As skiers, we all know fear. Utah skier Kristen Ulmer decided to embrace it, leading to an extraordinary pro career as one of the best big mountain skiers in the world. How did she come to embrace the very thing many seek to avoid? Last Chair engaged her in a fascinating dialogue about fear, how it shaped her career and how today she’s giving back to help skiers embrace their fears. Buckle in, it’s a fun ride with Utah’s Kristen Ulmer.
A New Hampshire native, Ulmer discovered skiing as a young girl, skipping school to hit the slopes at lunchtime. Friends told her about skiing in Utah. Her mom found a $40 one-way airline ticket. And she headed west, making Salt Lake City her home. She spent every waking moment skiing the bumps at Snowbird.
Her breakthrough came after an all-day drive out I-80 to California, sleeping overnight freezing in her car in a ski area parking lot, then hucking herself off a huge cliff doing a trick she had never attempted. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had found fear, embraced it and danced with fear to become one of the world’s most well-known big mountain skiers and film stars, with her image beaming from the covers of ski magazines.
Today, Ulmer is a thought leader, high-performance facilitator, and fear/anxiety expert who draws from her tenure as the best woman extreme skier in the world, studying Zen and facilitating thousands of clients.
What is it about fear that oftentimes defines what we do, or don’t do? What does it take to become fearless (Ulmer says it isn’t possible, so don’t try). And how can we improve our lives, and our skiing, if we simply embrace fear?
Ulmer still lives in the Salt Lake City foothills and channels her energy into helping others. Her book, The Art of Fear, is a fascinating look into how you, as a business leader, skier or everyday human, can embrace fear. Her on-snow camps (which, by the way, sell out) counsel skiers and riders on how they, too, can embrace fear to improve their skiing.
She’s worked with the likes of free solo climber Alex Honnold to big wave surfer Laird Hamilton. But she also loves working with everyday skiers and riders - just like you and me!
Kristen Ulmer is one of the truly fascinating figures in the landscape of Utah skiing. This episode of Last Chair is a fascinating insight into a Hall of Fame skier whose understanding of embracing fear has shaped her life and the lives of those around her.
How did you get into skiing?
I grew up in New Hampshire in a small town - Pat's Peak ski area, 700 vertical feet. I grew up in a house that was built in 1786 and it hadn't been remodeled. Now think about that for a sec. I just went skiing with my girlfriends because that's what they did. And then right around age 15, 16, I became really into skiing and I would skip out of school to go skiing during lunch breaks. And then I finally got caught my senior year. I almost didn't get to graduate because I had so many detentions from skipping school to go skiing. But I skied in jeans until I was 20 years old.
What motivated you to get into skiing as a career?
I had absolutely no goals whatsoever, and this is probably one of the strangest things about my ski career. I also was like the last person to be chosen for elementary and high school, not just soccer, but sports teams - like I was not athletic at all, and I just was obsessed with skiing when I moved to Snowbird in Utah. I started hanging out with a bunch of people that were competing in moguls, and I just wanted to hang out with them and go on road trips. So that's why I started competing.
What does it mean to be fearless?
People misunderstand people they admire who do incredibly scary things, whether it be skiing or people who run the world or, you know, businessmen and women - people that take incredible risks in any way, shape or form. We have this perception and this ideology that these people are fearless and that is not the case. Nobody's fearless. When I first became a fear expert, I Googled it and I realized that there's no other people out there that are willing to call themselves fear experts because we assume that people that are fear experts, A, are fearless and B, can teach other people how to be fearless. And I am neither of those. Nobody's fearless. It's not only impossible, but it's undesirable.
Did you feel fear when you hucked that first cliff in front of the cameras?
Well, you'd think that fear would be going through somebody's mind. It never even occurred to me to be afraid that day. And you know, it's a pretty big cliff - your first cliff. And to do a back scratcher, which you've never done, mind you, in front of a whole bunch of very famous skiers that were in all the magazines and, you know, film stars like, you'd think that I would have been a little bit afraid, but I wasn't.
Learn more about how you can embrace fear. Check out more with Kristen Ulmer on Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast presented by High West Distillery and Saloon on your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to get first access to every episode.
Ever Thought of Fear Camp?
How do you manage fear as a skier or snowboarder? Each season Kirsten Ulmer leads a series of on-snow workshops at Alta Ski Area designed to help you learn to master fear in your world. There are no classroom chalk talks here, just skiing on one of Utah’s great mountains with Kristen Ulmer herself.
“I often say that your relationship with fear is the most important relationship of your life because it's a relationship that you have with yourself at your core,” says Ulmer. “And so people come to my camps for a number of reasons. They come to improve their skiing, or they come to just address some sort of personal life experience that may or may not have to do with fear. Some people have anxiety disorders. Other people are very highly functioning, very highly accomplished. But there's just feeling like there's something missing or that there's something more than they can access, or there's something that they access while skiing that they want to be able to learn how to take home with them.”
