All posts by Mitch

From 1998 to 2006, Mitch Tobin covered environmental and other issues for the Napa Valley Register, Tucson Citizen, Arizona Daily Star, and High Country News. He won numerous awards for explanatory, feature, and deadline writing, including two first prizes from the Arizona Associated Press Managing Editors for his stories on water and border issues. Endangered grew out of his yearlong series on Arizona’s endangered species, which was a finalist for the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. As a reporter, Mitch was certified as a wildland firefighter by the Coronado National Forest, which allowed him to embed with crews battling some of the largest blazes in the Southwest’s recorded history. Tobin’s coverage of the 2002 wildfires, including the 470,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire, was honored in the Best of the West contest. In 2006, Mitch was named one of eight fellows of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, sponsor of the nation’s oldest writing fellowship for journalists. Before becoming a reporter, Mitch worked for the Urban Institute in Washington; the Arizona League of Conservation Voters in Tucson; the National Parks Conservation Association in Oakland; and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. He has also taught English in Ecuador and journalism at Pima Community College. Mitch is a now consultant with California Environmental Associates, a San Francisco-based firm that helps foundations and NGOs with strategic and business planning. Currently, Mitch’s work focuses on evaluating programs and investments for philanthropy and tracking environmental trends through the EcoWest project. At CEA, Mitch was a lead writer of the Design to Win report, which outlined an investment strategy for philanthropists interested in fighting global warming. Design to Win helped inspire the Hewlett, Packard, and McKnight foundations to commit more than $1 billion to create ClimateWorks, a global philanthropic network dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing dangerous climate change. Mitch grew up on Long Island, graduated from Yale College with a bachelor’s in Ethics, Politics and Economics, and earned a master’s in political science from UC Berkeley. He lives in Denver.

Spicing up the season with racing and night skiing

I can’t say boredom is a problem for me when it comes to skiing and snowboarding. What’s great about these sports is that every run is different, snow conditions change by the hour, and I can spend a couple days at a large resort without coming close to covering all the terrain.

Burnout is a bigger issue for me with bicycling, but variety is the spice of life, so during a February visit to Steamboat, I tried NASTAR racing for the first time and also skied at night.

NASTAR (NAtional STAndard Race) is described as “the largest public grassroots ski race program in the world” and is available at 115 resorts. You pay a small fee ($12 for unlimited runs at Steamboat) and then get to pretend you’re in the Olympics. Below are some of my video highlights.

Steamboat NASTAR from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

The Steamboat NASTAR course is on a mellow, smooth run, but it was surprisingly tough to negotiate the turns. You really have to anticipate the gates, and it was easy to see how one false move can doom your time in a sport measured by the hundredths of seconds. You’re assigned a number and handicap, based on your age, and your results are available online.

I’d be excited to do this more next season, not only because I’m a competitive person, but also because it’s great for honing your technique.

Racing NASTAR at Steamboat. Photo by Mitch Tobin.
Racing NASTAR at Steamboat. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Night skiing was another fun diversion. I’d done it once before at Squaw Valley, but that was seven years ago. At Steamboat, they’ve recently installed a low-glare lighting system that uses about 30 percent as much energy as the metal halide bulbs that most resorts use.

There were only a handful of runs open at night, but it was still a thrill to fly down the slopes with dark skies above. Although they groom the runs before re-opening for the night session, it got pretty icy as soon as the sun went down. Great practice for edging.

Below is a video diary of my experience. Before the lifts opened, I took a spin on the gondola so I could film the sunset, and looking back on the season, that was definitely a highlight.

Night skiing at Steamboat from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

After it got dark, It was actually a little creepy to be on a chair lift alone, passing through a dense forest. Seemed like grist for a Jon Krakauer story about a snowboarder spending the night in sub-zero temperatures, trapped in a tree well.

I enjoyed night skiing, but the few resorts that offer it only make a small fraction of their terrain available, so I’d imagine it would get old quickly if you were doing it repeatedly on the same mountain. Still, I’d love to ski at night while it was dumping, and the chance to be on the mountain when the sun went down and the stars came out was worth the price of admission.

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Night skiing at Steamboat. Photo by Mitch Tobin.
Night skiing at Steamboat. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

First images and impressions: introducing Camille Olive Tobin

Camille emerging from the womb
Camille emerging from the womb in a screenshot from GoPro video

We welcomed a beautiful baby girl, Camille Olive Tobin, into the world on May 10, less than an hour before the start of Mother’s Day.

