Gretchen Bleiler named a National Geographic Adventure "Adventurer of the Year"


Adventure magazine recently held the third annual Best of Adventure awards ceremony at the National Geographic Society headquarters, sponsored by South Africa Tourism. The event honored the achievements and gear featured in the December 2008/January 2009 issue. Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper, the 21-year-olds who skied, sailed, and cycled from geomagnetic pole-to-pole, were named this year’s Adventurers of the Year. Hall of Fame awardee Rick Ridgeway captivated the audience with a presentation on his latest project, Freedom to Roam, which aims to open up wildlife migration corridors.

Nearly all the honorees were present, from Olympic silver medal snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler to humanitarian aid worker Ash Clements (whose next assignment will take him to the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Andes thru-hikers Deia Schlossberg and Gregg Treinish. K2 hero Pemba Gyalje Sherpa made his way all the way from Kathmandu to accept his reward. Speed rider Francois Bon, who was honored for successfully flying from the summit of Aconcagua, had a slight limp as he crossed the stage due to an injury sustained during an Everest attempt cut short by an avalanche. Source-to-sea Amazon rowers Sam Stime and Maroy Correa Estenos pushed through the last grueling miles to make it to the ocean, just in time for the event. Modern-day abolitionist Ben Skinner, author of the book A Crime So Monstrous, followed up his night with meetings on the Hill.


Gretchen Bleiler remembers the moment it hit. “After the Winter ’06 Olympics, I went to the Daytona 500 and waved the green flag,” she says. “Then it was straight to Tahoe for a Vans Cup. I was standing at the top of the half-pipe, but I felt nothing,” she says. “Something was wrong.” The silver medalist and one of the world’s most decorated female snowboarders had lost her passion.

So she did something unusual. She took a year off. Instead of focusing on the 2010 Olympics (and the dozen or so competitions in the 2007-08 winter season alone), Bleiler, 27, ditched the terrain parks to rediscover her sport in the planet’s remote backcountry. The first stop was the Japanese island of Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places on Earth. She and a few friends hit hike-in “pillow drops,” huge hummocks of snow piled on steep boulders, and tore through avalanche barriers in search of fresh tracks. Then it was off to Krasnaya Polyana, in the Russian Caucasus, where Bleiler (filming segments for Uniquely, a film released this October) built kickers over fallen trees and carved isolated bowls via helicopter. Finally, she landed in the Alberta Rockies to nail a few big-mountain lines.

“It’s amazing what happens when you take yourself out of what’s comfortable,” Bleiler says. By the time she hit the half-pipe again, she was a rider reborn, with newfound confidence and a freshly honed competitive edge. Proof that sometimes stepping away is the best thing you can do.


Tess Weaver


November 26, 2008