If you know more than a few women avalanche educators, you probably live in a ski town with more pot shops than police stations and where backcountry shovels threaten to spill out of closets with “Attack of La Niña” posters on their doors.
That’s because there are so few women working in the profession, says the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. Women make up just 20% of AIARE’s avalanche instructor educators due, sometimes, to factors beyond their control.
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“It’s hard enough for anyone to make a living as an avalanche professional,” said Azissa Singh, a program manager for the nonprofit. “Then you add in other factors in people’s lives, such as not being connected or preconceived notions around what a person can and can’t do.” Those barriers can be further amplified by women who face discrimination based on race, physical ability, nonconforming gender identity or whether they’re mothers, how much money they make and a host of other historically marginalizing factors, Singh said.
So three years ago, the Telluride-based institute, which sprung up in 1998, developed a several-month program to support women in avalanche education with opportunities and resources meant to help them grow and sustain careers. AIARE achieves this through a multidisciplinary approach including a virtual conversation series, in which women across the snow and avalanche industry share their wisdom on a variety of related topics, its marketing director Whitney Bradberry said. The program includes mentorship cohort opportunities, where an avalanche professional mentors three to six women wanting to advance their careers in the field; and professional and instructor training courses and scholarships created with diversity in mind.
The program isn’t just for women wanting to climb the ladder of avalanche instruction, though. Singh said women are one of the largest groups of people wanting to learn avalanche education and that they may learn best when their teachers are women.
“It holds true across educational settings that when we have an instructor who cannot only sympathize but empathize with a student, the student has a better chance of retaining the material the educator taught,” Singh said. “That’s especially important in avalanche education, where how much you know can be the difference between life and death.”
The bad old days of all guys and no girls in the backcountry
As bad as the gender divide is now in backcountry skiing and avalanche education, there weren’t enough women to really have a divide back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Mia Tucholke came to Colorado and started backcountry skiing in the mid-1980s. She said there was very little if any avalanche education, and even fewer women skiing in avalanche terrain. She didn’t carry avalanche safety equipment, but neither did the guys she skied with. Knowing and carrying it “wasn’t really what you did back then,” she said. But by the late 1980s “things started getting a little more educational, with avalanche beacons, etc.” And in 1989, Colorado Mountain College offered an avalanche education course taught by the legendary Colorado Avalanche Information Center co-founder and forecaster Knox Williams.
Figuring it might be easier to avoid getting buried and/or dig someone up if she had a few avalanche safety skills, Tucholke took Williams’ course. She and her guy pals then applied it to the backcountry tours they were doing, including one they dubbed the “Colorado Grand Tour,” starting at Berthoud Pass and headed west, past Aspen.
In 1994, Tucholke got involved with Colorado Mountain College, teaching avalanche skills to classes with a 50-50 gender split. “They really wanted to have at least one female instructor on their winter trips, because there were so many female students,” she said.
Tucholke said there are practical reasons why backcountry skiing needs more women leaders.
“I think historically what happens when you have a group of people out and there’s one woman with maybe three to six guys, if the subject of safety comes up, it may have been harder for the solo female to speak up and be heard over all the dude noise,” she said. “And I also think, sometimes historically, a lot of women have gone on trips and not necessarily had a chance to be the group leaders. But when you have an all-women group, everyone is a team player and can feel like they are one of the leaders.”
Women leading women the AIARE way
Singh said prerequisites for being paired with a mentor through the AIARE program are “pretty minimal.”
“Applicants need only a few seasons of teaching some kind of outdoor skill. Maybe they worked teaching climbing at the gym or in college took people backpacking. And they need two seasons worth of backcountry winter travel behind them,” she said. “Then we ask that they have a general interest in the field or profession.”
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It’s hard to say exactly how many women already have outdoor education credentials and want to move into avalanche ed, but the number of women participating in outdoor recreation in general has increased by 20 million since 2015, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2022 Outdoor Participation Trend Report. The number of women participating in Alpine backcountry touring increased 150% to 924,000 in the 2022-23 season from 370,000 in 2020-21. And about 651,000 women participated in snowboard touring in 2022-23, up 85% from 352,000 in 2020-21, according to Snowsports Industries America data.
AIARE wants to help by running this year’s programs in six regions: Colorado/Utah, California, Oregon/Washington, Idaho/Montana/Wyoming, the Northeast and Alaska. The online portion of the women’s mentorship program starts in October. Come February, Colorado classes will head outside to resorts like Copper and Eldora and backcountry reachable by Interstate 70.
Mentor and student applications are currently open, with the first closing Friday and the second Oct. 1. Apply at avtraining.org/womens-mentorship/.