Navigating Ridgelines

For mountain athlete Janelle Smiley, the ups and downs of alpine terrain mimic those of a meaningful, yet mercurial, familial bond.



Existing in Janelle Smiley’s presence is a challenge. At times, it’s downright unsettling. Itchy, almost, in the way that might inspire a snake to shed an old skin that does not serve.

To be clear, the challenge isn’t for any fault of Smiley’s own — on the contrary, the 42-year-old athlete, wife, and mother is compassionate, self-aware, and profoundly thoughtful. She’s precise, moving through the world like a wolf, vibrating with energy and unrelenting toward her goals. She does not carry what she does not need, cannot lie, and is terrible at sitting still.

Her presence invites excellence in every way, almost as though she’s setting a new high standard and inviting you to join her. For some people, interacting intimately with that strength is inspiring. For others, it brings up challenging stuff. For almost everyone, it’s a combination of those feelings.

When asked if this is news, Janelle laughs. “It’s almost a relief to name that,” she says. “I sometimes make people uncomfortable. My husband would high-five anyone who says that out loud. And it has defined my relationship with my family, especially my older brother.”

An Alpine Upbringing

Janelle — elite alpine athlete, world-class ski mountaineer, mountain guide, and relationship therapist — has had this intensity about her since she was a child. Growing up with two brothers in rural Ouray, Colorado, she learned to push, and push hard, early in life.

It was Jeremy, her older brother, who first introduced her to the mountains. Hungry to explore the terrain around their home, he “always wanted to stand on top of the highest thing he could find and get there as fast as possible,” says Janelle. The Smiley siblings recall bolting chunks of wood to trees as makeshift hangboards, climbing up steep ravines using tufts of grass as handholds, and generally raising hell. “We were wildcats,” she says. “Totally feral.”

Jeremy, a year older than Janelle, recruited her because he wanted company on his exploits. “I didn’t know enough to want to be ‘a climber,’” he says. “I just wanted to be climbing. We weren’t exposed to the scene or the culture that exists now. We truly just wanted to move fast uphill. And we became best friends over it.”

quote-leftWe were wildcats. Totally feral. quote-right

Both Jeremy and Janelle followed their passion for charging up mountains, leading to stints in Bend, Oregon; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada. But in the years after college, life took them in different directions.

Janelle became a professional athlete, taking home seven national ski mountaineering championships, ski-traversing the Alps in just 36 days, and completing 48 of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America, alongside her husband, Mark Smiley. Jeremy reserved the outdoors for off-duty time, pursuing a career in insurance and then construction management. Over the years, living in two different countries (Revelstoke, BC, for Janelle, and Victor, Idaho, for Jeremy), space grew between the two as time simultaneously shrunk. Now, each married, raising young children, and running their own businesses, quality time together — and the bonding that comes from it — is rare.

“The less activity we did together, the less close we became,” says Janelle, noting that the unexpected passing over their father three years ago made the divide apparent. “We lost our foundation.”

Which is why when Janelle had a chance to invite a companion of her choice on an exploratory alpine trip near Queenstown, New Zealand, she had just one person in mind: her brother, the man who helped her become who she is today.

quote-leftThe less activity we did together, the less close we became...quote-right

Therapy by Traverse

In her experience as a relationship therapist, Janelle has come to believe that all partnerships  — whether familial, romantic, or friendly — all have a shared objective at the end of the day. It takes discussion and collaboration with the other person to identify priorities and goals to make sure you’re on the same page and moving toward whatever you’ve defined success to be, together. For their trip to Queenstown, the objective, for Janelle, was simple: rekindle their sibling relationship. Jeremy agreed. Tickets booked, bags packed.

Queenstown is the gateway to the so-called “Southern Alps,” which hold a wilderness of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, crystalline lakes, dense beech forests, and rolling green hills. After the long international flights from their respective homes, several winding car rides, and some significant curveballs from the weather gods and goddesses, Janelle and Jeremy find themselves approaching the alpine. By the time they reach the start of their route — an elegant ridgeline in Hopkins Valley, crowned by the striking Dasler Pinnacles at 2,315 meters — they’re both grinning.

Out there, it’s suddenly easy to see their shared bloodline. They both move quickly and confidently up steep slopes. Rather than discussing past challenges, they raise their eyes to the skyline, geeking out over routes and ridgelines and gear. There is sheer joy in their appreciation of the sweeping vistas, and their faces brown in the sun at the same rate and in the same places. Janelle leads, but it’s clear that Jeremy is a strong partner, and together they learn how the soles of their shoes interact with this particular ruggedness.

And just as time in the mountains slowly builds an inimitable patina on faces and gear, it builds trust, too. There’s a precision of joint movement. A stripping away of pretense and armor. A raw elegance that somehow contextualizes these intense, sinewy siblings who were formed by similar peaks and valleys.

quote-leftIn the past, I put everything on the line for my athletic performance. It was my number one priority; I sacrificed a lot of relationships along the way. quote-right

In those mountains, Janelle and Jeremy finally have room to talk — really talk, for the first time in ages. At the end of a long day of approaching, scrambling, and climbing over exposed terrain, they delve into vulnerable topics like careers, parenthood, and, perhaps the most assailable of all, life choices.

Janelle is the first to own her complicated history. “In the past, I put everything on the line for my athletic performance. It was my number one priority; I sacrificed a lot of relationships along the way.” She recalls not knowing how to be there for her brother when he had his first child, not sending food or offering hands-on help. She exhales. “That’s not my desire anymore. Since becoming a parent myself, I have less of a single-minded focus. And I’m not driven by external validation. I push myself so I can be a fuller and more present version of me. I’m a better human now,” she swears. “And I want Jeremy to see that.”

Jeremy nods, passing her a slice of New Zealand’s finest cheddar as they take a welcomed break on flat rock. Their shoes are off, legs stretched long, feet relaxed. Their toes have the same crooked bone structure, and the sun-warmed stone beneath them radiates gentle heat. There are no phones, no children, no demands. Just time, paused and expanded, and the peace that follows a long day’s push.

Janelle and Jeremy are quiet, but the angles in their faces are softer. They sit, shoulder to shoulder, as the Southern Cross moves across the sky.

Finding Forward Traction

By the end of their week together in the mountains, Janelle and Jeremy are in the zone, finally, fiercely, for the first time in decades. “By moving together on this gorgeous, relatively risky terrain, we’re remembering that we trust each other,” says Jeremy. “We’re reconnecting. It felt like no time had passed.” The siblings are noticeably more at ease — they’re inhabiting their bodies, laughing easily, moving with a fluidity that can only be earned by time and effort and sunshine and dirt.

“My relationship with Jeremy is a lifelong experience,” reflects Janelle. “It’s like navigating a high-consequence ridge: There will be shadow, and there will be light. Sometimes we’re floating uphill; other times, it’s messy as we navigate a descent.” As long as you ground yourself in truth, work to understand that of the place (or people) around you, and remain flexible to an inevitably changing and bumpy reality, she says, you can find your way through.

Jeremy, endearingly soft-spoken next to Janelle’s sincere severity, smiles. “As we move through the valleys, it’s good to remember that there will always be high points to celebrate.” The mountains provide perspective, he says quietly. “From the high points, we can see what we’ve overcome. We can high-five each other and celebrate the light.”