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Fear Factor

Features
posted: 09/21/2004

Maegan carney is terrified. We're sitting on an old double chair ratcheting up toward the bald, expansive midflanks of La Flégère, a ski area two clicks up-valley from the French Alpine mecca of Chamonix, and she's pointing out couloirs she's skied-vertical caulk-lines of snow tamped into the jagged mosaic of granite peaks surrounding us. The routes aren't the worry for Carney, who has won several extreme skiing titles, who last fall attempted to become the first woman to ski Mount Everest, and who is now clutching the chair's safety bar like a child.

"I'm scared of heights," she says.

You've got to be kidding, I tell her.

"No," she says, letting out a nervous snort. "I get vertigo really badly." She keeps the lap bar down until we're directly over the exit ramp, pushing it away just in time to slide off onto her skis-her favored tool for managing her demons.

Admissions of fear are not what you'd expect from Carney. But, then, Carney isn't what you'd expect from an extreme skier: She doesn't communicate in dude-speak, she doesn't smoke pot, and she doesn't have a flair for self-promotion. She takes a sane approach to an insane sport. "I'm not an adrenaline junkie," says Carney, who, at 39, is a good decade older than her competition. "I don't like fear. I don't think what I do is crazy. I take risks, but to me they're acceptable risks."

Her maturity has kept her alive in a town where news of another death in the mountains is often shrugged off with a "c'est la vie." It has also kept her toiling in obscurity.

"I've never heard of her," says Kristin Ulmer, the 38-year-old grande dame of American extreme skiing. "But she sounds really interesting."

Beyond pure curiosity, my interest in Carney is a selfish one. I'd come to Chamonix carrying boards with rusty edges and a lingering fear of steeps that has always kept me from feeling like a bona fide Expert. At the very least, I figured, I might get some good tips.

Who better than Carney to get me over the fall-line willies? In addition to being one of the best skiers in the world, she's a psychotherapist by training. I also suspected she knew something about coping with fear on a broader scale, given that five years ago, seemingly on a whim, she up and sold her thriving therapy practice in Boulder, Colorado, and moved to Chamonix-without knowing a single person in town, how to speak the language, or how long she might stay.

Maybe she was insane. What would make someone chuck her entire life and take up skiing 60-degree slopes at the age of 35? And what would convince her that she could become the second person ever to ski off the summit of Everest, a monumental undertaking that requires several qualities she doesn't have: a high-altitude mountaineering track record and a high-profile persona to pull in big-time sponsorship? I couldn't help but wonder what she was looking for-or running from.

Carney is diminutive in stature: 5-foot-6 and a muscular 125 pounds. She has a firm jaw and an open face with pale-blue eyes, a wide smile, and reddish-blonde hair that tumbles over her shoulders when she leans in to make a point.

She grew up in downtown Seattle, skiing at Crystal Mountain most weekends. As a top-ranked junior with flawless technique, she regularly won slalom events by two full seconds. At the Colorado Mountain College, in Steamboat Springs, she won the NCAA national slalom championships in 1989 and 1990. Though she had Olympic ambitions, she never made the U.S. national team. Perhaps it was due to a somewhat abrasive attitude. She once told a coach to "blow it out your ass" because she didn't agree with his advice. "I was a bit of a psycho," Carney admits. "I was thin-skinned, always stressed-out. It was as if my whole sense of self was on the line every time I raced."

She retired from competing, graduated from college, and went for a master's in therapy at Naropa University, a Buddhist school in Boulder th requires daily meditation. But Carney never became the sort of gauzy-eyed hippie chick you might imagine from someone in this milieu. "There was so much bullshit lip service to left-wing ideals," she says. "I stopped being a vegetarian when I moved to Boulder."

After Naropa, she married a guy she'd met teaching at Outward Bound, but got divorced two years later. The failed relationship didn't derail her: She threw herself into her therapy practice, fulfilling her exercise obsession by hiking, climbing, running, and telemarking. "I became more psychologically sophisticated from having to deal with the divorce," she says. "I see it as a positive thing. I was really content in my life there."

It wasn't until her older brother, Tim, treated her to a ski vacation in La Grave that Carney realized that being content didn't cut it. Ten days into the trip they were caught in a serious avalanche in Portes du Soleil-partially buried, but entirely shaken. "I thought I was going to die," Carney says. "It was a big turning point. It was like a big kick in the butt to do more, see more, and experience more before it was too late."

Rather than scaring her away from the mountains, the ordeal drove her to them, and she decided to take a year off and ski the steeps of the Alps. What she was after, she says, was a feeling of "satori," that Zenlike state of mental focus during which everything seems as if it's slowed down. "I first experienced it at a ski race when I was 20," Carney says. "I'd never felt that kind of peace. It's a matter of being really present. It makes everything have a different focus. I had this sense that this is what I want to experience in life."

