Turning for My Brother

Finding freedom on Mt. Hood's summit.
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Finding freedom on Mt. Hood's summit.
Sierra Jumping in Swimsuit

Photos by Richard Hallman.

Eight years ago my family and I lost my eldest brother, J.D., on the 4th of July.

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that a certain duality develops. You’re left with a gaping hole in your heart, but you’re given an amazing and beautiful gift—a slap in the face saying, “life is precious and you better start celebrating each day like it could be your last.” This Independence Day, with a little inspiration from my brother, I set out to celebrate life in the best way I know—on a mountaintop with my skis.

The morning starts slowly at five o'clock. Armed with crampons, axe, and skis I begin the drive and almost forget to smile. My attitude quickly improves when I catch the first rays lighting up Mt. Hood up with my favorite shade of pink.

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My friend Richard Hallman and I catch first chair at Timberline, and begin skinning at the lift terminus at 7,000 feet. Three hours and about 4,000 feet later and I’m gleaming with sweat. At one point during the ascent, while navigating an icy choke, we are pelted with falling rock and ice chunks. It’s exhilarating, especially in July.

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A few hundred feet later we reach the summit of Hood and take in a breathtaking above-the-clouds panorama of St. Helens, Rainier, Jefferson, and Adams.

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I spin around a few times to take it all in, and find myself laughing hysterically from that distinctive rush I always feel on a mountaintop. Like clockwork, my bro’s favorite song comes on in my head. Ain’t no mountain high enough...

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I laugh even harder when it occurs to me that Marvin Gaye isn’t usually so popular with 16-year-old boys, J.D.’s age when he died. I feel like my bro is cheering me on—singing to me on top of a mountain. If that’s not a call for celebration, I’m not sure what is. Time to let the flag fly, light the fireworks, ditch the pants, and let the party begin.

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And then we ski 7,000 feet of perfect corn—on the 4th of July. I’ve always known that skiing was my ticket to freedom, but this day I reached a deeper understanding of that freedom. I was initially trying to avoid the festivities of this bittersweet holiday by spending it on Mt. Hood. I never would have thought I'd lose my lament so completely the moment I set foot on snow. That’s the beauty of skiing, and the unexpected blessing my late brother gave me. The former is about freedom, the latter about grasping life with all you’ve got. Every day on snow is a celebration.