To this day, one of my most memorable sporting memories is hiking the Highlands Bowl in Aspen. If you know me you know that I am not a risk-taker, and for those of you that don't know me, I am sure you can relate. I am also not a born sportswoman. Or at least I wasn’t. I think it took turning 40 to find that deeply buried part of me.
I remember the first time I was told about Highlands Bowl. Skiers and boarders (in my mind then - slightly unhinged ones) strap their skis/boards to their backs and proceed to hike up 782 vertical feet on, at times, a precariously narrow, snow-packed path with sheered slopes on either side. The idea is to hike to the 12,392-foot peak (For perspective - Everest base camp is 17,000) and then ski down through a variety of incredibly steep lines; all pitched from 35-48 degrees. So when I saw it from my pizza prone skis on the beginner mountain next door (Buttermilk) - I literally laughed at the idea of doing it myself. I hate heights and run from risk, so I crossed it off the list of things I’d want or even consider accomplishing.
Fast-forward to the mindset change in me that came with moving to Colorado. The more I spent time with friends and coaches working on my actual skiing abilities (I really started skiing four years ago as a 39-year-old), and the more I eyed that peak - the more open I became to the idea of attempting it. Enter Dean Hill… Dean is the preeminent cycling coach, a top surfer and a premier ski instructor. I think he also might be a psychiatrist… Dean worked with me on what the different stages of the Bowl would be and started to pique my interest in defying my aforementioned cross-off-the-list mentality. In January 2021, I decided to give it a shot. I was just out of COVID-19 quarantine and would like to blame that for my breathlessness on the hike, but I’m not sure that was the case. Putting each of my large, size 11 feet in front of the other and matching the sometimes tiny and icy snow-packed steps of the previous hikers proved the most difficult mental task for me. Much more daunting than the heights surrounding us. I am a pilates addict, and it definitely served its purpose as the balancing act for those awkward and steep steps.
There was a moment when I counted each step so that I wouldn’t panic about the sheer cliffs around me and that mental focus kept me calm and present. Reaching the top and chatting with people who were on their umpteenth “bowl lap” of that season didn’t even dent my pride. It was that experience when I realized that being an athlete is so much more than ability - it’s the mental strength to push through all the things your brain is screaming at you in order to stop the pain. As I said, I am a late-to-the-game athlete, so this realization is a big leap for me. It’s changed the way I look at challenges from physical to emotional. For me, it’s not about how good I am, but that I freaking did it. That’s what gets me excited about the next challenge - pushing through all the reasons that stopped me in the past and finding my personal pride of achievement on the other side.
And the ski down was a piece of cake (shockingly). I’m sure I did some pizza-ing in the trees, but only they can tell you about that...