Learning Acceptance: Athlete Holly Walker talks big routes in the Alps and the importance of early start times

Holly Walker hitting the steeps in La Grave. [Photo] Sebastien Baritussio

Holly Walker hitting the steeps in Chamonix. [Photo] Sebastien Baritussio

Ski mountaineer and freeride athlete Holly Walker is no stranger to erratic weather. Walker spends most of her time between Seattle and Whistler, where the dual citizen contends with typical Pacific Northwest weather—rain turning to snow and back to rain. And last year on a trip to the French Alps, Walker got a more intimate understanding of just how unpredictable mountain weather patterns and avalanche danger can be.

After being caught in a slide in Verbier, Switzerland, which resulted in a blown knee, she set her sights on returning to France as a more informed mountain traveler. This past spring, she achieved that goal. We caught up with Walker before her next mission in her home mountains, the Cascades, to hear about getting back to the Alps, conquering her demons and what she has learned about listening to what the mountains and the skies are trying to tell her.

Backcountry Magazine: Why was this trip back to the Alps so important for you?

Holly Walker: Last year I was in the airport flying home [from France] with a blown knee after being in an avalanche. I realized all the mistakes I had made not considering the hazards of the day, just being so exited to be in the mountains there. I hadn’t really processed what it meant to be in the mountains, let alone the Alps, with such a high avalanche danger risk. There were so many avalanches there last year; Dave Rosenbarger and his avalanche, and that was just one of many deaths over there. I just thought, “You know what, I want to go back home and learn more.” I took a couple more avalanche courses and rebuilt my body. I wanted to go back and face that challenge. I didn’t want to think of the Alps as a death zone.

This year I had the opportunity to shadow Dave Miller, an IFMGA Guide based out of California with International Alpine Guides. I got a chance to shadow him on the Haute Route. That took us up and over to Verbier. And I was sitting there at the actual coffee table that I had sat at with my blown knee right after the avalanche, where [a year earlier] I had been thinking, “ What the hell have I just done.” A year later I was sitting there and we [Dave and I] are figuring out how to get to the next hut. Making sure all the clients are happy, and it is really exciting that I was given the opportunity again to be back in the mountains but in a safer way.

BCM: What was this year’s Haute Route experience like?

HW: We actually got weathered out halfway through it. But that wasn’t a problem, because to me that is a part of being in the mountains—the weather patterns and conditions and avalanche safety. Choosing when it’s time to exit. We sat down with the group and discussed with them, “We know you want to do the Haute Route and travel on to the next hut.” One gentleman, it was actually his third time trying. He had been weathered out the two times before that as well, and he got it. He was like, “Yup, mountains are mountains. It’s not the time.”

Holly Walker, Nat Segal and Sophie Lechasseurget to bootpacking before the sun wreaks havoc on the snow. [Photo]

Sophie Lechasseur, Nat Segal and Holly Walker get to bootpacking before the sun wreaks havoc on the snow. [Photo] Sebastien Baritussio

BCM: How did you transition from the Haute Route to traveling in France with Nat Segal and Sophie Lechasseur?

HW: We finished the Haute Route in Zermatt and I headed back to Chamonix. I was waiting for Nat to return from Norway, because Nat and I had lined up a trip over to La Grave. Sophie Lechasseur was on a different trip in the Alps and while I was waiting for them I realized that I needed to move our trip up by five days based on the [warming] weather patterns that I was seeing. So I jumped in the car with photographer Sebastien Baritussio, and we drove down to La Grave a couple days early.

It was interesting standing in the lift line at La Grave because I am looking around and there are 30 dudes and one other woman besides me. They have their full rack, their alpine gear. In Chamonix you get alpinists, but that morning I was standing there with 30 extreme skiers. So I was lucky to get a day of skiing in and then Nat and Sophie joined us. We had made a route plan to travel into La Meije and do the La Meije traverse. The thing was that the weather was [troublesome]. It had snowed a bunch and then we had mixed clear days, and then when the two other girls showed up we had two days of sunshine, but we also had rapid warming. I didn’t want to commit us to a traverse where we would have to be rappelling into couloirs, starting steep 45-degree slopes trying to get to a hut. There was a huge potential for slides, and I didn’t want to put us in the way of those hazards.

A few days earlier, I was sitting in a coffee shop in La Grave, and Joe Vallone walked over with a couple of the other international guides, and they were pointing out cool terrain to go check out. Joe told us to go to this zone where we could go into a hut, and if conditions didn’t seem right, we could just return to that hut; we didn’t have to carry on.

It is no longer just a man's world in the La Grave lift line.

It is no longer just a man’s world in the La Grave lift line. [Photo] Sebastien Baritussio

BCM: So how did the weather define the latter part of your trip?

HW: The next morning we woke up at 6 a.m. and traveled out, and we saw these massive 50-degree lines in front of us. Throughout the morning I was looking at my watch and saw things heating up, and I had to turn us around by 11 a.m. The next morning we started at 4 a.m., because I knew we needed to be at the top by 10 a.m., turned around ready to ski. [During] the couloir objective we attempted the next day, we got halfway up before we had to turn around because of the heat once again.

We were back at the hut by noon, hanging out in our shorts and tee shirts. And it is what it is. That is weather in the mountains. You have to pick the right days.

Te mountains of La Grave form a picturesque backdrop for Holly Walker doing some spring skiing.

The mountains of La Grave form a picturesque backdrop for Holly Walker doing some spring skiing. [Photo] Sebastien Baritussio

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