By Johnny Dodd
Updated August 19, 2015 03:45 PM
Credit: Getty

One afternoon not long ago, Kaitlyn Farrington stood near the summit of a 14,000-ft. volcano in Northern California as tears streamed down her sweat-drenched face. “I can’t go any further,” she muttered to a companion, trying to steady herself under the weight of a 40-lb. backpack full of gear that included a battered snowboard, wincing as bursts of burning, knife-like pains shot through her neck and back.

“I’m not going to make it,” she stammered. “It’s too much.”

Farrington is an Olympic gold-medal winning half-pipe snowboarder, but on that afternoon last April she certainly didn’t feel like one. Six months earlier, her life – along with her dreams for the future – was torn apart after an injury from a minor wipeout led to her being diagnosed with a rare spinal condition, known as congenital cervical stenosis, that doctors say could transform her into a quadriplegic if she ever snowboards a half-pipe again.

“In one year I went from the highest of highs,” Farrington tells PEOPLE, her eyes welling up with tears, “to the lowest of lows.”

But instead of feeling sorry for herself, she decided to disappear into the wild on an epic adventure in search of answers – and to carve a few turns in the snow along the way. Together with a friend, she set out on a grueling, potentially dangerous six-week trek through the Northwest in a decrepit 20-year-old pick-up – enduring countless miles of bad road, precious few showers and subsisting on a diet of oatmeal – with the intention of muscling her way up 25 snow-draped volcanic peaks, then snowboarding her way back down.

“When she first told me about the trip she had planned,” recalls U.S. Snowboard team physician Tom Hackett, “I couldn’t talk for a few moments. I had to take a deep breath.”

Farrington, who grew up barrel racing and playing soccer, has always been known for her grit. Two years after she started riding at the age of 14, her impressive array of tricks and aerial acrobatics earned her a spot on U.S. Snowboarding’s 2008 rookie team and she quickly found herself competing in the sport’s upper echelon. Raised by her dad on a ranch outside of Sun Valley, Idaho, her success proved tough on the family’s tight finances

“When I first started competing,” she says, “my dad would sell his cows in order to pay for my entry fees and expenses. Pretty soon he ended up with zero cows and ultimately ended up losing his ranch.”

Farrington kept competing and continued to pull off an impressive number of victories in major competitions. In 2013, she became one of the first women to land a backside 1080 in the half-pipe. In the walkup to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Farrington admits that she was “just hoping to make the U.S. team.” Winning the gold medal, she confesses, “was a complete surprise. All of a sudden, I ended up on top of the podium. It was an unbelievable, surreal moment and sometimes I still think it’s fake.”

The Day It Happened

Eight months later Farrington was still on top of the world, looking forward to the upcoming competitive season and already thinking about the 2018 Olympics . “I knew I could be even better, much better,” she admits. And then one afternoon in October 2014 while shooting an ad in Austria for one of her sponsors, a snowstorm delayed production and she found herself horsing around with friends in the fresh powder.

“We built this silly little jump,” she recalls. “I went off it and caught my heels and ended up doing a half backflip, landing on my upper back and neck.” As wipeouts go, this one looked fairly ho-hum for a woman who had survived five wrist surgeries and countless spills during the course of her career. But a split second after slamming into the snow, she realized something felt terribly different about this one. “I couldn’t move,” she recalls. “I lost all feeling from my neck down for about two minutes. It was the scariest two minutes of my life.”

The paralysis went away, but the “burning sensation” in her shoulders didn’t. Within weeks, she’d been seen by a number of specialists and in between the X-rays, MRIs, CT Scans and doctor visits, she tried to stay upbeat. Then in December – one day before her 25th birthday – she finally heard the words she’d been dreading from her longtime physician Dr. Tom Hackett, an orthopedic surgeon based in Vail, Colorado: “I’ve got the worst news for you,” he told her. “It’s over.”

Farrington soon learned that she was born with a spinal canal that was too narrow to allow for her spine to properly flex and bend without getting pinched. “When she had her wipeout last October, she lost the use of her arms and legs for two minutes,” explains Hackett. “But if she had a bad injury that could be permanent. Had we known about this before – and it’s not anything we ever screen for – she never would have been competing.”

A depressed Farrington kept the devastating news to herself and a few close friends. She’d occasionally show up at competitions, but would sit on the sidelines. When asked why she wasn’t competing, she’d lie. “I just have a back injury,” she’d say. “I’ll be better in a few months.”

As time passed, Farrington’s funk grew deeper. After spending so much of her life focused on training, pushing herself and competing, she couldn’t understand what she was going to do with her life. “I’d won an Olympic gold medal for something I loved doing and suddenly I’m told I can’t ever do it again,” she says. “It just didn’t make sense. I loved riding half-pipe and getting air. I was just so comfortable up there. It made me feel free.”

The Invitation

When she finally went public with her plans to retire last January, the news made headlines around the world. Not long afterwards, Farrington received an email from fellow snowboarder Maria Debari, whom she’d occasionally hang out with while attending events for their mutual sponsor, outdoor equipment manufacturer The North Face. Debari, 28, one of the world’s top freerider snowboarders, had long been impressed by Farrington’s “upbeat” attitude and thought she might be the perfect sidekick for an adventure she’d been dreaming about – and had recently decided to undertake.

“I’d climbed a few volcanoes in the past and snowboarded off of them,” says Debari. “It’s pretty fun. So I started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to go on a road trip and hit a bunch of them all in a row?’ ”

But Debari also knew that her odyssey could quickly turn ugly without the right partner. The days would be long. The physical demands of dragging oneself up one volcanic peak after another would be beyond grueling. And the nights could also wind up becoming an absolute bummer with the two of them sardined in the back of Debari’s pick-up truck or in a sopping-wet tent.

