#MeToo Outside

By on April 18, 2018

Women in outdoor recreation spell it out for an industry where sexism, assault run rampant

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The first time a helicopter dropped Christie Watts off at the top of a snow-covered Alaskan peak, she just “stood there and cried” before dropping in.

“I was so happy to be there, it was the biggest dream of mine,” Watts said. “Heli-boarding in Alaska is the absolute pinnacle of what you could be doing. I was just this girl that taught herself how to snowboard from Michigan, and here I am on this giant fucking mountain about to have the best ride of my life.”

She had been hired at an Alaskan heli-ski guiding company in its very first year of business—one of the first such companies of its time. Then, less than two weeks into her eight-week tenure, the same pilot that dropped her off for the best ride of her life raped her.

That was in 2001. Since then, Watts has told two people what happened. Who could she tell? At the time, she worked with mostly men. She feared they wouldn’t have believed her, or would have sent her home—a dispatcher is far more disposable than a pilot, she said. Then she got home to Jackson and actively repressed the memory. Many of the men she worked with in Alaska were her friends in Jackson. The shame she silently carried would follow her home, too.

“I had so much shame around it for so long,” Watts said. “I didn’t want to bring people down, so I just kept my mouth shut.”

But then a hashtag started trending on social media and the internet at large. #MeToo flooded news feeds as women shared stories of assault, harassment and sexual misconduct. Watts noticed and recognized herself in those stories. “It makes you feel like you’re not so alone,” she said.

And indeed, she isn’t. Planet Jackson Hole contacted six local women ranging in age from their early 20s to 50s about their experiences working in the outdoor industry, and each had a #MeToo story to share. Three of them, who happened to be on the younger end of the age spectrum, wished to remain anonymous.

Their experiences ranged from harassment to rape. A seasoned mountain biker reported she was told she would have a “hard time keeping up” on a steeper section of the trail. Another woman recalled a man told her “clench your ass” while she was climbing, then immediately told another woman to “fucking smile more.”

Going on the Record

There was a time when, while traveling for a film, a married man hit on pro-snowboarder Julie Zell in her hotel room. From the mountains to the water, Bridget Crocker, a former river guide, endured so much harassment and assault she could “fill a book” (and, in fact, the travel writer just completed one).

#MeToo stories have indeed permeated almost every industry, from media to politics to education. The outdoor industry, meanwhile, which Crocker says many acknowledge as a “well-spring of camaraderie and freedom,”  is not only prone to such stories—it is rampant with them. There’s a sense of “lawlessness,” as Crocker described it, that allows for bad behavior, to say the least. Zell called it a “cool-dude” culture.

The outdoors have long been regarded as masculine spaces by industry professionals and social scientists alike. While gendered participation in outdoor recreation is nearly even, gendered media representation is still heavily skewed. In the ski film industry, for example, only 14 percent of athletes in major ski films are women. Even vocally “progressive” outdoor publications like Outside Magazine, which regularly publishes articles highlighting diversity in outdoor recreation (Crocker’s story also appears in the Outside Online article “Hostile Environment”), struggle to bridge the gender gap — 32 percent of Outside’s staff was female in 2016, and 89 percent of the images it published were of men. Locally, 19 of Exum’s 89 listed guides are women, three of Barker Ewing’s 14 raft guides are women, and six of Dave Hansen’s 20 guides are women.

 

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, Zell said. When she was trying to “make it” as a freeride athlete back in the 90s, she said she was constantly overlooked. Potential sponsors would tell her she wasn’t recognizable enough, that people wouldn’t discern a sponsor’s brand on her uniform.

“OK, so market me in your advertising, then people will know I ride for you,” she’d rebut. It seldom worked. If there were no women in outdoor sports marketing, how could women be expected to make it in the outdoor sports world?

“Not good enough—that was the message I was sent inadvertently for a long time,” Zell said.

On film expeditions, she said she was often the only female in the crew.

“There was only room for one girl. There could be 30 ripping men, but only one or two girls, and God forbid we could show up in the same film,” Zell said.

It made it hard for the people with influence—money—to take her seriously. And it made it hard for her to take herself seriously. If she wasn’t an athlete in the eyes of some of the men she rode with, what was she?

Zell recalled a trip she took with 11 men. She was the only woman. One of the men introduced her to his family, his wife and kids, so she figured he was a safe person to share a room with. When she found him sitting at the edge of her bed in his underwear hitting on her, she didn’t quite know how to respond.

