Mountain Girl Power: A Day on the Slopes with the SAFE AS Crew


Saturday was an extravaganza of girl power. Between spending the morning with the K2 International Woman’s Ski Day posse and the afternoon with the S.A.F.E. A.S crew, I was brimming with female superpowers.

Me and Lel Tone at the Summit of Crystal

Me and Lel Tone at the Summit of Crystal

Ingrid Backstrom said it best yesterday during our beacon training session led by Lel Tone. After spending several days with these amazing women, her communication skills were “well honed.” Women like to talk to each other. We like to check in with each other, and as these women demonstrated, we are pretty inclusive.

S.A.F.E. A.S. stands for Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety and is led by some amazing women. In addition to Lel and Ingrid, Michelle Parker, Jackie Paaso and Elyse Saugstad offered Crystal ladies an amazing avalanche awareness clinic designed for women. Not only did I get to join Lel in teaching the field session in the afternoon, I also had the chance to ski with these women the past few days at Crystal.

SAFE AS group photo

SAFE AS group photo

It wasn’t merely an estrogen overload. Nor was it the testosterone fest that usually fuels any group of skiers–male or female–that love to ski hard and fast. These ladies charge hard, but know how to manage risks. As Elyse says, it’s not just about charging hard today. It’s also about getting to go back out and do it again tomorrow. We all love to ski hard, to find that smooth line of snowy perfection and leave our mark on the mountain, our faces freezing into cold smiles. But it means nothing if you don’t make it back alive.

On Friday, we headed to Southback to find some untracked snow. With 3″ of new over a wind packed base, we hoped to find some nice turns. Even though we Crystal skiers are lamenting the slow start to the season, these professional skiers were thrilled. Michelle Parker called her two days skiing at Crystal the best of the season so far. Enthusiasm is infectious, and soon I, too, was caught up in the thrill of new snow, an all-girl crew, and the fun of rampaging around my local hill.

In all my years of skiing Southback, I have never discussed the conditions so much as I did with this group. Elyse asked specifics. Was this true backcountry we were headed into? Had the avalanche conditions changed? How was this terrain managed? She turned her beacon to receive and checked us all as we headed through the access gate.

At the summit of the King, we talked about rocks that I’d seen the day before hidden now by a mere skein of snow. Ingrid pointed to Brain Damage and we talked about where photographer Re Wikstrom should position herself. As Lel would say, the north side of the King is still at low tide. Rocks line Pin Ball, and shark teeth still poke out in various spots along the chutes. Instead of blindly charging into a line, these ladies asked questions, took their time and encouraged each other. It was safe, but fun. Careful but still exciting.

Elyse Saugstad dropping into Brain Damage

Elyse Saugstad dropping into Brain Damage

I followed Ingrid and Elyse into Brain Damage, while Michelle and Jackie dropped into Hourglass and Appliances. The chute is still a bit narrow at the top, and my heart raced a little hoping not to embarrass myself in front of two of the best skiers in the world. In the end, I held my own and embraced the camaraderie and high-fives at the bottom of the chute. Next, Re set up to take a few powder shots of the professionals. Journalist Megan Michelson and I held back while the others found their positions. Ingrid insisted Megan take the next line, and for a moment we all laughed. Megan reminded Ingrid that Re could sell a photo of her skiing powder and Megan and I would find another way down. But we both appreciated the gesture. For Ingrid, she wasn’t pretending. It really was about the skiing. “We’re all girls skiing today,” she said. And it was true.

These women are leaders in the ski industry. Not only do they ski with power and grace, beauty and fluidity, they also model how to do so prudently. This balancing act requires humility and honesty. For these women, it isn’t an act. They walk  their talk. And do so with passion.

The S.A.F.E. A.S. clinics conclude today with the final one at Stevens Pass. For Elyse, the lessons she learned during and after the tragic avalanche accident that took place near Stevens two years ago come full circle. I spoke to her Saturday night about her willingness to teach others through her own tragedy. She wanted to give something back, she said. She hopes that through teaching women to make prudent choices in the backcountry, they can enjoy the mountains and live to tell about it.

6 responses »

  1. Pingback: Lel Tone leads SAFE AS Womens Clinics | Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, Alaska : Tordrillo Mountain Lodge

  2. I just read the full account of Megan Michelson’s perspective of the avalanche involving Elyse and others in Steven’s pass ( I knew the details well, being in the industry, but didn’t realize a first-hand account was out there. As I sat down to write a piece about avalanche safety, my thoughts turned to that tragic event and I found the article. It brought tears to my eyes—I felt like I was there with them.

    Kim, I then saw your little profile photo as one of the “listeners” of the post and clicked, of course, which led me here — to a piece on IWSD and avalanche safety in the same area and with Elyse, who was involved in the very incident I just finished reading about. It brings some sense of peace to me that Elyse was able to return to Stevens and teach others, first-hand, about the very real dangers that exist in what we might otherwise take so light-heartedly.

    Now I sit, keys under my fingertips, feeling overwhelmed at the responsibility of the piece I am about to write, but hoping that the more we get the word out there, the more people will take the backcountry seriously. Because, as you said, a “smooth line of snowy perfection…means nothing if you don’t make it back alive.”

    • Gina,
      I love what you say about responsibility. We do have a role in reminding fellow adventure seekers about taking care, remembering to pay attention and always coming home at the end of a big day. It’s always about coming back tomorrow to doing it again.

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