AdventureCommunity December 23, 2016

Keep Up If You Can

Four women who are raising the bar

Women are pushing the limits.  They are going faster, enduring longer, and living the message that anyone is capable of anything she sets her mind to and much more.  With a community of supportive women and men by their sides, Maddie Miller, Nayla Tawa, Hilary Knight and Lexi DuPont stand out as leaders in their fields.  If you want it, go get it.  Nothing turns out how you expect.

Lexi duPont 

“A lot of members of my family are really accomplished pilots.  My grandpa was the first pilot to land in Borneo, my aunts were the first female team to fly across the United States, and my uncle was the first to fly the Amazon. I want to re-do all of their flights with the same navigation and write a book about it. My dad has an old plane from 1955, so that’s the plane I plan to use.”

This is Lexi duPont’s “5- to 10-year plan” as she calls it. It’s not exactly what one would expect from a 26-year old professional big mountain skier, but anyone who knows duPont wouldn’t be surprised at all.

web_localbuzz_videoA yoga-loving, surf-bumming, nonprofit-supporting bombshell, duPont has skied her way to top finishes on the World Freeride Tour and into multiple Warren Miller and Poor Boyz Productions films over the years after starting her career at age 19 in Colorado.

Born in Sun Valley, duPont first got on skis when she was 2. She grew up seeing photos of her mother, Holley, flying through the air around the house. Holley was a famous freestyle skier and one of the first women to land a backflip on skis.

DuPont grew up hitting gates and racing alpine with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF). “The combination of SVSEF and the Community School and its outdoor program created the foundation of who I am today,” duPont with said with obvious gratitude.

She went from thinking she was going to be a professional sailor on the East Coast to transferring to school in Colorado, winning a cash prize at her first ever big mountain competition in Telluride, Colo., and taking off from there.

Recently, she has transitioned from contests and gravitated towards the filming scene. “In film, I really found my mind can blossom because my only limitation is my own creativity,“ she said. “I love coming up with original content and going to different parts of the world to do what I’m passionate about.”

Last winter duPont joined Nayla Tawa as part of the team “Return to Kyrgyzstan.” (See profile of Tawa above.) Tawa had been working with Hayat Tarikov, whose Community Based Tourism (CBT) organization is developing an outdoor tourism industry as a means to provide wintertime employment for residents of Arslanbob, Kyrgyzstan. It took Tarikov several years to build the trust of the community to allow the local women to participate in skiing. Tawa had joined Tarikov to make a film about his efforts when she was in a terrible car accident that put her film project on hold for more than two years. After Tawa’s recovery, duPont jumped on board supporting the mission. duPont provided enthusiasm, expertise, and additional sponsors and financial backing for Tawa’s project.

Living in a mud hut with conservative Muslim families for six weeks, duPont said that during the trip, “They said we were never going to get women to ski with us. ‘It’s impossible, women don’t ski. They’re housewives and take care of the farm. They have babies, they don’t play sports.’” But, thanks to years of groundwork by Tarikov, the locals had begun to trust him and accept the concept of ski tourism, as well as the idea of women skiing. While the Return to Kyrgyzstan team was there, they were able to include seven young girls in ski lessons.

The first day a young girl showed up, she clicked into her skis and burst into tears.

“Are you hurt?” asked duPont.


“Then why are you crying?” duPont replied, smiling at the young Kyrgyz girl, who, it turned out, had been told her whole life how dangerous skiing was. She was convinced she had just secured the binding of a death wish.

DuPont and Tawa navigated the tears and went on to teach sideslipping to the group of local girls and boys. The children lived at the base of towering mountains in a potential world-class ski Mecca, but, until then, had not had the opportunity or equipment to learn how to ski.

“By the end of the day, the girls were flying down the hill, running gates, and saying they wanted to be doctors and lawyers and teachers,” duPont said. “For their whole lives they had been told they couldn’t do (certain things), and then they had this newfound confidence that they could do anything.”

“Kyrgyzstan, like everywhere, is seeing the effects of climate change and experienced an unusually thin snow-year,” duPont said. ”By the time we left, everyone said, ‘The reason the snow is melting is because the American girls came and melted it with their warm hearts.’”

