Main image by Chugach Photo
Sierra Quitiquit. You might not know her by name, but chances are you'll recognise her face. She's a professional freeskier, sponsored by Spyder and Völkl, who models for some of the world's biggest brands including Nike and Lululemon.
Far from the model who looks pretty but wouldn't know what to do with a pair of skis, Sierra is as comfortable on a 100ft high billboard in New York's Times Square as she is charging a steep rock-strewn line in Alaska.
Aged just 26, she had a whirlwind rise to success from flipping burgers to international modelling deals. But it's not come easy. Sierra has had to deal with more emotional trauma and family troubles than most – from coping with death to her brother's heroin addiction.
After watching the trailer of her new film, How Did I Get Here, it quickly becomes clear there is far more to Sierra than meets the eye.
Sierra grew up in Park City, Utah, skiing with her three brothers. They were home-schooled as the family trawled around America, competing in the USSA ski racing circuit with their World Cup ski racer dad as chief coach. “We formed Team Quitiquit!" says Sierra.
But then when Sierra was 15 years old, the family fell apart after her older brother JD was killed in a car accident. “By the time I turned 18, the sadness became overwhelming," Sierra told Outside Magazine. “The only sure place I knew to find happiness was with skis on my feet."
Sierra was sent off to boarding school in Switzerland, before training as a massage therapist in Costa Rica and working the desk at K2 Aviation in Alaska during the summer.
It was only when Sierra's mum convinced her to try out for the hit TV show, America's Next Top Model, that her life changed forever. “I was such a tomboy, but somehow I got selected to be on the show. I didn't make it very far, but it gave me the confidence that I could model."
From there, Sierra signed with a modelling agency. A year later, she was plastered all over billboards in Times Square as the face of American Eagle.
Around the same time, Sierra put out her first ski edit and it immediately caught the attention of big sponsors, including Spyder and Völkl. Just watch her hit Fat Bastard, a 30-foot cliff in Jackson Hole, USA (above) and huck a three off a spine in Alaska and you'll see why.
The real breakthrough came when Sierra scored a part in Warren Miller's film Ticket To Ride. Her Icelandic section became the closing segment for the whole film.
"My biggest challenge has been getting taken seriously because I'm a model"
While Sierra is known amongst the mainstream as a model, she insists that she is first and foremost a skier. “Skiing always comes first," she explains.“Being an athlete is the thing I work hardest for in the world – and cherish the most."
"I just happen to have these genetics that fit the mould for modelling. It's a great way for me to make some cash in the summer, then I can turn around and focus on skiing."
But it's taken Sierra a long time to gain the respect she deserves in the world of professional freeskiing. “My biggest challenge has been getting taken seriously because I'm a model. I show up on ski film shoots and the comments are always, 'Wow I didn't expect you could actually ski!' or 'For a skinny girl, you sure can shred'. I find a lot of humour in it. At the end of the day, my skiing is always going to do the talking."
CLASH OF CULTURES
It's tough balancing between the world of professional skiing and modelling for big name brands. But luckily for Sierra, skiing is a seasonal sport. Winter is spent hiking and skiing, from the spines of Alaska to the tree-lined powder runs of Japan. Then in summer, it's back to modelling and saving for the next snow season. But there are sometimes clashes in schedules.
“The modelling deals can be so insane. I've been on ski shoots and just had to say no to modelling jobs, so I can stay on the trip filming and skiing."
Usually modelling jobs come to Sierra, but this summer she went to Los Angeles to join in castings and hunt out the work for herself.
“It was miserable, making my whole existence around trying to be pretty and acceptable for someone else," she says. "It's not healthy for your mental space. It made me realise, even though I could be pretty well off financially if I put my head down to it, I wouldn't be happy."
Instead Sierra picks the modelling contracts that are right for her and spends the rest of the time doing what she loves. "I know my passion – and that is skiing. I know what makes me happy and makes me tick. Modelling just doesn't give me those same feelings."
