Almost Famous: Maria Debari and friends ride 24 volcanoes in 45 days

Almost Famous: Maria Debari and friends ride 24 volcanoes in 45 days

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By Ian Ferguson

Photos by Freya Fennwood

At the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park in Oregon last April, Maria Debari, Kaitlyn Farrington and Freya Fenwood struck up a conversation with a lone skier who had just come down from Broken Top Mountain. He was a local guide, and they were three splitboarders intent on climbing Broken Top that day and the Three Sisters the next.

“You guys are trying to do the Three Sisters marathon? Not to be a jerk, but you totally don’t have that,” the guide informed them.

The man had reason to be skeptical. The Three Sisters traverse in one day is a massive challenge for anyone, involving 20 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain spread over three peaks. Debari and her crew didn’t look like the type of dialed-in, hyper-motivated alpinists who normally attempt such a challenge. For one, they appeared a little disheveled from weeks spent living out of a truck. They were on splitboards, which have a reputation for being inefficient on long traverses. And they were women, all less than 5’5″ in height.

This may have been the mental assessment the guide made when he passed his judgment. Or perhaps he was just concerned about snow conditions. Regardless, the man received a polite voicemail from Debari the next evening.

“I wanted to let you know,” she said, “we just completed the Three Sisters marathon. Have a nice day!”

The Three Sisters Traverse was a long day, but it was a small part of a much larger objective: to climb and snowboard the 25 highest volcanoes of the Cascade range, from Lassen Peak in California to Mt. Garibaldi in B.C. Debari came up with the idea during the low-snow winter of 2015, and began assembling a team in February. She called it the Almost Famous Volcano Tour.

Kaitlyn Farrington, who won the snowboarding halfpipe gold medal in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, was Debari’s partner throughout the tour. Professional ski/snowboard photographer Freya Fennwood joined for all but a few volcanoes. Krissy Fagan, a snowboard mountaineer/nurse-in-training, joined for the second half of the trip. Other friends and family joined for a volcano here and there, including Debari’s brother Lucas who came along for the Three Sisters traverse.

Camping out of Debari’s Toyota pickup, the team made its way up the Cascade volcanic arc in warm spring sunshine until they hit Washington and the weather turned wet. They went through stretches of up to six days of climbing a volcano per day. Showers and other luxuries took a backseat to the mission.

“Kaitlyn was really proud of how few showers she took. I think she took about two showers the whole trip,”
Debari said.

“I wanted to go the whole time without showering, but then we ran into weather in Washington and I decided it would just be awkward if I wasn’t showering while I was staying at Maria’s house,” Farrington explained.

The volcanoes are the highest mountains in the Cascade Range. On most summits, the snowboarders could see the next day’s objective looming white in a sea of green on the horizon. After riding down and getting back to the truck, usually after miles of skinning and bushwhacking, they would drive the maze of back roads to the next trailhead, set up camp and do it all over again the next day.

None of the women had ever snowboarded or climbed a mountain together. But nothing bonds people together like huge days in the mountains and sharing a tent for six weeks, and each of the team members reported that it was the trip of a lifetime. For Farrington, the trip represented a turning point in her life.

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Good timing

Kaitlyn Farrington started skiing when she was three, and followed her older sister into the world of snowboarding. She was talented and determined, and found a lot of success in the competition circuit. She went to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Games, and ended up winning the gold medal in halfpipe.

“My goal was just to have fun and ride the best I could, and it paid off,” Farrington said. “Winning the gold was surreal. It’s something I had dreamed about since I was a little kid.”

A few months later, while hitting a jump in Austria, Farrington suffered what seemed like a minor crash until she realized she couldn’t move from the neck down. The paralysis was temporary, but doctors later diagnosed her with congenital cervical spinal stenosis, and told her even a minor neck injury could paralyze her for life.

Multiple doctors forbade her from snowboarding, until finally a doctor agreed to let her snowboard as long as she didn’t hit any jumps. Farrington had spent her whole life perfecting the art of getting air on a snowboard, and now doctors were telling her never to do it again.

“All I had known was contests, halfpipes and catching air,” Farrington said. “That year was a tough transition of not really knowing where to go next.”

Debari was looking for partners for the Almost Famous Volcano Tour, and her brother Lucas recommended Farrington, so she called her up. Maria’s call to join the Almost Famous Volcano Tour couldn’t have come at a better time. It offered Farrington a new challenge and a new realm of snowboarding that didn’t require jumping. Farrington had never climbed a mountain on a splitboard, let alone an entire range of volcanoes. But talking to Farrington and the people who know her, you get the sense she doesn’t back down from any challenge as long as there is fun to be had. She signed on right away.

“I remember getting the gear list email from Maria, and she’s like, ‘Remember to get ski crampons,’ and I’m like, ‘Where the hell do I get those? I’ve never even heard of ski crampons,’” Farrington said.

Farrington had to learn about backcountry snowboarding on the fly, but she had a great role model in Debari.

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Freakishly Fast

While Farrington embraced the snowboarding contest circuit from an early age, for Debari, the thrill of competition was always secondary to being able to ride powder with her friends.

In 2013, Debari was invited to join the women’s Freeride World Tour. She decided to go for it, and ended up winning the tour in Switzerland. She could have turned pro, but the way she saw it, ceding control over her snowboarding destiny to a few corporations would only dilute her greatest passion in life.

“I never want to have to fly down to southern California to hit this big jump or this stupid rail because somebody told me I needed to,” she said.

Although Debari occasionally receives equipment and trip support from a few companies (The North Face and Gnu supported the Almost Famous Volcano Tour), she doesn’t consider herself a professional snowboarder. She makes money fishing for salmon every summer in southeast Alaska. She works aboard the Loui M, a top-of-the-line seiner out of Bellingham.

