It often comes off as an insult, but the 14 of us were thrilled to ski like girls.
Photos by Abby Dell
I was surrounded by 13 other women—many of them strangers—on an eight-day splitboard and ski mountaineering tour in Canada’s Selkirk Mountains. Together, as eleven students and three guides, we had enrolled in the Alpine Finishing School, an introductory ski mountaineering course hosted by the Salt Lake City-based non-profit SheJumps, whose mission is to “increase female participation in outdoor activities.”
Run in conjunction with the Selkirk Backcountry Lodge and ACMG guide Anne Keller, this annual, girls-only Alpine Finishing School is the pinnacle of SheJumps’ ongoing programs. Dubbed a “social and technical experience,” it’s a weeklong lesson in rappelling, knots, glacier travel, crevasse rescue and female camaraderie—unfamiliar topics for most of us outdoorsy women who usually ski with dudes.
We were all experienced skiers and snowboarders—some with more backcountry days than others—yet we had all convinced ourselves that we were (yes, most definitely!) the weakest link on the trip. Individually, we prepared months in advance, poring over the massive gear list, reading the recommended books, and practicing essential knots—hoping that our diligent studying would pay off and we wouldn’t be the ONE girl to hold back the rest of the group.
As formal introductions were made around the dinner table on our first night in the lodge, the voice of vulnerability began to speak up, each woman acknowledging her hesitations about how her skills stacked up against the rest of us strangers. Nervous laughter at these revelations gave way to sympathetic understanding as if collectively thinking, “Why would you be intimidated by ME? I’m just as much of a rookie as you are.”
And if admitting this is the first step, then we had unknowingly began the process of breaking down the self-imposed barriers that had hitched a ride in our gear bags. So with our confidence leveled on the collective playing field, we could begin to learn, absorbing technical information and embracing our limited knowledge—rather than letting it inhibit us.
By the fifth day, we had established our routine on the skin track, falling into a rhythmic pace of hiking. But as we quickly gained vertical from the lodge, I just as quickly lost my groove. Each step felt weighted down by the extra gear needed for the day’s rope lesson, a feeling intensified by the fatigue of tired legs from the previous days. I grunted to keep pace and close the growing gap in our formation, until the physical exhaustion brought on a full mental meltdown—and the tears that accompanied. Here, barely ten minutes into a five-hour tour and still within eyesight of the lodge, I cried on the skin track.
It’s mental warfare on the skin track, and every girl on the trip could attest to the struggles of keeping a positive headspace—which, to little surprise, affects a lot more than just your delicate psyche. It materializes in physical ways, whether you’re splayed out like a starfish on a steep switchback or lagging back at a slower pace than your group. You may pick up your speed when they’re out of sight so that when you’re back in view, it looks like you’ve casually strolled up to the crew, but you’re really just doing your best to hide the fact that you’re sucking wind. You hope they look away for a few seconds so you can heave and pant without anyone seeing just how winded you really are.
Later that day, I took comfort in listening to the ladies’ own stories. Turns out, we’ve all suffered in this kind of masochistic silence and were beyond relieved that none of us were alone in the situation. “Who HASN’T cried on the skin track?” said one woman who consoled me after hearing of my earlier incident.
Maybe men suffer just as much, but it’s a conversation that rarely, if ever, gets brought up. In fact, the conversations seemed to be the common thread to our all-women’s experience during the week. We were open and willing to talk about anything, and no topics were off limits. (When you get a group of strong, independent mountain women together, the number of ways that poop gets included in conversation is impressive!) It’s not that women can’t hold meaningful—or crude—conversations with men, especially when you’re sharing intimate space on a multi-day backcountry trip, but when we openly discuss certain topics—like, say, changing a tampon at the summit or crying on the skin track—the ability to relate just isn’t there.
I later posed this question to a male friend as we discussed the differences between a men’s ski tour and a women’s ski tour. “When was the last time you had a dance party of the top of the summit with your entire climbing group?” I asked.
“Never,” he said without hesitation. And he’s certainly not the anomaly.
Of course, we didn’t come here to rally a feminist movement against our chromosomally different counterparts. But with the support of SheJumps, we also didn’t have the typical insecurities or frustrations that often linger among the dynamics of a co-ed group—the dynamics that maybe stop us from asking why we’re ascending this slope and not that one. Or understanding the role of a Munter versus a clove hitch. And taking the time to learn these skills ourselves, rather than just going with the flow and deferring to a more experienced ski partner to make all the decisions.
Ultimately, that’s what we set out to accomplish during SheJumps’ Alpine Finishing School: learn the tools, ask the questions, and fuel more adventures down the road. And that is something we can all relate to—man or woman.