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Soraya McMahon is the Most Interesting Woman in the World

Bluebird Backcountry Base Area Director Soraya Khalje McMahon doesn’t always ride motorcycles. But when she does, she goes street racing. And it’s child’s play—literally.

That’s because McMahon was 9 years old when she got her motorcycle.

“It was young, but not that young,” she laughs. That’s because she grew up in Amsterdam, where mopeds and motorcycles are a more casual part of commuter culture, and motorcycle racing is an established sport.

Still, convincing her parents was no small feat. “I was obsessed with motorcycles as a kid. I begged and begged my parents, and finally they were like, ‘Fine. Fine.’ and got me one, thinking it was just going to be a phase or something.”

It wasn’t a phase. Pretty soon McMahon was on the youth racing circuit. 

McMahon started racing bikes as a child. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

She credits her early passion for the sport to an innate love of speed, a need to work with her hands, and a laser-sharp sense of focus that calms her mind—a focus her clinically diagnosed OCD and ADHD make difficult to find in everyday life. She also gives a lot of credit to her parents for supporting what became the first of a string of extreme hobbies. In some ways, she says, they kind of get it. After all, they’ve experienced plenty of extremes in their own lives.  

McMahon is now the Bluebird Backcountry base area director. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always save lives. But when she does, she’s still in the womb.

When she was in her 20s, McMahon’s mother, Susan, moved from the U.S. to Afghanistan on a whim to help a friend start a clothing factory. There she met a handsome, well-read local hotel owner named Qadir. They fell in love and got married.

But by the time Susan was pregnant with McMahon, the country had begun to dissolve.

“The Russians invaded and all hell broke loose,” McMahon says. It became politically dangerous for anyone with foreign connections. “My dad came into the house one day and went over to my mom, and was like, ‘Sweetheart. Listen. Pack a bag, a small one like you’re a tourist. Take a car. Go to Pakistan. And I will see you in two weeks. If you don’t see me, go to America.”

Qadir had bribed an official, trading a pack of nudie playing cards for an exit visa.

So, his pregnant wife took the car and drove over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, where she waited. But after two weeks, there was still no sign of Qadir.

The handsome young Qadir Khalje, circa 1980. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

Finally, Susan managed to make a phone call home. She was told that he was coming on a bus from Herat, and he would be there on Friday at 5:00 PM. If he didn’t show, she was to assume the worst had happened and leave Pakistan immediately. 

Later, McMahon learned, her father had been torn between fleeing and staying to fight for his country. The only thing that convinced him to leave was the baby girl steadily growing in her mother’s belly. Today, Qadir still claims his unborn daughter saved his life. 

On Friday, Susan arrived at the bus stop and waited. Five o’clock rolled around. The bus came, and the passengers dispersed. But her husband was not among them. 

Just as she began to panic, there was a commotion of explanation and someone told her there was a second 5:00 bus that day, and it was still on its way. So Susan waited. And this time, Qadir appeared.

Reunited at last but without any money or resources, the couple fled to London, then Amsterdam, where they started a new life and raised their daughter. 

“No matter what happens now, they’re both like, ‘Whatever, we have each other,’” McMahon says. “They’re both really into treasuring the moment.”

Susan and Qadir are still together, and as supportive as ever. McMahon even convinced her dad to motorcycle around South America with her a few years ago. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always hold down a regular office job. But when she does, it’s as a physicist at NASA.

Having developed an early fascination with motors and mechanics, McMahon went to school for physics and eventually landed a dream job as a theoretical physicist for NASA.

“But I didn’t love it,” she says. “I went home for Christmas and my mom was like, ‘Are you OK?’ I was like, no I’m not.” McMahon was depressed. She loved physics, but something was missing. She had realized that to be happy she really needed to be working with her hands.

“My mom asked me what I wanted to do, and I said all I really wanted was to go snowboarding in Colorado,” McMahon recalls. “So she said, ‘Go. Pack up your car. Quit your job. You’re not married. You don’t have kids. Just go and do it.’” 

