The Work Behind the Body
When Jeannie Wall moved into my childhood subdivision, my dad would point at her house as we drove to town and say, “That woman skies up and down mountains. Like, up and down, up and down. She’s an endurance queen.” I would press my nose to the car window, hoping to catch a glimpse of this elusive mountain creature. I figured she might have advice for an aspiring outdoor athlete like I was then.
Flash forward ten years later, and Jeannie Wall is climbing routes next to me in Spire. I had read the articles at this point about her accomplishments as a skier and endurance athlete, from winning the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in 2002, to taking fifth place at the World Championship of Ski Mountaineering in 2004. When it came to choosing the final feature for The Work Behind the Body series, I saw my chance to fulfill that childhood dream of learning from Jeannie Wall.
With a compact build and a natural radiance, Jeannie reminds me of a female version of Peter Pan. She’s a straight-forward, no bull shit kinda gal, which probably comes from a few decades of challenging herself in the mountains. I was nervous to ask her to take part in this series, but it turns out she's as kind and friendly as she is badass.
I not only craved to hear about Jeannie’s experiences as a top-notch mountain athlete, but also about her journey maintaining vitality in her 40s and beyond. She moves with the buoyancy of someone ten or twenty years her junior. I started this series because I’m hungry for stories of athletes challenging perceived barriers of age or gender or body type.
Well, Jeannie certainly delivers a satiating dish below, but not entirely in the ways I had anticipated. The narrative you’ll read is not one of a "do more, be more" ethos, but a story inviting a more generous approach to self-improvement. As someone who sometimes struggles with balancing a desire to be better with appreciating who I am now, (as so many of us do), Jeannie’s words prove to be food for the soul as well as fuel for the fire.
I couldn’t imagine a better interview to end the series on. Thank you, Jeannie, for sharing your story, and in so doing, helping us better understand and embrace our own.
Meet Jeannie Wall
professional outdoor athlete
Kelsey: What sports do you enjoy?
Jeannie: My main passion right now is climbing. Whether rock, ice or alpine, I love being in the mountains as much as possible. I will admit that skiing is in my bones, though, and I still make a ton of time for backcountry touring and some ski mountaineering. I crave being up on a wall of rock or ice or floating on skis down a big white mountain away from anyone but good friends and kindred spirits.
K: How often do you workout? What do those workouts usually involve?
J: I don’t usually consider what I do a “workout” unless I’m forced to go inside a gym. (Though I confess, I enjoy going to Spire!)
I’m obsessed with being outside, but I still “train” a bit with specific weight, climbing, and core workouts inside. These workouts are incredibly important, but never as fulfilling as pumping my lungs in fresh mountain air.
I always used to joke that my Daytimer was the weather forecast, which dictated when and what I could do outside on any given day; then I’d figure out how to fit in my work.
Someone once asked me while on a long run in the Tetons what I was training for and I could only think of answering: “life.”
Yoga is a must, but I don’t do it nearly as much as I should, though in winter it ramps up. I’m not innately goal oriented, so unless I’m really focused and training for something specific, I gravitate to doing whatever gives me the most joy and/or fuels my need for a physical/mental fix.
That said, I trained really hard for Nordic and Ski Mountaineering racing for a long time so it’s harder now for me to want to be on such a strict schedule. It was an awesome feeling to be on top in those sports, but it came at a cost.
K: How often would you say you get “out” to enjoy your sports?
J: Almost every day. I’m fortunate to work part time most days so I have time to get out. My friends think my only job is to test gear outside, but the reality is that it’s really a desk job doing product development for Rab. When I travel or the weather or work shuts me down, I’ll hit the gym or take a run.
My real challenge is in taking enough rest days, and recognizing that if I want to do something big, the training and discipline are worth the reward in the end.
K: What are some of your favorite places to go?
J: Somewhere in the mountains unless I’m swimming in my pond in the summer! I love Gallatin canyon for climbing, Hyalite for its magical days on ice, the Bridger Range, Sawtooths and Cooke City for skiing, and traveling to the Utah desert and Alaska, the Elephant’s Perch, the Hulk: anywhere remote and wild.
Of course, Patagonia, Argentina is one of the best places to feel like you’re in a wild raw place filled with adventure. And once you go into the mountains of Alaska, you’ll want to return every spring. It’s magical beyond description.
Truly, any place wild and raw and away from large groups of people is where I prefer to spend my time. I confess that July 4th weekend climbing with girlfriends at Tensleep and dancing in the streets with crusty locals, is pretty frigging fun.
K: How have the mountains molded who you are and how you live?
J: I grew up on lakes in the Midwest flatlands, so moving to Montana offered up a world of exploration and wildness I had never experienced, except maybe sailing on the ocean or Great Lakes as a kid, which was amazing but often scared me.
Mountains are unique and constantly unfolding their gifts. They have helped me find what I never thought I was capable of: inner confidence and peace with who I am, and lately, who I am not!
Other times, they helped me escape myself and society. When I was at the Olympic Trials in Alaska for Nordic, racing around the track in circles at Kincaid Park, all I could think about was the amazing view of Denali and how much I wanted to be “out there.”
Mountains have given me endless challenges to push beyond my comfort level for myself, not for a finish line.
More importantly, my experiences in them helped unfold the many layers of my psyche to discover my real fears and potential; moments when collaboration is crucial; and to uncover true friendships in climbing and skiing partners. Life and death experiences bring out the best and worst in us all.