“I gave the classic, ‘I’m really tired, I’m going to sleep,’”

And Zell said things don’t look that different today than they did 20 years ago. At her 13-year-old son’s freeride competition recently, she met a teenage boy with a sticker plastered on his skis of a faceless woman—”no face, just boobs and short shorts and a midriff.”

“I don’t want my son to grow up and think that’s cool or sexy,” she said. “But that’s their environment. It just keeps breeding itself.”

And Zell still sees far fewer girls out skiing than she’d like.

“Did they just suddenly lose interest, or did nobody take an interest in them?” Zell asked. She suspects the latter.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of the Interior released an “Investigative Report of Misconduct at the Grand Canyon River District” that completely ripped the curtain open to the “long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment” specifically in the river guiding world, the one Crocker calls home.

“In addition to the 13 original complaints, we identified 22 individuals who reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment and [a] hostile work environment while working in the River District,” the report reads.

Crocker, meanwhile, is a living testament to the behavior detailed in the Department of Interior’s report. In her years guiding on the Snake River, the Salmon, in the Grand Canyon, the Kern and Tuolumne rivers in California, and world-class rivers around the world, she was frequently the only female on the crew. She experienced harassment and assault more times than she could keep track of—a man who demanded a kiss from her to prove she wasn’t a “butch dyke feminist,” a man who stood over her while she peed and asked, “Are your nipples pink or brown? I know you’re a B cup, but what color are your nipples?”

“Perhaps one of the worst situations I endured was during a seven-day exploratory on the incredibly remote Omo River in Ethiopia while it was in extreme flood stages,” Crocker recalled. She was the only woman, and was “harassed mercilessly,” not only by fellow crew mates, but also by clients. One client was “particularly bad.” He stalked her, followed her into her tent. It became too much.

It was so bad she actually tried to leave halfway through the trip—but there was nowhere to go. “I came to the realization that going downstream was the fastest way out of the canyon. It would take days to hack my way out with a machete to a dirt road, and then up to a week waiting for a vehicle to pass,” she said.

Watts, in contrast, only has one experience with sexual assault she can recall in her lifetime.  But it has haunted her for almost 20 years.

A Time Before

Watts begins her story from the very beginning, as a young girl growing up in Michigan. She taught herself to snowboard when she was 15, and was completely addicted to it. She became one of the state’s first certified snowboard instructors. She almost didn’t graduate high school because of a particularly deep winter.

Then she tried the whole “real job” thing—moved to the city, worked in advertising. She was living in Seattle and teaching snowboarding at night and on weekends. Her boyfriend at the time, who she called a “trust-funder,” asked her why she didn’t just snowboard full-time. It’s what made her happy, he said.

“It had never occurred to me that I could make a living snowboarding,” Watts said. But the seed had been planted. She started asking whoever she could where they thought the best place was to make a living in the mountains. “Jackson” is what they told her.

“Great,” Watts said. “Where’s that?”

“Wyoming.”

“Great, where’s that?”

“I pretty much moved here sight unseen,” she said. “I moved to try and go for it.”

It worked. She was already a certified snowboard instructor, so she got a job right away. (This was, of course, before the recession of 2008 and before the valley’s housing crisis exploded.)

After a few years in Jackson, she set her sights on Alaska. Heli-skiing was the ultimate goal, and Alaska was the mecca. She was hired at a company (she did not want to name it) during its first season of operations as a dispatcher—but it was a stepping stone, she said. She just needed to get her foot in the door.

Alaska was as rough and rugged as she imagined it to be—maybe even more so. She slept in a sleeping bag, on a mattress right above her office. There was a gap in her window, and she woke up in the mornings next to a pile of snow. There was no running water, no electricity, and she often had to trudge to the outhouse in snowshoes—oh, and the outhouse door didn’t close all the way. But none of that could dampen her spirits. She was just thrilled to be there.

“In some ways, it was absolutely the best experience of my life.”

Crocker, meanwhile, grew up in Jackson with guide parents. The river coursed through her veins, was woven into her DNA. “I forged a special connection with the river at an early age,” she said.

It was on her first trip down the Grand Canyon when she was 19 that she decided the river would be her career, too. “I remember rowing one of my first rapids and the thrill of it made me laugh. I felt such pure joy.” She signed up for guide school in Jackson the following spring.

