Sheri Tingey Embraces Her Second Chance
The gear designer thought her career was over was stricken with chronic fatigue syndrome. But a decade-plus of recovery work has resulted in her best creations yet.
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Sheri Tingey told her story to producer Sarah Vitak for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Then I got really sick. I couldn’t crawl across the floor. And I just kept thinking, Is this my life? I will never design again. All of this life was over.
I am here in Mancos, Colorado. It’s one of those one stoplight towns when you drive through, like, Oh, did I pass this place? It’s a very eclectic mix of people.
I was sewing by five. By about the second grade, I got the hand me downs, and oh my God, I hated them. I would just take scissors and chop it all up, and I’d walk out the door. By about the fifth grade, I was making all of my clothing.
As a young child, I had terrible tourettes. I was dyslexic. I was all of these things. But that also gave me my window that I created through other ways. For me, it was fabrics and the outdoors. That became my lifelong love.
I fell in love with skiing and moved to Jackson Hole. I was a horrible waitress. I couldn’t do any of those things, and I started making ski clothing, just because I wanted something to wear, and I hated what was out there. That really started my first business. It just absolutely lit every candle that mattered to me.
During that time, I had also discovered kayaking. The minute I got it in a boat it was like, You’re home, girl. This, this is you, this is it. It’s everything that I had ever loved about the water. So I would spend the winter skiing and the summers kayaking. I would be on the first tram and would ski until three in the afternoon, and I would sew until midnight. In the summer, it was the same. I was kayaking all day. I ran 24-7. I never knew how to shut off those things.
Jackson Hole in those days was a real hotbed of outdoor design. I was probably the first one out there that was making really practical clothing. Doug Tompkins was there, John Simms from Simms Fishing. Yvon Chouinard lived there; he had the climbing business and then he started the clothing.
Teton Mountaineering was the main mountaineering shop there in Jackson. I remember so distinctly, they had a celebration when this Patagonia catalog came out. I remember, I looked at it and a couple other people that were small little guys like me looked at it, and we went, We’re dead. This is it.
And it did happen that way. All of a sudden Patagonia went, and here came the North Face, and here came the others. And they got bigger and bigger and bolder, and all the little guys disappeared.
Then I got really sick. I’d had this flu, maybe two and a half weeks. I thought, I’m okay. And [my partner] Ralph and I went out to climb a thing called Irene’s Arete in the Tetons.
It’s about a 4,000-foot ascent up to the base of the climb, and then a 13-pitch climb. And that’s when the viral pneumonia came in. The next day, I was down, and I was down for two and a half months. Then the chronic fatigue came in.
I mean, I was on my hands and knees. It also had this component of your brain kind of going out the window. It was just this terrifying, horrifying thing and nobody could help me. I go to doctors and they just say, “Well, go home and take an aspirin, because tests don’t show anything.” Within two months, I had to give up my business and skiing and boating and all these things. It all just left.
[My son] Thor was two at the time. I had nobody to watch him. I’d just lay on the floor, and he’d crawl over me. And I just kept thinking, Is this my life?
The chronic fatigue would ebb and flow and ebb and flow. You’d have years where you do work better and years where you just didn’t function. You wish you were dead, but you’re not gonna die from it.
Then we moved to Alaska. We had this good size dog team, which I could do because I could control the amount of energy I put out. Hop in the sled and the dogs take you.
Clothing was really junky for mushers. I could make something better. But I had to ask, Do I have the energy? When I was first sick, I couldn’t sew for 15 minutes. I would be so exhausted. Anybody that has ever dealt with chronic fatigue, knows if you either overdo yourself physically or mentally, you’ll crash, and you can crash for a day, or weeks, or months. Ten years in, that was probably the hardest thing I ever did, retraining myself how to recreate without exhausting myself, because it went so against everything in my personality. Whether it was skiing or kayaking or working on an art project, it was 24-7 until I crashed.
It was like, No, you’re gonna sew for 15 minutes and then you’re gonna walk away. Now you’re gonna sew for 30 minutes, you’re gonna walk away. You need to put it away at night and pick it up again.
Dr. Denton at Alaska Alternative Medicine Center saved my life. She said, “You were 17 years getting in here, plan on at least 12 getting out, because you can’t go out too fast. You’ll fall down.” She was right. And my energy came back.
Within a year of that, Thor walked through the door with this dead boat from these trips that he’d done. And he asked me, “Can you build me a boat?”
Pack rafts are boats designed to fit into a backpack. Building a pack raft is much closer to making clothing than it is to making boats. It really is a sewing technology.
You talk about times in your life when light bulbs go off. It was like, This is everything that I’ve ever cared about. All that I thought I had lost, and all that I thought was useless, just absolutely came and jumped in the basket. It was like the door just opened and said, “Walk.”
I could never have run or become Alpacka had I not done that. I needed those years to retool myself to do what eventually came out to be that this is what you’re gonna do, girl.
I used to run the whole business, and thankfully now I don’t have to. I just design boats. I’m back in that element that I really care about, that it all comes down to, How good of a boat can you make? Not how beautiful a boat, but what’s the best boat you can come up with? And that’s way more interesting to my soul and to how I work.
I am so blessed to have had that second chance. If that had come ten years earlier, I would have still been too sick to do anything about it. And this time around is so much more enjoyable than the first time.
Sheri Tingey is the founder and head designer of Alpacka Rafts. She started the company at age 50 with her son Thor. You can learn more about her work at alpackaraft.com.
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