Touring the West to infiltrate the girl scene in Jackson, Big Sky, and Revelstoke
This story originally published in the December 2015 issue of POWDER (44.4).
FIRST MORNING OF THE TRIP in Jackson Hole, and the sky was gray. We stayed up late the night before, crushing Tinder and drinking red wine out of plastic cups. Four girls sprawled out on two queen beds in a hotel room.
At 9 a.m. the room was stale with boozy sweat and too many bodies. I rolled over toward the center of the bed I shared with my friend, Lindsay Rider. She opened one eye, still caked with mascara, and cracked a half smirk. I called her a week ago to let her in on my plans to tour the West and tap into the ski girl revival that is taking over ski towns. "You should come," I said. Rider hung up the phone, covered her shifts at the restaurant where she worked in Salt Lake City, rallied two more—Katrina DeVore and Vanessa Aadland—and hit the road to Jackson. Others would meet up with us along the way.
Maybe you've noticed the surge of women in ski towns, too—more girls slinging drinks behind the bar, bumping chairlifts and dropping bombs in the winter, fighting fires and guiding raft trips in the summer. They are workaday skiers paying the bills and waiting for a storm. The influence women have on the market is well documented. According to Forbes, women drive 70 to 80 percent of all consumer purchasing, spending cash themselves or influencing others' decisions. The numbers in skiing are lower, but growing. According to Snowsports Industries of America, 41 percent of all skiers are women. In 2014, 2.5 million women clicked in to skis at least twice. And female-specific products made up 31 percent of total sales in snowsports, up four percent from the year prior to $1.4 billion. For a long time, ski bumming was thought to be a man's world. But with more and more women making a place for themselves in ski towns, that outdated notion is changing. I wanted to see that shift for myself. So I gathered a crew and hit the road for two weeks to Jackson, Big Sky, and Revelstoke to find the most ripping lady skiers you've never heard of.
That morning—in pajama pants and spaghetti-strap tank tops, sans bras—the girls lugged a white cooler into the room. They shoved the piles of toiletries to the side of the bathroom sink, cleared a space on the counter, plugged a black industrial-sized blender into the socket, and loaded it up with the goods: frozen berries, bananas, almond milk, vitamins, supplements, and powders. The machine grinded and whirred the concoction into a thick, purple frozen liquid that we divided into the plastic cups, still stained red from last night's wine.
At the crack of noon, we squeezed into Aadland's 1997 Subaru—slamming the trunk door quickly before all our gear fell out. The car was crammed with boots and bags and smelled like stank ski clothes. A purple dream catcher with five or six rows of feathers hung from the rearview mirror along with a pair of goggles. A mason jar with a metal straw was stuffed into the backseat pocket next to a roll of toilet paper and a half-empty bag of quinoa and black bean chips. Aadland, whose long, bedazzeled dreadlocks were tied in a loose braid, practically lived out of this car all winter, chasing snow and parties across the West.
The girls rocked heart-shaped sunglasses they got at Burning Man. Rider reached into the depths of crap and found an extra pair for me, her "Fuck Yeah Shades"—square frames with gold rhinestones that were held together at the nose with a glob of superglue. Aadland thumped heavy electronic bass all the way to the mountain, though the music was not loud enough to mask the grinding sound coming from the overburdened Subaru as it made a sharp left turn into the ski resort's parking lot.
At the tram deck, while we got our tickets situated, a girl in a red jacket and matching pants walked up to us. DeVore and Aadland knew her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Skiing," DeVore said. "What are you doing here?"
And just like that, our group grew.
Monica Purington, the girl in red, skied fast and guided us on a circuit up, down, and around the mountain. We took a few tram laps to Sublette, Thunder, and back to the tram. "Follow the rope line," she said on a run called Paintbrush, and down she went, diving into the tall, green pines like a red-tailed swallow. After Paintbrush, I followed her to Toilet Bowl, a Jackson classic lined with rocks and cliffs. "There's a mandatory air," she said, "but not that mandatory." Whatever that means.
