Angel Collinson is the big-hearted heiress to women’s big mountain skiing
This story originally published in the November 2015 issue of POWDER (44.3).
EVERY SPRING, ANGEL COLLINSON piles into her fire-truck-red Toyota Tacoma, named Clifford Maximus, and drives to the Utah desert. She brings a tent, her yoga mat, and animal tarot cards. Following an increasingly whirlwind winter, she uses the time to find clarity and reset herself. As she was driving the truck on an unpredictable red dirt road near Buckhorn Canyon one afternoon last May, she told me why she was feeling vulnerable: It had been a difficult winter. After winning the Powder Award for Best Female Performance in December 2014 (an award she would win again in 2015), she felt overwhelmed with pressure. Around that time, her car was stolen and she lost $20,000 worth of gear. Later, she and Oakley White-Allen, her boyfriend of three years, broke up. She was trying to get better at snowmobiling and throwing tricks—her goal is to complete a Lincoln Loop—and those pursuits were going slowly. At the end of the season, she invested a lot of time and money from her savings to shoot and ski in Alaska for a month. Due to conditions, she only skied six days. On one of them, she suffered the worst crash of her life, tomahawking 25 times down 700 vertical feet. Now, she was crying. "I'm just really tired," she said.
Collinson, 24, is one of the best skiers in the world, universally adored for her goofball personality and her incredibly fast, technically perfect turns on really big mountain faces. She won the Powder Award for her opening segment in TGR's 2014 film, Almost Ablaze, a spot reserved for the best skiing in a film—and never before awarded to a woman. Though she lives frugally, something consistent with her upbringing, she has enough sponsor support that she doesn't need a second job. She's on The North Face Global Team and is applying for a spot on the Red Bull team—the golden ticket for professional action-sports athletes. (Ed. note: After this story originally published, both Angel and her brother John were added to Red Bull’s team.) She lives in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon, in a home she and her family spent three summers, working 16-hour days, building. Now she and her brother, John, are helping their parents retire by buying a house from them in Sandy. She has also found fulfillment by volunteering for the climate-change awareness organization Protect Our Winters. But success is a never-ending false summit, and in the struggle to get there, Collinson fears she is losing herself.
A STORY ABOUT COLLINSON is inevitably a story about her family, an intimate group with an extraordinary background and talent. Her father, Jim, is one of the most knowledgeable snow-safety experts in Utah, an Alta ski patroller who formerly worked at Snowbird for 32 years. Meanwhile, brother John, 23, won a Powder Award in 2014 for Best Powder and is an up-and-coming skiing talent in his own right, who in 2010, at the age of 17, became the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits (the record has since been broken). Still, it's their mother, Deb, who is the spiritual rock of the family. Deb has a warm presence, a generous smile, a curly nest of hair, and a gleam of brazen energy in her big eyes. She was tasked with guiding her children through an especially unique, and sometimes tough, upbringing. Angel refers to her as her therapist.
"When we're together, it's just, like, seamless," says Deb, who considered Angel her teammate in raising John. "We talk about everything. There's no boundaries about what we're going to talk about. Who can you be like that with? No one. Nobody on the planet."
The Collinsons are a thrifty bunch—a counter to anyone who argues that skiing is too expensive for families. Throughout their childhood, John and Angel shared a bunk bed in a five-by-12-foot closet within their employee-housing unit at Snowbird. Their education was seasonal. In the fall, they enrolled in public school in Sandy. Come winter, Deb taught the two of them, as well as five other students of varying ages, at a school she started in Alta, which allowed the kids to ski daily. Every spring, the kids would go back to school in Sandy, where they would thrive in the classroom, despite, or perhaps because of, their unorthodox lifestyle. The arrangement made it difficult for Collinson to make close friends—something she is still working on—but it also allowed for invaluable and abundant time spent outside. In the summer, the family was essentially homeless, renting out their Snowbird apartment and camping in a '79 Ford Econoline while exploring the mountains.
"On the last day of school, Dad would pick us up in the van," recalls Angel. "They had already packed everything, the school bell would ring, and there's Dad in our rusty blue van, with his socks and sandals and Vuarnets, and we'd hit the road."
The best summer of Collinson's life started with a drive to Baja. She remembers catching stingrays. From there, they drove to the base of California's 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S. Their grandmother was with them and had always wanted to summit the peak. Jim soon realized his two kids could keep pace and encouraged them to come along, too. After standing on top of Whitney, the family went on to summit Shasta and Rainier. That summer, Angel was 6; John was 4. The next summer, they followed up with Adams, Hood, St. Helens, Baker, and Olympus. Going through family photos from these trips is disorienting: It's strange to see such tiny children in thick mountaineering suits, roped together as they ascend glaciers.
