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La Baguette, the tiny coffee shop at the base of Revelstoke Mountain Resort, is routinely bustling at 8:00 a.m. Six young women from B.C. and Alberta crowd around a table with gear tucked at their feet, preparing to head out of bounds into the RMR backcountry for a Girls Do Ski ski touring course. They earnestly lean in to hear over the buzz as pro skier Leah Evans welcomes them to the experience they’re about to have and praises them for showing up to expand their horizons.
Evans, founder and head coach of Girls Do Ski, asks the group their goals for the two-day course. It’s not just a formality, or a method of easing them into the day—Evans listens intently so that she can tailor her coaching to each of their needs. The girls’ answers range from wanting to understand how to navigate terrain and learn processes for making decisions to becoming contributing members of a group in the backcountry. Their motivations echo industry survey findings that women face four major hurdles when entering a new sport: intimidation and lack of confidence, inadequate knowledge of gear, uncertainty in how to plan outdoor outings, and cost.
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Even with adding courses and capacity, Girls Do Ski has sold out every session this year, just like it did last winter and the one before that. Evan’s Intro to Ski Touring course boasts the youngest demographic of participants of all the courses this season, with most of the six girls still in university or just beyond—not much older than Evans herself was when she started Girls Do Ski.
Evans, now 32, grew up in the steep streets of Rossland, B.C., and the three-peaked terrain of Red Mountain Resort. She always knew she wanted to be a professional freeskier, from the moment she realized that jumps and drops are a method of flight. The fledgling concept for Girls Do Ski coalesced when she started competing on the Freeride World Tour (FWT) and found herself one of few women in the lineups. “I wanted to see more female skiers, and see it in an intergenerational way,” she recalls. “But I also just wanted to find more women to ski with—there were substantially fewer girls then.”
She put together a business proposal for a series of women-only ski clinics at Red and took it to Rossignol, one of the big-name sponsors she’d picked up on the FWT. Rossignol agreed to provide demos and support, and Evans started the enterprise that would explode into a movement in just a few short years. She was 19 years old.
Evans’ ambitions as an entrepreneur evolved alongside her skiing. She looked to Patagonia as a model while studying business and women’s studies at University of Victoria. “I’d been keeping an eye on them because I valued what they were about. I read ‘Let My People Go Surfing’; I really respected Yvon Chouinard. It’s why, as Girls Do Ski grew, we gave 10 percent of the income we generated back to female skiers.” That early model is now reflected in GDS’ 12 Under 20 program, a free avalanche certification course for young girls with a mission “to open the backcountry to aspiring adventurers.”
Evans’ vision came full circle with her work on Sweetgrass Productions’ 2015 film “Jumbo Wild,” which Patagonia picked up as a full campaign to protect the Jumbo Valley in the Purcells—Evans’ backyard—from development as a ski resort. Patagonia invited her onto their athlete team soon after. She continued to favor projects that seek to expand the edges of ski media, including being featured in major films like Sherpas Cinema’s philosophical venture “Into the Mind”; “Pretty Faces,” the first all-female ski film; and her 2018 film with Patagonia, “Treeline,” which celebrates the forests we ski through in pursuit of powder. The latest project she’s featured in, “Dream Job,” is a cutting-edge, humorous take on women in the big-mountain industry.
This same concept of expanding boundaries drives Girls Do Ski: As a mentor, Evans aims to share her success with other women in the mountains, because she believes that spreading success empowers other women and ultimately elevates the entire platform of female skiing. This philosophy played out on a grand scale with her move to Revelstoke, a blank slate with its then brand-new resort and burgeoning backcountry freeride scene.
The tiny mountain town is now widely viewed as one of the strongest communities of female skiers the sport has ever seen, with many crediting Evans as the genesis point. “When Leah moved to Revelstoke, she brought together this amazing group of women skiers with her movement of Girls Do Ski when the community was still pretty small,” says fellow pro skier and Revelstoke resident Izzy Lynch. She calls it a perfect storm: there were so few girls pushing it and wanting to improve at the time, GDS gave them a space to connect, and the mutual support allowed them to flourish together.
With Revelstoke as a home base, Evans grew GDS significantly, expanding course offerings beyond resort slopes and assembling a powerhouse team of female coaches. That roster now includes chargers like Lynch, as well as pro ski mountaineer Christina Lustenberger, who leads Expert Ski Touring and the Guides Course; Shannon Werner, the first female full-time forecaster on the Avalanche Canada team, leading avalanche courses; and Christine Felecki, one of the first female splitboarding guides of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), leading Intro to Splitboarding. “We all want to provide to other girls what we wish we had when we were starting out,” says Lynch. “Leah gives us that opportunity.”
