Drew Petersen
Petersen has made the bold choice to be jarringly open about what he’s gone through. (Photo: Michael Brown)
Adventures in Audio

A Professional Athlete’s Battle with Mental Illness

Drew Petersen

On the outside, Drew Petersen seemed like a guy who was living the dream. He is extremely fit with a powder-snow-catching beard, and he’s prone to hoots of joy when skiing down amazing mountains around the world. But on the inside, he was for many years hiding loneliness, anger, and a deep sadness. Only recently, in the wake of a near-death accident on Oregon’s Mount Hood, has he begun to face the mental health challenges that nearly drove him to oblivion. He’s also made the bold choice to be jarringly open about what he’s gone through—because he knows that he’s not the only one.


This episode is brought to you by Ikon Pass, which gives you access to the most iconic skiing and snowboarding mountains in the world. Ikon Passes for the 2022–23 season go on sale March 10 at the lowest price of the year. Learn more at ikonpass.com.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.

Hey Everyone, Michael Roberts here. Before we start today's episode by producer Paddy O'Connell, I wanted to let you know that it focuses on some heavy topics, including suicide.

But it's also a beautiful and deeply moving story. And there's even some laughter.

Paddy: For all of the interviews that I've done, I don't believe that I've actually ever had Kleenex at the ready, and I do for this. It's like, it's like Outside Podcast this week brought to you by tissues and tears, starring Drew and Paddy.

Drew Petersen: Um, I just had to get so much snot out of my nose so that I can talk.

I'm in my closet and I don't have Kleenex like you do. Cause you came prepared. So I'm picking out what shirt I'm going to blow my nose into. Oh Nope. There we go. Okay. Got it. Got a nice little neck tube.

And just, just so the listeners know, like you can make me cry, like till the cows come home, as they say. Like, I am, I'm fucking here for it and nothing is off limits today. So let the tears flow, let the snot flow. But every once in a while I have to clear it.

Paddy: This is probably a good time to let you know that I. Most likely not be borrowing a neck tube from you in the future.

That is a teary and pretty snotty Drew Petersen. Drew is a professional skier. And on paper, he possesses all the characteristics of the archetypal outdoor athlete. He is handsome. He is extremely, almost annoyingly fit. He has golden hair down to his shoulders and a powder snow-catching beard that would make ZZ Top jealous. He is really really really good at making huge, fast, beautiful ski turns. For these reasons, he is regularly featured in magazine stories and photo shoots and action-sports movies.

In fact, he just released a ski film about himself that he produced and co-directed. It's called Ups and Downs. But while that sounds like the title of a predictable ski movie made by a prototype mountain dude, Drew is anything but typical. And neither is the film .

Drew: Ups and Downs is about a hell of a lot more than skiing.

The title is just a really simple interpretation that I wanted to mirror the ups and downs of my personal mental health journey with the ups and downs of ski touring

Paddy: This is not the first time Drew has publicly explored mental health. On social media, he is open about his own journey, which includes depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Last summer, he wrote an essay for Outside Online, titled "We Need To Talk About Mental Health in the Mountains." In it, he outlines his many big, seemingly fun adventures, like this clip of him skiing untracked, face deep snow:

Drew: That's why we're alive.

Paddy: But he also reveals how those good times have been coupled with darkness. Ups and Downs is a vulnerable investigation into how his struggles nearly drove him to oblivion. And in the opening scenes, Drew is jarringly honest about how this is not a tale that can be packaged up neatly for our understanding.

Drew: It's hard to tell this story because it's not encapsulated with a beginning and an end. Like this is my life. I've lived it. I'm still living it in society.

When we talk about mental health, we don't go all the way deep. Still doesn't feel like, you know, anybody wants to talk about like suicide.

That's the societal thing. Like, we all feel like we should be able to handle this on our own. We should be able to make it through just fine, that we shouldn't need help.

A lot of my life has been spent in this really dark, lonely and depressive place.

Paddy: Drew's motivation for sharing his story is to reveal a hard truth about outdoor communities. For those of us who live to play in wild places, a lot of our self worth is tied up in our adventure conquests. And the more difficult the journey, the greater the cred; this is why we've created terms like sufferfests and Type Two Fun, a label for the special kind of pleasure we supposedly get from especially grueling moments. Now, there is nothing wrong with this thinking, but it can lead us to overlook or hide the pain we don't choose, the pain we keep to ourselves.

For as long as Drew can remember, he has struggled with the conflict between what his life looked like on the outside, and what he was feeling inside.

