In 2001, Mike Russell was climbing the corporate ladder and spending too much time on the New Jersey turnpike. Each morning, he’d spend his 90-minute commute taking in the view of the Manhattan skyline and daydreaming about running away to pursue his passion: skiing hard lines down big mountains.
He happened to be on the turnpike the morning of September 11. “I watched it live,” he says. “I watched that second plane hit.” Traffic stopped and people got out of their cars. “We all sat there for a good hour. We watched the World Trade Center come down.”
As smoke rose from lower Manhattan, Russell’s mind was on a friend who worked at the World Trade Center—a friend he’d been planning to meet at a restaurant in the World Trade Center later that day. “I only missed that by eight hours,” he says. He later found out his friend was safe, but the close call was transformative. “It hit me like, ‘What am I doing? Am I really doing what I want to be doing?’ It was one of those life-changing things where there’s something very audible, very distinct, that says you’re not doing what you want to do. There was no looking back.”
A little more than 20 years later, Russell hasn’t looked back. After the towers fell, the he decided he needed to get out of New York and find those powder stashes—and he found them when he moved to Colorado, four months after 9/11. Today, he works remotely as a director of quality and business process for NTT Data Services from his homes in Denver and Frisco. But when he’s not on Zoom meetings, the man known in the ski community as “Tele Mike” spends as much time as he can skiing fresh powder in the Colorado high country.
His love for thigh-burning, untracked turns is trumped by just one thing: sharing that love with others around the world, especially people of color. “My goal is to educate,” Russell says. “If you’re going to go through a backcountry gate, here’s how to do it safely.” On a deeper level, though, he says he wants “to promote mental and physical well-being by being in the backcountry.”
When Russell first moved to Colorado in 2002, he spent his time skiing the hardest runs at Breckenridge Ski Resort. Steep, double-black, above-tree-line terrain was his favorite, especially on powder days. A torn patella after hucking a 20-foot cliff in the back bowls of Vail, however, put the brakes on his pursuit of extreme lines.
Around that same time, he felt the quietness of the backcountry calling. Back then, the best way to access the backcountry was telemark skiing, where one’s heel has the freedom to flex up off the ski, rather than remaining locked down onto it. Russell took an instructional clinic in the early 2000s and “absolutely fell in love with the tele turn,” which requires a distinctive, knee-dipping technique. “It is hard to describe the feeling of the turn,” he says. “It just feels like you’re unhinged. You feel much more one with the mountain.”
Since arriving in Colorado, Russell’s goals have grown beyond simply finding the best powder stashes. His primary aim is to help others experience the mental clarity that comes with time in the backcountry. “The Earth’s mountains are bigger and more formidable than all of our collective problems,” he says. “A visit to the backcountry makes space for us to unplug from the cyclical drudgery of our lives to afford us free mental health care.”
So confident is he in nature’s potential to heal that he listed “world peace” as a short-term goal on an application to be a part of the Athlete Mentorship Initiative from Scarpa, a backcountry-focused Italian outdoor company with U.S. offices in Louisville. “Mike and many others like him represent the change in diversity and inclusion we want and need to see,” says Kim Miller, CEO of Scarpa North America, who knows Russell personally. “His demeanor speaks to his humble confidence, leadership, and mentorship qualities. His desire to teach and share his love for skiing with others is his mission.”
Russell’s mission plays out in numerous avenues such as his guiding services with Elevate Backcountry, as well as his amateur, Warren Miller–esque ski films that highlight people of color adventuring safely in the mountains.
The calling is most evident, however, in his role as the backcountry coordinator for the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on organizing and supporting Black skiers. “What we value most is the experience and information he graciously gives to our ski community,” says Henri Rivers, president of NBS. “He is providing an opportunity for the NBS to branch out into other ski disciplines that are vibrant and growing throughout the industry.”
Many of Russell’s NBS brethren have, and will continue to, join him on his biggest adventure to date: backcountry skiing on all seven continents. Russell has already ticked North America, South America, Asia, and Europe off his list, and plans are in the works to tackle the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco, next winter. Because Australia has lousy skiing, he jokes, “We’re just going to call it good and go to New Zealand.” They’ll loop Antarctica into that same trip sometime in winter 2024.
He isn’t trying to earn bragging rights as the first person, or even first person of color, to complete this feat. Nor is he planning to claim a “highest” or “fastest” superlative with his venture. For Russell, it’s simply about traveling the world with skis, finding common ground with other people, and sharing the experience. “No matter who you are, what culture you are, or what differences you have, it seems like the mountains tend to equalize the playing field,” he says. “The reason for the trip goes back to showing people of color, ‘Hey we can do this. This lifestyle is accessible to you. Here’s how you can do it.’ ”