Every Backcountry Skier Should Have a Mentor. Here’s How to Find One.
Finding someone excited to pass along knowledge and has time to do so is more important than someone who is very experienced.
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Sitting in the snow in the Alaskan wilderness, I cooked dinner with a crew of skiing legends over a camp stove. We had just successfully skied Mt. Hubley, a previously un-skied peak and second highest in the Brooks range. We were now traversing 55 miles across the coastal plain to conduct snow sciences research, hoping our data would help protect the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling.
Kit Deslauriers was our expedition leader, the first person to ski from the top of all 7 Summits. Sarah Carpenter, the former American Avalanche Institute owner, managed snow science, and Jim Morrison, one of Kit’s North Face athlete teammates, navigated and plotted our route. Nate Lubbe, Mark Fischer, and Nate Dodge made up our camera crew.
Their roles on this expedition were clearly established, and no one questioned their expertise or ability to perform them.
Then there was me, a former U.S. Ski Team mogul competitor who recently turned professional backcountry skier. There was a slightly awkward pause when discussing my role for the next day’s mission.
“Ummm…. boil water and get breakfast from the bear bags?” I offered up, only half joking.
“Being stoked,” the rest of the team chimed in.
Amongst such a seasoned crew, my role on the trip was clear: “The Mentee.”
Mentorship is a foundational principle in the outdoor industry. With so little formal education available, mentorship passes skills and knowledge down. Much is written about mentorship’s importance but less about finding mentors and building relationships. Here, I offer some tips based on my experience building a network of mentors.
Be proactive and reach out to people.
I’m rather unabashed about seeking out mentors. I reach out to people and ask for advice all the time. I love the learning process and enjoy hearing people’s stories and advice. But I realize not everyone is as comfortable going out on a limb, so here’s my template:
- Keep it short.
- Acknowledge your presumption of reaching out.
- Share an honest reason you admire the person.
- Share a personal goal or something you are excited to keep learning.
- Say thank you and be appreciative.
- Don’t expect anything in return.
A few years before this expedition, I briefly met Kit skiing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and followed up with an Instagram message. I had no expectations or ask, but it started a beautiful friendship and ongoing mentorship.
Keep in mind everyone’s busy schedule. Often, I won’t ask for anything and let someone offer to meet up. However, if I ask to grab a coffee or have a phone call, I always give them an out- saying, “No worries if you are too busy. I’d greatly appreciate it if you have anyone else in mind that you’d recommend I connect with.” A mentor’s time is a gift. Finding someone excited to pass along knowledge and has time to do so is more important than someone who is very experienced but doesn’t have the capacity to be a good mentor.
Understand the difference between mentorship vs. coaching.
Sarah Carpenter is an avalanche instructor and former owner of the American Avalanche Institute. Last year, I hired her to teach a custom avalanche course, specifically on wind slabs. While I would have loved her mentorship, I recognized the skills I wanted to learn directly fell into her professional domain. It felt extractive to ask Sarah to pass along her knowledge for free without a deeper relationship.
Coaching is a space where we can explicitly learn skills and gain knowledge. It doesn’t depend on the prolonged relationship-building aspect of mentorship; it is a way to respect someone’s skill set and time by compensating them.
I learned about Sarah’s passion, spirit, history, and story during our Alaska trip. In this environment, we were teammates with a shared goal which allowed our relationship to grow into a mentorship.
Be incredibly honest about your capabilities.
The beauty of mentorship is an already established framework that the mentee is learning, growing, and developing their skills. You don’t have to be perfect or fully capable on your own. In the mountains, your mentor takes on increased risk by inviting you along. Especially in backcountry skiing, the burden of safe decision-making weighs greater on them than you. Being incredibly self-aware and honest about your skill set and communicating is a respectful way to show up as a mentee. While it is tempting to overpromise, it is not worth it. Don’t show off, and stay within yourself. You don’t have to undermine your abilities, but you can say phrases such as “I have done that a few times before, but I’d appreciate it if you’d double check or show me how you do it.” If your mentor says it will take two hours to get to the top, but you know you’ll move at a slower pace, then voice that. You can say that it will take you two and a half hours and might be worth an earlier start.
We can be capable and learning simultaneously; a good mentor sees that. Being aware and honest about your abilities builds trust and respect. If someone belittles your skillset, they aren’t invested in your growth and, therefore, not a mentor.
If you can’t do the big things, do the small ones.
In the company of so many experienced mountaineers, the Arctic trip was intimidating. There was always someone with more experience to tackle the most significant challenges and decisions on the trip. Yet, most of the day-to-day moments had small but time and energy-consuming tasks that still brought value to the trip.
I might not have been the most qualified to do snow science, but I helped Sarah shovel the snow pits, used my body as a windscreen, and jotted down her findings in a notebook. I learned a lot about the snow and her methods through that process.
I might not have been able to lead the mixed climb to the summit of Mt. Hubley like Jim, but I supported by keeping track of time and warming snow conditions, pulling out snacks for my teammates, and overall adding to the morale and safety of the group.
Mentorship is a reciprocal relationship. The mentee comes into it with her own knowledge
and life experiences. We have stories, insights, and capabilities in equally essential realms. My interest and background in physical therapy are unique skills I brought to our team. I can boil water, help break down tents, and tell nerdy biology facts on long days skinning across flat ground. I can hold gloves for the camera crew and make a kick-ass blister kit. I can show up, ask questions and be honest.
My best advice for being a supportive mentee: Show up stoked to say “yes” to the little things and “thank you” for the big stuff.