But Crocker’s Jackson upbringing came at a price. She described her high school experience as “very much a rape culture.” She was sexually assaulted in high school “by a fellow student who came to school the next day bragging about what he’d done,” and then labeled her a slut. She says a family friend molested her around the same time, and when she was 17, an older, college-aged man working in Jackson for the summer raped her.

She learned to assume such behavior was normal, and what she experienced on the river was “really no different than my high school experience. Honestly, I thought that sort of behavior was to be expected.”

Get Me Off This Mountain

As rugged as the physical environment in Alaska was, Watts had heard rumors that the people were rough, too. “I’d been told stories,” she said. “You go into Valdez, you have to be really careful. It’s really rough, you have to keep your wits about you.”

And she did. Watts said she was careful never to drink too much, to keep constant eyes on her drink. Her efforts weren’t enough.

When the pilot contracted to fly that winter invited Watts to go into town with her, she jumped on the opportunity. “I was like, yes, get me off this mountain.” The top of Thompson Pass was miles away from any form of civilization and Watts was already stir-crazy and hungry for human interaction. Still, she was careful going into it.

“I told him from the get-go, you’re taking me home after this.”

He agreed.

Watts only remembers having two drinks. Then darkness. “The next thing I know, I wake up in this guy’s hotel room, naked from the waist down. He’s on top of me having sex with me.”

Be it an effect of possible date rape drugs, or shock, Watts couldn’t move. She was paralyzed. She remembers that she could only open her eyes, and as soon as he noticed, he told her, “Oh yeah, you wanted this. You were begging for this.”

Watts said drugs were involved in her rape, and were responsible for her paralysis. But even without them, “freezing” is a common response for survivors of sexual assault and trauma of any kind.

“Freezing is actually a common response to a threat that we see in mammals, in fact, not just humans,” Dr. Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook, told VICE News.

A 2017 study published in the Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology identified the response as “tonic immobility.” Seventy percent of the women assessed in the study reported “significant tonic immobility” and 48 percent reported “extreme tonic mobility” during the assault.

The body might freeze, but for Watts, her mind was still active. The only thing she could think in that moment was, “Oh my god, I can’t tell anyone. What the fuck am I going to do?”

Then came the self-doubt—did she invite this? Had she somehow asked for it?

“I’m going through this emotional checklist, like what I’m going to do about this, how it’s gonna be after—while I’m being raped. It was so horrible.”

 

“I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to go home. I don’t want my whole experience to be over.”

– Christie Watts

 

The only way out, she decided, was to just let it happen. “I just closed my eyes and started crying … but I had to suck it up and make it seem like I wanted this.” That was the most confusing part for her in the years following the assault.

For the rest of the season, the man who raped her went around telling people they were a “thing.” That they were hooking up. And she did go out with him again. “I had to rationalize that I was OK with it, that I’d made it happen. That was the only way I could cope with it, that’s the part I beat myself up over.”

But she didn’t tell anyone what she knew to be true—that she had been raped. “I still have five more weeks here,” she thought. “I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to go home. I don’t want my whole experience to be over.”

She knew the consequences were too high for her to come forward, and historically, she was right. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, in 994 of every 1,000 instances of rape, the perpetrator will walk free. Only 310 cases will be reported to the police, and only 57 of those reports will lead to an arrest. For Watts, going to the police was not a viable option. She knew she couldn’t have told her boss, either. The risk was too high, and the incentive too low.

Crocker quickly learned the same. She did report one instance of harassment to her boss—the guy that asked about her nipples. Her boss only acted because his wife spoke in Crocker’s defense. But her life got harder. The harassment got worse—men called her things like “bitch,” “dyke.” And some of the perpetrators were her bosses.

“When your boss is coming onto you, and retaliation for saying ‘no’ is a very real thing, it’s a tricky tightrope to walk,” Crocker said. “You can’t report your boss to your boss. There’s no avenue for recourse.”

Like Watts, Crocker learned to swallow her shame and build defenses. If she acted like “one of the guys,” she could fly more under the radar. “This defense shape-shifted from laughing off sexually explicit jokes and comments  about myself, other women guides and clients, to walking a tightrope when it came to sexual advances with trip leaders, guides and company owners.”

