Editor’s Note: This piece won our call-out for EO readers to send us their best stories of life-changing Colorado adventure. Read all of our winner’s stories at blog.colorado.com or at elevation outdoors.com.
I grew up putting foot to earth in the backwoods of southern Indiana. I got out and explored near tucked-away ponds that glittered underneath the Oklahoma sky, but I never considered myself an adventurer. I never thought I was particularly good at any of it.
In the Midwest, the outdoors aren’t so much of a proving ground, as much as a way of life. You come of age inheriting catfish and bluegill—you learn how to put a hook in their mouths, how to gut them and how to fry them up. You know the meaning of words like “spelunking,” “trotline,” and “minnow.” You shoot a .22 off your grandma’s porch and kill critters for stew. You go slowly through nature. You listen and you look. If you are really lucky, you know how to slip your fishing hook through the jelly of a minnow’s eyes so that it still wriggles, making it prime bait.
When I first came to the mountains of Colorado, all of these nascent outdoor experiences remained deep inside me. They slept in the red-dirt clay of my bones and the deciduous forests of my heart. But I didn’t know how to be in this place at first. I certainly didn’t know what to be.
So I decided to be all things: I learned how to put foot to earth in a new way. I hoofed up the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. I learned how to rock climb, and I was proficient. I learned how to bike, and I was reasonably good. I learned how to ski, and I was ok.
All the while, I took selfies that proclaimed my aptitude for adventure. Because back in my first days in Colorado, I needed validation. I needed a proving ground. I needed to know that I was enough. I thought climbing up and skiing down more and more mountains would somehow prove this simple truth to me. So I kept hoofing. I kept taking those selfies and posting them—and getting the “likes” that I so desperately needed.
I went hard. Really hard. I was a weekend warrior and proud of it. Gotta prove that I’m enough. Gotta prove that I’m a badass. Gotta prove that I don’t have anything to prove. But the mountains had something bigger to prove to me.
I don’t believe that wild places always give you their full message in one single adventure or blinding epiphany. Sometimes, the mountains opt for a slow-reveal. They are playful like that. They often enjoy looping back, days, weeks or even years later to wrap up a message they’ve been trying to tell you all along. The mounains always end up telling you what and how to be.
My life-changing moment in the mountains consists of two distinct moments, actually. They occured on two different, but connected, days, nearly one year apart. The first was a silent and pristine powder day at Mary Jane Resort.
I was pushing hard. I kept dipping in and out of well-spaced trees on the sides of the runs and then back onto an open piste. I had skied 65 days the previous season and I was getting there again this year. I wanted to be better. Not really for myself but because I wanted to keep up with my friends who had all been skiing these mountains far longer than me—not to mention I wanted bragging rights.
I had the fierce need to ski my hardest. To get in just one more lap. To claim just a few more feet of vertical.
The fateful run was an “idiot’s run,” so called because you’re tired and you should stop but, for whatever reason, you don’t.
I should have been going slowly. I should have been enjoying what was left of the powder, but slow wasn’t my M.O. at the time. As I popped out of the trees, I barely noticed the icy spot where the day’s snow had been skied off, and I miscalculated the force needed to turn away from the ice and twisted violently, tumbling face first, my skis crossing. I heard what everyone who blows out an ACL says they hear: a sickening pop. I also felt a shot of pain in my left knee. In retrospect, it could have been worse. Much worse based on the fact that the trees were so near and my speed so unchecked.
I was humbled.
My humbling was swift, simple and to the point. The mountains of Colorado had told me many things since I started my love affair with them: They told me that I am a strong and capable woman. They told me that I can do anything I set my mind to. They told me that there is peace to be found in the high places of the world. But this time they uttered one simple refrain: Enough. That’s enough.
No surprise, I had indeed torn my ACL. My ski season was officially over.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t take this commonplace ski injury with as much grace as I hoped. I cried, I swore, and I felt a sinking terror for many days after my fall. My friends and boyfriend assured me that it wasn’t a big deal. It happens to skiers all the time and it’s the risk you run for being active. My boyfriend had torn his ACL skiing and had opted for surgery. He was back at it within one year. I tried to comfort myself with these thoughts but the sinking feeling persisted. As the weeks passed, I felt like I was losing my identity. What was I without skiing, and hiking, and going hard in the mountains?
I did physical therapy for a solid year: squats, lunges, swimming and moderate hiking. I didn’t get back on my skis until the following winter. One month after my injury, I went snowshoeing and, while I was happy to be moving, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t moving fast enough, I wasn’t pushing hard enough. It all just wasn’t enough.
Now we come to the second day of the slow reveal, where the lesson our mountains were trying to teach me came full circle. It was a 12-inch powder day and my boyfriend and I woke at 4 a.m. We had decided to stay close to the Front Range and ski Eldora.Now, many hardcore weekend warriors won’t think you’re the shit if you ski Eldora on a powder day, but I tend to love these smaller, more intimate mountains. And, since it was my first official day of skiing since I wrecked my knee, I knew this resort would greet me with a steady ride.
The snow drifted sleepily and gathered in patches on our coats. As I waited in a very short line for the lift, I was reminded of a saying that is dear to me now: “Nature doesn’t hurry, yet all things are accomplished.”
I was so used to hurrying. Rush up the mountain, rush down the mountain. Hurry to get first tracks. Hurry to have the most days on skis, or in a tent or on a bike. But today was different. I wanted to go slow, take my time. In fact, my injury demanded that I do so.
When we reached the top of the mountain, we chose a long, undulating blue run. Nothing gnarly about it. I had skied it many times before, ripping carelessly down it to prove that blues were beneath me.
As I made my first few turns, I felt nauseous. I expected my knee to give way immediately. But it didn’t. It held strong. I made another turn and then another, experiencing the familiar, coveted floating feeling that is powder skiing. It had been three years since I learned to ski, and, in that time, I had not slowed down enough to appreciate the sensation of flying, that feeling of making a perfect turn.
I took in that sensation now. I worked my way down the mountain methodically, sticking my tongue out to catch snowflakes, and squealing with glee as I realized my knee wasn’t going to fail me.
I upped my speed and started cutting a fresh line in the snow. Making my way to the side of the run, I skied into deeper powder that sprang up and kissed my face. In that moment, I thought, “This is enough. I am enough. Just give me these mountains, fast or slow. I’ll come to them beaten, broken and bedraggled. It doesn’t matter because it’s enough just to be here amongst them.”
Sometimes you have to go hard and fall to realize that it’s not the hard stuff that makes or breaks you, but it’s the pure joy of being and doing. Since that day, I go a little slower through the mountains and I don’t get so hung up on how badass I am or ultimately am not. I just go, and I do, I see and I am.
These mountains are no longer a proving ground for me, they are a way of life. Now, I know words like “backcountry,” “gaper” and “alpenglow.” I may not be a badass adventurer to some, but the mountains know best and that’s good enough for me.
Hope Gately is a former flatlander who, before moving to Colorado on a whim, had never seen the Rocky Mountains nor touched a pair of skis. When she’s not in the mountains, she’s practicing her other passions: Teaching Language Arts to some rowdy 7th graders, writing and growing sweet corn in her garden.