SE3:EP6 - Kristen Ulmer: Embracing Fear


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A New Hampshire native, Ulmer discovered skiing as a young girl, skipping school to hit the slopes at lunch time. 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 from 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 Hannawald to big wave surfer Laird Hamilton. But she also loves working with everyday skiers and riders - just like you and I!

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 on your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to get first access to every episode.

44 episodes