one of Aidan’s skis at the Pole Creek trailhead. (Thank you, nice hiker who set it aside.) A week later, thinking not all was lost, Bernie led Aidan and me to the flanks of the Hayden Glacier to sniff out the remaining ski. Bernie is the bloodhound of missing gear. “Got it,” Bernie shouted after five minutes on the hunt. As for me, I’m still mulling the fact that Aidan rolls leashless (and breakless) in the mountains.
Jason Albert is the Executive Editor of FasterSkier.com. He lives with his family in Bend, Oregon.