Being a skier, climate change is front and center on duPont’s radar. This winter, duPont is hoping to team up with Mountain Collective—a collaboration of 14 independent ski resorts—and Protect Our Winters (POW), an education and advocacy group, to do a web series highlighting a road trip to the Mountain Collective Resorts.  In each location, duPont hopes to give presentations about climate change and the history of each ski area, while also spotlighting a local pro.

Recognizing herself as “very fortunate,” duPont spreads the love, being actively involved not only with Protect Our Winters, but also with a number of nonprofit organizations, including Make a Difference, Play Hard Give Back, Higher Ground, High Fives Foundation, CAPOW, and Bead for Life. This year, she partnered with Eddie Bauer to make a pro model glove, the “Lexi Love Mitt,” in which half the proceeds go to a nonprofit organization that takes inner city kids into the mountains.

As her older sister Emilie duPont Crist noted, “Lexi’s mind is deeply creative, and her heart is huge. She works really hard to conquer her dreams, and helps so many people around her to do the same.”

When she’s not traveling, duPont still calls Sun Valley, Idaho, home. She lives in a 500-square foot geodesic dome between the Idaho National Forest and Warm Springs River. DuPont seeks to walk the walk of living simply and promotes and practices small daily habits such as recycling, composting, and bringing her own bag and mug to the grocery store and coffee shop. It’s a great big world, and she wants to make it better.

To say the least, duPont does a lot.  She works hard, lives with a smile, and can usually be found flying high in the sky on skis, or now, in a plane.

Maddie Miller celebrates at the top of Denali, the highest point in North America. Photo by John Mancuso.

Maddie Miller celebrates at the top of Denali, the highest point in North America. Photo by Jon Mancuso.

Maddie Miller 

“I can tell you about when we thought it was going to be impossible,” smiled Maddie Miller.

Weighing in at just over 100 pounds and standing barely five-foot-one, Miller, 19 years old at the time, set out to climb the 50 high points of every state in the U.S. in 50 days with stand-out mountaineer and mentor Melissa Arnot.

The two first came up with the idea while atop Idaho’s high point of 12,662 feet, the summit of Mount Borah. Looking down from what appeared to be the top of the world, Arnot mentioned that it was their second high point together. Miller hadn’t ever heard of a high point before that.

For her graduation present a year earlier, Miller’s parents gave her a guided trip with Arnot to climb Mount Rainier, Washington state’s high point and the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48.  Rainier boasts an elevation of 14,410 feet and is typically summited in two to three days after new mountaineers train for one to two days on basic techniques and skills.

Describing that trip up Rainier, Arnot said, “I saw in Miller this incredible passion, and this incredible drive to learn more, to do the best she could, and to be able to explore the mountains in the best way she could.  For me it was incredibly inspiring to see a young woman have that kind of drive and that kind of work ethic, and to know that it wasn’t going to be easy, but still be attracted to it.”

As the conversation continued atop Mount Borah, Arnot told Miller about how some people go for speed records and Miller said, “We should do that.”  From there, it was on.

Training for the “50 Peak Challenge,” as the women deemed it, involved daily conditioning and multiple expeditions. In December 2014, the two ventured on an expedition to the Cotopaxi volcano, Ecuador’s second highest summit boasting an elevation of 19,347 feet. It was Miller’s first peak with such extreme altitude.  It was during this trip that the female duo recognized that Miller needed more time and experience and shifted the goal of the 50 Peak Challenge from summer 2015 to summer 2016.

Re-configuring their timing in order to best set up for success, Miller and Arnot charged on. In partnership with Eddie Bauer, they organized a four-summit trip to Cocuy National Park in Colombia to develop Miller’s technical training, glacial and mixed climbing skills, and ability to endure high altitudes.

At that time, Miller was also a full-time student at Colorado College. Holding herself to extremely high standards academically in the arts and in the outdoors, Miller adhered to a rigorous training schedule. In addition to full weekend adventures in the mountains, Miller, with small her small frame carrying a 65 pound pack, would do conditioning runs up “The Incline,” a trail famous in Colorado Springs for gaining over 2,000 feet of elevation in 1 mile.

Meanwhile, as the summer of 2016 drew closer, Arnot succeeded in a goal she had been working on for the past nine years: becoming the first American female to climb Everest without oxygen.

