We are pleased to announce Sunny Hamilton of Valdez, Alaska, as the 1st Backcountry Athlete for Church and State Optics! 

Sunny Hamilton lives, works, & breathes epic adventures from her home basecamp of Valdez, Alaska as a heli-guide for Alaska Backcountry Adventures (ABA). She surpasses the normal. She loves the outdoors. She loves her gear. And she loves the many friends and family around her.  

Regarded as a beacon of safety by the hundreds of clients she guides, she explores beyond boundaries, yet maneuvers expeditions with her extraordinary knowledge of ever-changing conditions. She's the ultimate backcountry beauty in spirit, attitude, and attraction...a fitting ambassador for Church and State Optics! 

We look forward to hearing more of Sunny's winter adventures this season. 

Congratulations on becoming our 1st Backcountry Athlete Sunny Hamilton! Welcome to the team!

Kate Wingard, President, Church and State Optics


GAMBLING by Sunny Hamilton

Chasing powder across the globe is like roulette, you know the odds are stacked against you but the payout is so huge and exciting that it seems like the best bet. I had just come off one of the snowiest winters in Valdez, Alaska and didn't want the powder to end. I figured even though the odds were against me I had spent two months dealing out winning hands as a heli-guide for ABA, Alaska Backcountry Adventures, and that luck was on my side. So, I placed my bet on a ticket to Mendoza, Argentina where I expected a winter wonderland to await me.

I arrived in Las Lenas to higher temps and less snow coverage than I left in Valdez. The terrain was half its normal splendor, the other half being gravel and rock. The snow was shallow, firm, and dirty. The resort was a ghost town. Even the casino was closed. At first my husband Michael and I contemplated going elsewhere for better conditions. But a quick glance at proved the heat wave and drought was a widespread epidemic. The three weeks that followed were full of bulletproof and technical riding.

 The snow wasn't the only difference noticed. The famous Marte lift that accesses the steepest terrain was never open, & its equally infamous lift line had disappeared. The wind was missing as well as the cold. The only signs of winter were the 10 or 15 cm snow dustings that allowed me to rediscover the rocks in my runs. Other differences were less subtle. We chose our runs based on aesthetics instead of snow quality. We took more time and more photos getting there. We were riding with more friends as opposed to no friends on powder days. We rode with different friends as opposed to the same trusted partners when avy conditions exist. With no rush for finding freshies, we lived in a nearby gaucho village instead of at the resort. We spoke in Spanish, slept in, ate late, walked more, showered less, and siesta'd. Riding and après merged. It was no surprise that we had a backcountry birthday party at the base of a run, complete with a cured leg of ham, a 6-gallon jug of malbec, and a wood fired grill with 5 kilos of Argentine beef. We were fully submerged in the local culture.

 It snowed for Michael's last day in Las Lenas and we were able to hike the iconic peak Adrenalina to descend it in powder. After he left, I got another taste of winter. It snowed 30 cm and was -30 for a few days. I reveled in the 3 lift-accessed powder days that followed. Then the sun and heat returned with a vengeance, and brought back the rock garden runs. I decided to take advantage of stability and ride solo as often as possible. I traded my probe and shovel for crampons and an ice axe and set out to find terrain with enough, not perfect, snow to ride. I went places I had always wondered about instead of places I knew about. I hiked for views, hot springs, and condor caves instead of powder-stashed couloirs. I hiked farther than usual, as it required less gear. I followed horses up to 13,000 feet. I rode with rabbits, lizards, and scorpions. I went at my own pace and soaked up every nuance of the changing light, view, and snow. The physical aspects of touring became easier. The mental challenge of predicting the rate of softening conditions or the locations of snow being preserved was the greater challenge. In the end, Las Lenas closed the day before I flew home.

 During my time in Argentina, I witnessed every perspective to powder gambling. Some riders chose to chase the forecasted storms across Chile and Argentina, only to come up a day late or a few degrees short. Some stayed put in Las Lenas, drinking, complaining, and waiting for powder. I, on the other hand, went home with more than I gambled, with more colorful pictures than powder would have provided, more cultural experiences, more memories, and more friends to share them with. I discovered the trick to winning this game is to diversify your bet!