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Karen Sahn (1969-2022), longtime climber and guide, remembered in Aspen

A core climber, ski patroller and backcountry skier, she struggled with an illness that besets too many.

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Karen Sahn was a great athlete with the soul of an artist. She made jewelry with beads and turquoise and sold it or gave it away; she painted flowers and made cards. Sahn was also a Division 1 collegiate runner; multiple winner of the brutal Aspen, Colorado, uphill ski race called the Inferno; an early woman ski patroller and snow-safety expert; and a committed climber and guide. She did Denali and she did 5.11-5.12 sport routes. On August 18 well over 100 people from the ski, guiding, and climbing communities gathered at the base of Aspen Highlands ski area on a rare beautiful evening amid weeks of a welcome monsoon, and remembered a kind and gentle person who also knew how to rock and roll. Sahn died May 21 at age 53.

Karen Sahn (Photo: Sahn Family)

Many women wore her jewelry in tribute. Cari Kaplan, dear friend on the Snowmass Ski Patrol starting in 1997, says, “Because her friends are all mountain women and didn’t have much jewelry, we’d wear it all the time and break it. She’d laugh and say, ‘Bring it over, I’ll fix it.’”

Sahn was described in loving and often hilarious remembrances by her mother, Gene Marsh, who cared for her in her final period, achieving great closeness; sister, Stacey Sahn Petersen; niece and nephew; aunt; two stepsisters (whom Karen had dubbed sisters, “stomping out the step”); a phys-ed teacher; and many friends. One climbing friend flew in from Ottowa, and three close college friends, “the Carolina girls,” came from the Southeast to honor their “Sahny.”

Stacey, the younger sister, talked about being a rule follower, while the adventurous Karen didn’t worry much about getting into trouble. Once when they were in high school, their mother and stepfather left for a weekend, saying, “Just don’t have a party”—which Karen took as an opportunity, with Stacey soon persuaded. The two planned well, collecting all fragile household items and locking them up in the study, which they termed the Fragile Room, and putting flyers in the neighbors’ mailboxes saying they were having a party and not to call police. All their friends came, and the party “of course was busted,” she said, and by the end involved people jumping off the roof into the swimming pool, and small, damaging tsunamis.

Karen was an exceedingly involved aunt to Stacey’s daughter and two sons, present for birthdays, school events, and track meets, and taking them outdoors.

“Every February she took us out of school to come ski, and all January I looked forward to it,” her nephew Turner said. She taught the children about backcountry skiing and safety as well as resort skiing.

Amos Whiting, who worked with Sahn for a decade at Aspen Expeditions, described what a solid presence she was in the mountains, and how in the backcountry and in climbing, “She always had your back.” Other area climbing partners included Kaplan, Kate Henry and Adrian Dreeling, Andrea Cutter, Andrea Tupy, Michael Salyers, Amanda Ramsay, and Heather Ardley. Whiting last year, with Karen’s permission, named a new route in Independence Pass after her and her long battle with illness, calling it K-Fight (5.11).

Sahn, aka “Shaka” for her love of dancing. (Photo: Andrea Cutter)

People spoke feelingly of the chronic eating disorder from which Karen suffered. As this excellent family obituary from the Aspen Times states, “She struggled for years with an eating disorder and hoped that others with similar illnesses would be open about their conditions, seek early treatment and return their lives to normal.” With the help of her family, she entered recovery programs, and about a year ago posted this video and others on Facebook, to raise awareness and try to help others.

Sahn was a star athlete: a D1 runner at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, graduating in journalism in 1992. She led her high school team in Tucson to two state championships. Aside from the Inferno, she won the 18-mile Mount Sopris Runoff and ran in early sky marathons.

A ski patroller for nearly 20 years, she started at Snowmass and advanced in the ranks of snow science at Aspen Highlands as a snow safety technician (see this article, page 10, she wrote for the Avalanche Review). Yet at a certain point she was not able to wear ski boots anymore, due to bone spurs, and transitioned into rock climbing and guiding more.

Sahn worked many summers with Aspen Expeditions, and five years ago wintered to teach climbing in Cayman Brac. Aside from Denali, she skied the Haute Route, and climbed Mont Blanc and Island Peak in Nepal. Much of her climbing was in Aspen, where she grew up aside from three years in Tucson, but she was a regular in Indian Creek, Utah, and Rifle, Colorado, and in later years spent happy and productive seasons with a new community in Las Vegas.

