Frickin’ smart, frickin’ strong

Across three decades of ski­ing, guid­ing, and ed­u­cat­ing in the back­coun­try, Lynne Wolfe has learned the im­por­tance of pa­tience, com­mu­nity, and fear


Lynne Wolfe, 57, be­gan teach­ing peo­ple about avalanches when Ron­ald Rea­gan was pres­i­dent and most back­coun­try users were on skinny skis. Orig­i­nally from Nash­ville, she moved to Jack­son Hole in 1981 but didn’t know how to ski. Cap­ti­vated by the moun­tains, she bought some used gear and taught her­self how to ski (with the help of a few men­tors), even­tu­ally land­ing a job guid­ing and teach­ing snow-safety cour­ses for Jack­son Hole Moun­tain Guides in 1988. She worked at JHMG for 17 years be­fore join­ing Exum Moun­tain Guides in 2007, a year after she be­came the ed­i­tor of The Avalanche Re­view, a quar­terly snow-safety jour­nal de­voted to im­prov­ing the knowl­edge and skills of its read­ers.

“Lynne is such a great ex­am­ple to us all,” says Nat Pa­tridge, co-owner of Exum. “Many peo­ple who have been in the in­dus­try a long time could be­come dog­matic, think­ing that they have had a great record so why change the equa­tions. But Lynne is open-minded, for­ever learn­ing, and an early adopter of new ideas.”

In 2017, Wolfe was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. Ever a sur­vivor, she wrote in the Re­view that the un­cer­tain­ties and pro­to­cols re­lated to can­cer aren’t un­like those in avalanche de­ci­sion-mak­ing: “I’m hav­ing to main­tain mar­gin and rely on com­mu­ni­ca­tion and com­mu­nity.” —Les­lie Hittmeier

Can­cer is like deal­ing with the govern­ment: You have to be both pa­tient and per­sis­tent. My is­sue is pa­tience. Be­cause I want this done. I want it out of my life. I’ve let it slow me down a lit­tle bit, but not that much. I’m re­ally frickin’ strong. And I’m re­ally frickin’ stub­born. Those have helped me work through this can­cer ag­gra­va­tion.

I’m learn­ing to live for be­ing alive. Right now, I’m watch­ing these funny dogs play in the creek. I’ve worked re­ally hard to stop say­ing, ‘I wish.’ I can’t think that way. I can’t have any ‘I wishes.’

Ski­ing was the first thing that I wanted to do that I couldn’t do. I was so ir­ri­tated and pissed off that I couldn’t do it. I was like—i’m go­ing to move to Jack­son for good and I’m go­ing to learn to ski.

You don’t have to be that great of a skier, but you do have to be per­sis­tent. Break­ing trail, dis­cov­er­ing new places, look­ing at maps, and then just go­ing there—i love how on-point you feel when you are gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion as you go.

How have I avoided avalanches? I have a healthy re­spect for them. In my stud­ies, I have seen the power of the avalanche. I think the most im­por­tant way to learn that stuff is through read­ing case stud­ies. And there is no sub­sti­tute for per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence: Hav­ing a friend get hurt or die—that cer­tainly has hap­pened to me, too.

Trust your in­stincts. If some­thing doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Your part­ners are the most im­por­tant choices you make. Pe­riod. Know the dif­fer­ence be­tween what you want to do, and what you think you want to do. We need to make room and time in our de­ci­sion-mak­ing to an­swer that ques­tion.

Choose two kinds of part­ners. Choose some­body who is a peer, and then bal­ance that with a men­tor. Men­tor­ship is the best way to learn. We can read and learn things on our own, but hav­ing some­one with more ex­pe­ri­ence give you a tip right when you need it is so help­ful. But it only works if you pay it for­ward.

Go out there with a lit­tle bit of a hy­poth­e­sis but don’t hold too hard to it. Go do 25 hand sheers on your way up a ridge. Yeah, I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing a bit, but do a lot of hand sheers and no­tice when things change.

In­stead of be­ing afraid of some amor­phous thing in the back­coun­try, be able to break it down. Say, “What do I know and what do I not know?” Know the dif­fer­ence be­tween a youth­ful fear and a valid fear, which you should have. I hate those stick­ers that say, “Have no fear,” or what­ever. That is so stupid. Fear keeps you from do­ing stupid things.

My real tech­ni­cal guid­ing days are over. It’s a younger per­son’s game. I have the wil­i­ness and the ex­pe­ri­ence, but I don’t have the guts for it any­more, and it’s been a lit­tle bit to be OK with that. But I’ve got 29 years of guid­ing in the Te­tons. I’m happy.

Photo: Les­lie Hittmeier

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