Sierra Quitiquit needs no introduction. As a professional freeskier, she has competed globally, ripped some of the world’s toughest terrain, and garnered a cult following starring in iconic films such as Warren Miller’s Ticket to Ride and Nick Waggoner’s Valhalla. As a model, she is a face of Bogner, worked with global brands Nike and Lululemon to name but a few and graced billboards from Times Square to Tokyo.

What is perhaps less known is that she is an ambassador for POW (Protect Our Winters), recently wrote and directed a short-form documentary on the future of skiing, and is in the process of launching a foundation focused on educating people about climate change, public health, and equality.

“I want to be a resource to connect the dots, and do something that’s bigger than me.”

Ask Sierra if she is an activist, though, and you will get more of a definition than an answer: Activism is about authenticity, owning your narrative, and empowering other people. “I’m a work in progress,” she tells me. “I’ve always gone after things that are over my head, and had to take ownership of all of the pieces that created my whole.”

Born and raised in Park City, Utah, Sierra was clamped into skis before her second birthday, blessed with an ability and fearlessness that set her apart from her peers at an early age. Despite the raw talent and idyllic geography, however, hers is not a story of the skiing elite. “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up,” she says, describing how her family of six shared a single bedroom and loft space. “Skiing is expensive. We managed to get ski passes and used ski gear, and my parents made a lot of sacrifices.”

Watching Chris Kitchen’s documentary How Did I Get Here a beautifully shot and heartbreakingly poignant biographical film about Sierra, which she herself co-produced I am immediately struck that above all else Sierra is a natural storyteller. Capable of celebrating her successes with zero conceit, while plumbing the depths of her sorrows with zero self-pity, she communicates with an empathy and vulnerability that could not be scripted, particularly when recalling her brother’s sudden death, a cruel twist of fate unimaginable for a then 15-year-old girl who by all accounts had been inseparable from her older sibling. “It was really hard on all of us when JD died,” Sierra tells me. “We didn’t have the emotional development as a family to deal with it.”

By her own admission, JD’s death sent her down a bad road in search of anything that would numb the pain, including “a ton of drugs”. Another twist of fate this one kind led to her acceptance to The American School in Switzerland, and with the blessing of her grief-stricken parents, Sierra fled Utah for the structure and support she needed to heal. She stayed through her junior year, before returning home to enroll in the High School University Program at the University of Utah.

“I was turning 18, and my father said, ‘you’re an adult, have a nice life. As Sierra describes it, she looked at her tuition bill, looked at her bank account, and decided to buy a one-way ticket to South America. For Sierra, everything revolved around snow and skiing, and when the season ended she headed home and got a job at a ski shop that came with a season pass. Come summer, she chased the snow to Hood River, Oregon, where she skied the glacier and flipped burgers to pay the bills.

It was around that time her mother talked her into flying to Houston to audition for America’s Next Top Model. Though Sierra progressed only as far as the audition episode, it proved far enough for her to be signed with an agency in Oregon. A girl without a college degree, motivated by the worry there would be few other opportunities for her to make money, a determined Sierra soon landed a global campaign with American Eagle. “I felt like I’d won the lottery, but then realized to redeem the prize there was an immense amount of hustle. You have to put yourself through crazy bullshit situations, sexual harassment… it was painful, but the paychecks made it worth it for me.”

At the same time, Sierra Quitiquit was also signed by Spyder, her first skiwear sponsor.  And there began what she refers to as her challenge of duality. Though naturally lean, as a model there was constant pressure on her to lose weight. As a skier, she battled to maintain her weight, with enough muscle to support her joints. “I’d be working to get strong, and then I’d go to New York or Los Angeles and my agents would get their measuring tape out and wrap it around my ass and there’d be a conversation about how serious I was, and what was going on with me that made my butt get bigger,” she says.

“I didn’t want to be modelling. I wanted to be skiing, but I couldn’t find sponsors to pay me enough to survive,” she says. Adding insult to injury, the ski industry itself would prove Sierra’s harshest critic – beyond not supporting women – particularly female athletes who damned her for being a model, levelled personal attacks on her character, and accused her of selling sex rather than sport. In short, the narrative that was manufactured about Sierra did not reflect the fact she needed the income from modelling to afford the visibility required to get noticed as a professional athlete.

“As women, we are taught to appease,” Sierra says. “Whether we’re told that, or we’re just paying attention to the messaging around us. The messaging is so twisted. It began to make me aware of the power of image, and the influence of storytelling in the digital world. I knew I could reach a youth audience through skiing, and began to think, what if I could mix in messages about body image or climate change, and empower young people to tell their own stories?”

If there is one demographic at the coal face of climate change, it would, without a doubt, be skiers. Erratic weather patterns and shorter seasons have contributed to an overall reduction in snowfall globally, threatening an entire industry and the future of the sport itself. It is an issue that has concerned Sierra since she was a teenager, and as an ambassador for POW, she is doing her part to help educate both policymakers and the public with the latest science about what is happening to the environment. Founded in 2007 by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones, the organisation now boasts a network of more than 130,000 supporters around the world, operating more like a social movement than a traditional NGO. “Climate change is so personal for me, affecting my livelihood and passion,” she says. “Looking ahead 50 years, the projected snowfall for where I live in Park City is zero. Even if we stop emitting carbon right now, it’s too late to save the sport of skiing as we know it.”

Enter Melted. Shot on location in the Moroccan desert, Melted written, directed, and produced by Sierra is a fictitious portrayal about what skiing could look like in the future, with a clever mass appeal message about climate change. Her plan is to screen it at film festivals and grassroots events across the country, alongside a personal presentation inspired by Drawdown, Paul Hawken’s bestselling book on global warming. “We’re eager to understand the world and what’s happening, but there aren’t a lot of resources out there. With the amount of media we’re consuming, and the way the messaging is affecting young people, I feel the need to take back the narrative.” Sierra explains. I am instantly reminded of the dystopian future in the novel Fahrenheit 451. Though instead of burning the books that are repositories of knowledge and ideas, we have replaced them with pictures that tell a thousand words.

For Sierra, taking ownership of the pieces that created her whole is clearly serious business, infusing her with a laser focus to transform her own skewed image into a platform poised for engagement and empowerment, and to advocate for the things that are important to her. “I’m in a position to leverage the brands I work with, not just to smile and hold a water bottle, but to message about plastic and what it’s doing to us and this planet. I want to be a resource to connect the dots, and do something that’s bigger than me.”

Having recently set up a 501(c)(3), Sierra is launching her own foundation the Altruistic Action Fund with a mission to create educational media content, including about climate change. She is quick to add the fund is not just for her projects, but will support young creatives who want to tell their stories; it is a resource for those who would otherwise struggle to find a platform and money. “It’s just become less about me and what I can get for myself, and more about using my privilege for something bigger,” she says. “I’m over myself. My brain has shifted to ‘what do I have to offer?’”

In short, tons. An explosive fusion of athlete, global brand, activist, and storyteller, Sierra Quitiquit is an influencer purpose-built for the digital age. Cool enough to attract a following, and thoughtful enough to keep it real. “I mean, when our basic human needs of love, respect, and clean air aren’t being met, then what does all the other shit mean anyway?”

Clothing by Bogner | Eyewear by Vuarnet | Jewelry CBC_jewelry

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