MOUNT BACHELOR, Ore. — After a half-hour climb, Karen Ward reached the top of the cinder cone and peered out at Broken Top rising above the clouds to the north.
“Now it's the easy streak,” Ward said, getting ready to make her first ski turns of November.
November through July, she explained, are the easy months. August, September, October — those are the hard ones.
But not too hard for Karen and her husband, Steven, to string together a streak of skiing every month for the last 12 years. (Actually 13 years for Steven, but we'll get to that later.) The Bend couple took advantage of early snowfall in the Central Oregon Cascades to ski fresh powder on Mount Bachelor late last month — thus taking care of October.
“Seems like every other year we get one of these October dumps, which is nice,” Steven said. “Otherwise, there's a lot of ascending and scrambling to get in some turns.”
The November outing marked the 157th consecutive month of skiing for Steven and the 144th straight ski month for Karen.
About 20 inches of snow remained near the base of Bachelor from last month's storm. The Wards sunk into the soft snow, arcing turns on their telemark skis.
“It was kind of by chance,” Karen said of the streak. “We just started skiing. ... Before you knew it, Steve was at the year mark. So it was like, 'Wow, well, let's just keep doing this.' That's kind of how it started.”
The couple moved from Steamboat Springs, Colo., to Portland in 1997. In 1999 they moved to Bend, where they have remained since. They have maintained the streak through family illnesses, two pregnancies and an assortment of injuries.
Season passes to Bachelor have made it easy to keep the streak alive during the winter and spring months. But during the late summer and fall, when little snow clings to the mountains, the Wards hit the backcountry — climbing, scrambling and skinning to earn their turns.
The streak has taken them all over the Cascades, including South Sister, Middle Sister, Mount Hood, Mount Thielsen and Mount McLoughlin in Oregon, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens in Washington, and Mount Shasta in Northern California.
The Wards insist they have never “cheated” by riding Timberline ski area's lift-serviced Palmer Snowfield, which remains open year-round on Mount Hood, or by traveling to the Southern Hemisphere. They document their monthly trips with dated photos in case anybody questions the validity of the streak.
Steven said September is the most difficult month in which to find snow.
If they cannot get too far away from their jobs (Steven, 41, is a sales representative for Cardinal Health; Karen, 43, a sales rep for Altria) or their kids (daughter Cassidy, 6, and son Michael, 4), they have a “secret stash” on Bachelor.
The spot is located between the Skyliner and Pine Marten chairlifts, and they call it “BPR,” for Boiler Plate Ravine, because it is always icy.
But, they add, it almost always holds snow.
“BPR was the game saver,” Karen said. “Before kids, we would drive anywhere.”
“The only place you can really see it (BPR) is right there,” Steven added. “September, we got 400 vertical feet on it, good for 40 or 50 turns.”
The Wards have a self-imposed 20-turn required minimum for keeping the streak alive.
The year difference in the Wards' streaks dates back to a descent of the Cooper Spur route on Mount Hood in 1998. After skiing too far down the Eliot Glacier, the couple was forced to climb out of a drainage, Steven explained. A rock slide triggered above Karen, and a boulder struck her on the back, but her backpack and skis softened the blow.
“It was a very intense couple of minutes,” Steven recalled.
Karen was not seriously injured, but the incident spooked her enough to skip the next trip.
“The next month I said, 'You just go ahead,' “ Karen remembered, smiling. “Had I known then what I know now, I would have gone.”
Karen continued the streak each month through her two pregnancies, which might raise some eyebrows. But she insisted it was never an issue.
“You just have to be cautious,” she said. “I wasn't doing bump runs (moguls). I was careful.”
In 2004, Karen suffered a broken foot while playing beach soccer, but she managed to maintain her monthly ski turns. In January 2009, she saved Cassidy from skiing into some trees during an icy day on Bachelor and in the process suffered a broken wrist and a shattered finger.
Still, the streak continued.
The Wards acknowledged that other skiers around the West boast longer streaks. (A man named Rainer Hertrich, of Colorado, has skied every day for nearly seven years, according to Portland Monthly Magazine.) But they know of no one in Central Oregon who can match their streak — certainly not another husband-wife duo.
The couple said the ski streak gives them a chance to get away from the everyday stress of their careers and raising a family, and to just do something together that they love.
It also helps put life in perspective. Karen's mother died of lung cancer in 2002 at age 61. Two years later, Steven's sister lost a four-year battle with colon cancer at just 37.
“We've had so many sick people and bad things happen, so why can't we escape from the ups and downs of life and ski with each other and keep this thing going?” Steven said, tears welling in his eyes. “Seeing my sister die of cancer and everything she went through, and what the family went through, and Karen's mother ... I mean, why not, you know?”
Why not, indeed.
Let the easy streak begin.
Mark Morical can be reached at 541-383-0318 or at email@example.com.