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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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Athletes

Nov 30, 2017

Michelle Parker, Ski Superstar

When she’s not jamming on her ukulele, Michelle Parker is shredding slopes all around the world.

WRITTEN BY

Himraj Soin

One of the most versatile and dominant skiers out there, Parker is a Red Bull athlete who’s starred in numerous ski films, winning many awards and even more hearts.

Michelle Parker, 20, was skiing hard and well, like she usually did, but the day would not end like most. She skied off a cliff and landed on a rock, blowing out her knee. An ACL, MCL and medial patellofemoral reconstruction were just a few of the many surgeries she would require. She had to take a season off, and as a result, lost most of her sponsors.

After months of intense training and strengthening, Parker reached out to Matchstick Productions, a film company specializing in ski movies. “I’m a 100% and I’d like to film with you guys again, but I don’t have any sponsors so I have no support”, she told them over the phone. The outdoor industry is massive and yet very small when it comes to help, camaraderie, and mutual respect. One phone call later, the folks at MSP managed to hook her up with Atomic, a skiing equipment company and Mountain Hardwear, an outdoor clothing and equipment manufacturer. However, Parker wasn’t totally sure of herself at this point as she hadn’t hit any cliffs or skied that hard since her injury. She knew that the companies were trusting her and the fact that she was filming with Matchstick meant she had to be on her best performance. Going into the season optimistic and psyched on her second chance, she ended up nailing it.

At the end of the year (2015), she went to the world premiere of Superheroes of Stoke. When she landed, Steve Reska, who initially worked for Matchstick, but was now with Red Bull, picked her up from the airport and handed her a RB hat. “Welcome to the team”, he said. 

“These things happened simultaneously and right after I had hit rock bottom. Injured with no sponsors, and all of a sudden it was likeboom”, Parker laughed. A phoenix from the ashes, she was back on top accomplishing her dreams. This was her comeback yearshe had zero expectations but she went out there, skied for fun, and had a great time. She was stoked. She had no idea what was in store for her.

“I really try and get rid of the ego, especially on the mountains. I never like to say that I conquered a mountain”. Photo: RedBull Content Pool

Origin story

Parker starting skiing when she was one. Her parents loved the mountains and so she was brought up with a deep love, respect, and understanding of the wilderness. Her family moved to Tahoe City, California in 1986 and she was born in 1987. While it was hard to remember a lot of the early years, Parker knew she skied through them. When she was three, she joined a program called the Mighty Mites, an initiative that helped young skiers develop fundamental skills while instilling a joy and passion for the sport. While most kids played with blocks in daycare, for Parker, this was itshe would go to school, the bus would drop her straight to the mountain, and she was free to ski till her parents picked her up. “I think this definitely established the early fundamentals of skiing for me. After this, I started to race and was part of the racing team till I was 15 years old”.

Michelle Parker has been skiing big mountains for years. Check her out in awesome films like Fade to Winter and Days of My Youth. Photo: RedBull Content Pool

On her main sponsor

Now 29, Parker skis on the RedBull team. For her, and many athletes around the world, getting RedBull as a sponsor is like reaching the pinnacle of the sport. An amazing company that does commendable work representing and helping athletes, they’re known for being fastidious with who they pick to put on their team.

“They’ve been a backbone for me since I got on-board. From teaching me how to freedive to taking me to the Australian outback with a bunch of Navy SEALS, they’ve really helped me push myself mentally and physically”. Conducting an array of health and blood tests—RB always makes sure that the athlete is physically and mentally fit. Always wanting their players to succeed, Parker could go to RB after her injury and get all the physical training she required. Whereas before, when she would get hurt, she would lose her sponsors and have to start over on a clean slate. In the long run, this was a blessing in disguise.

On films and career highlights

Parker worked on many ski films including some with Warren Miller. Whether it’s working at home in Squaw valley or in a far out destination like Greenland, the opportunities in the industry were diverse. “My dream was always to ski in a Matchstick movie. I grew up renting them. One day, I hit a cliff, called ‘the fingers’. Scott Gaffney, a big Squaw local who works with Matchstick, was on the chairlift above me and witnessed it. He introduced himself to me, one thing lead to the other, and I was in”. In 2013, she won Best Female Performance at the Powder Video Awards as well as at the International Freeski Film Festival.

