Three things you won't encounter during Kirsty Exner's all-women freeskiing camp at Red Mountain, British Columbia:
1. Girl power. (That's so mid '90s.)
2. Group hugs. (Want to get groped? Ride the Jackson Hole tram.)
3. Yoga. (Double-jointed swamis be damned.)
Exner's camp is about skiing—plain and simple, big and scary, and always encouraged by the former World Extreme Skiing medalist's mysteriously optimistic songbirdlike commands. "Straightline here, she chirps as she points to a rock band sitting inconveniently over several hundred feet of tight timber. "It's a little cliffy so, you know, give 'er.
By the time we break for lunch on the first day of Exner's weekendlong camp, we've already arced brain-rattling turns down crunchy 35-degree groomers, linked five-foot pillow drops onto cement-hard landings, dulled our edges along cliff-top traverses, and shouted more obscenities than a fleet of New York cabbies. Which is to say, we're getting exactly what we signed up for: limit-pushing instruction on some of North America's steepest inbounds lines.
My 30 campmates have been broken into six groups, based on ability and expectations. Back when they filled out their registration forms, Jan, a 57-year-old grandmother of six, and "Big Air Donna, a repeat-camper who broke her thumb last year when she launched off a kicker and landed on top of Exner, wrote things like "go huge and "tear down anything. I'm afraid of exposure and guilty of overstating my ability, so I probably penciled in "rock the chicken only half-thinking Exner would decode and deliver. The teams were then paired with a group of world-class Huck Barbies, including freeskiing powerhouse Lee Anne Patterson, international ski mountaineer Lisa Corthals, and skiercross dominatrix Aleisha Cline. Their goal is to close the gap between us and them, whether that means helping us to master steeps or hurl our bodies onto the alpine equivalent of a coral reef.
At Exnerfest, you have a mere 48 hours to assimilate a lifetime of Canadian courage (Exner's words). Sure, we high-fived a lot. And some people seemed to buddy up. But when Anne Marie decided to boot-pack down a patch of glare ice rather than traverse above a 15-foot cliff, Exner resisted the urge to climb to her rescue. And when I forgot how to survival-turn at the 45-degree crux of Short Squaw, a nasty staircase littered with dead wood and ice bulges, she spared me any condescending baby talk. Instead, she hovered nearby, crooning softly and waiting for me to fly.
Exner pushed us into terrain that made us think fast, react faster, and deal with the consequences of any resurgent girliness. Then she'd ease off, boosting our confidence on fast, featureless steeps, and giving us the skills we'd need for the return to the gnar. The system worked. By the end of the camp, while I wouldn't call my skiing carefree, I did feel more solid.
There's something cool about skiing with chicks, especially Canadian ones. They're supportive, soft-spoken, and humble to a fault—which makes their ability to rip anything that much more impressive. I left with a new appreciation for keeping my mouth shut and letting my skiing speak for me.
Injuries over the last three years have included blown knees, broken backs, and busted thumbs. Don't pad your résumé unless you really like plaster and crutches.
In case you're still considering one of those ski-like-a-girl spa camps, remember Exner's philosophy: "Girl power is overrated and lame. Challenge yourself in the sport you love. You'll be empowered.
KIRSTY EXNER'S FREESKIING CAMPFOR WOMEN
STUDENT/TEACHER RATIO: 6 to 1FITNESS LEVEL: High ABILITY LEVEL: All levelsCOST: C$360. Includes two lift tickets and lunches. Lodging is extra. LENGTH: Two days plus intro party CONTACT: kirstyexner.com
WOMEN'S SKI AND SNOWBOARD CAMP; SNOWBIRD, UTAH
Cost: $600 Leength: 4 daysSkill Level: Intermediate to expertSynopsis: Fear specialist Mermer Blakeslee and two-time Olympian Eva Twardokens take you out of your comfort zone on Snowbird's steep faces, glade runs, and tight chutes. Contact: snowbird.com
INDIAN HIMALAYAN SKI TRIP WITH ALISON GANNETT
Cost: $2,700Length: 7 daysSkill Level: Advanced to expert with some touring experienceSynopsis: Ski tour in the Himachal Pradesh while learning steeps and backcountry skills with Alison Gannett and UIAMGA guides. Contact: alisongannett.com
WOMEN'S SKI CAMP; JACKSON HOLE MOUNTAIN RESORT, WYOMING
Cost: $795 Length: 4 daysSkill Level: Intermediate to expertSynopsis: Jackson's best female instructors spill their secrets for how to pick the best line, rip the steeps, head OB safely, and make the most of Jackson's monster terrain. Contact: jacksonhole.com
BABES IN THE BACKCOUNTRY SNOW DIVAS CAMP; BRECKENRIDGE, COLORADO
Cost: $150—$750 Length: 1—5 daysSkill Level: Beginner to expertSynopsis: Work your tele turn and practice backcountry basics; then head to Francie's Cabin, a super-plush mountain hut, for two days of avy training and freeheel instruction.Contact: babesinthebackcountry.com
WOMEN'S ALL MOUNTAIN SKI CAMP; WHISTLER BLACKCOMB, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Cost: $219Length: 2 daysSkill Level: Intermediate to expertSynopsis: Aimed at 25- to 40-year-olds, this camp pushes women to explore the whole mountain. Contact: whistlerblackcomb.com