Last week, I was in Telluride, Colorado, for Mountainfilm. I’m incredibly honored that my short film, Follow Through, showed at the film festival. I’ve always wanted to tell my story and I’m proud of how my film turned out.
Yet even with all the success of the film, I’m shocked that I still have to address rumors and heavy criticism that undermines my competency in the mountains.
This fall, the week before the film was released, I heard that people in the guiding industry in the Wasatch were questioning whether I hired a guide to help me complete The Chuting Gallery project. It was hard for me to cope with these doubts. I felt so angry: the fact that people were second-guessing my accomplishment clearly mapped out the systematic sexism that exists in outdoor sports.
I’ve spent over a decade honing my steep skiing skills, and I spent half a decade working on the project, equipping myself with the technical tools to be a confident leader on rock, snow and ice. During the project, I wore a lot of hats, not only deciding when to ski each line and how to do it, but also coordinating with ski partners, videographers, the production team and sponsors. I worked in a team, yes, but I was the leader—because it was my project. The assumption that I didn't complete the project myself was deeply insulting. (On a broader scale, I have completed over 11 international human-powered backcountry ski and ski mountaineering trips over the past nine years, many of which I’ve planned and led myself.)
During The Chuting Gallery Project, I skied a handful of the lines with friends who are guides, but they were with me as partners, not guides, and were not paid or traded. We did use a paid guide one day to help with some of the rigging for the videographer. On a single line, where we had a guide help the film team, the guide initially put the rope up, I followed. And then I re-led the pitch. Every pitch of ice and rock, I led. I might add that it’s standard practice for mountain guides to run safety on ski films. This was not a typical ski film, and I was in charge of my own safety and risk management. I am confident in my skills to interpret weather and plan routes in complicated terrain.
In many cases, I trust my own expert intuition as much as, or more than, mountain guides. I know that trusting a perceived expert leads people to take more risks in the backcountry. I know that one of the best things I can do when I'm in the backcountry to manage risk is to speak up to my group and express my concerns. And I will not let these rumors silence me.
In some ways, I’m grateful for these doubts because they give me the opportunity to set the record straight. I don’t want my accomplishment diminished. I am not addressing this for validation. I am not even getting paid to write this article. I'm writing this to prevent my accomplishment from being unwritten in the court of public opinion.
And frankly, I’m frustrated that I even have to address these rumors about “guiding buddies”—rumors that are simply a way to invalidate my accomplishments in the mountains. The misogyny and sexism in the Wasatch backcountry and ski mountaineering community is real. I’m sick of it.
Before I met my friend Liz Daley in 2012, I had no idea that mountain guiding was even a profession. I didn’t know about the American Mountain Guides Association and the process to get certified. Liz opened my eyes to this world. Skiing with her, I learned about the amazing skills that mountain guides possess. I loved being with her in the mountains as an equal partner. And I wanted to find more friends who had her same level of technical expertise. Liz, who was killed in an avalanche, showed me an image of what I could become, and it is important for me to find partners like her—not to replace her, but to keep her memory alive.
I realize that ski mountaineering is one of the most dangerous sports you can undertake, so I want to do everything to stack the odds in my favor. I also want to keep growing my knowledge base. I’ve taken courses in Avalanche Levels 1, 2, and 3; Rock Rescue Levels 1 and 2; and Ice Rescue. I have a Wilderness First Responder certification and do regular crevasse rescue refreshers.
I also make a conscientious effort to recruit partners who take their technical training as seriously as I do. Why wouldn’t you do everything you can to stack the odds in your favor?
On another international trip, I hired a local guide to help us with some of the trip logistics. Because of the difficulty of the ski line I was attempting, I had to clarify, in writing, that the guide was joining us as a climber and skier, not as a guide, and we were each individually responsible for our decisions to continue or not. She was compensated a modest fee for her time in pre-trip logistical organization. She did join us on the mountain, and since that trip, has become a good friend and mountain partner. Again, international ski mountaineering expeditions are dangerous. Why not equip yourself with information from a local guide to help set you up for success?
I wish I didn’t have to write this statement, to address these lies that people are spreading. They don’t just frustrate me or hurt my feelings, they hurt my career. Last winter, when I took my Avalanche 3 course, one of the pieces of feedback I received to justify my failing grade was: “If you want to make the transition from pro skier to mountain guide, stop hiring guides and traveling with others that make decisions for you. Put yourself in situations where you are required to put it all together, apply these skills and observations and form your own opinion everyday, and don’t just regurgitate the opinions of others.” I have no idea where the evaluator got the idea that I was skiing as a guided client. These lies had become so pervasive that they were part of the reason I didn’t pass the course, and they are simply untrue. I was also told: “She talks when she should listen and is strongly defensive from the start. Remember respect is earned and never given. By having such a large social media presence, you set yourself up for added criticism and comment, silence your critics through action and decisions, not words.”
When I wrote about this encounter with bias, a woman sent me a note sharing a similar story. She had received equally unprofessional and unhelpful feedback from an instructor during an exam. She said, “Your implicit bias post is a big part of the reason I stopped guiding.” My situation is far from unique.
In several of my avalanche courses, I’ve been offended by sexist material that instructors put in slideshows (think women in bikinis with a slide about risk). On one ski tour, I overheard an instructor brag about how he only dates women who have martial arts experience so they can fight back when he beats them. As the only woman in the course, how would this not put me in a defensive position? The reason I’m writing this is because I want to get to a place where women’s accomplishments can be accepted and celebrated without bias. I want female mountaineers to get the same recognition and credit as their male counterparts. The way these local guides have fabricated a story about the style in which I climbed and skied the lines in The Chuting Gallery illustrates the kind of toxic masculinity that runs rampant in our culture.
This habitual sexism is part of the reason that only 10 percent of mountain guides are female, and why fewer than 25 percent of sponsored snowsports athletes for major outerwear brands are female, despite the fact that over 40 percent of skiers are female.
Also, while I’m speaking about statistics, it’s worth noting that 85 percent of snowsports fatalities happen to males in their late teens to late 30s. This is the demographic that on a broader level, engages in high-risk behavior and suffers the majority of unintentional death from injury.
We need more female representation, especially in dangerous sports like mountaineering. It’s not enough to get women outside. We need women to get to the highest levels. At every turn in my career, I’ve battled sexism and harassment. I will not back down and disappear, giving in to the belief that I don’t belong. I will not distance myself from the world of ski mountaineering that I love so much. I will continue to show up and speak up.
I also want to help create a more inclusive outdoor community, where people are free to be who they are. I’ve noticed that in order to succeed in male-dominated fields such as mountain guiding, many women have had to adopt the traits of masculinity. I want to be an example to other women that you can be feminine and a strong leader. I also want to challenge the belief that in order to teach someone, you need to bully and belittle, haze, or break them down to build them back up. It’s a way of thinking that is not only outdated, but down right dangerous—and in many states, illegal.
To change the tides, I believe we need to do two things to start: first of all, mountain guiding companies need to consider putting their guides through implicit bias training to understand how to create an inclusive culture that doesn’t automatically de-value women’s skill. The AMGA has demonstrated great leadership in this arena by giving their instructors this kind of training.
And my call to action to you, the reader, is to examine your own implicit bias and preferences. As a society, we are so habituated to sexism that women are often biased against other women. Do the stories you tell discredit the efforts and achievements of women in the workplace or in the mountains? Are you part of the problem? When you hear someone saying something to diminish another person, do you call them out on it?
Use your words carefully, and remember this isn’t a battle of the sexes. The mountains are for everyone.
This article originally appeared on Caroline Gleich’s website.