The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won't Work and What to Do Instead
The Art of Fear is a revolutionary guide to acknowledging fear and developing the tools we need to build a healthy relationship with this confusing emotion—and use it as a positive force in our lives. Kristen Ulmer’s 2017 book is a good read for skier, riders and business executives. In it, Ulmer tells her personal life story and how she learned to embrace fear. And she makes the correlation for how each of us can learn from her decades of globetrotting in her ski career - where she learned to embrace fear and use it to her benefit.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:05| Kristen Ulmer, great to see you, I think it's been a couple of years since we were last skiing at Canyons.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:00:11| Yeah, we got inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same time. It was the first time that we really got a chance to spend time together.
Tom Kelly: |00:00:18| It's been a lot of fun for me the last few years and that was a great occasion. This was the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame induction back in 2019. You were inducted, I was as well and we had a great Sunday ski over at Canyons. But for you, you've had a great career and we're going to talk about this and that must have been a really emotional evening for you to be inducted and honored by your peers.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:00:44| It was. I know that my speech was something along the lines of me seeing skiing as a person in my life whom I used to be obsessed with but then he started to put me in the hospital and kill my friends and try to kill me, and I kind of realized that it was an unhealthy relationship. I was addicted to him and he was just mean. And so I quit and I've spent a lot of time trying to fall back in love with skiing, going on dates with skiing from time to time. And I feel like the Hall of Fame induction is where I finally just went ahead and committed and married the son of a bitch.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:25| Well, your speech that evening was really wonderful. I mean, it was very emotional. I think for a lot of us in the audience who are really attached to the sport because it just showed the love that you have. I know you're talking about the hate relationship, maybe with the sport, but there's a love relationship with it too.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:01:41| I can't shake him. I can't shake skiing. But I don't identify, and I said this in my speech, I don't see myself as a skier anymore. I see myself as a person who skis, which is very different.
Tom Kelly: |00:01:54| So how did you get here? You're not from Utah. I think you grew up in New England, but what was your upbringing and how did you get into skiing back as a young girl?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:02:03| I grew up in New Hampshire in a small town named Henniker, New Hampshire. Pat's Peak ski area. Seven hundred vertical feet. I grew up in a house that was built in 1786 and it hadn't been remodeled. Now think about that for a sec. Same kitchen cabinet. Same floors. I just went skiing with my girlfriends because that's what they did. They had kind of the equivalent version of a soccer mom, a ski mom, and I don't think that I would have gotten into skiing if it hadn't been for them and their mom. And then right around age 15, 16, I then became really into skiing and I would skip out of school to go skiing during lunch breaks. And then I finally got caught my senior year. I almost didn't get to graduate because I had so many detentions from skipping school to go skiing. But I skied in jeans until I was 20 years old, which is to say, I, you know, I wouldn't even spring for a pair of ski pants. It's kind of ...
Tom Kelly: |00:03:07| I grew up in the Midwest, and skiing in jeans is a very ... I always thought of as a very Midwestern thing, but maybe it's an eastern thing too.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:03:14| It was back then. I don't think it is anymore,
Tom Kelly: |00:03:16| By the way, parents who are listening to this, if your kids are skipping school to go skiing, Kristen, that's not such a bad deal, right?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:03:23| Oh, encourage them.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:25| Encourage them. I think a lot of moms and dads who have skied totally understand it, but that's a good mark to put up on the wall. Yeah, I got detention from school because I went out skiing one day.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:03:38| Yeah, and I had arranged my schedule so I could ski every day. I didn't really think anything of it back then, but I was definitely manipulating the principal into thinking that I was taking college classes. It's a long story, but I was very clever and I still got straight A's, so I don't think it did any harm.
Tom Kelly: |00:03:56| But you more or less got a college education by what you learned from the sport of skiing over time.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:04:01| Oh yes, certainly a college education because I was a professional skier … like a business degree because if you're going to be a professional skier, it's basically you're in sales and marketing, you're selling yourself as an athlete.
Tom Kelly: |00:04:15| Now you chose a path that I think, with you, this is actually more of a normal path and then diverted from it. But you started out in your competitive period as a moguls skier looking at, I don't know if your aspirations were the Olympics or what were your goals as a young moguls skier?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:04:32| I had absolutely no goals whatsoever, and this is probably one of the strangest things about my ski career. I also was like the last person to be chosen for elementary and high school, not just soccer, but sports teams like I was not athletic at all, and I just was obsessed with skiing when I moved to Snowbird in Utah. I started hanging out with a bunch of people that were competing in moguls, and I just wanted to hang out with them and go on road trips. So that's why I started competing in moguls because that's what they were doing. I had no goal to get on the U.S. Ski Team. And next thing you know, I was on the U.S. Ski Team and, you know, competing against girls that had the finest training money can buy, you know, that had gone to high school ski academies. Aside from lessons in second grade, I had never had any kind of ski training whatsoever. Next thing you know, I'm on the U.S. Ski Team a mere three years after I bought my first pair of ski pants. It was kind of shocking how fast it happened.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:29| Yeah, the ski team would not like the blue jeans. Probably.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:05:32| No.
