When Judith Kasiama first clicked into a pair of skis during the 2018-’19 season, little did she know that she’d be earning her turns in the backcountry just a couple seasons later.
The 32-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo fell in love with skiing from the start, working on her turns during women’s nights at her local Vancouver hill. But the backcountry is what intrigued Kasiama the most.
“Getting out there, getting away from everyone and being totally with nature is what’s so appealing to me,” says Kasiama on her budding romance with earning her own turns and experiencing the sport away from the bustle of the resort. But it hasn’t been easy to find people willing to show her the ropes.
Kasiama plans to change that for other people of color looking to learn backcountry skills. As the founder of Colour the Trails (CTT), a community organization that coordinates outdoor-minded activities for people of color in the Vancouver area, Kasiama is well-versed in the challenges BIPOC recreationists face when wanting to try many of the predominantly white winter sports. That’s why CTT is introducing a backcountry mentorship program aimed at uniting BIPOC interested in learning backcountry skills and getting them the knowledge they need to be successful.
Backcountry skiing, Kasiama says, has even more roadblocks to inclusivity than resort skiing due to the safety component and uncertainty of where to go. Despite her connections and the inroads she’s made in the Vancouver ski community, she says that she still had trouble finding people willing to show her the ropes in the backcountry.
“People have their own cliques,” says Kasiama. “It’s really difficult to find anyone to help mentor me, to be willing to slow down and share knowledge. I had some friends tell me ‘oh, you need to be a double-black diamond skier to go into the backcountry.’ But I knew that wasn’t true.”
Pre-pandemic, before the borders closed, Kasiama traveled down to Washington’s Mt. Baker and finally dipped a toe into the scene on the low-angle slopes there, spending time getting used to the tech bindings, putting on and removing skins, and testing her fledgling ski skills in more powder than she’s ever skied in before.
“I knew there were good options, and I’m a go-getter so I found them, but there’s this element of gatekeeping around backcountry skiing that’s keeping it from being an inclusive space,” Kasiama explains. “That’s what’s keeping more BIPOC, especially women, from getting into the sport.”
So when The North Face athlete, mountaineer, and ACMG ski guide Christina Lustenberger invited Kasiama to Revelstoke, B.C. for a backcountry clinic with other women skiers and snowboarders of color, she was stoked to join.
“Christina used her budget from The North Face and donated her time to guide us for four days in the backcountry,” says Kasiama, “and it was amazing to be out there with other women of color, of all different skill levels, learning together and supporting each other.”
Kasiama recalls that one of the participants reluctantly admitted that she’s bought a splitboard that sat unused in her garage for three years. “She was too intimidated to ski with her usual group, thinking they were too intense in the backcountry and that she wouldn’t be able to keep up. But she did great!”
Filmmakers from Red Bull Canada joined the women during the backcountry camp and created a short film showcasing the six women of color and what it meant for them to not just learn backcountry skills, but to learn with other BIPOC women—something you don’t see very often in adventure snowsports. The film is currently in post-production and is expected to be released this spring.
Lustenberger’s mentorship had a lasting effect on Kasiama, who says that her confidence grew immensely from the Revelstoke experience. They plan to team up again next winter to bring the backcountry mentorship offering to more BIPOC women and men through Colour The Trails.
“When you’re mentored, you feel so much more confident,” Kasiama notes. “You learn how to communicate, what to watch out for, and how to find your voice. That’s so important in the backcountry.”
CTT’s backcountry mentorship program will roll out for the 2021-’22 season, pandemic-willing, and will be geared toward skiers and snowboarders of color who have a desire to explore the backcountry. Safety education and certification will be part of the deal, as well as access to the proper gear and equipment.
But mostly importantly, it’s about creating a community.
“We want BIPOC to feel supported in the backcountry, to create a sense of community for everyone who wants to be in the space to feel welcome and empowered,” Kasiama smiles. “To feel like they belong.”