Check out this exclusive interview by our executive director Claire Smallwood of Steph Jagger, author of the book Unbound and unofficial world-record holder for the most vertical feet skied in a single year. Maybe those two things aren’t quite enough to describe her. You could also say she’s a spiritual gangster, truth teller and provocateur.
Leaving behind a life of certainty, accomplishments, and surefire success, Steph’s journey (as told in Unbound) is a lot about skiing (South America, New Zealand, Japan, the Alps, and North America) but much more about what happens when we ‘raise restraining devices.’ Steph is a coach, motivational speaker, and breaker of barriers. Read on to get inspired!
So, you skied all around the world for a year…this is something so many people would dream about! Loving to ski is obviously a prerequisite for wanting to go on a trip like the one you embarked upon. Were you at all nervous that your body wouldn’t be able to stand up to the challenge of skiing that much? Did you do any training prior to the trip?
Heck yeah I was nervous but one day I was out with a friend – we were taking an Avi course together actually – anyway, he had recently completed a bike ride (cycle, as opposed to motor) across Canada and I’ll never forget what he said. “Steph, you can, and probably should, train a little, but I’ll tell ya straight up – you’re gonna get the fitness you need as you go. Don’t stress too much about being fit enough just prior.”
So that’s what I did. I focused hard on training to make sure my body could withstand the year – things like foundational core work and putting on a bit of muscle – but not so hard that I was already exhausted going into the trip…and then I let the months of skiing do the rest of the “sculpting”.
How many days a season on average did you ski prior to setting off on your year-long ski adventure?
In my twenties I was probably averaging somewhere around 15 – 20 days a year. So…this was a HUGE leap for me.
What was the single most memorable run of your entire trip? Why?
Oh [beep]…that’s hard. Probably when I was in the Japanese Alps – in the backcountry. I lost a ski halfway down a 3000 – 4000ft descent and had to make it down all that blissful powder on just one ski. I’ve got some hilarious photos and vids of this. Not a good or safe situation at the time but I can laugh about it now.
Do you have any travel or packing tips for someone who wanted to embark on a worldwide ski-venture?
“Whenever I needed to change platforms to meet a connecting train, which was every single time, I had two options. The first was to hop off one train with all of my gear, go up a set of stairs, walk across a connecting hallway, glide down another staircase, and meet my next train. The second was to lay down on the tracks with all of my gear. I chose the first option, but I’m not going to lie, I almost always regretted it halfway through the whole ordeal.” (p. 161)
Sure do. Here it is – get ready for every bit of clothing you bring with you, including your ski gear, to wind up looking like you spent three or four nights in a prison just outside of Bogota.
In all seriousness, pack in singles…other than your actual underwear. Pack one pair of jeans. One sweater. One pair of ski pants. One set of long undies. Etcetera. And replace things as you go.
And your luggage is key. A bag that has convenient pockets and lots of space, and separate compartments that make it a one stop shop, might end up being too heavy to haul through those airports, or might have you hit with massive weight-based fees on the airlines. In short, seriously consider your bags.
You often have quotes in the book from the The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer. What’s the significance of this book to you and to your journey?
Great question! I also use a fair number of Joseph Campbell quotes throughout the book but Zimmers are used at almost every section intro. Here’s the deal.
My hubby read a fable in a book one day and he called me immediately and said,” You’ve got to weave this into your book.” It was the fable about the baby tiger and I did use it. But back when I was doing research on it, I discovered that the primary source that it came from was an old Heinrich Zimmer book. When I found that book, I nearly fell over and died. Everything in it, from a mythological perspective, hit me hard. Also…as an added bonus, I found out that all of Zimmer’s works were published after his death, edited and put together by none other than Joseph Campbell, who I am RAVING fan of. All in, my answer to this is: magic. I found Zimmer’s book via magic and everything in it was magic, and the fact that I got rights to use the quotes was magic and it was all magic.
In Unbound, you talk about seeing yourself as “one of the guys” and vying for your father’s attention, how did the trip affect your relationship with the men in your family?
I don’t think the trip altered the relationship I have with the men in my family per se but I do think it altered the relationship I have now with women in my life (not necessarily in my family but in my broader life in general). The perfect example of that would be to look at my clients, I work with almost all women now.
The journey was less about getting rid or, or casting aside, my “one of the guys” persona, and more to do with bringing the feminine in to balance it all.
In Unbound, you describe an example of when femininity was linked with shame thanks to a rather embarrassing coming-of-age story. What advice would you have for your 13 year old self about embracing femininity?
The advice I have is not necessarily for my 13 year old self but rather for all of the women, and men, and boys that are around our 13 year old selves. I wish we talked about things more openly. I wish there was a proper celebration of our “coming-of-age”. I wish there wasn’t secrecy around it. I wish girls and boys were taught that these were moments to be revered in life, that they signify a transition and should be marked with joy and respect. I could go on about this, but I’ll just say that I told my 13 year-old niece that I want her to phone me when she gets her first period and that I would make sure there was a celebration in her honor.
Is there anything you regret or wish you had done differently during that trip?
Nope. I’m not one for regrets. Learnings, sure. Regrets…nope. I don’t think they serve us very well.