Tom Kelly: |00:05:33| No. Did you have any heroes growing up in sport or in skiing?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:05:36| None. No, I didn't. I didn't read the ski magazines. I didn't know anything about anything. I didn't know that there was skiing anywhere else in the world besides New Hampshire until I was 16 years old and I stumbled upon a ski magazine. I remember reading it because I started crying because my parents had taken me in January, a few years prior to Europe, and I didn't want to go because I didn't want to leave skiing. And then I read this article that there was skiing in Europe and I started crying.
Tom Kelly: |00:06:05| Did you go to Europe then?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:06:06| Well, I had been to Europe when I was 13, and I didn't want to go. If I had known there were skiing there and my parents could have taken me skiing there, then I would have gone. I would have been more excited about going.
Tom Kelly: |00:06:17| Now this is a few years before the dawn of social media, so you were a little bit isolated in Henniker, New Hampshire, at that point.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:06:24| Oh, yes, definitely. And my parents were really hands-off parents like literally, I could stay out all night at age 13 and wouldn't get in trouble, and they would barely notice.
Tom Kelly: |00:06:34| So what was it that finally brought you out west to Utah if you didn't know about skiing anywhere else? Was there something that triggered that move?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:06:42| I wound up going to my first official semester of college in England, and then I took the second semester off to travel around Europe and ski. And I was 18 years old at the time, and when I came home, I'm like, that's it, I need to ski. And so I started asking around. I said, ``Where is there good skiing? And people told me about the West, and they mentioned Park City. They mentioned I knew Colorado had skiing. I didn't know ... I had never heard of Aspen. I had never heard of Vail. I had heard of Squaw Valley, but I didn't know it was a ski resort. I was very naive and somebody said, Oh, they're skiing in Utah. And so that's where I went.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:22| And it was just that reason that you came out or were you going to go to school or anything else or you just came out to Utah for the skiing?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:07:28| I was going to go ski. I was going to go to school at the University of Utah. Well, it was between that and the University of Colorado at Boulder. And then my mom found a one way airline ticket for 40 bucks in the paper. And that's how I decided to go to Utah.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:44| To Salt Lake City.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:07:44| But I didn't know I had never heard of snowboard before until I got here and somebody said, Yeah, I want to work at one of the ski resorts. And they said, oh, well, you should be at Snowbird. I'm like, What's that? And I'm at this point, 19 years old.
Tom Kelly: |00:07:56| What was your first impression when you went up Little Cottonwood Canyon? You saw Snowbird and Alta. What did you think? I mean, this was not New Hampshire anymore.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:08:06| No, I was. Of course, there was no snow on the ground yet. I was just thinking it was beautiful, but I didn't know about it. ... I had skied powder in Yugoslavia and Sarajevo during that semester that I went skiing, but I didn't know anything about powder. I didn't know anything about Snowbird and its annual snowfall. I just knew nothing. I just thought it was pretty. And then it started snowing. And oh, I got a job at the grocery store, bagging groceries and cashier and whenever it was snowing outside and it was a powder day and I couldn't ski because I was working, I would just stand there crying and they fired me after three months.
Tom Kelly: |00:08:49| But you got a pass, so you got a pass. And how many days did you ski that first winter?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:08:54| Oh, well over 100 hundred, for sure.
Tom Kelly: |00:08:56| In your first winter?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:08:57| Yeah,
Tom Kelly: |00:08:58| Transformational?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:08:59| Yeah, I skied every day.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:00| And where did you like to ski up in the mountain there?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:09:04| I like to ski the moguls, to be honest, because that's where my friends were skiing. I like to ski underneath the chairlift because I wanted to try and show off.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:12| Somehow, I'm not surprised by that, huh?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:09:15| Yeah. And that's where a lot of the mogul runs were, you know, under P-Dog, we called it Peruvian chairlift.
Tom Kelly: |00:09:22| Yeah. So I just want to go back to this. You know, you grew up in New Hampshire and there are some great ski mountains in New Hampshire and in New England, but this really is a completely different type of alpine terrain. This is more like what you would see in the Swiss Alps. This just had to really leave an amazing, indelible impression on you.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:09:43| It did. I mean, I had spent those three months skiing in Europe. But when I was in Europe, I didn't have any money and I would like climb up the mountain to the second, you know, the second chairlift. So I didn't have to buy a lift ticket and I didn't really ski that much during those three months because I didn't have money for lift tickets. This is the first time in my life that I got to just ski every day. And I mean, the scene there was just electric, you know, because it was just such good snow and the, you know, there weren't the lift lines that we have now. I just skied a lot. I remember like I couldn't walk at the end of every day. Eventually, I got a job and there are cement floors, waiting tables in the Cliff Lodge. And I was so exhausted, just hammering moguls all day, then waiting tables on cement floors all night and just doing this seven days a week. It was brutal on my body, but I just couldn't stop.