However for her, career highlights aren’t about awards but more about personal, special experiences. “I think for me, these memorable trips are the things that I walk away with having gained a lot of experience. It’s not like I won an award for that trip. Those things don’t stand out to me as much as going on expeditions with really special people. You get to know your surroundings but you also get to explore these individuals because you’re living in such close quarters, spending 24 hours a day with them—they become like family”.

Parker was on a ski expedition in Svalbard, Norway, with legendary skier and fellow RB athlete, Chris Davenport. Filming for a RB series called Faces of Dav in the northernmost civilisation in the world included getting on a sailboat for 14 hours to get to the fjords for their arctic safari. “I think when I’m older and I look back at my career, I won’t remember the awards or winning first place. I’ll remember the epic expeditions with close friends”.

Parker is known for allegedly having one of the best laughs in the ski industry. Photo: Ming Poon

What’s next?

 “I set out goals and write them down at the beginning of the year. But further than that, it’s hard for me to see in the future. My life has been very spontaneous—a lot of it has to be with the nature of being a professional skier. Everything is weather based—you’re going to get a phone call and you’re going to have to jump in your truck, or hop on a flight to Europe. I never know what I’m going to do tomorrow”.

Basing her entire lifestyle around going with the flow, Parker’s short-term goals are getting her knee healthy after several injuries and surgeries. She also aims to do exactly what she wants on skis—expeditions and camping in the backcountry for weeks on end are at the top of the list. Long-term goals are to do this as long as she can—“the lifestyle is so fun and fulfilling—I feel incredibly lucky to be in the position that I’m in”.

Other Hobbies

“Ukulele has become one of my biggest passions. Whenever I got injured, I would get so bummed. But then, I would just pick up the ukulele and instantly be happy”. Parker loves photography—capturing moments on film with friends and putting together edits. She loves to spend time with close friends, whether it’s around the campfire or in the mountains, according to her, that’s a hobby in itself.

 “I also love climbing, mountain biking, surfing—anything outdoors. I’ve turned into a swimmer since my injury. Pretty much any athletic thing outside, I’m game for”.

Parker competed in the US Open and X games but gradually moved over to more big mountain terrain. Photo: RedBull Content Pool

On inspirations

The person who had the deepest, most profound effect on Parker’s life was a legendary skier from Canada, the late JP Auclair. “He just embodied and taught me so much about skiing, about life, about being a good human being. I travelled with him for a number of years, we shared a sponsor, so we got to spend a lot of time together. That was a really special time in my life”.

Another big influence for Parker was the late Shane McConkey, a pro skier and BASE jumper. “Growing up with him in Tahoe, he was our local hero, as well as an international hero. His presence and ability to make you laugh at all times was infectious”.

These are just a few of the many people Parker looks up to. Most of her friends are big pioneers in the industry including pro skier and climber, Hilaree O’Neill. “She’s a perfect example of someone who’s perfect, fit and super driven. She loves adventure and I think that she’s just an awesome woman. Also Emily Harrington, she’s just this badass climber who sets really audacious goals and goes out and accomplishes them”.

Lastly, Parker attributes her love for the outdoors to her parents. Her father was a professional tennis player and so he understands dedicating everything to sport and passion. Her mother has an incredible love and passion for the mountains that has brushed off on her, setting her on the adventurous path since she was little.

On superheroes

When asked what superhero she would be, Parker stated that she’s not familiar with specific superheroes but that if she could have a superpower, it would be to bring joy to people’s lives. “To make people happy instantaneously, I think that’s something I try to do on a daily basis. Making people happy and smiling is a pretty cool characteristic to have. That’d be pretty rad”.

Michelle Parker is one of the founders of S.A.F.E.A.S. The goal is to increase awareness snow safety and avalanches.

 

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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