Editor’s Note: Amie Engerbretson’s writing is in purple, McKenna Peterson’s writing is in blue.
It was a long day that was made longer by a sudden fog bank. The clouds swamped over our exit couloir, making us turn around and hike out the way we came in. I had minimal backcountry skiing experience, I had never been to the Alps before, and, up until that very moment, I had never walked a narrow ridge with drops on both sides that would lead to certain death.
Led by our guide Hannes Stähli, we arrived at a crux. It was the narrowest, sketchiest part of a narrow, sketchy hike out. Ten steps ahead, there was a slightly wider path with some decrepit metal cables to hold onto. To get to those cables, there was just enough room for one boot at a time.
As I took my first step, another small sound started to creep up above the sound of my pounding heart. It was a voice that was calm, powerful, comforting, and assertive all at the same time.
“Take a deep breath. Put one foot in front of the other. You can do this.”
It was the voice of a woman who would soon become one of my deepest and truest friends, McKenna Peterson.
“Come on Amie,” she said. “Let’s go.”
It was 2013. Amie Engerbretson, Pip Hunt, and I were in Mürren, Switzerland on a film trip for K2 Skis. This was my first major film trip as an actual “professional” skier, and my eyes were as wide as dinner plates.
I had met Amie two weeks previous at a photoshoot in Alta, Utah. K2 called me the day before and asked if I could host one of the female athletes. By ‘host’ they actually meant “let her sleep on your couch so that we can save a few bucks.” The next day a blonde chick from California showed up talking about cats and telling mediocre dad jokes.
I laughed at the jokes, and by the end of that evening, Amie and I had brainstormed a film trip to Switzerland, planned all of the travel logistics, and became best friends.
McKenna is a mountain woman. She was raised backcountry skiing in the big mountains of Idaho and the west with her father and her family. When we met in Utah, McKenna already had a snowmobile and had been testing her will in big mountain competitions.
I was new to the scene and came from a very different place. I had the mountains in my heart of course, but I had recently graduated college with a business degree. I grew up skiing, but there was also often a camera there. My dad was a pro-skier in the 1990s and I was his sidekick, joining in on shoots and assisting on big projects as soon as I could carry a tripod.
I was hungry to ski better, bigger, harder and faster, but I had a lot to learn. Where I had ambitious eyes that often took me to places of paralyzing fear—like that ridge in Switzerland—McKenna had knowledge and understanding. From that first step in the Alps, she has helped rationalize my fear and challenges, ultimately helping me to not only make good decisions but push myself beyond my previously known limits.
I learned quickly from Amie that being a good skier does not equal being a good skier for the camera. I drank a big glass of humility early on in Mürren and watched how Amie placed her turns perfectly, looking effortlessly graceful. With her help, I was nailing the shot at least half of the time by the end of the trip, but it took a few more trips to fully figure it out.
Amie also has a brilliantly creative business sense and inspires those around her to “get shit done” while keeping things fun and exciting.
In the Alps, I had found a mentor in a peer.
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McKenna and I’s friendship has grown and developed over the last half-decade. We skied our first Alaskan lines together and realized the lifelong dream of being in a Warren Miller movie in the same segment.
I even think McKenna might kinda love cats now. And the true mark of a great friend, she still laughs at all my cat jokes. Yes, they are all still bad.
I do like the one about mice crispy treats…
Return to Mürren
In January 2019, I gave McKenna a call, as I had done every year since our Switzerland trip, to let her know that our wonderful guide Hannes Stähli had sent us all another sweet Merry Christmas email. He did so every year. I read it to her aloud.
Wishing You Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. May a few wishes come true and may you have lots of beautiful days on skis without any accidents. Give a big hello to Pip and McKenna. Hope to see you all again someday.
As always, your guide on the Schilthorn, Hannes Stähli”
We then reminisced about the kind-hearted, steel-willed, Swiss-German man that had captured our hearts. The first day we skied with him in 2013, he punctually arrived without frills and led us up the tram. He pointed out some “wirgin” snow below and we all scouted some lines and our filmer—the greatest of course, Jeff Engerbretson—got set up for the shot.
