My Stint as a Ski Patroller (and Thursday Night Offender)

ski-patrol3Fat snowflakes swirl and fall around me in clusters. I feel like I’m moving through the center of a shaken snow globe. The effect is dizzying as I ski in the direction of my first wreck of the day (slang for an accident) towing an orange rescue toboggan behind me. In it are a backboard, oxygen, and not much else.

I locate the injured 21-year-old; he is sitting upright. His friend approaches me as I secure the sled across the fall line. “He hit hard,” the friend says. I nod, look around, and kneel beside the boy on the snow. “I’m Cathleen with ski patrol; may I help you?” I say, taking note of his measured breathing and that he’s holding his left side below the ribs with his right hand.

“I’m okay,” he labors; “really, I’m alright.” The boy is lucid but failing, and the friend pleads with him.

“I’m not going down in a sled,” the boy argues as his skin pales. Minutes fly past us and the snow continues to fall.

“I’m not a doctor, but I suspect you’ve got an internal injury,” I try. “Worst case, you could die; best case, you chill and ride tomorrow.” The boy is clear: he doesn’t want my help and I have no reason to force him.

“This is his new normal and anything off from here is bad,” I say to the friend, pointing at the boy on the snow. “If he vomits, has trouble taking a breath, repeats himself, passes out, forgets his name,” I exhale all at once; “take him to the Hospital.” The friend nods and the boy stands. They ride away, disappearing into the swirl of fat flakes.

skipatrol1At 31 I became a ski patroller at a busy resort 150 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It was a profession I had wanted to do ever since I was a kid in upstate New York. Every Thursday night from January to March busloads of teenagers from across the region took over Labrador Mountain and ski patrol was always ready to save us from ourselves.

My friends and I liked to ski a treed glade that separated the designated night runs. Populated and thick with willow and eastern white pine, only a narrow trail penetrated the shadows. It was off-limits and we thought that was cool.

In the middle of the forest was a small clearing with three knee-high stumps. It was our spot and, in the quiet of the night, we inhaled the cold. We also passed a joint and sipped from a flask filled with Southern Comfort stolen from our parent’s liquor cabinets. We were three adolescents caught up in the reckless theater of our young lives.

But our absence from the safety of the slopes was noticed; at the edge of the forest, a college-aged guy wearing a red vest with a white cross waited. Warm from the liquor and more than a little stoned, we’d come to a jumbled stop in front of him. He’d ask our names, our school, and what we were doing in the woods. “I’m showing my friends the trail I ski with my dad,” I’d say; it worked every time. He would admonish us to “stay out of the trees” and let us go. We were his Thursday night offenders.


Before becoming a ski patroller, I signed up for the required first aid course. Twenty of us sat through five months of bi-weekly trainings in lifesaving techniques. We studied our A, B, C’s–airway, breathing, circulation–and D and E’s. Deformity? Expose. We became skilled at recognizing injuries based on their mechanism, or cause. Each had a lock-step first aid protocol. For a skier hitting a tree, the mechanism was sudden deceleration. While the range of injuries was vast, the life-saving action was simple: backboard and transport.

The class scared me. I remembered the night I drank too much during a foray in the forest with my friends. I hit a tree. Hard. The impact left a lump on my temple the size of a quarter and the left side of my chest felt spongy. I didn’t sleep that night and my head and side pounded for days. I had come close to sustaining permanent injury, but a future mired in my youth was never my intention.

My negligence compelled me to help others who found themselves in situations they never expected. Like the college student whose epic fall left his pupils like two mismatched drops of motor oil. His offense: skiing beyond his ability. Or the time I assisted a colleague after she located a man who had hit a tree. As we worked on him, the smell of weed hung in the cold air and empty beer bottles rolled from his pockets. His penance: never walking again. And the time I responded to a child falling from a lift. As I approached the tiny heap of girl, I repeated to myself, “no, please, not her, she’s so little, please God, no.”

patrol7Waiting to catch last chair, I recognize the friend from my morning. He returned to thank me. The boy on the snow had collapsed. “You were right,” the friend said. “I took him to the emergency room; he’s in surgery, ruptured spleen.” I hug him and it’s in that moment I’m grateful the recklessness of my youth left a lasting mark.

First Sentences are Important


Our brain is hard-wired for story. Great first sentences drag me into an author’s space and, word-by-word, propel me to the end. There are so many examples out there but the following reads this week reminded me of why I love great first sentences.


My grandmother was a mountain.
(From Carmen Maria Machado’s long-form essay “The Trash Heap Has Spoken: the power and danger of women who take up space.”)

I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make.
(From Lucia Berlin’s short-story Temps Perdu in “A Manual for Cleaning Women.”)

Sometimes what you get is not what you thought you wanted.
(Henry Alford’s New York Times Magazine (2010) essay “Appointment in Istanbul.”)

“There’s a lid for every pot,” my mum used to say when explaining my late-30s bachelorhood.
(Biff America (who doesn’t love Biff America) in Backcountry magazine’s “Seeking Love & a Trail Breaker.”)

Grizzly bears are hiding in the cornfield.
(Aaron Teasdale’s article in Sierra “Grizzly Bears are Making a Comeback – and Making their Human Neighbors Nervous.”)

Confessions of a San Francisco Writers Conference First-Timer

5 “Day-After” Reflections


Cathleen Calkins / #SWFC2017

I just returned from my first writers conference, the four-day SFWC. As I mingled one last time in the gathering of more than 500 authors, writers, agents, editors, and publishing-types yesterday, I contrasted my pre- and post-conference self. I mean, like a memoir, the experience was transforming, and in atonement for last Wednesday’s version of me, I must confess a few things.

