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Women of Winter
How to Get Involved
SAFE AS Clinics | Join the clinics at Squaw Valley on: Dec. 10 and 12 with a special coed event on Sunday, Dec. 11. Register at safeasclinics.com
Backcountry Babes | Take a multi-day AIARE Avalanche 1 course: Dec. 16–18, Dec. 20–22, Mar. 10–12; learn more at backcountrybabes.com
By JILL SANFORD | Moonshine Ink
"I travel and ski with guys all year round, so it’s amazing when I get to experience the mountain with a posse of women. There’s this female energy and support that’s so powerful. I push myself more when I see other girls out there challenging themselves and shedding some of the self-doubt that comes with skiing with guys.”
Pro skier Michelle Parker isn’t alone in this sentiment. Women who are involved in winter sports are gravitating toward female-only organizations like the SAFE AS avalanche clinics, Tahoe Backcountry Women, and SheJumps; places where they can find the support and energy of female companionship.
“The general trend is for women to feel more comfortable speaking up in an all-women’s group,” said local sports psychologist, Dr. Robb Gaffney. “There could be cases in which a woman feels more comfortable disclosing a difficult issue to a man or to a group of men, especially if the group is safe and non-judgmental, as opposed to sharing the same information with a woman who could be perceived as an intimidating figure. But yes, in general, there is likely safety through similarity, and same-gender groups offer that.”
Not only are women often inspired by the athletic achievements of other females and report feeling encouraged and supported at these events, the female-only group dynamic gives many women a boost of confidence. They are both more likely to perform to their full potential, as well as gain the courage to be more assertive in mixed groups.
“Some women do better in more supportive learning environments than what we traditionally see in the male-dominated ski community,” Parker explains. “It’s important to have a balance, and girls-only groups give some women with quieter voices or less assertive personalities more confidence to speak up in mixed-gendered dynamics.”
Parker founded the SAFE AS (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Avalanche and Snow Safety) avalanche clinics along with Elyse Saugstad, Ingrid Backstrom, Jackie Paaso, Lel Tone, and Sherry McConkey. The women were chatting one morning after yoga, not long after the deadly 2012 avalanche in Stevens Pass, Washington, and the Seattle Times article that brought it to national attention.
“We got to talking about group decision-making and group dynamics and how we believed very strongly in giving females a voice on the mountain,” Parker said. Instructors who have joined the mix since then include Robin Van Gyn, Kimmy Fasani and Cody Townsend.
“I believe the SAFE AS clinics have been so successful because they’ve torn down the wall that often prevents people from signing up for intimidating courses like an avalanche course,” said Cody Townsend, professional skier and SAFE AS instructor. “Whether that’s showing it’s a welcoming environment or showing women that they truly belong in the backcountry safety discussion, the clinics have provided an environment that fosters women coming out together to learn, facilitate, and empower.”
SAFE AS, like other women-only groups, creates an inclusive learning environment where women gain the confidence to speak their minds in a group dynamic. In addition to teaching important safety skills for the backcountry, like how to use a beacon or read the terrain for avalanche danger, instructors teach their students how to speak up in mixed-gender groups after the class is over. This approach is based on the idea that if women get used to speaking up in a supportive environment, they’ll be more likely to assert themselves even if they feel less supported.
“Women-only recreation is a very different dynamic than mixed-gendered. That’s not to say that mixed-gendered dynamics are necessarily always negative, but they tend to not represent both genders equally,” said Jen Gurecki, co-founder and CEO of Coalition Snow, a women-owned and operated ski and snowboard company and three-year sponsor of SAFE AS.
Thanks to the strong women that collaborate on these issues in the Truckee/Tahoe community, there are quite a few options out there for women who are looking for their “girl tribe.” Tahoe Backcountry Women and SheJumps are some examples of women mobilizing around the kind of experience that fits their needs and creating community through winter sports.
“There is something wonderful that happens when women support women in the backcountry,” said Tahoe Backcountry Women founder Whitney Foehl. “They take on leadership roles and are forced to make decisions for and among themselves. They own the choices they make — successes and failures both — which can be very empowering, and grow strong leaders who learn from their own experiences.”
Tahoe Backcountry Women allows females to connect in both formal and informal settings. From inspirational slideshows to the Women, Wine, and Wax nights and ladies-only touring trips in February, the organization builds community and empowers women.
SheJumps aims to increase the overall participation of women and girls in outdoor sports through high profile events. One of their most popular is “Get the Girls Out!,” a fun day of resort skiing that includes discounted lift tickets, informal mentorships, and some wacky outfits. This national organization has a Tahoe chapter spearheaded by regional coordinators Jenn Sheridan and Rachael Blum.
Both women also happen to work for Coalition Snow, and Sheridan is on the executive committee for Tahoe Backcountry Women, which goes to show the collaborative nature of women working in the snow sports industry here in Tahoe.
Sheridan believes the goofy girl power of SheJumps is a huge factor in building confidence and continuing to break down barriers in the male-dominated winter sports world. They start with community building rather than competition, allowing women to try new things in a supportive environment.
“I don’t want to generalize too much, but I think that with male sports companions there is often this underlying competitiveness that can be really intimidating,” Sheridan said. “I’m never going to try something new to prove that I’m better than you, but if I trust your knowledge of my skills and your style of teaching new things I’m going to be more willing to give it a shot.”
While these women-only events seem to just benefit females, the fact is that empowered and confident adventure partners, whether they are in-bounds or in the backcountry, make for more fun and safer experiences for men, too.
“It doesn’t take away from my experiences with the guys and my relationships with them, it just enhances my experiences as a female when I see all these strong women come together,” said Parker.
For the first time since it has been up and running, SAFE AS will now offer a coed day of learning on Sunday, Dec. 11, inviting men into the conversation rather than excluding them. By including men in a female learning dynamic, these guys will potentially see and understand the supportive system in which women thrive and learn from each other.
Whether they are strangers seen from a distance in the backcountry or a go-to adventure partner, it’s important for everyone, both women and men, to take ownership of their own skills rather than rely on others in their group.
Outdoor recreation has always been a predominantly male culture, but with more and more females venturing out these days, it looks like it’s not going to stay that way forever. Winter sports have a lot to gain from the supportive style that these female-oriented programs are teaching.
“The idea of emotional support systems in sports taps into a universal human need,” said Dr. Gaffney. “Whether we like it or not, we all need each other.”
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