It took about four hours to reach Turkey Chute, a couloir in Grand Teton National Park, that we’d been eyeing for a while. The chatter as we switch-backed up the steep skin track was lively, sometimes rowdy, and often not for the faint of heart. One of us that day wore her breast pump for a good hour, at least, while ascending.
We call ourselves the Mom Force. We’re a rotating group of eight women who’ve been getting together every Thursday for the last two winters to ski tour in the backcountry of Jackson, Wyoming, where we live. Veteran Exum Mountain Guide Kim Havell, also a mom, leads us with an abundance of experience.
While these Thursdays have become sacred, they are not a given. All the women in our group have jobs and partners and children that need them. The oldest of our children is six. The youngest is six months. Taking a full day away every week is tricky, to say the least. And skiing with a guide is expensive.
Most days, we are in hot pursuit of that infamous, untracked, cowboy pow that makes skiing here so special. But sometimes we are out for a different purpose. Like on that bright day in early March under a smattering of diffuse clouds, before COVID-19 ended our season early. On that day we were out for a bit more of a thrill.
At the top, we pulled our skins, grabbed water and snacks, and peered into our line.
The entrance was 50 feet or so of craggy rock and dry dirt. To get in, we had to down-climb holding onto a rope anchored to a tree. I wasn’t concerned about the skiing part. But this? Super not happy about this. I could feel my chest tightening, my stomach flip-flopping.
Three others went first. And then, I decided I didn’t want to wait any longer.
A few uneasy steps later and at least one, “Oh god!” when a rock shifted under my boot, (which I hope no one heard), and I was in. Havell guided me to a solid spot where I could sit and wait for the others. There, my heartbeat slowed.
The avalanche danger was minimal that day and the snow was hard at the top, but not icy. It was, by all accounts, an excellent ski—electrifying and beautiful. No one got hurt, not even close. But anyone could have caught an edge, anywhere, at any time, at the worst time.
In the days and months after, I’ve spent some time asking myself why, exactly, do we expose ourselves to these risks week after week? We’re a bunch of moms, after all, should we even be out there (that admittedly condescending voice in my head asks)? Why do we spend the money, leap through the logistical hurdles (babysitter cancelations, work deadlines, breastfeeding), and endure the guilt for a risky endeavor?
Turns out, for a few very good reasons, actually.
All of which start with the fact that we may be thinking about risk sort of backward, says Eric Brymer, an associate professor of applied psychology at the Australian College of Applied Psychology. What if, instead, he asks, we see our everyday lives–mortgages, jobs, school—as “safety-seeking” behavior and abnormal from a human context?
“We have developed over however many thousands of years in relation to the natural environment,” he says. “We are at home—physiologically, bio-mechanically, psychologically—in the natural environment. We are also at home, and more fully human, being adventurous in the natural environment.”
While our “safety-seeking” insures we have food, water, and shelter, it’s only one part of being human, Brymer explains. Without being active in wild places we’re missing that crucial other part required for “flourishing, thriving, high-level well-being.”
Which is why, he says, people often describe the outdoors as where they feel most alive.
“We call that adventure now,” he adds. “But once upon a time that used to be called living.”
So, then, what is risky? Brymer believes it’s our modern sedentary lifestyle, for one, which can lead to mental health problems, obesity, cardiovascular illness, and more. It’s also simple acts like driving our cars not knowing if the driver coming the other way is drunk, texting, or just not paying attention. And, statistically, there is no debate.
In this country, more than 38,000 people died in car accidents last year. In comparison, during the 2018-19 season, there were 42 skier fatalities and, on average, 25 people die in avalanches every year. Sure, there are far more drivers than skiers overall. But when considering percentages, it still seems a car is more dangerous. Roughly 0.02 percent of drivers were killed in accidents last year, while about 0.0004 percent of skiers—at resorts and in the backcountry—die carving the mountain, according to figures from the National Ski Areas Association and the Snowsports Industries Association.
Yet, we’re not out there every Thursday because the numbers are on our side. It’s also because risk is largely a matter of perception and preparation. For us, skiing that chute was well within our abilities because we have spent years, lifetimes even, developing the skills to tackle it. Although my mother might see the photos and think I have utterly lost my mind to willingly descend such a slope, it’s only because she has no reference point for this kind of skiing. What looks terrifying to her is really only a degree riskier to me, says Kayt Sukel, author of “The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution & Chance.”