“I realized if she moved to Afghanistan when she was my age, I could move across the country,” McMahon says. So she quit her job, packed up her stuff, and drove to Colorado.  

Born a rebel. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always try downhill mountain biking. But when she does, she goes pro. And dominates.

“I moved to Colorado, but I really didn’t have a summer sport,” McMahon says. She liked the idea of mountain biking but had decided the tedious uphill portion was just not for her. Then a friend told her that Keystone Resort had lift-serviced downhill courses. 

McMahon tried it and was immediately hooked. Pretty soon, she was driving to Keystone every day she could.

“I had this crappy old bike, but the downhilling community is really supportive and they just embrace new riders,” she says. That year, 2005, she entered her first race. By 2009, she had her pro license. Sponsored by Giant Bicycles and a few other brands, McMahon raced and rode for 10 years, winning several national championships. 

McMahon spent 10 years as a pro mountain bike racer. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

But after a decade, the sport had taken a toll on her body.

“It’s a lot of sleeping in airports with your bike,” she explains. “And crashing in downhill is no joke. It’s just painful, and it gets more painful the older you get. And if you’re pushing yourself, you’re crashing.”

She retired in 2013. (Though she has since started motocross racing.) 

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always dabble in bike mechanics. But when she does, she ends up owning the shop.

“When I was 25, I walked into a bike shop in Boulder, and I said, ‘Listen. You don’t know me. I know virtually nothing about bicycles. But I’m really smart and I’m really hard-working, and you don’t have to pay me a lot.” 

Kevin Kelly at Full Cycle hired her on the spot. She worked at Full Cycle for a few years before moving to Aspen, where she got a job at Ute City Cycles. She eventually invested in the shop, becoming a part owner and general manager. 

It was there that she discovered splitboarding.

“In the winters I had these clients—billionaires from Brazil. The Brazillionaires. They’re both helicopter pilots, and they had matching helicopters,” she explains. “They were really lovely people. And one day, the dad was like, ‘Hey. You like going into the backcountry. I’m going to get this splitboard thing, and we’re going to go together.’” 

McMahon had gone on a few hut trips and taken her AIARE 1 course, but splitboarding opened up the backcountry in a whole new way for her.

McMahon’s signature enthusiasm is one of the secret ingredients to Bluebird’s fun, down-to-earth vibe. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

“I had thought for so long that I was a downhiller, a sprinter, and that I just wasn’t cut out for the long endurance stuff,” she says. But between falling in love with backcountry skinning (and deciding on a whim to ride the Leadville 100) she realized endurance sports could be her thing, too.

“I don’t know if you could have convinced me that when I was 25 or 30. But I stuck with it, and now spending time in nature in this way is something I really love.” 

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always manage ski areas. But when she does, she’s as kickass at it as she is at everything else. 

In November of 2020, Soraya McMahon joined the Bluebird Backcountry team as the director of the base area. Her background in operations, volunteering with teens and new mountain bikers, and providing excellent customer service in outdoor shops across Colorado has made her a pretty perfect fit for the gig. 

You can find her running the show, skinning uphill with her signature cowboy hat on, and dominating in our regular staff s’mores-eating contests. 

She is truly the Most Interesting Woman in the World. 

Maybe even more interesting than the Dos Equis guy.

7 Reasons Women Crush Harder with Other Women

Before this weekend, Kelly Gazarik had only ever skied with men.

“I’d only been out with my brother or other male partners,” she says. “Then I saw that Bluebird was hosting a women’s clinic, and I thought this would be the perfect time to get a different perspective.” So she signed up for the Women in the Backcountry clinic, the first ladies-only ski touring and splitboarding clinic of the season at Bluebird Backcountry, Colorado’s backcountry-only ski area. 

The clinic covered everything from layering systems to finding gear that actually fits to, yes, handling periods on the mountain. Gazarik learned that women need to fuel differently than men, and that women have a natural tendency to be more calculating of risks—a valuable asset in the mountains. 

