“A Mother’s Nature” was first published in our December 2016 (45.4) issue of POWDER. This excerpt is one of a five-part series that pays tribute to the women who made us skiers.
PHOTO: Nic Alegre
I planned to meet Evans Phelps by the ski lockers at the base of Alpine Meadows. She and her family have rented the same locker there since 1980, where her children's initials are carved in the wood. The key to creating a family ski dynasty, she tells me, is to have a base. For Phelps, home base has and always will be Alpine Meadows. We happened to pick the warmest week of the year to meet, and it was raining. "Tahoe at its finest. I am going up there regardless," Phelps said in an early morning text. She has a rule in her family: You have to ride the chair a minimum of three times to call it a ski day. That was our goal.
At 66, Phelps has been skiing the Sierra Nevada since the '70s, even when it meant making the five-hour trek through Bay Area traffic every weekend to get her three young children on skis. The commute would eventually wear her down. In 1987, she relocated to Nevada City, where she is the mayor and only an hour from the mountain.
Growing up outside Chicago, her first turns on what she calls the "Midwest cornfields of Wisconsin" were the catalyst to Phelps' life as a skier—something she wanted to impart on her children, and then her four grandchildren. "I wanted my children to have this same love of the sport that I do. It's about the family being together, being on equal terms, and having an activity we all do together," says Phelps. "Skiing is how we relate to each other."
Her youngest daughter, Megan Michelson (a senior contributor for this magazine), really caught the fever. Michelson started to race competitively at 6 years old, and went on to win the World Telemark Freeskiing Championships in Alaska in 2008.
"All the other parents would walk up to the race in their Sorels to cheer on their kids. But my mom wasn't going to sit around and wait for me to race," recalls Michelson. "Instead, she'd be off skiing and sometimes she'd make it back to watch me race and sometimes she wouldn't. I always appreciated her for that. She never just hung around."
A longtime river kayaker and now a triathlete, Phelps doesn't just ski for the exercise, though she makes me wish I did more of that as I chase her down her home turf. For her, skiing is an outlet that has seen her through deep sorrows—the loss of a child in infancy, a divorce, and the death of her second husband.
"Mom's been through some hard stuff and skiing was always her therapy. It's her church," says Michelson. "When life throws you those curveballs, being outside with friends on skis gives you a sense of peace. I learned to cope the same way she has."
Phelps' confidence on the mountain is unwavering. She skis light, free, strong. Despite the uninviting conditions, we go many more than three laps. "There's nothing special about my skiing," she tells me on the lift. "Other than I've done it for a long time."