YOU JUST CAN'T WIN
At 5'10", Sierra's naturally lean willowy body has to be strong and muscular enough to withstand 30ft cliff drops on skis, yet skinny enough for commercial modelling deals.
The skiing and modelling industries have very different values when it comes to the 'ideal' body type. As both a sponsored freeskier and a model, Sierra is tasked with the challenge of pleasing both.
“Modelling is a crazy industry where you feel like your competitive edge is always your weight. It's easy to get sucked into trying to lose weight."
"Being an athlete is the thing I work hardest for in the world – and cherish the most"
Sierra isn't your typical waif-like catwalk model. Yes, she's tall and slender but she is far from the stick-thin sallow skinned creatures that frequently grace the world's fashion catwalks. Her muscles are defined, her legs are strong and toned. She looks healthy.
"Luckily, people are demanding to see healthier models. I've been able to just be me and find my niche as a healthy model in that world."
While society has certain expectations about how a model should look, Sierra believes the same body image stereotypes exist for athletes as well.
“In the ski industry, people are like, you're so thin for a skier! And I'm like, dude I can't eat anymore, I've been trying to gain weight. Then I step into the other shoes of modelling, and I'm the curvy girl. Which is it? Am I too skinny or not skinny enough?" she laughs.
She has seen first hand what happens when people get too hung up on what they should look like, rather than accepting their bodies as they are. “I now know that I might not look like every other girl on set, but I'm happy, healthy and that's good enough for me."
Eating healthy nourishing food, practicing yoga and keeping a balance outlook has kept Sierra on track. Oh yeah, and butter. She loves butter. “I'll bring my model friends to the snow. They're trying to eat kale salads when it's zero degrees out - and they can't figure out why they are so miserable and cold. I'm like, girl you need like steak and butter."
FROM FALL LINES TO FILMS
Sierra has a new film out this month called How Did I Get Here, which started off as a superficial look at her rise as a skier and model. Soon it started to delve into more deeply intimate aspects about her life.
Since her eldest brother's death, she has been struggling with her youngest brother's addiction to heroin. Then her mum was deeply ill after being diagnosed with a class V inoperable brain aneurysm and she lost a close friend in an avalanche last year.
“It was a really exhausting couple of years. Anyone who has trauma in their family knows, it just weighs you down. Trying to be a professional athlete and giving it 110 per cent every day is exhausting in itself."
But Sierra knew she wasn't alone in going through tough times. She has stayed close with her mother and brothers who she calls her best friends. “I always knew time would heal. I can look back now and know these things were truly blessings. It's given me a new perspective on life. I feel facilitated to handle the challenges of life – and not sweat the small things."
So what was it really like, having a camera delving into the painful moments of your life? “It was incredibly challenging to put myself out there and be so vulnerable," says Sierra. “But at the same time, it's been really healing to just say it all as it is.
“When you live in the public eye, everyone gets boiled down to something. I'm the skier-model. I never really felt that represented who I was. How Did I Get Here, is such an honest portrayal of who I am and how I got here."
Aside from tearing up powder in Argentina, Japan and Alaska, Sierra has got big plans for the coming year. She is going to attempt to live an entire year without single-use plastic, documenting it all on camera.
“We grab a plastic water bottle, take a few sips and it goes to the trash. We don't realise that that plastic water bottle never goes away. I thought it was time to take my commitment to the next level – and I'm stoked to learn more, share the journey and challenge myself."
From humble beginnings as a ski tech and massage therapist to jet-setting the world in search of powder, Sierra has come a long way - but she certainly doesn't take any of it for granted.
“I'm always pinching myself. Every day I can't believe I get to ski for a living. I'm so grateful. As many things as I had going for me, many more were trying to tear me down. I just feel lucky I ended up where I did."
Watch Sierra's new film, How Did I Get Here, on iTunes now.