In this week's blog we sit down with new Backcountry Zero Ambassador Crista Valentino. We learn about her backcountry pursuits, what scares her and what inspired her to join the Backcountry Zero team.
Where did you grow up?
Crista: I grew up in Oakdale, which is on Long Island in New York. I was always outside, always playing sports. I always kind of found myself playing harder than most of my girlfriends so I always ended up hanging out with all the boys throughout elementary school and high school. It was always organized sports though. But when I think about my childhood, if I played outside we would play pick-up soccer or make up games. In the summers my family would do these long boat trips. It wasn’t a big boat, it was a family of 4 on this thing the size of a small camper for 2 weeks on end. So I guess that was sort of our version of camping.
How did you end up in Jackson?
Crista: I went to school in Connecticut and after I graduated I got a job in Salt Lake City so I moved there 10 days after I graduated from college. I had some friends up here so I would visit a couple of weekends every month. Then my contract ended in Salt Lake and my friends convinced me to move up here for the winter. So I was here for that first winter when we had like 600 inches of snow and I was miserable! (laughs) I was so unhappy and I was totally going to leave. I thought ‘this place is horrible’! (more laughing) And then summer came and I thought ‘this place is great!’ and now it’s been 7 years.
How did you get into climbing, skiing, mountain biking and all of the other activities you participate in now?
Crista: I hadn’t done any of it before. I literally hadn’t slept in a tent, never even hiked. I remember that first winter, driving around with a friend in the park and just not getting how people could climb the Grand and how people can do things like that. My first hike was Jackson Peak and I was miserable. I think I cried I thought it was so hard (laughs). I made it to the top and asked my friend “Is this what the Grand is like? And he was like, um… ‘No’”. But it was really through friends who liked to do those things and showed me. It started small and then gradually got bigger and bigger… doing the Middle and then doing some peaks solo. A friend gave me a mountain bike that was like 3 sizes to small and it was awful! I was miserable all of the time back then! But when I think what I’m able to do now compared to where I was 6 summer ago - it’s crazy the progression. I’ve had a lot of really patient people that allowed me to cry or freak out on the side of mountains, who taught me things and still encourage me and help me push my limits. They help me believe in my abilities, mentor me, teach me things and share their knowledge.
What aspects of mountaineering and backcountry travel do you find most challenging now?
Crista: I’d say it’s still the mental part of it. It’s really easy to look at something and think ‘I’ll never be able to do that, that’s really scary, that’s really hard or that’s way out of my limits’, and so for me, stopping that and just trusting myself and my skills and knowing that I am capable. So definitely the mind part is still difficult. I don’t think anything ever actually gets easier, but you get better and faster. It’s a mental game of not setting those boundaries for yourself but constantly seeing how far you can push those limits, knowing where your comfort zone lies and why it’s there.
With that in mind, how do you weigh risk with those goals of pushing the limits? How do you push that line but still stay safe?
Crista: I’m actually extremely risk-averse. I’ve probably pictured every scenario that could potentially happen that could either really hurt or kill me way before anything I do. So part of it for me is being really prepared, whether that’s learning skills or really knowing who my partner is, or going through all of the possible scenarios and what the outcomes could be and what I would do. For me a lot of that has been managed just by giving myself the tools. So if I want to do bigger things how do I set myself up skill-wise to do them. Doing a lot of research - the more I know before I do something the better I feel. A lot of that happens way before I decide to go and do something.
What advice would you give to people who are less experienced that want to get out and explore the mountains or try a new sport?
Crista: I think this town has way more resources than many people realize to get integrated, whether it’s through events and workshops at Search and Rescue or seminars in town.There’s really a plethora of information and people. Finding someone you connect with that’s better than you that will take you out and teach you. You can find some information online too, but for me a lot of it has to come from that self-desire to learn. If you put yourself out there, you can find that information and the experiences to become more knowledgable. A lot of it you can learn on your own, and I’ve done that too, but it’s way more scary and way less secure.
Any big goals or things you want to accomplish in the mountains in the next few years?
Crista: I think every year I put a little tick list in the back of my mind. Less for the need to peak bag and check things off, but more to remind myself of the idea of doing things. Is the idea of doing the Grand Traverse comfortable if that’s in my head? Should it be there? At the beginning of the summer the idea of leading trad was something that I could never even consider and a few weeks ago I did a seven pitch lead and I led the entire thing. And felt comfortable the entire time. So it’s less big goals but finding things that make me uncomfortable, because most things are still really hard for me, and progressing and getting better and doing new things.
What inspired you to join the Backcountry Zero Ambassador team?
Crista: I like the vision. I think Backcountry Zero empowers people to recognize that they’re a part of it. It’s a community vision. It reminds you that you have a choice every time you go into the mountains, every time you get on a bike, every time you do anything, you have choices. And when you recognize that how you make those decisions also affects so many other people and affects this community, then it may change something in your decision making process. So I really appreciate that Backcountry Zero is bringing the community together in a way that says let’s be better prepared, let’s know the information we need to know to be safe, let’s check our friends and know who are partners are, and rethink the way we do things when we go out. It’s a really empowering vision because we all have those choices, and I think sometimes we forget that what we decide to do has a much larger ripple effect than we know.
What do you do to pay the bills?
Crista: I do a lot of stuff. But one of the main things that I’m really passionate about is getting more young people involved in creating change for a better future for our planet. I run an initiative called Coalition Wild that basically searches out projects around the world that people, who are doing really cool things for the planet, have underway and we use them to create more action with young people. So it’s this entire idea of getting the next generation of leaders involved and understanding that it’s not just conservationists or environmentalists or biologists that can change the world but rather you and me, and people in communities that know their area best. We figure out how to empower and encourage them to be an example. So I run and develop a lot of projects that foster that.