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How to Keep Yourselves—and Your Relationship—Alive While Skiing With Your Partner

Traveling with our loved ones affects our decision-making in the mountains. Here’s how to do it safely.

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As I crested the ridge of the pass, the wind met me with a fierce push. February means sub-zero temperatures here. I hunched to steady myself, and pull out more layers. As I crouched to get my arms into my jacket, I watched as the sun dropped behind the horizon. The fleeting sunlight of an Alaskan winter leaves little time for error. My brother Scott and my then-partner of two years—we’ll call him *Eric—were already deliberating descent options when I reached them. This was the first day of a three-day backcountry ski trip that would take us to two huts with over 15 miles of travel. The top of the pass was six miles in and meant we still had a two-mile glacial descent between us and the first hut. I looked down the glacier and back at the pass. A thick cloud was rolling in as they talked. Eric looked at me, waiting for me to weigh in.

On the way up the pass, we found a weak layer in the snowpack but had decided to keep boot packing given the lack of reactivity in the layer during the snowpit assessment. The slope angle measured about 35 degrees, and skiing back down the south face after a day of sun exposure could risk a possible avalanche. There were also six miles to travel to get back to the car. From our planning, we knew the descent down the glacier included a short, steep section (between 37-40 degrees) at the top, with minimal crevasses and more favorable avalanche conditions on the north aspect. We all agreed; Staying at the pass was too dangerous. Either way, we needed to descend, and either way, we were going to be skiing in the dark. Visibility was dwindling with each minute we stood deciding.

Both options held high consequence risks. I looked at Eric and asked, “What do you think we should do?” While I had taken an AIARE level 1 class, Eric was a Denali mountain guide and AIARE level 2 so I deferred most of the decisions to him because of his experience level. Scott, my brother, had his level 1 too, but this was his first time in Alaska.

Eric turned the question back to me. Unspoken between us was the knowledge that I had been the one who wanted to go on this expedition as it was likely my last ski trip in Alaska for a long time. I had submitted my application to grad school in Montana two days before the trip, and Scott was visiting for the first time before I moved. “I need a minute to collect myself before we do anything,” I said.

“Time is safety in the mountains, Blair,” Eric replied, frustrated at my lack of response. I was frozen—from the cold and from fear. I started to cry. Neither option was good.

Making the decision for the group, Eric grabbed his pack, and with a swift click into his bindings, he ski cut the glacier side. A small slough started below him. He yelled from the top of the cut for my brother and I to follow. Visibility was so low he was throwing a rope in front of him to get depth perception. I shook my head as I watched, and my legs quivered as I transitioned into downhill mode. My heart raced. Scott looked at me and with a smile said, “It will be okay, Blair.” I watched as Eric and Scott started down the glacier, hoping he was right. Time is safety, I thought. I switched my headlight on and followed, tears still welling as I skied.

It has been five years since this trip and my heartbeat still quickens remembering those decision points. After a long and slow descent, we made it safely down. Looking back, we agree Eric made the right call at the moment, though it is not a situation we hope to find ourselves in again.

Since that trip, I have done a lot of reflecting, especially on how traveling with our closest loved ones impacts our emotions and affects our decision-making in the mountains. Traveling in the backcountry with loved ones is more challenging for a number of reasons. I’ve asked myself what relationship dynamics were at play before the trip, during, and at the top of the pass? Ultimately, it has taken many of my own adventures and relationship experience to start to answer these questions. Using this, and my professional experience as a marriage and family counselor, I’ve identified some specific ways to assess risk, understand relationships, and communicate emotions when our ski partners are also our romantic partners.

Want to learn the backcountry basics they didn’t teach you in Avy 1? Take our online course taught by AMGA guide Mike Hattrup and become a more-informed backcountry traveler.

Navigating Attachment in Relationships

There are some important relational aspects to consider when entering the backcountry with your romantic partner. In committed, romantic relationships we are creating an attachment bond. An attachment bond is an emotional relationship where we “habitually seek and maintain physical and emotional closeness with at least one particular irreplaceable other” and “we especially seek out this person when we feel stressed, unsure or anxious,” as defined by S. Johnson in the book “Love Sense”. Biologically, this relationship is the one we are hoping will be the safest relationship in our world.

Original attachment relationships start with our parents who first teach us, through experience, whether relationships are dependable or not. Meaning if your parents or primary caretakers were responsive to your needs and emotions, and taught you how to navigate and explore safely in the world, then you would generally experience relationships as dependable and secure. This will be true on skis or off.

The experiences in our original attachment relationships influence bonding and reliability in adult attachment relationships. If both partners view relationships as “secure” then the couple is more readily able to respond to each other’s needs quickly, view each other as a priority, and navigate stress with constructive communication and emotional attunement.