At La Flégère, i'm making my first turns of the year. I'm feeling OK, if a little tentative, when we stop above a narrow, bumped-up run.

"You know, this is the kind of shit I hate," I say. "Makes me feel like a spaz."

Carney offers to ski down and watch me. She snaps a few quick turns and then leans into a longer arc, finding a rhythm where there is none, skimming the terrain like a jackrabbit in a minefield. I grunt my way down, and Carney is smiling wide when I catch up.

"That sucked," I say.

"Actually," she says, "you were making the same turns you were on the open slope before. I don't see fear; it's doubt."

It's a distinction she knows well. When she moved to Chamonix, she was so unsure of herself-so petrified-that she crawled into her hotel bed and slept for 24 hours straight. It didn't help matters that Tim and Edward, her father, openly disapproved of her move. "At the time," says Tim, "I felt like she was regressing."

When she finally pulled herself out of bed, the first thing Carney did was buy a season pass. And, as always, once she got on snow, she got her confidence back.

She began tailing Chamonix's best skiers, and found an enviable groove-setting two alarms to roust herself from a red-wine slumber and cranking her bindings to 14. "I came here for the pure pursuit of enlivening myself," she told me over coffee that afternoon. "I feel like I'm really paying attention when I'm on a 50-degree slope. When you're over 50 degrees you can't afford not to be focused. Just by virtue of paying attention, you find a sense of calm."

Her skiing took off on an upward spiral-not so much in terms of her technique, but of her nerves. She tapped into her Buddhist training and began meditating on the ascents to fend off vertigo. "The only thing that's gotten a lot better is my ability to not get scared," Carney explains. "The idea is to get you out of your head and into your body."

In Chamonix, a Fischer ski rep who'd seen her turns gave her a set of fat skis on the condition that she enter an extreme competition. "All I remember is I didn't want to make a fool of myself," Carney says. "I just didn't want to look like some granny, so I picked a really steep line."

She won, and suddenly her sabbatical turned into a career. Over the next four years, she notched the first female descents of about a dozen you-fall-you-die routes in the surrounding Alps, including the Monch Nollen route-an 1,800-meter chute in Interlaken that wavers between 55 and 70 degrees-with a revolving cast of boyfriends/ski partners.

Two-time World Extreme champion Manu Gaidet, a 27-year-old Frenchman, was a beau only briefly. But he's skied plenty with Carney and rates her among the three best female freeskiers in the world, along with Francine Moreillon and Anne Cattelin. "Maegan's a bit different," he explains. "She likes doing small turns, but she's really strong, so she can ski the whole mountain with no stops. She chooses the line, and this is the real line, you know? You mustn't fall. She has the balls to go in the hardest place on the face. This is Maegan."

In March 2001, Carney's second year in Chamonix, she won the World Extremes in Tignes, France, by a huge margin. "One of my first thoughts was, 'Maybe this will be enough to get sponsorship for Everest,'" she says. "It's always been a dream of mine. And I think it's highly marketable: first woman, first American."

Ambitions don't count for much on Everest. Instead of satori, Carney and her group, led by her old friend Wally Berg, got six weeks of nasty weather, close calls, and tons of tent time. Despite having little high-altitude experience-only a handful of ski-mountaineering excursions to about 6,000 meters-her plan was to ski off from the true summit, which meant she'd have to be belayed down (with her skis on) the treacherous 100-foot vertical stretch of rock and ice known as the Hillary Step. She figured it'd be easier than futzing around, stepping in and out of bindings, at such an unkind altitude.

But you have to go up to go down, and Carney never made it above Camp III because of avalanches and high winds. When I poked around for trip details, talking to people in Chamonix and elsewhere about Carney's strategy, it was difficult to get a handle on the seriousness of her attempt.

Mike Marolt cleared that up. He and his brother, Bill, both from Aspen, had been turned back from a ski attempt of the mountain that spring. "She, like us and Stephen Koch, all got our asses handed to us on Everest," he wrote me. "But at least our asses were there to get kicked. Maegan's effort was totally legit, and if I were Pete Rose, I would bet she will get the job done sooner or later."

After Carney came down from Camp III, she left Base Camp with a Canadian named Grant Meekins, who had been helping out there, and with whom she'd been sharing a tent. The rest of the expedition made another attempt-with some members making it 250 feet shy of the summit-but she was finished. "I strongly felt like I was going to die if I went back up," Carney said. "My intuition was screaming at me. If you don't pay attention to that, maybe you'll get lucky, but then your intuition gets quieter. It was hard to walk away from something that's been such an enormous goal. At that point I couldn't even imagine trying to raise the money again. It was that awful of an experience for me."

