"Oh darling," she said, "It’s time. Go on up to the mountains."
The 'she' in this case is the calm little voice inside Steph Jagger's head, which reappears throughout the Canadian's newly published book, Unbound: Finding Myself on Top of the World. The voice, writes Jagger, is relaxed and clear, and helped her through a transformative year of world-wide travel and relentless skiing.
It was in Whistler, British Columbia that the skiier first resolved to quit her job and follow winter around the globe. Little did she know that she would break the world record for most vertical feet skied in a year (albeit unofficially, due to a lack of premeditated Guinness paperwork).
In the excerpt below, Jagger chronicles her time in the European Alps, when she was six months into her trip and had freshly left the mountains of Japan. At this point, she'd skied 1.6 million vertical feet and had less than five months to bag the remaining 2.4 million and reach her goal.
I can tell you with certainty that I’ve seen some of the most beautiful things this world has to offer, both in my travels and in a life spent as an inveterate voyeur. I’ve watched the giant equatorial sun light up the rude and rugged coastline of West Africa. I’ve seen the way a snake moves when it charms. I was there the day my niece claimed her place in this world; I saw her do it with my own two eyes.
I can scan through a thousand beautiful images, but the collection isn’t complete without Chamonix. You can’t help but be captivated the minute you see her, the way she sits on her throne, high in the mountains of France. It’s her duality that does it. Her beauty is a spellbinding mixture of everything in life that is permanent, and everything that, poof, is gone in a ﬂash. Many people have vanished in Chamonix, swallowed up by her ancient jaws of rock and ice. She is a valley of life cast in a granite shadow of death. She stands surefooted betwixt and between, straddling two worlds with ease. And given the messages of birth and burial that came to me from the mountains in Japan, Chamonix was the perfect teacher.
Chamonix is also sacred, a mountaineer’s version of Vatican City. Exchange Bibles, ﬂowing capes, and crosses for Gore-Tex, beacons, and boots. Replace rosaries and zucchettos with ice axes and helmets. Swap out a prayer rope for a heavy-duty harness, and church bells for cable cars dangling in the sky. It’s all the same. Chamonix is where you come to learn faith ﬁrsthand.
Her ofﬁcial reign as the spiritual center of snow began when she hosted the ﬁrst ever Winter Olympic Games in 1924, but I have a feeling she claimed the right to call herself The Holy One the moment her jagged edges were thrust into the sky, the moment she was anointed with that coronet of ink-black granite.
Upon arrival, I found a small bar on the edge of town and cozied up in a seat by the window. The temperatures in the area had dropped, and a dusting of snow was ﬂoating through the air like smoke. I watched as it swirled on the ground and then rose with the wind, curling around the necks of the people walking by. I sipped my hot chocolate and looked across the valley to the Ai- guille du Midi, a peak in the Mont Blanc massif. There are peaks in the range much higher than this, some pushing 14,000 and 15,000 feet, but none are as striking as Midi. At her apex is a tapered granite tower pointing directly at the sky. It looked like a pin held ﬁrm, ready to pop a giant blue balloon. When I looked at her, I couldn’t help but think she was a needle, commissioned by God to mark the small sliver of space between heaven and earth.
I spent the whole afternoon in that spot, sipping my drink and looking out at the mountains, each of which looked bruised and a little bit battered. The snow that had fallen wasn’t quite enough to conceal the thin layers of ice. All the stuff that was living right below the surface was slowly becoming exposed. And I realized I was looking at myself, at the parts of me I’d never had the courage to face. I’d never felt as vulnerable or as stripped down as I did when I arrived in Chamonix. So I did the only thing one does in Chamonix—I ﬁnished my hot chocolate, and I took myself to church.
The next morning, the thermostat read –31°C (–23.8°F). It would have been easy for me to stay under the covers in my tiny hotel room, coffee in one hand and a book in the other, but I couldn’t because I heard what was becoming a familiar and wel- come voice.
"Oh darling," she said, "It’s time. Go on up to the mountains."