While research shows there are genes that make some people more impulsive or need more sensation to feel comfortable, she explains that’s only one part of the risk-taking equation.
“I think another part of that is how familiar we are,” Sukel says. “I think so often when we look at somebody like Alex Honnold or when we look at some of the X Games snowboarders, we see the end result. We don’t see how familiar they are with what they do; how much time they have spent building up their skill set to get to that point.”
When it comes to risk, people don’t realize just how stuck they are in their own frame of reference, she adds. But with preparation, the possibilities grow.
“I think you all are more willing to take on slightly bigger challenges if it’s approached in the right way for you, which is the building blocks,” Havell says, meaning we’ve built up our fitness and technical ability, we’ve worked on our mental strength, our confidence in these big mountain environments and our communication, not taking huge leaps of faith,” she added.
Even when we are afraid. Because “fear is not always a reflection of the actual risk,” says Maria Damon, one of the mothers I ski with.
That’s a key distinction. From a biological and evolutionary perspective, fear is a signal of danger meant to keep us alive. But when fear creeps into our decisions about risk it’s not necessarily telling us to walk away.
“Fear is there sometimes to guide you,” Sukel says, even if it’s not rational. “It’s trying to give you a little nudge, a little reminder, based on your past experience to say ‘Hey, you may need to pay a little bit more attention here.’”
For some of us, fear is the fun part.
“I love a little fear,” says Vanessa Flory, a newer member of the Mom Force. “I think it’s really empowering, just in life in general.”
She may be one of those people that Sukel says need a little more excitement in their lives to be at their base. Still, we mitigate our risks in the mountains as much as possible. We’re not out there alone, we’ve trained to ski this terrain and we have a highly skilled guide who understands that nerves can decrease anyone’s skiing ability. So she eliminates as many other dangers as possible by evaluating the weather, snow quality, snow safety, and avalanche conditions; terrain, group size, our fitness, our skillset, our technical experience, our mental commitment, and how well we follow directions.
“If you haven’t done a lot of skiing in tight, steeper terrain, but we know that most of the other hazards are gone, then it makes it a lot easier to take on the one hazard,” Havell says.”
The rewards that ensue from this careful process are many. There are the face shots, of course, the adrenaline, and the camaraderie. There is the fresh air, time to ourselves, physical exertion, and the often gobsmackingly beautiful views.
It’s a stress reliever, too. Alden Faust, another new addition this year, says that after having her two children she struggled with anxiety. Spending a day where she needed to focus so intently on something else was transformational.
“Getting out of that anxiety cycle was actually such a relief that the risk just melted away for me,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is where I am supposed to be. This is the break. This is how I am going to rediscover who I am.’ I know I’m not some mountaineer, backcountry skier. But I am somebody who can push themselves and conquer my fears.”
So, perhaps, the ultimate reward is this: taking risks is how we learn and grow. It always has been, throughout human history.
“We’ve always wanted to know what’s on the other side of the mountain,” says Frank Farley, a professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University and the former president of the American Psychological Association. “We learn by engaging the unknown. If we run from the unknown we’ll always know nothing.”
How we manage the risks we encounter on the mountain show us, and those who love us, who we really are.
“I want to be a good role model for my children, says Denise Corcoran, another woman in our crew. “I want them to see me doing these things. I want that to be my legacy for them.”
Because, it’s not just us learning the lessons here, we’re teaching some, too. We are modeling thoughtful risk-taking for our children while showing how a life, fully lived, can look. Our Thursday ski group teaches our children that risk isn’t inherently bad or something to avoid; that, ultimately, we should not be afraid of the world. Rather, we are teaching our children how to manage risk and how to understand it—when to dive in and, yes, when to walk away. We are teaching them, as we are learning, to be smart and humble, and to believe in themselves.
So, to answer my question of why we do this? Because the real risk in life is not taking any risk at all.
“Risk feels good,” says Karissa Akin, who breast-pumped her way up quite a few skin tracks this past winter. “It makes you feel confident; and that’s living.”