On a recent ski Monday, Nicole Reitter didn’t have anything to worry about. No 5-year-old son to keep an eye on, no husband speeding down the trail ahead of her. In a fuchsia jacket and a newly borrowed pair of women’s skis, Reitter, 42, was finally feeling free to focus on herself.
She hit the Northstar California slopes that day with three other female ski students, part of the new “4Her – Women’s Ultimate 4” ski and snowboard program – a weekly lesson run by women, for women. Similar programs were launched at Kirkwood and Heavenly mountain resorts this season, all with the goal of providing a more tailored experience for female clientele.
“This is about me,” said Reitter, a Truckee resident. “It’s about my learning and my time. I’m in a comfortable environment where I feel supported to take chances. … I don’t know that I would’ve had that in a mixed setting.”
The idea for the women’s clinic arose after focus-group research from Vail Resorts – the parent company of Northstar, Kirkwood and Heavenly – revealed that many women, and moms in particular, face barriers to access ski and snowboard instruction.
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When surveyed, women lamented about “having to take care of everyone and everything,” “a lot of planning and organizing” and “making sure children and family are happy before yourself,” according to research conducted at Northstar and Heavenly this past spring. When asked why they had not taken a lesson before, many reported feeling intimidated, not fitting in or not having the time.
“It’s not always a convenient process,” said Andrew Buckley, director of skier services for Northstar. “If you’re a family lead, generally in charge of getting the kids rolling and into ski school, the adult programs generally start at the same time. So the dad makes it, and the mom gets stuck taking the kids. The timing just didn’t work.”
In response, Vail’s Tahoe resorts scheduled the women’s lessons to start later and end earlier than kids and mixed-adult lessons. At Northstar, women pay $295 ($40 less than an adult lesson) for the shortened day, which includes lunch and an après-ski talk about the new gear for women, hosted by True North sales representatives. Lessons are for women of all levels, on skis or snowboards.
The programs intend to bridge the consistent gap between women and men on the mountain. Data collected by Snowsports Industries America, a trade association tracking snow industry trends, shows that 33 percent of snowboarders and 40 percent of skiers were female in the 2014 season.
Wyndham Vacation Rentals research from the same season shows that women, though more likely to plan the ski trip, are less likely to actually participate in the sport. According to its survey of 11,000 consumers, men are more likely to book winter vacations based on snow conditions, while women are more likely to book based on amenities such as the kitchen and washer/dryer.
“We think if we can give women, and especially the moms that sometimes get left behind, a taste of the edge of adventure and an afternoon in the outdoors without it being a male juggernaut fest, that will keep the whole family engaged in the sport,” Buckley said.
Though the program is in its infancy, the lessons have been popular, he said. The resort hopes to use feedback from this year’s women’s-only groups to grow the program in future years.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Reitter and three friends, all advanced skiers from the Tahoe area, hit the trails with two female instructors. As the program’s title indicates, lesson groups are no larger than four people. Once women arrive at the lesson, they are divided into groups by level and sent out with different instructors.
The female instructors hit it off with Reitter and company early on, making jokes and setting an approachable tone that the students would later say made a big difference in the lesson setting.
Another major benefit to having women teach women is the option to focus on anatomical differences that affect technique, said Jake Jakubowski, one of about a dozen female instructors involved in the women’s clinic.
Women have a lower center of gravity that sometimes causes them to sit back in their skis rather than leaning forward. They also have a greater “Q,” or quadricep angle – the angle at which the femur approaches the knee – as a result of a wider pelvis, which can cause some women to ski knock-kneed.
Another issue with women is fear, which can cause the upper body to lean away from the slope rather than toward it, Jakubowski said. The instructor taught her pupils how to shift balance to the downhill ski, and to properly exert force for turns.
Sue Spain, another instructor, explained that women often end up skiing at faster speeds than they are comfortable with in order to keep up with friends, husbands or children. She taught her students some “survival skills, for when your husband has you on that black diamond you don’t want to be on,” including sliding down the hill at a perpendicular angle while adding weight to the outside ski for controlled movement.
“The key is knowing, number one, that you can do it,” Spain said. “And number two, that you can just roll onto your downhill ski and go in the right direction.”
Though the women had all been skiing for many years, they expressed interest in returning to basic techniques, including stance and turning, that they had not revisited in a formal way for a long time.
Student Amy Kylberg, once a ski instructor herself, said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to focus on her own skills again.
“I feel like after having kids I kind of stayed at one level,” she said. “I just started wedging down the hill with my kids all day.”
Jennifer Gurecki, the Tahoe-based founder of all-women’s gear company Coalition Snow, said she’s a strong believer in teaching women how to ski and snowboard more aggressively. Unfortunately, she said, male-manufactured ski gear has not made that easy.
“Your typical women’s ski (gear) is great for women who are learning – but they’ve been watered down from male ski (gear), and not all women are beginners,” she said. “So when women get more experience, their gear does not advance with them.”
Only in recent years, as more women have taken leadership positions in the snow-sport industry, have gear and programs been adapted for them, she said. A small group lesson where women can build confidence and take risks is just another step in the right direction.
“Women deserve to have really high-quality teaching,” said Gurecki, a longtime snowboarder. “So if you have that high skill level combined with this supportive environment, that will unleash so many things.”
Though many local resorts offer multiday camps, clinics and getaways designed for snowbound women, the Vail programs are rare in that the lesson is held each week – a format that the instructors at Northstar said worked better for women students’ busy lifestyles.
Even during their “day off,” several of the women in the lesson had to take calls and texts from children or baby sitters, sometimes in the middle of instruction. While this might have been seen as irritating or disruptive in a mixed-gender setting, it was all good with the girls, Reitter said.
Their day ended in the True North village gear shop, with celebratory wine and hors d’oeuvres.
“There’s kind of a camaraderie among women – an empathy of learning or trying something new, and that just feels more safe,” Reitter said.
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Caiola, (916) 321-1636.
4Her – Women’s Ultimate 4
What: A ski lesson designed exclusively for women
When: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays
Where: Northstar California (similar programs at Heavenly Mountain Resort and Kirkwood Mountain Resort)
Cost: $295 for one full-day lesson
Contact: 800-GO-NORTH (800-466-6784) or (530) 562-1010