The wake-up call comes at 7 a.m. with whiffs of bacon and coffee that fill the bunkhouse. The smell promises a hearty start to the first day of the SheJumps’ Alpine Finishing School. As eight women organize their backpacks, SheJumps headmaster Claire Smallwood is prepping the day’s syllabus with the support of guides Kate Devine, Anne Keller and Michelle Smallman. Then they administer the first quiz of the session: a beacon drill.
Education has been at the core of the SheJumps organization since its inception in 2007, but the weeklong Alpine Finishing School in B.C.’s Selkirk Mountains is the group’s most technical and advanced course for aspiring big-mountain skiers and splitboarders. It’s not a dainty charm school in the old-fashioned, act-like-a-lady sense: SheJumps co-founders Smallwood, Lynsey Dyer and Vanessa Pierce are hell bent on giving women more rugged and aggressive opportunities in the outdoors. But in doing so, SheJumps is teaching them how to refine their snowcial grace in the backcountry, starting with a few ladylike guidelines.Lesson #1: Be a gracious leader
Leadership is a cardinal lesson in the SheJumps handbook, which is why every AFS student gets a chance to call the shots on a tour. As Smallwood has observed, women often rely on education and knowledge before making decisions, but gaining that experience can be difficult to come by if you’re struggling to keep up with the rest of your group. “At one point or another, most women have probably felt like the weakest link in the backcountry,” she says. To counter that, AFS is led by women who display the qualities of what it means to be a good leader.
Lesson #2: Master the art of conversation
Communication in the backcountry is a constant group effort, and having the right vernacular lets the students be an active member of the tour’s objectives. “We teach the importance of speaking up and asking questions about setting skintracks or digging pits,” Smallwood says, “so we focus on giving them the vocabulary to talk about their environment and experiences.” Even off-snow conversations dig into the meaty topics that girly sleepovers are made of: stories of bad crashes, powder days and the unspoken alliance among female skiers and snowboarders.
Lesson #3: Embrace your tender emotions
“Evolutionally speaking, women are more communal and supportive [than men],” Smallwood says. “We want to talk about how we feel or how we perceive something.” Yet making decisions in a co-ed outing—often skewed in favor of masculine, dominant personalities—are rarely based on the emotional logic that’s ingrained in a woman’s mind. That perceptual vulnerability, however, is supported among SheJumpers. “If you ask the guides a question,” Smallwood says, “you’ll get both an emotional answer and a scientific, objective answer in return. It makes women more confident in their decision-making process.”
Lesson #4: Cultivate a taste for fine accessories
There’s a certain kind of je ne sais quoi that comes with dangling from a dead-man anchor, rappeling from the lodge rafters or self-arresting after a fall just for fun—and having the gear to do it. The equipment list for novice ski mountaineers is intimidating and expensive, but learning how to use the right tools can inspire a new love for accessorizing. Smallwood points to ACMG guide Kate Devine, who has a way of wrapping up her cordelette. “They’re perfect and look beautiful sitting on her harness,” Smallwood says. “It’s not so much gear envy as it is seeing a woman use technical gear really well.”
Lesson #5: Dress like a lady
Special occasions call for a special wardrobe, which is why, inevitably, someone will don a sparkly tutu before heading into a stormy abyss. “A tutu is everything that’s wrong and right with women’s fashion,” Smallwood says. “It’s the most feminine thing you can wear, but wear it when you’re doing a crevasse rescue and it becomes an extension of the SheJumps philosophy.” That is: have as much fun as you can in your life, and, in the process, make it fun for everyone else.The third-annual SheJumps Alpine Finishing School runs April 19-26, 2014 at Selkirk Lodge. For more information on SheJumps programs, visit shejumps.org.