My Tender Side is Not a Weakness
It used to be that an outdoorsy skiing woman had to make a choice: she could either be strong and tough, basically a smaller version of a man, or she could be sensitive and girly, concerned more with how she looked in her stretch pants than how well she skied. She couldn’t be both. Suzy Chaffee started making inroads into this territory in the 1960s, when she showed up at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble and later with her stint as Suzy Chapstick, but ultimately she became better known for her looks than for her skiing.
When I started as a ski patroller twenty years ago, many of the senior women on the patrol were tough as nails, and I quickly aspired to be the same. In order to be taken seriously, a female patroller had to forego waterproof mascara and a headband in favor of unflattering polypro long underwear and a desire to sweat. I learned to hike in deep snow with a heavy backpack full of explosives, to handle a toboggan loaded with an injured skier that might outweigh me by a hundred pounds and most importantly, I learned never to whine. In a mostly male-dominated job where sheer physical prowess often meant the difference between excelling at the job and merely getting by, I honed my tough side. But in doing so, I may have lost touch with the softer, more feminine side of myself.
From my first day as a professional ski patroller, I loved the job. Being outside surrounded by mountains, I knew I had found my niche. For a little while, I could pretend that I was just “one of the guys”, making up for in strength what I lacked in emotional connection. But that kind of thinking never lasts very long. A good bedside manner is just as important on the slopes as it is in the hospital. Patients need to trust you before they step into your toboggan. Trust between patrollers is equally important. We rely on each other to watch our backs, dig one another out if we get caught in an avalanche, and back each other up if we need help.
Unlike the guys, who maintained a mostly macho façade, I struggled to find the right balance. I needed a good role model to show me how to weigh strength against sensitivity, so I looked to the most important man in my life for inspiration: my dad.
Dad taught me all the important things in life, most of which involved skiing. When it’s white, ski it. That was his motto. It still is. Dad still skis, his turns just as graceful as ever as he swoops across the slope in the style I tried to match as a young girl. That wasn’t all I tried to emulate.
Dad has an incredible tolerance for pain. When it comes to physical resilience, no one can tough it out like Dad. When I was young, he ticked off physical feats like items on a to-do list. He climbed Mount Rainier, rode the Seattle-to-Portland bike race, and skied every weekend. Not once did I hear him whine. Whining simply wasn’t allowed. Not from him, not from any of us.
But Dad has a soft side, too. Play a certain song on the radio, the one that reminds him of his love for Mom, and he can easily cry a tiny (albeit, still manly) tear. Dad taught me not to be ashamed of feelings. I shaped myself around his example, learning that being tough and being sensitive weren’t mutually exclusive.
A few years back, I found an avalanche victim who’d been caught in a slide on the backside of the ski area. He’d been pushed through trees at a tremendous speed and had died instantly. When we found him, I was horrified. I’d never witnessed such violence, and I wasn’t sure I could don a tough enough façade to get the job done. Then I noticed the victim’s friend and skiing partner standing nearby. Instead of wrangling with the body, setting my teeth against the iron-like smell of blood and death, I skied over to the friend, putting myself between him and the awful scene. I summoned both strength and delicacy, crossing over from one to the other, rallying both the toughness and the tenderness the situation required. Below us lay a thousand vertical feet of rugged wilderness down to the closed highway, and we would haul the body across streambeds and over downed trees and across slippery slopes. I also had to care for the victim’s friend; my hands buoying his fragile heart as it swam across the space between us.
Thanks to Dad, this came easily enough for me. I could do the sweaty work as well as I could the tender stuff. I wouldn’t trample this man’s heart in order to keep my own from brimming over. Tears and sweat comingled that afternoon as we made our way down through the rugged wilderness. When we finally reached the road where a van waited to drive us all back to the ski area, I was forever changed. I could be hard enough to stopper the loose urge to surrender—to not let myself whine and say that this, finally, was too hard—and soft enough to hold a place in my heart for all the dark, messy emotions of loss.
On the slopes I’ve learned that my tender side is not a weakness. Luckily for me, I had a role model to follow, so that when the double-black challenge came I could follow his lead, stretching myself across the great expanse of loss in order to find myself.