One Woman’s Brokeback Mountain

Every so often, I come across a human story that rivets me. Here’s one.

Nayla Tawa, a lanky brunette with large blue eyes, was an extreme snowboarder.

nayla eat snowShe flew to Kyrgyzstan to go boarding in uncharted mountains, and to make a film about villagers who were trying to create a winter sports center to bring much-needed income to their town. On the first day , however, she had a car accident that broke her back in three places and stopped the film in its tracks. Ultimately, it set the stage for a different film.

Nayla was 28, studying geography and film at UCLA, when she heard about Kyrgyzstan. (Not Kazakhstan of Borat fame.)  Kyrgyzstan is a tiny country composed almost entirely of mountains, 24,000 feet high. It’s called “the Switzerland of Central Asia.” A friend, Brandon Sheaffer, was in the Peace Corps there and told her the back-country boarding was “amazing. You’ve got to get over here.”

She decided to go for spring break; when she told the Russian instructor who was teaching documentary film, the woman said, “You must make a film there.”

“I’ve never even operated a camera,” Nayla said. But the instructor said the “best way to learn is to do it.”

Nayla didn’t want to make a film about a Westerner going to a foreign land and conquering the mountain, so she asked Brandon if he knew any locals whose story she could tell. Brandon connected her by email with Hayat Tarikov, an expert in community-based tourism where revenue stays in the community.

Hayat Tarikov

Hayat Tarikov

Hayat’s dream was to create a winter economy for a village with the exotic name of Arslanbob, but the local people needed equipment and training. They had wooden skis with hand-made bindings, and would walk or ride horses up the mountain to ski down. Hayat hoped to teach the children, “because they have no fear,” to become guides and instructors.

kryg kidsSince Nayla had never made a film before, she did a Kickstarter campaign, and convinced snowboard makers to donate equipment. With two male friends, she flew to Kyrgyzstan, planning to spend a week touring the back country with Hayat, using a split-snowboard, which is cut in two vertical pieces so you can put skins on the bottom and trek uphill. “You get places you can’t reach on a chairlift, and you’re not destroying nature,” Nayla says.

From the start, however, the trip seemed ill-fated. “Our bags got lost, flights were canceled, and Kyrgyzstan was having an unusual cold spell, with high risk of avalanches,” she says. But Nayla and her friends muscled through every obstacle; they were exhilarated. When they finally retrieved their lost bags at the Kyrgyzstan airport, it was 3 a.m. They hired a taxi for the six-hour drive to Karakol, where they’d arranged to meet Hayat.

They were speeding along the empty road when the taxi hit a long patch of ice and flew off the road at 60 miles an hour, crashing into a stand of trees.

Silence. Darkness. Nayla blacked out, and when she opened her eyes, she was in shock. What happened? It was below zero, pitch black, in the middle of nowhere. She called to her friends, but neither they nor the taxi driver responded.

Nayla did not realize it, but her back had been broken in three places, her sternum was cracked down the middle, and she’d torn all the ligaments in her knee. One friend had broken his back and all his ribs, and the other had broken his shoulder and suffered a severe concussion. The driver was unconscious.

“I was the only one who’d had no head injury,” Nayla says, “so I could think. I knew I needed to get my friends and the driver out of the car.” But how? She couldn’t lift  or drag them out. With her back and sternum broken, she somehow rolled out of the car, crawled up a snow bank to the road, and with a desperate surge of effort, waved down a truck.

“How could you do that?” I asked.

She shook her head. “With adrenaline spiking, you don’t feel pain.”

The locals drove them to the nearest hospital, but it was dirty and not equipped to handle trauma. Nayla realized she had her phone with her and called Brandon, who was able to make his way there and move them to a local family’s home. They were joined by another friend, Kevin Smith, who’d been a paramedic in California. “His skills were higher than the local doctor’s,” Nayla says. She called her father in Colorado, who’s a doctor, and he told Kevin she had to be immobilized.

“There are no backboards here,” Kevin said. A strapping, 6’5” athlete, he thought a moment. “But I’ve got a snowboard.” He used duct tape to attach Nayla to the board, which is all she remembers. Her body was shutting down.

Nayla, duct tape and the backboardThe following day, their travel insurance company sent a mediplane to pick up the three and fly them to Dubai.

All this time, they had no pain meds. “I travel with a good first aid kit,” Nayla says, “but it got left at the car accident.” The local hospital only had injectable pain meds, which the Americans refused, for fear of infection from the needles.

All three and the taxi driver survived their injuries. What followed, for Nayla, were four years of repeated surgeries and agonizing physical therapy. She cried a great deal at first, wondering, Why did this happen? It seemed a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Gradually, she came to understand: “I have to go through recovery, and I can do it pissed off at the world or not. Either way, I have to do it.”

Once she was physically healed, she says, “I got hit with PTSD. I had nightmares, and couldn’t control my mind anymore. I thought I was going mad.” She saw a therapist, who told her, “Your body knows it’s recovered physically. So now you have to heal your mind.”

