By Morgan Tilton
Backcountry Babes continues to grow its offerings season after season—and it’s clear why.
The backcountry ski school for women offers badass winter trips plus a curriculum that invites women to learn backcountry skills in an inclusive, supportive environment. The school’s current hubs include Breckenridge, CO; Truckee, CA; plus a handful of courses in UT, radical international destinations, and—new for 2019—courses on the East Coast.
Backcountry Babes Owner Emily Hargraves acquired the company in December 2014, after she saw the company listed for sale on the Camber Outdoors website (formerly known as the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition). Hargraves hopped on a plane to Girdwood, Alaska to shadow the former Backcountry Babes owner as she taught an AIARE 1 course.
Hargraves was floored by the high-quality experience and how much she learned about avalanche terrain compared to her first AIARE 1. She returned home to Tahoe, CA, with the business website, qualified employees, and a flash drive of photos.
Powder7 contributor Morgan Tilton caught up with Hargraves about Backcountry Babes, what the company provides for the ski community and industry, and what’s in the pipeline this season.
Morgan Tilton: Why is the work of Backcountry Babes so important for the ski industry?
Emily Hargraves: In the outdoor industry, men are more numerous than women, but ski guiding has one of the lowest percentages of females. AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) wrote that women comprise 11 percent of ski guiding personnel within the AMGA. [Author’s note: When rock and alpine guides are included, in addition to ski guides, the percentage of female employment goes down to 8 percent of AMGA staff, according to Jane Anderson, AMGA Logistics Coordinator.] Yet, 9 percent of construction workers are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. So, ski guiding is really male dominated, and there are [experiential] imbalances due to an overall imbalance of diverse people.
Backcountry Babes resets the tone and atmosphere of backcountry skiing and outdoor guiding. The learning environment and pressure to perform shifts when the group becomes all women.
MT: Tell us more about the performance shift that happens in all-women backcountry groups.
EH: In our society, there’s an engrained tendency to offer leadership roles to men and women naturally step back. When men are not present, there is a leadership vacuum. People who normally step back realize there’s a leadership need, and they step forward.
Backcountry Babes helps women practice leading in a group. When they return to their local co-ed ski groups, they can use their leadership voice, take a leadership role, and voice their concerns rather than deferring in a de facto manner to gender roles. It’s a relief for a lot of people to step into those positions.
If a day comes that we can’t tell the difference between an all-women group and co-ed group, then we’ve made a difference, and Backcountry Babes will do something else.
MT: A lot of people wonder why Backcountry Babes hires male guides and offers courses for men, too.
EH: We specifically hire guides and teachers who empower women in leadership roles. Men who support and engage our mission? We’re on board. They are allies and on our team. We also need the help: If only 5 percent of all ski guides are women, there are not enough guides to raise up other women.
We also offer co-ed classes because sometimes people want to sign up with their [male] ski partners, and sometimes men want to take our classes. The co-ed classes are usually more women than men. Often, a guy is taking a minority role while supporting his female life partner to be comfortable and safe in a majority.
MT: In the past five years, how has the culture of avalanche education changed?
EH: I first took an AIARE 1 course in 2013, at Lake Tahoe Community College. Back then, people would hear about backcountry skiing, get their gear, gain a level of familiarity, and later hear about the option of avalanche courses.
Now, when people purchase a backcountry setup from a retailer they are instructed to take an avalanche course as soon as possible. That’s a good change in the industry, because you can get into a lot of trouble before you even know what you’re getting into.
I grew up in Connecticut and was not familiar with avalanches. By the time I first went into the backcountry, in college, before I took AIARE 1, my ski ability exceeded my knowledge of avalanche terrain. Luckily, we survived.
MT: What do you think the growth of backcountry skiing is attributed to?
EH: Backcountry Babes was founded in 1997, by Leslie Ross, a [3x national champion] telemark skier. At the time, everyone was using telemark setups, and Backcountry Babes provided telemark clinics before providing avalanche courses. Backcountry skiing became more popular, in part, because the equipment improved. For instance, powder skis, which are wider than other ski designs, make traveling on un-groomed terrain easier.
Now, I’m noticing a trend of more resort skiers and riders going into un-groomed terrain, which leads them into backcountry. Simultaneously, there are people with non-skier backgrounds who want to get out into the wilderness on skis and have never been a resort skier.
MT: What makes Backcountry Babes awesome? People travel across the country to attend your courses.
EH: Women’s-only outdoor programs are becoming a popular trend.
Our clients are about 30 percent Denver locals, 30 percent local to Colorado, and 30 percent travel from around the country. We’ve had folks join us from Southern California, L.A., Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Michigan, to name a few. Some people have plans to travel to Colorado to ski, and they do an internet search for, “skiing,” “women’s ski trips in Colorado,” and find us that way.
My goal is to create a hub across the nation, so that women based anywhere in U.S. can find a Backcountry Babes trip near them.
MT: That’s a great vision. What’s new on the Backcountry Babes menu for the 2018-2019 snow sports season?
EH: There’s a lot of wind beneath the wings at Backcountry Babes. We’re adding an east coast Backcountry Babes hub with three beginning backcountry tours and one AIARE 1 course, which will all be in New Hampshire, near the White Mountains.
Iceland will be a new offering (April 13-20) with six days of backcountry skiing, staying in a modern Scandinavian vacation rental, and enjoying the geothermal activity. We’re including our first-ever all-splitboard trip to Japan. And, we’re returning to Salt Lake City to teach another AIARE 1 course with Park City Powder Cats.
Backcountry Babes kicks-off the snow sports season with an AIARE 1 course and a Beginner Backcountry Ski Tour on November 30. Considering your plans? Courses tend to fill up fast. Visit backcountrybabes.com for more information.