Instructor Brittany Konsella shares her insight on the assets women bring to the backcountry. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo 

Another thing that really stood out, says Kat Ciamaichelo, who also attended the clinic, is how different the dynamics were in a women-only group

“There was a lot of laughing, which is, at least for me, something that’s different about women’s only groups. It’s so much more fun and goofy—all while still being respectful of the backcountry,” Ciamaichelo says. 

Gazarik adds that she felt more relaxed and more in tune with her intuitions because she wasn’t spending so much energy trying to prove that she belonged.

“That was a feeling I was really dealing with before this, because I just didn’t see that many women out there in the backcountry,” she says.

The fact that the course was taught by Erika Lee, an experienced Bluebird instructor, and Brittany Konsella, a coach with over 10 years of experience and the second woman to ski all Colorado’s Fourteeners, definitely didn’t hurt.

“It was extremely empowering,” Gazarik says. “Having a female mentor who’s been there, done that—it just makes backcountry skiing feel so much more attainable. It helped with my confidence so much. By the end of it I was like, OK, I do belong here. I can do backcountry.” 

As for our other takeaways from ladies-only tours? Read on. 

Backcountry touring in an all-ladies group can help build confidence and camaraderie. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

Our 7 Favorite Things About Skiing with Women 

1. There’s amazing camaraderie. 

In a women-only group, there’s a ton of built-in shared experiences—everything from realizing you’re the only girl on the skin track, to discovering you have to pee just when there’s no more tree cover in sight. That translates to automatic camaraderie. “There’s this welcoming, fun, laughter-filled environment that you get with girls,” says Ciamaichelo. “You can just hoot and holler the whole way down, and there’s other people hooting and hollering with you.”   

2. Women have a different approach to risk assessment. 

One of the biggest cruxes of backcountry skiing is the constant risk assessment and communication it takes to stay safe. In this weekend’s clinic, Konsella explained that women tend to be more cautious than men—and that preference to take in more data and look at the whole picture is a good thing. When women ski together, they tend to avoid more of the heuristic traps of wilderness decision-making, and take a more calculated approach to avalanche terrain. The result: Less unnecessary risk. 

3. Communication feels easier.

With mostly male partners, a lot of women find it tough to disagree with the group, even when the terrain is setting off internal alarm bells. “I think it’s very easy to let myself think that a male knows more than me, even when I’m confident in my knowledge of the backcountry and my understanding of the snow science,” says Ciamaichelo. “It’s very easy for me to let a guy intimidate that confidence.” With women, on the other hand, decision-making often feels more collaborative.

Thoughtful discussions were a hallmark of this weekend’s clinic. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

4. Representation matters. 

When you never see anyone who looks like you in the backcountry, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong there. Backcountry skiing or splitboarding in a group of people with shared backgrounds goes a long way toward building confidence—and showing other people like you that they’re welcome in the backcountry, too. (That same philosophy applies to another important topic: improving racial diversity in skiing and snowboarding.) 

5. It can feel less competitive. 

“I like skiing with men, but in a women’s group, things can feel more chill,” says Bluebird’s social media manager Whitney Bradberry. “We skin at a conversation pace rather than trying to destroy ourselves to reach the top. We push each other, but there’s less ego—we’re just out there to have some fun and get some exercise.”

6. You often learn more. 

There are a lot of amazing male instructors, but many women say they learn better with other women. One example: “My first few backcountry skiing experiences were with a guy I was dating, and I think because he wanted me to have a good time, he did everything for me without really explaining what was going on,” says Emma Walker, Bluebird Backcountry’s brand guru. “But I want to be self-sufficient in the backcountry. I like skiing with other women because it pushes me to learn skills for myself.” 

7. It’s a great way to meet other lady crushers.

This weekend, Gazarik and one of the other attendees exchanged numbers and plan to go backcountry skiing together soon. It will be Gazarik’s first female backcountry skiing partner—and, she hopes, not her last. 

 

Looking to tap into some serious lady power on the skin track? Join in on Lady Laps every Sunday at Bluebird.