Trust in the people around you | Erin Mielzynski
From slalom stubbies on the icy hills of Ontario to big powder turns on the mountains of Chamonix, Erin Mielzynski is going the distance, but the learning curve is steep, and it was never a given that she would climb an exposed couloir on her first trip to the cradle of big mountain skiing.
March 2019, Chamonix. It is a big decision for Erin when they start hiking up the narrow couloir. The snow is sugary, and for each step she takes she isn’t sure if her boots will stay in the snow. It feels like she might lose her footing. Far below are hundred-feet cliffs. She is nervous, but she puts her trust in Johann Vienney, the mountain guide that is attached to the top end of the rope. For him, this is a daily occurrence; for her, it’s unknown territory. She has ventured into a new world.
Johann ascends first, helping her with the rope, keeping it tight, making sure to point out the basics: Put your knee as well as your foot into the snow so you don’t drop down so much; use your pole upside down.
At one point, she misses her footing and slips a bit. She uses her ice axe to hold on. It’s the first time in her life she uses an ice axe. She tries to not look down and pushes upward, one foot in front of the other. She feels the seriousness of the situation; at the same time, she feels Johann’s calm attention and eagerness to guide her through it.
She’s proud when she reaches Johann at the top of the couloir and can continue the ascent with the rest of the team. The mountain has given her the first real test of the day. She passed.
Lesson of the day: Don’t look down. One step at a time … and most importantly, don’t freak out.
Bring someone along for the ride
Erin went up to the Argentière Hut with Johann Vienney, Marcus Caston, Mattias Hargin and Aurélien Ducroz in the end of March. She was the only one on the trip without big mountain experience, and the trip constituted a huge contrast to her career as a world cup alpine racer with three Olympic Games under her belt. But, leaving the hut at 3.58 a.m. and starting to skin towards Tour Noir by the light of headlamps still involved one key ingredient that has followed her throughout her racing career— the ability to trust in other people.
“The people around me have played such an important role in my career. First of all, my family because they taught me how to ski. I chased around my crazy sister for so many years. My parents have been with me every step of the way. Also, my coaches have been paramount to my career. They’ve really gotten to know me and coached the individual I am, instead of treating me like every other athlete. And my teammates have been really important. They’re there when times are rough and they’re there when you succeed and when you stand on the podium.”
For Erin, trusting people involves the opportunity to ask questions, to have someone to share life’s up-and-downs with, not having to go through all of life’s decisions by yourself, to be part of a group that looks after each other. “I ask a lot of questions, I ask for advice very often, and that has been very important in my life and my career. Having these people to lean on, having their words and knowing that I trust them completely. But there’s going to be a lot of external people that give me advice and I’ve had to learn how to trust the people that are worthy of that trust, and to let go of people that aren’t worthy of trust.”
The value of trust
This focus on relationships and trust turned out to be a valuable asset when exploring the mountains of Chamonix for the first time. “It usually takes me quite a while to trust someone. But here, as soon as we started our ascent, I had to put my full trust in the people around me. I had to follow their footsteps, and I had to listen to what they said and observe what they did. Since I put my full trust in them right away, I seemed to form a bond with them more quickly. My life and their lives were both intertwined. It felt like I had known a lot of these people forever. That was special and it kept us moving up the mountain. It made the whole journey more interesting and memorable.”
Erin describes arriving at the Argentière Hut as an incredible experience. They arrived in the afternoon and got to sit there and see the full moon light up the mountains, followed by a few hours of sleep. Waking up before sunrise and ascend in the dark is a magic experience. For Erin, it was almost surreal, as she had never been there before and just had to follow the others. Even more surreal was cresting the top a few hours later and knowing that you are going to ski down the same mountain you just struggled up. “I’ve never been that high or that scared on the side of a mountain. Still, it was really cool, because I, who ski racecourses, was so far from any racecourse. We went down an open mountain and I don’t know much about open mountains. We got to choose our line. We got to really dance with the mountain and find the beauty of the outdoors. As your heart pounds when you’re standing on some of these edges and you don’t know how you’re going to get down or what the descent is going to look like, it makes it more worthwhile and it makes you proud of yourself when you get to the bottom, because you did it and there’s nothing like that feeling in the world.”
Sharing is caring
“On this trip, the others each had little tricks and tips for me, and they stepped in when I needed them to show me how something worked, to make sure I was safe, to practice with me again and again. A lot of the time Marcus came to my side and would say, ‘Hey Erin, this is how this works,’ in a way that wouldn’t embarrass me in front of everyone else. Johann would always make sure that my rope was on properly and that I understood how to use a carabiner. They really took me under their wings, and they didn’t care that I came from a ski racing background or that I was slowing them down. They made sure that I was in a position to succeed and I’m really thankful for that.”
Being in Chamonix with Johann and the rest of the crew opened a door into a new type of skiing for Erin. “Usually I know what my capabilities are, but when free skiing in a big mountain setting, I didn’t know. For me, that was really hard. I’ve never looked up at a mountain and tried to choose a line to ski down. It’s very different from looking at a slalom course. Being with the others made all the difference. Their great love is exploring the mountains and really seeing them in all their glory. They just wanted to share this with me. To do that, they had to make sure I was safe, they had to make sure I understood the equipment, and they led me up the mountain. I’m thankful and I hope that these friendships will last a lifetime.”
To trust the people around me makes the beautiful moments more enjoyable. We make each other feel safe, we learn from each other, and we push each other to become better.