Tom Kelly: |00:10:39| Was there a strong community of women skiers at that time?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:10:43| Not necessarily, and I've never really been into the whole woman's, you know, community. Seeing like men, women like it just was all the same to me. I would say that I mostly skied with men, but there are a lot of there was like a scene of seven or eight people, men and women that were shooting pictures. And we weren't really they weren't making films or anything, but they were on the cover of the ski magazines. And there was that scene, too - the film and photo scene. And I got involved in that pretty quickly, too, because I was model size and I had long hair and I was cute.
Tom Kelly: |00:11:20| You know, it's kind of interesting today. It's all about filming, and there are so many outlets for film, from social media to the big silver screen. But if you go back a little bit in time when you were here, there certainly were films, but that whole still photo era and just going out with the photographers and finding those great powder stashes. Was that something that you really sought out? Were you looking to get your picture on the cover of the magazines?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:11:46| I was. ... The term is ski model, and yes, I was definitely. I got very heavily involved in that and I got heavily involved in moguls skiing because that was what the people that I was skiing with were doing. That's what the best skiers on the mountain were doing.
Tom Kelly: |00:12:01| Yeah. Do you still ski moguls today?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:12:04| Not really. No, not really.
Tom Kelly: |00:12:06| What was your competitive career in moguls like?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:12:12| Well, like I said, I was just going to these competitions with my friends, and I came in last place, last place. They talked me into doing aerial competitions where you just go off a jump and do a big spread eagle or a big daffy. I did those, too - last place in every competition. And then one year somebody asked me in the spring, What are you doing this summer? And I wanted to have something cool to say. So I said, Oh, I'm going to Asia for the summer. And I didn't even know where Asia was, but it just sounded cool. And then because I had announced it, I'm like, well, I have to do it now. So I bought it. I went to a travel agent. I'm like, I need a ticket to Asia. And they said, where I'm like, I don't know, you know, I don't know what Asia is. So they sent me to Hong Kong anyway. I spent four months just working on my self-esteem and not talking about skiing and trying to make myself as ugly as possible. I just really realized that my self-esteem was fragile and based on my good looks and my skiing ability, and I wanted to work on something deeper for myself. I was 23 at the time. 1988. And I didn't think about skiing the whole time and I came home and I went from last place in mogul competitions to taking first place in mogul competitions that same season. And by the end of the season, I was on the U.S.Ski Team for moguls. It was a shocking transformation and I didn't even think about skiing the whole summer or visualize none of that, and somehow it worked.
Tom Kelly: |00:13:41| We're going to talk more about fear in a little bit. But in your book Art of Fear, you talked about that trip to Asia to try to work on your self-esteem. What is the connection between self-esteem and fear? Are there things that skiers should look at? I mean, how important is that?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:13:57| Well, I could find a way to bridge the gap, but I think it's two separate conversations. For me, well, I will bridge the gap. For me, working on my self-esteem was going out and doing something really scary. And I'll tell you what. Traveling by yourself around Asia, India, Nepal. I mean, I went to Bangladesh. I got robbed in the Philippines. I volunteered for Mother Teresa's House for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta, India. Like I almost lost my leg to gangrene on that trip in 1988. And I just did a lot of really scary things. I slept in the bushes, you know, and I came home a completely changed person because I had done all these scary things. I think that that's probably the trip. I'm having the realization right now where I got really into fearful experiences because they made me feel so alive and they helped me learn and grow so much. So I came home and I think that it was just a different experience for me with fear and I was more into feeling fear, and that definitely helped me in mogul skiing. And I also think. I just felt like such a badass by doing what I did that summer that I came home in the bad ass stayed when I got in the gate for moguls.
Tom Kelly: |00:15:14| Did you talk about that trip a lot at the time?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:15:16| No, I didn't, because nobody could relate like I was. I had just had such a life-changing experience, and if I started talking about it, people's eyes would glaze over. It was very lonely, actually, to come home and realize that I couldn't share this with anyone and I didn't take a single photo on that trip.
Tom Kelly: |00:15:33| You know, it's interesting if you think about it in today's terms, it's probably something that one might even share on their social media as they're doing it. But it was a completely different world then.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:15:42| Yeah, and I don't think that I would have shared it. Social media, like I've been all over the world since social media has come out. I still haven't taken a single photo and I haven't posted anything online about it, even though I should, because that would be good for business. But it's just I'm so glad my ski career happened after social media. Oh my gosh, I feel so sorry for the people that are in it now because I wouldn't want to have to do that.
