On Female Backcountry Partners

My best and favorite ski or backpacking partners are the ones who don’t allow me to say sorry.  “Sorry I’m so slow,” “sorry, I can’t find my tongues, this is taking forever,” “sorry, I’m not sure I feel comfortable skiing that line,” “I have to pee again... sorry!” 

Taylor, my backcountry tundra buddy who I met on the Ruth Glacier, will simply say “Don’t be sorry!” I’ve heard her exclaim those words so many times that I can hear her voice and intonation clearly right now. Kristine and Lizzy, Montana women who rip on skis, will remind me that sorry is a forbidden word while we’re out together. Then there’s Sophie and Steph, the women who changed my perspective on what to look for in backcountry partners and taught me how to dig snow pits and how to eliminate any feelings of competitiveness in the backcountry. With them, I don’t think I ever even feel the urge to say sorry. We seem to move at the same pace. Or if we aren’t, we stop and check in with each other, without allowing anyone to feel bad. But back when I was just getting to know them and getting comfortable on my skis, they also encouraged me to stop apologizing. My sweet friend Erin, who I don’t get to ski with enough, has limitless patience that doesn’t allow for apologies either. These different groups of women, without having spent time with each other, have all found the common theme of allowing me to be “slow”, to be new, to be learning something. And they won’t let me feel bad about it. 

 Steph and Sophie en route to the summit of Camas Peak.

Steph and Sophie en route to the summit of Camas Peak.

 Taylor picking her way through boulder fields in the Talkeetna Mountains.

Taylor picking her way through boulder fields in the Talkeetna Mountains.

My innate need to apologize is a problem of my own. It stems from insecurity and from a need to acknowledge that I’m aware of any inconvenience I’m creating for the group or for my partner. And I say it even to the most patient partners. But the difference between an “It’s okay” and a “Don’t be sorry!” is huge. The words of the women mentioned above mean something different. They mean “You have nothing to be sorry about! Everyone needs to stop at some point, everyone has to rustle through their backpack to find something essential from time to time, everyone has to start somewhere when they are learning how to ski.” These things are more than just okay--they are things that we shouldn’t feel bad about. 

 Erin and Sarah, winning at twinning on the way to the summit of Murphy Peak.

Erin and Sarah, winning at twinning on the way to the summit of Murphy Peak.

 Steph goes for the summit of Gash Point.

Steph goes for the summit of Gash Point.

Many of my backcountry partners, men included, have had patience and been great teachers, giving me valuable input, tips, and information to develop my skill set as I learn to ski. And of course I’ve skied with small, mixed-gendered groups without feeling the need to apologize all the time. But there’s a different vibe on an all-girl ski day. It feels good to not feel like I’m holding anyone up: I don’t have to worry if I stop to take off a layer five minutes in on the skin track. The conversation is often more meaningful. I inherently know that my partners won’t get too far ahead of me, and I know that they will check in with me about route choices, both on the uptrack and the descent. They won’t leave me behind in the trees, calling out to find out where they are before I start skiing again. Because of this I feel intrinsically safer, I feel immeasurably encouraged, and I feel deeply valued. 

 Chelsea cooks early morning pancakes on the Ruth Glacier

Chelsea cooks early morning pancakes on the Ruth Glacier

None of this is to say that men are impatient, or discouraging, or bad ski partners. This isn’t about men. It’s about women, who more persistently build each other up; who value each other’s skills; who work hard to be as strong, as brave, and as motivated as men in the outdoors. It’s about the fact that my female partners all know, without knowing each other, exactly what to say to me to squash my insecurities and make me feel valued. It’s a thank-you to the women mentioned above, and to the women who have believed in me and encouraged me and supported me in my endeavors as an adult. Much of my self-worth is owed to you.

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