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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.