Tom Kelly: |00:16:06| Yeah, there's a lot of different responsibilities today. If you're a ski model, then maybe there were a few years ago. So just to go back to your ski modeling career, the burgeoning Kristen Ulmer ski model here in the Wasatch. How did that start to take off for you? Did you find new opportunities with photographers and magazines as time went on now?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:16:29| Well, I had two different avenues of the sport that I was pursuing the moguls which we've talked about, but also the ski modeling, which turned into what I eventually did, which is the big mountain extreme, which we called it back then … skiing career and I started my book this way. Actually, I talked about, I mean, I was really good at kicker airs. I could do helicopters and daffy's and, you know, twister-spreads that kind of stuff, the standard tricks. But I never jumped off a cliff before and I manifested an opportunity to have my skiing audition for a ski movie that was being shot at Squaw Valley by a guy named Eric Perlman. It was the North Face extreme skiing team with Scott Schmidt and the Egan brothers and all that. And so I drove all night and my junker car that had no heater, slept in the parking lot at Squaw Valley. I think it was probably in January. I don't think I slept at all. I was freezing. So I pulled an all-nighter, basically, and jumped on the chairlift at seven a.m. We had early ups and went up to this thing called the Palisades. Never heard of it, and all these guys started jumping off these cliffs for the cameras, and I realized very quickly if I wanted to get in this film, I needed to jump off one of these cliffs and they were throwing back scratchers. And I don't think I need to explain to your audience what a back scratcher is, but I had never seen one before. I'd certainly never done one. So I picked a cliff and announced my plan, shouted three two one, like I had seen the guys do, and I jumped off this 20, 25 foot cliff called the box and did a back scratcher and then stuck the landing. I slapped back a little bit, but then skied away and then went around did it two more times. That was the end of our film day. I didn't know this at the time, but there weren't many people jumping off cliffs back then, and the few people who were jumping off cliffs were there at Squaw Valley that day. And they were kind of loudmouths and they'd certainly never seen a girl do anything like that. Maybe they'd seen a girl jump off a two-foot cliff and she'd crash, and I'm jumping off 20-25 foot cliffs, throwing a back scratcher and not crashing. So by the end of the day, they told everybody in town about me. I was famous already in town. People were coming up to me in the grocery store saying, Were you the girl that was jumping off the Palisades today. And then by the end of the week, everyone in the ski industry knew my name, and within three weeks I was fully sponsored and all the major ski magazines had called me to do interviews with me, calling me the best woman, big mountain extreme skier in the world.
Tom Kelly: |00:18:59| So that really manifested the next stage in your career. But I just want to go back to the decision to head out I-80 and go all the way out to what is now Palisades Tahoe. But what was it that motivated you to get in the car and go out to Squaw Valley to do this?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:19:16| I have since learned, even since writing the book, that my core value number one is radical self-expression, and I just had a lot of emotion and energy and showoffedness and arrogance and chutzpah and all that in me and combined with a need for attention and approval and love. And it was just the perfect storm. Plus, I had found that I really liked doing scary things like all of the stars aligned and you created the perfect ideal. Plus, I had the right body type and you know, the right opportunities and the right personality. And like everything lined up for me to transition from being a ski model to being the first female film star and the best in the world at Big Mountain Extreme Skiing for 12 years.
Tom Kelly: |00:20:09| When we come back from the break, we're going to talk more about fear, but I just want to go to you standing on top of the box atop Palisades, looking down below, looking at that cliff, you've never done this before. What's going through your mind then?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:20:23| Well, you'd think that fear would be going through somebody's mind. It never even occurred to me to be afraid that day. And you know, it's a pretty big cliff, your first cliff. And to do a back scratcher, which you've never done, which I've never done before in front of cameras, mind you, in front of a whole bunch of very famous skiers that were in all the magazines and, you know, film stars like, you'd think that I would have been a little bit afraid, but I wasn't.
Tom Kelly: |00:20:50| What was the feeling like when you stuck it? You got down to the bottom, you skied away. You're in your own zone. What's going through your mind? What's your heart doing?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:21:03| Well, let me back up to the last question real quick. I was afraid, but we'll talk about that after the break. To answer your next question. It felt like a job to me. I mean, I had the rush from the excitement of the jump, but it was I just felt like a business person who's just really focused and at work. I don't really remember because it's not like these other guys were watching me. We were just doing laps and trying to get footage in, and I was just all business that day.
Tom Kelly: |00:21:36| But it must have given you some sense of personal satisfaction at some point that you did this.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:21:43| I have felt personal satisfaction over things that I've done skiing before, I don't remember feeling it that day. Mostly, I just remember feeling like I was proud of myself that I got their attention.
Tom Kelly: |00:21:56| Well, you certainly got their attention. We're with Kristen Ulmer, Utah skier. We're going to be talking about fear when we come back.
Tom Kelly: |00:22:52| And we are back with Utah skier Kristen Ulmer and Kristen, we're going to talk a little bit more about fear. You introduced us in the first half of the podcast to this amazing adventure that you did out to Palisades Tahoe to do the back scratcher off the Palisades. You wrote a book called The Art of Fear, and we're going to dive into some of that as it relates to skiing a bit. You know, many of us listening to this podcast, or I can assume almost all of the people listening to this podcast have not stood on top of the box looking down off the palisades to make that leap. But a lot of us have stood at the top of a ridgeline. We've come off the tram wherever it might be, and we're standing on the top of that chute and we're looking down and we really want to do it because we want to show our friends. But we have this mental block, this fear. What I really liked about your book and your approach to it is, well, I'll let you tell it, but the embracing of fear.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:23:55| People misunderstand people they admire who do incredibly scary things, whether it be skiing or people who run the world or, you know, businessmen and women. You know, people that take incredible risks in any way, shape or form. We have this perception in this ideology that these people are fearless and that is not the case. Nobody's fearless. And when I first became a fear expert, I googled it and I realized that there's no other people out there that are willing to call themselves fear experts because we assume that people that are fear experts, A, are fearless and B can teach other people how to be fearless. And I am neither of those. So nobody's fearless. It's not only impossible, but it's undesirable.
