Hailey ski phenom Haley Cutler keeps her cool as she races to the top
BY Julie Bramowitz
Haley Cutler was 18 months old when her parents brought her to Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain, where she flew down the bunny hill with a fearlessness that presaged her young but promising career as one of the fastest skiers in the country.
From that first day, recalled Cutler’s mother, Chelsea, it was clear that her daughter was born to race. Soon, the Hailey native won her inaugural Kindercup Race on Dollar Mountain, and at age 8, she joined the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF), an incubator for champions. As a youngster, Cutler was so speedy that she earned the nickname “Picabo” from her peers. Unfamiliar with the Wood River Valley-bred Olympian Picabo Street, Cutler misunderstood her moniker as a putdown and came home crying. A pep talk from Chelsea, who works three jobs to cover Cutler’s considerable costs as a competitive skier, opened Haley’s eyes to her namesake—and the possibility that she could one day match Street’s success.
Now, the easygoing 18-year-old has her sights set on making the elite U.S. Ski Team, embarking on a rigorous six-month quest that involves twice-daily workouts, fundraising and a series of races whose victors are determined by fractions of a second. Since her early teens, Cutler has competed across North America, but it was back on Baldy this April where she accomplished her greatest coup to date: winning the super giant slalom, or super-G, event at the Western Region Spring Series.
“When I was at the starting gate, I felt confident because I knew where to go,” Cutler said a few days after returning from a training camp in Chile. “It’s a race that I’ve been looking back on a lot because the U.S. Nationals are in Sun Valley this year on that same hill, Warm Springs, and I’m preparing to win there again.”
Her SVSEF coach, Scott McGrew, who has been working with Cutler since she was 14, has seen hundreds of skiers pass through his program, but calls Haley’s raw talent remarkable. Whether she’s playing volleyball or tennis—the Wood River graduate led both of the school’s teams to state championships—“everything Haley touches turns to gold,” he said. “She’s a phenomenal athlete.” What further distinguishes Cutler is “her competitive mind,” McGrew emphasized. Plenty of jocks possess the physical chops; Cutler, however, is “very calm and keeps everything in perspective,” he said. “Come race day, she doesn’t deviate from that path.”
“As far as Haley’s skiing skills go,” offered McGrew’s SVSEF coaching colleague, Nate Schwing, “she flows down the hill like water. She might not look as dynamic as the other racers, but her feel on the skis make her deceptively fast. She’s smooth, she’s balanced, she doesn’t look out of control—but she’s carrying a lot of speed.”
Judging by the U.S. Ski Team’s past criteria, Cutler must prevail in two or more events within her age group, as well as establish a top-10 world ranking across all four alpine events, to be added to the roster. Among female skiers born in 1997, Cutler was ranked 16th in the world in super-G and 27th in downhill in mid-October, and in the top five in the U.S. for both speed events, which “puts her solidly in the pipeline” for the national team, said McGrew. Her coaches are focused on improving her tech events, slalom and giant slalom, in which Cutler has not broken into the world’s top 100. While not impossible, making a huge leap in tech is Cutler’s greatest challenge this season.
That makes the stakes at Cutler’s next races, including a critical date in December at Lake Louise in Canada, that much higher. By May, Cutler will know whether she’s made the U.S. squad. Once on the team, her next goal is to score a Nor-Am title, which would grant her a World Cup spot. From there, Cutler could be vying for the ultimate prize: an Olympic medal at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
Despite her outward cool, Cutler admits that like anyone else out on the hill, she feels stress. She credits her mother’s advice for staying positive after a disappointing performance and points to breathing exercises and yoga for both better flexibility—essential for those low tucks and tight turns—and not crumbling under pressure. A steady stream of Netflix while on the road—Cutler’s currently hooked on “Grey’s Anatomy”—helps, too.
With her friends caught up in the freshmen whirlwind of frats and football, Cutler stays in touch through social media, but doesn’t second-guess her decision to postpone education as she pursues a lifelong dream. “When I see pictures of my friends in college, I’m happy for them, but I don’t regret not joining them,” she said with conviction. “I like where I am right now. This is what I want to do. This is what I chose to do.”
IT'S ALL IN THE ALTITUDE
Teen Tess Hollister Tackles Idaho’s Tallest Peaks
BY Lisa Carton
Sixteen-year-old Tess Hollister’s idea of bliss is the hard crunch of rock and scree under her well-worn hiking shoes, rays of sunlight on her face as she scrambles her way to the top of one of Idaho’s tallest peaks.
