When Chris Kassar’s sister died of cancer, grief threatened to paralyze her. Then she decided to take on the Grand Traverse ski race—without knowing if or how it would help.
APRIL 3, 2022. INHALE, REACH. Exhale, glide. Cold air in, reach. Warm breath out, glide.
Tiny metal angel wings clipped to my pack keep rhythm as they clink against a sparkly wooden angel ornament inscribed with “Love Never Dies.”
Looking up for the first time in hours, I marvel at the line of headlamps snaking through endless switchbacks above, the first inkling of dawn illuminating a violet sky overhead.
It’s 5:41 a.m., and we have already reached the Upper Brush Creek Checkpoint. Can that be right? My husband, Ryan, and I have been climbing uphill on skis since midnight. Time and distance are a complete blur.
“Look,” I whisper, motioning uphill with my chin so I don’t slow down. “We may actually do this.” I’m verbalizing a thought I haven’t allowed to cross my mind since we first hatched this whole crazy idea in the fall.
“Hell, yeah,” he says. “Lots of climbing left. Keep crushing.” With those encouraging words, Ryan effortlessly begins the steepest climb of the race.
He’s right. We’re 15.5 miles into the Grand Traverse, a 40-mile ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, and at the top of this 1.75-mile, 1,300-foot climb is Starr Pass, the last timed checkpoint. We need to be leaving it before 7 a.m. Any later earns us a DNF and a long, sad ski back to Crested Butte.
I settle into an uncomfortable but familiar pace. On the icy skin track, I pass people who are slipping, losing skins, redlining. I feel alone. I’m struggling to breathe. I’m holding back tears, a state I’ve been in most of the last year since my sister’s diagnosis.
Without warning, I am transported back to Angele’s bedside. Something that’s been happening involuntarily, often at very inopportune times since my oldest sister took her last breath five months ago. A shell of her physical former self, she’s leaning in and whispering, “You have to know how amazing you are. Why do you always doubt yourself? It’s time to stop. Please do that for me?”
“Ok. I promise. I love you,” I say without thinking. Her words make me feel so seen, understood and deeply full of despair given that one of the people who knows me best and loves me anyway will soon be gone. We hold each other and sob, unable to speak what we both know. The cancerous tumor choking her femoral artery means that soon she will no longer be here in her human form.
A howling wind snaps me back to the skin track. My once sweaty hands scream in frozen pain. Tears freeze in place. I’m falling behind and have lost sight of Ryan. Panic sets in. “How did I ever think we’d actually do this?” Then I hear Angele’s voice. “It’s time to stop.” Moving faster now, I turn the corner and see Ryan waiting for me at the summit. I dig deep, thinking of all she pushed through and crank up my speed to get to the top. We rip skins and cruise down the bumpy slick slope to reach the checkpoint.
“We’ve made it through the hardest part,” I say. But, much like the ups and downs of grief, just when I think I’ve turned a corner or made a move forward, I am inevitably proven wrong.
Less than a mile later, we are stopped. My binding won’t stay engaged. The same happens to Ryan. We flail around, post-holing and wasting energy trying to remedy the situation. Ryan’s a ski tech, so he tells me to take a break and goes to work.
A reel of scenes from the last month of Annie’s life—which I spent in Jersey awkwardly trying to help her family— flashes through my mind. I wasn’t actually much help, but I was there. Foot rubs, brushing hair, watching our fav scenes from Friends, crying for hours while I watched her sleep, trying to decipher what she needed when she yelled out in a pain-med induced language all her own, helping her do things I never thought I’d need to. Ushering in a steady stream of friends and family there to say goodbye, a testament to the incredible life she lived. Conversations I never thought we’d have: Please help mom and dad smile again; tell the grandbabies I’m so sorry I couldn’t meet them; make sure Helen (our other incredible sis) starts putting herself first; make sure big Ken (the love of her life) stays healthy; help the kids (Kelley and KJ, her two amazing grown kiddos) remember me as beautiful and fun, not sick like this. Watching my parents witness their first baby fade away—body, mind, then spirit—leaves me without words. I beg a God I’m not sure I even believe in to take me instead. I’m not as needed, will not be as missed, but he doesn’t come through. My heart breaks multiple times a day as I bear witness, alongside my beautiful family, to this incredible woman slipping away from us both too slowly (she’s in so much pain) and too quickly (we’ll never be ready).
