Aspen Adventure Woman: Who is she? You’ll be surprised
The Aspen Times
“YAY ANNA!” was the roar I heard finally summiting Highland Bowl about 30 minutes after the women’s group I was with. Mind you, this group was filled with women of all age ranges, most of them moms and some grandmothers.
In situations where I’m the slowest or the least coordinated I crack jokes — self-mockery gets me through embarrassing situations.
“Will you ladies still let me hang out with you?” I asked.
“If you rock pants like that you can do anything with us!” one woman said of my leopard-print snowboard pants deemed my “party pants” due to their loudness.
I instantly felt accepted into this women’s group just because of my willingness to try to better myself. Being in a community of extremely fit women and people in general can be very intimidating, but this group welcomes women of all skill levels and stands by the motto, “No one gets left behind” — and they don’t tolerate excuses like “I’m too old” or “I’m too slow.”
These women meet every Tuesday to head out on an adventure. Whether it’s mountain biking a new trail or skinning up a mountain, the “Frosties” don’t miss a Tuesday gathering. They lift up one another and create a comfortable environment for anyone to join.
Dana Laughren is part of the group and she recently broke her leg skiing. The group has showered her with love and support, even creating little stickers that say “Hangs with Dana” with a snowflake and bike wheel. Dana, who is part of The Aspen Times’ family, as well, covered her crutches with the stickers and has been blown away by all of the texts and calls and prepared meals they brought.
The level of fitness and sense of adventure within Aspen women is unmeasurable, and the only way to describe them is badass. I’ve lived in Aspen just over a year and a half after five years in Breckenridge and quickly recognized the next level of women going out and adventuring here.
For the past few months, I have been searching in the valley to try to define the “Aspen Adventure Woman.”
Last year, Aspen local Christy Mahon became the first woman to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. She believes everyone in the group is so “normal” with “normal jobs,” but they’re doing amazing things.
Olympian Gretchen Bleiler’s take is that adventurers here, especially her female counterparts, are “putting ourselves in situations that would make other people totally uncomfortable.”
Jordie Karlinski, Nichole Mason and Sammy Podhurst coach or guide others not only in outdoors situations but also on finding their life paths by following their passions.
There is a realness to these women when it comes to connecting with others. There is a humbleness to these women, as well. I felt with each interaction that these women had been my friends for years, and the support they gave me on our little adventures and the laughs we shared always will stay with me.
The #MeToo movement is loud and proud right now, supporting women to speak up against sexual harassment. I think the advice these women of Aspen gave about adventuring and not being afraid is completely in sync with this movement.
These Aspen women have a sense of independence and won’t stand for their voices being ignored. Many of them focus on living in the present and don’t allow the external factors in life to keep them down, and I think these are really life skills, not necessarily only relevant in the adventure realm.
The spirit of the women of Aspen is fiery and alive.
Perhaps I selfishly arranged to meet all of these women to empower myself, but I have no regrets. I plan on spreading this sense of adventure and worth to others. These women want to instill their passion and love for the outdoors into others. They are all teachers and mentors — spreading their knowledge, encouragement and sense of adventure to women and men.
I know there are other badass women in the valley, and I’m personally impressed every day I live here at the feats I see accomplished.
Aspen is filled with special people, and these badass women of Aspen are paving the way for future generations of independent girls growing up in this valley. I couldn’t be more excited for the years to come.
“I’m just having a really awkward day,” Chelsea whispered to her nordic ski teammate after being interviewed on video. A fourth-generation Aspenite, she is following in the footsteps of her competitive nordic ski-racing father and is headed to Dartmouth College next year where she will compete on the nordic team.
She loves being outdoors and in the mountains. When she started traveling outside of the valley for soccer games and ski races, she realized women from this are an exception.
“I grew up totally thinking it was the norm,” she said. “I think it’s really important that girls and everyone living in this valley realize that it’s not the norm because as soon as I started traveling outside of Aspen I realized how lucky I am to have a community of women.”