“Karen loves to doodle,” says Tracy Martin. They traded art and music. (Image: Karen Sahn)

Karen was known as fun: She loved to dress up, in colorful, flowy clothes, and had her own style, such as sneakers with sparkles. She loved music, from techno to Widespread Panic (she and Kaplan went to several shows), reading (fiction), and dancing, hence her nickname of “Shaka” for Karen Sahn / Chaka Khan. Some dancing happened to occur on tables.

When Sahn entered hospice care last year, many climbers and patrollers visited her in Salida, at the home of her mother, Gene Marsh, an R.N., PhD. When the illness reached a terminus, and Karen asked a doctor how much time she had, the reply was about Labor Day last year. By strength of will she made it nearly to Memorial Day 2022. “I’m thankful for every day,” she texted her close friend Tracy Martin in Las Vegas.

I was among the many who visited Karen in Salida, where she always turned the conversation around to ask callers and visitors about their lives. I asked what she still enjoyed, and she said she loved her coffee every morning, being outdoors, seeing flowers and connecting with people. She, her mother and friends sometimes went off camping while she was still able.

Karen had dearly loved climbing. “I miss it,” she said, “but I don’t miss being hard on myself about it.” I have known many women  and a few men who have suffered from anorexia or disordered eating, and climbers are vulnerable, because it is considered a strength-to-weight-ratio sport and is so measurable: you are on or off a climb, and its difficulty is measured in numbers and letters. Climbing is an intense sport and can become obsessive.

Most of those I have known with eating disorders have been, like Karen, outstanding athletes and learners, with high expectations of themselves.

Kaplan says Sahn was “a really hard worker,” brainy and driven, with focus and “crazy passion. Whatever the interest, she’s gonna keep going.”

At the same time she was soft-spoken. Says Kaplan, “She didn’t have it in her to raise her voice or be mean.” Sahn was also … silly. “We would just find funny things that would make us laugh”—whether from “Saturday Night Live” or a climbing trip to El Rito, New Mexico, where at one point they heard strange noises in the canyon, and joked that murders were going on.

“She would always make fun of me because I loved the place so much,” says Kaplan. “She’d say, ‘Let’s go back to where the murders are.’”

Sahn (left) and Tracy Martin planking on top of a route up Rose Tower, Red Rock. (Photo: Erik Harmuth)

Sahn was reliable, conscientious. Dick Jackson, former owner of Aspen Expeditions, says she was “a pillar of strength and so quietly confident. The epitome of safety-minded.”

While guiding, Sahn was living in downtown Aspen with her then boyfriend, Scott Scharin, in a lively “tight-knit social hub,” Jackson says. “Our own three-ring circus!”

Starting in 2014, Sahn spent seasons in Las Vegas, when Whiting put her in touch with Tracy Martin, an area guide. They did hundreds of climbs together, and Sahn became part of a close crew that also included Elaina Arenz, Erik Harmuth, and Heather Musante. There were climbing days and creative art nights in people’s houses, and Sahn gained her AMGA single-pitch instructor certification. She rented space in a friend’s house—though any account must mention her van, Lucky, which took her to many adventures—and returned periodically to Aspen for lucrative restaurant work.

“We laughed about everything,” says Martin. “We’d laugh a lot, sing a lot, get a song stuck in our heads and sing it.

“She was super psyched, always ready to go climb something. Get up early and stay out all day.”

Sahn kept up her running, sometimes going after climbing.

Says Martin, “We all tried to get her to stay” in Las Vegas, though Sahn was required to spend time in the employee housing she owned in Aspen. “We would say, ‘You can live with me!’ ‘No, me!’”

Says Kaplan, “She was a true sister. The patrol sister thing—[as a] minority, we bond. I’m so grateful for those times. I miss her so much.”

 

Per the Aspen Times obituary: donations may be made to Mountain Rescue Aspen or the Outdoor Education Fund of the Aspen Middle School (select Annual Restricted Fund in the dropdown menu, and enter Karen Sahn ODE fund) in comments.

Here is a list of recommended resources for eating recovery.

Read also:

Coming Up For Air: When Climbing Isn’t The Only Battle

Stephanie Forté, One of the First Climbers To Speak Up About Eating Disorders, Looks Back

Climbers We Lost

Climbers We Lost in 2020