Adversity at Altitude – Tselane Mead

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Tselane Mead is an emergency nurse and mountaineer. She is a ski instructor and school nurse in the Swiss alps during the winter. She works with hiking, mountaineering and ski clubs to help empower women from diverse backgrounds to reach their potential in mountain spaces. 

The wind and snow is whipping at my face. I’ve readjusted the stiff frozen fleece buff around my neck and mouth, desperately trying to protect myself from the -20 degree bitter wind. Adrenaline is still pumping through my body but I know I’ll start to get cold soon. As I strain my eyes a little, I can barely make out the outline of the cable car station about 200 meters away through the thick snow storm.

I am at 3,900 metres on the mountain. The weather set in quickly and it is the end of the ski day at Saas Fee in Switzerland. Precisely the time when most accidents in the mountains happen. The last cable car to the bottom of the mountain is in 10 minutes.

I trudge back up through the snow to the casualty. Through the thick grey, I see a small, crumpled figure being covered every second by the relentless heavy downfall. The child’s leg is broken. He is slipping into shock, growing pale, cold, and unconscious.

My mind is fogged for a moment as I think back on the unsettling comment from a skier that morning as I was getting out of the cable car. “I love this colour,” he said, while touching my cheek. “You’re the only one of you out here”.

I probably was. The whole year I’d been living and working in the French and Swiss Alps I’d seen one other black person out ski mountaineering. It was a hilarious moment in itself: me trudging uphill and him whizzing downhill, both of us waving frantically at each other, clearly ecstatic to see one another. This moment in the cable car, when I was petted like an exotic beast, felt patronising and threw me off kilter, stealing my confidence.

My teammate, Ed, has marked the incident area with upright skis. The injured boy is just 13-years-old. He’d failed to spot a small hump of snow in the whiteout and fallen awkwardly whilst skiing, twisting his leg.

Having called SOS for a helicopter or a sled to rescue the child, we are now waiting for them to arrive. That was 25 minutes ago.

The terrifying thought of this child freezing to death crosses my mind as I plan what to do next. I wonder if I’m cut out for this. Maybe there’s a reason why there aren’t more black and minority ethnic women working in environments like this. I tighten my hood around my ski goggles and try to quieten my mind. I think about all the reasons that qualify me to be more than capable in this environment, and give myself a mental slap around my face.

I am a nurse, trained in emergency and mountain medicine. In my seasonal job, I help run ski programmes in the Alps for international schoolchildren. I take groups out in the mountains, instructing them along the way. I’m responsible for their wellbeing back at the communal chalet, and I run a clinic in the mornings and evenings ensuring the children are healthy and well. I also manage any minor injuries and liaise with the local doctor or worried parents back home. And so when anyone is injured on the mountain, I am often first on scene.

And whilst the Alps are my favourite place in the world, the mountains can also be terrifying when bad weather sets in. Get complacent out here, and it can kill you. But it’s rare that I experience complacency out here.

That’s because, as a woman who is mixed race, I have found many barriers to overcome to truly feel a sense of belonging to a particular country or place. This is sometimes heightened when I’m in the outdoor industry and environments. The mountaineering scene is very white male dominated. Even more so within the mountain medicine scene. These spaces can be tough and competitive, and even sometimes misogynistic.

Not everyone can be welcoming or accepting. I’ve had unkind looks and comments about my skin tone. I’ve had people marvel at seeing a person with ‘Afro’ hair on the ski slopes, or at the climbing crag. Some even think it’s alright to try and touch my face or hair without asking.

Thanks to my upbringing, I am a resilient person. Born of a black South African father and a white British mother, all my family that I know of, except me, are white. Growing up in close proximity to the Peak District, my mum would always take me walking on the moors, or bivvying in secret valleys as a child. We would forage for bilberries on warm summer evenings and wild swim in quiet plunge pools.

So I grew up happy and confident in the outdoors. My gender or race wasn’t ever an issue when I was out in nature with my mum. Mum’s resourcefulness and passion in wild spaces is something I would eventually inherit.

