Peak Experiences: A Women's Ski Clinic
by Risa Weinreb
"Never lean back when you ski," Sylvie had cautioned us. "Gravity will suck you down."
As I peered into the vortex of Jokerville, Newton's Law threatened to slurp me down like a Starbucks frappuccino. The trail seemed to nose-dive endlessly--a fate I dreaded to share. Just where I planned to make my first turn, white-glare ice winked ominously.
Trying to remember everything Sylvie had said, I started my descent and concentrated on rhythm: edge--release--edge--release as my skis carved through the turns. Before I knew it, the trail leveled off and I eased onto the flat certainty of the cat track, where my companions waited. "You looked great," Karen said, while Holly added, "Your turns have really smoothed out."
This black-diamond run was just one of many pop quizzes I mastered during a women's ski clinic directed by two-time World Extreme Skiing Champion Kim Reichhelm in Crested Butte, Colorado. Open to all levels of skiers, the four-day programs are designed to ease fears, provide support, and encourage women to tackle challenges--on-mountain and off. "Amazing results come out of it," a friend had reported.
Amazing? Heck, I'd settle for beating the intermediate skier blahs where I'd languished for two seasons. I looked good enough on blue runs, but reverted to death-grip snowplow in the steeps or moguls. I was looking to Kim to beam me up to the next level.
What sets Kim Reichhelm apart is her awesome blend of credentials and charisma. Nicknamed the "Queen of Extreme," she's a veteran of the U.S. Ski Team and Women's Pro Tour. A tall, lithe blonde, she chases down slalom runs with the assurance of a lioness making a kill. She's also funny, smart, and a girl's girl, as ready to dispense tips for tuning edges as cures for hat hair (although I suspect Kim never had a bad hair day in her life).
She started Women's Ski Adventures in 1989--one of the first programs targeted to females in the country. Why did this eat-nails-for-breakfast competitor decide to run sessions for recreational noodles like me? "I wanted to give back something to skiing, and see more women enjoy the sport," Kim explained. " I wanted to say, 'Hey, you don't have to ski that run. You don't have to ski those huge bumps. Let me show you how to approach this so you're not scared to death.'"
At the drop of a neck gaitor, Kim will explain how men and women have different goals in skiing. "If you ask a man what he wants, he say, 'I want to go fast, I don't care what I look like, and I want a rush--maybe catch a little bit of air.' A woman will say, 'I want to be in control, I want to look good, and I want to have fun.'"
It sounded exactly like me--as well as the other seven participants I met at the welcome reception the first night, all aged from the early 30s to the fathomless 50s. In skiing ability, we ranged from Mary, a former ski instructor, to Delores, who was trying to master the novice slopes. An excellent vote of confidence--three women had taken Kim's clinic previously.
We also met the other instructors, both long-time veterans at the Crested Butte Ski School: Sylvie Richard and Angie Hornbrook. We'd rotate coaches over the next few days to get plenty of tips and input.
We received a questionnaire to fill out about our skiing experience and fears (bugaboos have ranged from chairlifts to trail maps and getting lost). We also had to list our goals. Although I was tempted to write down "ski like Kim," I settled for the prosaicly achievable: become a solid advanced intermediate. Among the other women, aims ranged from learning to ski fast, to rediscovering the joy of skiing, to a joking "meet cute ski patrol guys." The form also asked if I wanted to be challenged. Yes! I penned.
My resolve was tested the first morning when Kim led us in on-ski stretches, such as standing each ski on its tail to extend the hamstring. I have invested many thousands of dollars over the years learning to keep both my skis on the ground, thank you very much. But hey, I was here to learn. I wobbled into position and--surprise--my hamstring felt great. The exercise also reinforced that I had control over my equipment, not visa versa. I became dominatrix over my 167 centimeters of ski and snow.
The questionnaire and an on-skis assessment divided us into three groups: expert, intermediate, and novice. Kim took command of us five intermediates and we rode the chair to big, beautiful Paradise Bowl.
An unexpected, un-Weather Channeled storm had dumped three inches of exquisitely light powder on the mountain. I was elated to see that the four other women in my group were darned good skiers, with the form I always admire from the chairlift. If I was in their group, it meant that I skied as well as them.
After we warmed up, Kim worked on our stance, stressing techniques that would help us ski better as terrain got gnarlier: Keep your hands in front of you. Flex your ankles. Lean forward.
After we came off the mountain at 4 pm, Kim screened the videos she shot of us that day. Seeing yourself skiing on camera has a definitely cringe-factor--like unexpectedly glimpsing yourself in the mirror while trying on bathing suits. Merciless, the tape proved that although I thought I was driving forward on my skis, I still leaned back--and gravity was the abominable snowman lurking thirstily in the bushes.