Soon after Arnot’s Himalayan achievement, the 50 Peaks Challenge was set to kick off with the ascent of Denali in Alaska. As Denali can have very bad weather, technically, the clock would start ticking when the team reached the top of the 20,310-foot glacial peak. Previously, two other all male teams, had succeeded in completing every state’s high point in 45 and 43 days. Miller and Arnot had set their goal to do so in 50 days.

A couple of weeks before day one, the call came in from Arnot that due to severe frostbite on her recent ascent of Everest, she would not be able to join Miller on Denali due to the risk of re-freezing her toes and causing worse, irreversible damage. Miller and cinematographer Jon Mancuso would have to climb without Arnot.

“What stands out most to me about the 50 Peaks,” reflected John Miller, Maddie’s dad, “is that Arnot not being able to make the summit of Denali made it that much more rewarding because Maddie did it on her own. She said achieving that was the most beautiful moment in her life up until that point.”

After Denali, Miller, Arnot, Mancuso and Allison Groenleer, who was handling driving and logistics, met in Florida. While Miller imagined that the high points of the Southern States would be a sort of rest after hiking Denali, she found herself pushed to her limits, sleep-deprived and extremely tired.  The team’s spirits were low and while it was only the beginning, there was big question as to whether Miller’s goal was way out of reach.

“We were in an RV park in Alabama and basically Melissa asked me, ‘Is this something you want?’” Miller recounted. “It was a pivotal moment because I wanted to prove to myself and my teammates that I deserved to be there, and all the work that we had done the past two years was worth it. I said, ‘Yes,’ and from then on there was a total attitude switch in everyone. It was fun, we laughed a lot and sleep was less important.”

Miller continued, “That experience taught me how much my body is capable of under very extreme circumstances. We would wake up after sleeping on the floor of the van for only an hour and it felt horrible, but it all comes down to attitude.  It’s amazing how in keeping a positive attitude, you can adapt.”

Miller, Arnot and their team checked off the remaining high points in the United States, road-tripping throughout the country, fueling up on gas station nachos, Subway sandwiches and little to no sleep in between summits.

When Miller and Arnot set foot atop the final summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii on August 7, 2016, the Sun Valley born and raised 21-year-old Miller shattered the existing record of summiting the highest points in all 50 states by achieving her goal in 41 days.

“So many people said, ‘yeah, good luck,’ when I told them what I wanted to do.  There are so many reasons to doubt yourself, but this trip showed me I can do anything and so can other women or anyone, whatever it is they want to achieve.”

In the end, it’s impossible until it’s not.

Nayla Tawa takes a break on Bald Mountain in Ketchum. Photo by Jon Mancuso

Nayla Tawa takes a break on Bald Mountain in Ketchum. Photo by Jon Mancuso.

Nayla Tawa 

Her back broken in three places, sternum cracked, all the ligaments in her knee torn, Nayla Tawa, adrenaline filled, did not fully grasp the seriousness of her condition. She attempted to take inventory of the surroundings: bloody snow and crumpled car, awe-inspiring mountains towering to 24,000 feet, one friend and a taxi driver concussed, her other friend completely unresponsive and trapped in the vehicle.

Two days after landing in Kyrgyzstan, everything that had been going so right for Tawa; suddenly things had gone incredibly wrong.

Born to a French mother and an Egyptian father in the heart of the French Alps, Tawa’s parents moved to Boulder, Colorado, shortly after she was born. Her dad, a doctor, had Thursdays off and would pull Tawa out of school to go skiing, and, ultimately, snowboarding, which Tawa switched to at age 11.

As a vehicle to “experience the outdoors in pure form, discover new cultures, speak new languages and form irreplaceable friendships,” snowboarding fully consumed Tawa after high school. She traveled the world and moved her base camp to Mammoth Lakes where she taught snowboarding during the winters.

She went on to UCLA and was pursuing a geography major and film minor when Brandon Sheaffer, a friend who was in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, invited her to visit and snowboard. Tawa didn’t know much about the country, but upon hearing about the endless, untouched mountain peaks and perfectly gladed walnut forests, she was in for the adventure and arranged a trip during her spring break.

One of Tawa’s film professors at the time overheard her plans and said that she should make a film about it. Tawa had never done any filming before, but her teacher told her that the only way to learn is to do it.

