Professional Snowboarder uses nature to overcome adversities

Valentines with Ryan Hudson

The Mountaineers
Tue., Feb 14, 7 p.m.
7700 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle 98115
Click Here for Tickets

Nearly four years ago, Ryan Hudson was so close to the top of 20,310-foot Denali, he could see the USGS summit marker. He’d reached such proximity with the acclaimed outdoor writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, whom he’d known only as Jon mere weeks earlier. They just had shared a significant bonding moment.

The warm sentiments hadn’t even faded when Krakauer stiffened abruptly and announced the urgent necessity to abandon their summit quest. Krakauer pointed to angry-looking clouds, amassing in the distance. There were blue skies overhead, so Hudson was confused, but not about to argue. Usually, he overcame trepidation by psyching himself up and pushing himself through. But Krakauer had become a counter-balance for Hudson, pulling him back to earth whenever he was about to reach too high.

With thunder booming and life-threatening lightning starting to strike, the hasty descent included the Autobahn, the deadliest passage on Denali. On the way down, they passed Expedition Denali, the first all-African-American attempt to summit the continent’s highest peak, sending them scurrying down slope as well. During backcountry snowboarding excursions, Hudson had plunged over cliffs, tumbled onto rocks, and twice was buried to his waist in snow, but nothing had come remotely close to this.

“It was the most terrifying experience of my life – and I hate saying that because that day I also had one of the most amazing moments of my life,” Hudson said in a telephone interview from Salt Lake City, where he now lives. “It was like I hit both sides of the coin at the same exact time. Just a moment apart, I went from feeling re-born to feeling like I maybe was going to die. It was quite the roller-coaster for both my head and my heart.”

Ryan Hudson rarely has occupied the middle ground during his 28 years. Today he is a professional snowboarder, accustomed to alpine highs and the rush of spreading his #Streets2Peaks story of triumph to underserved youth. Yet he also is not far removed from bouncing between homelessness and the mean streets of San Diego, where a success might be simply scoring a meal or avoiding gang violence.

The youngest of single mother Venita Jones’ five children, Hudson found ways to stand out by being “nerdier” or “weirder” than everyone else. His three older brothers, especially, teased him about some of his choices – favorite cartoons, music or sports teams (the Golden State Warriors, perennial losers back then). But his penchant for navigating the roads not taken was an asset when the family lived in neighborhoods ruled by Crips, Bloods and Mexican gangs, or even a foretelling compass when he opted for skateboarding over popular team sports.

And the young Hudson made his choices with an underdog’s drive and a sense of purpose. “I always felt I could do better,” he said. “That I could do bigger.”

Hudson mostly was oblivious to his family’s challenges. “I was just a kid,” he said, “just trying to have as much fun as I could every day.” That changed when a photographer captured his mother helping him with his homework in front of a televised presidential address – at a shelter. The photo appeared on the front page of the next morning’s newspaper, tipping off his schoolmates of his homeless status and, by extension, his own awareness of it.

Not long after, Hudson made a wrenching decision in hopes of helping his family disembark the cycle of poverty. At 15, he followed the path of his brother Marcus and enrolled at the Toussaint Academy, a housing and education center for homeless teens. Going to Toussaint meant securing his legal emancipation from his mother. “I did it for the sake of both of us,” Hudson said. “I did it so there was one less mouth for my mother to feed. But I also needed to do it for myself.”

Hudson’s drive for exploration needed a more formal and reliable outlet. Toussaint gave him an education. It also provided opportunity, one day in the form of a sign-up sheet for a trip to a resort at Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains with Outdoor Outreach, a non-profit dedicated to empowering at-risk youth through outdoor activities. When Hudson scrawled his name on the list, it changed the course of his life, leading eventually to his taking up snowboarding and, at 20, being named a North Face Ambassador, through which he met renowned climber Conrad Anker.

It was Anker who’d invited Hudson to climb Denali with a group of other snowboarders. It also was through Anker that Hudson was invited to a shoot for the IMAX film National Parks Adventure, which was released for the National Park Service centennial. Hudson was interviewed at length about diversity in national parks and was filmed ice climbing at Pictured Rocks National Seashore in upper Michigan with Anker, his stepson Max Lowe and artist Rachel Pohl.

Pohl mentions Hudson’s presence in the National Parks Adventure voiceover, but he appears only in a barely detectable handful of frames, his face masked by goggles and a balaclava. When asked after a Seattle preview if he’d considered showing people of color onscreen, filmmaker Shaun MacGillivray said, “If my crack research team had found a character with a more diverse story, we would have considered using one.” He’d apparently forgotten about his own footage of that masked snowboarder and his made-for-the-movies backstory. Hudson didn’t know he’d ended up on the cutting room floor until he went to view the film on his own.

“I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed or upset,” Hudson said. “I was just like, ‘What … ?’ “

Hudson meanwhile has taken his own path to spreading the word about the uplifting nature of the outdoors. He is not a competitive, X Games or Olympic snowboarder, but one who takes sponsored, filmed and photographed runs off remote mountaintops. He then pairs those images with his life story in presentations he hopes will inspire young people, particularly those who are at risk, as he once was.

The most powerful images, Hudson says, are the ones he carries in his head from his first outing at Big Bear. Accustomed to pigeons and gulls in inner-city Southern California, he saw “bigger and better” birds such as eagles and crows. Instead of concrete, he found trees and a beautiful alpine lake. Instead of pollution, he breathed fresh, mountain air. Everything seemed to be revelatory and life-altering.

“I found exactly what I knew I wasn’t looking for,” Hudson said.

It was his Streets2Peaks moment.

“I’d stood on top of buildings and looked over the city before, but standing on top of a mountain and looking over the entire land was this eye-opening and mind-opening experience,” Hudson said. “There is so much more to this world, to this life. Up until that point, I’d experienced my entire life in this one bubble of a community, people and lifestyle. Up there, everything about it, from the way the air smelled, to the way the wind felt, the snow, the trees, the wildlife – everything was just exactly what I was looking for because it was nothing I already knew.

“To this day, every time I’m on top of a mountain, I can look out and I can feel what I felt that day. It always feels new, being hungry for more – to learn more, to see more. It’s such a humbling, mind-opening experience.”

One day, Ryan Hudson says he will take another run at the summit of Denali. And then, as before, the act of seeking will be an accomplishment unto itself.

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