Mel on Mindfulness

By Jack Stauss, FOW

Wasatch Range, UT. FOW: Melissa Gill // Photo: Mack Lambert (@mountainsforbreakfastt)

How do you prepare for ski season? For many of us, weightlifting and trail time define summer into fall. The snow starts to fly, the skis are waxed, legs feel strong, and we’re getting antsy: ready to click in and get some early season powder.

But your brain can use training too. As backcountry travelers, a level head is one of the most important tools we have.

The mentality we take into the mountains can keep us out of harm's way… or put us right in the crosshairs. Identifying what influences our decision making and communication with partners is a difficult but crucial skill in the mountains (and on flat ground!). Like squats in the gym, brisk dawn trail runs, or well-tuned edges, there are practices that we can follow to train our minds, to tune into our emotions and limitations.

To learn more, I spoke with my longtime friend, SLC-based skier, and fellow Friend of WNDR, Mel Gill. A carpenter and yoga/Pilates instructor, Mel will be graduating soon from a 2-year Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program (MMTCP) via the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Mel knows how to stay busy. In addition to her carpentry, yoga, Pilates, and meditation expertise, Mel plays a critical role in our WNDR Rendezvous and Roost events. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Alex Aberman (@abermanphoto)

Human Factors: Self-Awareness 

Over the years, Mel has recognized and learned from mistakes that she (and we all) can make in the mountains. Over a decade ago when she was getting into backcountry skiing, she remembers wanting to be accepted by peers on the skin track when she was younger, and trying her hardest not to “fail”. Navigating gender dynamics, leadership roles, and the potentially competitive nature of herself and her partners, Mel became more aware of human factors that influence her own decision-making in the mountains.  

Recently, she’s realized that nagging physical injuries are also a mental variable to manage on the skin track. At a young age she never wanted to fail; now when her body feels like it’s limiting her, the reaction is to go head down and grind through it.

Rocksteady Bodyworks, Salt Lake City, UT. FOW: Melissa Gill // Photo: Pep Fujas (@pepfujas)

This can come at a cost. Last season while touring with friends, she was leading the party and breaking trail for the group, but found herself deeply focused on her body mechanics so as to mitigate the pain of her hip injury, but not focused on where the skin track was leading. One of her partners spoke up: “Hey Mel, I feel that we should avoid this terrain trap?

Of course. In the moment, Mel recalls initially feeling a sense of frustration and shame that she did not notice it sooner.  Frustrated that she didn’t notice it sooner, Mel realized she had fallen into a potential trap, one that could have real—and entirely avoidable—consequences in the mountains. 

But what happened next was new for her. Instead of stopping her thought process at “Damn, that was really stupid of me. I should have noticed that sooner,” she continued to analyze what had happened. Mel recalls the thought process going to a new place: “Okay, so for the last 10 minutes, I’ve been focusing on my hip. My hip injury isn’t going anywhere anytime soon… so how do I focus on my hip and remain aware and alert to all the other variables?”

This inquiry brough Mel to two conclusions: strong communication with her partners about her mental and physical states is crucial, as is developing skills to understand what her body is communicating to her each day. 

Now she grounds herself when her mind drifts from the present, not shying away from shameful feelings, but using her experiences as learning opportunities. Now, she begins each backcountry day by asking herself “what am I working with today? How will my current state influence my backcountry travel today?”

Rocksteady Bodyworks, Salt Lake City, UT. FOW: Melissa Gill // Photo: Pep Fujas (@pepfujas)


Mel learned that through mediation she could make stressful situations more manageable. Encountering a problem in the field, she can lean into her self-judgment, question it, and respond to the situation instead of reacting to it. Even our best selves are still human, and humans make mistakes. The trick is to deal with them consciously—instead of being hard on yourself, ask “What is this trying to tell me?” 

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”*

- Jon Kabat-Zinn

There is a direct correlation between this mentality and successful backcountry skiing. To be mindful is to pay attention and be empathetic— leaving ego, insecurity, and competitiveness out of your ski day. Strive for patience and awareness of yourself, your partners, and your surroundings. 

In the morning when she meditates, Mel feels her hip and breathes into it. She knows that she should communicate to her partners; “Hey, my hip is bugging me today and I have to focus on my stride, so I might not pay attention to the terrain as much as I should. Let’s create a system as we move into steeper terrain—what if every 30 minutes, we stop and assess the scenario?” 

By facing the issue, she can build empathy with partners—who may well have their own distractions


Trying to build these skills into my own life, I joined Mel in her studio for a morning of breathing, meditation, and stretching. We sat down in a warm quiet room full of morning light, and for ten minutes she guided us through a skiing-tailored meditation exercise. We began by slowing down and filling our minds with intention. She asked us where our bodies were feeling stress or tension. I noticed a tightness in my chest, from dealing with issues in my everyday life. Feeling that, being aware of it, helped me understand how I might get distracted out on the skin track and what might skew my decision making. Acknowledging our own pitfalls lets us prepare for them so we can respond instead of react.

Mel’s meditation walked us up into the mountains, visualizing the day, the place we had planned to visit. How do our feelings impact a day in the mountains? This sense of what’s on your mind and how it relates to your actions on snow can help you communicate clearly with partners. Self-awareness, communication, and everyone on the same mental page equals safer days and more fun.

Wasatch Range, UT. FOW: Melissa Gill // Photo: Mack Lambert (@mountainsforbreakfastt)


The ultimate goal is to be present and functional when choices arise. This of course extends well beyond the skin track…  

Like backcountry skiing, these are not simple skills. Find a practice that works for you, a simple mediation app, an in-person class, or an online guided video that can help you start to build these techniques into your life, like the preseason lifting, running, and trip planning.

We stay out of trouble in the mountains by paying attention to our surroundings and communicating effectively. Practices like meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga can be tools to be more present and do that better. We’re not in control of the mountains, the snow, or the weather, but we can control our own thoughts and decisions. Building these skills can help grow a safer, more functional mountain mindset—and hopefully more fun shredding with our friends.

As supplement to this piece, Mel has recorded four meditation exercises specifically for backcountry travel. Take a few moments to get grounded and check in with yourself before your next tour.