What most people don’t know about Hadley Hammer is that her professional ski career began just six years ago. The 31-year-old grew up figure skating and Nordic skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She would freeski for fun on the weekends, chasing her brothers who were more serious about the sport. In college, Hammer majored in hospitality and economics at the University of New Hampshire. When she was 25, with a goal of running her own hotel one day, Hammer moved back to Jackson to help manage the Amangani, a high-end luxury resort. She started working out at a local gym called Mountain Athlete where some friends eventually encouraged her to enter a freeskiing competition. She did, and she blew it—skiing her whole run in the backseat. But she had a lot of fun and wanted to see what her limits were. So naturally, she poured everything into skiing.
In 2013, three years after that first competition, Hammer was out of the back seat and standing on podiums, gaining attention from big name sponsors like the North Face. A year later she started filming with TGR. Since then her career, and her skiing, has skyrocketed. She has been featured in three TGR movies and travelled to far away places like Bolivia, Europe, and the Yukon to seek out big, backcountry lines. This year, Hadley was lucky enough to film a part in some of the deepest snow the crew had ever experienced in Canada. Check out her upcoming part in Far Out, presented by REI.
Last winter was big for Hammer. She skied big lines, landed tricks, rode powder and pillows in Canada, and spent over two weeks honing her mountaineering skills in Chamonix. Then in April, right before she was supposed to leave for yet another dream trip to Norway, she took a bad fall while filming in Canada. Two surgeries later, Hammer was spending 20 hours a day in a La-Z-Boy and living at her parents’ house trying to heal. Then, her friends started dying—one in a skiing accident and two from cancer. I talked with Hammer about her season, her injuries, and how she coped with the death of two friends and a family member without the scapegoat of going into the mountains.
Full disclosure: Hadley is my roommate and a close friend.
What was your attitude that you took into last season?
My ski career started late. When I started, it was just about figuring out what I could do on skis. Once I started doing well in competitions and getting sponsors I became really concerned with other people’s perception of my skiing. As a result of that judgment, I froze for two years. When I first started filming with TGR, I wasn’t sure if I deserved it, or if I was even good enough to be filming. I really didn’t have much confidence and I had a lot of judgment against my own skiing. I would be so incredibly critical of every turn, every angle, every air. And it would bring me down and it was exhausting.
Of course, there are pressures with sponsorship and, when all of the sudden you are getting to do something that so many kids want to do, you kind of have to feel like you earned that spot. But I don't think the judgment was serving me. And I feel like at the beginning of last season I was in this place where I just realized that and was like I'm done with that I'm just going to go back to pushing myself even if I waste the whole day filming because I am trying to throw a 360, which every 13-year-old boy can do. It's still worth it for me.
Last winter, Hammer joined Sam Smoothy, Johnny Collinson, and Ian McIntosh in Bolivia to climb and ski some of the scariest lines she had ever laid eyes upon.
What kind of ways did you push yourself this year?
I pushed myself in little ways, like wanting to do a trick in my segment. I love watching Tatum Monod because she throws tricks in all her segments, and my brother Max has always thrown these beautiful 360s. They’re not that complicated of a trick, but because you can get off axis really easily I think they are actually a little bit harder than a backflip. So when I went to Revelstoke with Dane Tudor and Nick McNutt, who have been doing tricks for almost two decades, I figured it was a good time to learn.
They were so awesome about letting me hit these jumps over and over again and teaching me how to build my own. And they gave me a ton of tips. I landed a few. Some of them are horrible and I crashed but I'd finish the day of filming feeling really stoked because I was trying.
That act of learning is so important to me.
You went to Canada three times, filmed with TGR for Far Out and Sherpa Cinemas, and then went to Chamonix. How did you make that happen?
I like having goals, loosely held. It gives you a direction but being too strict makes you freeze when you are not accomplishing them or not fluid enough to change plans. But I doodled in my notebook at one point how my dream year would look and it was kind of by country. I would spend Christmas at home, January in Canada, then I’d go to Europe, then Alaska, then back to Europe, then to Norway and South America. It was weird to see it unfold exactly how I wanted to. Well, I guess, until the end.
Chamonix was going really well until it wasn’t. You were cultivating new mountain partnerships and learning how to navigate complicated terrain by yourself. And then sluff took you out while hiking a line and you fell 1500 feet. Why was that trip so important for you to go, and how did it change you?
I think one of the things I thought would help me stop being so critical of myself and freezing and skiing like a weenie, is having one trip a year that is focused on only learning. So I went to Chamonix to work on my mountaineering skills. I met up with this girl Maddie Crowell, who I barely knew but she had the same goal of going into the mountains and learning how to be self-sufficient. I feel like I’ve always skied with people that are much better at that stuff than I am and you realize how much they do for you. Even if you say, I want to do a lot of it today, they still do minor things that you, or they, don't even notice. So to go to Chamonix and be the one who was showing Maddie around was such a positive experience. The safety and line choice, and rope work, and crossing crevasses, we were doing it all. You really realize what skills your missing but also what you have, and it was really rad.
On one of our last days, we were hiking up this line and there was a sluff release above us. I was first in the boot-pack and I got taken out. I fell over 1500 feet and tomahawked over a bergschrund. It was really scary and violent and weird because I stopped at the bottom and I was totally fine physically. But mentally, it was insane because if it had been a slightly different situation my fall could have taken me over rocks and a bigger part of the schrund or I could have knocked out the entire group. It was the closest I've ever been to death in the mountains. But I wasn't even hurt.
