Thoughts on Ski Touring Gender — Type 1 Fun Can Be Cool Too

Post by blogger | September 13, 2017      

Margi Dashevsky

My favorite skiing near Leadville, Colorado (photo by: Justin Talbot)

My favorite skiing near Leadville, Colorado (photo by: Justin Talbot)

I grew up in Alaska and I relish skiing when it’s 40 below zero. Even though my skis don’t glide and the snow feels like sandpaper, it is life affirming when my breath frosts my eyelashes.

I love snow. I have logged countless hours skiing out-of-bounds, both professionally and personally, yet I don’t always identify as a “backcountry skier.”

As with most extreme sports, backcountry skiing culture tends to highlight highly motivated thrill seekers who go fast, hard, and bold. I prefer to go at a conversational pace and seek carefree fun, not adrenaline. Clearly, we as a community can broaden what constitutes “cool backcountry skiing” to better include those of us who are less objective-driven.

I married an avid ski-mountaineer (WildSnow guest blogger, Alex Lee) and in navigating the differences in our mutual infatuation with snow I’ve discovered nuance and insight in our dissonance. We ski almost every day in winter, and people presume we ski together, but chances are while he heads to a big mountain objective I’m carving tele turns in 20 degree trees.

Carving turns in my happy place while teaching 11 th graders to be comfortable living in the snow (picture by: Justin Talbot)

Carving turns in my happy place while teaching 11 th graders to be comfortable living in the snow (photo by:
Justin Talbot).

Honeymoon backcountry skiing in Chile with Alex

Honeymoon backcountry skiing in Chile with Alex.

Alex wrote about Katie Bono’s speed ascent on Denali, that sparked a chain of comments about sexism in outdoor recreation. I was excited that people were talking about gender on WildSnow and I immediately wanted to chime in, but was unsure how to do so. My hesitation, both in writing a comment and in my cautious choices of ski terrain, may shed light on why female skiers like Katie are still an exception, not the norm.

Katie in her element (picture by: Savannah Cummins)

Katie in her element (photo by: Savannah Cummins)

I thought about how impressive Katie is. I thought about the power of her accomplishment, regardless of gender (anyone climbing Denali that fast is inspiring). I also thought about the power of her accomplishment because she is a woman (due to biological and social barriers women must overcome). Irrespective of how important gender is, or should be, in framing Katie’s achievement, gender is part of both her and my stories.

Katie and Alex enjoying a surprise spring powder day in Leadville (picture by: Savannah Cummins)

Katie and Alex enjoying a surprise spring powder day in Leadville, CO (photo by: Savannah Cummins)

Katie’s ease with identifying her physical limits, and not letting fear hold her back, is a secret to her success. Female athletes like Katie, who are crazy smart and crazy skilled, have something to teach all of us: Katie is conventionally rad — exceptionally hard-working and driven with a remarkable tolerance for suffer-fests — but also cautious, risk averse, and profoundly humble.

It’s those latter qualities I aspire to, and to add a few things: joyful camaraderie, conservative decision-making, and artful powder-eights.

Few things scare me more than avalanches (except maybe grizzly bears). I often go out of my way to ski around avalanche terrain. Because of this I don’t talk about skiing gnarly lines and there aren’t pictures of me dropping steep faces. That’s just not my jam. When media about backcountry skiing showcase extreme lines a) I don’t relate to them, b) it overshadows the majority of skiing we all do, c) it downplays the value of the type of skiing I most enjoy. When backcountry ski culture favors aggressive shredders it can easily exclude people like me, who are disproportionately women, due to interrelated biological and social realities.

For example, I don’t build muscle mass as quickly as my male counterparts and my strides are shorter because I am only 5’2″. These physiological factors compound and I get frustrated at myself if I can’t keep pace. Like many people, I can get impatient with bro culture and am uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces. I appreciate the shift a critical mass of ladies can bring to a ski group’s dynamic because I feel like I can be more open and I more confidently chime in.

