CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN — When a snowstorm left 14 inches of powder at Crystal Mountain over Presidents Day weekend, the timing lined up perfectly for North Bend resident Krystin Norman to spend her Sunday testing out prototypes from Seattle-based K2 Sports in Crystal’s steep Southback zone.
The next day, she clocked in as a senior coffee quality specialist at Starbucks. The day after, she caught a flight to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weeklong backcountry skiing photo shoot with Outside magazine. When the snow melts, she’s liable to be digging mountain-bike jumps in Utah for Red Bull.
Somewhere amid that frenzy, Norman keeps tabs on the 87 women — over half of them women of color — who were awarded scholarships this winter to take avalanche-safety courses through a program for which Norman and her adventure partner, Yulia Dubinina, organize and fundraise. They do so as volunteers with SheJumps, a national nonprofit that promotes the participation of women and girls in outdoor activities.
Is Norman, 32, a food scientist, a professional athlete or a behind-the-scenes booster for getting women into the mountains and safely home again? She’s all of the above — and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“She works incredibly hard and she plays incredibly hard,” said Matt Lincecum, co-owner of Fremont Brewing, where Norman worked for four years. The brewery is a financial sponsor, along with K2 Sports, of the Snowpack Scholarship, which Norman and Dubinina launched in 2018 and have run for four of the last five winters.
Norman’s trajectory shows how an introverted scientist can balance a Fortune 500 career with professional weekend warrior status in the often extroverted world of the outdoor industry.
“She isn’t the loudest voice in the room. She’s not massively enthusiastic in a boisterous way,” said Charlotte Guard, program director for the Northwest Avalanche Center, which helps oversee the scholarship. Leaning on slang for someone who excels in her sport, Guard said Norman is “a quiet crusher.”
Skiing or science?
Some 40 years ago, a Vietnamese refugee who settled in the Los Angeles area ventured to Big Bear Mountain Resort for the day. From the chairlift, she spied a dashing mogul skier. On her next ride up, she found herself seated next to him. They began chatting. He invited her to ski again the next weekend. A romance blossomed.
That marriage led to Krystin and her older brother, Ian, who inherited their mother’s sense of adventure and their father’s zest for freestyle skiing. The dashing mogul skier turned out to be a former competitor for the U.S. Ski Team, and the family relocated from Los Angeles to South Lake Tahoe when the two children came of skiing age. Both Krystin and Ian skied competitively at Heavenly Ski Resort. In Krystin’s case, she raced moguls and competed in ski ballet, also known as acroski, a now-defunct winter sports discipline. In high school, she coached younger skiers in freeride, which transports freestyle moves and terrain park tricks into natural, ungroomed parts of the mountain.
As college loomed, so did a turning point. “I had to decide if I wanted to compete and pursue skiing professionally or go to school and have a career-based future,” she told The Seattle Times at Crystal Mountain over Presidents Day weekend, just after finishing the day’s test ride of K2’s latest creation. “I decided that I wanted to just ski for fun.”
Norman had a scientific bent in school and a particular interest in antibiotics and vaccine development. She enrolled at Whitman College in Walla Walla but only lasted a year — Bluewood Ski Area east of campus in Columbia County didn’t scratch her skiing itch. A transfer to University of Colorado Boulder solved her mountain access problem while still providing ample resources for a budding scientist. She majored in molecular and cell biology, landing a job fresh out of school in 2012 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center working in a lab that alters blood stem cells.
Selling a scholarship
Norman’s outdoor adventuring was at an all-time low after she broke her back in a November 2011 rock-climbing accident. She wore a back brace until May 2012, and walking was as much physical exertion as she could handle. Her first weekend in Seattle, she connected with friends who had scored a coveted overnight–camping permit in the Enchantments. Even though just carrying a backpack with a water bottle hurt, she mustered up the courage to tag along on what was her first backpacking trip.
“I nearly died going up Aasgard Pass, but it motivated me to get stronger,” she said.