Tom Kelly: |00:24:45| I love what you said about becoming an expert in fear. Had that ever crossed your mind before?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:24:52| No, I just fell into this. We'll get to that. Maybe soon. But let me just tell you what is actually going on up there, like at the top of the Palisades. That is the secret behind the magicians, the people that you admire, that they don't even know about themselves. And keep in mind, I've run this by 26 professional danger sports athletes from Alex Hannawald, who free Solo El Capitan to Laird Hamilton, arguably the best big wave surfer in the world, and on and on Angel Collinson like 26 people. Out of these 26, 23 of them, once I shared these ideas with them that they didn't even know about, they nodded their heads. Yes, so hard I thought they were going to break their necks. This is. Brace yourself, this is going to shock you. We're not fearless. Instead, what we have is two things. First of all, we have a willingness to feel fear. And, based on that, this is going to be the first thing that shocks you, fear doesn't hold anybody back from doing anything, it doesn't hold anybody back from skiing moguls, it doesn't hold anybody back from skiing. Their first black diamond doesn't hold anybody back from even taking up skiing. We get that wrong. It's your unwillingness to feel fear which holds you back, which is very different. So if you become willing to feel fear, then you're willing to step out of your comfort zone, you're willing to take a risk.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:26:22| So that's the first secret. You become willing to feel fear. And those of us who do this kind of stuff for a living, we actually even enjoy feeling fear. It's like a whole nother level beyond. And then the second thing is when we're out of our comfort zone doing scary things instead of ignoring fear or conquering it or overcoming it or fighting it or rationalizing it away, or all of the things that we're taught to do, what we do is, drumroll please, we have intimacy with this misunderstood emotion. And when you have intimacy with the fear, then it takes you into an altered state where you actually bring your A-game to everything that you do. It's like you. Plus, fear equals super you. It's like, I'm fear or sorry, I'm Kristen, and fear is I'm Batman. Let's call it and fear is Robin. And we're stronger together than apart, and fear becomes my intuitive advisor. It becomes my energy resource. It becomes my motivation. It becomes the thing that I'm chasing, the thing that takes me into that higher altered flow state that we all desire and little else does. So, recapping it, A: we're willing to feel fear. Even enjoy feeling fear, and what we have is intimacy with fear, and that intimacy is the thing that takes us into the zone, basically And little else does.
Tom Kelly: |00:27:45| You know, I was listening to the book Art of Fear and I was thinking to myself, How does this apply to me? And I was thinking initially, not so much as a skier, but as a professional communicator, as someone who speaks on stage that what I think I thrive on is, is that maybe it's the deadline or it's the crisis or it's the while I'm walking out and I'm talking to 5,000 people. It's that anticipation of maybe what could go wrong, which is what really I think helps me to do a good job. Is that a reasonable interpretation of it from your perspective?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:28:22| Yes. I mean, there's so much going on there. I mean, if there isn't fear, what really will you have accomplished by giving that speech in front of 5,000 people? So I got a phone call the other day because I give a lot of keynote speeches about fear and oh, do you want to give the speech in front of 10,000 people?
Tom Kelly: |00:28:41| And they really said that.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:28:43| Well, it was in front of ten thousand. They told me it was three thousand. It wound up being ten thousand, but it was during COVID, of course. So it's virtual for me. It's not the question of, Oh, do you want to give this speech? It's the question of Are you in the mood for fear right now? Are you in the mood for a lot of fear? Are you in the mood for feeling fear for three months while you prepare for this and then having that fear when you step out on the stage and then having the fear for the possibility? Mind you, only the possibility of feeling really good about yourself afterward, but it could also tank so hard. But the thing is, what comes with a willingness to feel fear is an opportunity for learning and growth, not only an opportunity for learning and growth of the material that I'm about to present but also learning a lot about myself during the process and then also being able to possibly have a connection with a lot of people, expand my business and on and on and on. So I'm on the phone and they're like, Do you want to do this? And I'm all I'm hearing is, you know, are you in the mood for fear? We'll pay you money in order to feel a lot of fear. And the answer for me is yes, of course, because fear is my thing. Sometimes I'm not in the mood for fear, but whenever I'm in the mood for learning and growing, I'll always say, yes.