I threw on a few extra layers and I went, hope in one hand and prayer in the other. The skiing that day was screamingly fast. A week of hot weather (like hot enough to melt most of the snow), followed by cold weather (like cold enough to freeze anything that had melted), makes for, well, giant fucking sheets of ice. The condi- tions were designed for speed, and so was the temperature. I skied as fast as I could, mostly because I wanted back on the chairlift, which was the only reprieve. Don’t get me wrong, the chairlift was cold, but when I skied, the cold was so cold that it hurt. No matter how much effort I put into ensuring that my face was covered, the frozen air shot through my neck warmer and scarf, like a thousand bees stinging my nose, cheeks, and chin. Once on the chairlift, I could recover, sitting like a dog, tightly curled, paws tucked, snout away from the wind. I spent the entire morning racing, just trying to get back to that place.
The other reason for the speed was my grandfather. This may sound strange, as my grandfather died in 1997, but on occasion since then I’d felt his presence, even seen him. As it turns out, this was one such occasion.
It happened on my fourth chairlift up. I turned to my right, and there he was, long legs crossed over one another, a big smile on his face. He motioned for me to move closer to him. “Faster,” he said as he wrapped one of his arms around my shoulder, keeping me warm. “A little bit faster.”
I did as my grandfather told me. I pointed my skis downhill, and I went. There was no time for turning. I found my grandfa- ther waiting for me on the next lift, and the one after that, and the one after that. Once I realized he would be there for the day, I went even faster, doing everything to get back to him as quickly as possible. I ﬂew. It was as if the cords had been cut. The parachute I’d been dragging was no longer there. At some point I was skiing so fast that I could feel my body pushing against gravity, and by the afternoon I felt like I’d crossed some sort of threshold, like I’d moved through a trembling, bat-out-of-hell kind of speed and arrived at a steady g-force warp speed. In other words, I was Jona- than Livingston Seagull on skis.
And so that’s how I spent the rest of the day: half of it tucking down a mountain at breakneck speed, and the other half in the arms of my grandfather. Half of it freezing, the other half thawing. On one of the ﬁnal chairlifts, my grandfather pulled me in close. “Isn’t it amazing,” he whispered, “how fast you can go when you’ve let go of it all. Like a bird. Like a rocket to the moon.” I started to cry.
“Just you and the mountains and God,” he said.
I went back every day for the next ﬁve days, and there he was, waiting on the chairlift, my church pews, in his navy blue ski suit. It was bliss. It was freedom. It was a safety I’d never known. For the ﬁrst time in my life, I felt all of the love and none of the fear. And so I broke myself there. I dropped everything I’d been carry- ing and watched it tumble down the mountain into the shadows of the valley. I became unrestrained. I became unbound.
The ﬁssure had become a giant crevasse. I was wide open. Day after day, I let the mountains pull me further and further apart. I let them shatter me and all my beliefs into thousands of pieces, knowing that I would eventually get glued back together. Some- how. Someway. I let the mountains tear me down, and after each run I sat down on a seat in the sky with my grandfather. I was tat- tered and torn, unanchored and unfettered, and I was loved—by my grandfather and by me. And by the end of a week I was bone- tired. Yes, I’d added 150,000 vertical feet to my total, but the energy drain was mostly due to the fact that six days in the moun- tains with God is exhausting. I’ve heard people talk about having to make a deal with the devil, but in my experience you’ve got to do the same with God. The only difference is that one negotiation is about what you’re gonna get, and the other is about what you’re gonna give.
At the end of my week-long conversation with God I was raw and vulnerable, little pieces of me dangling here and there. The mountains had smashed my identity to smithereens, and all I could see were shards. I was left wondering how on earth I would piece them back together. I had wounds that needed to be healed, but I wasn’t sure how.
It was probably best to lie down and take a long nap, to meditate in some way amid the bits of broken glass, to sit in a sauna with slivers of myself, or to eat chicken soup with a side of mashed po- tatoes in some attempt to ﬁnd a path forward.
Unfortunately, I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I gathered up my dangly bits, and I picked up every splinter lying on the ground. I put them in a suitcase with my bleeding heart, and then we all boarded a plane together, because New York City doesn’t wait for anyone.