To afford these adventures on the salary of a ski patroller and part-time teacher, the Collinsons lived creatively. Their gear came from Deseret Industries, the Mormon-owned thrift store. They slept in a floorless makeshift tarp tent—often cold and wet. Most meals were burritos filled with hummus, ramen, beans, and cheese—a sloppy mess John and Angel despised. When Collinson was 8, they climbed 30 of Colorado's 14ers in 30 days. On one, Collinson dropped a favorite mitten down the outhouse hole. Jim lowered her down by her ankles to retrieve it.
"If you were going to ask me, what do I feel is the greatest gift that we gave our kids with their upbringing, it's the ability to learn how to be uncomfortable," says Deb. "They learned how to not know what is going to happen, to live with a little bit of uncertainty. And they did not complain. When the chips are down, do not complain. Nobody wants to be with a complainer when you're miserable… They're very good at that. Mindfulness is learning to deal with ourselves in uncomfortable situations and not lose who you are. And that's why they've done so well with skiing and everything else."
As a teenager, Collinson emerged as a top young ski racer. To afford the surmounting race fees and travel costs, she asked families in Little Cottonwood Canyon for donations. (Around the same time, her family refinanced a mortgage on the home in Sandy to help pay for John's Seven Summits expeditions.) In 2009, she expected to be named to the U.S. Ski Racing Development Team. Due to a particularly aggressive ski coach, she felt ambivalent about the prospect. She didn't make the team. Feeling disenchanted with the sport she had dedicated her life to, but no longer enjoyed, the slight became a turning point.
She was 19 years old and trying to find her identity. She enrolled at the University of Utah, where she had deferred her full academic scholarship for a year, and began a double-major in philosophy and environmental studies. At the same time, her brother told her about freesking competitions. She entered one at Revelstoke and won, and went on to capture that year's Freeskiing World Tour title.
The following winter, in March 2011, she was at a tour stop at Kirkwood, California. It was a pivotal event to qualify her for a final competition at Verbier, Switzerland, where she could repeat her title. She had started dating Ryan Hawks, known as "Flyin' Ryan," a beloved and charismatic member of the tour. From the bottom of the course, she watched through binoculars as Hawks dropped into his line. He launched a backflip off a 60-foot cliff, landed on his feet, but crumpled upon impact. He lay motionless as patrollers removed him from the scene. As she took a lift up to inspect the venue for the next day's finals, she saw a helicopter approach to life-flight Hawks. That's when she understood his injuries were serious. She knew, though, that Hawks would want her to stay and compete—getting to Verbier had been a shared goal of theirs. The next day, with Hawks in a coma in Reno, she won the event. Immediately afterward, she drove to the hospital.
The next morning, with friends, family, and Collinson at his side, Hawks succumbed to his internal injuries. Collinson made the drive back to Little Cottonwood Canyon by herself. She would go on to Verbier and repeat as the Freeskiing World Tour champion later that month.
Hawks' death made Collinson realize that life is too short. "And when you have the opportunity to do the things you want to do," she says, "you need to make it happen." She asked her parents what they thought about her not going back to school. She wanted to go all in with skiing.
Her parents supported the decision. I asked Deb if she worries about Angel when she's in the mountains. She said she doesn't—that she trusts Angel and John.
"I feel that she's very gifted, she has good reflexes, she's smart," says Deb. "She fell this year, but we're all terminal, we just don't know when… We're visitors. We get to have this incredible opportunity to enjoy all of what's provided here, and my kids get to go to these incredible places, and there's always going to be danger with what they're doing. But that's living. And so to really live, you have to be able to know you can die. And we all can die. But whoever really looks it in the face and says, 'This is a choice I'm going to make. I'm fully aware this is dangerous and I'm going ahead'—that says something. I love them so much I would not limit them by worrying. I push them both into the ocean to set sail. That's what they're here to do!"
IN DECEMBER 2013, JIM AND DEB stopped by a cabin along the access road between Alta and Snowbird. They wanted to talk about their kids, frustrated that both John and Angel spent the entire previous winter filming for TGR and had little to show for it. Both had minor parts in the 2013 movie, Way Of Life. A year later, John and Angel unlocked the door, the older sibling earning the opening segment and Skier of the Year honors. Through studying film and trusting her skis and her ability more than she had the previous year, Collinson made a breakthrough.
