On an accidental career as a professional athlete, the surprising value of an injury, and feeling at home even while across the globe.
It’s a snowy February morning in Jackson, Wyoming. The Tetons rise from the valley floor just north of the tiny town, their jagged shape softened somewhat by the many feet of snow that blankets them for the better part of each year. On the edge of town, smoke puffs slowly from the chimney of a cozy home perched high on Snow King Mountain. Janelle Smiley sits cross-legged inside on the couch, eating carrot cake for breakfast. Her long, thick, wheat-colored hair shines in the warmth of the crackling fire beside her. She surveys ski boots, ice axes, and crampons neatly organized across the room in preparation for her next trip.
“We create our reality, by either choosing to be victims in our life, or actively going after what we want,” She comments in between bites. “What holds us back is all in our heads. Getting new perspectives is what allows us to reach our full potential, and sometimes you get that from something that’s hard at the time. Like having surgery by age 35, that’s usually not necessary before age 65!”
You’re a professional ski mountaineering racer. How did you get into your sport?
I lived in Crested Butte when a new Colorado skimo event started - the COSMIC series. I entered, with no experience or proper gear, and started winning races.
A friend talked me into going to the national championships in Jackson Hole. I hadn’t raced outside of Colorado, nobody knew who I was. I was wearing old janky boots and nordic clothes, everyone else had ski mountaineering suits and light weight gear. I was the underdog.
I was out racing, and suddenly I was in second place… and then first.
I won the national championship, the first time I competed at that level.
Winning that race, without any expectations, was amazing. What a special day!
You clearly light up thinking of that memory. What do you love about skimo racing?
It combines the athleticism of nordic skiing and the fun of alpine skiing!
Plus there’s a variety of races. The one here in Jackson is about 3 hours, 14 miles, 8,000 feet or so of vertical uphill, and a few transitions. Some are multi-day stage races, like the Pierra Menta in Italy.
Skimo is a niche in the states, but in Europe, everybody and their mom does it. Everybody and their mom and their grandma!
You spend much of the winter racing in Europe. What do you do when you’re not racing?
My husband Mark and I are mountain guides. In the summer we guide in the Tetons, with Exum. Spring is great for the Haute Route, skiing from Chamonix to Zermatt, and the Ortler, in Italy. We guide in Peru as well. The terrain is so dramatic.
So in the winter, you’re basically sprinting up mountains at high altitude in freezing temperatures. In the summer you’re guiding day trips of 15 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation gain up the Grand Teton. And on top of that, I understand you recently completed a long term mountaineering project?
My husband and I just finished a 7 year project, the 50 classic climbs of North America.
That is amazing. What led to taking on that challenge?
It was based on a book from 1979. Mark did an AMGA course with Christian Santelices, a guide who did 20 classics in 20 days. We thought that was really awesome! No one had climbed all 50… so we decided to go on an adventure.
What are your thoughts looking back on this project?
It was about climbing 50 mountains, but more about not giving up on each other. Not giving up on our dreams.
Seeing your hopes and dreams coming to fruition… it’s inspiring. It makes you want to do more, bigger, things.
Do you ever take a day off and just sleep all day?!
The more I do, the more energized I get! The mountains inspire me. But I am forced to take rest days, one a week.
The only time I’ve had to stay still longer was when I was injured.
What was your injury?
I destroyed both labrums from overuse. 2 years ago I had double hip surgery.
I was in a wheelchair for a month, then crutches for 4 months.
It was the first time I had to sit out like that. It was hard, but one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.
What a positive outlook on your injury. Can you tell me more about it?
I loved racing, but my self worth had gotten wrapped up with winning. I had podium incentives, sponsorship based on performance.
I was constantly trying to prove myself. I would win, but still be unhappy with my speed.
My injury forced me to get real with who I was. To sit down and decide if I like myself.
It sounds like you’ve had some great insights.
It’s an evolution that I am continuing to go through. I’m enjoying the journey. It has to be about the journey!
It’s about being curious. Paying attention to your thoughts, and why you have them.
Like what thoughts?
When you have negative thoughts, ask yourself why. If I’m frustrated or upset with someone, sometimes it’s because I see a quality in that person that I don’t like about myself.
Everything has a yin and a yang to it. I have positive and negative attributes, and needed to accept both. Because with every bad quality, there’s also good in it.
You have a great attitude, you seem really content and happy.
I love my life!
But I’ve had pretty dark periods in my past.
That’s surprising to hear.
