Beyond the valley of the Babes
BRECKENRIDGE – The assignment sounds like some sort of absurd, male adolescent fantasy from an ’80s movie: Spend your Saturday lost in the woods with 19 women as they gain avalanche knowledge for an all-female hut trip. Hot and hard-core? I probably could’ve sold my place among the Babes in the Backcountry to a pimply high school hucker for some serious coin. But that’s not what this is about (right?) – it’s about immersing oneself in a novel approach to outdoor training, seeing how the other half shreds, if you will.But as I clomp into their morning yoga class, huffing and puffing, dripping snow and maleness while the ladies slink from one sinuous pose to another, I can only think one thing.I don’t really belong here.
Champion freeskier Leslie Ross started Babes in the Backcountry in Breckenridge as a reaction to the paucity of females who practiced her sport professionally and recreationally. After her professional ski career, she became heavily involved in the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center and volunteered to help maintain Summit County’s hut system; as she delved deeper into avalanche and backcountry training, she saw the number of fellow women drop exponentially.”It’s not about excluding men -it’s about restoring the balance,” she says. “We’re having a rebirth of women’s interest (in these sports), but I want to shorten the learning curve. It seems like only people directly in the ski world know what they need, whereas your average woman might shortchange themselves and just take what’s available.”Ross also acknowledges that dudes can be more competitive and create a competitive atmosphere antithetical to learning.”In an all-women class, it becomes very fun and relaxed – there’s lots of laughter and chatting, and it takes the competitive nature out of it,” she says. “That’s in our nature as human animals – it’s not a dis on men. Once people take themselves out of that regular dynamic they can see this is how they function best and apply it to learning backcountry skills.”Babes in the Backcountry offers everything from telemark skiing clinics in Crested Butte to extended expeditions to South America. Beginners and experts mingle and exchange ideas and techniques n most classes.”You don’t have to be an experienced backcountry skier to take a clinic with us,” Ross says. “We’re more about inspiring connections with other women through outdoor adventures, whether that’s during a single clinic or a multi-day ski mountaineering workshop.”
Each Babes in the Backcountry workshop begins with a yoga session specifically tailored to the needs of female skiers. Instructor Allyson Waters notes how specific stretches and motions affect muscles integral to carving turns or skinning up long traverses.”Understand where your feet are and how they move,” Waters says, stretching backwards. “That can help us with our ski boots; you can feel how active the calves and ankles can be.”As the entire class bends backwards, sets of eyes swivel and send sidelong glances in my direction while I scribble in my notepad as quietly as possible. I can’t help but feel like an interloper into the inner sanctum; I’m the square in a room full of circles, and the last thing I want to do is jostle the unique dynamic Babes tries to cultivate.But after yoga, one by one most of the participants introduce themselves and ask who I am. Once I assure them that I’m a journalist and not a lurking pervert, they embrace my presence and pull me into the circle. I learn that today’s Babes’ experiences and intentions run the gamut. Amy Delaplaine and Moe Cairns came from Atlanta; they get one chance to ski a year, and they chose a Babes hut trip. Kelley Harper and Victoria Williams are experienced backcountry enthusiasts from Denver who came to bone up on avalanche awareness skills. Janey Little recently moved from South Africa to Breckenridge and is diving headlong into winter-sports obsession.”I really came for the white stuff,” she says. “I’ve always loved it, and I’ve done plenty of hiking in South Africa, but this is very exciting for me.”After a short introductory speech from Ross, the class gathers in a circle to absorb all they can on the nature of avalanches and their unpredictability. Ross leads a slideshow presentation dissecting snow types and avalanche conditions, while Babes instructor Vicki Kerr gives practical demonstrations on analyzing slope conditions and beacon use. Kerr then splits the women into groups to work on timed practical exercises surrounding avalanche case studies. They work seamlessly together to answer the questions posed by the exercises, whereas if I had been with a bunch of guys, I could see myself wasting time coming up with dirty jokes about “slabs.” This is why it paid off to join the all-girl lab group in college.
At the end of class, the time comes at last to go outside, into a howling wind that shut down I-70. Babes in the Backcountry provides first-rate gear for all its participants, including Black Diamond skis and skins, and clothing from Patagonia. “Are you feeling like Backcountry Babes?” Ross shouts to the class.With that proclamation, the ladies attack stacks of gear like a sale rack at Nieman Marcus, diving through piles of capilene and quivers of skis instead of shelves of camis and jeans. I learn quickly to just get out of the way.Kerr and Ross lead separate teams of ladies to skin across the deep snow of the Gold Run Nordic Center in Breckenridge. While groups of nordic skiers hang out and drink hot chocolate in the lodge, the Babes brave the blowing snow with a smile, excited to put their new avy skills to use. For the next three hours, they reenact real-world exercises, hiding beacons from each other and probing for them, cutting into slopes to check snow conditions. Personalities shine, leaders emerge and long-term friends are made; I can barely keep up as they tour over the snowdrifts. Kerr directs the girls like a friendly drill seargeant, touring between teams and shouting advice over the wind in a Scottish lilt.”Make sure you dig from downhill at an angle,” she says. “Keep your avalanche eyes on.”
As they all skin up to another snow slope to analyze conditions, I sink into the snow up to my waist (I wore mountaineering boots instead of skis or snowshoes, because I’m an idiot). I flounder and struggle, caught in a the weakest avalanche ever, as the ladies tower over me.”We’ve got a victim!” says MElinda Mingus, a ski patroller from New York City.The ladies help dig me out, their first live rescue before their upcoming hut trip.Emasculated and blushing, I take up Kerr’s offer of riding on the back of her skis back to the Gold Run Nordic Center.”Alright, lift your feet, left, right, le -“In a veritable orgy of male clumsiness, I bring us both down into the snow. Not only are the ladies more adept at snow travel than I am, I would be a distinct liability out on the backcountry slopes. Touche, ladies.
Upon their return, the Babes dump their gear and crack open a celebratory beer – the first of many, as most will head out bright and early the next morning for a ski tour up to Francie’s hut in Summit County. They discuss together what types of wine and food they plan to bring, and what lines they hope to rip high on the mountain.Naturally, this is where my adventure with the Babes ends. Seeing them laugh and talk excitedly about the hut trip, I try to dream up a way to come along – dressing in drag briefly comes to mind – but they’re clearly about to share something special in a space where I truly don’t belong, even if I’d like to. Later, Ross confirms the hut trip was, in fact, “awesome.””The women came for the hut trip, and they got so much more,” Ross says. “The caliber in terms of conversation was incredible. One of the women told me it was the most life-changing experience in her life so far, which is pretty profound.”Ross gets feedback like that after every trip, and after reaching out to over 500 women last year, Babes in the Backcountry expects to double that number this year.”The best moments came in Francie’s Cabin – it’s ver hard to put into words,” Ross says. “They were just blown away by the experience – they met all these incredible women. They took everything we learned on the rescue course and practiced it out in the wild. And once they got a chance to relax, they were still so energized and there was this buzz around the hut that was really exciting.” But boys, take heart: Babes in the Backcountry is considering adding co-ed or couples education in the future.
“We’re looking into that,” she says. “What’s most important is that people come to a safe, comfortable environment where they can overcome their initial fears. Then we can all learn better.”But for now, it’s all about the ladies, and that’s as it should be. High-country Hunks have had the run of the woods for eons, and it’s time for a new era.The Babes in the Backcountry have arrived.Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado