FEATURE: Chasing The Dare

By on July 5, 2017

The evolving playbook of women risk-takers.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – At 19, Elsa Smith competed in the Big Mountain Collegiate Freeskiing Open at Grand Targhee last winter.  Not only did she win the competition, but she also earned a “Sick Bird” belt, granted to the skier who throws the most impressive trick of the day.

“I was more excited than I’ve ever been, prouder of myself than I’ve ever been,” Smith said.

But her excitement and pride were tainted by another feeling: the thought that she might have only won such a title because she’s a woman.

Such notions have haunted Smith for much of her young semi-pro skiing career. People often tie her progress, and her shortcomings, to her femininity. Impressive lines she skis are more impressive because she’s a woman. But backing out of a line is also OK for the same reason. For women, navigating the path to extreme athlete professionalism isn’t easy when so few before them have done it.

“For a girl to watch a ski movie and see like, one or two women in a 30-second segment leaves so little room for inspiration,” Smith said. “Without that really strong female image to rely on, there was still a lot of confusion. Like, why aren’t there women? There’s no one to look up to.”

Risk is woven into the DNA of many who grow up in the valley, or move to town seeking adventure.

“I think Jackson Hole probably more than anything shaped my comfort zone of being in dangerous situations,” professional skier and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort athlete Jess McMillan said. “The Tetons as a playground would probably shape that.”

But the experiences of female daredevils suggest a kind of perseverance that is not required of their male counterparts.

“Women tend to be more risk-averse,” author and risk-taker Bernadette Murphy said. Her book Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life explores her relationship to risk from the seat of a motorcycle following a mid-life divorce and a lifetime eschewing adventure to fit into a more “feminine” role.

“Our culture spends so much time saying, ‘Don’t take risks,’” Murphy said. For her, there were also biological concerns: she had kids. Her body told her to nurture, instead of to dare. It was never expected of her to take risks, and indeed when she did, she was often ostracized for it.

Breaking the bubble

Myriad research supports Murphy’s suspicion that risk is a masculine domain. Social scientists have long studied sports and risk-taking as a gendered experience. Sociologist Jason Laurendeu’s research suggests that risk is traditionally associated with masculinity, while risk management and control is attributed to femininity.

Meanwhile, sport sociologist Mark Stoddart notes outdoor landscapes themselves are “masculinized” spaces. Mountains, he explained, are associated with speed and risk, and by proxy masculinity. The softer landscapes, on the other hand, are associated with control and caution, and are therefore feminine (think: bunny hill, ski bunny, etc.).

This association happens largely because of who is more frequently visible in those landscapes. Stoddart found that ski magazines feature male skiers much more frequently than female skiers, positioning them as the “natural inhabitants” of the terrain. Athletes like Smith who excel in those spaces, then, are seen as “exceptional” rather than normal.

Stoddart also found that risk-taking is constructed as a “pleasuring process, promoting optimal flow sensations.” The language of pleasure and sensation, Stoddart said, is also often associated with male pleasure. So in the context of a landscape, the association sticks: mountains exist for male pleasure.

This research resonates with Smith. “We use language when talking about risk, or outdoor or more dangerous things, very similarly to how in history we’ve talked about women,” Smith said.

Mountains are meant to be conquered. First lines, first ascents, first descents, all suggest a level of purity that mountains offer, that humans then take away. It’s one of the greatest honors in the outdoor sports community to be the “first” to conquer anything: a climb, a trick, a ski line.

Growing up, Smith’s peers were equally as adventurous as she was. They were also mostly men. “All I had experience with was skiing with boys and seeing them do those things,” Smith said.

That’s not always a bad thing, she said. Her male cohorts encourage her to push herself. But to create space for herself and be taken seriously as an athlete, she said she has to constantly think about the image she puts out to the world: is it one of burliness or one of exaggerated femininity? The dream, Smith said, is for female skiers to “represent women in a way that shows we are capable … sending as hard, skiing as well… but it’s also so much harder to do that if you’re not marketing yourself as a commodity, a token female.”

Murphy agreed. Female athletes should not have to brand themselves as such to be taken seriously, she said. In fact, such a label often harms their reputation. “There’s something pejorative in our culture that makes it ‘less’ than [male] athletes,” Murphy said. “It’s not because it’s not as interesting, it’s because culturally we’ve come to appreciate one over the other.”

Representation is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to entry for women in the outdoors. For Smith, it’s about mentorship and who she should look up to.

But Murphy said it’s at least as important for men to see women taking risks as it is for women.

“It not only says it’s OK, it also says they belong in that realm,” Murphy said. Her book tells the story of a cross-country hitchhiker who constantly had to stave off concerns of assault danger. Risk is more than just the situations we put ourselves in, Murphy said. It’s the situations we find ourselves in with others.

“If we don’t see those [success] stories in the larger culture, but we do see victims, we assume anyone who puts themselves in that situation is asking to be victimized,” Murphy said. “I can’t tell you the number of people who, when I’d tell them what I’m going to do, said I was asking for trouble. No, I shouldn’t be asking for trouble. “

Like Smith, Murphy also found herself battling stereotypes within the motorcycle community. Female riders are often relegated to two categories: sexy co-pilots, or “butch” solo riders. Murphy is petite, but strong, nurturing but independent. She fits neither of those stereotypes. And she found neither did the women she rides with.

The problem, Murphy said, is “we cut the mics of people who aren’t telling the stories we want to hear.” That puts a lot of pressure on individual adventurers to broadcast their own stories, by their own means. “We need to encourage each other to tell those stories, and live those stories,” Murphy said. Such was her reason for writing her book. Change, she said, happens “one person at a time.”

Risky business

Climber, alpinist and director of St. John’s Wellness Department, Julia Heemstra clearly delineates the difference between her perceived risk, and how others perceive the risks she takes. As a woman, she says she is subjected to different levels of scrutiny than she might be as a man.

“Our society doesn’t quite know how to categorize women who take risks,” she said. “Sometimes I think the scrutiny kind of derives from this idea that women shouldn’t necessarily be taking risks. I don’t agree with that.”

“I do think our society,” she continued, “whether we admit it or not, still has certain categories that women are supposed to fit into. There just isn’t a risk-taking woman category that I’ve found yet.”

Heemstra became somewhat of a champion for women’s expeditions after Osprey Packs made a film about her and her climbing partner Kim Havell climbing their way through the Wind River Range. The film, Equal Footing, explores what it means be a woman in the mountains, and to climb with women in the mountains.

Heemstra was also the first woman to complete the Grand Picnic and the Moranic unsupported. “I received a lot of feedback from people about that level of risk,” she said.

Heemstra was the first woman to complete the so-called “Picnic,” or Grand Teton Triathalon solo and unsupported. It involves a bike ride from town to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park (20.5 miles), followed by a swim across the lake and a climb up the Grand Teton, and then the reverse. She also set a record for the “Moranic,” which was previously held by a man. She bicycled from town to GTNP’s Leigh Lake (25 miles), swam two miles across the lake to the base of Mt. Moran, climbed Moran and then did it in reverse, also without any assistance.

“I received a lot of feedback from people about that level of risk,” she said.

But much of the scrutiny, Heemstra said, stems from a misunderstanding of risk itself. It’s not reckless. On the contrary, the risks Heemstra takes are meticulous and calculated. “Risk and preparation are intimately intertwined,” Heemstra said. “I have tried as much as possible to explain that, for me, when I go do something that’s perceived to be risky, it’s not just a random decision on a random day. It’s months and months, sometimes years of preparation.”

McMillan ventured to say perhaps femininity makes women better risk-takers than men. If women are traditionally risk averse, maybe there is a survival instinct that drives them to approach risk intelligently, and better prepared. “I think women have some sort of preservation instinct,” she said. “We approach things differently. We tend to want to know all the ‘what-ifs,” where men typically just go for it and see what happens. The outcome is similar, and the risk is probably the same, but the way we evaluate it may be different.”

McMillan and Heemstra both know all too well the devastating consequences of taking risks in the mountains. At her first competition, McMillan watched a young competitor die after skiing off his line.

Julia Heemstra

Heemstra lost her long-term boyfriend Steve Romeo to an avalanche in 2012.

