WORDS & PHOTOS • ANDY COCHRANE
As he wandered over to me, I wondered if I was daydreaming. He carried a coffee mug the size of a salad bowl and his bibs were held together with more duct tape than nylon. His mangy beard hearkened to Tom Hanks’ appearance in the movie Castaway, and his wooden skis likely out-date my 67-year-old dad. I’ve seen my fair share of dirtbag guides, but this guy easily took the cake.
Better fit for fifty years ago, Killian lives a simple life, especially in the winter. He doesn’t travel much, preferring to ski around his backyard, an area of Oregon known as “Little Switzerland.” He doesn’t say much either, but his grin that shines through a grizzled appearance says all you need to know. While the rest of us spend time uploading GoPro footage and posting Instagram stories, Killian just loves to ski.
As the caretaker of, and lead guide, at Norway Yurt–called the “Yurtstar,” for short—Killian pretty much does it all. He teaches avalanche safety to guests, sets a skin track faster than you can follow it, chops wood for the stove, porters food up from basecamp and, every full moon, he stays up all night dancing. That last one is just a rumor, though.
While most guides I’ve met like to be directive, Killian prefers to listen first. As far as I can tell, he’s never in a rush. He’ll let you ski first or last—it’s your call. He’s doesn’t get worried about fresh tracks or who gets face shots. In the Wallowa Range in eastern Oregon, there’s enough powder to go around. I experienced that first-hand during my four-day stay at Killian’s hut.
After a handshake introduction and a few more sips of coffee, the two of us became fast friends. He explained the lay of the land, the current avalanche risk and the route into the yurt. I explained the group’s backcountry experience, the type of skiers we were and how much beer we brought. He laughed and grinned, while pouring another cup of coffee. “We’ll get you all up there, no problem!” Stress isn’t part of his livelihood. And his attitude is contagious.
For the next four days we were guided around the southern Wallowas by Killian, summiting peaks, skiing couloirs and enjoying some of the best conditions I had all season—maybe in my entire life. A fresh foot of snow, with a stable base, opened up almost anything we were willing to hike up. But what truly made the trip special was the yurt, a humble abode that resembled Killian’s demeanor: no frills, but highly functional and fun. We spent our nights sharing toasts, cooking communal feasts and telling stories of years gone by.
The yurt has two stories. A big kitchen loaded with cast iron pans and over-sized propane stoves sits on the lower floor, with lounge chairs, a wood stove and a topographic map of the surrounding area to use for route-finding. Upstairs, there are bunk beds for twelve and space to stash all the gear you’d ever need to bring on a backcountry mission. Outside, you’ll find some of the most versatile terrain in the country, a mix of glades, trees and jaw-dropping peaks.
In the summer Killian works as a guide for National Outdoor Leadership Society (NOLS), taking kids on wilderness adventures across the country. Every winter he returns to the yurt in the Wallowa Range, where emails don’t exist, time hardly matters and the snowpack is the only thing worth paying any attention to. Warming up next to the wood stove and relaxing with a beer delivered by snowmobile, his daily routine starts with an oversized mug of cowboy coffee–a napkin filtered gritty brew–then guiding clients into an untouched snowpack and ending with après by candlelight. A simple life.
Ten years from now, when Killian figures out that I wrote this article, he’ll probably be mad at me; he cares almost nothing for attention. But maybe we all could learn a thing or two from him. Secluded in the Yurtstar, time slows down and allows visitors to step back from daily habits. No scrolling through ski porn on social media, no marketing click-bait, no digital overlords telling us how, where, when and why to ski. The Yurt Fanclub is open to anyone and the one rule is simple: The best way to have fun is to be present.