“I really needed someone with a lot of positive energy,” says Debari. “But I also needed someone who was tough because we were going to be waking up at five in the morning, putting on wet boots, then going at it for 12 hours or more.”

Over the years, Debari had gotten a crash course on volcanoes from her aunt, who works as volcanologist. She pored over maps of the so-called Cascade Volcanic Arc that extends 700 miles from Northern California up through Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The peaks she chose all lie on the western flank of the notorious Ring of Fire, a volcanically and seismically unpredictable slice of terrain encircling the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to Indonesia, then over to Alaska and down to Chile.

“There are something like 50 volcanoes in the Cascade Range,” says Debari. “But we picked out 25 that looked high enough to be worthwhile for snowboarding.”

Farrington admits that she was “sitting around trying to figure out what to do with my life” when Debari reached out with her offer. “I just thought, ‘This sounds totally cool. Sign me up,’ ” she recalls.

But before she could depart on the journey, her sponsors – all of whom have stuck beside her since her diagnosis – pushed her to get the equivalent of a “permission slip” from Dr. Hackett. He ultimately gave her the green light to go, provided she used extreme caution and agreed to one caveat: “You can’t leave the ground.”

More than She Bargained for

And so on April 8 the two women departed in Debari’s truck and headed to Mt. Lassen, a 10,457-ft.-high volcanic dome that last erupted in 1915, devastating nearby forest land and raining hot ash over an area that stretched more than 200 miles. Their ascent, which took them past steam vents and boiling pools of mud, was “pretty casual,” says Farrington, who was in for a rude awakening the next day as she trudged up through the snow during her climb of the 14,179-ft. Mt. Shasta.

The weight of her backpack rubbing and pulling against her injured neck quickly proved excruciating. “Suddenly, our whole trip became very real,” Farrington recalls. “And I thought, ‘What did I sign up for?’ We’ve got 23 more volcanoes to climb and I already feel like this on the second one? I’m not going to make it.’ ”

Despite the pain, Farrington forced herself to suck it up [she is an Olympic gold medalist, after all] and eventually reached the summit, then descended back to the truck on her board through the less-than-spectacular snow. The experience on Mt. Shasta proved to be a turning point, forcing her to establish a “no bitching policy” for the rest of the trip. From that point on, no matter how badly her body hurt during their ascents, a grimacing Farrington always kept her complaints to herself. “I’d tell Maria, ‘I’m gonna hold this thought until we get back to the truck, then I’ll tell you,’ ” she says. “I made myself push through the burning sensations in my back.”

Over the days and weeks that followed, her body grew accustomed to the grind. “I got stronger,” she says. And as they bumped and bounced their way over countless backcountry dirt roads, they could sometimes look out on the horizon – past Debari’s plastic dashboard Buddha and T-Rex – and glimpse the peaks they’d already climbed and many of the ones they were about to. For food, they lived off oatmeal, energy bars, pasta, peanut butter and jelly and nuts. Weeks often passed between showers.

Before long, Farrington’s legs bore an array of scars from the spills she sometimes took on her snowboard [she often wore shorts] during her descents. None of the wipeouts were serious for the simple reason that she knew she couldn’t afford to take a big spill. “Worst case scenario for me is that if I took a bad fall, I’d be paraplegic for the rest of my life,” Farrington admits. “So I had to avoid speed, hard falls and pump the brakes a lot.”

You Ladies Don’t Got That

One of the most satisfying parts of their adventure was the reaction they’d sometimes get when they’d bump into curious hikers out on the trail. “It was shock mostly,” she laughs. “People just couldn’t believe what we were trying to do. These peaks had been climbed before, but nobody had thought of going on a road trip and doing them at one time.”

More than a few people they met expressed doubts that Farrington and Debari – and the occasional friend who met up with them along the way – could actually pull off their quest. Like that know-it-all they met one morning near Bend, Oregon, shortly before striking out on one of their most ambitious treks, climbing to the summit of each of the Three Sisters. “When he heard what we were intending on doing, he sort of laughed and said, ‘I don’t mean to be a jerk. But you ladies don’t got that.’ ”

Nearly 16 hours – and 30,000 ft. in elevation climbed – later, they tracked down the naysayer on his cell phone and let him know exactly how wrong he was. “Him saying ‘you ladies don’t got that’ was a big part of our motivation,” Farrington laughs.

Beyond the obvious physical demands, Farrington quickly realized that the most challenging part of their so-called “almost famous volcano tour” was mental, thanks to the countless hours she’d spend alone with her thoughts most days as she slogged upward toward each summit. “I had a lot of time to just think about things,” she says, “like the operation they want me to have on the herniated discs in my neck that I’m not quite ready to face. Or what I want to do with my life now. It was like a walking meditation for me, forcing to think about my life and the new path I’ve got to find for myself.”

The last peak on their list was Mt. Rainier, regarded as one of the planet’s most dangerous volcanoes. But before they could begin what would be their most technically challenging ascent, the weather turned ugly, making their climb up to the 14,411-ft. summit too risky. After days spent waiting for conditions to improve, Debari had to depart for her summer job, working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska.

“It was kind of a bittersweet slap in the face not to be able to do Rainier,” says Farrington. “But we’re both planning on finishing this in the coming months when Maria has a few days off. I’m just waiting for her call.”

So how did Farrington’s journey change her? “A lot,” she insists. “It made me realize how much more there is in life than what I’ve spent the past decade focusing on. I’ve got ambition. All I need now is to find a new purpose and I know I will. I just don’t want to be one of those forgotten Olympians.”

It’s a pretty safe bet that’s not gonna happen.