This is the question that I often ask myself
when I’m sitting alone in some of our planet’s most remote winter environments getting ready to participate in an activity that, at one point, I could only dream about.
My first thought is always, “WOW!” And then I ask myself, “How did this happen?” Soon I begin to think about the decisions and relationships that put me in this place, right here, right now.
I believe that each one of us has a calling, a unique gift, which defines our purpose. Some stumble into it. Others seek it. Too, there are those who feel entitled and assume it’s supposed to find them. Yet, sadly, a great many of us never attain our goal—for many reasons; it could be environmental, cultural or economical barriers that create roadblocks.
Finding a purpose has been one of the catalysts for the Youth Initiative Project, a nonprofit that I founded three years ago to introduce educational enrichment to the children of Eagle County. I wanted to help create productive members of our community so they benefit all of us in the future. If I can just help just one kid find his calling—from the thousands that I impact, then I will have succeeded.
I won’t sugar coat this. As a teenager and young adult, I had to pull myself back from the edge several times. I was lost. Really lost. But I think, perhaps, it was the natural sense of survival that forced me to persevere. Ultimately, it seems that we need to take risks in order to find out who we really are.
How did Steve Jobs become Steve Jobs? Bill Gates become Bill Gates? Or athletes, Michael Jordan, Greg Lemond and Bode Miller come to be who they are? They were introduced to the playing field; yet, all of them had it in them to take risk. More importantly, they had to persevere. They had to push forward to become successful, no matter how many times they thought of giving up.
Many times I felt that as though I had failed far more than I had succeeded.And being constantly beaten down and lonely motivated me to work even harder, to survive.
For me, the most memorable of those “how did I get here” moments was in the middle of the night, while I was sitting alone on a far away peak under a gold and purple sky. Behind me the mountain fell away into a dark abyss, while in front of me the sun was trying to set over the ocean—but couldn’t because the earth had rotated back on its access and the North Pole would soon be lit for months before another night fall.
I was placed on this particular peak by a helicopter somewhere in Norway, above the Arctic Circle, while a Warren Miller film was being shot. My job was to position myself to ski a narrow chute off the southwest facing slope of the peak for the camera to eventually film me from the helicopter. But things went sideways when one of the other athletes injured himself on another peak and needed to be airlifted out of the mountains. The next thing I knew, I was alone on the highest peak in the region and had no idea how long I would be there.
As I sat there by myself completely disconnected from anyone, I soon realized that the only person who knew where I was located was the pilot who had left me on that lonely peak. For a moment I thought holy s**t! He might not come back. On the other hand, I actually thought, what if I walked off the edge and disappeared?
The reason I was chosen for this film shoot was a combination of events that included my winning a free-skiing competition months earlier. That win confirmed that I was skilled for this type of terrain. And the fact I traveled well and worked hard was also a plus.
The radio on my chest allowed me to communicate to a distance of five miles. And, now, there was dead silence. There was not a breath of wind, and as far as I could see in any direction, not even a glimmer of life. It was almost midnight, and even if I had a map, I would have no idea where I was. We had been flying in circles, up and down a valley on the way to the mountain, and we had turned numerous times in various directions. From my seat in the helicopter I had not seen any landmarks, from the air, other than the chute I was going to ski. When we landed, I was 3,000 feet above a maze of fjords. The sky was purple and orange and the reflection off the snow-covered peaks was a psychedelic violet.
If I had to find my way, I would have no idea which side of this mountain to ski down to have the best chance for survival. The fact of the matter was, even if I would have been forgotten, and decided to ski the 3,000 vertical to the ocean, I would have no idea which way to swim or survive in the arctic water to get back to civilization. My fate was going to be left to the Viking gods if the helicopter did not return. How did I get to this magical moment in my life skiing for the famed cameras and cameramen of Warren Miller Entertainment? I grew up watching the legendary company’s films and hoped that one day I would get to be in one of them. Now here I was sitting on a peak above the Arctic Ocean, after working with them for 10 years.
The irony of how I got on that mountain is that I actually know, precisely, what led to this moment in my life. My very first memory is something that occurred when at I was just 16 months old. And when I told my father he knew exactly what I was talking about.
As I remember, I was in a backpack as my dad skied a bumpy line underneath a lift. To my left, pine trees were flying by. It was snowing and my father had on a dark coat. Large pom-poms coming off his hat were rubbing my face. (Obviously this was before helmets, when parents did irresponsible things like ski with their kids on their backs.) I remember moving fast and I guarantee this was the moment my brain was being hardwired to duplicate the same sensation and why I spent the rest of my life trying to achieve this sensation time after time after time.
It would take a novel the size of War and Peace to describe every step it took for me to be standing on a peak in Norway by myself. So when kids come up to me and tell me that they want to do what I do because they are really good skiers, my head explodes with memories of how I got here. And what it took. That’s when I tell them that learning to ski was the easiest part. Should the conversation proceed and they have the patience to listen, I try to explain what I mean.
I tell them that it’s the work they do off the skis and beyond the slopes that can, perhaps, lead them to this place. Combine that with athletic ability and they might start to come up with a road map on how to make it happen. Most likely I have lost the kids’ attention at this point, because it doesn’t always not sound like fun. It’s a big commitment and a lot of hard work.
As it happened, I wasn’t able to make the final “one percent” and gave up competitive skiing. I was very depressed for a while. And the pressure of graduating as just an average student weighed on me. I was so frightened of being lost that I began to panic. Without a purpose my world got dark.
Then, as fate would have it I was was hired to do a Warren Miller film. When they began to shoot , I skied as hard and as good as I could. And I remembered a few words of advice that one of my mentors had given me. “Shine where you can,” he said, “But be willing to carry the tripod whenever possible.”
So, after every shot I carried the tripod for our cameraman. It kept me humble and it tied me closer to the excitement and energy going into what we were all trying to accomplish.
My path has not always been easy. In fact, at times, it has been turbulent. But, it is said, “that which does kill you can only make you stronger,” and provide greater stories on the way. And, to this day, even after skiing in almost 30 Warren Miller films, I still carry the tripod.