As I was dropping into my line I heard, “Cliff!” in Hannes’s thick Swiss-German accent. “CLIFF!” I heard him yelling, but I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying. I looked over my shoulder, checked for sluff, saw I was fine, and continued sending my line, ending in a nice little cliff.
When I skied up to Hannes at the bottom, his stunned face was priceless. What he was warning me of was just what we were seeking. We won him over that first day.
Hannes Stähli is a Swiss mountain guide, stonemason, father, and genuine lover of the sport of skiing. With accolades that place him in the top tier of both mountain climbers and skiers, to say Hannes has had an interesting life is an understatement. Coming from a lineage of mountain guides and with three daughters that are accomplished skiers and climbers of their own rights, you can see that skill and passion run in the Staehli blood.
We wanted to ski with him again, so Amie and I got together and started plotting after that Christmas email. We soon found ourselves back in Mürren, with Hannes in March, 2019.
Being with Hannes, you can feel his radiating passion for the mountains, especially in the Jungfrau region, his lifelong home. He has an aura of humility and grace, and his years of experience are molded into a wisdom that can be seen in the lines of his smile. He tells stories of his daughters and his ski racing days, he describes a ski traverse that he does from the top of the Schilthorn to his back door, in hopes that conditions will line up for us to join him one day.
But Hannes only speaks of his first ascents on the Eiger and descents on the Jungfrau when asked, never wanting to boast.
On the first morning back in Mürren, we waited patiently, all geared up and ready. Hannes stepped off the tram and into one of the greatest hugs of my life. From that moment on, the trip saw nothing but smiles. The hunt for “wirgin” snow was on yet again.
One afternoon during a down day, cozied up in the lobby of a Swiss lodge, we all watched the World Championships women’s GS race in Andorra. Hannes’s eyes were lit up, as he described the perfect GS turn. The feel of the grace of it. Watching as Mikaela Shiffrin zoomed down into first place, he said, “Wow, isn’t that just beautiful?” Yes Hannes, it all is.
Later on, McKenna and I were able to corner Hannes and get him to regale us with all his legendary stories. It took some convincing but he finally brought out books that were storied with Hannes accomplishments. He showed us an episode of Pushing the Limits, a British TV show circa 1979, that detailed his life as a high alpine rescuer and pioneer of Alpinism in the Jungfrau region.
He told us the story of when he was a stunt man in a chocolate commercial, showing us the photos of him jumping out of the tram. He said they paid him only in cheese, and his response was, “I like cheese more than money.”
Mürren, the glorious little town nestled into the side of a 3,000-foot cliff in the heart of the Jungfrau region, was at the center of every story Hannes told us. The Schilthorn, Piz Gloria has a beautiful system of chairs and trams that whisk you away into the heart of the Swiss Alps with countless options for climbs, skis, hikes, long fast pistes, or even sketchy rodel paths back to your hotel after a few to many schnapps on the hill.
McKenna and I left our hearts in Mürren, where the hustle and bustle is replaced by Swiss charm, storytelling, and epic mountain adventures. As McKenna and I skied, ate, and drank our way through the beautiful village, I couldn’t help but notice this sense of peace. We skied great snow, we took way too many selfies with the Eiger in the background, and, most importantly, we were together.
If you were to ask any professional skier “what is the best part of your job,” you will almost always receive an answer of “the people.” Relationships that are cultivated in the mountains are the glue that keeps us there.
In some ways, Hannes taught us how to be friends through the mountains on both trips. His company is as enjoyable as it is comforting and empowering. Sharing the mountains with Hannes, whether on a piste or on a rope, is an honor.
We were all overwhelmed when it was time to say goodbye again. As small quiet tears trickled down his weathered cheek, the power of the human spirit was strong.
“It was a chocolate job!” he told us. We didn’t really know what that meant—we rarely knew exactly what Hannes was saying—but we knew it was good.
More writing from McKenna: Fantasy Island
Hannes Stähle is a Swiss Mountain guide we were introduced to six years ago. I now see him as a family member, a cherished man, mentor, and a friend.
McKenna Peterson is a girl I was introduced to by my K2 team manager. She let me crash on her couch without ever having met me. About two weeks after that, we were on a ski trip in Switzerland that we had dreamed up. Six years later, she is still one of my very closest friends.
We became better women because of each other.
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