The Backcountry |

The Backcountry

Staff Reports

The sensation of dread was thrust upon us as we rounded the bend from Francie’s Cabin and a backcountry skier’s nightmare unfolded.”Help! My friends are caught in an avalanche,” Leslie Ross cries. “They’re trapped and I think my arm is broken.”The slide path was obvious, littered with debris and the remnants of skiing equipment. But in her hysteria Ross could only offer vague details of those trapped beneath it.There were three, no four others. Were they wearing avalanche transceivers? Not sure. It seems some of them might be. Where were they last seen? She couldn’t be certain. One of them was her fianc.”Just make sure you find the ring,” she quips.Dread, after all, isn’t much fun. And while Ross had fabricated the rescue scenario in an effort to teach us the fundamentals of avalanche awareness, we were still out for a good time.Such is the nature of each of Ross’ Babes in the Backcountry workshops, a series of classes designed to educate women in winter outdoor skills enabling them to become more self-reliant and confident in a backcountry environment. This particular Avalanche I workshop at Francie’s Cabin south of Breckenridge was a rare coed class with about a 50/50 gender split among its 20 participants.”I don’t want to be exclusionary, and the guys want to take clinics too,” Ross says. “But I personally like working with women because I love to see them get so psyched. The energy is so incredible because these women are seriously empowered when they discover they can do this.””Doing this” includes anything from learning the free-heeled technique of the telemark turn to a rudimentary understanding of snow science and the potential hazards of an out-of-area skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing experience. Now in its seventh season, Babes in the Backcountry offers clinics in varying levels of avalanche and backcountry skills, telemark skiing and basic snow cat powder skiing.By most estimates, the system works.”I chose this clinic because of Leslie’s reputation and because I like to support someone who’s trying to support women,” says Meara McQuain, a teacher at the Gore Range Natural Science School in Red Cliff. “Also I like this type of environment because it’s interactive and fun and, being in the hut, you are right in the heart of what you are trying to learn.”For McQuain and others in the group, the Avalanche I workshop was a follow-up course after learning the basics of telemark skiing from Ross, a multiple national and regional telemark free skiing champion. The objective now is to put the skiing technique to use safely in a backcountry environment.”I did enough of it to know that I love it and I want to get better,” Michelle Catlett of Golden says after her initial telemark workshop. “But I want to be educated.”With a professional staff that includes 12-year Colorado Avalanche Information Center veteran Scott Toepfer and 17-year Squaw Valley and Wolf Creek ski patroller Sandy Kobrock, education is easy to come by at a Babes clinic. And due to the nature of the clinics, even the educators end up learning something.”It’s a better learning environment. The learning experience for men is based more on what they can ski or jump off of. That’s not what this is necessarily about,” says Toepfer, an honorary “Babe” since 1996. “With the women’s classes I’ve learned how to tailor my teaching to keep people from being so fired up about skiing steep terrain. We take a couple of steps back and talk about why we should do this or why we shouldn’t.”Colorado’s Continental snowpack is notoriously dangerous, leading the nation in avalanche deaths for 49 of the past 51 years. Within the state, Summit County holds the title with 25 deaths to date, adding urgency to a “safety first” attitude.”Guys are focused on what they are doing, and women like to look around,” Ross says. “Both have their positives and negatives. Maybe we shop too much for all the different options, but in a stressful situation, maybe you need the balance that a female perspective can bring. The female perspective tends to take in the whole picture. Rather than being so goal oriented, it’s more process oriented.”Skiing or snowboarding outside patrolled ski area boundaries is a process involving a never-ending series of decisions. Babes in the Backcountry clinics teach students to focus on the big picture, evaluating their own attitudes and abilities along with weather, snowpack, terrain choices, route selection and risk assessment. Safe travel techniques, backcountry equipment and search and rescue techniques are also taught through a combination of lectures and hands-on practice scenarios in a controlled environment.”We just don’t have the opportunity to make many mistakes to learn our lessons in the mountains because they are so unforgiving,” Toepfer says. “Most of the time people learn their lessons because their best friend got killed.”Ross understands it’s that sort of knowledge that intimidates many would-be backcountry babes, so she’s made it her mission to empower women with the savvy necessary to avoid becoming a statistic.”This kind of practice takes away a little bit of the scariness of getting out there,” she says. “This is just the first step in a lifelong learning process, but each time you get a little bit better. There are all kinds of skills that come out of this.”For more information on Babes in the Backcountry, call (970) 453-4060 or log onto

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