Kellie Okonek is out for the season, thanks to a blown anterior cruciate ligament, but she’s already had a bigger start that most of us, having just returned from a trans-Pacific tour to southern Japan, so she’s not sweating it. The Alaskan engineer turned ski mountaineer is on the recovery, but nevertheless remains in the full stride of life. We were able to get a hold of her post-surgery, and get some insight on the coming year as her knee heals and plans unfold.
Where did you grow up, and how did you get into skiing? I grew up in Bellingham, Washington, where my family and I spent weekends camped in the parking lot of Mt. Baker. My dad ran the kids lessons program in order to enable the whole family to be skiers. My sister and I felt like we ran the place, free skiing in our matching one-piece ski suits, and sledding the evenings away. Skiing was a huge part of growing up, and Mt. Baker was a phenomenal home base.
How’d you end up in Alaska as a professional skier—and engineer whose schedule allows you to do both?
I had always wanted to live in Alaska because it’s always represented adventure for me. In 2005, I tore my left ACL and did a survey of my life.
I was living in the SF bay area, working a 9-5 job, and NOT living the life I’d dreamed of. So I decided to head north, way north. I was lucky enough to find a good job and create a life I’d only imagined could be mine. I now work a rotational schedule, which means I travel to work in Prudhoe Bay for two weeks of work and then get two weeks off.
This allows me to live in Girdwood (home of Alyeska Resort, and in the midst of the Chugach Mountains),and to organize my schedule for larger chunks of time off. With my free time occurring in blocks, I’ve been able to adventure year-round in Alaska’s mountains, as well as internationally to Argentina, Chile, Antarctica, Albania, Kosovo, and most recently Japan.
You were in Japan the last couple weeks. What were the highlights of the trip?
I was shocked at how big and beautiful the mountains around Hakuba were, and the highlight was meeting a group of rippers who we re kind enough to show me the ropes. We skied the powder that Japan is famous for, and also enjoyed bluebird tour days to explore some pretty awesome backcountry terrain.
And let’s not forget the monkeys; my first day we saw about eight snow monkeys in the wild, which was just about as cool of an end to a ski run as I can imagine!
Then there was the low part being your torn ACL, your second one at that. What projects are you planning for your recovery?
Well, combine that with having broken both collarbones skiing, I’m going to call myself balanced after this and hopefully complete the injury cycle!! Right now my focus is on walking again, but I am starting to think toward summer bike races and a sea kayaking trip in Alaska. I’ve wanted to try sea kayaking for a while, given the amazing coastline in this state, so this might be the perfect opportunity! My big carrot I’m working toward is being cleared for a kiteboarding trip to Brazil in October. I am just getting into kiteboarding and have adream to do a 300 km downwinder along the coast of Ceara, Brazil, and that should put me in great shape to be ready for skiing when the AK winter kicks off in the fall.
I am committed to rehab, and coming back as a better, stronger, more-balanced athlete and person than when I started. I also plan to start learning Portuguese, and to figure out how I can more actively support the causes/issues I believe in. As much as I may prefer to avoid them, injuries have thus far been good teachers and provided impetus to survey my life, and course-correct as necessary to make sure I’m living as passionately and fully as possible.
What is/are your favorite kinds of ski objectives? Steeps, traverses, high peaks? Why? I love aesthetic lines in remote places, and I love doing things that I don’t know I can. The best days of my life have been summit descents off of beautiful peaks because they are the culmination of planning, luck, suspension of disbelief, training, fear management, team dynamics, and all the other details that have to come together to pull these things off. I am currently obsessed with volcanoes, especially those out the Aleutian chain—with some of the worst weather on the planet, the remoteness factor, and the fact that many are still active, every summit and descent is a true adventure. I also think it’s super cool to be skiing with the sea in view, which is the case for most of those volcanoes as well.
Some of my favorite ski moments have been at altitude (Denali’s Messner Couloir, Aconcagua’s Polish Glacier, and a few high altitude trips in the Andes), and there is some sick pleasure that comes from persevering against the challenge of altitude. I also think those trips take a lot out of me, so I’m not sure I’ll continue to seek them out like I once did. The exception there would be the Himalayas, and the chance to ski something like Cho Oyu. I think that would be such an incredible trip on so many levels.
How long have you been with SCARPA, and what boots and shoes are you keen on? I’ve been with SCARPA since 2008, through the Diva, Shaka, Gea, and on to the Gea RS. I have to say that I really think SCARPA hit the mark with the Gea RS. With the amazing walk mode and lightness of the original Gea, but the stiffness to powerfully drive a ski, these boots are pretty incredible. I loved them in Japan both inbounds and in the backcountry. I’m bummed I won’t get to put them to the test in Alaska this spring, but I’ll be super excited to get back out in them next season!
Any long-term goals in skiing or engineering that you’re looking forward to?
Keep on exploring! I dream of doing a Balkans road trip (based on the amazing ski potential we witnessed on our 2010 Albania/Kosovo trip), and am starting to think about skiing more in the Azerbaijan/Georgia region. I’m also totally inspired to return to Japan and explore the lesser-known ski areas in addition to skiing as many volcanoes (in Alaska and beyond) as I can! I also aspire to learn at least one other language (I currently speak Spanish), although I hope it’s two, so I think that means I need to spend some time living in another country! Right now, I am asking myself lots of questions, but intend to turn the answers into plans as my recovery continues.