My Mother, the Hero

My Mother, the Hero

Ask free-ride snowboarder Alenka Mali where she gets her fearlessness and you’ll get one answer: her alpinist mom.

Whether it’s cutting down a mountain off-trail in a free-ride snowboard competition or base jumping off a 400-foot-tall cliff in Moab, Alenka Mali loves to test her limits. Her death-defying adventures might be mind-boggling for us mere mortals, but for Alenka it all feels natural. Feeling free in the wilderness was just a part of how she was raised.

Alenka grew up with a pair of alpinist parents who split their time between Slovenia, Argentina, and various base camps around the world. As her mom, Monika Kambic, and her dad, Klemen Mali, ventured out on extreme climbing expeditions, Alenka and her two brothers were free to climb, swim, and play outdoors with little restriction.

While she might not have realized the extent of her mom’s adventures as a kid, Alenka says it inspired her to set big goals for herself today: “I didn’t think about that much when I was young, but now I see a lot of her in me. I think we feel the same things.”

We connected with Monika (based in Slovenia and Alenka (who now lives in Canada) to find out more about their special dynamic—and what lessons they’ve learned from one another.

Monika, how did you become an alpinist?

Monika Kambic: My father actually used to be an alpinist, so we grew up in the mountains in Argentina, but I didn’t really start to climb until I came to Slovenia to study almost 30 years ago. I loved to windsurf in Argentina, but there weren’t any lakes near me. I started climbing my first month here, and it quickly became my main thing. I gave it all to the mountains and spent as much time as possible there.

How did you and your partner decide to start a family?

MK: We met and he invited me to climb! It just all came together. The first year after each of my babies (Alenka is the oldest of three), I spent a lot of time breastfeeding, but after that my partner would take care of the kids and I could climb and have some time for myself.

What was Alenka like as a baby?

MK: Alenka started to climb before she started to walk! We used to live in a house with a lot of stairs and by six or seven months old, she loved to climb up and down them. Even more funny she would climb the upper cupboards in the kitchen, using the handles and knobs to make a traverse left and right.

Was it scary to watch?

MK: No, no. I think that moms now are very scared about what can happen, but I was always watching her. I left her a lot of free space to move and to climb.

What were your memories, Alenka?

Alenka Mali: I remember always being outside. Sometimes it was 10 o’clock at night and I’d hear my mom calling from the house “Alenkaaaa!” for me to come back inside. We had a lot of freedom, especially compared to the kids around us who were very restricted by their parents. My brother and I were lead climbing [where instead of being secured by a top rope, you climb first and put your gear in the wall] by age 8 or so.

I loved being in Patagonia at the base camp, running around with all of the adults, climbing on rocks and trees. We didn’t question it. To us, it was just normal.

Where did you grow up geographically?

AM: Everywhere!

MK: Typically, we’d spend the summers in Argentina and the rest of the year in Slovenia, but we also traveled a lot. By the time Alenka was 3 years old, I think we’d spend more than 60 nights of the year sleeping outside.

What was your career in alpinism like at the time?

MK: My husband would go on one expedition and the next expedition was mine. At that time, I started to try to climb with women climbing partners with the goal of making the first female ascents [for different peaks]. It was a special challenge. We made the first fully female ascents of Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Those are the ones I’m most proud of.

Alenka, how did you understand your parents’ expeditions?

AM: It was very exciting because they always brought gifts when they got back! I understood what they were doing. When my mom climbed Cerro Torre we were actually there in the base camp.

MK: They were a part of the expedition almost! Once when Alenka was less than 2 years old I went on an expedition to Patagonia with my husband and a nanny, but no luck with the weather.

AM: It was really fun, of course. I remember that it was a very exciting time—some of my best memories for sure.

When did you start tapping into your own adventure passions, Alenka?

AM: It went in waves throughout my life. When I was really young, I was hungry to be a climber, but if you wanted to be good you had to train inside and that didn’t appeal to me.

MK: It was boring!

AM: Yes, it was boring. Also I was very strong and trained with a lot of boys. We would do arm wrestling drills and I would always win—and then the guys would make fun of me for being so strong. Next, I tried roller skating because it felt more “girly”, but I didn’t like the judging and the politics.

After a few years where sports were not a priority, I moved to Canada and I saw all of these people snowboarding. I started looking up peaks and really feeling something. I just wanted to be up there. It’s probably the same feeling my mom has had. Something about that being so simple when you just need to focus on surviving. Almost nothing on the ground matters. It’s very simple. It's easier.

How do you think having a mom with big athletic goals for herself shaped you?

AM: I didn’t think about that much when I was young. It just made sense to me. Now I see a lot of myself in it and a lot of her in me. I think we feel the same things. I think it was very inspiring, and it still is.

Did it help to build confidence?

AM: Yeah, because we were never limited by our parents, we don’t feel limited by ourselves. I feel like: I want to do that and I’m going to do it! It’s possible!

MK: Sometimes it’s a little bit hard to live in that way. Not everybody can accept your kind of life. Maybe it’s strange for most people.

AM: Yeah, when you’re a dreamer others can disapprove.

For you Monika, what’s it like seeing Alenka go after these big goals?

MK: With base jumping, her latest sport, I get a bit scared—but I understand Alenka. I can’t say, “No.” I think I also can understand my own mom more. I’m really proud of her, of course.

What lesson have you learned from your mom?

AK: The biggest one is to not care about what other people think. Other people are going to have so many opinions and different perspectives about what you do, and that’s okay. Nobody is ever going to see things exactly the way you do.

What lessons have you learned from your daughter?

MK: The most important thing I have learned from her is the feeling that you can make anything possible. A lot of times, I try to bring that into my own life. It’s a good feeling.

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