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The Dance

I remember the stares I got from people in the lift line when I was eight months pregnant with my second child (my winter pregnancy), generally disapproving or in disbelief, or perhaps both. I remember the first time I left my 14-month-old baby to go on a sail and ski expedition in Svalbard and it felt like the dawn of a daring new adventure to the end of the earth, and simultaneously that my heart was being ripped out of my chest. I cried like a sobbing child to deal with the juxtaposition of my feelings in that moment. I remember being pregnant with my first child (my summer pregnancy) and being told that I could no longer mountain guide for the company I was working for, and that I would have to take up office work instead. I remember the feeling of a growing baby inside me in the early stages of pregnancy, mildly nauseous all the time, not able to tell anyone yet, and summiting my seventh Grand Teton of the summer in that space. I remember the conversation I had with my husband when we finally decided to have a family together. This we knew: it would not be an easy endeavor with our lifestyles, but that we were up for the challenge, we wanted something bigger than ourselves, and that it was important that we remember who we are at our core first and foremost. 

A woman standing at a frozen waterfall in full gear Image via Jessica Baker

For as long as I can remember, I have been an adventurous person. I grew up on a small farm in northern Idaho with my Mom, Dad, and three sisters (all four of us red heads, all born at home). Our household was built on a foundation of unconditional love and independence from a young age. My sisters and I would spend hours in the woods making forts, climbing trees, scaling granite monoliths, running, playing, and lying on the soft green mossy forest floor staring at the treetops, watching birds fly by. In the winter we strapped on anything that would slide down snow, and eventually became very skilled skiers. I fell in love with the gravity fed sport so much that I have followed its progression from a snow plow to a successful ski racer, then on to Freeride World Tour big mountain skiing, and ultimately on to mountain guiding and big expeditions and exploratory missions upon my skis worldwide. Nature, adventure, and imagination have always been at the very core of who I am. 

A woman standing on a snowy peak wearing ski gear, with water and mountains in the background Image via Jessica Baker

Enter children… I discovered I was pregnant with my first child in the winter of 2013 while I was both mountain guiding and coaching The Mountain Athlete Freeski team. That winter, I distinctly remember standing on top of a consequential line with secondary exposure called “Breakneck” in Jackson Hole’s backcountry with fellow professional skier Hadley Hammer. I was coaching her through a set of double airs she was about to send, and I myself was about to open up the run to make sure it was stable, and report back conditions. I took a great pause; in that moment I realized the balance I would have to strike between taking risk and protecting myself—for my own and my child’s sake. I felt a little sick to my stomach; it was tough place to come to terms with this idea. I know all too well that unwarranted fear can create undue risk, and ultimately I chose to breathe, focus, and ski the line. But this was a pivotal moment for me. The realization that my tolerance for risk would now always be tied to other beings reliant on me—my blood, my babies—it was a sobering moment. 

A woman outside with her two kids, all wearing coats and hats Image via Jessica Baker

Birthing my first child was a journey. My capacity for pain, overcoming fear, and finding the deepest inherent instinct as a childbearing woman pushed my understanding of what I was capable of. As a healthy mother, I chose to have a home birth with my sister as my midwife, my mother as her assistant, and my husband as my rock. I gave birth to a healthy baby girl in September of 2013. My body had undergone a massive undertaking, and my recovery back to the adventurous life I knew so well did not happen as quickly as I had hoped. I spent the first three months just healing and hanging out with my baby daughter. My penchant for adventure was replaced with the sweetest moments nursing my baby, taking gentle walks, and enjoying quality time as a new family. As my body started to heal, I slowly returned to my outdoor sports, taking over a year to feel like I was back to “normal”.

A person skiing down a mountain Image via Jessica Baker

 

In the Spring of 2015, I returned to work as a heli-ski guide in Alaska’s Chugach, bringing my family with me. I was still nursing my daughter, so I would pump while in the field, always making a stir within the heliskiing world, and yet normalizing motherhood in the space, which needed to happen. Meanwhile my daughter was getting exposed to the big energy of the Alaskan peaks and wilderness and impressing what I believe to be the power of mother nature upon her soul, or perhaps simply reminding her of what she came from. 