Evans has pulled in ACMG guide Madeleine Martin-Preney, the first woman to traverse the Selkirk Range on skis, to guide this Intro to Ski Touring course. As she leads the girls through a couple avalanche scenarios to familiarize them with the gear, it starts snowing for the first time in weeks. It’s a hopeful reprieve to the 2018 northern winter drought, but even the cloud cover can’t cut the polar cold that’s refused to dissipate for the last month. The girls seem unfazed by the frigid conditions, though, more focused on Martin-Preney’s wisdom and Evans’ unique style of coaching—which, according to Lynch, goes beyond the physical to capture the psychological and emotional sides of female skiing. Between stops for terrain analysis, kick-turn lessons, and transition tips, Evans talks to each of the girls about everything from fear and visioning exercises to guidance on form. Her coaching style carries such an infectious enthusiasm for skiing that by the time we’re ripping skins on a ridge above Greeley Trees, the girls have completely forgotten any initial nerves.
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As a complement to the expert-level camps that teach hardcore skiing, these intro courses are designed to give participants a basic foundation of skills for what can sometimes be intimidating situations. Rather than feeling awkward or nervous on initial missions in the backcountry, or expending energy in places where it’s not needed (like figuring out a frustratingly steep kick turn or wrestling with the mechanisms of bindings and risers), GDS veterans can focus on things that make them equal participants in a group, like track setting, snowpack, and line choice.
“It takes courage to show up to something like this,” Evans acknowledges. “If you sign up for a camp, that’s a step to improving yourself.”
Evans uses the word “space” often because she’s well aware of the impact of how it’s used. Take her personal philosophy of circles and balance, for instance: every GDS course starts with all participants and coaches standing in a circle, because “we’re all equal and we all meet each other at that spot.” It’s also key in the cyber versus physical spaces, which becomes clear as Evans and I discuss the progression of the gender equity conversation in the outdoors over the last few years. As more brands introduce women- targeted marketing campaigns and media platforms cover female accomplishments and issues in more equitable amounts, it can seem as though barriers to entry and skewed participation levels for women have been all but eliminated—perhaps making institutions like GDS less necessary than they were 12 years ago.
“It’s important to remember that there’s a cyberspace and a physical space,” Evans says in response. “It’s really important to have physical gatherings, because affinity spaces foster more strength, numbers, and confidence. The fact that GDS camps consistently sell out within a few hours shows that people are hungry for the conversations we’re having and the skills we’re teaching.”
Evans extends her community-building and mentorship beyond the recreational focus of GDS to other pros and pro-hopefuls, so much so that fellow skier Tatum Monod calls her “the godmother.” “Leah is a businesswoman, athlete, mentor, an inspiration—she’s just a boss,” Monod says. In 2011, the two competed in the FWT in Revelstoke, which Evans won while Monod took second. As Biglines interviewed Evans on her victory, she accepted the mic and then pivoted on the podium to ask Monod questions, effectively giving Monod her first career interview. “That’s Leah: even though she won the contest she turns the attention over to someone else. She’s such a talented skier athletically that she could have focused her entire career just on bettering herself,” says Monod, “but she also chooses to better everyone else around her. She believes in you before you believe in yourself.”
Read more: Girls Moving Mountains
These kinds of anecdotes about Evans abound. When the Powder Awards nominations came out in 2018, Evans posted stories on social media of other female ski performances that deserved recognition, including Lustenberger’s descent of Wildcat Peak in “Children of the Columbia.” Other pros followed suit, including Hadley Hammer and Michelle Parker, instantly elevating dozens of female accomplishments. Or when Evans posted a video on Instagram of stomping a wildly steep pillow line with 30-foot airs while filming for Salomon last winter, she used it to pay homage to a then-unknown group of young Revelstoke shredders known as The Blondes: “My @the_blondes_ moment. I feel like it’s really important for female skiers to have at least one line in a segment where they’re showcasing what is possible on skis.” Evans is characteristically humble about her role in elevating women in skiing. “I’m just operating in the way I feel comfortable, and that’s how I’ve always been. If all females are crushing it, then I’m crushing it.”
As the Intro to Ski Touring course concludes with the girls skinning back in-bounds, the conversations up and down the line reflect how much confidence and knowledge they’ve gained in just two days. They’re already scheming plans for their next touring adventure—on their own, without instruction.
“These are the kinds of girls that get me so fired up,” Evans laughs. “If you help foster that spirit, it can grow. I’ve always felt like there’s something bigger happening here, and I’m just the channel for it.”
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great writing delivered directly to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE NOW.