Drew: I grew up in Silverthorne, Colorado. Grew up right in a ski town. It was the greatest gift that my parents could have ever given me. I grew up right in the mountains. our neighborhood backs up right to the national forest. So like I grew up with the forest and the mountains out my back door as my teacher of sorts. I also just have memories of playing in the woods with my brother and our dog. And, we had incredible access to world-class ski areas. And my parents put me on skis, when I was one and a half. I definitely just remember the joy of skiing, lots of memories of just skiing at Copper or in A Basin with my family.

But, there were definitely two sides of me. There was the side of me that was really happy and I was a really good brother and a really good son and a really good student and a really good skier. And I think I was very well liked and I was very loved.

And then there was this other side of me where I was very moody and I would throw temper tantrums. And, people definitely just thought that I was being a kid and I was, you know, struggling to grow up in ways.

But that turmoil and that side of me, didn't just go away. It morphed into anger problems. That's part of why I poured myself into my athletics and my academics so hard was because it felt like that was like, sort of redeeming to, to that other side of me.

Paddy: When was the first time that you thought about suicide?

Drew: The earliest memory that I have of suicidal thoughts was when I was in fourth grade. And so I was nine years old. I was upset about something or really sad. And this girl in my fourth grade class said, ‘If you're thinking about killing yourself, then at least do it in a cool way. Like jump off a big cliff on your skis or something.’

Paddy: Jesus.

Drew: And all of the kids around me laughed. Except for me. Because I had thoughts of killing myself and. Like, right then at nine years old, it's confirmed by all of the kids laughing around me that those thoughts are something that I keep private and something to hide from the rest of the world.

Paddy: So Drew buried his anger and his sadness under his goal of becoming a professional skier. And, on the outside, his mountain athlete lifestyle sure sounded idyllic. And it still does.

Drew: I started competing in big mountain freeride comps when I was in high school.

And the first money that I ever made from skiing was in contest winnings when I was 15.

And mixed in there is skiing for a lot of different companies. Switching from competition to film and photo skiing. And, you fast forward 12 years later, now I'm 27 and now it's to the point where it's my job to go ski powder and that's pretty damn sweet.

But there was definitely a dissonance between how I felt the outside world perceived me and perceive my life and what was really going on. I wasn't showing all of me. There was this whole other side that I've kept hidden from the world. Not just through ski films and Instagram posts, but also in my life ever since I was nine years old and had figured out that I probably shouldn't talk about suicidal thoughts with anyone, and then I should keep them to myself.

I just kept a huge part of myself hidden and behind closed doors. I felt very alone in my struggles. I felt like no one could possibly understand what it was like to be thinking about killing myself, especially when the rest of my life was pretty awesome.

Paddy: Drew was deeply lonely, and also fiercely protective of his loneliness. He believed that no one could or would understand what he was going through, so he constructed an always-happy facade. But the constant acting, the constant battle to hold the heavy weight of that front up was an impossible task. He describes this in a scene in Ups and Downs.

Drew: I expected myself to be happy and stoked all the time. And that fueled the spiral downwards because I was not meeting up to my own expectation of who I'm supposed to be.

So many people see the highlights. And so many people see me standing on the top of the mountains and skiing, perfect powder, but people don't see the days when it's just like harder than climbing a mountain to get out of bed. Nobody sees that that's where it really dominated my life for a long time. It wasn't getting outside. It wasn't getting in the mountains. It was just forcing myself to crawl out of bed. 

I remember thinking that if I could do all of these things, athletically, if I could climb mountains, if I could ski big vines, why couldn't I figure this out myself? How could I not be strong enough?  

I Had so much shame wrapped up in needing help in being depressed. And that shame is why I was so silent for so long.

Paddy: Physical injuries often accompany a life spent in the mountains and Drew is no stranger to getting hurt. Over the course of his career, he has had 13 surgeries, more concussions than he can remember, and rehabbed himself back from things like a dislocated hip, broken ribs, blown apart knees, and a broken sacrum.

But all that could not prepare him for the events of May 10th, 2017, a ski adventure that nearly killed him.

Drew: I was on Mount Hood in Oregon. I was on a road trip to climb and ski the highest peak in every state of the American West. We climbed the south face of the mountain, and then we were going to ski a line on the east face and things didn't look the way we expected.

It looked like there had been a recent wet slide. So we made the decision to climb off of that face and ski down another side of the mountain.

