Words by Leslie Hittmeier
Lynne Wolfe, 57, began teaching people about avalanches when Ronald Reagan was president and most backcountry users were on skinny skis. Originally from Nashville, she moved to Jackson Hole in 1981 but didn't know how to ski. Captivated by the mountains, she bought some used gear and taught herself how to ski (with the help of a few mentors), eventually landing a job guiding and teaching snow-safety courses for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides in 1988. She worked at JHMG for 19 years before joining Exum Mountain Guides in 2007, a year after she became the editor of The Avalanche Review, a quarterly snow-safety journal devoted to improving the knowledge and skills of its readers.
"Lynne is such a great example to us all," says Nat Patridge, co-owner of Exum. "Many people who have been in the industry a long time could become dogmatic, thinking that they have had a great record so why change the equations. But Lynne is open-minded, forever learning, and an early adopter of new ideas."
In 2017, Wolfe was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ever a survivor, she wrote in the Review that the uncertainties and protocols related to cancer aren't unlike those in avalanche decision-making: "I'm having to maintain margin and rely on communication and community."
Cancer is like dealing with the government: You have to be both patient and persistent. My issue is patience. Because I want this done. I want it out of my life. I've let it slow me down a little bit, but not that much. I'm really frickin' strong. And I'm really frickin' stubborn. Those have helped me work through this cancer aggravation.
I'm learning to live for being alive. Right now, I'm watching these funny dogs play in the creek. I've worked really hard to stop saying, 'I wish.' I can't think that way. I can't have any 'I wishes.'
Skiing was the first thing that I wanted to do that I couldn't do. I was so irritated and pissed off that I couldn't do it. I was like—I'm going to move to Jackson for good and I'm going to learn to ski.
You don't have to be that great of a skier, but you do have to be persistent. Breaking trail, discovering new places, looking at maps, and then just going there—I love how on-point you feel when you are gathering information as you go.
How have I avoided avalanches? I have a healthy respect for them. In my studies, I have seen the power of the avalanche. I think the most important way to learn that stuff is through reading case studies. And there is no substitute for personal experience: Having a friend get hurt or die—that certainly has happened to me, too.
Trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, don't do it. Your partners are the most important choices you make. Period. Know the difference between what you want to do, and what you think you want to do. We need to make room and time in our decision-making to answer that question.
Choose two kinds of partners. Choose somebody who is a peer, and then balance that with a mentor. Mentorship is the best way to learn. We can read and learn things on our own, but having someone with more experience give you a tip right when you need it is so helpful. But it only works if you pay it forward.
Go out there with a little bit of a hypothesis but don't hold too hard to it. Go do 25 hand sheers on your way up a ridge. Yeah, I'm exaggerating a bit, but do a lot of hand sheers and notice when things change.
Instead of being afraid of some amorphous thing in the backcountry, be able to break it down. Say, "What do I know and what do I not know?" Know the difference between a youthful fear and a valid fear, which you should have. I hate those stickers that say, "Have no fear," or whatever. That is so stupid. Fear keeps you from doing stupid things.
My real technical guiding days are over. It's a younger person's game. I have the wiliness and the experience, but I don't have the guts for it anymore, and it's been a little bit to be OK with that. But I've got 29 years of guiding in the Tetons. I'm happy.
This story originally appeared in the December 2018 (47.4) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.