The two weeks since have been super-busy as we care for this precious newborn, so I haven’t had time to post anything about the birth or our first days as parents, but so far we’re all doing great.

Labor came on quickly on a Saturday evening as a major snowstorm started to pound Colorado. Things seemed to be moving swiftly toward a routine delivery . . . until the baby’s heartbeat began to falter and the the doctor decided to perform a C-section. It turned out the umbilical cord had been wrapped around Camille’s leg like a Roman sandal.

The urgent C-section was terrifying, beautiful, painful, fascinating, messy, exhilarating, traumatic, awesome. It’s something I’d like to write about more. I recorded the whole thing with my GoPro camera, so I’m also working on a video piece about the beginning of parenthood.

As soon as Ginette went into labor, I started shooting a ton of still photos as well. As expected, Camille’s arrival is impelling me to document this pivotal moment in our lives, in part for her benefit when she’s older, but also to share the experience with family and friends.

Below is a slideshow of hospital photos from a gallery I created on Smugmug (this feature may not work via email browsers, so you can also go here for the images).

Nearly all of the photos I took in the hospital were captured on my iPhone. During the labor and C-section, I wore a GoPro video camera on my head. This turned out to be a great set-up because it freed both of my hands. I was able to shoot photos with the iPhone, caress Ginette’s head during the operation, and push Camille in her crib through the hospital corridors without having to fumble with the video camera.

GoPro mounted on the head is great for filming baby
GoPro mounted on the head is great for filming baby

Filming the birth was important to me, but I didn’t want it to become a distraction or disruption. Psychologically, I found it helpful to have something to do with all the nervous energy in my body. As a seemingly normal delivery became an unplanned C-section, the personal photojournalism became a sort of coping mechanism. It felt as if I was back to being a reporter, charged with adrenaline and with the task of capturing as much detail as possible during a breaking news event. In this case, however, my main job responsibility was to support Ginette without getting in the way of the doctors and nurses.

Decades from now, if Camille is ever giving birth, her partner may be recording the whole thing through eyeglasses or a mini camera embedded in an earlobe. In 2014, the GoPro proved ideal for the assignment. Sans plastic case, it’s small enough to fit in the pocket of your jeans. The wide-angle lens, which is great for filming skiing and mountain biking, was perfect for capturing the close action of the birth and aftermath. Blurring the line between video and photo, I’ve gone through the footage from the GoPro and created still images, such as the one below, about a minute after Camille was pulled from the womb.

Screenshot from GoPro video, about 1 minute after Camille's birth.
Screenshot from GoPro video, about 1 minute after Camille’s birth.

Five or ten years ago, I would have been taking notes about the birth on a reporter’s pad, scribbling indecipherable chicken scratch and thinking way faster than my fingers could move. Words are still important to me. After Camille’s birth, I tapped away on my laptop, trying to capture thoughts, memories, and emotions before they were lost to time. In order for me to process this momentous and somewhat traumatic event, I will need to write about it. But I’m so glad I kept the video rolling and fired off so many photos while we were at the hospital. No matter how much I write, or how well I can recollect the episode and emotions in words, without capturing those still and moving images, the experience would have felt incomplete.

Recording story of Camille's birth for posterity.
Recording the story of Camille’s birth for posterity.

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My favorite photo of the ski season sums up this special moment in my life

I captured thousands of photos this ski season, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the one below, from the top of Baldy Chute at Alta Ski Area, in Utah’s Wasatch Range.

Dropping into Baldy Chute
Dropping into Baldy Chute at Alta

I actually have no idea who this skier is, but I thank him for his service and for aptly illustrating this special moment in my life.

As I write this, we’re five days past our due date, and Ginette is starting to feel contractions, so we could be headed to the hospital any minute. Or it could be a few more days.

I think this photo resonates with me because we’re at an inflection point and on the cusp of a new stage of our lives.

Like the skier in this photo, we’re fully committed, at the point of no return, and on the brink of something wonderful, but the wild ride of parenthood has yet to begin.

Fear and beauty are two words that spring to mind as I view this photo, and ponder the impending childbirth. I’m scared of the major medical event Ginette is about to undergo, and the sudden start of fatherhood. Yet bringing a new life into the world is more awe-inspiring than any scenic vista, and I’d imagine there’s some adrenaline flowing in my bloodstream right now.

Steeps and leaning in

The Baldy Chute run is an example of what some skiers call “steeps.” The main challenge is the extreme angle of the pitch and your sudden acceleration as soon as your skis tip over the cornice. Terrain like this used to terrify me, but over the past couple of years, I’ve become more comfortable “dropping in” on such runs. Now I even seek them out. I’ll confess that I’m sometimes a little scared, but the physiological response to plummeting down a mountain is exhilarating.

