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Take two: Why it’s nice to attend the SheJumps Alpine Finishing School twice

Learning rope work techniques for ski mountaineering is a primary component of the AFS curriculum. [Photo] Abby Cooper

Learning rope work techniques for ski mountaineering is a primary component of the AFS curriculum. [Photo] Abby Cooper

In the spring of 2014, Abby Cooper attended her first SheJumps Alpine Finishing School (AFS) in hopes of becoming more educated about backcountry travel. The weeklong, all-female program, which is designed to be an advanced stepping-stone into ski mountaineering, also meets the SheJumps mission to increase participation of women and girls in outdoor activities. There, women work directly with IFMGA Guide Diny Harrison and ACMG Guide Kate Devine, who annually instruct courses covering subjects ranging from route finding and rope work to general avalanche safety at the Selkirk Lodge outside of Revelstoke, B.C.

The first time around, Cooper was introduced to many ski-mountaineering techniques that were unfamiliar. Then, this spring, she had the opportunity to attend AFS once again as a photographer and Arc’teryx ambassador, with the goal of honing her skills. We caught up with her upon her return home to Whistler, B.C., to chat about what new insights she’s gleaned.

Here is what Cooper had to say about round two.

The AFS course happens at Selkirk Lodge in the midst of glacier terrain, so learning glacier travel techniques are stressed. [Photo] Abby Cooper

The AFS course happens at Selkirk Lodge in the midst of glacier terrain, so learning glacier travel techniques are stressed. [Photo] Abby Cooper

Backcountry Magazine: What was your impression of AFS after the first year attending?

Abby Cooper: Going into the first year of the Alpine Finishing School, I didn’t know what to expect at all. There was a huge gear list, homework on learning knots and a bunch of pre-course reading. I remember thinking, “There is no way I can be prepared enough for this course.”

When I actually did AFS, the intimidation factor vanished. Everyone was nervous meeting each other and finding out everyone’s individual goals for the course, but we’re all there to learn and have a great time. The guides were amazing at transitioning nervous energy into productive, mountain-conquering energy. It was an incredible transformation from being so intimidated by so many foreign concepts to being able to walk away with a new sense of confidence. It was really fulfilling. That gave me a whole new level of motivation to go and explore the mountains even more.

Crevasse rescue techniques can be daunting, but practice makes perfect. [Photo] Abby Cooper

Crevasse rescue techniques can be daunting, but practice makes perfect. [Photo] Abby Cooper

BCM: What happened in the season after you attended AFS?

AC: That year, at the end of 2014 [the winter after taking AFS the first time], I was buried in an avalanche. That winter was pretty much a write-off because of my injuries. I couldn’t carry a heavy backpack, I couldn’t go touring, I couldn’t use that knowledge I had acquired. I was pretty bummed. Taking a mountaineering course doesn’t make you a mountaineer, but it does set you up with a pretty bomber foundation. Mountaineering is about using and fine-tuning your mountain skill set; if you are not actively using what you learn, it disappears pretty quickly. And I felt that by having a season of not applying anything [due to injury].

Things like crevasse rescue, it is a system that I would really need to practice in order to feel confident with it. And so that is why going back is so interesting. Part of going back was helping me realize that I did retain a lot more than I thought, but I needed that refresher. I never once thought, “Oh, I already know this, I am already a pro at this.” I took new things away from the course the second time around and happily surprised myself with what I did remember.

Asking questions and taking notes are key components to the AFS course. [Photo] Abby Cooper

Asking questions and taking notes are key components to the AFS course. [Photo] Abby Cooper

BCM: What do you feel was the most definitive lesson that you took away from AFS the second time?

AC: What I feel I really understand now is how to travel. We focused on asking ourselves questions like, “Why are we going there?” And we would answer, “We are going there because the conditions are stable there and this is a good route.” Really questioning everything gives you a better picture [of your surroundings]. We asked things like, “Why are we backing up the anchor?” and “Why are we backing it up this way?” It is about understanding the process. The first time I was more focused on the details and this time I put everything together into a bigger picture.

BCM: Has the course instruction changed at all?

AC: One difference is that we talked a lot about when it is OK to improvise or adjust things as needed. “You should always rappel like this,” is not really a thing. Every time you rappel into a line it is going to be a bit different. Dealing with different gear, different hazards—we talked about how variables can easily change and how to react to that. The mountains are unpredictable, so we focused on learning flexibility.

It is really cool to have an objective when you go to AFS. You have an objective for later that season or the following season where you can apply the skills you have learned. You can visualize the skills you are learning and put them to use in a real life situation.

The AFS class of 2016. [Photo] Abby Cooper

The AFS class of 2016. [Photo] Abby Cooper

BCM: What influence does SheJumps have on the AFS curriculum?
AC: SheJumps is about growing into your own person and taking that jump to try something new and push yourself. Both times that I have gone on the course, people are timid and shy about their experiences at first. Everyone is nervous about being the weakest link. And SheJumps is not about that, it is about pushing personal boundaries. The environment that is created at the lodge is so nurturing, and everyone is there to learn. Everyone just wants you to accomplish your own goals in the mountains. The stoke is contagious, the high fives are in abundance and everyone thrives off each other’s victories.

To find out more about the SheJumps Alpine Finishing School, visit shejumps.org.

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