One of Chelsea’s favorite adventures was this year for nordic when she went to Alaska for senior nationals and raced against women who are competing in the Olympics for Team USA. With only about three hours of sunlight each day, she raced along the ocean up the coast in Anchorage.
She loves being outside and playing in “our mountains” and traveling all over the world, but she says she’s going to miss the special community within Aspen. She is excited to build new relationships at Dartmouth.
Gretchen went from being an Ohio girl at age 10 to a mountain girl overnight when her mother relocated the family to Aspen. Being exposed to the Outdoor Education trip in sixth grade (where the students went backpacking in the backcountry) put into perspective for a girl who had never been camping that she lived in a totally alternate universe now.
Growing up in Aspen and being exposed to the active experiences taught her how to be an outdoors person and inspired her active lifestyle.
Her resume includes: two trips to the Olympics and one silver medal in snowboard halfpipe; four-time X Games gold medalist; member of the Sportswomen of Colorado Hall of Fame and the Action Sports Hall of Fame; and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
“This town is filled with warriors. It’s a warrior spirit here. You have to learn how to be tough because the environment is really rugged,” she said when asked to describe the Aspen Adventure Woman. “The more we live in it the more we get comfortable in conditions that most people would be totally uncomfortable in.”
Her advice to young girls growing up in the valley is to get out and explore and be curious, ask for help and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In the beginning we all need help and education to guide us through new adventures and what it is to live in this valley.
Gretchen’s mom is the person who inspired her to pursue snowboarding and becoming an Olympian. Her mom’s leap of faith moving her family from Ohio to Aspen showed Gretchen that “You can pave your own road and create your own destiny.”
Her mother worried watching Gretchen compete, but to Gretchen that was a sign of a strong woman because “even though you are terrified for your kids, to let them be them, and fly if they have to fly.”
One of her first real backcountry splitboarding experiences was an adventure in her own backyard of Aspen touring to Cathedral Peak. Her group chose a chute beside Cathedral Peak. Gretchen was utterly exhausted but was also filled with satisfaction after completing the adventure.
“I was the slowest one in the group and felt that I was red-lining myself the whole day. When you really wanna get out in the backcountry and you wanna play you have to be in good shape or else you’ll be suffering the whole time.”
Jordie’s parents threw her onto skis when she was 2 years old. Born in California, she learned to ski at Mammoth and Lake Tahoe before moving to Colorado in the first grade.
Her parents switched to snowboarding when they moved to Aspen and she was about 6, and her whole family was hooked on it. Coming to Aspen at a young age, she got the benefit of the Aspen schools’ Outdoor Education programs, which influence her to this day.
Jordie and Gretchen Bleiler grew up in the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club. Gretchen was a couple of years older than Jordie, who looked up to Gretchen as a role model because of her competitive spirit and success. They would later travel the world together competing for the U.S. Snowboard Team: Jordie in slopestyle and boardercross and Gretchen in superpipe.
Now retired from competitive snowboard racing, Jordie is training for two Ironman 70.3s: one in Utah in May and the other in August in Boulder. When she was competing in snowboarding she would often train with cycling and swimming and has always loved running. The structure and dedication for the triathlon reminds her of those training days, and she has been loving it.
She encourages women to get their girlfriend group together and experience adventures without the help of guys.
“‘Strong’ is a word I feel sums up the Aspen Adventure Woman,” she said.
Girls growing up in the valley should take an educational approach to their endeavors, she says, and keep safety in the top of mind. She also suggests to have a good group of friends to go out and explore and learn together. You never know if whatever you find could stick with you or could lead to your ultimate passion or career.
One of Jordie’s favorite adventures was her first mountaineering experience hiking up Mount Daly. Her group camped the night before summiting, which included crampons and ice axs, and snowboarding down.
“You can look at a mountain from so far away and to know that you can be up on top of it the next day is a really incredible thing,” she said with a sense of accomplishment. “That got me hooked on getting into the backcountry and skiing bigger lines and bigger peaks.”
Christy is “skating through this year” by not competing in any races and without any big projects to accomplish this year.
It hasn’t stopped Christy from still getting out and adventuring.
