What would it take for you to defy and aspire beyond the conviction that your body has physical limitations, to set out and embrace the elements of the skies, many of earth’s greatest mountain peaks, beautiful waters and snow covered landscapes as your infinite adventure grounds? Meet Kirsten Alexis, a high-altitude mountain explorer, licensed skydiver, and outdoor adventure content creator who has done just that.
This Face the Current Sports Feature is published in Issue 25 Sept/Oct 2019 Edition. Order PRINT here, SUBSCRIBE to digital membership for unlimited access, or continue reading this article below.
At age twelve, Kirsten had spinal fusion surgery to correct the effects of scoliosis. As a result of living with this physical disorder, she endured bullying in middle school, which contributed to her low self-esteem. Kirsten was ultimately diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder and was pulled into a party lifestyle during her late high school and early college years that resulted in substance abuse. After almost failing out of college, Kirsten realized that she desperately needed to get her life together. Kirsten found her restorative passions in art, content creation, and travel, and graduated in 2010. After a celebratory European backpacking trip, Kirsten realized that she wanted travel and adventure to be a huge part of her life.
As is often the case, however, Kirsten still experienced the lingering effects of poor self-esteem and the allure of the party lifestyle. Yet, when a close friend died in 2012, Kirsten firmly decided to dedicate her life to sobriety with the intention of living every day to its fullest. With the realization of the fragility of life, Kirsten never wanted to waste another day.
As each year passed, Kirsten traveled and adventured more, pushing herself further out of her comfort zone and closer to her dreams. Kirsten began high-altitude mountain trekking, obtained her skydiving license, took up paddle boarding, and recorded her epic adventures to share her journeys on social media.
Today, Kirsten is confident, full of self-love, and aims to inspire others to fully and fearlessly live fully through their passion-driven adventures. Kirsten believes that a shift in mindset and lifestyle can alter the course of one’s life and that we have the power to change our own paths with positivity, determination, hard work, the embracement of failure, and a good sense of humor. Among her many dreams, Kirsten is striving to reach the Seven Summits and started achieving her checklist with Kilimanjaro last fall. Next summer she hopes to summit her second peak, Mount Elbrus—the highest mountain in Europe. Kirsten has also climbed and trekked to many locations around the globe, including Everest Base Camp, the Inca Trail, the Canadian Rockies, and multiple peaks in the California Sierras.
Nowadays, Kirsten has aspired beyond her own personal journey in creating This Adventure Life that aims to inspire others to get outside, find epic adventures, and fearlessly live their dream life. To her, laughter and adventure truly are the best medicine. Face the Current spoke with Kirsten to learn more about her inspiring journey and share her “adventure medicine” with you!
Sasha Frate: You’ve embraced virtually all of the elements for your multi-sports adventures, from earth, to water, and the skies. Do you have a favorite element in which to play?
Kirsten Alexis: I think it depends on my mindset and location! Each one holds a special place in my heart for different reasons. For me, skydiving is probably my favorite in this moment. It’s just so unlike any other sport out there and it comes with a lot of challenges and amazing memories. It also allows you to see the world from a completely different perspective. I have a lot of goals in the sport and since it’s summer, I try to get out every sunny day that I can.
I’m also quite an avid hiker. I love the mountains; there is just something that draws me there. There is no better feeling than celebrating on a summit after a grueling hiking objective. I love the sense of accomplishment and confidence each trip gives me. Just like skydiving, I have so many mountain goals and objectives, and I try to get out as much as possible. Any day spent in the outdoors is a good day!
Getting out of my comfort zones gave me so much confidence by teaching me that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible. It also taught me about fear and that everything really was all in my head. It taught me to get out of my head and just go for it, because life is too short and waits for no one.
SF: How might you describe the difference between being in the air, on/in the water and snow, and trekking through high and low trails? Why might you recommend mixing it up to get in touch with it all?