My whole worldview—my path and purpose—has been shaken by the loss of someone so good, so honest, so important.
Despite it all, every day we get with her is an honor—sharing memories, tears, laughs, and eventually just silence. Then, on a regular Tuesday in November shortly after 9 a.m., she is just gone—seven weeks shy of her 60th birthday.
“Try to step in,” Ryan says bringing me back to the race. Fail. Still no luck. We are both on our knees messing with our bindings, trying to clear out the ice and snow—exhausted, starving, dehydrated, and wasting time. I think back to how we ended up here.
A week after my sister’s last breath, I am back in Colorado. Days spent wandering around the house lost and crying. Nightmares cut from actual scenes of the past year haunt the little sleep I get. Each morning, I remember she is gone and the wound reopens, a cruel, repetitive joke. Angele lived large and was a total badass. She loved without limit, always putting connection and community first. She was incredibly generous with her time, energy, and abundance. ‘Gel’ (as the little ones called her) dove headfirst into things that scared her. She never passed up an opportunity for fun, and she remained grateful until the very end. I quickly realize that figuring out how to go on without her will be even tougher than the past year. And not just that, but figuring out how to live a life worthy of being the one who gets to keep on living, that may be the hardest thing I’ll ever do.
Ryan is worried, so I reluctantly agree to go on a ski tour with him and our good friend, Spencer, even though I’d rather just spend another day curled up on the couch.
My heavy legs lumber across week-old snow, shattering the serene silence. Inhale. The unfamiliar intensity of my lungs filling up fully almost knocks me over. Exhale. Emptiness.
In this moment, I realize I’ve been holding my breath for months—afraid of each text, each phone call, each new heartbreak. But up here above tree line, I am forced to—allowed to—finally breathe. Tears overcome me. This was a huge mistake. I’m not ready to be here.
Way ahead, the boys are dark silhouettes on a distant ridge. I plod forward, tears streaming down my face. I cry because she will never experience beauty like this again. I cry because I don’t understand why I still get to. I cry because I have never imagined my life without her. I cry because I don’t think I can make it through the next 20 or 30 years without her—and I don’t even want to try. When I catch up to Ryan, he pulls me close. “Good. That’s what I was hoping. Cry. Cry. I love you.” At a time when I have no idea what I need, Ryan somehow knows exactly.
We rip skins. Waves of blue mountains stretch out before us in the fading winter sun. I flail on rubbery legs that haven’t been used enough the last couple months. I fall often and when I’m actually upright, I wobble through turns like a newborn deer rather than a seasoned backcountry adventurer. Our yellow Lab, Nala, bunny-hops next to me. I feel a palpable but tiny lift in my heart. All thoughts of misdiagnosis, chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, what ifs, whys, should-haves, fears, and regrets disappear. The corners of my mouth curve up slightly. My first smile. Then a rush of guilt for what feels like a betrayal. The moment is over, but I immediately know I need more of these moments if I’m going to survive this.
Later that night, a recurring nightmare cut from an actual scene of Angele’s last month wakes me; TV, meditation, medication, Nala cuddles, reading. Nothing works. Then, lying in the dark, eyes closed, I am back on the skin track. Labored breathing, heavy legs, awkward turns, one pure but fleeting moment of peace. It’s the first glimpse I’ve had of the “real me” in ages.
I never fall asleep, but instead start researching a longtime dream; something I’ve been too scared to try until now. “Did you sleep at all?” Ryan asks when I get into bed to cuddle at first light. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s do the Grand Traverse,” I say. Barely awake, he says “OK.” I’d expect nothing less from my adventure and life partner, this man who oozes love for me and has more confidence in me than I do.
The moment the idea is made real by telling Ryan, I want to take it back. We can’t do this. We’ve never even tried skinny skis, or raced at all, or gone further than 10 miles on skis, or (insert multiple other fears and doubts). I hear Angele’s words “Why do you doubt yourself? It’s time to stop.”