“I am extremely lucky to have my job,” she said.

The first time I met Debari was on the Coleman Glacier on the north side of Mt. Baker. My friends and I had reached our high point for the day when we saw a speck on the horizon below. In no time she was with us, having strolled up the glacier like it was a golf course. All smiles, she wasn’t the least bit winded.

“Maria is freakishly fast in the mountains,” Fagan said.

Debari’s speed would set the pace for the entire trip. Farrington had a steep learning curve to get to Debari’s level, but being an Olympic athlete and a competitive person, she was up to the task.

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The real deal

The trip started on Lassen, which was an easy tour. Mount Shasta was next. At 14,180 feet, it was a major hurdle. Farrington was unfamiliar with the equipment, and wore her heavy backpack slung low like a middle school kid. Debari and Fennwood helped her tighten her straps, but all the gear was unfamiliar to her and it was a long day.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the real deal, we’re hiking all of these volcanoes,’” Farrington said. “It was almost a breaking point for me.”

After Shasta, Farrington improved rapidly.

“By a couple volcanoes into the tour, she was so strong,” Debari said. “She has a good head in the mountains. Exposure doesn’t bother her – she can put on crampons and dance across the ice. She absolutely killed it, beyond
my expectations.”

Debari, Farrington and Fennwood worked their way up through the volcanoes of Oregon. After the Three Sisters Traverse, Fagan joined the team and they tackled Jefferson (10,495 feet), Hood (11,250 feet) and Adams (12,280 feet) one after the other in three days. Then they took a well-deserved rest day in Hood River, Oregon, just in time to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

“We ended up taking over this bar and singing karaoke,” Fagan said. “Suddenly this guy is playing guitar, somebody else is playing drums, and the night ended with Kaitlyn wearing a sombrero and sleeping in a driveway.”

When the weather cleared a couple of days later, the team headed to Mt. St. Helens. After St. Helens, the weather turned stormy. They wanted to climb Rainier next, but couldn’t get the weather window. The group headed to Debari’s house in Bellingham to wait out the storms. A few days went by, and Debari grew restless. The deadline was May 25, when her summer fishing job began. With time running out and no weather window in sight, she decided the team should try and knock off the easy summits in the rain. They drove into Canada to climb Mt. Garibaldi with an ugly forecast looming.

“We went into the tent on Garibaldi around 6:30 p.m. soaking wet. The next morning it was still raining but we kept pushing ourselves to get to a high point. Pretty soon we got above the clouds, and there was a moment where we were like, OK, we can do this,” Debari said.

After Garibaldi the team knocked off Goat Rocks in a drizzle, then faced their biggest challenge on Glacier Peak. They underestimated the climb’s remoteness and got a late start to the day. After an 8-mile hike and a long climb up a steep snowfield, the group was forced to bivy far from the summit.

“We basically took all our gear for a backpacking trip just to sleep on the snow, turn around and backpack it out the next day,” Debari said. “It really sucked.”

Debari, Farrington and Fagan returned to Glacier Peak a few days later, racing to beat bad weather. They reached the summit on the second attempt, and on the descent they were treated to some of the best views of the trip.

With only enough time to do one more volcano, the team opted to climb Maria’s home mountain, Mt. Baker, instead of Rainier.

“It was a disappointment to miss Rainier, because it’s the biggest one,” Debari said. “We have plans to climb it this spring. We’re excited to get back together.”

In 45 days, the team of four women splitboarders completed 24 of the 25 volcanoes they set out to climb. All tolled, the group traveled 294 miles on skis/snowboards and climbed 103,200
vertical feet.

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Double underdogs

The Mt. Baker climb was celebratory. Several friends joined in, and champagne and fireworks may or may not have been involved. The day was spent celebrating not only the successful trip, but also the memory of Liz Daley, a pioneer in women’s splitboarding who lived in Tacoma and died in 2014 in an avalanche in Argentina.

“I had bumped into Liz in the mountains a few times. She did a lot of things that were so amazing, especially for females and splitboarders,” Fagan said.

In some ways, the trip showed the world what women on splitboards can do. The name of the tour hints at that, Debari said.

“I thought it was a fitting name because girls, snowboarders and especially splitboarders – you’re kind of the double underdog. I have certainly struggled to get people to take me seriously, and I don’t blame them, it’s fine. But I just thought it was kind of a funny name. Kaitlyn is certainly famous, but no one else was. Plus I really love that movie.”

Fennwood, who often tours with accomplished athletes, said it was an endurance challenge that pushed her body to the limits.

“Following Maria and Kaitlyn, all my usual excuses of being short, being a girl and being a splitboarder were no longer relevant. Those girls are just as short as me, and they crush,” Fennwood said.

Although painful at times, the trip was always fun. Farrington helped keep it that way with her quirky sense
of humor.

“Kaitlyn kept having to make these little videos for her People magazine article. So she would be out there and be like, ‘Alright, here I am, first time putting on crampons,’ and they’re on the wrong feet, and she’s like ‘Yup, I guess they’re on the wrong feet.’ She would make up songs as we climbed, and she named her splitboard Tina and Turner. Everything was positive, nothing was serious,” Debari said.

Aside from the jokes they made along the way, completing hard challenges brought a different kind of fun to the trip.

“A few times people were telling us it wasn’t possible for various reasons, and it’s interesting to hear people question what you can do,” Fennwood said. “It feels like, what, we’re small? We’re female? We’re on snowboards? So you think we aren’t capable of climbing these peaks? And it’s definitely fun to prove them wrong.”   X