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VAMPS is about lasting friendships and motivational support.
Left to right: Muffy Ritz, founder of the all-women’s ski club, Karoline Droege, Teresa Hukari, Kim Nalen, Rebecca Rusch, Dana Dueter and Darla McRoberts. Photo by Tullio Celeno

On the trail of VAMPS
A VAMP embraces life, laughter and costumes, all while on a pair of Nordic skis. Megan Thomas explores the fabulous world of Muffy Ritz’s all-women ski club.

Giggling women bedecked in wedding dresses, lacey lingerie and provocative nun’s costumes skate across trails groomed to corduroy perfection. Their laughter echoes through the trees as they delve into yet another strenuous workout. It is a rare treat to hear this, the cry of the VAMPS.

Short for Vimen And Muffy’s ProgramS (vimen is a play on women), VAMPS is part social club, part workout group and part ski class. And, it’s exclusively for women. Muffy Ritz, who puts the “M” in VAMPS and is the club’s founder and head coach, has watched the organization explode into the valley’s most popular cross-country women’s ski group over the last nine years. Assisted by nine, high-caliber ski coaches, including former Olympic racers and U.S. national team members, Ritz leads this group of dedicated female athletes in pre-season dry land training in the fall and then Nordic skiing once a week, every week, from early December to March.

“I see VAMPS sort of as a sorority. You have a group of 10, energetic coaches who drive the train,” explained Ritz. “The women are there for social reasons; they are there to get a workout, for motivational purposes, and they are there for fun.”

Ritz guarantees that fun underlies the entire experience, ensuring time for parties, crazy costume days and social chitchat time intermixed with intense ski training. Even the smaller subgroups, divided by ski ability, reflect the VAMPS’ lighthearted spirit. Labeled the Rising Stars, Scamps, Tramps, Champs and Amps, the groups range from beginner to expert.

Coaches work with each group, taking a fresh approach each week. Methods such as relay races and treasure hunts teach technique, agility and distance skiing. It seems to work, as members rarely miss a practice session or leave the club. “Everybody works hard. They work very hard. But, they have a lot of fun doing it,” said Ritz. “And, that’s why they keep coming back. If it was pure ‘boot camp,’ they wouldn’t come back, but they actually have fun.”

A humble but accomplished athlete, Ritz was a member of the U.S. Ski Team and continues to race on the master’s circuit. She has also coached junior racers. Now, she is exclusively a VAMP. VAMPS was born in 1997. A friend, Carol Rank, approached Ritz about private coaching sessions. Ritz agreed, if Rank recruited a few other women for the lessons.

That season, Ritz hit the Lake Creek trails, north of Ketchum, with four women. Less than 10 years later, the group counts more than a hundred members, with around 30 women on the waiting list. “It went from those four, then to 40, then to 60 then to 80, then to a 100,” Ritz said. “I don’t think there has ever been a consistent group like this. I believe this is the most established, biggest, female skiing group in the country.” She limits the program to approximately a hundred women to help maintain the authenticity of the experience. “I want to know their names. I want to know how people ski. I want to know that I am taking care of them, in terms of what they get out of the program.”

Ritz leads with enthusiasm, energy and by example, say her students, and possesses an uncanny ability to build their confidence. It’s part of her natural demeanor, her contagious zest for life, that encourages skiers to stretch their physical limits and accomplish their goals.

Ritz sets high standards in an already physically demanding sport, encouraging her skiers to tackle even the Boulder Mountain Tour through the mountainous Sawtooth National Recreation Area each year. “I like to set the bar a little higher than most people think they can achieve,” explained Ritz. “Once they reach that bar, they are like, ‘Wow, I did that?’”

Last year, as always, the VAMPS took a bite out of the tour. Forty members participated in the 20-mile race, considered to be the apex of the Wood River Valley’s Nordic ski season.

VAMPS skier Jean Cooper is proud of her Boulder record; she has completed the race five times. In her late 70s, she is the group’s oldest member, and appreciates the relaxed nature, camaraderie and support that come with the all-female environment. The VAMPS experience is enough to keep the senior skier returning for the demanding physical workout week after week. “VAMPS just gets me out there,” said Cooper. “That’s the thing I like about it. We have had a couple of miserable, sleety, snowy days and if it weren’t for the VAMPS, I’d just say, ‘Well, I’m not going to ski today.’ It is such a good group of teachers and such a good group of students, it’s just always fun. Even on the worst, coldest, most miserable days, it’s fun.”

VAMP Sandra Willingham channels the famous mountain woman, Heidi, as she revels in the spirit of cross-country skiing. Dress-up ski days are part of the fun that permeates the VAMPS program. Photo by Becky Smith

The fun attracts women from their late twenties to septuagenarians, since age has no relevance in VAMPS. The club is about lasting friendships and strong motivational support. “Every single person in there is a fun person to know,” said Cooper.

Lynn Chaldu, a recent recruit, agrees. New to the valley, she joined to meet friends with similar interests. Chaldu discovered a tightly knit bunch that gathers for fun social events, such as a Christmas and end- of-season party. Chaldu especially appreciates the group’s affection for dress-up days, the annual “Dress like a VAMP Day” being a particular favorite. Albums bulging with photographs document that anyone who desires can ski in a wedding dress or a Heidi outfit.

Laughter is the gift Jan Toohey treasures from VAMPS. One of the club’s longest members, laughter wasn’t prevalent in her life when she started Nordic skiing. A marathon runner, Toohey was barely able to get out of bed after losing her best friend and long-time running partner to cancer. Battling depression, she happened upon an article in the Idaho Mountain Express on Ritz’s athletic accomplishments. It also mentioned that Ritz taught women’s Nordic clinics. Unfortunately, the clinics were full for the season.

Toohey decided to meet the class at the Lake Creek parking lot to see if she could tag along. Ritz invited her to join the group, unaware of her inexperience at Nordic skiing. “I put on the skate skis and couldn’t even get across the Lake Creek Bridge. I couldn’t even stand up. The other women were very accomplished. They were just too nice to kick me out,” Toohey recalled.

Eight years later, Toohey has become an avid Nordic skier and devoted VAMPS member. She, like many other women, can’t seem to get enough of the camaraderie, costumes, laughs and skiing, which all converge on the Nordic ski trails.

It’s this, the quintessential VAMPS experience, that has inspired so many Wood River Valley women to become Nordic skiers, returning year after year to the forested, snowy trail system with smiles, costumes and laughter in tow. “I am always amazed that every year the same people are in the class,” observed Ritz. “They don’t get enough of it. They keep coming back.”