Tom Kelly: |00:29:58| You know, I think that one of the things for me, it's that planning and anticipation process. And I wonder when you worked with professional athletes, athletes who are at the absolute pinnacle of their sport, how much did they fear the process and fear the lead up to the actual activity itself?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:30:20| It's not a matter of how much I think that for most people, it's like, do they and the answer is, of course they do, absolutely like a picture, an athlete that's about to go to the Olympics. You're supposed to feel fear. That's part of the deal. And I mean, especially a big event such as the Olympics, you're going to feel a lot more fear than just, you know, World Championships, a bigger stage. And the fear is supposed to help you prepare and train hard. I mentioned that fear is a great motivator, for example. And so if you're in your comfort zone like picture a circle and that's your comfort zone, OK, now you're going to go do something. And maybe for somebody in the audience, it's like running your first marathon or skiing your first double black diamond. So that comes with a willingness to feel fear. So you step out of your comfort zone, and the magical number actually is four percent. A sports psychologist named Mike Gervais came up with this. You don't want to step more than four percent out of your comfort zone.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:31:16| And why? Well, because three is too little and five is too much. Clearly. But it's like five. It's too much fear. You know, it's just a little overwhelming. Three You're bored, you know, so for just a little bit, so you step out of your comfort zone. Four percent. Four percent. Which jumping that cliff on the Palisades, that one day was just four percent out of my comfort zone, I'd done a lot of kicker air before. I'd done a lot of tricks. Like I ... it wasn't the first air of my life, you know, that would be more than four percent. So you just do that. You step out of your comfort zone often enough. And let's say you put a dot outside that circle and then connect the new dots. You've just expanded your comfort zone. And so this is how you become a better and better skier is you just keep taking a little bit of risk, a little bit of risk. Four percent go four percent faster, you know, increments until you expanded who you are.
Tom Kelly: |00:32:07| So I've come out here on a ski vacation from the East Coast and I'm a pretty good skier and I'm going to Alta and I want to ski High Rustler and it's a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I want to show my buddies that I can ski High Rustler. How do you? I mean, do you have any particular points that you can give someone to kind of get their mind in a position to embrace that fear and to go ahead and do it?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:32:30| Most people are in the bad habit of resisting fear or ignoring fear or blocking it out or doing it. You know, you hear … feel the fear and do it anyway, like any way is really disrespectful to fear. So I would say that if you do that, you might be able to ski High Rustler, but you've just turned off your primary source of safety and intuition. And it's not you ... I mean, it works, but there's consequences for that. You could get injured or you could wind up having a lot of ... you could go home and kick the dog. You know, you could go home and develop insomnia. You could go home and develop anxiety disorders because that fear that you haven't dealt with on the ski slope will show up somewhere, anywhere else in your life. And it will just come out of nowhere and you have no idea why. Like, if you've spent your whole life just blocking out fear to become the skier that you want to be. And then one day you're driving down a country road and you have a panic attack. Well, that's the consequence of ignoring your fear while you ski. So I also see. Are people who are fearless at work, for example, and then that fear becomes redirected at skiing and next thing, you know, they're pickled in fear when they go skiing, so it can also go in the opposite direction. Just know that if you block out fear in order to ski the way you want to, there are consequences for that. And there's a lot of different kinds of consequences. Much, much better is to just stand at the top of High Rustler and maybe close your eyes and go inside and find that kind of sense of energy or excitement.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:34:16| Fear, neurochemical and excitement are exactly the same thing. Just find that excited part of you or that kind of a live part of you. That's because you're a little bit out of your comfort zone. That's your fear. And just close your eyes and just, you know, sometimes you have to start small. Just accept that it's there and then maybe embrace it. Give it a hug, and if you're like, well, I don't know how to do that. Know that it's physical and you've been embracing people your whole life, like remember embracing your dog? What is that like? Right? Do that with that part of you in your body? And then as for having intimacy with that part of you, I'm sure you've had intimacy with your dog before. I'm not talking sex. I'm talking about just connection like the deepest form of connection. And if you are willing to connect with fear in your body wherever it is, then automatically you're in your body, you're about to ski in your body instead of in your head, you know, and in your body is a lower center of gravity better place from which to perform. And it also then becomes like this energy resource that helps you be sharp and focused and on point and present. It helps you make intuitive reactions without thought, all without thought like this is this is the process. Just go there. It's in your body. It's a physical experience to become intimate with your fare.
Tom Kelly: |00:35:41| Kristen, you have counseled business leaders on fear - some of the world's greatest athletes. But we, as skiers also have an opportunity you do camps to address this. I know you have some coming up this season here in Utah, but what? What will skiers get out of one of your camps? I mean, how can this help them to maybe take on their fears and become better skiers?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:36:06| I would say that having a healthy flowing relationship with fear is one of the most important personal work. It's the most important personal work that you can do. I often say that your relationship with fear is the most important relationship of your life because it's a relationship that you have with yourself at your core. And so people come to my camps for a number of reasons. They come to improve their skiing, or they come to just address some sort of personal life experience that may or may not have to do with fear. Some people have anxiety disorders. Other people are very highly functioning, very highly accomplished. But there's just feeling like there's something missing or that there's something more that they can access, or there's something that they access while skiing that they want to be able to learn how to take home with them. Or are people come just because they're curious? Because my camps get a lot of attention, they're so different. USA Today did some research and determined they're the only camp of its kind in the world in any sport. Mindset only, no technical tips.