Paddy: What happened next is documented in horrific detail in Ups and Downs, interspersed with gripping footage of Drew and his ski partner captured on a GoPro.

Drew: I was transitioning my skis to put them on my pack. 

Drew (film): Okay. We gotta get it right this time. I think we should consider hiking out because that is above fall-potentially-die exposure. I'm going to take the few seconds to throw the skis on the back because I think I'll be able to hike quicker if they're on there. 

Drew: I just heard a crack. The sound of rock fall is super distinct.

Film: Shit, are you okay dude?

Drew: A rock fell probably about 40 feet from the cliff directly above me. And it was about the size of a microwave and it landed directly on the back of my head, in the middle of my upper back and on the forearm of my left arm.

 My helmet definitely saved my life that day. My helmet took a lot of the impact and kept the rock from going into my skull.

I was bleeding really badly out of my left arm. The rock had gone through all of the layers that I was wearing. And my jacket was filling up with blood. We decided to tourniquet my left arm because my greatest fear was that if we didn't stop that bleeding, I would bleed out on the hillside. And then the second reality that I was facing was that we really needed to get off of that face of the mountain, because if one rock fell, then more rocks were going to fall.

Paddy: The safest choice and quickest evacuation route was to first climb to the summit and descend a different side of the mountain. Despite his injuries, Drew and his partner were able to make it to the top, where they made a plan. Drew's partner would ski down as quickly as possible, get ski patrol,and call 911. Drew would ski down slowly and not risk further injury. And so he descended by himself, down thousands of vertical feet, to the parking lot at the base of Mount Hood. When he arrived, his partner was still trying to secure help. Drew was alone.

Drew: I skied straight onto the pavement, and I couldn't bend over to get out of my skis.

And so I just yelled ‘help’ into a parking lot full of people, probably just chilling, drinking some beers, grilling up some dogs on a spring ski day.

That's for sure the only time that I've ever yelled ‘help,’ just hoping that a stranger would answer that call.

Paddy: Someone did answer the call. Many folks did. Drew was loaded onto a helicopter and rushed to the closest trauma center in Portland, Oregon. During the flight, something surprising and profound happened.

Drew: I just remember like trying to make a deal. If I lose my left arm, that's fine. If like my back was broken, you know, no matter how bad that was. If I was paralyzed, like that was fine. I was okay with my neck was broken, whatever. 

All I wanted was to live

Paddy: We'll be back after a short break.

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Following his near-death accident on Mount Hood in May of 2017, Drew Petersen was life-flighted to a trauma center in Portland, Oregon. Despite being hit by a massive rock, remarkably, he wasn't gravely injured. Doctors were able to close the huge laceration on his left arm and restore proper blood flow. Tests came back negative for internal bleeding and a broken back. In fact, Drew didn't have any broken bones and wasn't diagnosed with a concussion, though that would later be proven to be a mistake. Drew was shocked and so were the doctors, who kept joking with him about buying a lottery ticket since they thought he was the luckiest human on the planet that day.

And yet, despite the powerful desire to live that he'd felt in the helicopter, the emotional trauma of the accident ended up causing Drew to spiral deeper into depression, loneliness, and suicidal ideation.

Drew: It felt like I was a ghost just like following around my body, watching my body go through the motions of life, but not actually being there for any of that. 

I tried to lean on skiing and drinking to just give me enough happiness that that pain and those suicidal thoughts, would get overpowered.

It felt like there was just one punch after another, like life really started to feel like it was getting the best of me.

It's honestly as simple as I was either going to get help or I was going to kill myself and I chose to get help.

I started therapy 16 months after the accident. It took me that long for things to get bad enough. And for me to have the courage and strength to ask for help and to follow through on finding and seeking that help.

Paddy: Almost getting killed by a falling rock in the mountains is the kind of experience that many people would cite as the worst moment in their life. But Drew says he is grateful for the accident. He sees it as a flag-in-the-ground moment that was so dire, it forced him to examine the parts of himself he had long buried.

And when he looks back at what he went through, he says that the shift in his thinking began the very instant that rock slammed into him.

Paddy: Right after the rock hits you, you're moaning and you're grunting.

And you say:

Drew (film): I'm good. I'm good. I'm good. I'm going to be okay.

Paddy: And after you tourniquet your arm and you prepare for evacuation, you started saying something to your ski partner that is notably different. You say:

Drew (film): We're going to fucking do this.