KA: Each one has such a unique experience. Being in the air is definitely the least natural and for that reason, it’s sometimes the most magical. It’s so fast-paced; you only have around sixty seconds during each freefall, so every moment matters. You can move your body and truly “fly” by making deliberate movements and modifications. It looks a lot easier than it is, though! The body positions require a lot of control, muscle memory, and strength. But more than anything, it’s definitely a sport that requires a lot of mental fortitude, confidence, and focus.
Out of all the elements, I’m probably the worst at snow sports! I always say that’s because I’m from sunny California and never had enough time to truly get better, but that’s a poor excuse. As a kid, I was introduced to skiing and was actually quite decent, but it was really hard for me to get the perfect timing for the “french fries” and “pizza” positions”, so I got more injured than I like to admit. I then took up snowboarding and have been doing that ever since. When I started traveling a lot to the Canadian Rockies, I got into snowshoeing, too. It’s super awkward at first, but it became a favorite winter activity. Getting to a snowy summit and seeing the snow-covered landscape is nothing short of magical. However, it can be very dangerous as there is always avalanche risk, so I had to learn how to identify potential hazards and to be prepared in case of emergency.
I grew up in a family that loved everything to do with the water. I was a longtime swimmer and anything in the water felt natural to me. I loved surfing, snorkeling, and just being beachside. As much fun as it was, I never got to be that great of a surfer; my timing and balance was pretty poor. The water sport I’m most drawn to now is paddle boarding, because there is nothing like paddling on calm, open water. I have an inflatable board, which is great to take to the ocean and I can even hike it to a lake. It’s a great full-body workout!
As for hiking and trekking in the mountains, I definitely have the most experience here. I’m of the mindset that if you can walk, you can hike. And as long as you keep pushing yourself and are consistent in your fitness regimen, you can get to the point where you are climbing higher altitude mountains and have the endurance to go on multi-day treks. Not only is hiking a great workout, but it also offers a very welcoming and positive community of people from all walks of life. Everyone I have met has a reason they hike, as well as inspiring goals in their journey. I also love hiking because it’s easy to pack my camera or drone, and I can be creative by documenting the landscape and capturing action shots. I’m quite comfortable in the mountains and I hike a few times a week to train for more difficult and higher-altitude objectives. At this point, more vertical and exposed climbing and difficult scrambling scares me! But that’s a good thing—it adds some more goals to my ever-growing list!
I am all about trying and experiencing everything! Well, almost everything! I think I’m just more of a “jackass of all trades, master of nothing” kind of girl because I could never just focus on one without seriously missing the others.
Standing on the summit of Kilimanjaro—something I never expected to do—somehow set me free. I realized in that moment that I hadn’t given myself enough credit for the strength and capability I possessed.
SF: Let’s talk about your adventures in the skies: you’ve been skydiving for a few years now and still do it often. What inspired you to start skydiving and then to continue training to be a licensed skydiver? Do you have further goals in the sport?
KA: I’ve always been really intrigued by and drawn to extreme sports, and skydiving just really stood out to me as something I wanted to be involved in. I actually first heard of skydiving as I was recovering from spinal fusion surgery twenty years ago. Watching skydivers appear so happy and free just appealed to me. It was something I just knew I wanted to do.
When I was in college, I had my first tandem jump and I knew someday I would be back in the sport. I really had no idea that I could fly on my own until a few tandem jumps later, I decided I wanted to take it to the next level. So, I enrolled in a local Accelerated Freefall (AFF) course, got my solo license, and then my A license. I fell in love with the sport and the community, and have been involved in it ever since.
One of the things I love about the sport is that it’s a constant learning process. It truly humbles you. I’m still a super low-level jumper, so I’m very focused on progression and learning everything I can about the sport. One of my goals is to become a coach so I can inspire new jumpers and help them on their journey. I’d also love to progress in the freefly discipline. One of my goals this year is to finally nail that pesky sit fly (freefalling in a seated position)!
SF: How would you describe the feeling of soaring through the air from incredible heights with skydiving? How has this feeling changed the way you live your life?