“I find that women, myself included, tend to find all the reasons we can’t do something,” Tawa said. “‘Oh, I’m not good enough at this, or I don’t have these skills.’  A lot of my male friends just go do it. I try to encourage women to simply try things and with film, although I might not be technically capable, I figured I could probably figure it out.”

Tawa wasn’t interested in making just another ski film in which, “Westerners go and conquer foreign mountains,” so she reached out to Sheaffer to see if there was any local whose story she could tell. Sheaffer put her in touch with Hayat Tarikov in Arslanbob, a town nestled in the world’s largest walnut forest and one of the world’s larger mountain ranges. Tarikov leads a Community Based Tourism (CBT) group that seeks to connect tourists with locals for a unique experience, as well to develop ski and other outdoor tourism in an otherwise struggling economy.

As it is now, Arslanbob’s economy is centered on agriculture. Consequently, in winter, approximately 80 percent of the community is unemployed. Many emigrate to Russia to work as laborers in the construction industry.

“The terrain is insane for winter,” said professional skier Lexi DuPont. “The options for a skier are endless, and it’s just as easy as getting to some place like Japan.”  But, in Arslanbob, the majority of those who do ski do so on handmade wooden skis with homemade bindings; gear and training is extraordinarily hard to come by.

Tawa was immediately taken with Tarikov’s mission. “This gets more people to be outdoors, then more want to protect the outdoors,” Tawa said. “You start to see the industry as a tool for prosperity in developing countries, whether it is kayaking or trekking or skiing … It’s a big impact for them. I have traveled a lot, and often in developing countries, it is those that work in the outdoor industry that can feed their families and send their kids to school. There needs to be a real attitude shift that sports in the outdoors are a not just a hobby but a tool for economic growth. It can be used to really impact people’s lives.”

She put up a Kickstarter campaign and raised $12,000 for her project, which included getting some ski and snowboard gear to Kyrgyzstan.  Two days after landing, she got in the horrific car accident that changed the trip and her life.

“I had to help my friends, so I crawled up to the road to wave a car down. I had heard of bridal kidnapping stories in the region, and all I could think when a truck came was that these people are either going to kidnap me, rob me or help me, but I didn’t have a choice.”

They helped her.

Charles, Nayla’s dad recounted, “The moment that touched me the most during her accident in Kyrgyzstan was that an ambulance came for all of the people who were injured. One ambulance came, and Nayla was the most injured so was to go in the ambulance. There was another taxi for the other people she was with and she asked, in the middle of it all, ‘What’s happening with the Kyrgyz driver?’  He was also injured in the accident. They replied, ‘He will stay in the village and his family will take care of him; we don’t have room for him in the vehicle.’ Nayla replied, ‘Well, he can take my space in the ambulance; I’m not going if he’s not going. If it’s a matter of money you can take what you need from my purse and he’s going to be treated also.’ That’s Nayla.”

This winter, after two years of physical rehabilitation in the wake of her injuries and the following mental rehabilitation for PTSD, Nayla returned to Kyrgyzstan to finish the trip she started. She had kept in touch with Tarikov over the years, secured a team, further funding and donations, and spent six weeks with her team teaching snowboarding, skiing, and backcountry safety training. It was the culmination of five years of work Tarikov had put in gaining the trust of the community.

In addition to serving as a Deputy to the Los Angeles Honorary Consulate General to Nepal during the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, organizing the first all-female trip sailing and skiing on the island of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, collaborating on nonprofit projects and making documentary films, Tawa charges on with the project in Kyrgyzstan.

For Tawa, the end was only the beginning.

Team USA's Hilary Knight #21 during preliminary round action at the 2012 IIHF World Women's Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Team USA’s Hilary Knight #21 during preliminary round action at the 2012 IIHF World Women’s Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images).

Hilary Knight 

“When I was 5 years old, I turned to my grandmother and told her I was going to play hockey in the Olympics. She immediately pulled my mom aside and whispered, ‘Cynthia, girls don’t play hockey.’ My mom looked her straight in the face and said, ‘Get with the times. Hilary loves hockey.’”