One of the places I learned to ski steeps is Copper Bowl. Below is a video I shot of a snowboarder dropping in on a trail that’s known as Bradley’s Plunge.

Dropping into Copper Bowl from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

It can be a leap of faith to start these runs, but unlike base jumping or parachuting, the consequences of a mistake are relatively minor, at least if you’re like me and avoid the really crazy stuff. You might fall a little farther on a steeper slope, but these runs usually aren’t open at ski resorts unless there’s plenty of snow to cushion a crash.

“Taking the plunge” and “leap of faith” seem like fitting descriptors for having a child. Neither of us has any clue about what the baby will look like or how she will behave. Neither of us has ever been a parent, so it’s like we’re on our maiden run down the mountain.

One thing I’ve learned about these steep runs is that you have to fight against your instinct to lean back and sit on your heels. That posture is unstable and makes it much harder to turn and slow down your speed because all your weight is on the rear of your skis.

After wiping out several times, I realized you have to fight instinct and instead tilt forward, toward the bottom of the hill. It’s good advice for all manner of skiing, especially with the newer shaped skis, and why some instructors will tell you to always make sure the front of your shins are pressing against the tongues of your boot. Just as riding slowly through a rock garden on a mountain bike can be harder than zipping through, it’s often easier to ski if you’re pushing your body toward the void before you, despite what your brain is saying.

“Lean in”  has become a hot phrase since Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, penned a 2013 book by that name (subtitle: “Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”).

This bestseller advises women how to pursue career ambitions in balance with other goals and become more assertive in the business world. “Proceed and be bold” is a slogan on the walls at Facebook.

I’m usually not fond of business bromides or buzzwords (“all in” is another appropriate one for parenthood and the photo), but I must admit that this idea of leaning in, tilting forward, embracing adversity, and doubling down when confronted with a challenge has been bouncing around my head as I prepare to become a dad.

We’ll see how I feel after my sleep has been disrupted for weeks and the baby has been crying for hours!

The making of . . .

Some of my best images from this season merely required me to unglove my hand on a ski lift and tap my iPhone screen. My favorite photo demanded a lot more work. To reach the top of 11,068-foot Mount Baldy, you need to hike 30 or 40 minutes uphill in your ski boots with your skis on your shoulder or back.

Hiking up Mount Baldy

Walking in ski boots, even on level ground, isn’t easy. Some of the worst falls I’ve taken during ski season have been in icy parking lots, on my way to or from the chair lift. Hiking up a steep ridge is no picnic, but at least there was a well-trodden path to follow and soft snow to fall in. At the top of the hike, we were rewarded with expansive views of Little Cottonwood Canyon and the Salt Lake Valley.

Top of Mount Baldy, Utah
At the top of Mount Baldy (11.068′) with my best friend Tom.

It meant extra weight, but I’m glad I brought my Canon D50 DSLR camera with me for the hike. At the top of the chute, I was able to stand 20 or 30 feet away from where skiers were starting their runs and use a telephoto lens. I couldn’t have asked for a better backdrop, and capturing the moment when a skier dropped in was relatively easy because many people seemed to freeze at that inflection point.

It would have been cool to take a wide-angle shot from right next to the skiers, but I was with friends and didn’t want to dilly dally. The first moments of my run were the hardest, but as soon as I negotiated the first turn, the snow turned the consistency of mashed potatoes and became forgiving.

Descending Baldy Chute
Descending Baldy Chute at Alta, Utah

Looking up at Baldy from Alta’s base, the chutes seem super-narrow. But it’s something of an optical illusion. I thought there was plenty of room to maneuver.

I’m not expecting my first days, weeks, months, or years of parenting to go as smoothly as this ski run. My photo atop Baldy was shot on a crystal clear day, so it was easy to see the path below.

Being on the verge of parenthood also feels like a different run from this season, when I was at the top of the Continental Divide at Loveland Ski Area during a blinding snowstorm (photo below is from the ride up).

Chair 9 ascending to the Continental Divide at Loveland Ski Area
Chair 9 ascending to the Continental Divide at Loveland Ski Area

At nearly 13,000 feet, my visibility was about three feet and the wind was practically knocking me over. On that run, I didn’t saunter up to the edge of the cornice and make a graceful entry. I just inched forward until terra firma suddenly dropped away and the run had begun.