That night we crammed in front of the mirror to blow-dry our hair and put on lipstick. Someone mixed whiskey cocktails with ginger beer, a splash of soda, and lemon wedges. Rider put on black leather pants. We met some guys for Thai food at a hole in the wall in Jackson. The party moved on to the bar after we ate, and one drink rolled into the next. I caught a ride home early, leaving the girls on the dance floor, where they twirled with cowboys and a few raccoon-eyed ski bums until last call.
The next morning, while DeVore, Rider, and Aadland slept off their late-night boozing, I woke up early to meet Prudence Daniels, a regular in the tramline. Today was no different. The 28-year-old was right on time, hopping off the shuttle, wearing a matching turquoise outfit from pants to the earrings that peeked out of her dirty-blonde ponytail.
Daniels' smile and friendly hello put me at ease. She kept quiet in the tramline, which was deep for a Wednesday in February with average conditions. We moved forward in bursts and Daniels made herself comfortable in the pauses. She leaned against the wall next to her skis and drew her attention inward. The shuffle moved us halfway up the maze, and she leaned over to say a quick hello to a man with gray hair who she sees here frequently. They caught up on the day-to-day and the snow conditions, small talk while we waited for the line to push forward again.
The tram docked at the base area, the doors opened, and Daniels expertly edged into her usual post next to the window. At the top, after she greeted a patroller, I followed her down a line she'd skied so many times she had every bump and turn memorized by heart. Rendezvous Bowl to the Hobacks—4,000 vertical feet of the best resort skiing in the country, day in and day out—that's her lap. "You know, powder is nice, but vertical is better," she said. "If you find skiing you love, you ski it."
Daniels skis like a hovercraft. She soars down the mountain, fast and smooth. Her arms lift from her sides, bent at the elbow, so that they look like wings. She's the middle child in a family from Grand Junction, Colorado. Her older sister works a high-powered job in Washington D.C., and her little sister recently graduated from college and moved there, too. Daniels, however, just wanted to ski, so she moved to Jackson. She used to hold a coveted bartending post at the brewery in town, where she worked for three years, but that became too stressful. Last winter, she took a paycut in exchange for a mellower life with an earlier bedtime and is now a hostess at a sushi restaurant in the winter and a gardener in the summertime. She also coaches 9-year-old girls one day a week, which gets her a free season pass.
"Follow me," she said at the bottom of Rendezvous Bowl. She took me on a detour from her normal lap down a cat track toward a south-facing aspect. Halfway down the road, she slowed down. Two girls were already at the top of the line, leaning over their poles and eyeing the chute below them. An orange rope marked the area closed. The skiing looked good—cream of corn—but good enough to duck the rope? While I weighed the decision, Daniels swooped in and poached first tracks.
She arced a giant right turn then took off through a passageway between the sunbaked rocks, leaving me with nothing to do but follow. We weaved through one chute and onto a bench with a couple trees and then down another straightline through a rock band. I hesitated; the snow was thick and pulled at my skis, but caught up with her at the bottom. We skied back to the chair and from the top, headed toward the Hobacks for one last lap before Daniels had to catch the bus to make it to work on time.
VALENTINE’S DAY WAS A FEW DAYS LATER, one of the busiest holidays of the season at Big Sky Resort in Montana. I maneuvered through the congested parking lot, booted up, missed the shuttle, and started walking toward the chairlift. A few minutes later, I heard a pretty voice call my name. I looked up and saw a familiar face standing next to her muddy Subaru waving at me. Ciara Hayes is a friend from back home in Tahoe, where we both lived and skied together a few years back.
"There aren't many girls in Big Sky," she had told me. Actually, a lot of people told me that, which struck me as strange. I had heard from another source that Montana was full of skiing women, a different breed of burly chicks who could sweep down an exposed line faster than anyone. They sounded like my kind of skiers.