“It took a while to really start to feel comfortable with some of the levels of risk,” Heemstra said. “I think that Jackson itself is a community where death and the decision to return to the mountains is perhaps more concentrated than in other places.”

Finding equal footing

There is a silver lining here: if risk-taking is still less accessible for women than it is for men, it is also often more rewarding. For both Heemstra and Murphy, it allowed them to claim control in their otherwise chaotic lives.

“My thought process was, if I’m gonna get through really difficult stuff over the course of my life, it’s gonna take a certain amount of fortitude and resilience,” Murphy said. “How do we build that except by putting ourselves in situations that scare us?”

What Heemstra loves “the very most” about climbing is that it “constantly forces me to redefine my limitations in the most tangible way possible. I’m pushing through perceived boundaries on a regular basis.”

“Risk can be an incredible metaphor,” Heemstra added. “I certainly use my mountain adventures in my day-to-day life to remind myself of the strength I’ve had in those moments.”

Climbing also allows her another freedom. “One of the really exciting things about deciding as an athlete that you want to do certain things, is you can really break out of pigeon holes,” she said.

Heemstra has often found herself climbing with men who were less experienced than she is. “I really ended up in that leadership role. That reversal of roles perhaps really made me more aware of those more subconscious gender roles that are so easy to slip into.”

Murphy found the same kind of liberation on the seat of her motorcycle, and then eventually on top of mountains. The idea of riding her motorcycle was not the catalyst to divorce her husband. But riding it, and knowing she could ride it, gave her courage she might not have otherwise found.

“I bought my own place two years ago,” Murphy said. “Before, I would have felt the need for someone to make it possible. Now I’m going, ‘I can do that.’”

Murphy has also found strength in her female counterparts. Because motorcycling is such a male-dominated world, the culture “doesn’t really have space for us,” she said. So the women she rides with make their own space. “They’re all women who had one way or another to make their own path. The path to them wasn’t obvious, so they sort of had to bushwack.” But once they did, they brought whole versions of themselves to the table, she said.

Indeed, Smith, McMillan and Heemstra all agree female camaraderie is perhaps one of the most effective tools for infiltrating male-dominated spaces.

Smith is wary of female-centric activities and groups that try to soften or diminish women’s potential. But being surrounded by equal parts support and talent, she said, is “totally magical.”

“I’m into using femininity as a tool rather than an excuse,” Smith said. “It comes down to the desire to push the sport together. When it’s there, a group of women can shred harder than any group of guys.”

It’s why McMillan skis with Jackson Hole Babe Force, and leads all-women ski camps around the world. Women, she says, are more willing to listen, and to adapt. “Almost all of us have the same fears, the same hang-ups,” McMillan said. “But it’s scary to talk about them and scary to admit it. When you get around a group of women… it just takes one person to start the conversation, and typically everyone else has the same feelings.”

That’s not to say that women are timid and afraid in the mountains. They’re just more willing to open up about their reservations, McMillan said. It’s not being risk-averse, it’s being smart. “Unless Yellowstone blows, all those jumps will be there,” McMillan said. “I want [women] to pick it when it’s absolutely perfect. Emotionally, physically, mentally—I want all of those to line up.”

Women are also more likely to challenge what is “worthy” of praise. “You don’t necessarily need to huck a 50-foot cliff to have an awesome film segment,” she said, though you certainly can. But real strength and prowess in a sport comes from “learning what you’re really good at, and showcasing it.”

Some of Heemstra’s proudest moments in the mountains were times of “horizontal” mentorship in the company of other women. “I want to be really clear, I have phenomenal male climbing partners as well as female,” Heemstra said. Her male partners treat her as equal, and she wouldn’t climb with them otherwise.

But there’s something different, and magical, Heemsta said, about going out with a female partner and knowing you only have each other to count on. “Between the two of you, you had to figure it out,” she said. “Inevitably, someone’s gotta do it.” Moments where she has simultaneously learned from her partner, and been a mentor for her partner, are the moments she feels most rewarded as a climber.

Heemstra’s expedition for Equal Footing was one such journey. Mountains, Heemstra and Havell  agree, can provide equal footing to all who attempt to climb them.

“We’re a team up here,” Heemstra said. “We’re both equals in this … we can figure this out on our own.” PJH

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