My last tour this winter was a typical dog-walk/ski-jaunt in the Mosquito Range outside of Leadville. It was a sunny mid-May day and we drove a few blocks uphill to what I like to call Leadville’s Refrigerator, because it holds snow weeks after town melts out. On the skin I caught up with a close friend, and then peeled off with the dogs to descend my carefree backyard run, while he and Alex continued on. While they were huffing and puffing on crusty junk snow trying for a summit, I was blissfully savoring sweet spring snow . . . how cool is that!

I’m left wondering. Can we as backcountry skiers collaboratively create a more inclusive community that is comfortable and welcoming, not just for women, but for all people? For example, why do so few people of color ski? Can we expand our metrics of success to include diverse accomplishments in the backcountry?

We all spend a lot of time talking about conservative decision-making and most everyone skis the same mellow terrain mid-winter, but the imagery, media, and a large cultural component of the backcountry world equates skiing burly lines (and taking risks) with being badass, and ultimately with being a ‘cool’ backcountry skier. Katie, Alex, and I all have reasons to be proud backcountry skiers; I will continue to celebrate Katie’s super-human-ness and Alex’s thrills as I rejoice with bouncy turns, in glorious and often low angled pow — even when the temperature warms well above my coveted 40 below.

Celebrating warm spring skiing.

Celebrating warm spring skiing.

WildSnow Guest blogger Margi Dashevsky has been sliding on snow since she could walk. Margi loves exploring the outdoors and sharing the process of discovery as a science teacher and guide. She lives in Alaska.


20 Responses to “Thoughts on Ski Touring Gender — Type 1 Fun Can Be Cool Too”

  1. Russell McGinnis September 13th, 2017 9:59 am

    Hey guys! I love the website and reviews on gear.

    So I came across your touring binding rig test video from 2014 I believe. I’m curious which bindings you tested and if you did any recent tests like that on more modern bindings like the kingpin or radical 2.0.

    My question/concern. The tecton turned me onto tech for an all around one-ski-quiver type setup. I’m still a little nervous about going tech for resort use. In complete honesty can you tell me what your experiences have been with releasing from tech bindings. Basically will I be just as good with a G3 Ion 12 vs a Tecton.

    Anything will help!

  2. Eric steig September 13th, 2017 1:34 pm

    This is a great article. It expresses a lot of great points about exclusivity. For me, it also explains very nicely why some of us still telemark. Nothing beats it on mellow terrain, and mellow terrain can be really fun.

  3. Bruno Schull September 13th, 2017 1:40 pm

    I really like your perspective Margi. I don’t know if it’s possible to shift the critical mass of the marketing driven industry, focused as it is on the novel, the young, the bold, the extreme, and so forth, but we can all practice enjoying the mellow moments. All the best.

  4. Scott Allen September 13th, 2017 1:49 pm

    Thank you Margi.
    I found your alternative narrative to backcountry skiing very refreshing.

    I was influenced early in my outdoor education by the book, “The Games Climbers Play.” There are so many possibilities of play in winter landscape it is wonderful to hear of others such as yourself, who are chasing their own rhythms of reward in nature.

    Sometimes the speed and difficulty of an outing are the least insightful measures of a backcountry tour.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 September 13th, 2017 2:00 pm

    It was fun working with Margi (and Lisa, who did most of the publishing prep) on this, I love pondering the culture of our sport, especially questions of what produces value for everyone, in their own ways. One thing all my traveling over the past decade has taught me is that the hype on big lines is in once sense valid, but the vast vast majority of ski tourers are not participating in that part of the sport, which is interesting.

    The media emphasis on big lines is like automobile racing being used to promote a brand of mini vans (or is that unfair?) (Smile).


  6. Lou Dawson 2 September 13th, 2017 2:15 pm

    Hi Russell,
    I think the post/vid you refer to is the following?

    If not please be more specific.