KA: In skydiving, I think the only way for other people to truly understand it is to try it themselves! But, I will try to explain it the best I can. The first few jumps are definitely a rush; there is so much excitement, fear, and adrenaline going on! After a while, the rush goes away, and each jump becomes more natural. Depending on the jump, it can vary. I’ve had a lot of funny jumps with friends, and a lot of jumps that I do solo that feel quite meditative. When I jump with coaches, I’m very focused on how I’m moving my body and making progress in the sport.
My mindset has changed so much since I started the sport. I’ve become way more confident and less afraid to jump in and take risks in life. I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at laughing at myself. I’ve learned to live in the moment and make every second count and to be less competitive, embracing where I am in the journey. Everyone starts somewhere, and I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
SF: You talk a lot about getting out of your comfort zones and facing your fears to find self-love and to live your dream life. What did you find out or learn about yourself by stepping through to the other side of fear?
KA: I think I was just at a point in my life where I knew I needed to change or else I was never going to get to where I wanted to be. I decided I was done wasting time and that I was just going to do everything I wanted to do. I just went for it and gained a new positive outlook on life… and ultimately, a new life.
So far, I’ve learned so much about myself and life in general. Getting out of my comfort zones gave me so much confidence by teaching me that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible. It also taught me about fear and that everything really was all in my head. It taught me to get out of my head and just go for it, because life is too short and waits for no one. Today, things that once seemed like a big deal now seem trivial. I found true passions in life and a purpose to be here.
SF: Why did you decide to not only share your adventures with a larger community, but to feature other prominent stories and the content of others in the industry on your blog, This Adventure Life?
KA: This Adventure Life actually started as my own personal blog. I wanted a way to share my adventures with my friends and family while I was away. When I was working on the blog, I honestly got bored just writing about my own adventures. When I got laid off from my job at a start-up, I was looking for ways to create my own business as well as to inspire people to get outside and pursue their passions. I decided to make the blog into a community and digital publication. I wanted to create a platform for adventurers and companies to share their stories, feature their products, and announce local meetups to give creators and brands a chance to connect and network. It’s such an honor to feature and share the stories of all these amazing and inspiring people. Not only that, their stories make me want to be better and push my own limits in all aspects of life.
SF: When you were younger, you experienced a devastating “blow” to your lifestyle and have stated that you became very self-conscious. You withdrew from living your authentic life after your back surgery, so what was it that finally got you back out the door to explore and adventure again? It seems this was a whole new way of “leveling up”.
KA: Yeah, I had spinal fusion surgery for scoliosis when I was twelve. Afterwards, I was put in a back brace and given a lot of limitations. I couldn’t compete in sports anymore and my social life suffered. There were a few years where I truly had no friends. This may be hard to believe, but having a back brace, a rolling backpack, baggy clothes, and braces was not the definition of “cool” in middle school!
Over the years, I was lucky to have a group of amazing and supportive friends in my life, and I seemed to be happy and back to “normal”. Underneath the surface, however, I was miserable. I had horrible self-esteem and self-worth. I was afraid to show who I really was for fear that I wouldn’t be accepted. I was afraid to succeed for fear that I would be a failure. I felt ugly, useless, unhappy, and unworthy. I wanted to be someone else. I lived an inauthentic life as a party girl from the end of high school through a big portion of college.
One thing that ignited a spark of passion back into me was a photography class at UCLA. I felt myself switching priorities. I went from wanting to be at the next big event to spending my time exploring the outdoors and trying to get the perfect shot. It made me feel alive again and it made me feel like myself again. I knew that I had to pursue these passions and move towards my authentic life and self.
To be honest, I just got tired of not truly living the life I knew I was meant to live. I was tired of wasting time. I was tired of being self-conscious and afraid of failure. I was done feeling like I wasn’t “good enough”. I stopped drinking and embraced a sober, productive life with the decision to pursue my adventures and passions. As scary as they can be, it gave me back my confidence and ultimately my life.
SF: In your blogs and social media, you’ve described your back-to-back Kilimanjaro summit and Everest Base Camp trek as being “transformative”. Can you elaborate more on these experiences and the ways in which these kinds of journeys can be so transformative for people?
KA: Each trek is a big undertaking in and of itself and doing them back-to-back just added to the challenge. I dealt with a lot of mind games before: Could I make the summit? What if I got altitude sickness and had to turn around? Is that a failure?
