Pursuing Purpose: What Hadley Hammer Learned After A Life-Changing Crash

In the first part of this series, we explored how freeskier, alpinist, and explorer Hadley Hammer changed her approach and mindset toward diet in the aftermath of a horrific crash that left her hospitalized with a destroyed shoulder and mangled knee.

Her conversation with our performance engineer/Registered Dietitian Mary Ellen Kelly was so profound that we had a follow up call to discuss how the accident also forced Hadley to reexamine her perspective on priorities, boundaries, and purpose. It turns out that while being in a wheelchair and recliner for five weeks was exasperating for someone used to traveling and skiing hard all winter, it was also an opportunity for a whole-life reset.

 

Momentous: What did your post-surgery layoff give you time for that you’d neglected before?

HH: I realized that I’d been on the go for so long – whether it was as a competitive skier or on back-to-back expeditions – that I hadn’t really had time to just sit and reflect on where I’d been and where I was heading. Being laid up after my double surgery, that’s all I had time to do! Once I got comfortable with leaning into my own thoughts, I realized that I’ve got a real problem with saying “yes” too easily. Part of that is not wanting to miss out on anything, but that’s really a paradox because when you say “yes” to one thing you’re inevitably having to say “no” to something or somebody else. Too often that’s been my family or friends, and the fear of missing out has been unfounded. So while I didn’t want to disappoint my sponsors, I realized that I needed to start saying “no” more to expeditions so that I could begin saying “yes” to the people who matter most in my life.

Momentous: What steps are you taking to make that transition?

HH: Once I followed that train of thought over several weeks, it led me to evaluate the new opportunities that were coming my way and the existing commitments I’ve made. I recognized that I should only be teaming up with companies like The North Face and Momentous, whose values align with mine. If I’m going to be spending time away from my inner circle, it’d better be purposeful and worthwhile. I went to a TNF summit and being around people like Jimmy Chin made me want to spend more time and do more projects with them because we believe in the same things and want to do good in the world. To make this happen, I’ve had to turn down some requests from other potential sponsors who might’ve been fine to work with, but wouldn’t have really moved the needle for me emotionally or professionally.

Momentous: Was this progression in your thinking just something you figured out, or did anyone influence it?

HH: I don’t know Seth Godin personally but I read his blog every day and listened to him talking about his new book, This is Marketing, on a lot of podcasts. He says that you should decide on your top three to five priorities and then filter every request or opportunity through those. If something doesn’t check at least most of the boxes, it’s not worth your time and effort. So that was really helpful as I worked through all this stuff.

I also began examining what I was putting out into the world through social media. What are the things that I care about and how do I want to write or talk about them to positively impact others? What themes do I want to focus on? One of these is inspiring people to look at their life – as I had to do in the wake of my fall – and consider if they’re doing what they love. And if not, what changes do they need to make to start pursuing their passion. I worked in an office job right out of college and it took me years to get back to Wyoming, where I feel like I belong. I’m not saying everyone should quit their job and move back to their hometown, but rather that they shouldn’t feel trapped in a career or life that they don’t want to be living. There’s so much out there that could be more fulfilling and true to who you really are.

Momentous: What was the most unexpected blessing that the injury gave you?

HH: Extended time with family and friends, for sure. My parents picked me up from the hospital after my surgeries and I had no choice but to move into their house for a while, because my wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the door of my place. For the first few days, I thought we were going to drive each other crazy. But once we’d settled into a routine, I came to appreciate being around them all day for the first time since I went off to college. They had to do everything for me, from driving me to my physical therapy sessions to helping me get to the bathroom to cooking for me, which was kinda funny because I’m usually the chef and neither of them likes to cook.

Then there were the friends who got in contact when they found out about my accident, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. In the first couple of weeks it was more phone calls than meeting up, but even that was nice because those conversations are usually confined to routine questions like, “How are you doing?” before I had to go train or fly out for another trip. Just being able to go deeper was really refreshing. And when I started seeing people in person again, it was even better. I found that I was reveling in spending several hours a day in open, in-depth conversations. The fact that so many of my friends made time for that meant a lot, too.

Momentous: Did any of your skiing friends or mentors help out during your recovery?

HH: I was humbled by how many of them reached out. I’m lucky to have incredible women like Kit DesLauriers, Hilaree Nelson O’Neill and Jessica Baker to look up to and learn from. They’re all in their 40s and have kids, and yet are still crushing it. Hilaree just had her best winter ever, and just a couple of years ago Kit became the first person to ski down from the top of each of the Seven Summits. A lot of people ask me, “What are you going to do when you can’t ski anymore?” and the achievements of these powerful women make that question irrelevant. They’re all doing a great job of juggling their outdoor pursuits, activism and family life. It’s a big inspiration to me. We place so many limitations on ourselves and allow society to do the same. But really there are no limits, if we’re willing to get beyond what’s holding us back in our minds.

Momentous: We’ve talked quite a lot about your inner game. Did the injury make you re-think the physical aspect of what you do?  

HH: Yes. While I got frustrated because I felt like I was getting soft, I was grateful that my training had made me strong enough to use my arms to get in and out of the recliner and wheelchair when my knee took my legs out of the equation. I also started celebrating the small victories in my rehab, like being able to walk up a couple of little steps or getting to the kitchen by myself. We take so much for granted that we should be more appreciative of. So the injury made me be more thankful for the ability to ski, run, train and express myself through movement. I also got more in tune with my body, from the standpoint of the compensations I was making because of the damage to my shoulder and knee. The first day that I could walk without limping or leaning to one side was a huge win. From that point, I was eager to get back into my training, and then to ski again. During my first snow day recently, a good friend got me fired up when he reminded me that just a few weeks earlier I wasn’t even able to walk properly. That perspective reminded me of how amazing the human body is at healing itself.

Momentous: How did you mentally manage the slow progress of building back up without getting frustrated along the way?

HH: There's that saying, “Life is either a great comedy or a great tragedy.” I think what helped the most was to find some humor in the hard moments. While I was recovering from my surgery, I had this epic night that is hard to forget. I was still pretty immobile but I tried to get up in the middle of the night. I ended up spilling a glass of water which soaked my books, computer, and phone. I quickly tried to save them from water damage and also grab paper towels, all which required an awkward one-legged dance to and from my wheelchair. My mom came down the next morning hysterically laughing when she saw the wreckage I had left behind. That moment could have made me cry, but instead my attempt to remain independent left us laughing for hours.

It's all about the perspective for me. Things can be taken as serious or as funny. In the grand scheme of things, six months to a year of recovery really isn't much time if you want your career to be thirty years. There were definitely days that it was harder to find that perspective, but I always found my way back.

Momentous: When you weren’t meeting with friends, going to PT sessions, hanging out with your family, or rethinking your priorities, what were you doing?

HH: I love to read but don’t often get time. So it was great to be able to dive into that “to-read” list. I really enjoyed You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe. It’s amazing that although he published it in 1934, we’re still dealing with many of the same social and political issues today. I also read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and it blew my mind. I mentioned listening to all those Seth Godin interviews earlier. Another podcast I really got into is Michael Gervais’s Finding Mastery. He asks the best questions, which leads to interesting answers.

 

Interview by: Phil White

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