IN ALASKA, SIX WOMEN, FREEHEELS AND AN RV
Story by Hillary Procknow / Photos by Kevin Klein
Shaun Raskin reaches into her bag revealing what looks like a pair of oversized, lace-trimmed granny panties with maxi pads stuck on the hips and butt.“Impact shorts,” she explains to the five other girls in close proximity. “I guess these things are supposed to make me a sexy hucker.” A telemark skier from Park City, Utah, 27-year-old Raskin pulls them on over her long underwear and models them for a series of photos.
The market for gender-specific protective gear for girls who drop cliffs can’t be very big; the market of girls who go large on telemark gear is even smaller. And most of that contingent is here sharing tight living quarters at the base of Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. We’re rolling eight deep in a 30-foot Clippership RV that sleeps four in bunk beds, two on a mattress above the driver’s seat, and two more on the kitchen table that converts to a bed.
A typical RV in Alaska is filled with guys and smells like beer, body odor, and moldy socks. Ours doesn’t smell much better,but at least it is fully stocked with the essentials. There are cowboy boots under the sink, neon pink fishnets hanging from the top of the bathroom door, a hairdryer on the kitchen table, and a dozen pairs of skis in the outdoor storage compartment. Avy gear is kept in the kitchen cabinets (held closed with hair elastics) along with Costco sized containers of oatmeal, bagels, and artichokes. Luckily Raskin’s climbing guide background paid off: she brought plenty of carabiners and accessory cord to rig creative gear storage systems and drying racks for our ski clothes.
The girls inside are among the most talented telemark skiers in the world. Along with Raskin, is a 25-year old yoga teacher from Jackson, Wyoming, Louise Sanseau; Megan Michelson, 27, who writes and edits at Skiing Magazine; at 25, Paige Brady is a former NCAA Nordic racer, current telemark World Champion (and our only native Alaskan); Martha Burley, who transplanted from Australia to Fernie to ski all winter and work as a fire-crew cook all summer; and me. I graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont last February, and met these girls when I decided to try my luck on the telemark freeskiing competition circuit. Take away telemark skiing and we might not have much in common. Two token male trip support members braved the RV plastered with pink Girls Gone Girdwood stickers: photographer Kevin Klein and Paul Velte, Louise’s boyfriend who quickly starts answering to “Token.”
What started as a series of emails between a few friends (“Who’s up for a girls RV in AK?”) eventually flourished into several girls rallying around the idea and frantically scraping together funds for the trip. The plan was to start off the in Girdwood for the World Telemark Freeskiing Championships at Alyeska in early April, then drive the RV six hours away to Valdez to do some backcountry touring and possibly some heli-skiing.
As the youngest RV resident and a last minute add-on to the trip, I was unsure about how I would fit into the group considering I barely knew some of the girls beyond a few words between competition runs. Many reality TV shows rely on one fact: When several female 20-somethings are forced to live together in close quarters, chaos ensues. A ski trip comes with its own set of complications: differing personal budgets (or lack thereof), crucial backcountry decisions, and lingering attitudes about competition results. I hoped that a love of the free heel would be enough to keep the trip from turning into The Hills on wheels.
“Lance Armstrong, Bode Miller, Tiger Woods?” Megan asks. Three days of competition, several late-night arrivals, and one Westernthemed after-party later, we are en route to Valdez. Token drives as the rest of us sitting around our kitchen table fighting off hangovers with Costco veggie chips, trying to ignore the overwhelming urine scent emanating from the bathroom’s holding tank, and playing a casual game of Kiss, Kill, or Marry. For those not familiar with this game (usually only played by teenage girls at slumber parties), the group is presented with three names from which everyone must pick one person to which they would do each of the actions in the game’s title. After covering fellow telemark competitors, professional athletes, and sultry A-List actresses, we settle down and start reading the large supply of skiing-related magazines around the RV.
“This is what is wrong with telemark skiing’s image,” Shaun says holding up a low quality ad of a telemark skier shot from behind on a flat slope. “In no way is this cool.” She wants to get rid of telemarking’s crusty image of being just for bearded mountainmen in “head to toe super tight duct-taped Patagucci from 1989.” Everyone agrees.
In the morning, we wake up for a day of touring the Promised Land near Thompson Pass. After spending seven hours drooling over the mountains out of the RV window the day before, I wake up early in eager anticipation of my first Chugach tour. Today will be the first day we are shooting with Kevin, so not surprisingly for a group of ladies the conversation takes a sartorial turn.