Mountains also help me understand that “sport” need not be competitive. It can be supportive, inclusive and empowering toward making us understand the inner connectedness of all things and give us a sense of compassion toward everyone.
Wildness is not relegated to mountains: It’s in each of us. This inner-wildness is more easily uncovered through raw and challenging times in the mountains--maybe just simple long runs in them or icy cold dips in high alpine tarns after a long day of climbing.
I’ve learned that surrender is a far better teacher than the fight for survival or a finish line. The ultimate challenge is to conquer my ego, not a mountain.
K: What changes in outdoor sports have you witnessed overtime?
J: Mainly, increased access and volume. Through social media and the Internet, information is so readily available that more folks are inspired to get outside and they learn quicker and progress rapidly in their sport.
What amazes me most is that the old school method of working up the ladder of route levels or alpine routes in general has been blown apart. Now, you go from 5.9 in the gym to 5.12 in Yosemite virtually overnight. Or even wilder, from a hard ice route in Hyalite to putting up a new alpine route in the Himalaya.
It’s awesome that mental barriers are less formidable, but it’s terrifying that risks are elevated just as quickly. Weather forecasts are more dialed and available at our fingertips no matter how far into the backcountry we are, so more people venture out further and attempt harder climbs or ski descents.
This all means four things in my life: more great partners available, more inspiring mentors and routes, too many people everywhere we go, and sadly, more friends dying way too young.
K: What advice would you give others seeking to sustain athletic prowess?
J: Make sure deep down, that you are doing it for yourself, that no matter what the outcome, the process is fulfilling regardless of end goals, and you are not comparing yourself to others to feel worthy or doing it because you think you should.
Be careful about being addicted to feeling at the top of your game. You can never be on top forever. It’s great to set a new route, summit or win a medal, but if it is never enough, then you have missed their greatest value.
Celebrate your accomplishments, but know that if you let them define you, your failures will as well. Either is a gift that can teach us to become a richer human being if we don’t become attached to them.
Pick a sport with a finish line if you feel you have to compete! I regret that I didn’t quit racing sooner and get into climbing and the mountains earlier, but I’m lucky. When I was my fittest, I was racing Triathlons, Nordic, Ski Mo and Ultra Running, and all of those have clear boundaries and finish lines.
Climbing and skiing big mountains are a personal pursuit for personal fulfillment. Because there are no finish lines or rules in the mountains, if you choose to compete in these pursuits, you will likely find yourself either constantly feeling inadequate, or worse, pushing your limits beyond reasonable risk for the glory of Facebook or Instagram short term fame.
Most sponsorships are never worth the risks you take to uphold them. The key is keeping it in perspective and being certain that each goal or trip is one you would want if sponsorship was never in the picture.
A famous climber once said, “The best and most fulfilled climber, is the one who puts up a new route out of the Grand Canyon at night and never tells anyone about it.” I wish we were all cultured to be that person instead of the Instagram super hero.
K: What does beautiful mean to you?
J: Selfless (egoless) confidence.
Grace, integrity, loving kindness, inner peacefulness, soul, humility, groundedness, compassion, awesome sense of (and often self deprecating) humor! The most beautiful people I know seem to always put others' needs ahead of theirs.
K: How has/have your sport(s) shaped your body image and your relationship to your body in general?
J: Without question, I admit that I’ve had a body image challenge since I was young. It is always hard to separate my love of sport with my need to feel fit and stay lean. I wish it was not the case.
I’m hopeful that young women are more confident today to let that go, and no matter their body type, accept it and focus on the positive aspects of athleticism that don’t involve looking thin or buff.
There is a difference between feeling and looking healthy and actually being healthy. I’ve overstepped that line far too many times, foregoing needed rest and more yoga for a workout that mentally de-stressed me, but physically broke me down.
Probably the biggest downside to being a top level athlete, or just super fit, is that you develop a strength of mind that overpowers your body’s ability to communicate when going slow or just not going at all is the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and for your athletic goals, let alone for your partner and friendships! My mistakes caused me to have one knee and three shoulder surgeries in my early 40’s, among other issues. I’m still learning.
K: What advice would you give women and/or fellow athletes in general to better enjoy their unique bodies?
J: Just what I said above. The women I most admire in my life are those who don’t waste energy on how cut they are or what clothes they wear. Use your strength to support others.
Beautiful, powerful, kick ass and fun women focus their energy on being a better friend, lover and family member and on cultivating integrity and a sense of humor grounded in compassion and joy.
Anne Quindlen, a writer and inspiration, once said at a commencement speech, the most important thing we can do in life is to “show up, listen and try to laugh.”
The best thing about being strong and fit is how empowered it makes us feel, but if we get addicted to that feeling, it is just another drug.
She also said, “It’s easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.” The beauty of the mountains is how soulful and spiritual they make me feel.
My experiences, not my resume, form and inform me.
The main thing in my life I would trade after half a century, is all the energy I wasted on worrying about what others think of me and what I thought my body should look and feel like, instead of using that energy to be more compassionate, loving and playful with myself, with those I know and love, and with every stranger I encounter.
I would be a better climber and athlete if I had focused less on my body perception and more on balance. It’s still a work in progress.
Thank you, Jeannie, for sharing your wisdom and humor.