Originally published on REI’s blog. See it here.
“When I think about last winter, I sort of get the image of a floppy wet noodle,” Angel Collinson tells me over the phone. I’m sitting in my van in Jackson drinking a Modelo and she’s drinking mescal at a bar in Salt Lake City telling me about her 2016/17 ski season. The 27-year-old pro spent much of last season recovering from a knee injury and it wasn’t until this spring that she felt ready to film. But instead of getting upset that her part in TGR’s 2017 ski film, Rogue Elements, will be a small one, Angel just laughs it off and says, “Now I have a fire under my ass to film and make shit happen. I haven’t had that in a while!”
And Angel really is on fire right now. That’s the reason I called. It all started when she opened the Teton Gravity Research (TGR) film Almost Ablaze in 2014 with a banger Alaska segment—the first time in TGR’s 21-year history that it’s opened with a female skier. I remember sitting in the Wilma Theater in Missoula, Montana, as the entire audience went absolutely crazy. Watching a woman open a feature-length ski film was something I’d never seen before, and it’s something I’ll never forget. In 2015, Angel’s mind-blowing segment at the end of TGR’s Paradise Waits earned her Best Line—an award no woman had won before—and Best Female Performance at the 16th annual Powder Awards, skiing’s most prestigious gathering. The same year, Freeskier magazine named her Skier of the Year. The following season, Angel won yet another Best Female Performance at the Powder Awards for her segment in Tight Loose.
But even after all that, she says, “I wouldn’t say I’m at the top. Everything is changing and even at the resorts I’m seeing all these girls and they are so good. There are always going to be people coming up behind you that are better than you. But it has been so cool to be recognized this way. It’s a gift and an honor.”
Angel’s upbringing taught her how to be comfortably uncomfortable.
If you’ve read anything about Angel before, you probably know she grew up wearing thrift store clothes in employee housing at Snowbird, sharing a room with her younger brother, John. And that her dad, Jimmy, was a ski patroller and her mother, Deb, was a schoolteacher. Every summer, the Collinsons would move into their old Ford Econoline van and travel around the West climbing mountains and backpacking.
Not surprisingly, Angel and John learned to embrace Type 2 fun early on. When they were ages six and seven, they summited Mt. Rainier (14,411’). Shortly thereafter, they ticked Whitney (14,505’) and Shasta (14,180’). “I’m very grateful for the fact that I grew up the way I did,” Angel says. “My parents were still strict and firm in the rules but they also let us find our own way through life, and they taught us reverence for the natural world.“
Angel’s upbringing taught her how to be comfortably uncomfortable, which is probably why she is perfectly at home going Mach speed down Alaskan spines. She learned from a young age to have gratitude for simple things (like her own room and tents with floors in them)—she thinks she might not have without her modest childhood. Growing up at the base of Snowbird, she skied all the time—most days of the week, in fact, because her mom homeschooled her. And naturally, she became a world-class junior ski racer. Angel dialed in her ski technique, carving perfect turns around poles and through gates for 18 years of her life. She didn’t make US Ski Team (missed by a smidge) but those years were not wasted. “I learned so much from racing,” she says. “It makes you learn how to be dedicated. It sucks, but I kind of think all our best things are forced upon us. I give racing credit for the skier I am now.”
With Olympic dreams in the rearview mirror, Angel went on to the University of Utah on a full ride academic scholarship with the goal to become an environmental lawyer, something she’d wanted to be since she was 8 years old. “It’s clear to me that Mother Nature doesn’t have a voice. It’s up to us to speak for her,” Angel says. “I wanted to travel and live with other cultures and see if I could somehow integrate their more connected worldview into our political system. Then the skiing thing happened.”
“The skiing thing” she’s talking about is when she entered her first freeride contest her freshman year of college and ended up winning the entire American Freesking World Tour. She did it again in 2011 and then her sophomore year she dropped out of college to focus on skiing. In 2012 she competed in both the American Freesking World Tour and the European Freeride World Tour and got second place in both. Then, like many who do well in the contest circuit—Candide Thovex, Elyse Saugstad, Drew Tabke—she started her film career.
And you know what happened next.
“You don’t have to be all sunshine and roses all the time, but you have to pull through and work on yourself.”
“It’s only scary to be at the top if you feel like falling off is a bad thing,” Angel says laughing. “Who knows what happens from here. That’s why it’s so important to have a well-rounded life and do other things you’re passionate about. Trying to hold anything for too long is a recipe for disaster.”
This is the reason I love conversations with Angel. She has a grounded and honest perspective on her life as a skier. As we sip our drinks, Angel in Utah and me in Wyoming, we discuss what makes her tick.
What motivates her: “I’m inspired by how people are able to gracefully walk through life and not let dumb shit faze them.”
How she measures success: “If you feel like what you are doing makes you happy and you feel like you are contributing in the right ways and you feel fulfilled in life, then you are successful.”
How she spends her mornings: Meditating on things like how to be a more caring person, how to spend more time in the present moment, and how she can use skiing and science to better the Earth.
Who she is without skiing: “That’s a question I will be answering for the rest of my life. But skiing has made me realize how important it is for me to have a community and people who I give myself to. And I always try to remind myself that my intricacies and the things that make me who I am will be present no matter what.”
Why she believes in self-improvement: “The number one thing you can do for the world is work on yourself. I think so much of our internal world expresses itself in the external world. You don’t have to be all sunshine and roses all the time, but you have to pull through and work on yourself and believe in yourself and apply yourself in the best way you know how. And then you have to know that’s enough.”
Recently, Angel realized that living in Salt Lake City wasn’t fueling her like it used to. So she moved north, from the home she and her family built to Girdwood, Alaska. “I was stuck in a rut.” she says “My community in Salt Lake is all artists and they do so much, but they are completely separated from ski world. I was not getting outside. Ever. So moving to Alaska was a refreshing transition. To go to a place where I’m outside getting rejuvenated by nature all the time.”
Angel’s new home sounds like Utopia. The wilderness is right out her back door and it’s full of blueberries. She has taken up downhill mountain biking (big surprise there) and she has big goals for the winter. “It’s a welcome feeling after spending most of last year recovering,” she explains. “I don’t have to worry about shooting photos or filming because I just needed to get mileage on my knee. Now I’m sort of dealing with the anxiety ramification of not having a productive winter.”
Angel didn’t do a work trip until March when she went to St. Petersburg, Alaska, with TGR. “It was a tough trip,” she says. “This is the first year I feel like I don’t have much to show. But it’s set me up to be a lot hungrier the rest of the year.”
At this point, Angel can’t even say her future projects out loud because she hasn’t hashed them out in her own head yet. But based on the excitement in her voice, I’m willing to bet she won’t be feeling like a wet noodle next spring.