It feels like a class reunion for a school I never attended. In reality, it's the orientation meeting for Women's Ski Adventures, a four-day female-only ski clinic in Crested Butte, Colo. Women are laughing and talking, hailing each other from across the room, embracing like long-lost relatives. I sit next to Peggy Howlin and Marty Heaps, two retirees who are giggling like schoolgirls. They introduce themselves and tell me they've been skiing together since the 1960s. They live in different states, Colorado and Pennsylvania, respectively, but plan a ski trip together every year. This year's choice is WSA.
Of the 17 women attending, 12 came with a friend and six are returnees. Three are beginners, two are experts and the rest fall somewhere in between. Wende Headley, 32, an American businesswoman living in Hong Kong, flew in to join two of her friends. She's skied only a handful of times, but her husband is an expert. Her goal? To get better fast, and maybe even show him a thing or two on the hill.
At the other end of the go-get-'em spectrum is Barbara Meyer, a 49-year-old international finance banker from New York City. She's been coming to WSA clinics since 1991, sometimes twice a year. For her, support and camaraderie are the real draws; the instruction is just the cherry on top. "I don't care if I ever ski the Headwall (one of Crested Butte's toughest runs)," Barbara says. "I just want to have a good time."
And that's the challenge for WSA founder and ringleader Kim Reichhelm: to make sure women of all ages (from 29 to 70 at our clinic) and all abilities (never-evers to cliff-huckers) learn and have a good time. Fortunately, Reichhelm-a former U.S. Ski Team member and the first-ever women's World Extreme Skiing Champion-has a long history of meeting challenges. Even at 42, she can handle any conditions on any mountain at any speed. This can make her seem intimidating at first, but her welcoming, comfortable manner immediately sets women at ease. "I'm here to help you succeed and, most of all, to help you have fun," she assures us, "so let me know what I need to do to make that happen." By the end of our first ski session, it's clear she's not bluffing.
The WSA format is typical for a ski clinic: Ski in same-ability groups and shoot video in the morning, eat lunch together while listening to talks on topics ranging from buying equipment to running gates, ski in groups again in the afternoon and analyze the videos after the lifts shut down.
What's not typical is Kim's flexible approach to the schedule. "This is not boot camp," she explains. "Some women want to ski as much as they can and get as much instruction as possible, while others need a more relaxed atmosphere to feel comfortable.
And they have to feel comfortable before you can start pushing them out of their comfort zone, which is where they start to improve."
As we head out for Day 1 of instruction, it's clear that most of the group is out of its comfort zone.
It's been snowing hard for 17 hours, and with only two experts in the group, most of us are eyeing the 30 inches of powder warily. Kim and her instructors split us into four groups, based on questionnaires we filled out at orientation. Most of my group is used to either the Pacific, with its wet, dense snowfall, or to the icy East, so our instructor, Sylvie, gives us a quick primer on how to handle Colorado's fluffy powder.
"To get yourself going, you must bounce, little bounces, like this," she instructs us in her French Canadian accent. We're soon bouncing and, in many cases, tumbling through the powder, flailing on runs that would make us yawn any other day. "Don't turn so hard," Sylvie advises, in an effort to keep us upright. "Just let your skis run." By lunchtime, several women are powdered out and ready to call it a day, while others are itching for more. To accommodate, Kim pow-wows with the instructors-each of whom has been handpicked from the resort for her talent and paassion for teaching women-and rearranges the groups to better match skiers of like abilities and to allow women to take the afternoon off if they so choose. Not boot camp, indeed.
On Days 2 and 3, this "accommodate everyone" approach seems to have some flaws. Some in my group want to challenge themselves on steeps and crud; others would rather work out the kinks on easier terrain. Kim's answer: Rearrange the groups again. And again. The downside is a loss of camaraderie. The upside? We're all skiing what we want to ski. By Day 4, Barbara has skied hard; I've broken my bad habit of "steering the bus;" Wende has skied the Headwall, not once, but three times; and Kim Reichhelm has successfully met another challenge.
For 2003, Women's Ski Adventures offers four clinics: Jan. 22-27 in Crested Butte, Colo. (The Sheraton); Feb. 9-14 in Vail, Colo. (The Lodge at Vail); Feb. 23-28 in Crested Butte (Club Med); March 8-13 in Alta, Utah (The Rustler Lodge); and March 15-20 in Big Sky, Mont. (The Summit at Big Sky). Programs range from $1,600 to $3,600, and include five nights of accommodations, four days of instruction, video analysis, breakfast, lunch, some dinners and more. 888-444-8151, www.skiwithkim.com.