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Leaning In: Charging Fear and Freshies

Editor's Note: In this guest-edited installment of Women in the Mountains, TGR Stash member Carolyn Highland explains how leaning forward towards what you fear is the only way to go through life. Thanks for sharing, Carolyn!

The author on the approach at Hatcher Pass. Joe Connolly photo. 

My entire body tingled with adrenaline and terror every time my ski slipped off the skin track, knowing that while I was not quite in the no-fall-zone, I was certainly in the it-would-ruin-my-day-to-fall-zone. Every time my leg went out from under me, I would freeze for a few seconds, trying to stabilize myself and catch my breath before I tried to place my foot again.

It was March at Hatcher Pass in Alaska's Talkeetnas. I’d arrived in Alaska just the day before and my legs were already wobbly from bootpacking up and skiing the Lost Couloir earlier that morning. Our second line involved skinning up a steep, thinly covered pitch and then along a narrow ridge, trying to keep our skins on as long as we could. The angle required frequent switchbacking, and the slick, grainy snow underfoot made getting an edge in a grueling task. 

Half stoke, half exhaustion bootpacking up the Lost Couloir. Joe Connolly photo. 

One of the most important things you must do on skis is keep your weight forward. Whether it’s charging down a steep trail, or cranking on a groomer, or striding up the skin track, for the sailing to be smooth, you must angle your body in the direction you are moving. 

When I was learning to downhill race as a kid, they would tell us to make sure we could feel our shins pressing against in the inside of our ski boots and warn us about getting in the back seat. On the nordic trails as a coach many years later, I instructed my athletes to center their weight over their bindings to properly set their classic wax on the uphill so their skis wouldn’t slip out from under them. And I realized again the importance of keeping your weight forward when skinning up steep, icy switchbacks in the Alaskan backcountry, knowing that if I leaned back even for a second, I could lose my footing.

Sending the Lost Couloir.Joe Connolly photo. 

It seems like a simple concept physically—to keep your weight forward—and it is. Physically, it is simple. But skiing, like most outdoor sports, is far from being a purely physical pursuit. Our brains get involved—our thoughts, our emotions, and most importantly, our fears. Fear is what gets us in the backseat. Fear is what causes us to slip backward. Fear—even at a subconscious, nearly undetectable level.

Fear is what gets us in the backseat. Fear is what causes us to slip backward. Fear—even at a subconscious, nearly undetectable level

When something scares us, it is an instinctual reaction to back away. To move ourselves in the opposite direction of the thing that we fear. To try to distance our bodies from the source of the anxiety. It is the flight response, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will actually remove ourselves from the situation or get away. It may just mean an ever so slight weight shift in the direction opposite the one we need to go. 

360 degrees of jagged, snowy heaven. Carolyn Highland photo.

Each time it was time to end one switchback and begin another, we had to change directions by flipping our skis and our bodies 180 degrees to begin slowly gaining elevation facing the other direction. Doing this on trails while running and hiking is simple, but on skis it was suddenly a far more harrowing task. It involved facing backward down the mountain and balancing all our weight on one ski as we moved the other, trusting that one edge with our entire position on the side of the mountain. 

When I was nervous, when I wasn’t confident in the placement of my edge in the snow, that was when the ski would slip and I would be forced to try to catch myself with my other ski or my poles. I wasn’t driving forward, placing all of my strength and faith in myself squarely over my foot, and so I was slipping backwards, in the direction I had my body weight. 

High in the Talkeetna Range. Carolyn Highland photo.

It happens when there is an increase in speed or a particularly challenging bit of terrain. It happens to racers trying to wrangle themselves through gates on an icy pitch, and it happens to freeskiers trying to navigate steeps, and it happens to new skiers who are not yet confident in their own abilities. There is this almost unconscious shift backward, away from the speed, away from the steepness, away from the momentum and the gravity. Somehow, our bodies think that we are protecting ourselves—that we are making the situation safer.

RELATED: Skinning through breast cancer with Dina Mischev

But the result of leaning back on skis is the opposite of what your body’s primal instinct thinks it will be. When you lean back, you take pressure off the front of your boots, and you relinquish a certain amount of control over your skis. And when you are already on terrain or at a speed where you feel uncomfortable or scared, by reducing your control over your skis you are actually putting yourself in more danger and increasing the likelihood of causing exactly what you feared to happen. And when you are going uphill, leaning back will cause you to go in the direction opposite of the one you want—backward.

You don't get to this view by staying in the car. Joe Connolly photo. 

It’s our instinct. It’s an attempt at self-preservation. But what our bodies don’t account for is that launching ourselves fully in the direction of what we fear is actually what will yield the best results

It’s our instinct. It’s an attempt at self-preservation. But what our bodies don’t account for is that launching ourselves fully in the direction of what we fear is actually what will yield the best results. Thrusting forward, flowing with gravity, leaning into the momentum—that is how we must get down the mountain, and how we must attack our fears.

After a few slips that lead me to pause for minutes at a time, clinging to my points of contact and breathing intentionally until I trusted my limbs again, it started echoing in my mind what I would tell the skiers on my nordic team when they were going uphill on classic skis. 

Skinning on alpine touring skis was not all that different from classic skiing, except that skins were used for traction instead of kick wax. My weight, I realized, was not centered over the foot I was planting with. I was nervous, I didn’t trust myself, and my upper body was leaning back as a result, throwing off everything I was doing. To get where I wanted to go, to move past the fear, I had to lean into the hill and drive my skis forward with confidence. Confidence that would ensure good foot placement and secure my position on the skin track.

The sweet, sweet, rewards of leaning in. Joe Connolly photo. 

Fear can create a negative feedback loop. We are afraid, so we shrink, and further invite the thing that scares us to occur. To beat the fear, to give ourselves a fighting chance at realizing the best possible outcome—we have to go all in and face it. Because we are not afraid of the speed. We are not afraid of the steepness. We are not afraid of the angles or the snowpack. We are afraid of what might happen to us. If we fail, if we falter. That is what drives our weight back, what causes our bodies to retreat.

RELATED: On turning around in Grand Teton National Park

But to change that feedback loop into a positive one, all we need to do is shift our weight forward. All we need to do is charge confidently in the direction we want to go, even if it makes us afraid. All we have to do is lean in.

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

Just curious - have you ever considered using self-arrest grips to avoid so much worry about the “you-fall-you-die-zone? I have used these on many backcountry descents and it works great. Reduces the fear factor significantly. Not sure why these grips are not more popular. Your thoughts?

Just curious-why are you east coast trans-plants so bloody dramatic about everything?  Hey TGR how bout something written about ‘big mountains’, what ever the hell that term means, by someone FROM the actual mountains, instead of this over excited transplant crap.

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