Aspiring to be a strong female ski guide
– This article took a long time to write. First started in 2016 and finished in 2017.
I was scared to publish it.
‘Girl. You’ve got to be better, faster, stronger’ – that was the advice my mentor Lel Tone, lady-boss and guide extraordinaire, gave me right at the start of this whole thing. You have to be a solid team mate, nondependent, determined, mindful and know your shit. You’ve got to be strong.
It’s bloody tough to be doing this as a girl. I look around and the ladies are not only the minority, but often we’re alone.
In early 2016, I found myself the only lady and the first ever woman to have ever attended Heliski US’ Mechanized Guide School. What an honour, and what a challenge at the same time. A large motivator for me has always been to show other women that we have a place in these male dominated environments. The strong women that I looked up to. The ones that showed me the ropes and guided me in Alaska and Canada, they were my inspiration. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. But sadly, a few bumps along the way have really cut me to the core, questioning if it is all worth the stress.
And I wasn’t alone in wanting to quit straight off the bat. I read this story about one of my role models, Melissa Arnot Reid. In her first month working as a guide for Rainier Mountaineering, the 21-year-old walked into her boss’s office to quit. The disrespect and misogyny were just too much. Her boss encouraged her to stick it out, and she did.
At 33, she holds the American female record for climbing Everest (the last and 6th time without supplemental oxygen). She remains one of the top guides on Rainier, Aconcagua, and Everest, among other peaks. I often think of her story when I’m challenged.
Like Melissa, my first season working as a professional guide also caught me off guard. Working as the only girl on the team, I had an experience that made me so angry, I questioned if it was all worth it.
I arrived at my job as a catski guide 2 months in and buzzing for our first powder day in 2 weeks. As I discussed radio channels and group formations with my colleague, a man in his late 50s that I have never seen at our operation a scoffed at me asking “What are YOU a guide?”. “What qualifications?” he demanded.
There was no ‘hello’. No ‘Hi I’m working here today, my name is …, it’s nice to meet you”. As the most qualified and experienced amongst us (a visiting IFMGA guide), in my opinion, he should have used his visit as an opportunity to support, inspire, and mentor the younger generation of guides that he was working with, male or female. Sadly, that wasn’t the case but lucky for me, we weren’t climbing a 5a in our ski crampons or crossing any crevasses. So my qualifications and experience were quite valid and I could hold my own. I never saw him again.
In contrast to that frustrating day, I remember a week at my favourite place on earth, Points North Heli in Alaska, where I finished Guide School in Feb 2016. A group of male clients complained they got the short end of the stick with the female guide. How the operation handled this situation was one of the best examples of leadership I have ever seen.
The boss, seeing his one and only female guide deflated by the bad vibes, showed her the greatest respect and support. In the guide meeting that morning, in front of all the team, he offered her first dibs on any open zone she wanted to ski. This set her up perfectly to challenge their gender preconceptions with her guide skills, terrain selection, skiing, and passion.
The owner’s support and the backing of all the other male guides that day allowed her to succeed with the highest of flying colours. The saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ runs very true in Alaska, and she delivered the boys the most mind-blowing day, testing them to their limits. Something she would no doubt have done anyway, but knowing she had the support of the whole guide team and operation, was the extra boost she needed.
No one agreed that she was a lesser guide for being female, and none of her male teammates could sit by and watch any client think that. Witnessing that situation play out was incredibly inspiring but also sad that in this day and age, an accomplished, world-class, female guide still has to deal with that shit.
I think that mentoring younger women is a critical element to seeing more women become involved. I have been incredibly lucky to have some amazing mentors and advocates as I was getting started. Most…, actually all of them men. It was as a result of their guidance and support that helped me in my career path.
– Lel Tone Interview with Cooler Magazine
As women in action sports and the outdoors, we really need the ongoing support of our male counterparts, be it in a professional or personal setting. Often it was our guy friends that introduced us to the sports in the first place. But as we get bigger, better, faster, stronger and move into roles of increased responsibility, that encouragement to further improve, push ourselves and remain in the industry cannot be taken for granted.
Women already have enough to deal with as the minority. Sustained discouragement and nick picking will only work to decrease our enjoyment and confidence. Men play a huge role in the proliferation of gender stereotypes and they also play a huge roll in breaking them down. They say that behind every strong man is a stronger woman. I would go as far as to guess, that behind every strong female leader in the outdoor industry, there was a group of men that elevated, encouraged and supported that woman to help her get to where she is today.
As girls starting out in this industry (guides, ski patrol, instructors, coaches, athletes etc.), we need more of those supporting men around us. We need those men to be men and not compete, compare, undermine and undercut us. Their positive input and encouragement are pivotal in bringing that so-called ‘man’s world’ back into an even keel, where women want to stay in those roles and can perform to the height of their abilities. Because I truly believe that woman have as equal a place in the outdoors as guys, in ALL roles. Just look at what Melissa Arnott Reid and Lel Tone have accomplished.
So if you’re a guy reading this, please ask yourself what role you’d rather play? Would you rather be the boss that encouraged Melissa not to quit, the owner who set his guide up in the best conditions to perform, or the guy that makes others feels small and inadequate for his own sense of self-importance?
Thanks for reading, would love to read your comments below.