Whats it like being an Athlete? With Renoun Athlete Kelli Spencer

Whats it like being an Athlete? With Renoun Athlete Kelli Spencer

Where did you grow up skiing?

I grew up skiing in Colorado! My home mountain is Winter Park, CO…but I hopped around a lot to Loveland, Breckenridge, Aspen, Keystone….long before there were cool things like the Epic Pass!

Did you travel much at a young age?

Yes! But not really for skiing. However, I was fortunate to travel with my parents A LOT. We went to family reunions across the country, and out of the country often. It taught me how to travel independently, be confident in other countries, and allowed me to develop an appreciation for other cultures.

What was the turning point when you decided to become an athlete?

I feel like it kind of just morphed into something I was doing. No one in my family skis…so it wasn’t really a big thing in our family. When I was little I’d ask my parents for a ski pass for my birthday/Christmas combo. Once I started getting good, I hitched rides with other families or group outings and I put myself out there on the slopes as often as possible. I used to go to competition practices (where I wasn’t competing) and just ski the courses… and one day I got noticed. I think now you’d get in a lot of trouble for that…haha. Back then…things were really chill. Everyone was like “oh, here’s this young girl who can kind of ski this course and she’s younger than the kids competing!”. I was skiing on my neighbor’s old skis and boots that were 2 sizes too big for me. But finally I got a sponsor, got my name out there, and kept pushing myself from there!

You describe yourself more as a mountaineer than as a skier. What is mountaineering? What led you to it?

Yes! Definitely. For me, I think they go hand-in-hand. Mountaineering is climbing mountains using technical gear to access the summit. I got into mountaineering (or more specifically ski mountaineering) because I wanted to ski bigger, steeper lines. Since I can’t afford heli-drops every day, I needed to find a way to get to the top of those peaks I had my eyes on. I started training in the gym (rock climbing to learn ropes work and climbing skills). I took some ice climbing courses, and simultaneously I got into backcountry skiing and was taking my Avalanche Rescue Courses. It wasn’t overnight. Each of those things takes time to get good at; it takes money, resources, and then getting the gear. I spent several years learning and training and gradually, as my skills and knowledge got better, I was accessing bigger and steeper mountains. Now, my biggest joy comes from the journeys up. From the planning of a route and a line to the execution, the technical and mental work it puts you through, and then being able to ski a dream line down.

Is there one thing you’d like to highlight awareness around mountaineering that’s a hot topic?

Yes. Avalanche Awareness! More and more people get out in the backcountry with zero knowledge of snow safety and avalanche patterns, and also go without safety gear. If you are going out into the backcountry in winter doing anything (mountaineering, backcountry skiing or snowboarding, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, or even snow shoeing) take an AVY 1 Course. And carry a beacon/shovel and probe. Be smart about the backcountry.

When have you been the most scared?

I was caught in an avalanche a couple years ago from a person who was skiing above me. There was nothing I could do. And just feeling of the mountain moving under you in that way, and looking around and realizing you’re being swept down the mountain and you aren’t in control is really terrifying. While it was happening, I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m dying today.” Thankfully…I had an Avalanche Bag, and I was buried up to my waste. It could’ve been a lot worse.

What’s the hardest thing about being an athlete?

Injuries and related down time. I just came out of 2 back-to-back knee surgeries from ski injuries and I had a LOT of down time. As a really active person, it’s really hard to wrap my head around being stationary and not moving for a long time. And afterwards, it’s hard to not just jump back into your training routines or just go ski something big. You spend a long time doing basic movements and working for really easy things. The time between injury and full recovery is always the hardest part for me.

How does being a female change things in the outdoor/mountaineering sport?

I think women don’t get taken as seriously as men, which means we have to work extra hard to get noticed, to get sponsored, to get segments and projects and to make a living. As a woman, I’m notoriously treated differently. I get dismissed often, and I am told by male directors “oh you wouldn’t be able to ski that line…that’s something one of the guys can do”. For me, being told those things has fueled a fire to prove that I’m equal, if not better. Moving forward, I hope our communities see women as equals in these sports and encourage them instead of dismissing them.

Taking a ski with Kelli almost never involves a chair lift!

You’ve experienced harassment because of gender. Why do you choose to be so public about it?

Unfortunately, I have. And unfortunately, I continue to experience this, and I don’t foresee it stopping. I’m super public about it because it’s a conversation that needs to be had. My hope is that if I openly talk about my own harassment experiences…that maybe it’ll inspire someone to take a stand if they see if happening, or to stand up for themselves. 

What perception do people have about being an athlete that’s not true or is overblown/unrealistic?

Hahaha. This is awesome. I have a few. People assume they can’t ever hangout with me…that I’ll be way out of their physical “league” or whatever. Which is bogus. Hangout with people better than you. It pushes you to be better! Another perception is that I never get tired. This makes me laugh. But I huff and puff when I’m hiking up a mountain just like everyone else. Last one is people assume I get stuff for free. (i.e. sponsorships). I hate this one because athletes spend their lives becoming really good at something, pushing their limits, hundreds of unseen hours training and dieting and editing and managing. And all sponsorships are a partnership. You represent something bigger than yourself.

What do you think about when you’re in a place few, if any, have traveled?

It’s a special thing to stand where no one else has. It’s really rare these days. Beautiful places and national parks are overflowing with people. So, every time I summit a mountain where I’m alone, or where someone possibly hasn’t been before, I’m filled with appreciation and gratitude. I’m humbled to be there. Honestly, I end up trying to not think too much…and to just enjoy standing there…filled with joy.

Alaskan summers featuring good fishing and the great company of Kenai the Australian shepherd.

Who do you look up to?

Wow…I’m tempted to rattle of a hundred names of people who inspire me. Here are a few: I look up to Jimmy Chin. He’s an adventure photographer and a badass athlete. He takes these incredible shots in insane places while keeping up with the most badass athletes in the world. His work ethic and content he produces inspires me to push myself past what people expect of me and to be creative in my work. (You can check out his work here: https://jimmychin.com ) - I look up to athletes like Margo Jain, Emily Harrington, Angel Collinson and so many other women who are pushing boundaries within their respective sports and being amazing role models to the next generation. They inspire me daily to do the same. - I admire Eric Larsen. He’s an explorer and he was the first person to go to the South Pole, North Pole, and top of Everest in 1 year. His work constantly inspires me dream bigger and to challenge myself on my personal goals. (You can check out his work here: http://www.ericlarsenexplore.com).

What’s next? Any rad trips on the horizon?

Yesss! I’m planning a ski trip to Kazakhstan in April 2020! And in November 2020 I’ll be returning to Nepal with my boyfriend Drew to climb and summit (and hopefully ski) Ama Dablam. 2020 is going to be an exciting year!

If you did it all over again, what would you do differently?

If I HAD to, I think I’d make decisions for me, and not for other people. I really struggled with that growing up...and I made several decisions (like moving or not moving) based on other people’s opinions, or the pressure people put me under. I gave up some great opportunities and made some mistakes. However, those decisions and the effects of those decisions made me who I am today

What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone who wants to be an athlete?

Work 10 times harder than the people around you, and work to be someone unique, with a unique style. Also, be kind to everyone. Everyone starts somewhere. Once you get good, give back to other people.

Footnotes: Kelli just moved to Alaska with her dog, Kenai. You can follow along at Kanai's Instagram @mygirlkenai

See more of her adventures on her website: https://www.kellispencer.net

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.