Hayes and I walked up to the Swift Current Chair. The mountain buzzed with people, mostly tourists, walking awkwardly in the snow, waiting in big groups, standing in lift lines that stretched beyond the maze. I saw the girls through the crowds from 100 feet away—a rainbow of Gore-Tex is hard to miss. They surrounded a tall woman with pink hair and a pink helmet, Monica Thomas. She rounded up the troops as soon as I showed up. Big Sky definitely has women. And they rip.
On the chair, I sat next to Thomas, a yoga teacher-slash-waitress named Jen Avery, and a nurse who splits her time between Big Sky and Seattle named Lynn Kinnison. That morning the clouds had parted to reveal the massive and rocky cone-shaped Lone Peak that the ski resort wraps around. Situated mostly above tree line, Big Sky is famous for rocky, steep terrain. The girls ticked off the names of every line and chute you could see, overwhelming me with the possibilities of the place. But beware, they said, of the sharks hiding in the snow that will grab your skis, rip a core shot, and send you flying into a field of boulders. Beneath all the bright Gore-Tex, the girls at Big Sky wear body armor—knee pads, elbow pads, back braces—because that fall could be the difference between a ripped pair of pants and a broken kneecap.
Before I arrived, Thomas told me she would rally a few local ladies to ski, tapping a couple shoulders in the tramline and sending out a few texts. By a few, she meant 20. I followed her to the end of a traverse that spit us out at the top of a wide, open bowl perfect for a group shred. Then we headed to Challenger, a slow double meant for lapping chalky bumps.
Thomas grew up in a place called Wisdom, Montana, population 98, not really close to anything. She spends her summers fighting wildfires—a hotshot for seven years, and last summer, the forewoman for an initial attack crew—so she can ski every day in the winter. It works the other way, too. She skis all winter to save herself from the hot, arduous summers of hard work. "There are days out there when you're climbing a hill with a big-ass pack, and you've got some sniveling 25-year-old boy behind you whining, and you're just like, arghhhh," she says. "So I do these flashbacks to this time of year in the winter and remember something glorious like a powder day and keep on moving."
By early afternoon, our group had whittled down to six, including Thomas, Kinnison, myself, and two former Dirtbag Queens—an honor bestowed annually at the Big Sky Dirtbag Ball. We took the tram to the top of Lone Peak and skied out the gate to a sunbaked bowl called Dakota. The warm afternoon felt like spring. Despite the thick, mashed snow, the girls swept down the barren slope with powerful, open turns. Usually, Thomas just skis with her boyfriend because it's hard to meet up with people on a sprawling mountain. "We wake up together; we get up here; we get on the lift; and we just go skiing," she said. Every now and then she runs into some ladies in the tramline. But today was something special.
At the bottom of the bowl, I followed the girls to a yurt on the backside of Lone Peak that served up cold cans of Hopzone IPA on a sun-drenched deck. That night one of the other girls we skied with, Jill McNamara, hosted all the single ladies at a Montana Valentine's barbecue. McNamara grilled venison from one of the two deer she shot the winter before and other girls brought elk sausage, cabbage salads, and whiskey. McNamara is also a fly-fisher who once caught a trout so big it dragged her a quarter mile downstream. "Mama just raised me right," she said. "We didn't have a TV, so we played outside. And that's why I love it here, because everyone is always doing something outside."
A FEW DAYS LATER, well above the 49th parallel, a group of girls walked into a blue gondola car at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The doors closed and the gondola rose above the valley. The conversation escalated with the view, which grew vast across British Columbia to the north and south. The thing about these Canadian girls—they don't care who is listening.
"I haven't painted my nails in years, and I hate hand jobs, but I gave my boyfriend one yesterday because my nails looked so good."
"With your new nails!"
"Did you put on matching lipstick?"
"A handy—that's a lot of work."
"That is a lot of work. It takes forever."
"I never do it, and I just felt like a new woman."