In the subsequent, if partners have “insecure” attachment styles, working through stressful situations can bring up old biological fears and experienced memories from the original insecure attachment bond.

When our attachment patterns show up in the throes of avalanche terrain, alpine exposure, extreme temperatures, and adverse elements, that’s where things get tricky. In those high-risk moments, we are asking our internal selves to assess the dangers that could put this person (the most important person since mom and dad) in harm’s way, while simultaneously navigating relationship dynamics that are aggravated in high-risk environments. When couples learn how to navigate these dynamics safely, spending time outdoors can be an incredible experience to help each other excel in an activity or environment that pushes and challenges growth.

Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby, highlights the key difference between going outdoors with friends or climbing partners and your significant other. While there is often deep care in those relationships, we are not unconsciously asking that person to make sure we are protected, safe, and nurtured, like we are in an attachment relationship. There is biologically “less at stake.” This point is not meant to diminish the significance of relationships with friends and climbing partners, just to highlight the different needs represented in these relationships. At the time of my trip to Alaska, my relationship with Eric demonstrated an insecure attachment based on our experiences both in relationship with each other and our experiences growing up, which made it much harder to connect and communicate effectively in times of stress. As it relates to traveling in the mountains together, understanding each other’s attachment styles, backcountry skills, risk tolerance, pace, gear, goals, and rescue skills are crucial in managing hazards in remote settings and in your relationship.

Assessing Skill vs. Risk

Risk is how much an individual perceives danger to their survival—be it physical, emotional, relational, or social. How each individual assesses what is “risky” depends on the individual’s collection of previous experiences, education, and emotions. Skill and risk often correlate, for example, the more experience I have with backcountry skiing, the greater confidence I carry forward to pursue higher-risk objectives in that setting. Though at times, skill and risk do not correlate. For instance, if I do not have very much experience or education about snowpack and mountain terrain, I might unknowingly get myself into a high-risk situation such as the narrative above. Here are some questions you and your partner might consider asking each other:

  • What kinds of objectives do we both want to do together in the short and long term? How might we work toward building skills?
  • Are there goals we have as individuals that may be best pursued with a different adventure partner?
  • How will you assess risk and plan for safety together and apart from the safety of the partnership?

While one partner may have more skills in a particular area, it is imperative for both partners to feel they can rely on one another for safety while in the backcountry. This is one of the key mistakes Eric and I made on the pass. He was much more skilled and confident in decision-making in riskier environments than I was, and during that trip, we were operating at his interpretation of my skill level, not mine. Setting up systems that account for both partners’ current skill levels and risk propensity allows both parties to manage expectations and perform under stress.

T.B. Fletcher and J.S. Hinkle, authors of “Adventure Based Counseling: An Innovation in Counseling,” write, “Risk taken in a safe, supportive environment allows the family to share mutual vulnerabilities and to increase the intimacy in their relationships.” Exposure helps us dance with risk and vulnerability to grow ourselves and expand the depths and reaches of the relationship. All the while, there needs to be a system of safety in order to push the limits of risk.

Understanding Emotions

Emotions express how an experience is impacting you, and while emotions demonstrate your individual response to a situation, in a relationship, one of the mutually shared roles is to provide emotional support and care to each other. Emotional support is caring about your partner’s experience through validation and empathy.

Validation of the feeling allows it to be there (“It is okay to be scared right now”), and empathy requires our perspective-taking and feeling with our partner (“I can see why you are nervous about this”). In a relationship, emotional support is both partners checking in with emotions. It does not mean: diminishing their experience (“it’s not that bad”), trying to fix the feeling (“if you just do this you won’t feel scared”), telling someone not to feel (“you are okay, you don’t need to feel angry”), or blaming someone for a feeling (“this is your fault I am sad”).

People are not to blame for emotions, emotions are signals from our body about what we do and don’t like. If either person is upset, inquire about their experience. The more we pause to identify what we are feeling, where it is coming from, how it is impacting us, and what we need, the better we are at communicating and making important decisions with each other.

Managing Fear

Let’s dig more into fear since it is a frequently triggered emotion when the brain calculates survival threats or even just a basic day in the mountains. How each person computes survival threats differs based on previous experiences with danger, as well as internal and external beliefs about safety. The fear I felt skiing in the narrative above felt more amplified because I did not have as much experience with the sport as my partner. In her book, “The Dance of Fear,” Harriet Lerner writes, “Fear is a message—sometimes helpful, sometimes not—but often conveying critical information about our beliefs, our needs, and our relationship to the world around us.” Fear is a signal and the more we understand what this signal means to us, the more we can decide how to use it as a guide.

