Nicole Snell wears many hats: a CEO, an international speaker, a self-defense coach. However, what connects all of these different identities is Nicole’s passion for adventuring and the outdoors. We asked Nicole to tell us why she prefers to hike solo, where she finds the motivation to go after her audacious goals, who she hopes to inspire, and so much more.
Greetings HOKA community! Adventuring, hiking and exploring are integral parts of my life and I wouldn’t trade my experiences, failures or successes for anything in the world. Let me tell you how I got started.
I grew up in 29 Palms, a small desert military town just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, where my father was a retired Marine. Our town had 1 high school, no movie theater (but one awesome drive in) and the nearest mall or big retail store was 30mins to an hour away. There weren’t a lot of recreational activities for kids and teens but that didn’t bother me much because I could find plenty to do in the desert. I remember exploring the fields around my house, searching for lizards in the front yard, or being absolutely enamored that I found a grasshopper and remembered to hold it like my older brother taught me to. I would explore the washes for hours at a time and sit quietly in the open desert, feeling like the last human on earth, and listen to the sounds of life all around me. A lizard scurrying across the sand. A family of quail chirping and hooting as they led their covey from bush to bush. Ground squirrels poking their heads out of their dens to keep a watchful eye. Whenever I found a new plant, animal or insect my excitement would swell and I couldn’t wait to share the discovery.
Despite living so close to JTNP, my family wasn’t outdoorsy, so I didn’t visit the park as often as you’d think or I would have liked in my youth. The few memories I do have are of me scrambling along the rocks and the feeling of accomplishment when I got to the top of a particularly difficult formation. Standing there and surveying the landscape like I had just climbed Mt. Everest brought me such peace because being outside and connecting with the natural world and challenging myself to climb higher was an escape for me from everything else that was going on in my young life.
The desert wasn’t the only environment I explored as a kid. My aunt lived in the mountains above Fresno and during our occasional family visits, I would explore the wooded areas around her house which really brought out the adventurer in me. She had 2 dogs and a cat who would follow my sister and I on our trek through the brush and scrub oaks. With our trusty walking sticks we would spend hours outside enjoying the fresh air, taking turns on the tree swing and looking for interesting sights along the way. I was a sucker for collecting rocks (still am!) and anything shiny, different or neat looking was immediately gathered for further inspection back at the house. The neighbors had 2 donkeys and each night I would walk down the hill to the barbed wire fence and call out their names hoping they’d hear me across the field and come to the fence so I could feed them bits of fruit and veggies and give their long ears a scratch.
The desire for adventure has always lived within me and pictures of far off destinations that I saw in magazines or the places I saw on TV sparked my curiosity. I knew there was more to the world than what was in front of me. Even though I didn’t have anyone to look up to as an adventure role model, I didn’t need one in order to forge my own path because I’ve been stubborn from the get-go. I remember looking through a book in my 1st grade class that showed deep blue water, colorful fish and plants that looked like they were from another planet. The caption read the ‘Great Barrier Reef’ and I said to my teacher, “I’m going here one day”. I knew nothing about scuba diving, or that the Great Barrier Reef was on another continent. I only knew that this was something I wanted to do so I was going to make it happen. Throughout my life, others have tried to place limits on me or tell me what I should or shouldn’t want to do either because of my gender or my race, and I refused to listen. I will not ever let someone tell me I can’t do something, go somewhere or have an experience that I want. My life is mine to live and if that meant going against the norm, so be it. In 2016 I realized my childhood dream and dived the Great Barrier Reef…braving my overwhelming sea sickness to stay on a live aboard for 24hrs in order to do it. I was not about to let anything stop me!
I got into solo adventuring mainly because there were a lot of activities that interested me-especially extreme sports- and I didn’t have friends who wanted to join me. I wasn’t going to let the schedules of others limit what I decided to do or keep me from trying something new, so I went by myself. The first big solo activity I did just out of college was snowboarding. I had always wanted to try it, so I booked a lesson, borrowed gear that didn’t fit, and drove up to the mountains where I rented a board and had the most amazing. One of my first and longest solo trips was my week in St. Maarten where I zip lined, rode horses across the beach (a bucket list item!) and swam out a half mile into the ocean to snorkel at a protected reef where watercraft of any kind was prohibited and you could only legally access it by swimming there!