As we discussed, I come from a history of self-esteem issues. Although they had gotten better, some still lingered and they really showed up months before the treks! To add insult to injury, I found out that I had been in an unfaithful relationship right before the trip. I was devastated and it ignited more thoughts of not being “good enough”.
Standing on the summit of Kilimanjaro—something I never expected to do—somehow set me free. I realized in that moment that I hadn’t given myself enough credit for the strength and capability I possessed. In that moment, I realized that everything that had happened to me led me there. I realized that it was time to move forward, live for today, and dream of tomorrow. And at that point, I let everything go.
I think a lot of people are driven to set out and attempt these treks to not only challenge themselves but to transform themselves. When you ask the average person what their ideal vacation is, these treks just don’t come up. It takes a certain kind of crazy to put yourself through this. I’ve met a lot of people on the trail who are going through something and want these treks to be the catalyst for change in their lives. Others are doing it to celebrate milestones, and some just to tick it off the good ol’ “bucketlist”. Whatever the reason, these treks change you. They present challenges and place you in situations where you have to rely on yourself to get to your goals. You will be mentally and physically tested as you push the limit. Whether you make the summit or not, you learn so much about yourself from the journey. For better or worse, you will come out changed.
SF: What sparked your idea and goal of reaching the Seven Summits, and how do you plan to achieve this?
KA: It’s a big dream and at the moment it definitely scares the crap out of me! And I like that. It all started a few years ago when I decided that I was going to go through with my Kilimanjaro trek. It had always appealed to me and at the time it was a lofty goal that just didn’t seem real. I told myself, almost jokingly, that if I made the summit of Kilimanjaro I would go for the rest. Challenge accepted!
I don’t have a specific time frame for this goal. I want to make this undertaking as safe and reasonable as possible. Next year I will be attempting Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe. After that I am thinking either Aconcagua (Argentina) or Denali (Alaska). I plan on training a lot—even more than I did for Kilimanjaro. Now that I kind of know what to expect, I feel like I have a better understanding of higher-altitude mountains and the process.
To train for Everest—the ultimate mountain goal—I want to first attempt Cho Oyu (Nepal) first. A lot of guides in the Everest region advised me to embark on this expedition before even thinking of Everest. Cho Oyu is often used as a “training” mountain for Everest hopefuls. It’s considered the easiest of the 8,000-meter peaks and will give me an idea of how my body reacts in such extreme environments.
SF: What type of training do you do for these high-altitude mountain expeditions?
KA: There’s a lot of physical, emotional, and mental preparation that goes into each expedition on which I embark. I try to go to the gym every day that I am not in the mountains. I typically get around sixty to ninety minutes of intense cardio, and I alternate weight days. I work on my core strength every day because you need that for the trail as you carry a good portion of your own gear. I also swim and attend yoga and kickboxing classes.
The best way to truly train for high altitude is to go to altitude. For Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp, I trained in the Canadian Rockies and the fourteen-ers in Colorado. I really made sure to vary up my hikes. One day I would choose a hike that had a lot of elevation gain, and the next I would go for endurance. Towards the end of my training (about a month before I left) I made sure to “hike high, sleep low”. I stayed in Winter Park, Colorado, which sits around 9,000 feet. Every day that weather permitted, I hiked up a 14,000-foot mountain. I wanted to get as much high-altitude exposure as I could since Kilimanjaro is just over 19,000 feet and Everest base Camp is around 18,000 feet. Those were the highest I had ever accomplished and I was determined to succeed in both.
As for the mental preparation, I really try to just stay positive and in the moment. I try not to dwell on the negative thoughts or “what if” situations in my head. It’s hard, trying to stay realistic while also being prepared for injury and the possibility of turning around while training for your goals. I always tell myself: “The mountain will always be there; what matters is that you tried.”
SF: Do you have any particular stand-out and unforgettable stories from your adventures so far that you can share?