Each year a handful of hikers set their sights on completing what is known as the “12-er Challenge,” tackling the nine peaks in Idaho that stand above 12,000 feet. These span three mountain ranges in the central part of the state, ranging from Mount Borah at 12,662 feet, to Hyndman Peak, with an elevation of 12,009 feet.
“My dad exposed me to adventure at an early age, and I love the feeling of being outdoors in nature and climbing. It grounds me,” said the Wood River High School sophomore. “Challenging myself is something that’s just kind of inside me.”
Summiting these nine peaks is a multi-year, or, at the least, a seasonal endeavor for most. Hollister completed the Idaho 12-er Challenge in six days, six hours and six minutes, the fastest and youngest female finisher to date.
What drives this 5-foot, 9-inch, athletic, fresh-faced beauty to forego a summer of hanging out with friends to undertake such a goal?
“To graduate from Wood River you have to complete a Personal Project, and I wanted to get it out of the way early because I’m taking a lot of AP classes my senior year and need to focus on college stuff,” said Hollister who holds a 4.0 grade point average, and is also a three-sport varsity athlete. “My dad and I are almost at our goal of summiting the tallest peaks in the lower 48, so I figured I could tackle the 12-er challenge, all of Idaho’s tallest peaks, and make that my project.”
Mount Elbert in Colorado, Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount Whitney in California, Kings Peak in Utah, and Mauna Kea in Hawaii, are climbs already in the memory books for Hollister.
“There’s nothing that really stops Tess,” said father Steve Hollister, who accompanied his daughter on a few legs of the climbs. “She’s very tough and extremely disciplined. When she climbs, she’s focused, and she’s usually way out in front of me. I knew she had the fortitude to do it. It was a joy to watch her.”
Mom Leisa Hollister kept track of Tess’s journey solidly planted on terra firma, helping her daughter design and implement a solid nutrition plan. “Tess set a goal, and this accomplishment helps set a pattern for her life, that whatever she wants to do she can achieve.”
Hollister not only had an adult support team, but her peers, including her best friend, cheered her on. “She loves to climb, so I think it was cool that she incorporated that passion into her Personal Project for school,” said 16-year-old Blair Radford. “We were all inspired by it, and all I could say was, ‘Tess is at it again!’”
Seventeen-year-old Wood River High senior Jordan Bjorkman offered, “I don’t think I really got how hard it was until she was texting me along the way, telling me what she was going through. And, at that point, I realized she was accomplishing a huge goal. It was big. I kept telling her that she couldn’t think of results, just take it one step at a time.”
Hollister certainly had no easy hikes among these class 3 and 4 monster peaks. Idaho’s tallest are all off-trail, steep climbs, where the air is thin, and your companions are mountain lions and the elusive bighorn sheep.
The typical elevation gains are close to 5,000 feet—think climbing the height of the Empire State Building more than three times. Tess scrambled up the peaks without ropes, on terrain with vertical cliff walls and sheer drops that would make most people squeamish.
“I suppose this whole thing looked better on paper. There were some points, especially on Mount Leatherman, where I wanted to stop, maybe quit, but my dad kept me going,” Hollister said. She enlisted and organized an expert team of fellow climbers to support her.
“Tess is such a super hiker and scrambler,” said Chris Cey, a strong advocate and great motivator for Hollister, who was also her school advisory teacher for her Personal Project and one of the participants in her climbs. “I suggested the 12-er Challenge to her as something she could do, but I never thought she would complete it in that timeline. Hiking with her showed me she’s quite the athlete and really capable of doing anything.”
Hollister’s team, besides school counselor Cey and father Steve, included Wood River High School teacher Alex LaChance and expert climbers Matt Barnes and Rob Landis. Each climbed with Hollister on different days.
“I think what really struck me during that one-day, four-peak climb was just how much she really enjoyed the day, the mountains, the environment, despite the difficulty,” said Rob Landis. “She was just joyful.”
Hollister certainly took advantage of the advice, help and experience from Landis, who is the director of the Outdoor Program and the Outdoor Leadership Academy at Community School. The Hailey resident, along with climbing partner Dave Bingham, held the “Idaho 12-ers Challenge” record in 2005 at one day, 14 hours, 50 minutes.
“Day five climbing with Rob Landis was definitely the most difficult, and we started before sunrise,” said Hollister. “Those four peaks were the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. There’s a really tough traverse on Breitenbach, and that’s why I needed Rob to guide me. There are only 12 people that have ever done that scree traverse, and he’s one of them.”
That day comprised 14 miles and 8,700 vertical feet of climbing.
