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Trekking to Mount Baldy with Backcountry Babes

Midweek coed Avy 1 course

What: A coed AIARE Avalanche Level 1 course, hosted by the local Backcountry Babes group with instructors Anne St. Clair and Kirstin Nelson

When: Tuesday to Thursday, Jan. 12-14 beginning at 8 a.m. daily

Where: Breckenridge

Cost: $395

The coed course has no prerequisites and is split about 65/35 between in-field instruction and classroom time. To register or find out more, including a list of upcoming Level 2 and female-only classes in late January and February, see the website at http://www.backcountrybabes.com.

"We want to give you a pat on the back for just being here," says Anne St. Clair, the lead instructor for Backcountry Skiing 101. "Welcome to this community."

It's Saturday night in Breckenridge, and for the first time in my brief ski-touring career I am surrounded by women. Thanks to Backcountry Babes, an organization dedicated to empowering women to explore and lead in the outdoors, none of us gathered this evening had to be the token female participant. We take turns introducing ourselves and sharing our goals for the course. Some felt intimidated by avalanche courses and wanted something more basic. Others were looking for a backcountry course specific to women's needs. Peggy Schrammel, one of the course participants, says, "So many guys are like, 'Why are you taking a class?'"

St. Clair follows up by saying that she wishes more people would take a class like this. She shares stories of students in Avalanche Level 1 classes who are not familiar with the basics — the gear, the movement of touring — before digging into snow safety. During such an intense safety course, the last thing you want is to be distracted by how your gear works.

The Backcountry Babes course is an attempt to fill the knowledge gap between backcountry novices and avalanche students. It is also the first course in a progressive series this winter designed to develop competent and confident backcountry skiers. Students receive an overview of the gear, the sport and some basic avalanche awareness.

For women who are new to the sport, St. Clair wants to drive home the point that "the backcountry can be fun and not scary."

How to plan a tour

The next morning we go to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) website and learn how to read the snow report. We then assess the risk of our proposed ski tour. St. Clair asks us if we all feel comfortable with today's plan.

"If anybody doesn't, we can have a more thorough discussion by looking at the snowpack and topo map," she says and assures us that we will move together throughout the day. "This is a group activity and everyone's voices matter… You all have a voice."

"How do you start?" participant Nancy Olewnik asks. This is a crucial question: How do we go from being students participating in the process to doing it ourselves? The instructors suggest lots of recon trips and out-and-back tours for novices. When skiing with new partners, they also suggest choosing a route that requires little commitment and risk, even if it doesn't promise epic photographs.

Learning our turns

It's a bluebird day and we are planning to skin up and ski down Mount Baldy, one of the classic ski tours of Breckenridge. After learning more about skins (attachments for uphill skiing), our touring bindings and some basic uphill techniques, St. Clair leads us off with a "Tally-ho!"

We ascend the skin track through the pines and spruces, stopping now and again to evaluate the terrain, test the snow and practice using an inclinometer. Referring back to the morning briefing, we assess areas that are potential concerns on the maps and snow report. We decide as a group that it is safe to continue moving up the hill.

Over lunch we learn about our avalanche safety equipment.

"Know your gear," says Katie Damby, our other instructor. "The best gear is the one you know how to use."

I realize that I need to practice using my brand-new beacon. Our instructors perform a mock companion rescue so we can see how it's done.

As we continue up the hill, one of the participants says she feels light-headed and suddenly faints. While the instructors assess her health I am struck by how calm everyone is. We sip water, eat chocolate and learn about each other beyond our skiing lives. I keep thinking that other groups I have been with might not have been so patient. At no point while sharing our goals this morning did anyone mention getting to the top — we're all here for the experience, whatever happens.

At the Iowa Mill, a landmark and fork in the road, the group splits. Some of us travel a little higher up the hill with St. Clair, while another group stays behind to refine their skiing technique with Damby. We all ski down safely soon after with victorious smiles on our faces.

Lessons learned

Over après back in town, St. Clair thanks us for our good communication throughout the day, something she and Damby modeled perfectly for us.

"That's our strength: communication," Damby says. "It's well-suited to the backcountry."

She encourages us not to lose that, especially when we're in coed situations.

"We need more of that in the sport," Damby says. "That's something that women can bring to the table."

We review our course goals and find that we met them all. Olewnik, who had taken coed courses before, admits that she "felt more comfortable being a beginner" among women. Jill Smith, another participant, says she overcame "that first hurdle. I can do that now."

So what is the next hurdle?

Besides practicing the skills, which could mean skinning up resort trails or using their beacon parks, Backcountry Babes offers a host of courses in Breckenridge throughout the winter. There are several options for the AIARE Avalanche Level 1 course, including weekend or weekday courses, or both combined with a hut trip to Section House.

From there, students can take a Level 1 refresher course, which is highly recommended before taking a Level 2 course. There might be additional classes added throughout the season, depending on interest. There is also the potential for women-only avalanche scholarships for aspiring outdoor leaders.

For men who are interested in the Level 1 course — or women who want to invite them along — there are two coed options this winter. Emily Hargraves, one of the co-owners of Backcountry Babes, says that the course is designed to fit the realities of women who don't ski exclusively with other women.

"Men also really appreciate a supportive, non-competitive environment," she adds.

The organization and the instructors serve as a resource for women even after the courses end. Aside from future practice and courses, St. Clair encourages us to keep learning and always ask questions.

"We are so psyched that women love the backcountry as much as we do," she says.