Back home in Jackson Hole, Hammer gets to do a lot of this.
What did you learn from this experience?
I think it was the first time I realized I could die. And that was really intense and I don't think I said it out loud until I saw a therapist a month later. She had me tell the story and she said she could see it was still bothering me by the way my body was responding when I talked about it. I realized I could die and I don't want to. I also realize that I have some control but not 100 percent.
What happened after Chamonix?
I got invited on a last minute trip for the North Face with Sherpa Cinema in Canada. I said yes, because for me this stuff is all still my dream. I was so excited. It was a heli-trip to BC with Christina Lustenberger who has been one of my heroes and someone I've wanted to ski with for so long time. Dane Tudor and Sammy Carlson were also on the trip—so it was all people that I wanted to learn from. I went and on the third day I crashed on my second run. The first run was amazing. Sammy, Christi, and I were looking at lines for our warm-up run. I saw the line I really wanted to ski and I took it. Then for my second run, the clouds came in as I finally dropped in and I couldn't see anything but didn't want to stop because of my sluff.
I was still afraid of sluff at that point because it was merely five days after the crash in Chamonix. I blacked out the crash, but I remember trying to jump over my sluff and landing in rocks. My shoulder was out and my leg really hurt when I stopped.
The rescue was really amazing. The guides at Mica Heli and the rest of the crew were so professional and efficient. But even with that, it was five hours before my shoulder was put back in, and the pain was insane. But again, you feel the love of the community—Leah Evans, a friend from the ski world, was at the hospital waiting for me as I was rolled in. Christina helped with the rescue, I remember Sammy holding my hand. It’s just a really beautiful community.
You got home and you found out you had torn your rotator cuff, labrum, and bicep, and fractured her shoulder, and tore the meniscus in the lateral and medial part of your knee. You had surgery on your knee and shoulder at the same time. What was it like to be so broken?
They had warned me that if I did both surgeries at once, it would be difficult, but I wanted to because I wanted to ski next winter. They were right. I spent over a month in a wheelchair and moved back with my parents for a little bit because I needed so much help. I didn't have use of half my body. It was weird because at the beginning I felt like it wasn't that hard but it was so debilitating that the tiniest goals, like peeing without peeing my pants or making my own peanut butter toast, was a huge deal. And so that felt really easy to stay positive through. But then it got harder.
It got harder once I could walk, which is a bit ironic because my life was actually getting easier, at least physically. I remember talking to Angel Collinson before the surgery and she told me that I would be ok, but that this would change me more than I thought. I didn’t really believe her. But man, she was right. It really changes you and it's really hard to explain why. You are alone a lot with your injury. Like a lot, a lot. And it doesn't matter how supportive your friends and family are you just have to do a lot of stuff by yourself.
How did you push through?
I really had no other options. In this fucked up way, and maybe this is humans trying to justify things, but I think the biggest gift I have from this injury besides spending time with my parents is that I had to deal with a lot of emotions. I feel really good when I’m skiing or climbing in the mountains and it's how I’ve always formed relationships and dealt with stress. But when you are sitting broken and your body is squishy and gross and you can't do anything. You are just dealing.
Then my friends died, my aunt died, and I was struggling with other things in my personal life. I felt like I was losing all these things: friends, relationships, my strength. And I went super dark. I cried a lot and I wouldn't get out of bed and I'd let myself feel all those things. I just let myself have those emotions and surrounded myself with people who didn’t judge me for being sad.
So I went and worked with a therapist. And I wish people would talk about seeing therapists more. I think there’s a lot of stigma there.
Having a professional help you through your feelings is such a positive experience. And the happiness eventually returned and the confidence is returning and things in my life, right now, they feel really, really good.
You have been close to death four times this year now, and on top of that it’s the first time in your life being close to it at all. Tell me what kept you from going insane.
I remember having this fucked up conversation with my dad on Father’s Day. I was really struggling at that point and we were talking and he is so Buddhist and calm. His advice was that nothing is permanent. Your feelings aren't permanent. These people aren't permanent. You're not permanent. I'm not permanent. And I think that has been something that has helped me through this process. It's really weird to have people die around you, whether they are really close, family, or they are just in your sport—they can all affect you and they will do it in different ways.
With Bryce Newcomb, for example, our friendship had faded considerably. We used to compete and travel together but other the last five years we haven't been close at all. But it was really hard when he died. He was pushing certain envelopes for sure, but there is no reason it wasn't me or anyone else in our local community. So it helped me see my own vulnerability. I thought, “OK I need to process that crash in Cham, I need to think about what my goals are and what is worth it, and I need to know how to check myself.” Did I honestly know enough about avalanches, and even just skiing? Are you picking the right time to push it? Do you know enough about your body?
How does it feel to be on the other side?
Last year was this huge test and I kind of feel like I passed it and I'm ready to see the results and what happens next. I’m so happy with how my life is—my career, my friends and family, my inner headspace. I'm really excited for next season. And I want to push it. I'm not that afraid to go back out there because of these injuries. I don't think I am scared of getting hurt again. Obviously I won’t know for sure until I'm clipping in. But I think I can have an idea, and I think I’ve learned so much lately about my emotions. And I’ve learned so much about what I can control—my knowledge, working with trainers like Chris Butler and working with therapists. Just giving myself all the tools I need to succeed.
I still love skiing so much and it's what I think about every time I'm in physical therapy and every time I'm with my trainer. My thoughts walking in the door are about skiing. My thoughts waking up and going to bed are about skiing.