Uphill Battle

When anyone compliments my skiing, I want to hug them and cry. Sometimes I just give the hug and pause until the frog in my throat retreats. Nothing frees up — or focuses — every cell in my body like leaning into a nice, fast turn. Nothing pairs free-wheeling giddiness with the immediate necessity of reading and evaluating a backcountry snowpack.

I feel a bit of resentment at not being one of the little girls whose parents bought her first pair of teensy skis at 18 months. I wouldn’t suggest my entry into outdoor sports was the hardest, and I salute the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team, Bolivia’s team of indigenous mountaineers, and the darling, strong-hearted girls I’m teaching to ski each weekend this month as a SheJumps volunteer. But I was raised in an environment of pronounced sexism that hit its lowest lows behind closed doors. 

This is the flavor of misogyny I built an early familiarity with: being a kid in an outwardly normal suburban household, yet our family tension was both sharp and suffocating. We collectively flinched at my father’s every violent outburst fueled by hyperconservtism and, in retrospect, his fear of female power. We lived a mile from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, a playground for mountain sports enthusiasts. But I was actively discouraged in sports of any kind and aggressively told I was a “wimp” throughout my childhood. My mom was raised in a plucky matriarchal family of travelers and adventurers, but none of us knew how to fully stand up to this intimidation.

This flavor of sexism — the kind that intentionally avoids visible bruises — highlights the part of a cultural iceburg that’s under the water. Our soft-yet-strong feminine spirits can suffer death by a thousand micro-discouragements. I felt sure that developing some degree of athleticism would make me feel powerful. Meanwhile, I and the girls in our church youth group, were taught to crochet potholders and learn domestic arts while the boys were enrolled as scouts and sent on fifty-mile backpacking trips.

Under our own roof, my dad would actually pretend I hadn’t spoken if I raised an idea that didn’t fit his mold of an ideal woman. Beyond being exceptionally religiously conservative and having an explosive temper, my father had absolutely no cultural frame of reference for adventurous or athletic women. Every female in the last several generations of the Lopez family had been married into domesticity before she could graduate high school. Adventure sports never entered the lexicon. The sheer unfamiliarity of my (or my mom’s) desire to go on river trips was threatening to the core, and the backlash was terrifying.

I knew in my early teens that I wanted to be good at mountain sports. I hung on every word of Into Thin Air, pedaled to the Barnes and Noble to gape over climbing mags, and literally did an AOL dial-up search for “mountain biking basics.” Cross-country skiing had a cheaper entry point than downhill skiing, so I initially used my babysitting money and youth bus pass to go up to the local Nordic Ski Center and stuff my cotton-socked toes into rental boots, throw on an Old Navy windbreaker, and skate peaceful laps through the woods. 

A few high school friends finally started taking me climbing with them, a sport I embraced with the enthusiasm of a teenage girl who’s literally found something to cling to. Entranced by my copy of Wasatch Eleveners, I started ticking off the area’s peaks while using calculus study groups as my alibi. I gobbled up stolen minutes on top of the Pfeifferhorn. I savored every step up Lone Peak. These were the moments that were mine and mine alone.

I did everything I could do to get up the canyons and go cross-country skiing, climbing, mountain-biking, hiking, and finally skiing. Hyper aware of my ignorance compared with kids who’d taken their first steps along trails, slopes, and rivers, I simply did my darnedest to not completely suck at all of it. (I sucked at all of it.) But each time I gained another smattering of competence—linking my mogul turns or picking the right line to paddle in a river rapid—my heart both fluttered with pride and grew in its capacity for true confidence. 

But I hid these things. After climbing, I'd tuck my first hand-me-down harness, second-hand climbing shoes, and chalk bag into a Jansport backpack I hid in the car. I’d stop at a friend’s house on the way home to wash the chalk off and put my school clothes back on. When he found out, I was grounded and thrown out of the house. My father's cultural cartography was upended by a young woman who took AP Physics as seriously as she took her first trad routes. Having a dad who literally would not teach me to fix a flat tire because it might encourage me to drive beyond our zip code, fueled my desire to pedal my low-budget mountain bike to altitudes where I gained the clarity to howl at the moon out of pure rebellious delight.

A couple decades later, I still have frequent moments of failure and flailing, but they’re strung together by hours of flow state and a contented pride in my mountain-sport competence.

I discussed this story with a close friend who laughingly but honestly pointed out, “Every white girl has a story about overcoming sexism.” True. But I'm not even certain if I identify as white. On forms, I check the “Hispanic” box in a nod to the complex cultural heritage behind me. But my lighter hair and blue eyes make me a mashup who’s navigated this world without perceived racism. Maybe the fact that I had such an uphill battle with so many things going my way is the reason I should talk about my entry into outdoor sports. Because even if socioeconomic and racial barriers aren’t present, misogyny — whether subversive or overt —drags like invisible ankle weights that blister us under our mountaineering boots.

While I await the apres-patriarchy dance party, I'm attempting to use my own hyper-sensitivity to sexism as a secret weapon to methodically address the millions of big and little ways women and young girls feel disempowered, both indoors and out. Collectively, we can give them the primordial strength that comes from dipping our toes in nature or from getting a little thrill of adrenaline; whether that means climbing a major summit or skiing our first blue run. From getting kind of scared, or kind of cold, or really, really dirty; from venturing into new and reverent places, and coming home with a slap-happy smile, learning to take calculated risks and reap delicious thrills has stretched me physically and intellectually while giving me a level of personal courage that previous generations of Lopez women didn’t get to tap into. They were as resilient as they had to be, whereas I have the pleasure of choosing how I develop my own resilience. 

All of our scars tell a story. And I’m so grateful to be in the middle of mine.

-Beth Lopez