Backcountry

This Backcountry Mentorship Program For Women Cuts Out the Backcountry Bros

Ascent Mentorship pairs seasoned female backcountry skiers with aspiring ones to reduce barriers to an intimidating sport.

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. In support, we’d like to introduce you to some of the women making a positive impact in skiing.

Ahead of me, Jasmine pauses in the low visibility, squinting to make out our goal of Video Peak ahead to the left. The skin track we’ve been following in Rogers Pass heads right, away from Video into the fog. She turns back to me.

“What do you think?” she asks.

“I think it’s your chance to break some trail,” I tell her, grinning.

This is my second day out with Jasmine, my mentee in the new Ascent Mentorship program out of Revelstoke, B.C. Jasmine’s a strong skier, though she hasn’t toured much. But this big-mountain terrain, coupled with the local ski community’s abnormally high collective skill level, begs an accessible entry point to set up a newbie for success.

Women guiding women in the backcountry
Thanks to program like Ascent Mentorship, women are introducing more women to backcountry skiing. Photo: Abby Cooper

As her mentor, I’m not a pro or a guide by any stretch. Frankly, I’m an average skier with a cautious risk tolerance. But I do have more than a decade of experience wandering around in the mountains. And I know what it’s like to have fumbled around out here with no one to ease me into it.

Well, not exactly no one. My boyfriend at the time introduced me to touring, but I wouldn’t use the word “ease” to describe our dynamic. We were quickly frustrated and impatient with each other, and we only toured together a few times. But I loved it so much that I knew I would never quit.

Lacking a regular crew, I struggled the first few years to find touring partners, going out with any groups I could squeeze my way into. No one showed me how to do a kick-turn. No one taught me about group decision-making or gear management. And so I listened hard when a more experienced group made decisions. I took an Avalanche 1 course my second season, and I re-read the staple “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” every winter.

And then, when I started writing, I was lucky enough to land assignments that meant I got to tag along on courses and guided touring trips where I could hone my skills in addition to my recreational jaunts. I put days under my belt and the days added up until suddenly, I was the more experienced one.

Women check out a backcountry topo map togetherr
Ascent Mentorship participants work on planning their backcountry skiing route together. Photo: Abby Cooper

But 98 percent of the time in the backcountry, I was the sole woman, which made me hypersensitive to ensuring I taught myself to be efficient on transitions and stay fit to avoid being last on the skin track. God forbid I embodied the narrative of girls not being fast enough, strong enough, or fearless enough to keep up with the boys out here. Even if that narrative is erroneous and outdoor media and brands have been working intentionally to change it over the last few years, it’s still aggressively pervasive. And it still gate-keeps the backcountry pretty hard.

As an answer, Ascent Mentorship pairs seasoned female backcountry skiers and splitboarders with aspiring ones over the course of a winter to help reduce barriers to entry to this intimidating sport.

It’s akin to what we’ve seen in the similarly male-dominated fields of science and math: Mentorship of girls is a key factor not just in retention, but in attaining the higher levels of leadership that provide role models who make us believe that we can, in fact, unapologetically occupy these spaces.

Backcountry skier checks stability of a snow cornice
Through Ascent Mentorship, women not only learn backcountry skiing basics but also advanced backcountry safety skills from their peers. Photo: Abby Cooperr

When Ascent founder Emily Wright asked me if I would participate as a mentor to kick off the program last fall, I questioned whether I was worthy. Who, me? I thought from the throes of classic imposter syndrome. The likes of pro ski mountaineer Christina Lustenberger was offering her mentoring services—what could my paltry-in-comparison skill set possibly contribute to such a program?

But then I imagined how it would have felt if I’d had someone welcome me into this landscape with their wisdom. I could have, in turn, welcomed more women to come out with me so that I wasn’t the sole female on the skin track throughout those first years. I flashed back to my younger self, saw her struggling so hard to avoid playing into the popular narrative. So I said yes.

On our first day out, as we ducked under the rope at Revelstoke Mountain Resort to head for the backcountry, I’d asked Jasmine what her goals were with Ascent. “I want to feel like I can take a bunch of newbies out and be confident making decisions,” she told me. “A big goal is that I want to feel confident leading a group.”

As she said it, I remembered the first time I led another person into the backcountry. It was a short tour up Montana’s Lolo Pass to yo-yo mellow terrain just off the Nordic ski trails. But I recall the sense of responsibility in it, the sense of pride in having amassed enough knowledge and experience to show someone else the way.

Now, ahead of me in the complex conditions of Rogers Pass, Jasmine occasionally turns to ask about terrain choice as she sets a track through the alpine to the summit of Video. I watch her learn to break trail for the others she’ll be leading into these mountains when she’s ready.

Between us, we’ll re-write the narrative completely.

More Ski Programs and Camps Designed for Women

Revelstoke’s Girls Do Ski Program Expands Horizons for Women
Colorado’s Backcountry Babes Teaches Newbies How to Navigate the Backcountry