Wood River Valley resident Hilary Knight is the face of the rising sport of women’s hockey. When Knight was 5 years old, women’s hockey was not yet a recognized sport in the Olympics. It did not make its premiere as an Olympic sport until 1998.  As recently as two years ago, the U.S. launched a Women’s National Hockey League when a united group of women decided to commit to the four-team league instead of playing for Canada’s national league, which had been in business for 10 years. But none of this mattered. The 5-year-old Knight had made her decision.

Knight joined the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team when she was in high school, was then recruited to play for the University of Wisconsin Badgers, fought with the Badgers to win the NCAA championship, and skated her way onto the 2010 and 2014 U.S. Olympic teams.

Knight, or “Knighter” as her teammates called her, took a year off from University of Wisconsin to pursue her dreams of being in the Olympics.  She was invited to Olympic tryouts and then to “Residency,” which is a time of living and training with other aspiring women hockey players for one year with no guarantees of making the Olympic team.

“Women get cut throughout the months. It’s usually one month before the Olympics that the final roster gets set.  You’re trying to fit into a team, supporting each other and, at the same time, competing against each other for limited spots. It’s a very challenging year, to say the least.”

Knight made the cut and was only 20 years old when she rolled off the plane in Vancouver for her first Olympics.

“My first Olympic experience was jaw dropping, eye opening and amazing. The easiest way I can describe it is to compare it to the first time seeing snow or the first time you get to go to a candy shop and pick out candy as a kid. It’s a fun, overwhelming stew of different emotions. But when the puck dropped, it was all business. We trained for gold.”

That year, Team USA came up just short in the gold medal game, losing to Canada. While that loss and a subsequent Silver Medal at the 2014 Olympics continued to motivate Knight to claim gold at the upcoming 2018 Winter Games, she and her team had a lot to be proud of and a remarkable number of wins on the scoreboard.

Reflecting, Hilary noted that, “What that 2000 Gold Medal game did for women’s hockey was huge. It was a bummer that we lost, but when I got back, people would come up to me in the grocery store and talk about it. That they had been glued to the TV screen, feeling the same exact emotions we were feeling living it, is pretty powerful.”

It is not all bright lights and medals for professional athletes, especially those in sports that do not regularly get center stage on prime time. Recounting a vivid moment after college when she had decided to move to Boston to pursue a career in hockey and train with the U.S. Team, Knight said, “I had a real gut check. I have every respect for different people and different jobs, and on my road trip across country I was pulled over at a Stop and Shop and saw a man picking up carts. All I could think was ‘this man makes more money than me.’ I called my mom crying and she said, ‘Hilary, you need to get a job.’ I couldn’t explain that that wasn’t possible with what it took to be an Olympic hockey player.”

Knight taught private hockey lessons in order to make ends meet and called agents and PR companies with the hope of being picked up. She was alarmed at the low visibility of the sport as she found that, even after being highly successful on a world level, no one knew who she was, and, what’s more, no one knew what to do with the sport of women’s ice hockey.

After touring ski resorts throughout the West when she was young, Knight’s family fell in love with Sun Valley on their first visit and bought a house here. While Knight grew up going to school in California and in Illinois, she considers Sun Valley home.

“Sun Valley for me has always been a place of healing and rejuvenation. Everyone seems really happy and very balanced there. It’s contagious and I am able to take that good energy and awesome vibe with me when I travel or when I’m living in busy Boston.”

After countless rejections, it was through family friends in Sun Valley that Knight was connected with a PR firm that gave her a chance. Since then, she has been featured in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue, partnered up with GoPro and other brands, and has become the hard-hitter and face of Women’s Hockey.

When she’s not training to bring the gold medal back to the U.S. in the next winter Olympics, Knight takes it as her full-time job to build the sport and expand the visibility of women’s hockey.

Boston Pride and U.S. Olympic Teammate Brianna Decker described Knight: “Knighter is one of the players I would love to go to battle with every time. She works so hard, makes a lot of things happen and is one of the top goal scorers in the world.”

Knight’s drive on ice is just as apparent in her other goals.  Thus far, she has done everything from travel with the U.S. Embassy to encourage and spread the healthy impact of sports and of participating on teams, to running hockey clinics over the holidays in Sun Valley.

In the end, Hilary Knight did just what she said she was going to do.  She plays hockey.  And she plays it like a girl.

This article appears in the Winter 2016-2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.