Pay It Forward: Amy Stevens

On falling 50 feet, making a comeback, and building a life from scratch

This is the latest installment of Pay It Forward, an interview series designed to find THE guy or girl in every single ski town, everywhere. And the next guy, and the next girl after that. The catch: Each person I interview will recommend the person I talk to next. It’s a journey. We’ll see where it takes us. Click here for more interviews.

Amy Stevens at home in the mountains. PHOTO: Courtesy of Amy Stevens
Amy Stevens at home in the mountains. PHOTO: Courtesy of Amy Stevens

Crested Butte’s Amy Stevens, 33, lives life with grace. Maybe she learned that in her early days as a dancer in high school. While she does not dance competitively any more, she’s applied a graceful approach to life through the highest and the lowest of times. Read on for stories about a life-threatening fall, recovery, learning how to tele ski, running a hostel out of your house, and finding the freedom to live life how you want to.

You’re from Michigan. Of all the places to go, why Colorado?
I grew up skiing and camping. But I didn’t know there was such a thing as a specific climbing shoe. I didn’t know what a Nalgene bottle was. I didn’t really know anything, but I knew I wanted to do all of it. I really wanted to kayak. I really wanted to rock climb. I really wanted to ski.

You ended up going to school at Western, and then you did some stints in other places. What kept drawing you back to Crested Butte?
Yeah, so I moved to Alaska for a little bit. And each time I left for good. I thought I was done with this place. But the community here is incredible. I stay here because I love the long winters, the snow. I put on my scarf and my skis and ski around town and I’m so happy.

What’s that push and pull between places like for you? Why did you keep coming back?
For me, it was probably different. I know people are like, diehard skiers. I was definitely like that, too. I was a diehard climber and skier. I wanted to climb all the big peaks, so I moved to Alaska, guided up there with Michelle, and it was incredible. That was exactly where I needed to be, just traveling. It was a super, super selfish lifestyle. But I loved it.

And then I took a big climbing fall [when I was 26 in Skaguay, Alaska]. It was a life-changer for me, for sure. I know it sounds crazy, but it was the best thing I needed at that moment. It was a huge, huge slowdown sign. I was in a cast for four and a half months, in bed. I couldn’t move.

How far did you fall?
It was like 50 to 60 feet. I haven’t been back there. It was an overhanging rappel. I had just gotten off a 22-day expedition, and then I was guiding the next morning at 5 a.m. I was overworked. I was so tired, and I clipped into my harness, double checked, and when I leaned back—I hadn’t clipped into my belay loop, I had clipped into my gear loop, and it just popped.

I fell a long ways, and I was totally conscious. I remember everything. I thought, I’m OK. I just broke some ribs, because I couldn’t breathe very well. I wiggled my toes and my fingers. I think I just broke some ribs. The search and rescue team came up to get me. And I remember, they cut off all my clothes and I had a see-through bra on, and I was like, Oh my god, I work with all these guys! I was so embarrassed. It was all I could think of.

People have ski or climbing injuries, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t climb for a month.” I’m like, “Oh, suck it.” It’s probably good for you to just take a step back and look at everything.

They flight-for-lifed me to Seattle. I broke my back in five spots. I bruised my heart and my lungs. The biggest thing was that I had torn my pancreas, liver, and spleen, and stomach, and my pancreas was creating fluids that were eating my other organs because I was on the backboard for 12 hours.

And they put you in a whole body cast?
Yeah, a whole body cast, for four and a half months. My mother gave me sponge baths. It was rough. People have ski or climbing injuries, and they’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t climb for a month.” I’m like, “Oh, suck it.” It’s probably good for you to just take a step back and look at everything.

I say this now, but at the time, I was really upset. I was put out for four and a half months, and I was in rehab for six months after that. I needed something stable in my life, so I moved back to Crested Butte, did yoga for therapy every day, bought a house, got a cat, and got a boyfriend.

That last part sounds nice.
It does a little bit. I don’t have that boyfriend any more. But I still have the cat and the house.

Stevens at the top of an off-season Crested Butte. PHOTO: Courtesy of Amy Stevens
Stevens at the top of an off-season Crested Butte. PHOTO: Courtesy of Amy Stevens

Tell me about life in Crested Butte.
I moved back here, bought the house. I couldn’t let go of the guiding thing. I don’t think I ever will be able to. I work for Crested Butte Mountain Guides [now Irwin Backcountry Guides] in the summer and winter and ski and ice climb.

Then finally, I turned my place into a hostel, which is like a dream come true. Even this morning, I woke up and was like, there needs to be more of these places in the world. There’s a little baby, and two people in their 70’s, and two people in their 60’s. It’s just such a combination of people and their cultures at the hostel.

It’s called the Wanderlust Hostel. I have two dorm rooms and two private rooms. I can sleep 16 to 18 people. There’s a massive garden. We compost, we’re really green, and we have bikes for people to ride around. In the winter, we offer discounted ski tickets so we get a lot of skiers, and we have a huge walk-in costume closet.

What’s your ideal ski day in Crested Butte?
My favorite day skiing would be a girls’ backcountry day. I love skiing with girls. There’s something so different about it. And every time we ski with girls, everyone is so happy, you know? There’s just no pressure. You feel like a freaking queen the entire day. There’s so much good skiing here, it’s hard not to love it. It’s funny, reading everyone’s interviews. I’m not a professional skier. Somedays, on my tele skis, I feel like a total gaper.

Wait, you tele ski?
Uh huh. I tele ski.

I got into tele skiing after my accident. I was a snowboarder for years and years. I loved snowboarding, but if I was going to ski again, I needed to start slow, and that’s really hard for me to go slow. So I learned how to tele ski.

amy stevens
The bright side of learning how to tele ski. PHOTO: Courtesy of Amy Stevens

People don’t often realize how hard it is to make that switch from snowboarding back to skiing, let alone tele skiing.
It’s so humbling! You feel like such a beginner, but it’s also good, especially as a guide, to be put in that position again. And it forced me to get good really fast. I was there every day. There are some great older generation tele skiers here, and just getting tips from them and learning was really inspirational.

Coming back from such a big injury, you seem like you are very self aware, making decisions to come back and approach things a little differently.
It’s just one step at a time. I could have gone right back into what I was doing, but it made me see what was really important. Now, I just know that it’s important to create what you want in life.

So what are the things you want in life now?
Oh gosh, I just love having freedom. I love the fact that I have a lifestyle that doesn’t hold me down. I mean you think mortgage, and with a dog and a cat, so many people feel like they’re stuck, but I feel like I can go anywhere. I’m going to go surfing in Baja for two months. I’m going to the Domincan to go climbing for a month.

The thing that’s the most important is having the freedom to really do everything you want to do, but also to create the community that you feel really safe—and I don’t know if safe is the word—that you feel really…you feel really involved with.

Who do I talk to next?
His name is Nick Meyers. He is actually a ranger up on Mount Shasta and we spend a lot of time together down in Baja surfing. He was the first person I went backcountry skiing with after my accident. He was such a patient, awesome guy, and he is the funkiest, colorful person ever. We are both very costume-esque and love any time we can really just rock out.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Amy Stevens
PHOTO: Courtesy of Amy Stevens