“Tess doesn’t ‘resent the mountain’ or think it’s a grind,” said team member Alex LaChance, who is a science and environmental studies teacher at Wood River High School. “A lot of people don’t like to hike with me because I’m known to push people really hard, but Tess is an extremely gifted athlete and impressive hiker. She was having a great time out there, and I had a hard time keeping up with her.”
With the Idaho 12-ers Challenge in Hollister’s rearview mirror, it’s time to conquer a different kind of summit: she’ll start her senior year next fall preparing to head off to college.
“I want to switch it up and go to school someplace by the water.”
HER SIGHTS SET ON SPEED
Dog-sledder Julia Larsen Takes on the World’s Best
BY Kelly Hennessy
While most kids were still mastering how to tie their shoes, Julia Larsen was strapped to skis, being pulled behind her Siberian husky. It was love at first tow. Ten years later, 16-year-old Larsen is entering her eighth season of competitive dog sledding.
She started her career tucked in a sled alongside her younger brother, attached to her skijoring father. The family had one Siberian husky at the time, something Julia insisted on fixing once she had ventured onto the skis herself. “I tried it and fell in love with just being behind a dog,” she explained with a laugh, “So then I was like, ‘Dad, we need to get more dogs. I want my own.’” Her father took her down to Logan, Utah, to adopt her own; they returned home with three.
Soon the dogs were too energetic to stick to skijoring, so they bought a dog sled. Larsen entered her first race when she was 8 years old. She started competing as a pro at 13. Competing in the adult class is a question of skill, not age, and she is often the youngest, going up against other mushers over 45 years her senior, both women and men. One of her biggest rivals is her own father, Troy Larsen, the owner of Five Degrees Sled Dog Kennels and Windy City Arts. In a race last year in Darby, Montana, both Troy and Julia competed. “He took first, and I took second,” Julia recalled. “I think we were a minute away from each other. So, he got me,” she added with a dose of regret, quickly adding, “It makes the competition fun, though.”
The Larsens compete in “sprint” races, which can range from as few as four miles to as many as 100. Mid-distance races are 100 to 300 miles, and long-distance races are anywhere from 300 to over 1,000 miles. Most sprint races are two-day events, with mushers running the same course both days. They are also categorized by number of dogs; the younger Larsen usually runs with six dogs in 15-mile sprints. She averages around 16 to 17 miles per hour, which is not much slower than the best.
“I actually raced the world champions two years ago, which was really fun. They’re averaging 19 miles per hour,” she exclaimed. “I mean, 20 miles per hour, a dog is going to hurt itself. I think I averaged 17. It was crazy.”
This is a much faster pace than in longer races; in the most famous dog sledding race, the Iditarod, mushers average around 5 miles per hour. In seventh grade, Larsen had an opportunity to be a part of the “Last Great Race on Earth,” working as family friend and Wood River Valley local Trent Herbst’s sidekick and handler. Her class was studying the Iditarod that year. Larsen gave them a presentation on her firsthand experiences, and, for the past three years, has been going back to the seventh grade to teach them.
The Iditarod isn’t Larsen’s end game, however. Her sights are set on speed. She is going to stick to the sprints. “My goal for this year is to go a little faster,” she explained. “I’m racing puppies—they are two years old now, and they are at the point where we can start adding speed.”
Achieving this goal is practically a full-time job for Larsen, who has to train both the dogs and herself. This starts in the summer, she explained, “I used to play basketball, and, with basketball, you don’t scrimmage until you’ve really conditioned hard.” For her dogs, conditioning consists of pulling a four-wheeler set in neutral. Sometimes, she added, “You actually have to put the brake on, too, ’cause they are so strong.” Starting out, the dogs just go for three miles, slowly, about 12 miles per hour, to build their muscles. The speed picks up in November, and, as the snow falls, the dogs get on a sled, usually in December.
Larsen herself has an intense training regimen, as it is essential for her to stay strong. “You can stand on the back of the sled,” she said, but, for good mushers, “it is a lot of getting off the sled and working, running up the hill, helping the dogs.” She laughed, “By the time I’m done with the race I’m pretty sweaty.” Both she and the dogs have to stay strong, Larsen said, because, “if you’re not strong and in shape, you can get hurt.”
For Larsen, all of this hard work is more than worth it in the end. The dogs helped her grow up, she said, and one of her favorite parts of dog sledding is “what the dogs teach you. You have to feed them every day, run them, take care of them.” However, the best part of it all is “just being behind the sled.” For Larsen, what brings her back every day, year after year, to stand on her dog sled is the tranquility. “It’s quiet. It’s gliding on the snow. It’s peaceful. It’s my de-stressor from the world.”