My parenting career may even start with a May snowstorm. Denver is forecast to get 4 to 9 inches of snow tomorrow, on Mother’s Day.

Source: National Weather Service
Source: National Weather Service

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Prepartum pedaling video: mountain biking on the due date

Our due date was Monday, May 5, but with Ginette showing no signs of going into labor, I managed to sneak in one more mountain bike ride at Centennial Cone Park.

Below is a video of some highlights of my ride in the mountains west of Golden.

Prepartum pedaling from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

I had fun playing around with different camera angles and especially like the rear-view perspective. I feel like the video exaggerates my speed and makes it seem like the ride is more dangerous than it really is. Conversely, GoPro videos of skiing sometimes understate my speed and the steepness of the terrain. I think this is because snow usually looks more uniform than a mountain bike trail, especially to a wide-angle lens placed near the ground.
Centennial Cone Park

Centennial Cone Park has become a favorite because it offers lots of smooth singletrack relatively close to Denver. The nearest of the three trailheads is only a 30-35 minute drive from my house, but the park has a surprisingly wild, backcountry feel.

My route involved climbing up from Clear Creek and U.S. 6 on the Mayhem Gulch trail, then riding the main loop clockwise on the Juniper, Elk Range, and Travois trails. There’s a double-track section on Elk Range Trail, but otherwise it’s all well-maintained singletrack that never gets too rocky.

This ride features several sets of switchbacks and some taxing climbs (nearly 3,000 feet over the 17.4-mile route), but the rolling nature of the elevation profile prevents the uphills from seeming interminable.
Centennial Cone switchback
The route offers some impressive views of Clear Creek Canyon and the Front Range. I saw some of the first wildflowers of the season and also plenty of prickly pear. Even at nearly 8,000 feet, it’s still fairly dry on the lee side of the Continental Divide, so the vegetation tends to be sparse.

Centennial Cone prickly pear
Centennial Cone is popular enough that mountain biking on weekends is restricted to even-numbered days (hikers are only allowed on odd-numbered weekend days). This loop ride covers nearly the entire trail network of the 3,369-acre park, so we’re not talking about a huge area that you can endlessly explore. But compared to some other nearby mountain bike rides in the Front Range, Centennial Cone’s trails are less rocky, technical, and difficult.

With a baby about to arrive, it may be a while until I’m back at Centennial Cone, but I’m glad my next ride there won’t be too far away, in time or distance.

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Face shots galore on an epic powder day

Yesterday was the greatest powder day of my life. I’m still smiling about the experience, more than 24 hours after leaving the slopes. Here are some video highlights:

All powder, all the time from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

I worked all weekend to meet a deadline and was grouchy by Sunday evening, but I held out hope that a much-advertised storm would deliver salvation.

I woke up at 5:45 am, expecting maybe 4″ of snow, but I was giddy to see nearly 11″ had already fallen at Loveland Ski Area. I could tell that it was still coming down hard along the Continental Divide when I looked at web cams from the Colorado Department of Transportation.

My companion on the ski lift
My companion on the ski lift

You can never leave Denver too early on a powder day, and I was at Loveland by 7:30 am. I parked in the first row, grabbed a bagel sandwich in the cafeteria, and did a solid hour of work to assuage my guilt and clear my head. I’m usually super-productive in that cafeteria before the lifts open because I’m always in a good mood.

By the time the lifts opened, there was around 15″ on the mountain. I was expecting the snow to be rather heavy since it’s already spring, but lots of people on the chair lifts were remarking about how light and fluffy the powder felt (“blower snow” in the alpine argot).

This type of powder is unbeatable because it’s easy to turn in, unlike the thick “Sierra cement” that’s common in California. When you hit a deep pocket just right, snow blows right over your head. It’s a rare, exhilarating treat that powder hounds will drive hundreds of miles to experience.

Face shot at Loveland
This is what I call fun

It’s almost always windy at Loveland, so there was huge drifting going on, including some spots I measured at 30″ deep. Conversely, I still hit a couple of hard patches, and even after 417″ of snow have fallen this season, you’ll still see bare spots at Loveland (and other resorts) that just won’t hold any snow. Weird.

Although we’re well into April, it felt like the middle of winter, with wind chills well below zero and whiteout conditions that induced a little vertigo.

It’s been an incredible season, and I feel so fortunate that Colorado has been as snowy as California has been dry. This year, it looks like the pending arrival of our baby will cut short the ski season before mother nature does.
Westwide snowpackSubscribe to updates via RSS and email. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.