In my experience, chutes always look their steepest, narrowest, and scariest from above. So I’m caught off guard by the paralyzing fear that grips me when I’m standing nearly a quarter-mile away from La Parva’s La Chiminea. The tributary cut from the Andean rock walls looks ominous. Catch an edge in there and you’re toast. Are those tears pooling in the foam liner of my goggles? What is wrong with me?
I swear, I wasn’t always like this. But lately I’ve become a chronically timid self-doubter. I could write it off as a maternal self-preservation thing, but I don’t have kids yet, and I can’t blame it on age because there are plenty of women older than me who don’t back down.
That’s why I’ve come to La Parva, Chile. Ingrid Backstrom is coaching a women’s freeride camp here. She isn’t just one of the world’s best big-mountain freeskiers, she’s my age. And she’s an XX-chromosomer. I’m hoping she can help me expand my comfort zone, because when it comes to going big or going home, well, I’ve always headed home. The four other women in the camp—three of whom are older than I am—admit to battling the same demons. Our goal for the week, Ingrid tells us, isn’t going big, just going bigger than usual.
Ingrid wastes no time in getting to know us. On the first chairlift, she asks me if I like to get air. In my lungs, sure, but not under my skis if I can help it. I utter some lame excuse about an old ankle injury. “Well, with snow like this, we’ll find you some soft, safe landing zones,” she assures me. We take it pretty easy the first day, but I know Ingrid is feeling out our abilities.
“I’m stoked,” she exclaims with what strikes me as genuine enthusiasm at the end of the day. “All you ladies rip. This is going to be an awesome week.” I’m glad she doesn’t think I’m a hopeless mess, but I’m worried that she’s overestimating my chutzpah. “I tend to have more confidence in people than they have in themselves,” Ingrid told me a few weeks earlier. It was encouraging at the time, but now I wonder if it’s such a good thing.
La Parva is the perfect venue for a big-mountain freeride camp. Entirely above treeline and chock-full of off-piste nooks and crannies inside and just beyond the resort boundary, it’s an ideal progressive learning lab. We’ve taken a few short hikes each day, predicting snow conditions based on the weather patterns we’ve experienced since we’ve been here, examining the angle and strength of the sun and wind, and talking about which lines look the safest.
“This pitch has the same aspect as the run we skied before lunch,” she’ll prompt us. “How do you think this run might be the same or different now that it’s later in the day?” Ingrid guides us through this exercise repeatedly so we can all read the signs and anticipate potential hazards. By now, that naysaying voice in my head is barely a whisper—I’m starting to believe I can go a little bigger than usual.
By the fourth day, Ingrid thinks we’re ready for a true “big-mountain” experience, which means putting our skis on our backs and hiking. We kick-step for an hour and a half up La Falsa Parva ridge toward a backcountry zone named for Shane McConkey. We drop off the ridge and scramble across a scree field to a long apron of untouched snow.
And then I see it. One glimpse of La Chiminea, and pop! I fall apart. All the other women are raring to go. They’ve been ripping all week and have each improved since the first day. But it’s late in the afternoon, too late to make a pass at the chute today, which I’m grateful for. We’ll hit it early tomorrow, Ingrid tells us, but I’m already thinking up excuses.
The next day we start hiking early. Before we head to McConkey’s, we drop off the other side of La Falsa Parva. It isn’t very narrow, but it’s steep with a giant rock outcrop three-quarters of the way down that splits the apron into two sections. The snow looks a little dicey and wind-scoured. A misstep up top and you’d likely tumble a long way—possibly into the rock.
Ingrid goes first, sweeps far right, surfs the crest where a cornice has formed under the ridgeline, and guns it off fall line all the way to the bottom. The other three women follow, staying on the right side of the large rock. I don’t love the look of that cornice; it just doesn’t feel right to me. So I point my skis left, drop straight off the ridge, and milk the fall line on the untouched left half of the apron. Halfway down, I’m whooping with excitement and confidence.
I’m so pumped, I actually lead the first half of the hike out to McConkey’s. My self-assuredness wanes a little when I finally peer over the edge of La Chiminea. But Ingrid’s confidence in me is strong. She’s waits below, halfway down the chute, cheering me on enthusiastically. Her line was tight and fast right down the middle, but the snow below the left wall looks best to me. I sideslip the first third of the chute, feeling the doubt taking over. But then I hear something that breaks the trance. C’mon, you’ve got this. It’s not Ingrid. It’s the voice in my head. And it’s absolutely right. I point my skis into the center of the chute, make 12 or 15 rhythmic turns, and join the girls on a road a few hundred feet below the chute. I turn around to look back up it and think, “That’s it? It’s not that big.”