By Kelly Bastone
Climbing skins, at best, have a tenuous connection to the snowpack. The technology involves thousands of wee hairs loading up with friction as you weight the lead ski before releasing for the glide phase. When a skin track gets icy or slick, the traction fails and you flounder along gasping for air and leaning on your poles.
That’s the scene as our group of six ladies follows along behind our guide and instructor Angela Hawse as she calls out occasional advice. The goal of our four-day workshop, offered in the Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, is to become smart, confident backcountry skiers. Hawes’s curriculum doesn’t soften the challenges. But following her around is like shadowing Rosie the Riveter: Everything about her seems to shout, “We can do it!”
Hawse—one of a handful of U.S. women to have earned IFMGA Mountain Guide certification—summitted Denali five times, helped Tom Whittaker become the first amputee to climb Mount Everest, and completed a 26-day self-supported ski traverse across Lapland from Sweden to Norway. Now the 53-year-old leads backcountry ski programs through the Ouray-based guide service Chicks Climbing and Skiing that she and four female guides co-own.
Chicks began as the famed Chicks with Picks ice climbing school 18 years ago. Starting this winter, the new iteration offers four women’s ski programs. In addition to the Ouray skills camp, you can heli-ski in Telluride, backcountry ski Hokkaido, Japan, or descend couloirs in La Grave, France. Full disclosure: These are women specific trips, but there’s no wine tasting component baked in. Hawse assumes her clients want to spend as much time as possible learning about winter backcountry travel, because, generally, women are often the caboose on mixed group adventures.
On our trip, Hawes spills the contents of her pack to discuss what she carries on ski tours; offers advice on layering to stay comfortable throughout start/stop touring; shows us how to mine every nugget from NOAA’s weather forecasts, and helps us plot safe, efficient routes through avalanche country. “I find that women push themselves a little harder when they’re in an all-women’s group,” she says.
She also uses her trips to get gals leading the pack—which is my biggest takeaway after we awake at the OPUS Hut to 14 inches of fresh snow atop a stable base. Unlike my fellow participants, I’m not new to backcountry skiing. I’ve been touring for 15 years, but I still typically cede leadership to others. So as we skin up a ridge with a broad, 28-degree apron of powder below, Hawse designates me leader.
The route is straightforward, but I fret about setting the best skin track for the beginners. Should I stick to the wind-scoured snow where traction is tricky, or lead us onto deeper snow where the turning is awkward? Hawse doesn’t script my choices. She’ll tell me later what worked and what didn’t.
Up top, though, I’ve never felt such satisfaction. The view from the summit is blue sky and craggy ridges. The route we climbed is all mine. And I feel eager to own some more. chickswithpicks.net