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When the men told her she couldn’t, one woman refused to listen
The sun is far from stirring and my alarm is chiding me with a message across the screen: “Stop being a slacker and get up.” Half asleep, I stumble downstairs to make coffee—the one thing that numbs me to the early hour and cold temps outside. My long-time ski partner Pip is in a similar zombie state as we throw our gear into the car and rendezvous with our third, Morgan.
The mood is somber yet excited as we discuss the mission ahead: an ascent of one couloir into a double rappel to ski another. The rope is packed and I’m hoping we have enough extra pieces and cordelette to back-up or improvise anchors if necessary.
To an outsider, we appear an unlikely crew. We are three small women, hardly more than 5 feet tall, all obsessed with pushing our limits in the mountains. That it is improbable we would slog through snow, claw our way up ice, double rappel into a steep couloir, is exactly how I got here.
Split-boarding and mountaineering were things I was constantly told I couldn’t do. In college, I elicited laughter from male friends when I said I was contemplating a NOLS mountaineering course in the Pacific Northwest. One friend, a climber I deeply respected who had just returned from a similar course, told me to forget about it. I wouldn’t be able to handle it, he said. I should consider backpacking instead.
I went anyway, suffering through every moment. Somehow, I made it to the end and something was different. In the mountains, where I had to work to survive, I had awoken to a different reality. It had been around me all along, this world, yet pushing myself to the brink and coming back from it was when I finally noticed the sharp details, appreciated the beauty around me.
“I wouldn’t be able to handle it, he said. I should consider backpacking instead.”
Years later, in Colorado I spent all the money I had on a Voile 154 split-board with metal plates that attached to resort board bindings so I could keep up with my then-boyfriend. On the days we went out-of-bounds I was terrified. Colorado’s snowpack is notoriously unpredictable and taking someone’s word that it was “fine” was hardly reassuring. I knew next to nothing about snow science and the first day we spent on Berthoud Pass I held my breath on every run.
Often the sole woman with a group of five to eight men, I learned how to skin by sliding down the skin track backwards and into trees; how to not eat it with a board that felt like I was driving a double decker bus and took most of my strength to turn; how to keep going a little bit farther when my entire body was screaming at me. Then I found mentors who taught me about snow, the importance of terrain evaluation and management and avalanche safety. They gave me confidence and after a while I learned how to skin uphill without sliding backwards. I stopped holding my breath on every run.
My mountain obsession continued to grow and it seemed natural to combine climbing with split-boarding, especially after relocating to the Tetons—a place that swiftly humbled me. Sure, I was one of the only women I knew backcountry riding in Breckenridge, but in Jackson Hole the terrain is real and my lack of strength, fitness and technique quickly became apparent. Once again, there was no way I could do this, I thought, and yet I was strangely drawn to it.
I began venturing into the backcountry as much as possible, enduring uncomfortable situations. I had partners who occasionally talked down to me, disregarded any of my observations or decision-making and were focused on an objective to the point where turning around meant failing. I was told I was too slow, not proficient enough, that I should just stick to resort riding or easy pass laps. But I didn’t listen.
I started training in the gym, going out on my own to study the snowpack, pushing my abilities in-bounds to ride steeper terrain in the backcountry, slowly (very slowly) venturing into bigger terrain. I took an Exum course on ski mountaineering and did everything I could to keep progressing.
It’s been about 12 years since I was told mountaineering was too hard for me and here I am, with a team of two other women on top of the Sliver Couloir on Nez Perce Peak setting up for a rappel. Standing in the notch at the top, we peer down into the powdery goodness that lay in the East Hourglass. The first rappel was more of a down-climb but because the chute looked loaded and we weren’t sure where we would find the next anchor (or what condition it was in) we clipped into the anchor and Morgan led the way down into the unknown.
After navigating the hanging snowfield and locating the anchor for the mandatory rappel over a chockstone in the run, we set up the rope for the final technical part. We weren’t entirely sure what we were going to find—the winter had been leaner than in years past; we were hoping that a 60-meter rope would be long enough to get us past the crux rappel and into the top of the chute. A cry of triumph floated up moments later and we knew we were good to go. I clipped into the rope, unclipped from the anchor and began the precarious rap down to the beginning of the East Hourglass. The rock was coated in a layer of ice making it impossible to keep my footing as I descended. It ended with a free hanging rappel before depositing me on the slope below where I saw Morgan waiting, skis ready.
After a steep, variable ride out of the couloir and Garnet Canyon, our team of three hustled across the lake still donning our harnesses, chasing the setting sun. We made it to the parking lot as the sun dipped behind the Tetons, feeling quite comfortable in all our unlikeliness.
Rachel Reich is a marketing strategist who finds her solace on her split-board during suffer-fests in the mountains. Her favorite color is aquamarine.