Lessons for a longtime skier

  • Dina Mishev
  • Special To The Washington Post
12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 Travel
One of the expert skiers in the Elevate Women’s Ski Camp skis powder in the ski area’s Rock Springs Bowl. About 60 women participate in each of the two women’s camps held each winter. DINA MISHEV FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Snow whips at my group of six from all directions. Having just left the warmth of the waffle shack at the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s tram, it feels especially cold and wet. Still, standing in our skis, arranged in a line at the top of Rendezvous Bowl, we all begin disrobing our upper halves. Each of us is wearing between three and five layers, but in less than a minute we’re all down to our base layers. Then, Kori Richards starts a countdown: “3, 2, 1.”

At one, each of us removes our last layer, so that all we’re left with are our sports bras.

Something between a cheer and a roar erupts from my mouth. Similarly unspecific but equally joyful noises come from the rest of the group.

A camera is filming and, reveling in our silliness, we wave at it for several seconds, then we put back on our layers. We follow Richards, a 30-something ski instructor with a near-mystical power for noticing when I’m not pressuring the inside edges of my skis enough at a certain point of a turn, and ski away.

Usually in such conditions — poor visibility, strong winds, choppy snow — I’m a solid-but-hesitant skier, like most of the group. But, this run, we’re all on fire, skiing fast and aggressively, and judging by the exultant shouts that continue as we ski down, loving it.

Past the bowl, almost without pausing, we drop into a double-black-diamond run, un-groomed and full of tight trees. It’s like we’re all temporarily possessed by the type of skiers we’ve always wanted to be. Maybe this possession is our earlier silliness graduating to recklessness? But none of us hurts ourselves on this run, and we all agree it was the most fun and strongest run we’d each skied during our two-and-a-half days together. We’re not the same skiers we were three days ago, when the resort’s annual Elevate Women’s Ski Camp began.

Desire to get better

I live in Jackson, Wyoming, and for years I avoided lessons because I thought skiing was something that could be learned on your own. I spent 10 years doing just that. I got better every season, but never had any breakthroughs. My progression was skiing the same intermediate runs faster rather than graduating up to more difficult runs. It’s fine to be stuck if you’re happy skiing intermediate runs, but I wasn’t.

I had also avoided women’s-only sports camps for years. I wanted to learn to ski more difficult runs more aggressively and with more speed. When I thought of a women’s-only ski group, the vibe that came to mind — fairly or not — was more adorable than aggressive. So it didn’t dawn on me to look at the women’s-only offerings at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I went straight to the regular ski lessons — a ski camp, actually — that the resort is most famous for.

The resort’s four-day Steep & Deep camp is a bucket-list item for many — more than 1,000 skiers (and snowboarders) come here every winter to scare themselves silly in it. About 90 percent of Steep & Deepers are men. Having been founded in the 1990s by then-world extreme skiing champion Doug Coombs, though, it had one problem: the requirement that campers be expert level. Also, its online description promised that the final day could include skiing Corbet’s Couloir, generally regarded to be the most difficult inbounds ski run in North America. The intent of this news was to get wannabe participants psyched up: “Yeah! Lucky you! Corbet’s!” But that wasn’t how I read it. My translation was, “You’ll probably end this camp on crutches.”

Still, I wanted to do it. So I finally signed up for my first Steep & Deep.

Ski camps

The camp was transformative, and not just for my confidence when I wasn’t put into the lowest group. Coach Bill Truelove taught me about “schmearing,” a type of turn in which you control your speed throughout the entire arc, and helped me learn how to do it.

Since my first Steep & Deep camp, I’ve done three more. And, after skiing at the resort on my own one day in 2013 and having a group from one of the women’s camps blow past me on a double-black-diamond run and seeing how much fun they were having, I’ve also done two Elevate women’s camps. The one in which my group stripped to sports bras — for a funny movie to be shown at the final night’s banquet — was my first.

In all six of the camps I’ve attended, my skiing has made multiple breakthroughs that have stuck with me long after each camp ended.

Steep & Deep and Elevate are similar, but different. Both are four days of skiing and instruction. (But in Elevate, the four days of skiing happen over five days; Day 3 is a rest day.) Both camps allow participants early access to the tram. Both use the first morning to divide campers into groups of no more than five. This, along with a coach, is your group. It is possible to move between groups, but no one has ever joined or left the six groups I’ve been in.

While Steep & Deep is limited to expert skiers, Elevate is open to skiers who are intermediates and above.

I’d like to say there weren’t any differences in the mostly-men and all-women’s camps but once again, stereotypes held true. Waiting at to ski with my fellow Steep & Deepers, almost always the talk is serious and about how great they’re going to do. Waiting at the top of a women’s camp ski-off, the talk is always about how much better — more graceful, more athletic, more aggressive, more balanced — the woman who just skied is than we are.

Both camps include lunch, video analysis and have après-ski parties. At Steep & Deep, the last usually involves a shot ski — an old ski with multiple shot glasses attached to its base — at the least-fancy bar in the base area, Nick Wilson’s Cowboy Cafe. At Elevate, it means cocktails, wine and elk nachos at the Spur, a restaurant in the posh Teton Mountain Lodge.

Corbet’s is a possibility, but never a requirement, for higher-level groups in both camps. Although, never has someone in one of my Steep & Deep groups, including me, done it. Last winter in my Elevate group, two of my group of five did ski Corbet’s. Adorable and aggressive are not mutually exclusive.

I’d even say they are addictive — I was one of the two and know I never would have done it without the support, silliness and encouragement of the five women I’d befriended over skis and on lifts the prior three days. This winter, my plan is to do one of each.