While in Alaska that same year, I was invited to join an expedition to The Wrangell-St. Elias Range to ski University Peak, one of  the “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America” in one of the most wild and remote mountain ranges in Alaska, with Sheldon Kerr, Emilie Drinkwater, and photographer Krystle Wright. This would be my next test regarding risk tolerance and my level of acceptance as a mother. I decided to join the expedition and launched into my first journey away from my daughter as a new mother. Just a week after the heliskiing season, I was still nursing and had to make some tough decisions regarding whether I keep going or stop. I decided to give my child the best chance and kept pumping enough to keep my milk supply going during the expedition. 

Two weeks of working to create camps along the route and ultimately making a high camp at the base of the line, much of my focus on motherhood was put aside to focus on the task at hand. We worked the massive line on University Peak’s south face for over a week trying to find a window and safe passage, but the mix of stormy weather and unseasonably warm temperatures forced us to retreat, only getting part of the line done. Part of me breathed a huge sigh of relief when we made the decision, as my risk exposure would immediately go down. And yet, part of me already wanted to plan for the next expedition to try and tackle something of this caliber once again. What gave me solace was that my instinct and skills were driving these decisions, which I trusted even more so now as a mother. 

Reuniting with my little one after the inaugural expedition as a new mother was a relief; all the emotions flooded through me. Ultimately, I felt a new sense of possibility. I had successfully pulled off an expedition, feeling strong and capable. And I also returned home to my family, which was the non-negotiable part of the equation. I knew I could successfully find a balance with my needs as a professional athlete and mountain guide whilst still raising a family. And that is what I took forward: that it could be done and that, with skillful decision making and listening to my heart and instinct, it was possible. 

A woman with her two kids outside, a green Jeep in the background Image via Jessica Baker

I have since gone on to complete many more expeditions of such caliber and have two daughters who are now nine and six years old. I work in Alaska every spring, I launch into backcountry hut trip in Canada every year, I have been exploring new zones in the Arctic every spring, and I spend many days shepherding guests through the mountains in the Tetons and beyond all year long. And so often I get the question, “How do you do it? How do you balance it all?” To be honest there is no perfect formula, and I am constantly adjusting and listening to my heart and family needs. It starts with a good partner, who can shoulder much of the responsibility and work while you’re gone, with strong communication as the backbone. Secondly, it takes a village. We rely on grandparents, neighbors, friends, babysitters, and sometimes even friends of friends when we can. I cannot stress enough how important community is when raising a family. And finally, you must take advantage of every moment possible when together. We do our best to create family-specific trips in the off seasons after Alaska and spring expeditions, and likewise in the fall when the summer alpine climbing guiding season winds down. We will take our kids out of school to make it happen, because family is our number one priority. 

A man and woman in a gondola with their two kids, all wearing ski gear Image via Jessica Baker

Some of our favorite ways to spend quality time together as a family are camping and climbing at the City of Rocks, backpacking and camping in Grand Teton National Park and surrounding National Forest, biking adventures in town and on our local trails, skiing together, reading books, playing games, playing frisbee, soaking in hot springs, doing art projects together, taking road trips to new places none of us have been, volunteering, going on nature discovery walks, and sometimes just snuggling in for a movie all together. It often doesn’t matter what the activity is, but rather the quality of time spent together keeping curiosity and imagination at the forefront of the endeavor. 

Striking a balance to be whole as an athlete and avid adventurer, as well as a mother, is a moving target. In fact, one might argue, there is no balance to be struck because the “balance” is in a constant state of flux. The picture is by no means perfect, and at times it’s a very difficult to line to walk. But that being said, I am a happy mother who feels whole as the person I truly am, and my daughters see that in me. I am raising strong, creative, independent young girls who will grow up to know and love that their mother was a badass and followed her dreams. 

A woman and man with their two daughters on a rock outside Image via Jessica Baker

I look forward to the days ahead where my children find their niche, their passions, and follow their dreams as well. So, to all you mothers out there struggling to find the right balance, the intricate dance of motherhood, self-care, and following your own passions, may you all give yourselves the leeway to explore the possibilities for yourself while still loving and caring for your children. I believe we mothers are entirely capable of this dance, and we will raise a generation of passionate and compassionate individuals because of it.  

Happy Mother’s Day to all you amazing mothers near and far!

A woman wearing mountaineering gear with her two daughters behind her Image via Jessica Baker

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