"You wish everyone was as easy to work with as they are," says former TGR lead editor Blake Campbell of the Collinsons. "You can tell she takes it very seriously and kind of turns it around on herself. Where being kind of new, it's fun to see her come in and see the things she can take away from the edit bay to carry with her to work on through the next season."
Now, how to make it last. In the patriarchal ski industry, few female skiers have experienced longterm commercial success. Furthermore, not many mountains in North America can really showcase Collinson at her best. She's a big-terrain hitter in a small-ball era, with a flavor of skiing that only shines in Alaska, attacking massive faces. And when you can only ski six days in Alaska a year, that's a problem. She wants to become a more all-around, playful skier so she'll be invited on trips to Japan or British Columbia. So she went back to Mount Hood this summer, as she had the previous year, set up a camp in the woods with Hadley Hammer, and enrolled in Windell's to work on that Lincoln Loop.
The paradox of pushing herself—in her case learning tricks and becoming confident on a snowmobile—while enjoying what she is doing, is a delicate balance, and one Collinson struggles with. A part of her wants to leave the ski world, go and work with birds of prey—she loves owls—or go back into environmental policy, but she's also never had a "real job"—her only regular paycheck came from a summer spent raft guiding—and she knows that in the end, she's a skier.
"I was starting to lose sight of why I ski [after the Powder Awards]," she says. "I was like…is being a pro skier really what I want to do? Maybe I should just get a different kind of job where I could actually just ski for fun more, a lot more. And I just realized that when I look back at everything that I've done in life, skiing has always given me my greatest gifts. It's taken me to the best places, and it's helped me meet the best people, and I think I take it for granted sometimes…
"When is it work and when is it play? Because it could always be work if you don't change your mentality. So it's a place inside yourself that you have to find. And everybody kind of finds it differently. I'm still struggling with that, but the whole trick thing has been a struggle, because it's the new frontier and it's just scary."
What helps her is appreciating the simple things: the feeling of going really fast; frozen nostrils; the sound of rustling trees in an otherwise silent forest.
Collinson also says that Hawks stays with her, guiding her through difficult moments. "He really taught me how to be spontaneous, be impulsive, say yes to things I always wanted to do, and to look for deep meaning in mundane moments. When you're like, 'This sucks, why is this happening?' Be like, 'OK, this doesn't suck. This is fine. However this turns out, it's all going to be good.' I have that choice. I can choose to look at it as good or I can choose to look at it as shitty. It's really up to me. Happiness is an inside job. I think about him every time I see a rock. I think about him when it's super windy or rainy. I've incorporated him into everyday life so I still see him and feel him."
In late January, I ate lil' smokies with Collinson, her idol Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, and a TGR film crew in the main cabin of a snowmobile lodge outside of Jackson Hole. The room had a few slednecks and a lot of taxidermy: bear, fox, ptarmigan, cougar, antelope, beaver. We were watching the Super Bowl. One of the other guests, in a thick drawl, boasted, "Tom Brady just dropped that pass down from the heavens!" Collinson wasn't interested. She passed around her Theracane and was asleep for Russel Wilson's epic, but ultimately unsuccessful, two-minute drive. Afterward, we headed back to the mini-cabin we were sharing. She took the top bunk—"It's like home!" she said. That night I had a hard time sleeping. In the morning, she talked about what the Buddhists call "monkey mind." She said that when her head is racing, it helps her to focus on the heart—"the place where you know everything is going to be OK."
DARKNESS FELL ON THE DESERT. The sky had a full moon, but we couldn't see it. Collinson and I sat in camp chairs next to Clifford Maximus, the truck, as we watched a massive, apocalyptic-looking front slowly hover toward us, polishing off a bottle of champagne while we waited for the rains to come. Suddenly, Collinson decided to sing. She is very open and honest. "If I can't be free being me, I need to change," she says. And this was her shining. She produced two beautiful songs, her eyes closed, from deep within her. Her voice was smoky. The storm never came. When I awoke later, in the middle of the night, the bright, full moon cast a glow on our tents.
Earlier, in the truck, Collinson talked about her best day of the season. It was around the holidays, after the Powder Awards. Feeling unbalanced, she took a couple days off. She made French toast. She baked cookies. Then it started snowing at Alta. She decided to go out, but told herself that she wouldn't push herself.
"I got to ski with my family… and it was just one of those days where you're in the flow, and it was so fun," she says. "And I think my funnest days are almost always at home. Almost always."