A simple “no” wasn’t enough. So she learned to cushion those “nos” with excuses and flattery: “I have a boyfriend, but if I didn’t you’d be at the top of my list.” She also learned to play “protégé” to older male guides, safer than playing “girlfriend,” she said, because it gave her the protection of a senior guide.

Watt’s defense mechanisms were similar, especially with the man who raped her. She fashioned a narrative in which she actually wanted to be with him. But she still avoided him as much as she possibly could in middle-of-nowhere Alaska.

She made friends with engineers and other people who lived “in town,” and got off the mountain as often as she could. She would use those outings to let him believe she was seeing other people. Her “reputation” plummeted, she said. “I got this horrific reputation of like, oh yeah, there’s Christie, she’s fucking everybody back in Alaska.” But what she was really doing was hiding, and a bad reputation was easier than coming forward with her story.

“You can’t report your boss to your boss.

There’s no avenue for recourse.”

–Bridget Crocker

The outdoors are regarded as wild and untamed territories, and often the humans who inhabit them try to mirror the landscapes so that the culture, too, becomes lawless. “Guides and outfitters are outside-the-box nonconformists who eschew rules and regulations,” Crocker said. “That lawlessness is what attracts a lot of people to the river, and, in many cases, it’s a license to behave badly.”

The idea of “freedom” that the outdoors provide, Crocker said, has for too long meant “freedom from having to follow society’s rules.”

Sexual violence thrives in that space. But “if we can shift our definition of freedom to include respect and diversity, we’ll maintain the soul of the industry.”

Not Going Anywhere

After her assault, Watts said she spent a good 24 hours crying on her bed, wondering whether she should go home, call it quits. But leaving, she said, would have been even worse. It would have let him win.

“Fuck that, not letting that guy ruin my experience,” Watts remembered thinking. The rest of her weeks were excruciating, yes, but they were also rewarding. She got 60 heli runs in that year. “Most people are lucky to get 10,” she said. She was one of the very first female guides. By the end of the season, she was tail guiding—she was the only snowboarder qualified enough. And the mountains were where she felt like herself again.

“I’m happy I stuck it out, happy I didn’t run away,” Watts said.

Crocker responds to whether her experiences ever made her consider quitting with, “Hell no.” The river is her home, her “birthright,” she said. She wasn’t about to be scared away from it.

“My relationship with rivers is one of the strongest and most important ones in my life,” Crocker said. After all, she was raised on their banks and sought refuge in the Snake during a “troubled childhood.”

“I have always felt that guiding rivers was my calling and purpose, and I was in no way going to be chased away from what I considered my birthright. Like the river, I simply adapted to the obstacles around me.”

Crocker now writes about her experiences and just completed a book about her life on the river that will include her horror stories. She also has kids, and started teaching them about consent from an early age. She’s careful not to force her kids to give people, no matter their familiarity, hugs or kisses that the kids don’t initiate.

She is teaching them that they are in charge of themselves, their bodies and who touches them or talks about them. She said she is also teaching them the importance of asking and getting consent from someone before touching, hugging or kissing them and the importance of saying “no,” and respecing “no” as an answer.

“When my kids were toddlers, I avoided saying things like ‘You’re OK’ if they fell down and cried. I don’t tell them how they feel or how they should feel.”

Her kids are a big reason Crocker opened up about her story—”So my kids won’t have to endure what I did to be on the river or to do what they love in the outdoors.”

She’s already seen a dramatic shift since she first told her story two years ago.

“I’m very hopeful that things will be much different when my kids are old enough to pursue a guiding career if that’s what they want,” Crocker said. “By breaking the silence and staying focused on forging solutions, we are creating the shift.”

For Watts, most people reading these words, even those she’s close to, will be learning about her story for the first time. But she says she’s tired of hiding behind shame. She wants other women who may have experienced something similar to know they’re not alone.

“They don’t have to hide in the shadows because this happened, don’t have to suffer in silence anymore,” she said.

She’s even moved to the point where she’s grateful for what she’s been through. It’s taken years of life-coaching to get to this point, but now she’s a life coach, too. She has a lot of clients who have experienced assault, like she has, and she can draw from her own experiences and really, truly empathize with them.

“Who knows if I would be doing this work otherwise?” she said. “I really get strength from this whole ‘Me Too’ movement; I’m not a victim. I was never a victim. It happened to me, and I could have melted—but I didn’t. It doesn’t define me.”

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