KA: I have so many! I’m known in the communities for generating “FML moments”—things that seemingly only happen to me. I think one of the funniest scenarios was during my AFF course. It was jump number five and the first time I would be jumping out of the plane without an instructor gripping me. I mentally prepared myself for this and honestly felt super confident the whole ride up. The light turned green and soon enough it was our turn to jump. I positioned myself out of the airplane and for some reason, I just froze. I wanted to jump and knew there was only one way down, but I just couldn’t. I let go after a few seconds and actually had a great jump. (Spoiler: I actually hit all of the objectives and passed—much to my surprise!) However, because I had hesitated, I was forced to land off the drop zone. I ended up landing in a farmer’s field! I stepped and stumbled in deep manure the entire walk out of the field. It got all over my shoes and jumpsuit! Lesson learned: don’t hesitate!
One of my first introductory high-altitude treks was the Inca Trail in Peru. I had been an avid hiker for a while leading up to this and was quite frankly overly confident. I also totally underestimated this trek. I had done well the first day and felt really good—too good. As luck would have it, the second day hit me like a ton of bricks. If anyone has been on this trek, they know all too well that it’s like a never-ending Stairmaster for 14,000 feet. I was hurting from the get-go; I was tired, my legs wouldn’t stop shaking, and I’ve never been so thirsty. I kept taking breaks by saying, “Wow, look at this view,” or, “I’m going to take some more photos.” I think everyone saw through the bogus excuses. I eventually made it, but I was hurting. Lesson learned: be humble!
About eight years ago, I once again got an urge to just pack up and travel. I had seen photos of these magical turquoise mountain lakes in the Canadian Rockies and became eager to explore the region. I asked around and couldn’t find any friends to join, so I went alone. I had traveled a bit before around the USA and Europe, but nothing compared to this. I decided to take the trip day-to-day with an open mind and open heart. I ended up meeting some incredible friends (some I still talk to) and explored some of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. I hiked, canoed, went white-water rafting, hit the mountain bike park, and even bungee jumped. It was an action-packed trip and I knew at that point I wanted adventure and travel to be a big part of my life. I also learned more about my capabilities and independence! This trip kicked off a series of solo travels and adventures, and even brought me back to the region years later. Lesson learned: just go for it!
SF: Juggling life, adventure, and work is a common theme for many these days. Adventure seems to take the hit more often than not, yet people are finding ways to fit it into their schedules. As you’re involved in a lot of traveling and various outdoor activities, how might you advise people with tips or tricks that will help them “fit it in” and how do you manage to successfully juggle them all while avoiding the burn out?
KA: With social media being so prominent in our lives these days, I feel like the “fear of missing out” is very real. We live in a world where we have so much knowledge and opportunity, and almost feel guilty if we don’t do it all.
I try to fit in as much as I can without getting burnt out. I never want to lose my sense of wonder in these travels and activities, which means taking the time to recharge so I can enjoy the next adventure. I’ve definitely had burn out and it took away the enjoyment of the adventures and my content creation. I really had to sit out, relax, and get my priorities right. I decided to devote a few days in a typical week to adventure and content creation, and a few days around home to get my “me time.” It’s all about balance.
Make sure that you do what you actually want and that you’re not just doing it because you think you might miss out. Take time to relax and get rest. Yes, life is short and there is so much to see, but it can’t be at the cost of our health or well-being.
SF: If you could leave people with one thought or word of advice for ways to make a big change in their lives that could start actualizing their dream life, what would it be?
KA: “Live Fearlessly.” This is my tagline for This Adventure Life, and it’s been the way I live my life over the past few years. I apply it not only to my adventures, but to my creative endeavors, relationships, and work as well. Be fearless. Be bold. Be unapologetically you. You have to love yourself first before you can truly enjoy the beauty this life has to offer. Never forget your dreams. Count your blessings. Let the past go.
Sometimes it’s easier to just exist in life; it sure is safer! But is it what you want? If not, you might want to change directions. Life is too short to simply exist and feel mediocre. And don’t just practice self-love, promote it! It’s important to spread the love and positivity amongst those around us. Lift others up, encourage them to live their passions and make each day count!
Website (coming soon): kirstenalexis.com