Tom Kelly: |00:37:09| So you are a skier, you've been a lifelong skier, you've tackled it as a professional. We're coming into the holidays now. It's ski season here in Utah. What's a fun day for you to go out and ski here?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:37:23| When I go skiing at the resorts, I'm not in the mood for fear anymore. Like my goal is to become a worse and worse skier and be OK with it. I am becoming a better and better snowboarder like I'm in the mood for fear with snowboarding. But as it relates to skiing, like, I've kind of done it all, you know, I don't really want to push myself skiing anymore because I don't want to get injured anymore. Like I'm a retired racehorse, basically, that just wants to sit in the meadow and eat some grass. So I mostly go skiing to hang out with my friends. And that's one thing that we explore in the ski camps. Like on a scale of one to 10. I'll always ask people, how much do you really care about improving your skiing? And 10 being high and some people say 10, some people say zero, I'm a zero.
Tom Kelly: |00:38:12| Yeah. What are the joys I know? Hanging out with friends is a big part of it. But what are some of the joys that you, as an individual, take away from being up on a mountain, on a board or on a pair of skis?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:38:25| Because my number one core value is radical self-expression, I will always want to express whatever it is that I'm feeling. And sometimes for me that is just laying in the snow and watching people ski by and just getting a kick out of the whole scene. You know, if I'm just feeling really contemplative, that's what I go and do. And you know, the more this is also something that we explore in the camp is what is your number one core value and how can you go and accentuate that while skiing like, you know, the guy on a powder day that all he wants to do is pick up people skis after they've crashed, like he'll stop his powder run to pick up somebody like, What is that?
Tom Kelly: |00:39:03| I don't get it. That guy is from Wisconsin.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:39:05| Yes, he is. But their core value is either kindness or being helpful. And so if that's really what his thing is, his jam is like, I want to help him, first of all, recognize that and make sure that that is accentuated one hundred percent when he's out there on the mountain. And everybody's different. So it's not one size fits all like what inspires me to be a world-class skier? Or now what I'm doing on the mountain is going to be different from what inspires a different world-class skier. If I'm training a world-class skier versus a recreational skier, you know, I'm not here to try to get anybody to be motivated by the things that I'm motivated by. I'm only here to help them figure out what their jam really, really is and then basically take that to the top of the mountain. Like, accentuate that and also show them how they can take it home with them after their ski vacation is over.
Tom Kelly: |00:40:01| I love that philosophy. Kristen Ulmer, thanks for joining us on Last Chair, the Ski Utah podcast. We're going to close it off now with a little lightning round called Fresh Tracks and right out of the chute, I've got to ask you, what's the most fearful thing that you've ever done? You're an expert on fear, what's the most fearful thing you've done?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:40:49| Well, if we're talking skiing, the most fearful thing I've ever chosen to do was do the first female ski descent of the Grand Teton. And the most fearful thing that's ever been imposed on me was standing on the side of the north face of the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix France with up to seven story high avalanches running down my back thinking I'm about to die.
Tom Kelly: |00:41:12| Tell me more about the Grand Teton.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:41:15| I skied it in oh, 1997. I'm the first female to do it. I didn't really realize how big of a deal it would be and that I would make it in the history books. It was just something cool that I wanted to do with my friends. We climbed the grand without any ropes, basically, and we were belayed in by a friend for about 40 feet. And that was pretty intense. Conditions were horrible. I skied it with Ptor Spricenicks and Tom Youngst, two good friends of mine ski mountaineers. And it was quite a memory.
Tom Kelly: |00:41:50| Was it for a film?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:41:52| No, because it's very hard to find cinematographers that are willing to ski the Grand Teton with you. So, no. And it would be really boring ski footage. It took us six hours to descend two thousand five hundred vertical feet.
Tom Kelly: |00:42:07| Man, amazing. Back to Utah. Do you have a favorite ski run in Utah?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:42:15| I would say that High Rustler, of course, at Alta. And the North Chute at Snowbird, which is very rarely open. And only the locals kind of know about it like you have to be in the know. And the only way that you know that it's open because the rope is still up is when the closed sign is gone
Tom Kelly: |00:42:38| How about your favorite ski run anywhere in the world? You've been doing a lot of places.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:42:44| Meteorite, heli skiing in Alaska. Tommy Moe and I skied that. He won a gold medal in the Olympics and there's an article written about him a few years after we skied together and they said, is the highlight of your ski career winning a gold medal in the Olympics? He goes 'hell no. You know the highlight of my ski career skiing Meteorite?' I'm like, Yep, me too.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:05| I love it. I remember that. How about your favorite ski resort food when you're really burned out?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:43:12| Definitely French fries. I think sometimes the whole reason why I ski is just so that I can justify the french fries.
Tom Kelly: |00:43:19| You can always justify french fries. Thank you. Last question this is going to be a tough one. You're an expert on fear. You've written the book Art of Fear. You know all about fear and how to embrace it. If you had to use another word to describe fear, what would that be?
Kristen Ulmer: |00:43:39| Fun
Tom Kelly: |00:43:41| Fun. I was thinking you might say joy, but fun is a good one, too. Kristen Ulmer, thank you for joining us on Last Chair.
Kristen Ulmer: |00:43:47| Absolute pleasure.