I have to push fear aside and try for her. But, really, I know it’s for me. My whole worldview—my path and purpose—has been shaken by the loss of someone so good, so honest, so important. I am questioning everything, especially the point of it all. I need something that gives me a point, that tethers me to life—otherwise, I feel like I will float away. And in the past, when things have gotten tough, snowy mountain adventures where I lose myself by pushing my body, mind, and spirit to new heights have always helped me find myself again.
Over the next few months, we get all new gear and train our asses off. As we cover mile after mile, climb up and over countless new passes, and explore new terrain, tackling peaks and long, vast valleys, the highs and lows mimic my grief. We fight a lot and get lost more than once. We share tears of accomplishment, sadness, and fear. We raise over $5,000 for cancer research, and we learn how to haul ass downhill—not very gracefully—on skis the size of toothpicks. We lose multiple toenails and most of the skin off the bottom of our feet while we discover a depth to our determination and love that surprises even us. I feel like myself for more and more moments in the mountains, but sometimes returning home feels even more painful as the reality of life without her stretches before me.
Race day comes and we are ready—beyond ready. But now, here on this slope, fighting with our bindings, I feel crazy to think we could ever do this race. In this moment, I start asking her for help. I guess I start praying to my sister to get us out of this jam.
Click! The sweet sound. After 90 minutes, we are on our way. At least 100 people have passed us and we are way at the back, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not skiing for time or a medal or to beat any other skier; I’m out here because, without this race to get up for everyday, I’m not sure I’d even still be here.
Soon, we break into Richmond Ridge, a grueling rolling section too flat to skin, but with enough ups that skating is a challenge. Supposedly it is stunning, but today we are in a snow globe that someone keeps shaking. Unable to see more than a few feet ahead, we have no perspective on our progress. We move up, then down, and up again. Time is passing, but it all looks the same, much like grieving for me. I am exhausted. My legs shuffle rather than glide, and the bottom of my feet are peeling off with each step. I consider lying down and just giving up. But the thought flies away on the wind when I think of one of our very last talks.
“This isn’t bullshit, sweetie. This is the most important thing I’ll ever do.” And then, she is asleep again.
I am lightly holding Angele’s hand. It’s cold and so very thin. She is sleeping, or so I think. “I’m so sorry, sis,” I say through a wall of tears, “for all you’ve been through—so much pain, so many hospitals, so much bullshit.” She snaps to, looks me directly in the eye and speaks a fierce truth. “This isn’t bullshit, sweetie. This is the most important thing I’ll ever do.” And then, she is asleep again. Even after months of being bedridden and fighting a disease she ultimately couldn’t beat, she kept believing she had important things to do—goodbyes, imparting wisdom, preparing to transition to whatever comes next, and saying “I love you,” as often as she could—even when she could barely form coherent words anymore.
She never quit—on herself or on any of us—so how could I even consider it?
Finally, we begin the long, sweet descent down Aspen Mountain. Ryan waits for me a couple hundred feet above the finish line so we can cross together. As I stand there looking down on the last bit of the race, rather than being relieved, I am scared for what awaits. Skiing 40 miles seems easy compared to figuring out how to carry on without my sis, how to live a life worthy of being the one who gets to.
As I make my la st swoosh down the slope, I feel the purest form of joy, a feeling floating over snow always brings. I allow a tiny smile to come in. I am painfully aware that finishing won’t bring my sister back. But perhaps, by chance, it will bring back a tiny piece of me, and that’s a start she’d be proud of, at least.
Author’s Note: Without this race—this commitment I’d made to Ryan, to myself, to my family, to all the people who donated to cancer research—I’m honestly not sure I’d still be here. Thank you for all who supported our efforts, including Crested Butte Nordic, the Limelight, Elevation Hotel & Spa, Dynafit, CAMP USA, Rab, Matt Lanning for all the coaching, Spencer Hereford and Frankie Block for being our awesome shuttle team, Kay for putting us up in CB so often, and all the other racers for a humbling experience. You can still donate to the Cancer League of Colorado in honor of our “Angel with an “E”, here: cancerleague.app