April 19, 2017

Backing Down from the Run of a Lifetime

Professional skier Angel Collinson reflects on one of the most difficult decisions of her life and what it took to back down from Alaskan slopes.

One of my proudest moments and biggest achievements in life wasn’t accomplishing something. It was actually NOT accomplishing something. It was backing down.

I woke up groggily on the last morning of my ski trip with Teton Gravity Research filming in Alaska in the spring of 2015 for their movie “Paradise Waits” (my segment is here). My breath fogged my headlamp and my tent mates rustled around in their sleeping bags. All of us had one question on our minds; one that could only be answered by stepping outside and looking up.  

Reluctantly and excitedly, we slipped into our ski pants and down booties and unzipped the tent door. My heart fluttered with butterflies in my stomach as the answer to all of our shared question was answered.

The sky was, indeed, blue.

It was the last day of a month-long camping trip in the Neacola Range, and we had seen maybe seven clear days that allowed flying, let alone filming. Filming skiing, especially in Alaska is a really challenging game — everything has to line up. It has to be sunny, the snow conditions have to be both safe and good quality, both the filmers and the skiers have to be on their game in order to nail the shots, and there can’t be much wind.

Angel Collinson looks at a map

Alaska is particularly fickle since the maritime weather is what makes the perfect snow stick to such steep walls and form the “spines” that so many skiers dream about. Yet the price for the maritime snowpack is paid in many, many days spent inside waiting. That’s not even counting the years invested in your career to be ready for just these couple of chances you have in Alaska.

Needless to say, there is immense pressure to perform at your highest level as soon as the skies are clear and conditions are right. Even if you’ve been idle, maybe stretching, but most likely just eating trail mix for the better part of a month, quicker than you can say “Farkle” you’ve gotta have your boots on, be at the helicopter, and be ready for what will most likely be one of the most challenging days of your life.

During this trip, I had been skiing particularly well. I felt increasingly strong and confident in the mountains. I had one objective in mind that I was hoping to ski before the trip was over. Sure enough, our objective for our last day was that line, in a zone that we dubbed the “Magic Kingdom.” This line was going to be the most difficult and scariest things I’d ever skied, and the line was complex and high-consequence. But, I was performing at that level. Or so I thought.

Angel Collinson skis down slope

The crew assembled and we flew out into a zone that would be a good warmup for our final objective. Hiking up to my line from where I was dropped off, I noticed my legs felt sluggish. I was more out of breath than usual and physically tired. I dropped in on my line, and noticed my reaction times felt delayed. Small things were catching me a bit off guard. I got to the bottom and confessed to Ian McIntosh that I felt pretty tired and beat down from everything that had happened that trip. Waiting for a month, being on constant stand-by for so long had drained me. I noticed it in my body and my mind. After a conversation with Ian, a small voice inside of me started to get louder. It was saying things I didn’t want to hear. I battled my ego to hear them through.

“Angel, today isn’t the day. The line you have waited your whole life to ski is going to have to wait another year,” my voice said.

In the mountains and the outdoors, the immensity of a project and the travel and energy involved can be utterly intimidating. It can throw off your own intuitive compass. I started telling myself it was fear talking, that I was ready and able to ski, that I just needed to buckle down and push through. But I started recalling all the stories I had heard of gut instincts going unheard among the vastness of nature, and how the outcomes were not always ideal.

skier picks line down slopes

There aren’t enough four-letter words for how frustrated this made me, but I checked my ego at the door. I knew that day wasn’t the right, even though all external conditions lined up. I was  terrified I would regret my choice and spend a good chunk of my career beating myself up for not taking advantage of this opportunity, but as I stared down the fork in the road, something magical happened.

As both a skier and a human, I blossomed in fireworks of celebration and joy. Sometimes it takes more courage to say “no” than to say “yes.” It is a crucial tool to have, to be able to pay attention to all the factors, especially yourself, and back down in the mountains, outdoors, and in life. Finding that inner peace makes all of my future adventures possible and I hope you find the same.

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