But it took a long time. As I grew older I stopped enjoying being outdoors, I felt disconnected with the environment. Hill walking became boring, it lacked people my age and culture. I got into a trap of working long hours and partying long nights. I was not living a life that made me feel alive.

In the last few years, I rediscovered the majesty of the outdoors. Ironically, it was when I was living in a big city when I began climbing. In the inner city bouldering gyms, I developed a taste for bigger adventures and, spending every penny I earnt from my wage as an emergency nurse, began travelling to the Alps and finding new opportunities. I learnt how to be playful in nature once again. Within a year I’d learnt to climb huge rock faces, and to ski. I even gained an instructor qualification. It was time to develop myself in the mountain medicine field.

There are many challenges of working autonomously in a mountain environment when first on scene, such as having to make a call on the best course of action and being confident in my own decision-making process. In these instances I have to throw aside any issues with confidence concerning gender and race.

As vital minutes pass on the mountain, I call SOS again. Due to the bad weather they are struggling to get to us. The time is ticking away. The child is becoming drowsier by the second.

The most important thing right now is to keep him warm and alert. Ed ends up cuddling next to the child to protect him from the elements, and we wrap him in spare layers and an emergency blanket. I use the hard backing from my backpack to try my best to immobilise the leg to create some comfort for the boy.

We are so close to some shelter. But the child is too heavy, the snow too deep, and he’s in too much pain for us to lift him. We devise a plan to use the emergency blankets and ski poles to build a makeshift sled to slide him to safety.

I begin to open our bags and rifle through items, trying to plan our escape. At altitude, and stomping through thick snow, I’m gasping for breath. But I’m determined to get the three of us to safety.

Being a rarity in these environments is hard at times, but also a privilege. I have been blessed having a mother who instilled confidence in me, but many women don’t have this.

Therefore I feel a responsibility to be prepared and welcoming, a role model to those who can’t imagine themselves in these spaces. I’m happy to open up conversations with people who are intrigued by me. But I can’t help thinking about those in my community who might find this behaviour off putting, who perhaps have never had hard weathering of the outdoors or confidence passed down from generation to generation. Who may decide they feel too uncomfortable in these environments to persevere.

Whilst the outdoor industry has a great role to play in reaching minorities and being more inviting to a wider audience, the mountaineering community also has a responsibility to pick up the mantle, for the important work of building women up.

My current projects are now with women’s clubs that do exactly that. Such as the Black Girls Hike organisation, which provides a safe space for women exploring their first entry point into the outdoors. This in turn may springboard into bigger adventures like with the Women’s Alpine Adventure Club, where women can share skills and gain confidence in activities like climbing, skiing and mountaineering, no matter what their starting point.

Although I have been unable to get to the Alps this winter due to travel restrictions, I have had the privilege of opening up conversations about diversity and inclusion in mountain environments. I have run talks and provided resources for ski and mountaineering club members and guides.

When I’m asked about the topic of race and equality, I am faced with a deep questioning. It’s a delicate topic. Greater disparity can occur when everyone is treated ‘equally’ so I have opted to take the stance that we can instead be equitable. As an outdoor community we can foster an inclusive environment by normalising equitable practices.

Times are changing and I have hope that with certain grassroots projects women are given an opportunity to share skills, lead each other, and thrive in wild spaces. I wonder how long it will take for the outdoor industry to catch up. How long it will be until I encounter another black woman in a critical role like mine.

I hear a muffled whirr of something in the distance and my heart rises with relief as we see a skidoo with a sled arriving through the dense grey.  Thankful for backup and emergency supplies, I shuffle through the knee-deep snow to wave at the SOS team, desperate that they don’t miss us. They arrive, and I hurriedly help to unpack the sled and shout through the intense weather to tell the crew what’s happened.

Within what feels like a few moments, the child is assessed, wrapped up, given pain relief and taken down the mountain to hospital. We watch as he is sped away into the thickening grey of the mountain.

The biting cold has now numbed my fingers as I prepare my skis for the long cold journey back to the village. As I make my descent, I consider the next challenges that these mountains will bring.

To read more about Tselane’s experiences as a mountain nurse, head to DiscoverInteresting.com