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
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.
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
“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
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.”
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
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
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
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.”