Ski like a girl

skier in black jacket with orange flash skis on an empty slope as snow comes down

“If you can see it, you can be it.”

I hear this around the outdoor and snowsport industries all the time, and in my experience it’s 100% true. It’s the reason I finally mustered the courage to guide ski touring groups on the Cairngorm plateau, and the reason I threw myself off a six-foot cliff in an NZ freeride comp. I saw another woman nailing it and I figured, how different am I?

At the beginning of this winter, right when Europe was getting the best start to the season in the last 20 years (or so the headlines read), I boarded a flight to Canada, heading for the snow-scant mountain sides of Whistler Blackcomb.

Canada had not been blessed with such a great start (viral videos of a grassy Whistler were keeping me awake at night), but there was, thankfully, a little snow on the forecast. I was visiting Whistler to take part in the Helly Hansen Women’s Camps. These backcountry-focused, two-day camps have been running for over 15 years and have gone from strength to strength. In fact, they had to limit the numbers in the last few years to ensure the offering wouldn’t get diluted.

These camps are run by women, for women, and it’s this ethos that keeps local women coming back year on year.

women instructor is teaching a women's camp on snow

Helly Hansen is renowned for its protective, technical outerwear, particularly when it comes to extreme conditions (it even makes kit for arctic patrollers). The brand took over the sponsorship of the Whistler Women’s Camps three years ago, which run over several weekends throughout the season. They tie in perfectly with Helly’s Open Mountain Month, an initiative with the goal to inspire and enable people to get outdoors.

HH kitted out the all-female team and provided prizes for an après-ski raffle – but this was no ski-to-lunch and then slide-into-après kind of a camp…

Our instructor, Crystal (an accomplished skier, racing competitively through college and competing in freeride – and one of 55,000 professionals that HH partners with worldwide) had other ideas. We skied all day, both days, and we skied hard. Due to Whistler’s low-tide start, our goal for the weekend was to tune in to our performance on the piste and warm-up the skills that we’d need for skiing in backcountry terrain later in the season. Although every part of me was cursing the snow gods for their lack of timing for my first ever ski trip to Canada, warming up my ski legs and ironing out bad habits was a great way to start the winter.

snowy day, as three women chat on a chairlift

Thinking differently

Crystal has been instructing at Whistler Blackcomb for over20 years (she’s close to receiving a free lifetime season pass for 25 years of resort service) and has been involved with the women’s camps since their inception.

All-female outdoor and adventure camps and courses are on the rise across the globe, and Crystal thinks that’s no bad thing: “When I was growing up, I always felt that I had to have a shell on, to be one of the ‘guys’, to be respected and taken seriously.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have some amazing male-identifying mentors and friends, but women think differently. We are built differently. We have different hormones that can directly affect how our bodies function. Therefore, how we approach improving skills on the slope is different.”

I’ve spent a lot of time riding with men and instantly recognise that feeling of needing to fit in with the boys and never to complain for fear of not being invited next time. So, for me, the idea of learning and skiing with a group of women was more of a novelty than anything. But what I found was a welcoming space, no egos, and a group of strong, athletic women who were keen to push their performance on all terrain.

The rise in women’s camps across the outdoor sector shows how our community is responding to the disparity between male and female participation. According to a 2021 report on Diversity & Inclusion in Snowsport in Britain, carried out by GB Snowsport and the UK’s snowsport governing bodies, 36% of the ‘snowsport audience’ are female, compared to 48% females in a sample that was representative of the British population. The ‘snowsport audience’ included skiers, snowboarders, fans, coaches, and any others with a close association to snowsport in Britain.

Similarly, a 2015 study by the Outdoor Industry Association and Sport England found only 35% of people who are active outdoors are women, compared to women making up approximately 51% of the general population. I wasn’t overly surprised then to find that female participation in ski instructor courses was also lower. In 2022, 43% of participants in BASI Level 1 ski courses were female (not a bad statistic), but the numbers dropped off significantly at the higher levels (only 27% at Level 3, and 24% at Level 4).

As the outdoor industry grapples with its optics, improving diversity outdoors isn’t just great for sport and society, it’s also great for business.

“Often, in a ‘traditional’ family unit, the mother figure is the one who sets up where the family’s going on vacation. If they aren’t comfortable skiing, we potentially lose that part of the market,” says Crystal.

women instructor is teaching, explaining with mittened hands, to a women's camp on snow

Rad chicks and beers

There is a growing body of research that highlights the importance of relatable role models in outdoor settings to increase participation, and women’s-specific courses, with competent female leaders, do just that. When I asked Claire, 26, a Whistler local, why she was on the course, she said: “I just want to ski with some rad chicks, and it’s great to find an instructor I feel comfortable to ski with every year.”

The women I met in Whistler certainly weren’t there because they felt unable to cope with a potentially competitive mixed group, or because they lacked any drive, ambition or skill – those ladies ripped. But Crystal did explain how women were often more likely to look at the bigger picture than just the slope in front of them, which meant their approach to more challenging terrain or to trying something new was different to their male counterparts.

“Many women who have come to our camps are parents and often get stuck thinking, ‘What happens if I get hurt? The whole household will fall apart’. It can be just as much a mental lesson as it is a ski lesson.”

For our group, the lesson was more in physicality as we charged down after Crystal on lap after lap of dust-on-crust under an increasingly snowy sky. Working on widening my stance and using my core to cope with the variety of lumps and bumps really brought out the ski nerd in me, and with each run I felt my ski legs returning.

“I’m not sure if it’s my skiing that’s getting better each run, or it’s the snow that’s getting better!” exclaimed one of the women, as the snowflakes got fatter and the daylight started to dwindle. Time for a beer.

As we took a well-earned rest, reflected on the day, and shared some pizza with the other groups, I asked Crystal how she responds to the enduring stereotypes about women’s courses acting as a bridge to ‘the real thing’.

“It’s a different approach and I think there is nothing wrong with either [mixed or all-female groups],” she said. “But I think women should give them a try to see what works for them. It’s just great to have options, especially if it means more women on the mountain. From my experience, women have been the most fierce, ambitious, competitive and supportive people in my ski career. We know that if there are more of us, and more places for us to excel, then that elevates us all.

Do it

More Helly Hansen’s Women’s Camps will be running 30-31 March, 2024. Find out more here, or get ahead with a 2025 Women’s Camp.