Carney couldn't get a major sponsor for Everest and wound up scrounging for the bulk of the $50,000 fee by way of $50 and $100 donations. Unlike skiing, self-promotion has never been easy or natural for her. Incredibly, as the reigning 2003 world champion, she had no ski sponsor-Fischer had dropped her for younger talent. It looked like nobody wanted her for 2004, either, until Chamonix-based Dynastar picked her up in late January.

"I figured a world championship title would have had a lot of clout, but it didn't," she confesses. "I don't know what it is about my personality that turns people off in the industry." She adds, with a laugh, "You'd think that with my background in psychotherapy I'd be able to figure it out. I feel like I should be more enthusiastic about talking about myself; I feel like I'm really boring."

Ulmer, who's never had issues with marketing herself, khe notched the first female descents of about a dozen you-fall-you-die routes in the surrounding Alps, including the Monch Nollen route-an 1,800-meter chute in Interlaken that wavers between 55 and 70 degrees-with a revolving cast of boyfriends/ski partners.

Two-time World Extreme champion Manu Gaidet, a 27-year-old Frenchman, was a beau only briefly. But he's skied plenty with Carney and rates her among the three best female freeskiers in the world, along with Francine Moreillon and Anne Cattelin. "Maegan's a bit different," he explains. "She likes doing small turns, but she's really strong, so she can ski the whole mountain with no stops. She chooses the line, and this is the real line, you know? You mustn't fall. She has the balls to go in the hardest place on the face. This is Maegan."

In March 2001, Carney's second year in Chamonix, she won the World Extremes in Tignes, France, by a huge margin. "One of my first thoughts was, 'Maybe this will be enough to get sponsorship for Everest,'" she says. "It's always been a dream of mine. And I think it's highly marketable: first woman, first American."

Ambitions don't count for much on Everest. Instead of satori, Carney and her group, led by her old friend Wally Berg, got six weeks of nasty weather, close calls, and tons of tent time. Despite having little high-altitude experience-only a handful of ski-mountaineering excursions to about 6,000 meters-her plan was to ski off from the true summit, which meant she'd have to be belayed down (with her skis on) the treacherous 100-foot vertical stretch of rock and ice known as the Hillary Step. She figured it'd be easier than futzing around, stepping in and out of bindings, at such an unkind altitude.

But you have to go up to go down, and Carney never made it above Camp III because of avalanches and high winds. When I poked around for trip details, talking to people in Chamonix and elsewhere about Carney's strategy, it was difficult to get a handle on the seriousness of her attempt.

Mike Marolt cleared that up. He and his brother, Bill, both from Aspen, had been turned back from a ski attempt of the mountain that spring. "She, like us and Stephen Koch, all got our asses handed to us on Everest," he wrote me. "But at least our asses were there to get kicked. Maegan's effort was totally legit, and if I were Pete Rose, I would bet she will get the job done sooner or later."

After Carney came down from Camp III, she left Base Camp with a Canadian named Grant Meekins, who had been helping out there, and with whom she'd been sharing a tent. The rest of the expedition made another attempt-with some members making it 250 feet shy of the summit-but she was finished. "I strongly felt like I was going to die if I went back up," Carney said. "My intuition was screaming at me. If you don't pay attention to that, maybe you'll get lucky, but then your intuition gets quieter. It was hard to walk away from something that's been such an enormous goal. At that point I couldn't even imagine trying to raise the money again. It was that awful of an experience for me."

Carney couldn't get a major sponsor for Everest and wound up scrounging for the bulk of the $50,000 fee by way of $50 and $100 donations. Unlike skiing, self-promotion has never been easy or natural for her. Incredibly, as the reigning 2003 world champion, she had no ski sponsor-Fischer had dropped her for younger talent. It looked like nobody wanted her for 2004, either, until Chamonix-based Dynastar picked her up in late January.

"I figured a world championship title would have had a lot of clout, but it didn't," she confesses. "I don't know what it is about my personality that turns people off in the industry." She adds, with a laugh, "You'd think that with my background in psychotherapy I'd be able to figure it out. I feel like I should be more enthusiastic about talking about myself; I feel like I'm really boring."

Ulmer, who's never had issues with marketing herself, knows the drill. "She could be a millionaire if she were a good businessperson," she says of Carney. "You gotta have the radness on skis, and one or all of the following: a business sense, a personality that is quotable, or looks. You could be dumb as a post and gorgeous and make it. Or you could be really ugly and vivacious and make it."