The gondola echoed with applause. For the first time in the 10 days I'd been on the road, I woke up that morning alone. I left Rider, DeVore, Aadland, Daniels, Thomas, and Kinnison in the U.S. before crossing the border. Downstairs, I was the only patron in the only restaurant open in Revelstoke Village. The silence didn't last long. A group of girls walked straight to my table a few minutes later. Leslie Hogg, a tall brunette, led the way, followed by twin sisters Lindsay Craig and Jess Leahey, and a blonde named Heidi. Unabashed, the four girls sat in my booth and started talking like we were old friends. No drama. Nothing forced.
After marginal conditions in Jackson and Montana, I was hoping for fresh powder in Revelstoke. The mountain had decent coverage, but a warm Pineapple Express rolled through the week before, bringing rain to the upper elevations. Still, slopes icier than a luge course were not enough to stop a few Canadians from ripping some hot laps.
A rain crust pushed us high in search of good snow—up a steep bootpack to the top of a ridge beneath Mount Mackenzie. One foot in front of the other, the pace was quick, as to be expected from girls who hike these mountains all summer, working on crews either planting trees or fighting fires. All winter they backcountry ski around nearby Rogers Pass.
At the top of the hike, we clicked in to our skis and dropped onto a narrow ridge that divided two big bowls and served up our choice of mini golf lines. One by one, the girls skied a one-turn wonder in the last remaining powder stash in the resort, swooping into the bowl and cheering the next girl on. Craig was the first girl down. She took the steepest and narrowest line of all.
"Love at first sight for Revy," said Craig. "This is it. It's beautiful outside. Clean air. Good friends." Six years ago, the 30-year-old followed her twin sister, Jess, and brother-in-law, Troy Leahey, the ski resort's avalanche forecaster, to Revelstoke. All winter, Craig lived in her sister's spare bedroom in a trailer park next to the river. Two years ago, she opened a local pool supply and maintenance company. She ditched work to come skiing and fielded calls from the chair: "Revelstoke Pool and Spa, this is Lindsay."
As skinny as she is tall, standing 5-foot-9, Craig skis hard. She hides her slender figure in baggy ski pants that are as beat up as a carpenter's pair of Carhartts. She skis in stiff men's Lange boots and leans into her K2 Backside skis with an aggressive, upright stance. She grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, some 1,500 miles away, ski raced and competed in moguls and aerials as a kid, and made a push for a professional skiing career later in life. But her drinking got the best of her. Now, she has been sober for nearly two years. "It's changed me completely, actually," she said. The proof is in her skiing. Mentally and physically, she is strong and calm. She led the way into the trees, a perma-grin on her face, powering her skis over icy crud as if it were a groomed, smooth surface.
"I ski for the freedom. It's a way of life. It's an escape," she said. The rest of the group followed on the single track, weaving down and around the forest, back toward the chair for another lap.
"You've never candled a tree before?" Hogg asked me a few runs later in disbelief. I live in California, where I'd probably get arrested for starting a campfire. But here in Canada, sparking up a dead tree is practically a public service, especially when you're in the company of professional firefighters. "You're helping with forest management," Hogg explained. I shrugged my shoulders—the skiing wasn't getting any better—and followed the girls into the woods to search for the perfect dead tree. "Let's light this bitch," said Leahey.
Dead trees with orange pine needles were easy to find, and the girls huddled around stumps, holding their lighters to the low-hanging branches. Usually the tree bursts into flame and burns until the fuel runs out. But today was gray and damp and the flame never caught higher than a couple of branches. We moved on to the next tree, and then another, until we were bored of lighting trees on fire.
"Want to go to the hot tub?" I asked.
We caught a cat track halfway through our last run of the day. The slope flattened and we slowed down. The sun shone through the trees and we stopped for a moment to feel the rays. Leahey and Hogg held hands. Craig skied out in front. Everyone pushed their poles into the snow and picked up enough speed to glide to the bottom.