Conquering Mountains - SheLift Retreat Aspen


Self-acceptance and body confidence is something with which most women struggle. Popular media bombards us with images of “perfect bodies” and, more recently showcases the perfectly smooth and proportioned “full-figured” body. Yet, the polarity of this spectrum neglects most of the population. To say that these images convey an inaccurate picture of what our real bodies look like, would be a massive understatement. And people with physical differences, for example, missing limbs or bones, are becoming more alienated than ever.

Sarah Herron was among them. Born missing the lower half of her left arm, she struggled to find anyone she could relate to. Wanting to find love, Sarah signed up to become a bachelorette on ABC’s The Bachelor in 2013. Though she didn’t find love on the show, she realized, that before all else, she needed to love herself. Over the course of several years, Sarah started to push her physical limits through skiing and hiking. Sarah states, “I soon realized that with each new run I came down faster and better, my confidence skyrocketed. This confidence translated into a new-found self-acceptance that didn’t come from anyone else’s approval or acceptance of me, it was 100% self-made.” So, after hiking the 782 vertical feet to the top of Highland Bowl with skis on her back, she decided she needed to share the power of this experience with others. Shortly thereafter, SheLift was born.

Our Mission

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”  ― E.E. Cummings

SheLift’s mission is to help young women and girls realize their own worth and to generate self-compassion through outdoor adventure, so they can boldly step into the world as their authentic selves. This mission is built around four foundational concepts. First, to provide a safe supportive environment for girls to connect with peers facing similar life obstacles. Second, to motivate one another to try things that take us out of our comfort zones to grow and overcome personal insecurities. Third, to bridge the gap between girls and influential mentors who can change their lives. And finally, to create a more accepting society that inspires young women to live authentically and be proud of their bodies.

The Retreat

On March 18, 2017, a group of seven women stepped onto the tarmac in Aspen, Colorado for the first time. Near strangers, brought together by their physical differences and united by Sarah Herron’s courageous vision to challenge the status quo, would partake in the inaugural SheLift Retreat. For four days, they would connect, reveal their deepest secrets and greatest insecurities, and conquer personal mountains by taking on the challenge of learning to ski or snowboard. 

Upon arrival in Aspen, the SheLift ladies ventured to the Strafe Outerwear storefront at Highland Mountain to hand-select their ski clothes for the weekend. This all expense-paid trip, was designed to remove any barriers to participation including the financial burden of getting all the gear. Strafe is “inspired by a dedication to living life in the mountains” and their vision fits hand-in-hand with that of SheLift. They were generous in donating their top-of-the-line Cloud Nine Jacket and Pant to each of the women.

As for skis, Icelantic Skis’ founder Ben Anderson, graced the group with his presence, sharing the company’s vision. “The Icelantic community is an inclusive gathering of those seeking connection, exploration and innovation in all aspects of their lives.” With that in mind, they equipped SheLift with a quiver of Maiden 101 skis with custom graphics, so that this experience could be shared for years to come.

On The Hill

“We don't know who we are until we see what we can do.” ― Martha Grimes 

When we face challenges, we often surprise ourselves. So much of our fear and doubt is self-created because of things we do not understand. Once we take on learning a new skill and realize that it was within our abilities, it opens-up a world of possibilities. If this is possible, then what else can I do? By giving these young women the opportunity to overcome the challenge of learning to ski, we open them up to the power within themselves. A force that cannot be stopped.

By partnering with Challenge Aspen, SheLift paired each girl with an instructor of her own, dedicated to her unique needs and learning style. The staff was hands-on in taking each girl through a steady progression. Starting on one ski, feeling how it glides and moves across the snow, learning where the edges are and moving on from there. By the end of day two, every girl had progressed to riding the chair lift and descending a full run, but that’s not to say it was without difficulties.

Every girl crashed at some point during their experience. For Kimberlee Johnson, who lost the lower part of her right leg as infant, being on skis required the use outriggers and the learning curve was slightly harsher, but her perseverance was astounding. Or Catherine McCain, who took a big hit on day two, despite a rapid learning curve her first day was reminded that not only are we capable of more than we often realize, we’re also a lot more resilient.

The Revelations

 “If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.”  ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

When the girls arrived in Aspen, they didn’t know what they were getting into, but they certainly had expectations about the experience. Perhaps they wanted to rid themselves of self-doubt, shame, or body-image issues or perhaps they simply wanted to learn how to ski. Undeniably, they were looking for change. What likely surprised them all, was that this retreat wasn’t so much about changing who they were, but realizing who they already are and embracing it.

Though this retreat was built around skiing, most of the connection happened at the house over home-made dinners and fireside snacks, as the ladies reflected on their day. To be introduced to one another in an all-accepting space allowed for instant bonding. Conversations flowed effortlessly from pop-culture and body-image, to how to cut vegetables or curl your hair with one hand. Witnessing the growth and transformation of these women in an environment that simply encouraged them to try new things, without fear of judgement or worry of failure, was awe-inspiring. As Kim Jozefiak reflected, “The retreat encouraged me to live authentically, be kinder to myself, and not be afraid to share my story.”

As the week progressed, not one woman in the house had spoken without tears in their eyes – mentors, Sarah Herron & myself, included. Hearts opened, and the most confident seeming among the group began to shed layers to reveal that even they have self-doubts. Sarah prompted conversations to get each girl to think about what makes her feel the most confident. For some, like Alexis Graham, it was perfecting the art of makeup, for others like Lillian Martinez, it was going hiking. The SheLift retreat was a reminder to do what makes us feel most alive, regardless of what societal or familial expectations may be.

What’s Next

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”  ― Brené BrownDaring Greatly

Despite feeling separated because of their differences at home, their differences were the one thing that brought them together in Aspen. In the end, these women were united by their physical differences and learned that underneath it all, we’re all seeking the same thing: a sense of belonging, love, and acceptance. Michelle Polanic shares that “this retreat taught me that I am worthy of love, beautiful inward and outward, and that I can move mountains.”

We are not who others say we are. We are not our bodies, nor our minds. We are not made simply to live and to die, but instead, to give and receive love. As SheLift rolls into its second year as an organization, these 7 women will become foundational to our future efforts. Going back to their homes, across the expanse of North America, they will become pillars of support for younger women facing similar challenges. The grass-roots initiatives of SheLift will be integral for the continuation of our efforts and are at the core of changing the world for the better. We want more young women and girls to feel as Chris DeLeon does; “I now have a new found confidence, a new passion for snowboarding, and a group of lifelong friends that I can depend on to continue to push me to grow and encourage me to love myself everyday.”

Want to empower young women and girls to conquer their personal mountains? Click here to donate or share this link and spread the word! To read about our inaugural retreat attendees and their experiences, click here.

“Often, it’s not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don’t know how to be.” ― Heath L. Buckmaster