When we react to fear our bodies engage a safety response—fight, flee, or freeze—based on what our body thinks will keep us the safest. When we proceed in decisions without consciousness of what the threat is [ie. is it the slope angle, the snowpack assessment, the dark], we may not know whether the threat is a true threat or our own self-judgment or impending embarrassment. The more we know about the “threats” fear is signaling, the better we are at making decisions about when to back down from a risky situation and when to use courage to push into a challenge.

One of the biggest breakdowns I’ve observed in relationships is when one or both partners try to diminish or silence emotions, often resulting in the opposite effect. When we are flooded with emotion we need to first let the feeling “come down” (as it is initially an unconscious reaction) so we can re-engage with a different part of the brain to help us assess a good response to the situation. This can be especially tricky to do when exposed to a threat.

During my experience skiing, we did not have a lot of time and I did not have the headroom at that moment to fully assess safety, but if we had been communicating about emotions and risk throughout the day, Eric, Scott, and I might have been able to connect quickly to name the risks and mutually proceed with decisions that accounted for the threats, and ultimately may have made different decisions. Having a process for emotions will help both of you make decisions together so there is not an overreliance on one person to be the leader.

When one person in the group is deciding, they are deciding to manage risk for everyone which is especially difficult when there are different risk and skill levels in the group. Here are some practices to help partners better operate in extreme conditions:

  • Pay attention to the body signals fear instigates like clenching in your stomach, sweating, increased heart rate, or changes in breathing.
  • Be curious: What am I feeling? How big is my fear? What is the risk, and is this a risk I am willing to take right now?
  • Name the feeling with your partner so they can help you navigate what the emotion is signaling and assess the next steps. (*Check in with excitement too: Is it possibly overriding important warning signs?)
  • Have empathy: The non-triggered partner can soothe the other with compassion and calmness.
  • Take care. Take deep breaths, shake it off, move the energy around in your body.

Maximizing Communication

So far, we have discussed how attachment, emotions, and skill impact. Next, let’s look at communication. When thinking of successful trip planning and day-of success, communication is one of the most crucial aspects. If you are feeling nervous about an objective or you are feeling a lot of stress from other areas of our lives, it is important to communicate what might impact the day.

Communication is crucial not solely in romantic relationships, but with any partner in an outdoor pursuit. Communication starts well before the day or trip. This includes discussing objectives, gear, skill levels and experience, safety planning, safety gear, backup plans, assessing potential hazards or stressors (including emotional, mental, physical, interpersonal stressors on the day).

Pre-trip preparation creates a foundation of safety and consideration for each other and leads to a more successful day ahead. Communicating about emotions is best done through “I feel” statements (I feel sad when… action, behavior, statement…). “I” statements own the emotion and are clear on what aspects need to be addressed. Being good reporters and listeners with each other increases efficiency and mutual responsibility. If you are scared that your partner wants to pursue an objective that seems outside of your comfort level, it is important to express that fear and find a way to negotiate a better objective. Responding to each other with care, even if you disagree or it is not true for you, is one of the best ways to stay connected in times of stress. If you truly do not understand, inquire more. Curiosity helps us understand why something is important and understanding how your partner thinks through a situation can help you find solutions that work for both of you.

The more you both allow each other to express needs, emotions, and communicate openly about objectives, the more you will be able to navigate in times of stress. Over time, this builds immense connection, trust, and safe decision-making. Looking back on my hut trip experience, I feel lucky we all stayed safe, though it could have easily been a different ending.

With most things, hindsight gives us opportunities to reflect and carry new insights for future decisions, but in the backcountry, our choices have immediate and sometimes fatal consequences. It took many years of reflection and research to recognize all the skills Eric and I needed then and which I have learned to use now. My current partner and I use these skills daily both at home and in our adventures. There will be days where you will both be able to push each other up new summits and other days where it is safer to stay in low-angle trees, and that’s not just due to the daily avy report. Establish your risk line ahead of time so that, above all, getting outside gets to stay your sacred place to connect.

Want to learn the backcountry basics they didn’t teach you in Avy 1? Take our online course taught by AMGA guide Mike Hattrup and become a more-informed backcountry traveler.

*Some names were changed to protect privacy.

Blair Anne Hensen is a licensed Marriage and Family Counselor in Bozeman, Montana. She works as a counselor in private practice and runs outdoor wilderness workshops with couples, families and groups with Open Routes Adventures. Blair specializes in relationship building by helping couples reduce reactivity, increase inner awareness of thoughts and emotions, and improve connection. She draws on her own process of personal discovery, healing, and adventure to travel alongside others to explore new terrain – be it external or internal. Blair is working to actively minimize the stigma around emotions, mental health, and relationship issues.