My passion for hiking kicked into overdrive after completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on my solo trip to New Zealand. This 12mile “Great Walk” is a World Heritage site that passes between two active volcanoes, Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ngauruhoe (otherwise known as Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings). It passes through alpine climates and takes between 6-9 hours to complete. That was the longest and most technical hike I had completed at that time and I was excited for the challenge.
Hands down, it was one of the most magnificent solo hikes of my life. Walking through the geothermically active terrain where the steam billows up from the ground was a once in a lifetime experience. Moving across volcanic craters and old lava flows was breathtaking. My favorite part was when I was descending from Red Crater and my eyes met the Emerald Lakes for the first time. The blue, green and teal of the waters due to the volcanic minerals of the soil contrasted with the light tan sand making them stand out like jewels. I stopped at this point for a good 45mins to enjoy the view. Six and a half hours after starting, I reached the Ketetahi Car Park, which marked the end of the hike. Other hikers clapped as I came across the ‘finish line’ triumphantly! I took a seat on a bench to relish my success, eat a snack and wait for the shuttle to return me to the hostel.
After completing the Tongariro I knew I was capable of doing longer and more difficult hikes so when I got home, I started the Six Pack of Peaks challenge here in SoCal and began planning my trip to Peru to do the 4-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. For me a hike isn’t just about the summit or the final destination, it’s about enjoying the fresh air, the scenery, discovering something new, connecting with nature and reminding myself what my body can do. Nature doesn’t care what color your skin is, how much you weigh, what clothes you wear, your gender identity, your sexual orientation or your past experience. Nature takes you as you are in the moment and I find peace in that truth.
Over the years my bucket list has filled up with both activities I’ve completed, and ones still left to try. I’m always adding new things and I hope I never get to the end of the list because I always want to have something to look forward to. I believe that experiences and memories are the most valuable items I can collect. Whether it’s trying a new hobby, like the fact that I went mountain biking for the first time this past October or planning to tackle a major challenge like climbing Whitney in 2021, I love the excitement of learning something new and figuring out how I’m going to accomplish it. It’s never too late and you’re never too old to try something new or different.
I believe that we should each feel free to pursue the activities we want and not feel pressured to do (or not do) something just because others are doing it. You get to define what an adventure means to you. Whatever brings you joy, and happiness is what you should be empowered to pursue. Some things I’ve tried once and will never do again…like parasailing because I almost died! Others I’ve tried and they turned into a new hobby, like when I took the motorcycle safety course simply to know how to ride and I ended up buying a bike. We can do and be whatever we want!
When I’m not out galavanting around the world in search of unique experiences, I run my own company, Girls Fight Back. Now, if you want to talk about a challenge, try purchasing a company during a pandemic when your entire business model of live events has to be immediately shifted to an unfamiliar online format because the whole world is shut down and quarantined. If you had told me 5 years ago that I was a going to be a business owner I would never have believed you. However, taking over Girls Fight Back was my calling and the best decision I could have made. I am incredibly passionate about teaching violence prevention, personal safety and self-defense to women and people of all genders worldwide. I get to speak internationally to groups of all sizes and demographics and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I believe that when we are empowered to live our lives freely and confidently, there is no limit to what we can do.
I hope that my experiences and stories will inspire others to go after what they want and to not let someone else’s fears, stereotypes, judgements or opinions stop them from doing the things they love and enjoy. I want to be a role model for girls and young women so they can see that you don’t have to limit yourself to what other people want or expect you to be. Sometimes I’m the only Black woman out on the trails, on the dive boat, on the waves, in the arena, on the slopes or walking through a new city in another country. I’ve gotten the looks from people wondering if I’m lost or considering if I belong there. I belong wherever I want to be, and I hold my head up high as I launch into the things I’m passionate about without looking back. The world is full of so much to see and experience and I want take part in as much as I can. It’s my Time To Fly.
Nicole is seen here wearing the new TenNine Hike GTX. Connect with Nicole on Instagram (@adventuresofnik, @girlsfightback, @studentsfightback), Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and find more about Outdoor Defense on YouTube and IGTV.