Empowering Teen Skiers in Iceland's Backcountry

This is what happens when one pro skier takes six teenage girls to ski Iceland's backcountry.

By the time we reach the ridge, visibility is low and nerves are high. That morning, we’d climbed out of the sailboat Arktika into a Zodiac in the calm water of Hesteyrarfjord, in western Iceland’s Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. We motored to shore, stepped carefully in our ski boots over seaweed and spongy tundra until we hit snow, and then skinned up the throat of the fjord. We gained the ridge of Svinafell Peak, then traversed into Veiðileysufjörður, one fjord south. As we climbed, the fog closed in and the navigating got tricky.

Our crew of teenage skiers—six Americans and two Icelanders, along with ski coach Keely Kelleher and American Mountain Guides Association ski guide Lindsay Mann—are here as a part of Keely’s Backcountry Ski Camp for Girls, a first-of its-kind camp that teaches teenage girls how to navigate avalanche terrain, backcountry travel, and skiing outside of resorts. They’re here, shuffling along the ridgeline, to hone those skills, and to see how they apply to life off the mountain.

In 2011, after eight years of racing on the U.S. Ski Team, Kelleher retired from competing and founded a ski racing camp for girls, coached fully by women, to give those girls a sense of solidarity in the ski world. “I started it because I wanted it when I was a kid,“ she says.

Pull Quote
You’re the reason why I feel like a mountain badass.

As she moved away from racing, she started spending more time backcountry skiing, which she loved for exploration. In 2014, she met Mann, a guide based in Jackson Hole, and they brainstormed a parallel camp to teach girls to backcountry ski, to build that same sense of independence. “This camp combines everything I think is important,” Mann says.

The two have run backcountry camps in Montana’s Tobacco Root Mountains at Bell Lake Yurt, for the past three years. This trip to Iceland is a culmination of all that work. The girls have been coached through the basics of ski touring, like how to put skins on, into more complex abilities, like companion avalanche rescue. Navigating complicated terrain in unfamiliar territory is one of the skills that Mann and Kelleher think is most important, which is why we’re tracing a ridge in a foreign country in a whiteout.

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Former U.S Ski Team member Keely Khelleher teaches one-of-a-kind ski camps that empower teen girls to feel comfortable tackling backcountry skiing—a realm that has historically been male dominated.

 

We’re following a GPS map, but it feels like the ridges drop off in every direction. When we stop to transition from skinning to skiing, the sky is soup. As the visibility gets worse the girls start to ask more nervous questions. “Are you suuuure we’re going the right way?” someone asks.

But once they start skiing any semblance of fear seems to disappear. They slice down through the steep chute, arching confident turns, whooping and hollering for each other as they rejoin the group in the flats.

Dreaming of Iceland

Iceland might seem like a long way to go for a ski trip, especially for a group of high schoolers, but Kelleher had been dreaming about bringing them here for years.

She’d come here on a similar trip on the Arktika in 2013 and had fallen in love with the terrain. The fjords, with their endless untapped ski lines, are both expansive and self-contained, and she saw it as a perfect training ground. “I have to come back here with teenage girls,” she’d told the boat captain, Sigurdur “Siggi” Jonsson, before she’d even thought about running a backcountry camp.

And now she’s making good on that claim. The afternoon before, we’d sailed Arktika out of the circular harbor of Ísafjörður. Siggi, who has built a business out of taking skiers, surfers, and climbers out into Hornstrandir, calls the boat a moveable backcountry hut. He thinks about 200 people come here to ski each year, and he says we’re the youngest crew he’s ever had on the boat, and the only all-female one.

The first day, the girls are antsy to get on snow after a series of flights, and we’re close enough to the Arctic Circle that, in May, it never feels fully dark, so we start skinning about 6 p.m. At 9 p.m., when we head back to the boat, the snow is still soft from the sun.

The girls know they are lucky to be here—they write in a group journal every night, and they never fail to recount that—but I don’t know if they can also tell what good skiers they are. They’re all smooth, powerful skiers who grew up ski racing, and they’re also highly competent in backcountry. As the week wears on they take more initiative, planning routes, setting the skin track, checking each other’s avalanche beacons. Sometimes, when they break into teenage behavior—like GoPro selfies—I feel surprised.

Keely and Lindsay are intentional in how they model safety, decision-making, and smart travel. They want the girls to be confident in variable terrain and in strange countries, comfortable enough to ask questions, but clear in their convictions.

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Iceland's Helga Thordis Bjornsdottir carves through whiteout conditions. Tough weather conditions were a challenge—and learning tool—throughout the trip.

“We let them struggle a little bit, so they can figure out their systems. We want to give them the skills to do it themselves, and to be efficient in the backcountry,” Mann says. “We’ve thought a lot about what actually is empowering. We put a lot of responsibility on them. That builds confidence, and it translates to their daily lives.”

Kelleher says the camps reflect the change in her skiing and the way she hopes skiing in general is going: full of options and diversity, especially for young women.

She says they try hard to create an environment where the girls can be goofy and unselfconscious, but where they can hone hard skills too.

Here, alone in the fjords, the girls make up songs and dance routines, but they also carefully assess avalanche hazards and look out for each other. “It’s more challenging here; it wasn’t what we expected at all,” says Bozeman-based high school junior Heidi Wills. “But I like that independence. Even though it’s a camp we get a say.”

At the end of the day, we drop out of the fog and ski the thin streaks of snow back down to the beach. On the final, mellow pitch, the girls figure-eight each other’s turns, and hop over rocks and grass patches. As we wait for Siggi to come pick us up in the Zodiac, Kelleher goofs around with the girls, riling them up. They follow her every move, trying to ski like her. “You’re the reason why I feel like a mountain badass,” 16-year-old Maci St. Cyr, tells her as we motor away from shore.

Heather Hansman is an outdoor writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @hhansman.