After becoming the first woman to ski all of Colorado’s fourteeners last year, she is trying to ski all of the state’s 600-plus 13,000-foot peaks. Ski mountaineering fuels Christy’s connection to nature.
“It makes you feel small and is an escape from everyday life and pressures that we feel,” she said, adding that it brings everything back to normal for her and puts her worries into perspective when she’s immersed in nature.
Christy wants to be the happiest person out there, just like one of her role models Ellen Miller, who was the first American female to climb the north and south sides of Mount Everest.
Moving to Aspen was one of the best decisions she’s ever made in life, Christy says. The 20-year local enjoys the culture of humble people doing rad things in the grandeur of nature.
To Christy, the Aspen Adventure Woman is someone 9 or 10 years old to 80 years old. It can be anyone; people don’t have to have this amazing athletic gift to be an adventurer. It is someone who gets out a map, knows what they want do, knows what makes them happy — someone who’s willing to try something new and pushes themselves. In Aspen, it’s someone who takes advantage of every hour of the day, whether it’s skinning before work in the morning or going for a run at night.
Christy’s husband, Ted, has been one of her biggest motivators to get out and explore. He was climbing all of the fourteeners in Colorado, which inspired Christy to climb all of them, as well. Then he wanted to ski the fourteeners, and Christy decided that sounded like a good goal for her to complete, also.
Her advice to other females in the valley: “Never say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’ You can, you just have to work hard, you just have to put in the time. If you want to do it you can do it, just don’t ever say ‘I can’t do that.’”
As a female mountaineer, her partners have always respected her voice. She surrounds herself with people who might want a woman’s perspective, which may be more conservative at times but also is very encouraging. Adventurers, she says, have to know themselves and their ability, figure out what they like in their pack and be confident. She knows she runs cold, so she packs three pairs of heavy-duty mitts and extra layers on her expeditions; she doesn’t care what others think because she knows what she needs.
One of Christy’s favorite adventures was a 10-day traverse through Canada’s Bugaboo Mountains to Rogers Pass. They were like “Hobbits traversing through an amazing land.” It changed how she looked at terrain upon returning to Colorado.
Instead of looking at summiting peaks, it became more about traveling through the land.
Aspen is that next level as far as adventuring goes, says Nichole, who coaches snowboarding for Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and was named the 2017 USSA Snowboarding Domestic Coach of the Year as well as its Development Coach of the Year. As a female coach, Nichole has a motherly instinct and makes sure her athletes are taken care of, especially when they travel. Many of them refer to her as Mom, which doesn’t bother her in the slightest.
She spends most of the winter season on “planes, trains and automobiles” traveling to competitions worldwide. At times it can be a little intimidating at the top of a course surrounded by primarily male coaches, but she said it makes it that much more empowering being a female coach. Nichole speaks fondly about the close-knit snowboarding community and how it’s very family-like.
The Aspen Adventure Woman to Nichole is anyone who is going out and keeping up with the boys. Society emphasizes males as the outdoorsy type, but so many women, especially here in Aspen, are outdoors everyday.
“I’ve definitely never been in a community where the women are as empowered as they are here,” Nichole said.
Her advice to girls about adventuring: “Stay present and be confident.” People get anxious thinking about the future, she said, but if you stay present and know what you’re doing and follow your heart, that’s the biggest ticket to success.
Nichole credits several mentors who have helped her find her path. Laura Munch, a female coach when Nichole was an athlete, helped her get her first coaching job and find her initial career path. Sasha Nations inspired Nichole and was her first boss for coaching. It was inspiring to get hired on by a woman initially, Nichole says. She admired Nations’ strength, independence and that she was running a very successful program. Miah Wheeler brought Nichole over to the valley and saw potential in her she didn’t know she had. He taught her to balance life and helped her look at the bigger picture rather than just the single piece of the puzzle and has mentored her through the next phase of her coaching career.
