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A look at relationship dynamics in the backcountry.

BY BLAIR ANNE HENSEN

We stood atop the southwest chutes on Mount Adams, the second tallest mountain in Washington, weighing our options. Ski it or no? A group discussion led to the unanimous answer: “Send it.” One after the other we skied over 3,500 feet of perfectly cooked spring corn snow. Midway down the chute we stopped to check in, and while everyone had slightly tired legs, we were all thrilled. I looked at my partner and smiled.

When I switched from snowboarding to skiing 10 years ago, this was the moment I envisioned having all the time: high fives, blissful turns and laughter with friends, family and my significant other. But reality is not always what it seems. Especially in the backcountry.

More often than not, I’ve ended up on descents beyond my skill level or gotten into an argument with my significant other over safety decisions or terrain choices.

A few years back, I started talking more about this reality with friends and family who also recounted difficult experiences they encountered learning to ski, mountain bike or climb, and the moments of relationship despair. As a relationship counselor, I couldn’t help but dig into these dynamics.

Here are some ways to tackle a new outdoor sport with your partner without the big blowups.

The Learning Curve

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I want to try [enter activity], but I’m too scared.” Being a beginner is hard. You have to endure the process of moving through the learning stages, and it’s not always glamorous. But the bruises, frustration and negative self-talk can make it a fulfilling journey.

“I was such a new skier,” my sister-in-law Megan told me. “I felt competitive and so insecure that I was not comfortable being left behind. I started feeling resentful because I didn’t feel like I was a part of the crew.”

Whether you’re on the teaching side or the learning side, validate each other for tackling something new. Look for joys in the learning stages, whether it’s connecting a turn, sending a new-to-you route, or sharing accomplishments with friends.

Setting Goals

Are you learning this new thing to reach a bigger objective down the road? Are you doing it to spend more time together? Or have you always wanted to learn this skill and now have the chance? Unspoken expectations or goals will hurt the learning outcome. If one partner dreams of climbing a summit together and this objective is not shared or mutually established, it can quickly turn into resentment or undue pressure.

“Looking back,” Megan told me, “I wish me and my partner had a clear conversation about expectations to make sure I was focusing on getting better as a skier and [that] he was focusing on quality time and giving each other space to practice our skills.”

Be clear about your goals for the day, the activity and each other.

Own It

If the learning partner feels a sense of agency and autonomy by building outside support, it can alleviate pressure on the other partner to be “teacher.”

My friend Kiersten said that after a few clinics and finding gear that actually fit her, she felt more confident to ski with her friends and significant other. “Lessons were really helpful,” she said, “and learning with other women made it way more fun.”

Kiersten said she was having a hard time learning to mountain bike, a sport she was trying because her partner loved it. She would think, “I’m only doing this sport because of you,” and this would lead to a downward spiral that led her to question her worthiness in their relationship. “I felt like I wasn’t a good enough mountain biker, and therefore, [not] a good enough partner.”

It wasn’t until she made mountain biking about her, that it became rewarding and fun. Having ownership in the activity helps decrease moments of blame and resentment between partners.

Safety First

Let’s say your goal is to ski backcountry powder with your significant other. This is doable if you have a realistic timeline, mutual goals and appropriate safety training for both partners. All too often I see couples (and have also been in that couple) rely on the experienced partner to make all the decisions.

Especially at the beginning of the process, one partner might have more experience making decisions in the backcountry, and it is critical that neither of you overestimates your capacity to manage safety. Make sure you choose terrain options that are appropriate for the skill levels of both partners so you both feel safe in the other’s care. Have a plan you’re both prepared for and feel safe executing, including using proper gear, setting objectives and discussing emergency plans ahead of time.

Dr. Sara Boilen, a psychologist in Kalispell, Montana, suggests creating a “safe word” together. This word is easy to remember and employed when one partner is feeling overwhelmed and unsafe enough to execute the safety plan.

Communication: A Two-way Street

How you talk to each other matters. Empathy, validation and sharing about your experience helps you continue checking in and making sound decisions together. Share when fear is present rather than using fear to motivate (“I’m scared by the wind on the ridge” versus “If you don’t move quickly, we could die.”).

Using “I feel” statements can also be helpful. For example: “I feel scared we may get caught in a storm if we don’t move through this section quickly.” Expressing emotion and needs can help your partner understand how the situation impacts you specifically.

Keep in mind there are different styles of learning. Some people learn best through experience and challenging their thresholds, while others like to learn more systemically. Find out what works best for your partner and meet them in their process, rather than using yours. Avoid language like, “When I was learning,” or “You should try.” Instead, use validation and curiosity: “I can see how hard you are working.” “What was your favorite part of today?”

Know that it’s OK if you end up in a blowout. We’ve all been there. Take time to talk about it afterward and repair the hurt that was caused, then keep after it! You can be that couple who farms pow for life, as long as you both want it and keep finding positive ways through the learning. Make it fun, take good care of each other and always stay curious!

Stay Connected

  1. Be willing to care for each other in the wilderness—be it the wilderness of each other’s emotions or navigating difficult terrain.
  2. Slow down and check in with one another. What kinds of risks are you available to do given life around you? How do you want your partner to challenge and support you?
  3. Keep unplugging from the stressors of daily life and find time to integrate wilderness into your relationship. Create time for play, and make sure you are choosing objectives you both want.

Blair Anne Hensen is a licensed Marriage and Family Counselor in Bozeman, Montana, who works as a counselor in private practice and runs outdoor wilderness workshops for couples, families and groups with Open Routes Adventures. She is working to actively minimize the stigma around emotions, mental health, and relationship issues.