When I went to college I got so depressed. I started at University of Colorado. I grew up in small towns, Boulder was a metropolis to me.
I was unhappy. I felt so lonely and lost. I didn’t feel like I was good enough, I didn’t love myself, I didn’t even like myself. At times I didn’t get out of bed for 3 days.
I thought, there’s got to be more. It started me on a journey.
I took time off and went to Norway, to a bible school. I wanted to find out who God was.
What did you find out?
It doesn’t matter the denomination, what you say you believe. I think where there is love, there is God.
When you express or exude love, people can feel it.
Do you consider yourself successful?
Well, what is success?
I think success is….liking who you are. So at the moment, I would say yes!
What you see in the external world is what’s going on in your internal world. If you like yourself, you see success, you see positive things. If you don’t like yourself, all you’re going to see in the world is brokenness.
What was it like coming back to racing after your injury?
I had no expectations. I trained as hard as I could, and somehow, I got 2nd place at the national championship. I had that same amazing feeling as when I first won! I was doing it because I love it.
I want to push my limits as an athlete, but I’ve shifted. It’s not about winning - it’s about contributing. In a way that benefits more than just myself. Bringing people into the sport I love. Being a positive change in somebody’s life, that’s what inspires me.
So coaching may be in your future?
When I got injured, I took a Holistic Life Coaching course. I want to facilitate growth, in athletics and also on a mental, spiritual, and relational level. The combination of Holistic Coaching with mountain guiding can really lead to personal transformation.
People have issues that originate as a kid, that come out in relationships as an adult. You have to become aware of it to heal it.
Did you have issues from childhood?
We all do to varying degrees. My relationship with my father was challenging growing up. There was no showing emotion or talking about feelings in my family, it was very puritan. It gave me the idea that I wasn’t good enough somehow. That led me to become a good racer, a good athlete - I thought if I performed well enough, I would get attention and love. I even transferred that view to my sponsorships with racing, how silly is that!
That led to unnecessary issues with my husband, and starting a dynamic that was not healthy. When I realized why it was happening, I was able to understand it and change the dynamic.
How’s your relationship with your father now?
We’re really close. He’s gotten more sensitive, and he’ll talk about emotional issues and deep stuff.
It started with me telling him ‘I love you’ on the phone before we hang up. I started doing it about 5 years ago. Eventually he started saying it back. I was 27 or 28 years old the first time I heard my dad tell me he loved me. Mark and I were in the car driving, I hung up the phone and started crying.
Your life is in the mountains, involving inherent risks. Have you lost friends?
We lost our friend and business partner in Peru, in an avalanche. Mark and I were in Juneau, preparing to fly to Mount Fairweather for a month long expedition, when we got the call. It’s heavy. I still feel his presence, when we’re in the mountains.
How do you deal with that loss?
I don’t think it’s permanent. When our human experience has expired, we’ve done what we need to do, I think it’s just a transformation of energy. I find comfort in that. Energy can’t be destroyed or created, correct? Physics tells us that. It just changes forms. Do I know what that means? No. But do I find hope and faith in that? Yes.
Have you had close calls yourself?
I almost rapped off the end of a rope once, I caught it with two inches. In Yosemite, I was hit with a rock on a hanging belay. This rock is coming straight towards you, and you’re fixed to the wall. You can’t move, just put your head down and brace for impact. It went between our heads, and hit my leg. I couldn’t walk for two weeks. It was fortunate compared to what could have happened.
Are you afraid of the possibility of death, the possibility of losing your husband?
Right before we got married, Mark was doing an AMGA course, climbing all sorts of crazy stuff! 3 days before our wedding, we were climbing aspen trees at home, picking leaves to scatter down the aisle. He fell out of the tree! In our backyard! Probably 15 feet, beside a giant rock at his head. He broke some ribs, but otherwise was fine.
All of that technical climbing, he’s an international mountain guide, and he could have died falling out of a tree.
We realized, if it’s your time, it’s your time. So you gotta live big. That is what inspires us to do what we do.
We’re all going to die. We can’t escape that. Life is not safe, there is no way to make it safe. So how are you going to live before that happens?
I want to do what makes me come alive.
You moved from Crested Butte to Jackson, and you’re on the road constantly. Guiding and competing in Europe and South America, climbing across the west and Alaska… is there one place where you feel most at home?
Anytime I’m with Mark. Being with my husband feels like home, wherever we are. 10 years in, he’s still the best guy I know, I still feel like I’m on my honeymoon.