Ski companies have been making women's skis for a long time, but they were usually toned-down, "shrinked and pinked" versions of the men's skis. Ski construction has everything to do with ability, terrain preference, and body height and weight. So, when the industry produced "women's skis" comprised of lighter materials, they were assuming that women were actually intermediate skiers. For much of the last several decades, most women's skis have lacked high-performance characteristics in appropriate lengths. This essentially created a gap where strong women skiers were forced into skiing something too soft, or a unisex model that was too long.


But thanks in large part to a chorus of female voices who are speaking loudly and clearly about the need to make equipment for women who are strong skiers, ski companies have listened. Look to Salomon, whose QST Stella 106 is exactly the same as the men's QST 106, just with a female top sheet and shorter lengths. (I'm a fan of feminine top sheets, but I'll make another plea to the industry: a top sheet for women can and should encompass more than pink and purple sparkles.) Same goes for the Nordica Santa Ana 110, Armada Trace 108, and Black Crows Atris Birdie to name a few. Another company doing right by women is Coalition, which is founded by women, staffed by women, and makes skis for women. (Boys can ski them, too, FYI.)

Elyse Saugstad feels like women’s-specific ski designs are imperative for on-hill fun. “It means my gear needs to be lighter, potentially smaller/shorter, and a lot of times I don't prefer my graphics on my gear to look super masculine.” PHOTO: Frank Shine

And then there's Blizzard Tecnica, which started a roundtable in fall of 2015 with groups of women in North America and Europe. This effort commenced their Women to Women initiative, which not only focuses on women's product design but also to "empower and educate the women's skiing community." Information from the focus groups and the female athlete summits—36 women, worldwide—help the engineers and R&D department at the Blizzard factory in Austria make better women's skis and boots. (In must be noted that K2's prescient "Ski Alliance," founded in 2000, lead this all-women's R&D initiative before others kick-started their own.)

As well, Blizzard is sponsoring some of the fastest and most aggressive women skiers on the planet, including Elyse Saugstad, Jackie Paaso, and Keely Kelleher to assist in developing skis. Saugstad and Paaso come from the big mountain competition world, and Paaso still competes on the Freeride World Tour. But recently, both have made great strides in filming. Saugstad skis front and center in MSP's flick this year, All In, and Paaso just released a film, called Evolution of Dreams, that follows her comeback from an injury to skiing the Eiger in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Kelleher is a ski racer and mentor to the next generation of lady shredders with her training camps for girls and women, called Keely’s Ski Camp for Girls & Women. Kelleher is also a part of Blizzard's Women to Women program, helping develop skis.

I caught up with Saugstad, Paaso, and Kelleher—to ask them what they would say about the state of women's skiing and other things.

Elyse Saugstad, Keely Kelleher, and Jackie Paaso. PHOTOS: Frank Shine

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

POWDER: What's one area where you've seen the biggest change, or the most progress, in women's skiing?

Keely: A change in attitude in the ski industry toward women’s equipment is happening and it’s being lead by women like Leslie Baker-Brown. Leslie is the marketing manager for Blizzard skis and Tecnica ski boots and she is one of the driving forces in making women’s specific equipment and pushing for progress in women’s skiing. It’s important to put women in roles like these so we can educate women in a way that is not intimidating but fun and approachable.

Elyse: Companies like Blizzard do not prescribe to the "token female" model, rather they have quite a few women on their team. Ski film companies are also starting to break that archaic, non-representative model of the "token female." It's great! But, there are still some brands that are really behind the times that have literally two women on their team while they've got 20 dudes.

The best way to look at women's progression in our sport is by the concept of the snowball effect. The more women see other women doing rad things on skis, the more other females will be inspired to get out there and push themselves.

Jackie Paaso does what she does best: going huge. PHOTO: Frank Shine

Where do you want to see more change or improvement?

Elyse: Equal Pay.

Jackie: I want to see more support for women in sports, especially on the financial side. It's getting better but I strongly feel that women's skiing will progress more if there are more female role models to look up to who are crushing it in the mountains.

Of course, we ski because we love it and not to get rich. However, last I checked we also need to pay bills and those bills are not cheaper because we are females. So our paychecks need to start being on the same level as the men. It's give-and-take and if we get more support from the industry, we'll be able give more back to the sport.