Before the clinic, I wasn't sure how I'd feel doing "the woman thing"--I generally ski with the boys, often outlasting them, if not out-blasting them. But my group quickly forged a snow goddess alliance. After runs, we congratulated each other ("You looked great through the moguls") and confessed fears and mistakes ("I couldn't handle the icy pitch"), without bravado... Okay gentlemen, I'll say it, macho bravado. Sessions rippled with the giddy giggles of a girls' sleepover--we shared sun screen, stock tips, Gatorade, Sex and the City type jokes. And while most guys of my acquaintance straightline down the mountain the moment they get off the lift, we took time to marvel at the 14,000-foot peaks of the Maroon Bells.
Our hotel headquarters, the Club Med, reinforced the gal-pal vibe. Located right at the base of the lifts, the property had recently received a multimillion-dollar renovation. A Euro-style ski room downstairs made it quick to grab gear and go in the morning.
Best of all, all meals were included. We quipped that the clinics should be renamed "Women's Eating Adventures" because of the lavish buffets, from made-to-order omelets in the morning to grilled quail, steak bordelaise, roast lamb, and piles of crab legs and shrimp at dinner. And we all became addicted to the white chocolate bread, tucked innocently among the whole wheats and ryes.
The second day, my little band of intermediates started off stiff and awkward. Attempting to remember 17 different ways to do things right, I did everything wrong--my timing was off. Moreover, I was still sitting back on my skis, butt aft like Daisy Duck.
Sylvie, our instructor that day, proceeded to take apart our games and put them back together again. To our initial disappointment, instead of skiing black diamonds, we were relegated back to the bunny slope, schussing amid toddlers on leashes. And we had to ski without our poles, no less.
But on gentle terrain, we could nail moves that had eluded us in the steeps. Our turns got smoother. We leaned forward. We rocked. And our new prowess stayed with us when--poles restored--we swooped down Keystone, a challenging run with steeps, slicks, and bumps.
At lunch, Kim gave breezy lectures and demos about ski techniques and gear--backbending skis to show flex, yanking out book liners to explain proper fit, mapping out the fastest line through the slalom gates. She also was a one-woman ski shop, hauling out boxes of demo gear like it was Christmas morning. We got to try out the new K2 T-Nine series of skis for women and also Boeri helmets, sampling different models like Goldilocks until we found the fit that was just right.
Day three was Moguls 101. Angie reviewed the basics ("turn on top of the bumps") and led us down some nicely formed hummocks on Upper Ruby Chief. Suddenly, everything clicked and I saw my line. Up the side. Turn into the trough. Up the side. Because I had the right skills, it became easy.
As we rode the chairlifts, we talked about skiing--and life. I understood why Kim had remarked that by conquering the mountain, women also learn to conquer their own fears. "You get an edge--you learn to take chances and face risks," she said. Missy, back for the second year, echoed that theme. "The clinic not only changed my skiing--it gave me confidence to make other changes in my life--at work, at home."
We skied as a group through lunch, then were on our own for the afternoon. Missy went snowmobiling. Holly skied with her boyfriend. I chose to check out town, just a five-minute ride from the mountain via the free town shuttle. A mining settlement dating to the 1800s, Crested Butte is a charmer, with wooden-front buildings now housing shops and restaurants.
Morning four--our last day-- we awoke to two inches of fluffy new powder. Since the sky was so vibrant, it seemed more neon than bluebird. The thin, white branches of aspens glowed in contrast.
Thanks to Kim's advice about equipment, most of us had spent part of our free afternoon upgrading our gear. Wendy bought a helmet. I anted for custom footbeds and heel lifts. Missy showed up with new boot heaters--and a slinky, snakeskin-print thermal body suit.
All that tweaking worked. We skied invincibly, making first tracks down the white-velvet of Treasury, driving through the moguls on International, racing through the gates on the slalom course.
For our graduation finale, Kim grouped us in a chevron formation, then led us down the mountain in perfect unison, all turning at the same time. Other skiers on the mountain whooped and applauded.
We deserved it.
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For the remainder of this season, Kim Reichhelm's Women's Ski Adventures are scheduled for Crested Butte, Colorado (March 7-12, 2002), and Big Sky, Montana (March 21-26, 2002). Rates range from $1,588 to $1,950 per person (double occupancy), and include accommodations, four days of instruction and lift tickets, most or all meals (depending on location), and more. Kim also offers Black Diamond Adventures for men and women, with heli- and snow-cat skiing in Alaska's Chugach mountains. Dates are March 30-April 7 and April 6-14, 2002. For details, tel. 888-444-8151 or website: www.skiwithkim.com.