PHOTO: Christian Pondella
PHOTO: Christian Pondella

Michelle Parker’s Climb to High Peaks

An interview with the Californian skier about summiting Denali, rock climbing, and playing the ukulele

When I called up Michelle Parker on a late summer day, she was on the road, driving up to Idaho where she was going to compete in a mountain bike race. A 100-miles-on-a-gravel-road mountain bike race. Parker entered on a whim.

Which is natural for the Squaw Valley local. As a skier, Parker's openmindedness has taken her from the park to filming in the backcountry with MSP to summiting Denali last spring. Her strong performance in Matchstick Productions’ recent ski movie, Drop Everything, earned her a nomination for Best Female Performance in the 18th Annual Powder Awards, which will be held on December 14.

From an empty road in the desert, Parker told me more about standing on top of the tallest mountain in North America, what drives her forward, the joy she finds in the mountains, and how she approaches life.

Julie: What's bringing you up to Idaho?
Michelle: A random bike race that I entered into about a month ago. Have you ever heard of Rebecca Rush? She's an endurance mountain bike racer, and she has this event called Rebecca's Private Idaho. It's a hundred miles on a gravel road. I just finally pulled the trigger. It's pretty random. We'll see. I'm excited.

Good luck. You've been putting yourself out there in a lot of different ways, especially the last couple of seasons. How did you build up the momentum?
Skiing, for me, has always been a constant development. The more knowledge and experience, the more I've had my eyes open to newer and bigger things.

It all has led me to this place where I felt like I had enough experience to go to these mountains with these teams of people and feel like I was holding my own. Once you're at that skill level, you can have a successful, awesome time and build this powerful, forward momentum.

I think that really happened this past season with different trips I got to be a part of. And also, on a personal level, just having the confidence to put myself out there and be like, 'Hey, can I come on this trip with you?' and know that I could totally hold my own and wouldn't hold anyone back.

You've been holding your own as a skier in a strong group for a while now, growing up skiing Squaw with Shane McConkey, Timy Dutton, JT Holmes, Cody Townsend, and Elyse Saugstad. What advice do you have for younger skiers who are looking for mentors?
For me, I'm wide-eyed, and especially skiing, I get really excited and really full of passion and charge forward. I'm a yes person. I'll say yes to a lot of different things. So that's the advice I would give people: Be open, be stoked to try new things. That's helped me round out my skill set.

What is one of the first things you said yes to?
I was 20 years old, and JP Auclair was like, if you want to start filming in the backcountry, you have to start taking these backcountry courses. He was, at the time, referring to avalanche crevasse rescue and WFR (Wilderness First Responder). He had gone to the course in Haines, Alaska, and he said, 'You've got to take it.'

So we both went back his second year. He took the course again. JP had a lot of early influence on me. You could see his career changing from skiing moguls to park, backcountry, and to being more of a ski mountaineer. Early on, he opened up my eyes. That was really inspiring.

So when he recommended that I go to avy school when I was quite young, that was a turning point.

PHOTO: Christian Pondella

You've been climbing a ton, too. How does climbing help your skiing?
It forces me to move slowly and remain calm, especially in high-stress situations.

When you're leading above gear you've placed, and you're route finding, that moment of going, continuing on, and pushing yourself, and projecting, and pushing past your mental boundaries. Most of the time I find it's more mental than physical.

I can apply that to skiing. It helps me concentrate and be more focused and more present with my actions. And then also the adventure, the places it takes you, the High Sierra or all over the world, you can always find some rad rock to climb.

You summited Denali earlier this year. How does it feel to stand on top of the highest mountain in North America?
The summit day was the hardest. We went from 14,000 feet to the summit, and yeah, for the last 500 feet I got really nauseaus and was the slowest in the group. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was moving, like, really slow. I made it to the top and was in disbelief because I thought it kept going.

I got up there and was psyched and all wobbly, and then just immediately had a one-track mind that I needed to ski down and lose elevation. The boys were watching me. They helped me take my skins off and do the transition. Then I clicked in to my skis and was totally fine.

The run down was so cool. The whole experience was ridiculously rad. I love pushing through this seemingly painful process of reaching the top and then turning around and just having really cool run down. I've never had such a hard day in the mountains, like physically hard.

What's it like to be best friends with badass climber and mountaineer Emily Harrington?
Emily loves to ski and I love to climb. We bonded in the mountains doing those different activities. But also, our relationship grew really strong when we realized we could be partners in the mountains and would push the other equally. Emily was getting ready to go to Makalu, and I was like, 'I'll be your training buddy.' We work together to help each other succeed and accomplish goals.

If you could invite anybody over for dinner, who would it be? And why?
Oh man! Anybody over for dinner? I might want to have a couple words with Elon Musk. And I have this newly established interest in Willie Nelson. I saw this photo of his guitar that I really liked.

Come to the 18th Annual Powder Awards in Breckenridge, Colorado, on December 14. Tickets are on sale now.

Speaking of guitars, when and why did you start playing the Ukulele?
It's a really happy instrument. It's small and you can travel with it. And it seems simple to me. I had zero musical background before I picked it up. I saw it in Hawaii and I started to strum it a little bit. I took it on a trip to Canada where I blew my knee and then I had it with me in Golden in this hospital room. It was really healing. Now I have this insane instructor, and I get to play with friends all the time.

Any last words?
To really pinpoint it, I believe in being like water, going with the flow, not having expectations in life, being able to move about, and socialize with different individuals and travel and be spontaneous and not having to live with a set of plans. That's how I live my life. And it's super fun. Sometimes it feels irresponsible. But I have to remind myself that I don't have to do exactly what society is molded or is typical of the way of life. I don't like having plans. I just like being on the move and enjoying the moment.

A version of this interview published in the November 2017 issue of POWDER (46.3). Subscribe to The Skier’s Magazine for $14.97.