I’ve never craved the company of women more than after a daunting day of skiing at Silverton Mountain.
It was a snowy day in January, with low-hanging clouds that masked big-mountain terrain fit for a ski flick. I couldn’t see the imposing rock bands that draped the sides of 13,487-foot Storm Peak. A 50-degree slope disappeared below me into a vague sea of white, and I was sucking wind, struggling to keep up with a group of seven hard-charging dudes as we hiked from the top of the ski area’s only lift, which had dropped us off at 12,400 feet.
I had come to Silverton attracted by its legendary mystique. Tucked at the far end of a dirt road in southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Silverton promises hard-core skiing with no frills. It’s the steepest and highest ski area in North America, with nothing but advanced and expert terrain. You don’t come here to sip hot cocoa after a few groomers. You come here to shred. No whining allowed.
For most of the season, Silverton offers only guided skiing. I’d pulled into the parking lot that morning alone and, in a caffeine-induced act of bravado, signed up for a fast group. Later, as my lungs burned, my boots slipped on every step, and my skis dug into my shoulder, I wondered what I had been thinking. Reaching the top breathless, I barely had time to click into my skis before we plunged down a tree-choked run with me as the sweep. I tried to act cool, but for once I wanted to be indulged just a little—for someone to encourage me or ski behind me or offer to wait.
Five runs and five hours later, I was ready to call it a day. My wobbly legs felt like noodles as I picked my way down Mandatory Air, a run with a name that would ordinarily deter me. At the bottom, I breathed a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished. I survived Silverton.
Then I heard a most curious sound: the excited chatter of a group of women skiing a steep gully beside me, shouting encouraging words to one another. “Way to go!” “Keep it up!” I listened and stared with envy, craving that female energy.
Moments later, while waiting for the shuttle bus, I learned that the women were in a KEEN Rippin Chix camp. World champion extreme freeskier Alison Gannett started the camps because she knew women sometimes feel like I did that day—intimidated by a sea of testosterone, in survival ski mode just trying to keep up.
“Take a run with us,” Gannett said with a smile. “We’ll show you how we do it.”
Despite my legs being totally fried, I agreed. One by one we tackled the run, skiing toward Gannett as she shouted tips. “Punch your hands!” she said to one of the women. “Look ahead of you, not right in front of you,” she yelled to me. We skied, then stopped, discussed tips, and then skied some more. It was completely different from what I had experienced earlier in the day.
And these women were flourishing, tackling challenging terrain and tapping their true potential without being scared to death. A woman who participated in one of Gannett’s camps said, “You need that support network to get out of your own head and realize you can do this and do it well.”
I thought they might be onto something.
Jen Brill, who founded Silverton with her husband, Aaron, is well aware that the mountain experience can be intimidating, particularly for women. “A lot of girls are nervous that if they come up with eight of their guy friends, they might be a little slower in hiking, so they don’t necessarily want to come,” she says.
She’s not trying to scare anyone off; it’s just the reality of Silverton. Curious to learn more, I sat down with her in the “lodge,” a cozy yurt warmed by well-stoked woodstoves. Collapsing into a tattered chair surrounded by weary skiers and riders lounging on couches, I accepted a cold can of IPA and felt like I was back in college.
Creating a more welcoming vibe for women doesn’t necessarily require coaching, Brill explained. It’s also about community: Sometimes just being around other women is all it takes. Silverton hosts an annual Sisters’ Meeting in the Mountains in early April, bringing together women to ski, swill, and learn from inspiring women in the skiing industry (freeskiing champ Grete Eliassen spoke in 2016). Brill stressed that the weekend is not a clinic; it’s a chance for women to get out and ski with one another.
“It’s a really fun weekend, being out with a bunch of girls,” she said. “There’s no pressure on the hill.”
Silverton isn’t the only mountain where the demand for women-specific programs is recognized. Downhill resorts as well as backcountry guides are starting to woo women and provide ways for them to increase their confidence and skills in a nonthreatening environment.
“I have heard about an increase in women-specific programs,” says Kelly Davis, research director for SnowSports Industries America, a national organization that tracks ski and snowboard statistics. Davis says mountains are starting to offer more programs to provide curated experiences specifically for women. “They’re recognizing the differences in the way women learn. We see a lot of programs catering to that,” she says.
A Google search uncovers a slew of women-specific programs. Jen Brill’s Silverton Sisters ranks number one on a list compiled by Teton Gravity Research. A roster of offerings for this upcoming season mentions women’s programs at ski resorts throughout the country, including Alta, Aspen Snowmass, Big Sky, Park City, Telluride, Vail, and Killington, to name a few. Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s women’s lessons even include a glass of wine at the end.
“It came out of a lot of conversations [with] friends who were tired of getting pressured into things with their boyfriends,” says Steve Szoradi, Aspen Alpine Guides owner.
This season the lineup offers hut trips, including one weekend that combines skiing, yoga, and meditation. Madeline Fones, who helps Aspen Alpine Guides run the Leave the Boys Behind program, says they focus on group trips that women can do together to make them more comfortable in the backcountry traveling with other women.