    As to your question about release, touring bindings are incredibly complex, there is no ideal configuration and most are not built to any sort of ISO or other standard that can be used as a basis of comparison.

    One thing you’ll really want to do is use our search function and just start reading, we have thousands of words on the subject, most of which are curated.

    To answer your question briefly, I don’t have much experience releasing from tech bindings, as I very seldom fall while skiing, and I’m careful to set my bindings up so I don’t get accidental releases. So it’s not appropriate for me to share a few anecdotal experiences that have multiple cause and multiple outcomes.

    The primary difference between ION and Tecton: ION is a “classic” tech binding that releases to the side at the heel and Tecton releases to the side at the toe. Simply put, Tecton behaves more like an alpine skiing binding in terms of how the retention/release function works.

    It’s unknown at this time if bindings such as Tecton, that release to the toe, are statistically better at protecting legs from injury, and it’s unknown if they protect better against accidental release, though I suspect this may be so.

    As to what you’ll be good with, no easy answer. Too many factors. If you’re 100% human powered and a good skier, the general consensus is to reduce weight. If you’re lift skiing a significant amount, we don’t suggest classic tech bindings but indeed tend to suggest bindings such as Marker Duke, and perhaps Tecton after it is vetted for a season by consumer testers otherwise known as early adopters.

    I hope that helps.

    For further discussion, please find a blog post that’s closer to the subject of ski bindings and leave your comment there.


  7. Kevin Woolley September 13th, 2017 5:40 pm

    This is a wonderful post and expresses a great deal of what I love about backcountry skiing even though I am of the opposite gender (and can’t tele). And your pictures and words have made me want to ski more than anything I’ve read all summer. Hopefully it will be a big winter!

  8. atfred September 13th, 2017 6:22 pm

    A lot of the points Margi makes translate to the older backcountry skier as well.

    One nice thing about being 60+ is that you have no need to feel you have to prove anything, to anybody, anytime!

  9. Scott September 14th, 2017 8:23 am

    Qui habet plus fun vincit

    He who has the most fun wins

  10. See September 14th, 2017 8:50 am

    Thanks for the excellent piece. As Bruno suggested, a major reason for the emphasis on risky stunts, etc. in ski culture is money. Video of a super athlete dropping into some insane line and then outrunning an avalanche grabs eyeballs and can be used to sell junk food to couch potatoes (auto racing historically has probably sold more cigarettes than minivans). Who knows what ski culture (or any other culture, for that matter) would look like without elements largely external to it using it for their own purposes.

  11. OMR September 14th, 2017 9:25 am

    Great thoughts, and I agree, but perhaps it’s as much about age as it is about gender? Most of my college buddies from the early 1980’s don’t ski anymore (now in their 50’s) due to blown ACLs, hips and discs brought on by cliff jumping and machismo while in their 20’s. Some of those guys can now barely walk. Back then they laughed at me when I deferred to just ski boring Utah powder. In my defense, today I ski much longer and bigger days now in my 50’s than I ever did in my youth. And my knees are as strong as ever. When young we believe we are immortal.
    Also, I’m continually shocked to see the steep, extreme lines being skied right after a huge dump of snow. It seems Utah’s zero avalanche deaths last year might be as much about luck as it was about intelligent decision making.

  12. See September 14th, 2017 9:49 am

    (It probably goes without saying, but avalanches can reach speeds well over 100 mph, so don’t count on outrunning one.)

  13. Adam DeVoe September 14th, 2017 12:45 pm

    Great commentary. Well thought out and reasoned. Love that Wild Snow can provide this important perspective.

    For me, as with my usual ski partner and others I have skied with over the last few years, gnarly rarely plays into the days out on snow. My personal favorite experience was the Benedict 100, which was mostly touring with a little skiing downhill for fun or to get to the next drainage. We rarely, if ever, skied anything steeper than 20 degrees. But the camaraderie of the group, the long days on the snow, and the simplicity of touring with everything we needed on our backs for a week, all added up to a lifetime experience. It was far from rad or gnarly, but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

  14. Amy September 14th, 2017 6:22 pm

    Some of my favorite days skiing is when we just meadow skip all day in powder. Other times is skiing a big hairy line when conditions are right. One lady I know in our community skis more than any of us but just always hits the low angle bangle. She loves it and has a great day. We need to honor that it is about enjoying snow and whatever form of recreation in the winter that makes us happy!