When she told me her story recently, in a café in Boulder, she said, “I’m still not there, 100%. I still have anxiety, and I don’t feel like the same person.”

But at this writing, she’s back in Kyrgyzstan, making a different film—about the crash, her recovery, and her return to support and film the winter sports project. This time her father is there as the team doctor, and they’ve brought 32 bags of donated ski and snowboard gear and clothes.

At the café, I had asked why she wanted to go back to the scene of her trauma.

Nayla gave a shy smile. “It will bring closure for me. I’ll finally get to meet Hayat—we’ve stayed in touch all this time—and help him fulfill his dream.”

She’s teaching ski classes, and was thrilled when two young girls showed up.  “It’s a conservative Muslim town, and we rarely see women outside the home,” she says. “They’re not even welcome in the mosques for prayers.”

Nayla tows a 5-year-old girl up the ski hill.

Nayla tows a 5-year-old girl up the ski hill.

Many villagers told her they’ve been praying for her for four years, and that she’s a  role model for their children.

“I didn’t want to be a character in this film, I really didn’t,” she told me. “But life doesn’t always happen as you plan.”

For more information and to support the Kyrgyzstan mission, visit

To watch a video of Nayla, click here.

Your thoughts?



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23 thoughts on “One Woman’s Brokeback Mountain

  1. Donna

    Wow, I’m always amazed at the will of the mind to heal the body and the Universe to respond to our higher self, or desire, intention: whatever you want to call it. Seems she was meant for a high purpose, as are we all, but we may not always know how it will look. Beautiful woman and beautiful story.

  2. Candace

    Sara, thank you for sharing this story and I will say a prayer that all will turn out for the best….it is good to hear from you again.

  3. George LeCompte (NVC)

    Aloha Sara! I love the stories you bring to light and the amazing way you write them! In a word: riveting (touche)! I have other urgent and even important thing to do right now (like driving) but it’s hard to pull my attention away from the story – I’m so curious… Sounds like a tradgedy/triumph story and I’m anxious to get to the triumph. Another serving of lemonade please! Mahalo for your inspirational contributions to the living through your incredible talents!

    PS: I think this has been my personal best ratio of sentences ended with an exclamation point in a single comment or post. Thank you for helping me to grow and develop in the area of being more expressive! 🙂

  4. Karen C.

    Tis the perfect time for me to read such an inspirational story about a remarkable young woman. I am dealing with medical issues myself, that can become a heavy weight, Reading how Nyla was in rehab for 4 years tells me that I can do it too.

  5. Gail

    Nayla’s story and the film trailer take my breath away! Thanks, Sara, for sharing it with us. So incredibly heartwarming and inspiring, a must see!

  6. Beverly Kai

    I have been in a sulk over my own and my children’s recoveries. It takes years, and gets very old. Raging against Reality could be ANOTHER definition of insanity, but I figure that God can handle a reasonable amount. Then along comes a story like this one . .. . a real Reader’s Digest qualifier which seems to have the subtext directed at me, “Quit your bitching. Others have worse troubles….. and they DO recover. They go on to contribute to humanity.” I hope to do the same. I am too old to help build homes for the poor, or collect money for homeless children…. but there will be something for me. Thank you Sara for being in harmony and sending this just as I needed it. Funny, how that happens, sometimes, isn’t it?

  7. Lea

    What a sweet and moving story!

    Thanks for sharing it.

    I met you in Berkeley when you gave a talk about your book with Reb Zalman. I loved your talk.

  8. Wilma Greenfield

    WOW – Nayla’s story is a real inspiration to me – I broke my pelvis 2 weeks ago, and I am learning to cope with all the challenges. I am blessed to have a very caring and loving husband! Who would have ever thought this would be my challenge for retirement? SO BE IT!! I’ll MAKE IT!! GO NAYLA!!
    THANK YOU SARA!! It’s always wonderful to read your work!

  9. Judi Turner

    This is really a great story. The fact that Nayla went back says something about the kind of person
    she is. I couldn’t do it. In the long run I guess it will be a great experience for her and the villagers
    and Hayat. I’m tempted to ship them my skis, but if they aren’t going to build a ski lift I doubt
    they’ll be able to turn the place into a ski resort.
    Thanks for sharing this great story, Sara.
    Judi Turner

  10. Trudy

    Great story, Sara! What perseverance Nayla endured through broken almost everything. Quite moving. Thanks.
    With love,

  11. Marilyn

    Wow, Sara, reading about Nayla, then The December Project, (and ordering it) has been a great way to start my Friday.
    Thank you so much. Aloha, Marilyn

  12. James Angleton

    Her tenacity impressed me. She did not give up. “Courage is the thing,” a quote cited by Stanley Lane- Pool reads in his chapter on the Mamluk Sultan Beybars.

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