“One of our biggest things that we don’t like [is] the stigma that this stuff is for the boys. There are programs out here like this that will help you be comfortable and do these things with other women, and even learn from others who have more experience than you,” she says.
As fate would have it, a few weeks after my Silverton experience, I was invited to go on a backcountry hut trip and ski clinic with Chicks With Sticks, an offshoot of Chicks With Picks, which has been leading women’s ice and rock climbing clinics for 20 years. In 2016 the company added ski clinics to its offerings and renamed itself Chicks Climbing and Skiing.
Excitement bubbled in my chest as I flew over the mountains to Ouray, Colorado, to join five other ladies for a three-day clinic. We were a mixed bag, ranging from one woman who had been backcountry skiing for 20 years to another who was an intermediate resort skier and had never ventured out of bounds. I fell somewhere between the two, with a few years and a level-one avalanche course under my belt but not enough confidence to take the lead. We were in good hands with International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) mountain guide Angela Hawse, one of the owners of Chicks Climbing and Skiing. (In case you’re unfamiliar, IFMGA is the most rigorous guide certification, and you have to be a total badass to achieve it.)
Our course started at the top of Red Mountain Pass, where we unloaded our gear outside Artist cabin, a hodgepodge of a house that looked like it had additions made by revolving committee over the years. Rustic yet comfy with room for eight, it was our home for the night.
After putting my skins on my skis, I noticed someone else struggling and offered to help. I felt her pain. I remembered what it was like to be rushed while in the parking lot with a group of guys and fumbling, trying to be fast. Here in the company of women, there was no pressure. We were all there to help and support one another. The scene had a relaxed vibe, which continued as we went over snow safety and climbed a slope for some practice turns.
When we returned to the cabin, the aroma of curry wafted in the air. Dawn Glanc, one of the owners of Chicks Climbing and Skiing, greeted me from the stove. She isn’t just a good cook, she’s also one of the top mixed climbers in the world. Her eyes lit up as she talked about teaching women the skills they need to have confidence in the backcountry.
“We want to make you a more competent individual. We don’t just throw you in the fire so you’re overwhelmed. We want to help you feel like you’re ready to start going out on your own, or at least be able to go with your partners and be able to make some good safety decisions with them,” she told us over dinner.
“Also, we want to make you an equal part of the team, because there’s nothing worse than going out there and not having any idea of what’s happening. This person is just skinning up the hill and you’re just following them,” she added.
She hit the nail on the head for me. As much as I tried to participate in backcountry ski decisions, I often found myself deferring to guys. And I hated that.
The power of sisterhood came out in force the next day. Fat snowflakes fell in sheets as we packed up and headed out to skin up to the OPUS Hut, Colorado’s only European-style backcountry hut, which is 3.5 miles and 1,800 vertical feet from the road. For some in our group it was a scamper, for others a slog, but for no one was it a race. We fell in line, chatting about skiing, sports, music, spouses, kids, boyfriends, and food. As the skin track steepened, our pace slowed, offering everyone a chance to catch her breath.
We reached the OPUS Hut in time for afternoon soup. We kicked off our boots and huddled over steaming bowls and around long dining tables lined with padded benches and chairs. Fire crackled in the wrought-iron stove, and the scent of potpie swirled in the air. Owner Bob Kingsley spent five years building this hut with his own two hands, and the labor of love showed in every thoughtful window and reclaimed wood beam. Among Colorado’s backcountry huts, which are typically rustic, do-it-yourself affairs, OPUS is unique, offering bunk rooms with bedding, full-service meals, and even a sauna from its perch at nearly 12,000 feet.
As we relaxed, one woman’s face beamed. “I live in Texas. I never do anything like this. I’ve never skinned up to a hut,” she said, face still flushed with exertion. “I felt like I was summiting Mount Everest. It was really hard for me, but also really satisfying. I feel a great sense of accomplishment just getting here.”
She later wrote in her blog, “I realized that given enough time and a group of encouraging skiers, I can do things I never thought I could do.”
There was something special about sisterhood.
The next morning, we woke to two feet of fresh snow glistening like diamonds under a sunny sky. As we climbed up a ridge to a huge open bowl, I decided to duck out of my comfort zone. “Can I set the skin track?” I asked. It was something I’d never tried.
“Absolutely,” Hawse said, and then explained how to choose a route. I tried one awkward kick turn, slipped back, almost toppled over, and then laughed. I wasn’t afraid to fall. Hawse broke down a turn for me step-by-step, and I finally got it. In this supportive environment, I felt free to practice and fail and try again.
When we reached the top of a huge untracked bowl, we perched on a steep slope where transitioning was awkward. Despite some floundering, we were faster than on the first day and lent one another a hand. Once again, I enjoyed the chance to relax and have fun without worrying about keeping up. As I dropped into the bowl, making wide, swooping turns in the snow, I was grateful for the opportunity to share this experience with women. Together we helped take one another to a higher level.
My mind wandered back to my day at Silverton. I had unfinished business. I vowed to go back with a crew of girlfriends and leave the boys behind—or maybe I’d let them tag along.