Interviewed by Kellyn Wilson
Hazel Birnbaum is a 29-year-old connoisseur on being awesome. When she’s not competing on the Freeride World Tour or winning the Backcountry.com “Sickbird” award, (one of only a few women to do so) you can find her in Lake Tahoe enjoying all things outdoors. I talked to Hazel after her win at Big Sky to find out what she’s all about.
KW: You’re a pro skier, a chef, an archeologist, and you graduated magnum cum laude at UC Santa Cruz. Is there anything you’re bad at?
HB: Nine to 5 jobs [laughs]. I definitely struggle with having a schedule. I’ve had so many different jobs, I worked for the U.S. forest service, I am an EMT and I was also a ski patroller for eight years.
KW: That must be a huge advantage when you’re skiing.
HB: Yeah, it totally made a huge difference. I think it made me who I am today as an athlete. I spent so much time in the mountains. Literally from 6 in the morning to 5 at night, I was in my ski boots. I also got to access terrain that most people wouldn’t normally get to access, and I gained a lot of knowledge. It was hugely influential.
KW: What made you switch to competing?
HB: As a patroller, you don’t really get much time off and I realized that the main reason why I love skiing so much is that I get to meet really cool people and travel to really cool places. When I was a patroller, I just didn’t get to do that as much; it was becoming stagnant. So when Kirkwood would host the extreme skiing competition, I was working the rescue side of things just thinking, “Wow I could totally do that. I want to do that.” So I quit patrolling and started competing full time.
KW: Do you like competing?
HB: I like aspects of it. Competitions push me in a way that filming or photo shoots don’t, and it’s something that I really enjoy. But at the same time, this last season I really struggled with handling the pressure and stress of it all. The year before I had done really well and won a bunch of events, and this year coming into it, I put all this pressure on myself and it totally backfired. I wasn’t skiing for fun.
But then I did one last event this year [at Big Sky] and I thought, “You know what, screw it. I’m just gonna go have fun and ski what I want to ski.” And it worked out way better.
KW: What keeps you busy in the off-season?
HB: Well actually, I’m starting a new business called Sweet Spokes. The goal is to sell gourmet popsicles off my bike! I’m going to source local ingredients and make it as sustainable as possible. I’m buying this food cart tricycle thing that I’ll build a freezer into and sell my popsicles at farmers markets and festivals.
KW: That’s incredible. What a great idea! Also, I’ve got to ask about your famous tomahawk last year in Alaska…
HB: Oh man.
KW: What goes through your head when you’re falling like that?
HB: Well you just accept it and say, “Here we go, this is gonna suck.” [laughs] It wasn’t as bad as this time when I was caught in a slide on the Freeride World Tour in Fieberbrunn. It was about a thousand-foot ride. My skis were ripped off, I hit some rocks and debris on the way down, it was bad. I was buried up to my chest. And even though you’re always prepared when you’re skiing, you don’t expect that to happen in a contest.
KW: How terrifying. Did you still compete after that?
HB: Yeah! The organizers decided they would give me a re-run. And I was like, that’s great, but I don’t have any skis anymore… because they were lost in the debris pile. So they told me to borrow a pair and were frantically tightening my dins in the start gate, but I could only ski a mellow pow run after all that. It was quite the experience!