Living on an entry-level scientist’s wages, a ski resort season pass was out of her budget. She dabbled in backcountry skiing and spent most of her spare time at the climbing gym, where she met Dubinina, who invited her in January 2015 to speak at the Arc’teryx store in downtown Seattle at a SheJumps event about layering clothes to stay comfortable in the backcountry.
The experience introduced Norman to fellow female adventurers and she began organizing clinics through SheJumps, which works with guiding outfits nationwide, including local purveyors like Mountain Madness and Alpine Ascents International, to provide women instructors on courses exclusively for women and nonbinary people who identify with the women’s community.
When it came to avalanche education specifically, Norman was struck by her experience as the only woman, much less the only woman of color, on the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education level 1 course she took at Mount Baker in December 2014.
“The imagery around advertising of AIARE courses is all men, as in so many ads for skiing-related things, especially if it’s more technical,” she said.
Norman knows how to hold her own in male-dominated outdoor contexts. “As someone who grew up with an older brother, I’m used to being around a lot of men, especially in outdoors sports, and I feel like I get a lot of respect from men because I’m down to do whatever,” she said. “If someone gives me feedback that seems like mansplaining, negative or pinpointing that I’m a woman and I need help, then I’m up front and I tell them I don’t want that kind of feedback.”
But that’s not necessarily the case for other women, which prompted Norman and Dubinina to launch the scholarship. “It’s hard as a woman to envision yourself in that place if you don’t see yourself there and if it’s not obvious that that place is for you,” Norman said. Moreover, she noticed an increasing number of women heading into the backcountry in lieu of buying an expensive resort season pass and skimping on avalanche education.
“You can definitely be self-taught, but it’s nice to have a formalized setting with experts who can give you feedback,” she said. “You can get out there, practice and meet people who are in a similar learning position.”
In 2017, Norman became a K2 ambassador and approached both the snow sports company and her employer at Fremont Brewing about throwing their weight behind a scholarship.
“It took me eight to 12 seconds to run the program through my head and say let’s do this,” Lincecum said. “Activating more women to enjoy skiing in the backcountry and do it safely? Those values align very well with Fremont.” The brewery releases a special Snowpack beer every January, with a stylized version of Norman on the can.
“I remember how excited and beaming she was talking about partnering with Fremont to make a beer to support avalanche education,” wrote Dubinina via email. “At the time, I didn’t even know what I was saying yes to, but I knew that it was something I wanted to work on with someone as dedicated and passionate as Krystin.”
The SheJumps scholarship sponsored by two Seattle companies for women in Washington today has grown to include eight states and a range of sponsors. “Outdoor brands are coming to us now,” Norman said. “They’ve seen the value in supporting the community of skiing and the future of skiing as a sport.”
Outdoor brands are also coming to Norman specifically, who is now a paid K2 athlete sponsored by Arc’teryx and Smith Optics. She is also an ambassador for the Ikon multiresort season pass, making up for all those seasons she couldn’t afford one — and she even persuaded Ikon to donate passes to the scholarship program exclusively for women of color.
More than a decade after she opted to enroll in college instead of skiing professionally, Norman is once again in a position to pursue mountain sports full time. But thanks to Starbucks’ elite athlete program, she no longer has to burn sick days for athlete modeling shoots. “I care a lot about the scientific work that I do,” she said. “I really want to keep that part of my brain working constantly.”
She puts her February trip to Crested Butte in the I-can’t-believe-I-get-paid-for-this category, but there are grueling hours behind every glamorous shot of Norman carving turns through pristine powder.
In a single day last summer on the Olympic Peninsula for a State of Washington Tourism photo shoot, she went birding, visited a lavender farm, dug for oysters, hiked Hurricane Ridge at sunset and then drove 75 miles in the dark without dinner to the next day’s destination. “A lot of these trips are the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Norman said.
Later this spring, however, Norman expects to model for a passion project: Linking up with her cousin as one of the pairs featured in the upcoming all-women ski film “Nexus.”
The intended outcome, she said, is “a story people haven’t heard or a face people haven’t seen before.”