Female-only ski classes are helping to grow the sport among women
By Rebecca Gale,
Last winter, Kelly Beeland joined the growing number of female skiers who have discovered the benefits of honing their skills in the company of other women. For six weeks, Beeland and about two dozen other students — some novices, some black diamond skiers — participated in Women of Whitetail (WOW), a ski instruction program at Pennsylvania’s Whitetail Resort. Not coincidentally, the start time for the resort’s weekend course was 30 minutes after drop-off time at its ski school for children.
Beeland, 46, a stay-at-home mom from Alexandria, Va., wanted to improve her own skiing so she could keep up with Sam, now 11, and Brynn, 9, when the family traveled from the East Coast to the more challenging skiing of Snowmass, Colo. Though she hadn’t been seeking women-only classes, she found them an ideal fit, because “I think women and men approach learning things differently,” she said.
Emily Spiker, the program manager of Women of Whitetail, concurs. “Learning with other women creates a more supportive group and makes skiing less intimidating,” she said. The resort’s only female instructor with Level 3 certification, Spiker has been skiing for 50 years and teaching it for 20. She estimates that about 70 percent of the Women of Whitetail participants are moms with a child in the ski school program or on the race team. Like Beeland, their goals are modest: improve their skiing, keep up with their kids and make the entire experience of spending the day at Whitetail more fun overall.
Whitetail Mountain Resort
Instructors and members of the Women of Whitetail program last season.
Launched 15 years ago, Women of Whitetail has grown so much in recent years that the instructors added a second session in the 2018-2019 season to meet the demand. The popular program reflects a larger industry effort to appeal to women — especially moms like Beeland, whose kids are already skiing — by creating women-specific ski programs.
Nationally, the number of women participating in downhill skiing is growing, and resorts have taken notice. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of women in skiing increased by 7.2 percent — to 4.7 million — while the percentage of men in skiing decreased by 13.3 percent to 6.9 million, according to data from Snowsports Industries America (SIA).
Getting more women on the slopes is also good for business: Industry surveys indicate that women are often the primary decision-maker on family vacations, and SIA estimates that women control between 70 and 80 percent of all ski-related consumer spending. As part of the outreach to women, Vail Resorts, which owns Whitetail, Roundtop and Liberty in Pennsylvania, began offering women-only lessons at most of its 37 ski resorts.
For example, it started its Women Ultimate 4 ski lessons at four of its Colorado resorts — Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone — in the 2014-2015 season. Other resorts that have provided women-specific instruction include Snowbird in Utah, Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Telluride in Colorado, Killington in Vermont and Jackson Hole in Wyoming.
Now comes 2020, and a ski season like no other. Among the safety measures being adopted by many U.S. resorts is the modification of group ski instruction. Decisions are still being made, but as of press time, Whitetail and Vail itself had canceled large adult group lessons, such as Women of Whitetail, and other resorts in the chain were expected to follow. Snowbird was still planning to hold its three-day women’s camps this year and its Wednesday morning women’s group beginning in January.
When Whitetail announced the WOW cancellation in October, the participants immediately began lobbying the resort to reconsider.
“Women of Whitetail was an outlet for me last year, and I was looking forward to it being even more of one this year because of the challenges covid has placed on working women and working mothers,” wrote editorial director Dina Cappiello Tilghman, of Silver Spring, Md., in an email. Cappiello, 46, credits the program with giving her the confidence to ski with her sons, Eli, 10, and Luke, 8, after tearing her ACL while skiing in high school.
“Looking at the long, dark winter ahead, especially after what we have all been through this year, skiing together week in and week out is perhaps one of the safest family activities to do this year,” Cappiello wrote.
A resort spokesperson said that although Whitetail’s large adult group lesson programs are paused — it will still offer a modified kids’ program — individuals at Vail resorts can join groups of up to six people for private lessons, which could be a workaround for interested women.
Though WOW and similar programs clearly fill a need, the notion of women-only classes initially met some resistance — even from female ski professionals. Mermer Blakeslee, an instructor at Windham Mountain in New York, balked at the idea when she was approached about teaching a women-only ski seminar. “And then I did one,” she said, “and I could not get over the difference in women skiing with only women.” Her female students encouraged one another in tackling new skiing challenges, Blakeslee said. She also found that they opened up to one another, with conversations on the lifts flowing easily between banal topics and serious ones.
“Skiing is a risk sport. In an environment for risky learning, you have to be vulnerable, you have to risk making a mistake in public,” said Blakeslee, who has been skiing for nearly 60 years and was on the National Alpine Team for the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI) from 1996 to 2000. “I found that women were more comfortable doing that in an all-female setting.”
One frustration for Blakeslee, who serves as a regional examiner for PSIA-AASI, is the lack of women in the ski instruction world, particularly at the upper levels. The higher the certification level, “the more male-dominated it becomes,” she said. “If so many women are coming into the ski world, why don’t we have more instructors for them?”
Last year, PSIA-AASI created a task force to create opportunities for women in snowsport leadership positions. Its findings, released last month, spotlighted some of the issues holding female instructors back: feeling that they do not belong and have few opportunities for mentorship; ill-suited equipment (many women perform better on lighter, more nimble skis designed for people with a lower center of gravity); and issues with child care.
The task force recommended including women in all levels of the ski experience, from leadership to product design to training ski school instructors. As the industry pivots to develop more offerings geared toward female skiers, neither Blakeslee nor Spiker believes the temporary cessation of women’s programs will affect their continued growth.
“The laptop in the cafe is always an option,” Spiker said. “But as more women see how skiing can work for them, the mountains may be more appealing.”
Gale is a writer based in Chevy Chase, Md.
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