After a week in Chamonix with Carney, it's obvious she's still feeling the disappointment (and altitude fatigue) from Everest. She's not so naive as to have expected to summit, yet she was shocked she didn't. She hadn't "failed" on skis since her collegiate racing days.But there was something else.

We're having dinner at an Italian restaurant, and as the wine starts to flow, things come into focus. I ask her if she has any regrets about dropping out to follow her dreams. She says no, but that she feels a bit guilty: "I realize extreme skiing isn't saving the world." Though she's been nurturing her body these five years, being a ski bum-even at a world-class level-has left her little opportunity to feed her brain. She's frustrated that her French isn't good enough to communicate at a depth she's accustomed to. And sitting around her tiny apartment reading self-help books only goes so far toward mental stimulation.

Carney tells me she's missing Meekins, who became her fiancé about a month after the Everest trip, and who is now living in Canmore, British Columbia. "I'm one of those people who's high drama. All of my relationships have been fiery and dramatic and totally out of control," she explains. "I'm like, 'Oh, great!' And I jump in with both feet. I am being so cautious with Grant, it cracks me up."

I nearly spit out my wine. "You guys have known each other three months and you're engaged!"

"Yeah, but it's real," she says, arching her brow in earnest. "It's not just a flight of my fancy. Grant's my rock. I go all over the map, and he stays nice and solid."

Not long after I visited Carney, she moved to Canmore. In April she and Meekins got married in the Yukon. When I catch up with her on the phone in British Columbia, she sounds totally different.

"When you were in Chamonix, I wasn't really on my feet emotionally," she says. "I wasn't really depressed about Everest-just flat. It was a grief. Now I'm like, 'Oh, no problem, I'm going back.'"

"You are?"

"Oh, yeah. Grant's going to come with me." She and Meekins have just logged a first descent-on their honeymoon-in Alaska's St. Elias Range, and she's already started planning for Everest. For the moment, anyway, Carney seems undaunted at the prospect of raising the money, partly because Dynastar is kicking in some seed sponsorship.

"I have a sense of security and a connection to the world that I haven't had for a really long time," she tells me. "My life is more whole." What she didn't need to tell me is that she's finally managed to get out of her head.f, knows the drill. "She could be a millionaire if she were a good businessperson," she says of Carney. "You gotta have the radness on skis, and one or all of the following: a business sense, a personality that is quotable, or looks. You could be dumb as a post and gorgeous and make it. Or you could be really ugly and vivacious and make it."

After a week in Chamonix with Carney, it's obvious she's still feeling the disappointment (and altitude fatigue) from Everest. She's not so naive as to have expected to summit, yet she was shocked she didn't. She hadn't "failed" on skis since her collegiate racing days.But there was something else.

We're having dinner at an Italian restaurant, and as the wine starts to flow, things come into focus. I ask her if she has any regrets about dropping out to follow her dreams. She says no, but that she feels a bit guilty: "I realize extreme skiing isn't saving the world." Though she's been nurturing her body these five years, being a ski bum-even at a world-class level-has left her little opportunity to feed her brain. She's frustrated that her French isn't good enough to communicate at a depth she's accustomed to. And sitting around her tiny apartment reading self-help books only goes so far toward mental stimulation.

Carney tells me she's missing Meekins, who became her fiancé about a month after the Everest trip, and who is now living in Canmore, British Columbia. "I'm one of those people who's high drama. All of my relationships have been fiery and dramatic and totally out of control," she explains. "I'm like, 'Oh, great!' And I jump in with both feet. I am being so cautious with Grant, it cracks me up."

I nearly spit out my wine. "You guys have known each other three months and you're engaged!"

"Yeah, but it's real," she says, arching her brow in earnest. "It's not just a flight of my fancy. Grant's my rock. I go all over the map, and he stays nice and solid."

Not long after I visited Carney, she moved to Canmore. In April she and Meekins got married in the Yukon. When I catch up with her on the phone in British Columbia, she sounds totally different.

"When you were in Chamonix, I wasn't really on my feet emotionally," she says. "I wasn't really depressed about Everest-just flat. It was a grief. Now I'm like, 'Oh, no problem, I'm going back.'"

"You are?"

"Oh, yeah. Grant's going to come with me." She and Meekins have just logged a first descent-on their honeymoon-in Alaska's St. Elias Range, and she's already started planning for Everest. For the moment, anyway, Carney seems undaunted at the prospect of raising the money, partly because Dynastar is kicking in some seed sponsorship.

"I have a sense of security and a connection to the world that I haven't had for a really long time," she tells me. "My life is more whole." What she didn't need to tell me is that she's finally managed to get out of her head.

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