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2nd Annual Women of Winter Backcountry Clinic

As winter backcountry terrain becomes more accessible—more luring—and touring technology improves, more women are taking command of their ability to venture beyond the gates on their own. Smart, ambitious and passionate about the mountains, they all seek the same thing: independence.

Freedom, of course, is found out there. And access to it just takes knowledge.

Welcome to the Women of Winter Backcountry Clinic presented by Crystal Mountain and evo snowboard shop—sold out again for the second year in a row (Year 1 here). This edition of the two-day classroom and field clinic hosted nearly 30 ladies interested in learning the foundations of backcountry skills.

Why a womens-only clinic? Because it’s a different dynamic; that’s true. But no, it’s not a softer, gentler setting. It’s simply sans pissing-contest; questions welcomed.

Under that credo, we were treated to a midweek classroom 101 session about the key elements to consider before embarking into the backcountry. Those being, of course, weather, snowpack and terrain. Crystal Mountain Ski Patroller Christina Von Merterns led the discussion. A veteran, she can out-talk the snow gods on the science of their craft, spending as she does every day on the mountain, living the reports, calculating the conditions. She brought home to us the attention it takes to truly thrive in the winter environment. I find it an enchanting science.

The following Saturday, we gathered at the mountain. As the sun disappeared behind the morning haze, we rode the chairlift up into the coming storm. At the top, we switched our gear—supplied by the shop and local reps—into tour-mode and headed for the cat track and soon out of bounds.

Perhaps it was the falling snow, or the peace brought by the adventure and the mountain flanks soaring up on either side, but this year, a quiet energy and sense of camaraderie laced together our accordioned group as we traversed out. We stopped every once in a while to analyze the surrounding terrain, or to practice using our beacons; or because suddenly the path would give way to a steep swooping dip that required a lot of back-lean in our tour bindings—but not too much, lest you get bucked and wind up a colorful tangled mess of skis and poles on the snow.

As we began to ascend, the wind kicked up and the sense of expedition settled in. That feeling of being small out there, it never goes away. It’s out there that you surrender to your place in winter, mind your manners and carry on toward the reward at the top with sensible direction. Led by the patrollers, we did just that.

Basecamp fell on top of a knoll, where we had lunch, then watched as patroller Kim Kircher dug a pit and critiqued the last couple weeks of snowfall, identifying the layers. Though this year has again been plagued by deadly slides, we were in a safe zone and if the wind and precip stayed mild, we were fine. In the stress-test, Kim’s snow columns took some effort to release.

And so then, up we went, grinding out switchbacks up the chute. Mastering—or trying to master—kickturns as the pitch grew steeper and the wind-blown settled over the tracks. Low visibility and tired legs only added to the challenge. But nonetheless, spirits stayed high. Really, this is why we were here. And spending an afternoon in the backcountry with a band of girls just as determined as you to cash in on the rewards, is a good place to be.

At the top, we celebrated in the whipping wind and switched our gear back, ready for the descent. Justus Hyatt, who co-organized the clinic, dropped in first making a long S-turns in the white, disappearing into the valley below. We each followed, taking our solo run, practicing good backcountry care—and enjoying our independence.

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