Lessons Learned from a Couloir

PC: Nathan Wolf

I left the stability of two paychecks a month for life as an aspiring entrepreneur. I live an active lifestyle, so the first thing on my to do list was to get on Obamacare. Doing so required projecting my income for the coming year. I didn’t know what to expect, so I estimated half of what I was previously making. My plan was to side hustle just enough to make ends meet and dedicate the rest of my time to launching a startup.

A few weeks later, Healthcare.gov wanted better documentation for my income projection. I sat down to make a budget for the business and project revenue for the year.

As the numbers started to take shape on my spreadsheet, I was awash with panic. My runway was just a few months, and I had no plan for what I would do thereafter. I was crushed.

The next day was Saturday and in my household that means time to get outside. I didn’t feel like I deserved to play that day, but the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen helped me mobilize.

Dante Petri breaking trail and me trying to keep up! PC: Nathan Wolf

We went to Hatcher Pass in Alaska — my all time favorite place to backcountry ski. Not 200 yards from the car, my ski partners started chasing those touring ahead of us. I wasn’t yet warmed up, and I was frustrated to be left behind. I thought to myself why do I do this? I either need slower friends or a new sport.

It was a beautiful sunny day, but it took me a good hour to shake the cloak of disappointment that still weighed heavily on me. Fortunately, I’m blessed to be a naturally optimistic person. After some positive self-talk, I found the inspiration to shuffle my legs faster and catch up with the boys.

In our first run we skied into a shaded bowl with feather-light snow. At the base, we again put on our skins — a synthetic material you attach to the bottom of your ski to walk uphill. We zig zagged our way to the ridge, but the final pitch was too steep to tour up. We clicked out of our skis, attached them to our backpacks, and bear crawled the rest of the way.

On top there was just enough room for the three of us to kick in ledges and transition to downhill mode. Towering above us were two pinnacles of jagged rock, blocking the sun and keeping things cool. We were on top of what we hoped was a skiable couloir. A couloir is like a straw in the mountains; it’s a steep, narrow chute on a mountainside.

The keyword in that sentence was ‘hoped’. My ski partner said he had tried to come up the couloir from the bottom a few years ago to investigate if it went to the top. On the previous attempt, he was turned around because there wasn’t enough snow bridging the top and bottom of a narrow choke midway up the couloir. The choke was like the bottom of a funnel; it narrowed to just four or five feet wide. Because we had more snow this season, he believed it was skiable.

From our vantage point, I couldn’t see any of his route descriptors. The run was only visible for 25 feet or so before arching out of sight. All that I could see were slivers of shark fin rocks piercing through the wind-swept chute. I started to feel the earliest stages of panic overtake me. My heartbeat started to increase. I wondered if I had finally met the limits of my skiing ability.

Panic is bad news. I had heard of people getting so frightened on top of a peak that they would essentially paralyze themselves. I knew I couldn’t let this happen to me, so I engaged in my favorite bad habit when I’m stressed: eat some bacon and chocolate. As the bacon fat dissolved in my mouth, I warmed up and regained my composure. I asked for the radio and announced I’m going first.

The guys were surprised. If the choke in the couloir wasn’t skiable, I was going to have to boot back to the top by myself. It isn’t easy wallowing in thigh deep snow when you’re barely 5’2”.

I wanted to go first so the fear and anxiety trying to take hold of my psyche wouldn’t have a chance. I ratcheted down my ski boots and gingerly made my first few turns through the chattery and firm snowpack up top. As I dropped out of sight from the boys, the snow instantly became a soft buttery delight.

I was overcome with positive emotion. I remembered why I loved to ski! As I neared the choke, I slowed down to assess it. I wanted to let any sluff (loose snow kicked loose by skiing) to pass by. It had a bit of a mandatory drop, but I skied through it cautiously and landed in the sun. Relieved, I took a big half-moon turn and tucked into a protected enclave. Shaking slightly from the adrenaline, I dug out the radio to share information on the terrain.

While the boys skied top to bottom, I snapped a few pictures. I was thankful to have jumped into the unknown first. Not only did I have the best views in the house while I watched the boys snowboard down, I had extra time on the mountainside to feel completely alive and present in the landscape.

Dante Petri skiing through the tightest part of the couloir.

As I skied the second portion, the couloir continued to widen onto a large ramp. The turns were fabulously consistent. The rhythm of planting my pole and sashaying around it over and over felt methodic and beautiful.

Just a month into my new life as an entrepreneur, I was at the top of the run. Everything I was looking at said turn around and go back to safety you fool! I learned that day that I just needed to make a few turns. A little further in, I had better information and confidence in my ability to deal with it.

From my journal I wrote, “The key takeaway from the day is how proud I am for overcoming my fears in the couloir and tapping into my mental strength…I feel a renewed sense that I can do this. At no point was I thinking about anything but the act of skiing. Whether I was pep talking myself to keep up with the boys, admiring the rugged views, or enjoying every turn, it was amazing how rewarding and effective I feel with a singular focus.”

Since that memorable day skiing, I have been failing fast and relying on positive self-talk to get me through trying moments. While I haven’t made it to the bottom of the couloir yet, I’ve made it through the scariest part.

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Meredith Noble is a 5th generation cattle rancher from Wyoming, loving life in Alaska. She founded SenecaWorks — a boutique project management consulting firm to be every bit the stereotypical millennial. Her lifestyle affords lots of time in the mountains and opportunities to help develop interesting community projects. Her most recent project is www.learngrantwriting.org — a series of online classes to teach others how to become talented grant writers. Follow her bike and ski adventures in Alaska here.

Entrepreneur in training. Remote yet connected in Valdez, Alaska. Train others to be grant writing unicorns. @learngrantwriting