Risky Business: Why Women Excel In Dangerous Careers

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When my husband was diagnosed with a rare liver disease, I made an astonishing discovery: the risks I took at my job actually helped me manage the ordeal.

As a professional ski patroller, I carry explosives, start avalanches, hike in chest deep snow, and haul heavy toboggans carrying gravely injured skiers. We women patrollers do this side by side with the men. While some might find my work a bit risky, I find it essential.

By putting myself up against perceived (and even real) risk, I am better equipped for life’s harder moments. Some might say that my career choice is selfish; that my husband and my stepchildren need me to stay out of harm’s way. But in reality, I’m a better wife and mother because of it.

Women today have more options than ever before. While we don the wife role and put on the mother hat, it doesn’t mean that we must strip away our essential self. In order to be the best mother and wife, we must continue to develop our passions. Being a mother is self-less, but that doesn’t mean we must deny our self. As the stepmother of a pre-teen girl, I hope to model just the kind of healthy self-dom that my job offers. In order to foster the seeds of growth, we must learn to face a little adversity. I do that on my job.

Difficult adventures are dress rehearsals for the real thing. A challenging day on the slopes, taking part in dangerous rescues or starting avalanches, teaches me how to manage life’s real struggles. Women are particularly good at learning from adversity. We extract hard won lessons and apply them to the next crises. Motherhood doesn’t come with instructions; we find them where we can. Ski patrolling has taught me how to be a better mom, offering me patience, perseverance and hopefully a sprinkling of wisdom.

I have learned to handle crisis. It is the rare woman whose life is untouched by tragedy. When these moments come, we have only our experiences to inform our present choices. When John got sick I told myself, “I’ve been through difficult times before; I can get through this.” Only by stretching ourselves, even brushing up against our fears, do we gain the confidence and boldness to press on when real crisis strikes. 

My job offers “acceptable” risk, which I mitigate with exhaustive training and proper equipment. Much like rock climbing, in which we perceive more risk than is actually present, I’m brushing up against risk, running my fingers along it and choosing where I will climb in. All life is precious to me, including my own. The work I do only sharpens that.

Brushing up against our fears makes us better people. One doesn’t have to spend her life in the mountains to face her fears. She can push herself in other ways, dwelling in the seemingly risky moments. Risk taking aligns our priorities and strips away ambiguity. I can be wishy-washy in mundane moments, but not while standing atop a sharp ridge laden with snow. Instead, I’m pushed to choose; I must take a stand. This is true whether I’m deciding if a slope is safe enough to ski or when asking my kids to eat healthy foods.

Women are better at dangerous jobs, carefully weighing risk against the reward. In dangerous situations, such as skiing in avalanche terrain, statistics show women make better decisions. Perhaps women are not as susceptible to peer pressure. In my experience, women can back out of danger, where men want to save face and push forward regardless of consequences.

Taking risks makes us more beautiful. When teetering on the lip of a double black diamond run or clinging to the side of a rock face, we must tune into our bodies. We notice the air exchanging in our lungs, feel the blood thump against our bones, and we observe the beauty of a functional body. For me, gliding across steep snow feels like flying, and for just a moment I am almost angelic. While my stepdaughter is bombarded with images of skin-deep prettiness, I want to show her another kind of beautiful. When she was younger, we called it, “being beautiful on the inside.” Authentic beauty such as this comes from being comfortable in one’s skin. If we love ourselves and are confident in our abilities, that shines through. We learn confidence by butting up against big challenges. For me, my job builds confidence. 

Adventure makes us more creative. Perhaps caused by the increased oxygen to our brains, or the mind-body spark found in the perfect powder run or behind the handlebars on a single track, but taking small risks increases our creativity and intelligence. Life glitters. Colors deepen.

People, especially children, are not hothouse flowers. We must meet the world of sunshine and storms on our own terms. As mothers, we can explore this world together with our children. By exposing them to the wonders of adventure, by going camping and skiing, we offer lessons of resilience.

Without risk, we cannot grow. Every seed planted in the ground risks life. Only by poking our heads out of our protective husks can we take large gulps of the shining sun. We grow against wind and rain, widening our stalks and toughening ourselves for the challenge ahead. But by doing so, we reach ever higher.

Kim Kircher has logged over 600 hours of explosives control, earning not only her avalanche blaster’s card, but also a heli-blaster endorsement, allowing her to fly over the slopes in a helicopter and drop bombs from the open cockpit, while uttering the fabulously thrilling words “bombs away” into the mic. Her memoir, The Next Fifteen Minutes, is forthcoming from Behler Publications in October 2011.  She blogs at www.kimkircher.com.

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