By Robin Sias
Photos by Joe St. Onge
Six women embrace the call of the wild, revealing secrets, serenity and sisterhood along the way.
One crisp, clear Sun Valley morning seven years ago, Ellen Gillespie's husband coaxed her away from her beloved Bald Mountain and convinced her to join him for a day of backcountry skiing on Galena Summit. "He kept telling me how amazing, unbelievable it was," the then-skeptical Gillespie said. "'The powder,' he said. 'The powder!'"
The seasoned downhill skier had to admit she was itching for a new challenge. She had found herself looking at the ranges jutting spectacularly from the vista surrounding Baldy and wondering, "Hmmm, what else can I ski?" So Gillespie tried it. "Hiking up was really hard," she said, "but he was right—the powder! The powder was amazing."
That baptism by powder was the conversion moment for Gillespie, a conversion to the gospel of backcountry skiing. But every gospel needs adherents, a gathering place and a charismatic leader. Gillespie found her congregation with Teri Szombathy and her women's ski group, the Sirens of the Snow.
Szombathy and Susan Flynt started the Sirens in 2003 with one overriding goal: getting away with their girlfriends on a regular basis. The current group—Szombathy, Gillespie, Flynt, Nancy Mann Blair, Joan Swift and Betty Swanson—meet early one morning each week at the YMCA parking lot, ready for a day of escape. "Any time you get to spend time with your friends, relax and just have the chance to be casual and unwind, you look forward to," Szombathy said. "It's always epic."
Having a set time every week and hiring Hailey-based outfitter Sun Valley Trekking took the pressure out of the endeavor. "I wanted it to be a no-brainer," Szombathy said. "I wanted us to just show up, have the guides know where the best skiing was, and just have the opportunity to go out and enjoy the day. When you don't have to manage every detail, it makes it so much more relaxing."
At first, joining the Sirens wasn't relaxing for Gillespie. "It was really intimidating. I was nervous," Gillespie said. "I wasn't sure if I was fit enough. There was so much equipment. I got up 10 times the night before a trip to check it. And what about food? What could I eat that could give me energy but not make me throw up?"
This type of apprehension is a big reason many shy away from backcountry skiing. Would-be participants wonder if they're good enough to head into the backcountry. Images of extreme and helicopter skiing are inexorably yet incorrectly linked in many people's minds when they think of backcountry skiing. "The truth is that anyone who can ski down Baldy can go backcountry skiing," Gillespie said.
ccording to Sun Valley Trekking owner and guide Francie St. Onge, it is a much more accessible sport than people might think. "While it may seem really intimidating at first, the more you do it, the more familiar it becomes," she said. "The more familiar it becomes, the more confident you get. The more confident you get, the more empowered you become, and then all of a sudden you realize you're having a ton of fun."
Part of the fear of backcountry skiing is the safety factor. Participants cannot feel comfortable and confident if they lack avalanche training and backcountry safety know-how. The sport has inherent dangers, and safety is always the top priority for area outfitters, who require avalanche education, map reading and an inside-out understanding of the gear as part of every trip. Groups with regularly scheduled trips progress through a curriculum, building a strong knowledge base.
These stringent requirements are the primary reason the Sirens make their weekly sojourns accompanied by professionals. "We hire a guide because we don't want to get killed," Gillespie said. "I'm constantly amazed by the guide's ability to sniff out powder even when it hasn't snowed in weeks, but it's the fact that they are so knowledgeable that keeps us coming back."
Trust is also a huge factor in keeping a cohesive ski group. "It's an intense thing," said Siren Betty Swanson. "We have a guide, but we are still putting our lives in each others' hands." Trust among the group is tantamount to a successful, safe day. It is also tantamount in building another type of comfort, one that encourages confidences and assures that what is discussed on the climb stays on the climb.
And no topic is off limits for the Sirens. Outings are a type of therapy session during which the women discuss family, relationships, work challenges and everything else that is important to them. "We get to talk on the climb," Gillespie said. "It's a shared experience—one that makes memories. If those guides ever wanted to write a book, they would have plenty of material."
Also requisite for a successful group is a sense of humor. "We laugh all day long," said Blair, the member of the group who by all accounts is the strongest on the climb, but most prone to finding herself in "situations" on the downhill. Situations run the gamut from lost equipment to face-first splats into huge walls of snow. Swanson, who is one of the prettiest and strongest skiers on the downhill, admits she has to work on the climb. All the women bring varied experience to the group, yet somehow find a middle ground in which everyone can be comfortable and confident and have fun.
The weekly sojourn into the backcountry is the one event on everyone's calendar that is non-negotiable. "There's always one of us who is late," Swanson said with a laugh, "But we show up. It's a priority thing, something we won't give up."
Memories are plentiful for the Sirens. During one trip skiing Durrance Peak north of Ketchum, they spotted three wolves from the Phantom wolf pack peering down at them. There have been magic soft powder days when conditions allowed the women to ski a long run, two to three abreast, a move they call "Bond Girl style." There have been wild weather days, too.
Each season culminates in a two-day expedition to a yurt. As reward for their hard work, the Sirens ski in and stay a few nights, indulging in good wine, good food, plenty of laughter and, of course, great skiing out the yurt's front door.
Most of the Sirens juggle paid work, volunteer work and parenting school-age children on a daily basis, making the time away even more precious. When it comes down to it, the Sirens' outings are about friendship, fitness and unplugging from the daily grind. "It satisfies the soul," Gillespie said. "I come home feeling more energized than drained, no matter how hard the workout. You are away from the computer, off the grid. There is no choice but to be in the moment."
"When I lived in London and New York, we did book club," Gillespie said. "Or we had lunch. Here we backcountry ski instead!"
A revolution in backcountry skiing gear 15 to 20 years ago made it accessible to all styles of skiers. Telemark gear, in which the heel is always free, gave way to randonee (or alpine touring) gear, where the heel clips in for the downhill. Today if you can ski on traditional alpine skis, you can ski on these. However, while the skis may be similar, the experience and surroundings are not. "Ensuring backcountry beginners understand the vast differences between ski-area skiing and backcountry skiing is key to what we do," said Kirk Bachman of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, "There's no ski patrol out there."
Besides skis, requisites for a backcountry day include avalanche beacons, shovels, probes and a check on avalanche warnings
Otherwise, the basics of the sport are simple. Drive to a trailhead, clip into skis after rolling 'skins' onto the bottoms (like a carpet that grips the snow, allowing smooth forward glide while preventing the skis from sliding backward on slopes) and power on your avalanche beacons.
For the climb, skiers' heels are free, allowing a more natural range of foot and ankle motion to help get up the mountain. At the top, skiers click their heels into a binding position and exchange a few sweat-soaked base layers of clothing for dry ones, and then the powder starts to fly.
"One of the most surprising things about backcountry skiing is that you don't have to go far to have fun," said Francie St. Onge of Sun Valley Trekking. Skiers are greeted with open terrain, glades and slopes all along the state Highway 75 corridor. So much great terrain is easily accessible that skiers rarely need repeat an area twice in one season. That's true for beginners and experienced skiers alike.
For those not familiar with the local terrain, hiring a guide is worth the investment. Guides know what to do in an emergency, help with equipment and enhance slope safety by scouting runs. Often one guide is stationed at the top of a run and one at the bottom, using radios to let skiers know when it's safe to proceed. They also offer beacon, probe and shovel training.
• Sun Valley Trekking: $330 for one to two people or $110 per person for a party of three or more. svtrek.com / 208.788.1966
• Sawtooth Mountain Guides: $150 per person for four or more skiers. sawtoothguides.com / 208.774.3324.