I know you just finished a summer of being the MC at REI’s Outessa events. What was that like? (more detail on this in next question)
Heaven. Point blank, I feel that a role (and opportunity) like that, is basically the equivalent of the gate of the Universe drawing open and me being asked to step forward and fulfill my purpose. I loved the partnership with REI, I loved what they created, and I felt honored to be part of it.
At Outessa, you had a lot of things going on. You had to be on the stage talking about everything from where the First Aid tent is to reminding people to apply sunscreen. You also acted as a mediator on Force of Nature panel discussions and also hosted hosted your own workshop of goal setting for attendees based on your awesome new coaching business “the Great Big Journey.” What were the big takeaways you had from participating in the Outessa events on so many levels? Was it everything you expected? Were you shocked by anything you learned?
I don’t think I was shocked by anything as a lot of what happens at Outessa mirrors what happens with women in the coaching work I do.
I would say that the biggest takeaways were how UNBELIEVABLE the REI team was. They had that event dialed – every detail was thought about and executed with intention, compassion and shared value. I would also say that seeing women connect with themselves, mother nature, and others was (and is) a total gift. We have to let go of a lot of stuff in order to be open to, and act on, those types of connections and bearing witness to all the shit those women were letting go of was, well, it was like watching a force of nature.
REI’s “Force of Nature” has garnered a lot of much-deserved attention around making strides for gender equity starting in the outdoors. You asked me this question during the Force of Nature panel at Kirkwood Outessa, and I am excited to return the favor! In order to step into and embody being a #ForceOfNature (personally or professionally) what has been the most important thing for you to take ownership of, connect to, or get intentional about?
I think this is a never-ending learning for me. The answer is different when asked to the 29 year old version of me – the one that stepped into being a #ForceofNature with the ski trip – as opposed to the version of me that I’m sitting in today.
The version of me now would probably say that the most important thing I need to get intentional about now is magic. Water alone is not a #ForceofNature but add wind to it and now we’re cooking. I think I’m always looking for the wind, the callings, the whispers, the magic that, if followed, will set me free. I’ve come to learn what I’m capable of on my own, what my willpower and brute strength can do. I’m not as interested in that anymore though. I’m more interested in what that, plus the wind can accomplish together.
A newfound career as a life coach and author must have you pretty busy. How do you find a balance between the woman you say you “used to be” who would plan every single thing out on a map and the “Great Big Journey” person you talk about today?
I’m a Capricorn so planning is still a pretty big part of my life but…I would say that first, before I plan, I follow the call of the Universe. I listen for it to tell me where to go, and then I plan. It’s basically a reversal of how I used to live. I used to plan first, and then try to figure out where that was going to lead me and what it all meant. Now, I find myself asking where I’m feeling called and why, before I move to planning. I spend time in the “discovery” phase before I move to “declaring” and “delivering” on those goals.
What would you say to someone thinking about jumping in for a process like “The Great Big Journey”?
Numero uno – Get ready. I would tell them that it gonna be a game changer and that they know game changers, like, change the game, right? In essence, the GBJ takes time and work. The end result is huge (even when it’s small), but getting there is not all roses and butterflies. I’m not the type of coach who promises cupcakes and sprinkles. I promise love, compassion and support, but I also warn that the road in can be muddy.
There are a lot of people saying they want things to change. The Great Big Journey will create that change but only if the people who do it are ready to do the work, move through resistance, manage some internal heavy lifting, looking in the mirror, and ultimately, cruise on over to Narnia.
Setting oneself free most often involves breaking some thick af chains. We’ve got chain cutters but you gotta do the cutting.
Where can people find more info about you?
@stephjagger (on Insta)
Where can people purchase Unbound
Anywhere fine books are sold…or they can cruise to my site and snap up a signed copy!
How do people sign up for “The Great Big Journey”?
Head on over to the site, check out the details, sign on up. The next intake runs January 7th for twelve weeks.
About the Book (from Harper Collins)
A young woman follows winter across five continents on a physical and spiritual journey that tests her body and soul, in this transformative memoir, full of heart and courage, that speaks to the adventurousness in all of us.
Steph Jagger had always been a force of nature. Dissatisfied with the passive, limited roles she saw for women growing up, she emulated the men in her life—chasing success, climbing the corporate ladder, ticking the boxes, playing by the rules of a masculine ideal. She was accomplished. She was living “The Dream.” But it wasn’t her dream.
Then the universe caught her attention with a sign: Raise Restraining Device. Steph had seen this ski lift sign on countless occasions in the past, but the familiar words suddenly became a personal call to shake off the life she had built in a search for something different, something more.
Steph soon decided to walk away from the success and security she had worked long and hard to obtain. She quit her job, took a second mortgage on her house, sold everything except her ski equipment and her laptop, and bought a bundle of plane tickets. For the next year, she followed winter across North and South America, Asia, Europe, and New Zealand—and up and down the mountains of nine countries—on a mission to ski four million vertical feet in a year.
What hiking was for Cheryl Strayed, skiing became for Steph: a crucible in which to crack open her life and get to the very center of herself. But she would have to break herself down—first physically, then emotionally—before she could start to rebuild. And it was through this journey that she came to understand how to be a woman, how to love, and how to live authentically.
Electrifying, heartfelt, and full of humor, Unbound is Steph’s story—an odyssey of courage and self-discovery that, like Wild and Eat, Pray, Love, will inspire readers to remove their own restraining devices and pursue the life they are meant to lead.