Paddy: You yelled it, it was confident. It was determined. There's no doubt. There's no tremble in your voice. And you said ‘we’ and not ‘I.’ Do you think this is the same kind of life or death determination and community appeal that powered you to get help.

Drew: It's not the same feeling that led me to that conviction of getting help. But it's that same feeling we're going to fucking do this. The getting help and therapy and finding my amazing care team who fucking went through hell with me.

That's what that feeling is akin to, is now that conviction that I have from getting help and from that journey of healing and recovery and facing the sides of myself, that I've never been brave enough or strong enough to examine, and to, and to live with. 

That's what that conviction came to.

Paddy: What did that first day of therapy feel like?

Drew: The biggest thing I remember, the most powerful thing I remember, and the biggest affirmation of asking for help was when my therapist asked me if I was having thoughts of killing myself. And I said, yes.

Paddy: Wow.

Drew: And I finally, I finally told someone.

Paddy: Did you feel relief? Did you feel like, oh, it's out there. Someone knows.

Drew: Yeah. Definitely felt some relief.

I just wasn't alone. I just wasn't alone anymore.

It was the beginning of healing and becoming the man I am today.

Paddy: Drew's therapist diagnosed him with PTSD from the rockfall accident and recommended he see a neurologist, who also diagnosed Drew with post concussion syndrome and type II bipolar disorder, which is defined by depressive episodes and hypomanic swings. This is what had been causing Drew so much pain since he was a boy.

Paddy: When you got these diagnoses, were you relieved? Did you feel like you had an answer?

Drew: I was super relieved. It validated what was going on. And it validated that it wasn't all just my fault. Getting a diagnosis proved, like there's something wrong and there's a path to deal with what's wrong. And that's like, man, that's such a, such a turning point.

I think my story is an anecdote or microcosm or case study of the story of our communities as a whole.

 Our communities build a lot of our value and self-worth around athletics and around what we do in the mountains and what adventures we go on on the weekends.

And a lot of those parts and pieces, would lead people to believe that strength is climbing a mountain. And strength is putting on a smile and experiencing type two fun. But the reality is mental illness is not type two fun. We got to talk about it.

NARRATION: This is the reason Drew has made it his mission to share his story, it's why he made Ups and Downs. Only thirty days after its premiere in February 2022, the film amassed nearly 50,000 views on YouTube. During in-person screenings in the Fall of 2022, Drew was met with a standing ovation every time he stepped on stage. But accolades and eyeballs are not what he is after.

Drew: I didn't want to create a film that followed a traditional story arc that was like, here's a protagonist at a nadir and then here's them climbing out of that through their struggle to get to the top of a metaphorical and literal mountain. And now fuck yeah, I've conquered everything and I'm going to ski down.

We could have packaged the story in that way, but it's just not the truth. The truth is that the ups and downs have been a journey and they still are a journey. And the real resolution is living my life in a way where I placed my own mental health as top priority.

It's not about how many people watch it or, or, you know, whatever it means to my ski career. Like the reason I made this film was to help people.

I've received hundreds of messages, I don't even know how many, of people just thanking me. And a lot of people also have been really vulnerable to share what the film has meant for them. There's people who've reached out and said, like, ‘this got me to tell my wife about my depression for the first time ever.’ Like 50 year old burly bearded, tattooed men who literally asked me if they can give me a hug to moms to I had a few kids come and thank me.

When I was a kid, I idolized pro skiers, they were my heroes. And if, when I was a kid, a pro skier, who I looked up to had been talking about these things and had been vulnerable about mental health, then my entire life would be different. I would have gotten help so much sooner. 

And, I hope that I can hold that for somebody, but now I know that I do. And that means more than anything in my ski career. Like that's when I really learned that sharing this side of myself could help other people.

The experience of sharing my story publicly of making this film, and now releasing this film to the world, it truly affirms my belief that the solution starts with talking about it.

There is help. There is hope. And you can find peace. You can do it. And you're not alone.

Michael Roberts: 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone who is. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with a counselor. It’s free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, every day.

This episode was produced by Paddy O'Connell, and edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.

Drew Peterson's new film, Ups and Downs, can be found on YouTube. And you can follow Drew on Instagram; he's @drewpeterski

This episode was brought to you by Ikon Pass, which gives you access to the most iconic skiing and snowboarding mountains in the world. IKON Passes for the 2022/2023 season go on sale March 10 at the lowest price of the year. Learn more at ikonpass.com.

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. Also, we're offering new members a 25% discount. Just enter the code pod25 at checkout.

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