It didn’t kill me to wear a bra. The uniform of my days are jeans, a tank top, and a cardigan (I have them in every color), but I hate showing up under dressed. I compromised, followed along, and I liked it. Change is good and transformation is physical, too. I should probably wear bras and skirts and tights more often than I do.

I didn’t think I would like any of you people. That’s a terrible thing to write, but it’s true. I’m an overly-enthusiastic, shy person and in crowds the introvert in me rises to the surface like the foam on my morning latte; it’s a spongy layer but it always permeates the others.

At conferences, I can’t wait to escape to my room, curl up with a glass of wine and catch up on a channel I don’t subscribe to. It’s not that I don’t like to invest in others, I do. It is my niche; I write about people and places that matter and whose stories I’m passionate to tell.

And I almost made the same mistake believing this conference would be like any other, thinking these attendees are not my people. But writers, authors, editors, agents, publishing-types – you are my conference tribe and it feels so good to have found you, which leads me to my next confession.

I LOVE Networking. Seriously. I. Love. Networking. I love it so much it bears repeating.

I’ve always avoided any event centered on meeting other folks for the sole purpose of networking. Even organized work gatherings with people I know. I’m just not cool enough. I’m painfully awkward. I suck at engaging beyond hello, how are you. The list goes on. Until now; I discovered my secret weapon: I took myself along to this conference.

I was me and with new business cards in hand, I peppered the conference with me and collected the cards of you. It was organic. I talked to everyone – people in the restroom line, at breakfast, in the elevator, and in the wine aisle of a nearby convenience store. I even went to coffee with an Indian woman who writes young adult fantasy. But one encounter gave me Goosebumps.

After Anne and I exchanged pleasantries over braised salmon and mixed greens, she asked what I was pitching. A narrative non-fiction, in-the-footsteps of this guy in Russia, I explained using way too many “ums.” She seemed open so I continued with a few more details until she stopped me; oh, she smiled, I’m his descendant.

Goose. Bumps. (Got her card, too.)

Agents and Editors are not big, bad, scary people. They are quite lovely, actually.

When I signed up for the conference, I didn’t think I’d pitch any of my projects. Why bother? I wouldn’t have a stitch of time to finesse them into a remotely crisp or clear synopsis. I was wrong.

Caught up in the fervor of having a colored-dot on my name tag (the ‘I’m Pitching’ badge of honor), I honed the description for one project into a short and passionate pitch. I could never have done this without the insight and tips of the very same people I feared.

The good news: There was interest, which makes my heart sing and my head spin.

I can sleep when I’m dead. Head spinning is a kick in the pants. So is spending more than a minute with an 86-year-old author whose memoir of her solo travel through Saudi Arabia in the early 1960s is about to publish. So is getting out of bed and my pajamas, putting on my face, and attending one last workshop to practice my pitch with a small group of very tired literary agents.

I finished the not-yet-memorized sixty-second pitch in a flush of red. Their response: Overwhelming and good and oh-so very helpful.

It was thee transformational moment and there is no going back.

Why I write.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway

It occurred to me on a cloudy Wednesday morning that I needed to escape. The kind of getaway akin to being so engrossed in a story I can’t help but cheat and flip to the end to find out what happens. It was essential I lose myself in another place so I could expel an escalating melancholic energy; the sort of malaise that occasionally takes hold when a project I’ve been working on finishes or another I’m excited about falls through. Continue Reading

Not Making Any Resolutions

Nope. Nada. Nothing. I hope to make mistakes (it means I’m trying). I intend to laugh, a lot and during awkward moments (it means I’m human). I aim to fail at every training program I start (it only motivates me more). I will not diet (it never works). And, I plan not to plan (I’m letting life surprise me).

That last one feels more resolution-y than the others do. But after plodding through one of the most challenging years of my life, scheduling every stinking moment to get myself back on plan, I resolve not to resolve. My 2015 intentions are non-intentions.

I suppose I could just say, “I’m over it,” especially if I utter it in that way people who are really are over it say “I’m over it.” Truth is, I’m not really done done, just over my year of planning, scheduling, and strategizing.

I intend to have fun from here on out. Fun with a capital ‘F.’ Everyday Fun. Cool Fun. Naughty Fun. Work Fun (yes, work fun). Adventurous Fun. Boring Fun. Four-letter-word Fun.

Okay, maybe I do have a few resolutions but I’m not writing them down in list format.

Latest plans?

Nalychevo Nature Park, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia Far EastFive years ago we were halfway through our ski expedition on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East. In fact, we were getting dumped at the 208th kilometer on Kamchatka’s only highway – in the middle of nowhere looking for two things: Good weather and skiable slopes. (Check out the October 2008 issue of Backcountry magazine for my piece about this portion of the trip.) We were hoping to be back in Kamchatka this summer but I’m not sure we are going to make it. We would like to return and have shelved plans for another summer.

Which leads me to: What next? I was at a party last night and someone asked me about our “latest plans to travel.” I gave my standard answer, “Not sure where to next, but somewhere soon.” It got me thinking about the next six months. Part of me misses the challenges of planning an expedition to parts unknown. Surfing the internet looking for others who may have been there or know someone who has. Sending emails to far flung places hoping to get a helpful response and make a new friend. But the other part of me is enjoying the prospect of not making any long range plans. Taking it week by week, 3-day getaway by 3 day getaway. Last year – we were in Ireland – and we missed out on excellent weekend trips with friends. And while Ireland was cool, it felt like the rest of the summer we were just trying to catch up.

As to our latest plans? I am looking forward to adventuring closer to home. A two-week kayak trip to Washington’s coast? A long backpack in the Wind River Range? A rock climbing road trip looking for stellar routes through the west? Not sure where, but I know whatever we do will be epic enough to get us through to the next big plan.