Some call it a movement; others just call it actively pursuing their interests. Regardless of the mindset, Jill Sanford and her community of "slay-dies" (hint: see above) backcountry ski and snowboard their way through a male-dominated sport in today's Weekend Agenda. As we celebrate International Women's Day, join us as Jill reflects on her day atop Jake's Peak in Lake Tahoe, complemented with stunning shots by the talented Chelsea Jolly.
The wind howled at the summit as we peered over the edge, scouting a line that would offer the best skiing and safest descent from the top of Jake’s Peak, elevation 9,187 feet. It wasn’t snowing, but my face was stinging from the ice picked up and blown about by the strong afternoon gusts. I was cold and ready to get out of the wind, but underneath my hood, helmet, goggles, and buff, I was grinning from ear to ear as I looked out over the beautiful Lake Tahoe basin.
My backcountry partners that day were four women — two skiers and two split boarders. Laughing into the wind, we could feel and see the next storm rolling in as we picked our line. The day before, we’d heard that the north-facing trees offered prime pow-skiing, but as a group, we found ourselves drawn to the more open southeast face of Jake’s Peak. Taking a small amount of shelter behind a boulder and a few windblown trees, we transitioned our uphill, touring setups into descent mode and skied back to the edge, an approximate 2,500 vertical descent through old growth forest laid out before us.
It’s a somewhat common sentiment in the outdoor culture that it’s hard for women to break into male-dominated sports, particularly backcountry skiing and riding. And while I understand fully where that notion comes from and see the challenges faced by many women interested in the sport, I have always been extremely lucky in finding outdoor role models who are females. When I first purchased my backcountry setup three seasons ago and took an avalanche education course (which is an imperative step for ANYONE who skis or rides out of bounds), I quickly found a community of like-minded backcountry “slay-dies.”
Even so, as I pulled up to the trailhead with Dani in my car and our friends Chelsea, Maggie, and Clark saving us a parking spot, our excitement to be on an all-female mission was palpable. After a quick safety chat and gear check to make sure our avalanche beacons were sending and receiving properly, we set out on the skin track.
Our progress felt slow, but at each switchback, I looked back at Lake Tahoe to our east. Every time I turned, I could see more and more of its startlingly blue waters. As we climbed, the view was both a reward for our efforts and an indicator of how quickly we were gaining the summit.
It was one of the longer and steeper tours I had done at this point in the season, and on the last quarter of the ascent, my paced lagged. And yet, I found myself laughing all the while at Dani’s infallible energy, encouraged by Maggie’s kindness when she lent me her spare pair of gloves after I realized I’d forgotten mine at the trailhead, and inspired by Clark and Chelsea’s brisk pace up the mountain.
And as we started to ski down, I felt supported once again as I took my first couple of turns on the heavy, chunky snow. My initial turns lacked a lot of grace, but I could hear my crew of women cheering me towards them.
As we descended, the snow only improved — it was fast, light, and fun — and our whoops and hollers only got louder. Once we got below the ridgeline where the wind wasn’t howling in our ears, we followed each other down the mountain, alternating who went first to find untracked powder, regrouping every 300 feet or so.
The day was over too fast— I was shocked when I skied through some trees and found myself looking at Highway 89 where we had left our cars. But we made it down before the storm hit and shared a few more belly laughs while enjoying apres from the back of my Subaru.