  15. Rockarch September 15th, 2017 1:37 pm

    Great perspective; it would be really interesting to explore whether there are differences between North America and Europe around the macho aspect of back country skiing.

  16. NT September 15th, 2017 3:30 pm

    Your article had me thinking of a hut trip last winter with old college friends. I spent a lot of time before the trip looking up exciting lines and big days. Once out there we ended up with a bigger group than expected and greater avalanche danger than we’d hoped; all of which kept us to mellow ridges and summits. It was the best week and a half of the winter for me. We skied great snow with no stress and had a fantastic time. I’m going to try to remember that this winter and not get too caught up in the social media gnar spraying.

  17. Aaron Mattix September 16th, 2017 8:47 am

    I don’t think it is really a matter of age, or gender; it’s that the marketing resources tend to lean towards the big & the dramatic. The same sort of dichotomy exists in mountain biking, where the most high-profile media (Red Bull Rampage, FEST series, Danny MacAskill videos) showcases riding that only a handful of human beings will ever be capable of. Even though there are far more people rolling down intermediate trails with both wheels planted solidly on the ground, there isn’t much media depicting such riding.

    I’m reluctant to identify myself as a “backcountry” skier, given the connotation of risk-taking associated with it. “Ski touring” seems to convey what I’m usually after: an uphill walk through the winter woods, and an interesting route down. It’s an appreciation for the whole experience, enjoying the way up, as well as the way down.

    Given how competitive gear companies are in branding a niche as their own, it’s surprising there isn’t more attention directed to the more mellow ski touring vibe than the bro-gnar of backcountry skiing.

  18. Lou Dawson 2 September 16th, 2017 10:52 am

    Aaron, having myself been around literally hundreds (if not thousands) of the folks who are principle in the backcountry skiing business, I can honestly say that the situation does rise mostly from typical marketing mindset of defaulting to youth culture and yes, the dramatic. I believe that’s effective to some extent (and like many, I enjoy the amazing images and film footage), but I’ve also noticed a bias in that direction that appears to actually work against effective marketing, to the detriment of certain companies. For example, free touring (freeride) is dramatic and cool, and there is indeed a culture of freeride tour skiers that can be marketed to, but they are the minority and investing millions of dollars or euros into things like dedicated freeride boots and bindings might be perilous. There is treasure for the company that does it right, but I’m glad I’m not the one trying to figure out the ROI!

    A while back I attended a marketing meeting that broke down the numbers, showing that the main ski touring market was saturated. It can sustain a company (or company division such as a ski boot division) but is not the huge growth opportunity it was during the double digit growth days of around 7 years ago. The growth now is said to be in making gear and selling it the under served “free touring” “freeride” market that is as much a part of the alpine skiing market as it is part of the ski touring market. Hence, what we see in advertising.


  19. atfred September 16th, 2017 7:29 pm


    I’ve always liked the term “alpine ski touring”, to distinguish it from the much more mellow nordic variety.

  20. Jim Milstein September 17th, 2017 10:18 am

    “Alpine ski touring” vs “nordic ski touring” is excellent! These phrases self-explain.

    Regarding the insane marketing videos, ick! And I totally agree that safe mellow descents can be super-good, which is not to say that steep stuff has no place. Ski the steeps when they are safe and in good condition and the mood is right. I find that skiing solo in the backcountry is sobering and makes me much less likely to take foolish risks.

    Low skier diversity is a bit of a problem. We ski tourers need all the help we can get in developing and supporting this most noble sport. Full Circle of Lake County in Leadville does good work in this.

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