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Part 2: How HANAH HERO Michelle Parker pursued Mastery in the mountains

Part 2: How HANAH HERO Michelle Parker pursued Mastery in the mountains

Our second installment of our Mastery series with Michelle Parker

In the initial installment of this two-part post, we explored freeskier, filmmaker, and explorer Michelle Parker’s mastery mindset, the significance of mentorship in the development of her career, and how she overcame two horrific knee injuries to come back stronger and wiser than ever before. In this follow-up, Michelle waxes lyrical about her groundbreaking series Originate, the push toward gender equality in big mountain skiing, the meaning of her motto “Be like wind, be like water,” and more. 

How has the profile of women in big mountain skiing changed in the past few years?

Angel Collinson and I were in the first ski film that was equal parts men and women. It’s so special to be in the mountains with her and this amazing group of girls. We’ve still got a long way to go in the industry, but I can feel the change. When I first started out there were only a few female freeskiers, so I was out with the guys a lot, which I was used to growing up as a tomboy. And I continue to go on trips with some incredible men, like Mark Abma. But lately I’ve started to understand how much I crave female friendships. Now two of my best friends are these powerful mountain women and it’s wonderful to share experiences with them. We’ve formed beautiful friendships and the inspiration we give each other makes us better skiers.

What’s been the biggest challenge of filming your six-part Red Bull series, Originate?

It’s been great having the Matchstick guys to turn to for producing and directing expertise. But the films I’ve done with them have been on a much smaller scale. For Originate, we’ve had to come up with a season storyline, so it’s a completely different thought process. It’s intense and develops as we’re filming. If the snow is sub-par, the weather’s bad, or the location changes, we have to adapt. If you don’t get the action shots you were hoping for, you have to improvise. Fortunately, the guys who are filming are amazing at piecing a narrative together. I’ve done a lot more producing and work on the logistical side – finding locations, planning four trips in winter and two in summer. It’s been a lot of fun. The series has been the continuation of learning how to run my own business. I’ve had to figure out how to help design goggles and socks, change contracts, and produce segments. Skiing has given me so many opportunities.

How did you get into guiding in Alaska?

It goes back to JP Auclair and his mentorship [see part one of this series for more on this]. He told me I had to educate myself before heading out into the backcountry. He gave me that kickstart and then was right there with me while I was mountaineering and filming. Now there are a lot more skiers and mountain athletes doing guiding and safety courses, but back then it was pretty rare. Becoming a certified guide helped me develop as an athlete and a person and led to the avalanche safety classes I’ve been involved with for the past six or seven years.

What were some of the lessons that this process taught you?

I learned that I needed to trust my instincts more fully. I want a steady flame, not to burn out quickly. For both of my worst injuries, I felt like I shouldn’t ski on those days because I was exhausted. But I went out anyway and got hurt because I didn’t listen to myself. I like to go hard and fast, so it’s been a challenge to become OK with taking rest days, not least because I’m addicted to being outside. But I’ve come to know my body better and know when to push and when to back off a bit. Sometimes I’ll chill out, play my ukulele, stretch, and read a book. Knowing when to go and when to say “No” has only come with time.

I’ve also learned that the mind is just as important as the body. Recently I hired a life coach to help me with mental capacity and feeling confident. When I’m more aware of what’s going on in my head, I’m stronger on my skis. It’s been a whole new area to tap into in both sport and life.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It was more of a statement than advice, but my boyfriend recently said, “Everything is beautiful,” and that really resonated with me. It’s so simple that it seems obvious, but he nailed what I want my perspective on life to be. Ever since I discovered Eastern religions in a high school class, I’ve been striving for simplicity and gratitude.

Michelle Parker climbing around Squaw Valley. Photo credit Jimmy Chin

When you’re not charging down a mountainside, what do you like to do to relax?

I love to read, and am currently halfway through Alex Honnold’s Alone on the Wall. I saw him speak in Jackson earlier this year and he had a great presence. That inspired me, so I bought his book. I really enjoyed reading Starlight and Storm, too. It’s translated from Gaston Rébuffat original French version. The way he writes about climbing six of the Alps’ most challenging north faces in the ‘30s is so beautiful. I also loved Shackleton’s Endurance. Sometimes if I’m traveling, I’ll use a tablet, but I do most of my reading with actual books because I like turning actual pages.

I’ve journaled on and off for years, and jot down song lyrics when I think of them and memorable quotes I come across. Sometimes I make to do lists. When I was in Alaska with Cody Townsend, we read each other’s journals. His mom was a writer so our styles were different, but it was fun. When I travel, I also try to pack a little watercolor kit to paint with.

What motivates you to donate time to many causes, such as the High Fives Foundation and avalanche safety organizations?

When I was in physical therapy after my two knee surgeries, I met a guy named Roy Tuscany who’d broken his back. He was struggling to walk with crutches after this life-altering injury, but was still so happy. I built this fun relationship with him and he inspired me in my own recovery. At a certain point I realized that I wanted to work with Roy in some way through High Fives Foundation. Once my knee healed, I started showing people how to sit-ski and volunteered at their events. They’ve helped so many people and I’ve seen firsthand all the good they do. When I first became a pro skier, JP encouraged me to give back and this was one way to do it. I also have the “Safe Av” classes that educate attendees on avalanche safety, am an advocate for Protect Our Winters, and donate to avalanche-related organizations. And I did a fundraiser with Emily Harrington to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. I want to inspire people to love the outdoors and encourage young women to be strong.

Can you explain your motto, “Be like wind, be like water”?

Sure. It comes from Daoism and means being able to flow with whatever the circumstances are. If you have very rigid expectations, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and failure. But if you can go with the flow and be free, things will go more easily. I try to live spontaneously. I can be glad to go home for a while, but if I get the call to go on an expedition, I need to be prepared to drop everything and head out again. I’ve got to get excited and just go for it.

How do you define a life well-lived?

A passionate life lived with purpose that’s full of adventure and discovery and brings joy to others.

Catch Part 1 in the series here

Check out the products that fuel Michelle Parker for long winter days

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