Given that her second time on a snowboard led to a broken wrist, it’s a wonder Haley Kraus ever made it back to the mountains at all.
“I sat in the ski patrol shack [in Big Sky, Montana] for two hours. People just walking by, because my mom didn’t have any cell phone service at the top of the mountain,” Haley told me of her early traumatic experience on a single plank. “I just sat there and cried. But then after my mom came and I calmed down a bit, I wanted to get better, I wanted to get right back out there and practice.”
Haley Kraus has been one of my closest friends since my first day at the University of Wisconsin when we were 18. We bonded immediately as we were both from Minnesota, passionate musicians, and loved skiing and snowboarding even just on our little Midwestern bunny hills.
It was obvious upon meeting her that this is one intense gal. She has stunning blue eyes and blonde hair, leaving no doubt to her Norwegian heritage. She studied more than anyone I’d ever seen, pursuing both a degree in medicine and music. She’d lock herself in her room, and walking by in the fluorescent-lit hallways of our dorm, we’d hear her beautiful soprano. Our friend Henry, the coolest kid in the dorm and the guitarist in a pretty accomplished indie folk band, even nodded his head, wide-eyed, and said, “Haley’s got pipes.”
We took a few trips to local hills together, and I remember being somewhat floored by her smooth turns and confidence. I had never skied out of the Midwest and could throw myself down the hill skilless with little consequence, believing at the time that I was a good skier. Haley had snowboarding prowess that none of my other Minnesotan friends possessed. From my point of view, she was a top-of-the-line rider and had definitely spent plenty of time on a more intense terrain.
I learned she started skiing when she was four, but switched to snowboarding in fifth grade because her younger brother, her primary snowsport partner, had taken it up. The 11-year-old Haley watched as her brother progressed, riding the steeper and harder terrain with their dad. She decided she wasn’t going to be left behind. She took lessons, watched the techniques her brother and dad had mastered and rode all she could.
She was riding a lift by herself in Banff when she spied an in-bounds hike. She, rather recklessly, decided she would conquer it.
“I was in eighth grade, and it was my first time doing something that wasn’t chairlift access,” she said. “It was horrible. I was on my ass for half the run. But I took the whole day doing that same run. I had to do it, I had to be good at it and feel successful when I reached the bottom.”
Her family took trips to places like Winter Park and Breckenridge in Colorado every year, but she had never been to Jackson Hole, Wyoming until she went with the college’s ski club. I remember her returning from the trip, her eyes bright, as she described the incredible snow, the friendships she’d made, and how she couldn’t wait to go back. I also remember I personally skipped the trip to hang out with my then-boyfriend. There was that glint in her eyes that flashed when she talked about snowboards or opera. She was even more passionate than before.
A year later, Haley and I were both blindsided when Henry, who’d become one of our best friends, died suddenly from bacterial meningitis. While we both reeled from grief, Haley also focused all the more on her medical career dreams. She ended up graduating with a degree in neuroscience and music performance. She’s now in an intensive nursing program in Denver, from where I’m glad to be just an hour away.
Haley admits that her first year in Denver was devoid of the joy she once felt due to the ever-nagging grief, and the exhaustion from intense studying and grueling coursework. She describes riding at Vail on what should have been a legendary powder day, feeling run down and empty. Most days, she told her fiance Alex to go on without her while she stayed home.
It was last year, riding with Alex on a break from school on Peak 6 at Breckenridge, that she found herself beaming, reveling in the deep turns, serenity, and centeredness that only someone familiar with the mountains would know, giggling as she watched her more inexperienced and rather ungraceful partner shootaround on skis. She came back every weekend, exploring Keystone and Vail and Arapahoe Basin, no longer content to stay in the city on her days off.
This spring, she’ll be done with nursing school and has found herself officially drawn back to the mountains. She’s considering eventually working as a flight nurse on teams for mountain rescues.
“I think this would be a cool way to spin nursing, a fusion of passion and work,” she said, “I guess I didn’t realize it consciously at the time, but I was pulled back to the mountains for a reason. I needed them. They’re the only place where I feel at peace, and not stressed out about school, or really anything.”
For now, you’ll find Haley making her characteristic graceful turns on the weekends in Summit County, her blonde hair flowing behind her, her giggles only audible if you’re right on her tail.
“I just wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”
See more of Haley’s explorations and determination on her instagram here.
Monica Nigon moved from Minnesota after graduating with a Journalism degree to Breckenridge, Colorado to pursue her skiing career. With this great move, Monica fell in love with backcountry touring. She spends her off days exploring the Colorado mountains in the solitude of the wilderness as well as taking educational courses to keep her going farther for longer and most importantly, safer.
When the snow has melted away, Monica doesn’t leave the mountains but starts climbing with a new perspective. You can find her with chalky hands and shoes too tight as she scales the ridged Rockies on steep slabs, rock climbing to the top.