Breckenridge artist, athlete feels the draw of the mountains |

Breckenridge artist, athlete feels the draw of the mountains

Nikki LaRochelle takes a run on Peak 8 in Breckenridge.
Liam Doran / Special to the Daily |

Unlike many local athletes who have been training for years, Nikki LaRochelle got a somewhat late start on the racing circuit. In fact, she claims that she is not naturally gifted at sports.

“I hated sports when I was little and I loved watching TV. I almost dropped out of high school soccer because of a 5-mile run,” she said.

While studying art at Colorado State University, she decided to run a half marathon.

“It pushed what I thought I could do,” she said.

These days, LaRochelle runs a lot farther than 13 miles, preferring ultra-distance races. For fun, she and her friends participate in their own homebrew race called The Quandary Crusher, which involves running up and down Summit County’s only 14er during the stormy evening hours of August.

The mountains are what keep her going during these races, formal or informal.

“If I went to do a road race, I’d probably just stop someplace and take a nap,” she said.

During summertime you can find her running and hiking around Breckenridge, where she lives and works. She said she has “developed a friendship with Peak 8,” her favorite.

Due to knee surgery last year, she had to take a break from running.

“It was a rough injury. … I had a lot of frustration,” she said.

So she picked up a new sport, mountain biking. She said she had to go to the emergency room several times while learning proper technique. A few stitches here and there kept her together. She now teaches cycling at the Breckenridge Recreation Center, where you will also find her lifting weights.

Her absolute favorite sport is ski mountaineering, thanks to her husband, Brad LaRochelle. Four years ago, while they were still dating, he invited her to be his teammate for the Power of Four race in Aspen. This intense introduction to the sport involved climbing 12,000 vertical feet over 28 miles.

“I was totally hooked. … It’s a very dynamic sport,” she said.

Since that first race, she has improved dramatically. This year she qualified for the Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Verbier, Switzerland, but opted out of the race. She’s hoping to compete in 2017, though. Recently, here in Summit, she won the women’s categories in all four of the 2014-15 Rise and Shine Rando Series races at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. On top of that, she clocked faster times than many of her male competitors.

To stay competitive, she maintains a strict training schedule.

“I’m completely motivated by racing,” she says. Because she normally skins up Breckenridge, during one training period she had to start at 2:45 a.m. in order to get in 10,000 vertical feet before the mountain closed uphill access at 8:30 a.m. Four laps up to the T-Bar, and one to the Vista Haus, followed by breakfast at Amazing Grace.

Her husband is her main partner in all her adventures. Together, they “seek out spicy ridgelines to traverse.” Two years ago, they summited all of Colorado’s 14ers. Mount Wilson proved particularly tricky for the duo, as they were thwarted in their first two efforts. On the third attempt they climbed a Class 4 route in a blizzard. When they got to the top, they saw a perfectly sunny south face, complete with the sound of chirping birds. They descended into the sunlight, and hitchhiked into Telluride at around 1 a.m.

Culebra Peak presented a different set of challenges. Her party didn’t want to have to pay to climb the privately owned mountain, so they opted for a 26-mile, 18-hour ridge traverse from where they parked on public land. “We wore camouflage so we wouldn’t be seen.”

Fellow athlete and friend Teague Holmes remembers LaRochelle being a great companion that day. “There are a lot of people out there who are strong and have endurance, but not a lot of people who are your friends and you want to spend 16 hours in the mountains with. … You want to be with someone who’s having fun and able to see things outside of the particular pain cave you’re in. … It pulls you out of it.”

The LaRochelles plan on tackling a few 13ers this summer.

The Artist’s Way

Despite her athletic accolades, LaRochelle finds the most magic in art, which she considers a “very private” pursuit. She mostly loves doodling.

“If someone puts down a pen and paper in front of me, I just start drawing,” she said.

For her design work, she often scans her hand-drawn creations and polishes them off on the computer.

LaRochelle works part-time as a graphic designer. Some of her local clients include the towns of Breckenridge and Frisco, Whole Foods Market, the USA Pro Challenge and Breckenridge Ski Resort. She designs everything from wedding invitations (including her own) and baby announcements to logos and greeting cards. Each project presents its own set of challenges, she says, but she especially enjoys designing logos.

“You’re witty in how you present concepts and ideas,” she said. “They’re really hard.”

Friend and fan Mistaya Pierpont believes LaRochelle brings “fresh humor and quirkiness” to her designs.

“She illustrates the things that are unique to our mountain community, touching on all things Summit County,” Pierpont said.

From her ski-girl birthday card and posters for sports events across the county to the Frisco Whole Foods shopping bag, her designs are part of everyday life.

A Life in Balance

How does LaRochelle reconcile these two outstanding sets of talents? She says the balance shifts from time to time. Before moving to Breckenridge seven years ago, she lived in Seattle, where “it was so revered to be an artistic person.” Here in Summit County, though, she feels the draw of the mountains. “I have to fight for the artist because I get sucked into sports. I do art as an occupation, but I’d love to do it for fun.”

It’s not all about sports and art, though. In all of life’s contests, LaRochelle says that we sometimes “underestimate what we can do.” Whether that’s designing logos, winning a ski mountaineering race, or reaching out to a friend in need, “you just have to be brave and take the first step,” she said.

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