Tracy Ross: I’m old…but I'm still awesome

The truth about getting older in an youth-driven, adrenaline-crazed industry.

tktk Photo: tk
tktk Photo: tk

IT WASN’T GETTING MY ASS KICKED that surprised me as much as the feeling that came with the ass kicking. It was several weeks ago—early March—and I was skiing at Snowbird Resort with a younger editor from a magazine that we at Mountain consider a competitor. This editor—we’ll call her Kate—is a former racer, smart and funny, with lungs like Lance Armstrong and the self-confidence of Michelle Obama. We knew of each other; now we were meeting. I felt the chesty thrum of knowing I was a curiosity, because of what I’ve accomplished.

Humble brag: I’m a 45-year-old pretty ripping skier/adventurer/editor and writer of stories that have won some of the biggest awards in publishing. I’ve also managed to become these things while getting pregnant, being pregnant, breastfeeding, and raising two teen boys and a four-year-old daughter.

I know what you’re thinking: badass baby mama! But on that day last March, when Kate and I were skiing, I felt a pang of “Shit! She’s so young and I’m so old, how can I ever keep up with her?”

This was a silly thought, for it hit me while we ripped high speed turns down Baldy’s Bowl off of the Little Cloud lift. But it stuck with me, and 500 vertical feet later, we came to a gate marked by a sign, which held two double black diamonds.

Now, I have skied plenty of double blacks over my time, but a day prior to this run, I’d done a face plant into a stand of baby aspen. My upper lip looked like someone had injected it with Botox and smeared it with raspberry jelly.

Carnage selfie. \
Carnage selfie: \”If you’re not getting hurt, you’re not trying.\” Photo: Tracy Ross

I’d spent the night alternately smearing it with arnica and antibacterial ointment. It hurt to laugh, smile, or even smirk. Could the fall have been the reason that when I followed Kate to the gate, my gut screamed, “Don’t do it!” and I didn’t go in, and instead I skied a long, Mach-speed groomer? Oh, it could have been. But it wasn’t.

As much as I hated it, the feeling was, “Crap. I don’t want to ski this double black diamond. I’m afraid.” And the feeling that came immediately after that was one of shame, self-defeat, and self-pity. Mainly, it made me wonder: If I’m not still the woman who can girl-power her way into a hidden double black, who am I?

Actually, that’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now. The question of: Is it okay to be a—gulp—perimenopausal skier/adventurer/editor/writer in an industry that—let’s face it—favors the young, super fit, and preternaturally pretty? I mean, where is the place for the middle-aged mother of three—or is there one? And there, in that question, may live the beauty of this inquiry. Because it seems to me that in this situation, there isn’t.

At least not one that is clearly defined, because my skill set defies categorization. It always has, though I and others have tried to slap it with labels. Hungry newbie. Wannabe journalist. Short-timer who’ll soon get bogged down by domesticity. Yet time races by and what was once the rare, hungry girl fighting with a male writer to tell the best story of the Winter Storm of 2003 becomes the rare, still hungry woman who now has years of reporting under her belt, scads of outdoor adventures behind her, and a dozen-plus complicated long form narrative stories to her byline.

tk. Photo: tk
Ross won a National Magazine Award for her essay \”The Source of All Things,\” which appeared in Backpacker in 2009. She later turned the book into a critically lauded memoir by the same name. Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Ross

All of that is rich and exciting, and puts me in a position to be able to offer advice to the cool young women who might be carving their own lines behind me (or in front of me). I’ve met you—at writing conferences, at ski tests, in chat rooms, in the backcountry. I can see it in your eyes—the thrill of knowing that you’ve chosen a path few others (men or women) have chosen. I remember when I figured out a formula you might just now be discovering. Way back in the beginning, I was a solid skier, a decent writer—and female. When I did the math, I realized there were maybe five of us in the country.

Not that any amount of competition would have mattered: I knew even before I had my first assignment that I wanted to be the female Jon Krakauer. OK, so I’m not there yet. But 45 isn’t really that old, especially when you let your passion fill the chalice of your heart, and spend as much time as possible outdoors, like I do. It’s all good as long as I let my passion, rather than doubt, guide me—and as long as I keep listening to my instincts.

Here’s another lesson I learned on that day when I decided not to follow Kate. With age—for me—has come the ability to act outside of others’ expectations. It comes in the form of me refusing to “write older,” or “go more mainstream,” or “slow down,” which is a killer of magic. But it also asks that I put less pressure on myself, that I embrace my own change, and that I back off when I’m sensing danger. Maybe the line I didn’t want to ski would have led to a death slide; maybe it wouldn’t have. I just know that in the moment, I wasn’t interested in knowing. I honored the feeling, and instead railed Mach-speed turns down a sun-drenched face back to the bottom. There’s freedom in sensing change, embracing it, and following it as if no one is watching—and I loved thinking of Kate and how hard she was ripping that line.

Tracy Ross is senior editor at Mountain Magazine in Boulder, and lives in the mountains at 8,000 feet with her husband, three kids, and chihuahua-coyote mix (we think), Fern. She was braver before four ACL operations, a cracked-in-half clavicle, and a recent visit to her dermatologist (all good but wear your sunscreen!).