by Amy Whitley – On a sunny, bluebird February day, I found myself linking turns in the soft, forgiving powder of the Squaw Valley California backcountry, far from the crowded ski lifts. The month before, I joined a group of fellow women skiers in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, for some camaraderie on the snow and a day of dedicated on-piste instruction. In both instances, I noted something remarkable: I was focused only on my own ski day, my own turns, and my own needs on the mountain.
For me, a mother who plans our ski trips and organizes gear, herds cats—I mean kids—and deals with lodging check-in, ski school registration, and all food needs for my family from dining reservations to granola bars stashed in ski jacket pockets, it’s hard to carve out time just for my own ski experience. I asked around, and many women felt the same: by the time they got their kids geared up and marched like penguins in ski suits to their dedicated lessons or snow activities, they’d missed their opportunity (or simply felt too wiped out) to get to their own clinic, lesson, or ski experience.
But you know that phrase, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?” It applies to ski vacations, too! If you, like me, let your eye wander to the highest reach of the peak as you ride the lift up any ski resort and think, “That’s where I want to be,” here’s how to get there…and how to improve your ski skills to make it enjoyable.
Getting Off-Piste & Into Backcountry
Start by exploring some “side country”. What’s this? It’s the in-bounds yet off-piste (off groomed trails) terrain of a ski resort. Almost all resorts have side country in abundance, but sometimes, you have to know where to look. Ask if the resort you’re visiting offers gated terrain (it will be marked on the ski map) and stop at the ski patrol hut or station at the top of higher lifts to inquire as to the conditions before going through them. Find out whether you’ll be required to hike or side slip at the bottom to get back to the lifts and if additional gear is required, such as a beacon or shovel (more on that in a minute).
Some resorts, such as Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah, offer guided side-country experiences. Their Hidden Tracks experience pairs you with a ski resort guide who can show you the hidden stashes of off-piste terrain right inside the resort that may have been hidden from your eyes. This is a great way to get to know the “game of gates” that goes on at many resorts: some gates open early and close early, while others may not open at all.
My guide at Solitude showed me where to boot pack (take skis off and hike to a higher pitch) and where hiking wouldn’t be required. Even though we were skiing during a season with low snow fall, he showed me several places where the powder was still fresh…all in-bounds!
Other resorts, such as Keystone Mountain in Colorado and Homewood in California, offer ski cat-accessed terrain. At dedicated areas, ski cats (those tractors that run on the snow) will take you higher for new-to-you terrain, sometimes for as little as $15.
After you’re comfortable exploring side country, graduate to backcountry. Backcountry is out-of-bounds skiing that requires either a guided service with permission to duck the ski resort boundary ropes (it is not allowed to duck ropes while skiing in-bounds at a ski resort) or hiking or skinning on your skis to reach slopes outside ski resort boundaries.
Start with a guided experience, where you can go out with others and have the benefit of the knowledge of a person trained in reading snow conditions with avalanche training. Your guides can also explain the ins and outs of the gear needed for backcountry skiing: skis with AT (Alpine Touring) bindings and boots, and a backpack filled with avalanche gear: a beacon, probe, and shovel.
I explored backcountry terrain with both Ski Utah’s Interconnect tour, which dips through backcountry terrain in the Cottonwood Canyons between six different ski resorts, and with Alpenglow Expeditions, which laps the National Geographic Bowl in the backcountry on Granite Chief Peak near Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows ski resort in Tahoe.
Both guided services provided the needed gear, and on the Interconnect, I even benefited from the tutorage of a female backcountry guide. Until you’ve taken avalanche training courses to teach you to safely read snow conditions, going with a guide is paramount.
I enjoyed full days in the backcountry in both locations, either boot packing, side slipping, or skinning (when you stick “skins” to your ski bases to grip the snow on the uphill climb) up new terrain to blissfully ski down on fresh powder. Beyond the joy of skiing untracked terrain, it was a joy simply to be outdoors and far away from ski resort crowds.
Upping Your Ski Game + Me Time
Maybe you don’t have desire to head into the backcountry, or maybe you feel you need to improve your ski skills before doing so. For that next girls’ getaway or women’s day out, consider attending a women-specific ski camp, clinic, or retreat.
Ski camps are a great way to feel like a kid again while enjoying some adult time and improving your ski ability by leaps and bounds. Alta Lodge’s women’s camps are a great example: bunk with a ski buddy, enjoy meals at the lodge and nice long ski days filled with instruction, then relax each evening in the hot tub and at the bar with new friends. Don’t have a full week to spare? Northstar California plays host to Her Mountain retreats, a two-day event held several times per ski season (then again several times per summer for mountain bike enthusiasts).
During Her Mountain, women receive two days of specialized lessons by a female instructor, guided yoga, apres-ski events, and even the Platinum Tost experience on the mountain. This experience is an elevated version of the 2 pm tost (where every Northstar guest can enjoy complimentary champagne or sparkling cider).
Platinum Tost is at 1 pm and includes a dedicated seating area with fire pit, a s’mores kit, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, and a picnic of charcuterie that is hearty enough to be a full lunch. Her Mountain doesn’t include lodging, so you can pick your level of luxury to economic accommodations. Additional women’s retreats and camps include the Women of Winter camp at Squaw Valley and the Women on Wednesdays ongoing clinics at Solitude.
Lastly, in order to feel more confident, consider learning from female instructors and guides. I’m not knocking the guys…I’ve had wonderful male instructors. But sometimes, women respond better to learning in an all-female environment. To ensure you have a female instructor, ask for a private lesson and request a female to teach you or take a women’s-specific course (like Women on Wednesdays). There are an increasing number of women in leadership positions in both backcountry tours and on-piste in ski resorts, and seeing their example can inspire you to up your ski game.
When you’re ready to elevate your ski gear, consider stopping into a shop dedicated to women’s specific gear, like Coalition Snow (started in Reno, Nevada), or ask for a female employee who skis or rides who can point you to the best gear. Not all ski gear is created equal, and finding women-specific apparel, skis, and boots that actually work for women (and aren’t just a smaller version of men’s gear) can be important.
However you want to up your ski game, enjoy the snow!
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Amy Whitley is a family travel writer, editor, and columnist based in Southern Oregon. An avid traveler, backpacker, skier, and hiker, Amy has written about family and outdoor experiences for local and national publications since 2009. Amy authors the NWKids column in OutdoorsNW Magazine, is the Southern Oregon ambassador for Travel Oregon, works as a gear reviewer for multiple outdoor brands, and is founder of family travel site Pit Stops for Kids.