Keely: Last year I wrote an open letter to Ski Magazine regarding an article about five women, including myself, who are re-energizing the ski industry. For the first time in my career, I spoke up about how the ski industry can change and improve with regard to showcasing women. I feel strongly that if women want to be taken seriously in the ski industry as professionals, then we need to have a long, hard look at how we are representing ourselves and how our media and language is effecting the next generation of girls in skiing. Sending strong, educated, and meaningful messages to the girls I work with every day is the single most important part of my job and it’s the reason I started Keely’s Camps. I think we are on a positive path to sending the right messages, but I think we can always improve.

Jackie: All women and girls, myself included, need to do a better job of supporting each other and paying attention to what other women and girls are doing in all sports.


How has equipment evolved for the female skier?

Keely: Ten years ago, you wouldn’t catch me on a women’s ski. The stigma surrounding women’s skis was that they were unreliable and lame. Our culture is evolving to recognizing the female skier as a legitimate customer and [ski companies] are giving her what she wants.

Today I proudly rock the Blizzard Sheeva 11 and the Black Pearl 98. Why? Because, hands down, they are the best ski I tested last year. And not just for me, but for the women I coach.

I run women’s ski camps in Portillo, Chile, and one of the women was skiing on the Black Pearl 98. She was an intermediate-to-advanced skier and we both were getting what we wanted out of the ski. It’s incredible how well women’s skis are being built for every ability level now, whether you learned to ski five years ago or you are a World Cup downhiller.

Jackie: There seem to be more options these days. Companies are starting to take the female customer more serious and are learning that we also want equipment that performs at high levels. It's not just about making products that supposedly look attractive to women. It's more about making products that allow women to charge hard, cruise, or learn to ski. They are starting to cover all the needs of women.

Keely Kelleher looks on to a future that’s much brighter and better for female skiers. PHOTO: Frank Shine

Do you think women's-specific gear is necessary, and why?

Elyse: I do think it's very necessary to make gear that is women's specific. Our bodies are different enough that we need gear that is specific for us. For example, I may ski like the boys but I'm only 5-foot-5-inches and weigh 125 pounds, and that is a big difference compared to a lot of men. It means my gear needs to be lighter, potentially smaller/shorter, and a lot of times I don't prefer my graphics on my gear to look super masculine.

As an example, I can handle ski boots with similar flex to men and I'm looking for the same top-of-the-line features, but the length of the cuff of a men's-focused boot doesn't work well for me. It hits at a higher spot on my shin, which means the pressure of my flex is coming from a less dynamic spot and so it tends to kick me in the back seat.

Jackie: Women are built differently than men. That is not to say that we must have women's-specific equipment all the time, but a lot of women will benefit from having more options than just items that are designed with men in mind. I personally use what Blizzard/Tecnica would refer to as their "unisex line" while other ripping ladies will mainly use women's specific equipment.


Keely: Absolutely! I think creating a women’s-specific equipment movement is only going to bring women together more to participate in skiing. I don’t know about you but the number one reason I won’t go skiing sometimes is because I don’t have anyone to go with. I think this is a common sentiment felt with a lot of women. If we create equipment and a space for women to feel excited about their gear and educated about it then we are going to see more women getting into our sport and staying in the sport.

One essential piece of gear for women is also very divisive: Are you for or against using a SheWee?

Elyse: I haven't been in a situation to really need one, but all I've heard from friends that have tried to use them is they're pretty gross and don't work that well.

Keely: Anything that makes peeing in the outdoors as a woman easier, I’m all for.

Jackie: So, I bought one of these a while ago and apparently I have to practice how to use it.

Elyse Saugstad offers tremendous technical insight as to why women’s specific gear matters. PHOTO: Frank Shine

Can you explain how you participate in the development of Blizzard and Tecnica products?

Keely: Our meetings consist of everything from testing the boots and skis to deep conversations about how a ski graphic will look on a wall in a ski shop.

Leslie [Baker-Brown, Blizzard/Tecnica marketing manager] has given us the opportunity to give direct feedback on everything, from what we want to see in a ski to how warm a boot should feel. She takes our feedback to the factory and out pops the ski and boot we decide on. It’s a very rewarding and educational experience to be involved in.

Jackie: I've been to a few of the R&D meetings to test, learn, share, and discuss what I want in my products as well as what I have heard about what others want. It's always an interesting process. I'm learning from the designers and engineers about the build process and athletes are sharing what we need.


What's your preference: Steep or deep?

Jackie: Steep can be scary and challenging, yet rewarding. And deep is usually just fun. It depends on the day—sometimes I like a challenge and sometimes I just want to have fun!

Keely: Steep.

Elyse: Alaska is my favorite place to ski and it's a combination of both, so I think you can have both!