One of the craziest adventures for Nichole is going to another country that isn’t primarily English-speaking. Going into the unknown and being responsible for the lives of adolescents to make sure they’re prepared to do international travel, she has to balance keeping her athletes safe while still having fun. Nichole is “essentially using snowboarding as a life tool” for her students, she said.
Nichole grew up in Summit County and says the Aspen community is welcoming and there is always someone there to help lead you or find a new passion.
“Sunny Sam” is one smiley female adventurer who is out there solely for herself and feeding her passion for the outdoors. Sammy thanks her parents who bred the ski gene in her. They were living the ski bum life in Colorado and Vermont post-college and drove around in a car eating Hostess snack cakes so they could afford to ski. They always told Sammy to make sure to love what you do, because you have to work hard to play hard.
She not only adventures for fun but has also been working at Aspen Expeditions Worldwide since 2011, where she is a full-time senior ski, rock and alpine guide. Upon meeting with Sammy she was taking a couple of rest days (which happened to be some of the biggest powder days of the season) to prepare for her first Skimo race, and after that she was getting ready to fly out to Mexico for 10 days of rock climbing.
“This is definitely a lesson in self control,” she said.
It’s an extremely exhausting profession and not your typical desk job, but her profession is also her passion, so work doesn’t really feel like work. She goes skinning before she goes guiding and after guiding she climbs in her garage.
She is a passionate climber and ski mountaineer and loves to take her adventuring abroad, traveling to places such as India, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia as well as Europe and South America. Some of her most memorable climbs/skis have been in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, a part of the Peruvian Andes, with several summits above 6,000 meters. She has done extensive ski exploration in the Elk Range, with prominent ski descents from the summits of the famed Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak. When skiing the east face of Pyramid, Sammy said her legs were absolutely on fire with it being the third peak she had mountaineered that weekend but she was able to soak in everything and every turn.
It’s tough for Sammy to relax with her “go, go, go” personality. Being outside is a form of meditation for Sammy, and she has to very much be in the present moment because she’s responsible for people’s lives.
The Aspen Adventure Woman, she says, is someone who is out there doing it all just for themselves. They aren’t doing it to prove anything to others.
“Stay true to yourself and don’t fall into the mainstream thoughts of what is expectedly ‘cool’ or will get you more likes on your social pages” is her advice. “Adventure because it fills your heart and soul.”
The bar is set high here in Aspen for adventuring, and it motivates and inspires her to do more or do better or go harder. Christy Mahon is a role model, Sammy says, because she is constantly pushing herself and doing it with a smile on her face and she is a “positive ball of fire.”
Nine-year-old Devon has grown up in Aspen and is a bubbly, bright ski racer at AVSC. Her adventures began at an even younger age, including hiking Highland Bowl at age 6 without a flinch. Her father, David, remembered turning around and thinking just how small she was going up the extreme terrain.
Her family has always been active and outdoorsy, like taking a ski trip to Alaska, which was one of Devon’s favorites. Another adventure with her family that has stuck with her was while camping one night and their tent was attacked by a bear. Devon giggled and giggled while telling the story; no flinch of terror at all.
Now, she is completely enamored with world-renowned alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin as her role model.
“She’s a really nice person in general and she’s a really good ski racer, too,” Devon said.
Her favorite part of alpine ski racing is learning something new every day. She “always gets new tips and stuff,” but her AVSC coaches say Devon is always striving to be faster than the boys. Her parents said that being punctual to practice is very important to her. At ski practice earlier this month, her friend Tess needed to go into the warming hut to fill out her goal sheet, and Devon joined (they were practically joined at the hip). When the coach said, “Devon, you can take more runs right now if you want,” without hesitation Devon said she wanted to wait for Tess to finish. Tess looks up from her goals sheet with a smile: “You’re a good friend.”
Her advice about adventuring to her peers and other girls growing up in the valley: “Always give it your best, don’t get intimidated and just try as hard as you can. Don’t think about the bad stuff that could happen.”
Devon’s family’s commitment to sports, adventure and travel was evident when talking with her. She is well on her way to adding to the Aspen Adventure Woman community.
“I really just love the outdoors,” she said with a grin.
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