“Louise you can’t wear the ninja suit,” Paige says in reference to Louise’s black jacket and pants. “It won’t show up well on film.”
“I really need to work on my style,” the always-utilitarian Louise says wistfully as she glances at Shaun in her baggy teal pants and matching Wayfarer-style glasses. “I’m coming to visit you in Park City just so we can go shopping.”
Studies show that women are safer in the backcountry because they exercise more caution when making decisions, but we are still a bit unsure about traveling in a group of eight. Nevertheless, in one long, colorful line we enter a small canyon and skin up for around three hours. Eventually the terrain opens up into a glacier surrounded by a jagged horseshoe-shaped ridge. Around a dozen incredibly aesthetic chutes loom above us begging to be skied. The steepest couloir beckons from across the glacier, but we decide on two side-by-side chutes right next to us to avoid a potentially dangerous crossing. Our large group splits into two groups of four for safety’s sake.
Megan, Martha, and I head up the first chute with Kevin. Megan leads the way setting the bootpack up the deep, sugary snow. Halfway up, I take over the lead. The snow gets progressively more rotten underneath and I gain about one foot of vertical for every 10 steps I try to kick in. Nearing the top I’m exhausted, but feel determined to not hand over the lead just so we can say the girls broke trail the whole way—silly, yes, but motivating nonetheless. I finally reach the top of the chute and am overwhelmed with the vastness of the Chugach terrain—over the edge on the other side lies just as many chutes fresh for the taking. I hear a whirring in the distance and turn around. A helicopter is dropping people off on top of the other couloir we were considering.
Megan drops in first, making one long turn for the camera before setting strong arcs in the untracked, sugary snow that proves to be slightly sticky. After hopping to make a few tentative turns to start, I find my rhythm and open up into smooth GS arcs. I air off of a small spine and finish on a low angle snow apron leading to the glacier. Once we are all at the bottom, Megan, Martha, Kevin, and I set up below the chute the other group is about to descend.
Somewhere between the radio talk about line choice and setting up cameras we can’t find Martha, even though she just skied down with us. We all scan the nearby rocks above looking for any sign of her. Right when it seems that she has disappeared, she emerges from a rocky area and nonchalantly drops a cliff around three times her height, unaware that she has an audience.
No one is surprised that she snuck back up to check out another drop while the rest of us were fiddling with video cameras and radios. Martha is also the mother of the group (she wrote us out individual Costco shopping lists so we didn’t forget anything and cooked us dinner each night). Often quiet, she periodically delivers hilarious one-liners in her Australian accent with a twinkle in her eye. (By the time we are home, a blog post about our trip has gathered criticism in a popular forum from Internet lurkers itching to pick a fight. Martha sends us an email reading, “Nice work representing us on the strange telemark web site by the way! I’ve got some of my own telemark tips for them, but my advice might come out rudely!”)
By the time we return to the RV right before sunset, everyone is ready to hit the town for a girls’ night out at a fun restaurant. The second-best option for an RV full of cash strapped ski bums is to drive into Valdez and park with the biggest window facing the docks so we can look out at the fog-covered ocean and salty fishing boats. Dinner consists of spaghetti with marinara and an olive-oil drizzle served on paper plates, followed by a veggie medley, and finishes with an assortment of stale cookie pieces. It is delicious.
The last night on Thompson Pass, all the girls are hyped up on Red Bull and standing on top of the RV with their ski tips hovering over the edge. It’s midnight, and a full moon splashes light on the figures in full ski gear. Kevin and Paul have shoveled snow into the landing and the girls are holding hands and getting ready to launch.
“Ok, we’re going to go one, two, three, then jump,” Shaun says. Everyone seems to be thinking the same thing: Someone is going to chicken out.
“Wait, what if we collide mid-air?” Megan asks.
“We’re doing this.” Shaun replies. When Kevin is ready to get the shot, everyone jumps and lands at the bottom in a whiplashed, but still laughing, heap.
On the drive back to Anchorage I think back to the last day at Alyeska before we left for Valdez. After our finals run, Louise set a “hucking date” for all of us. A small 5-foot drop with an icy, irregular landing had given her some trouble in her first competition run, so we all went back to the Northface area and one by one popped off of the steep take-off. There was an enticing chute skier’s left of the drop that contained over a foot of untouched snow, but I skipped it to prove I could stick the landing. Being silently peer-pressured into dropping cliffs was nothing new, but for the first time it was girls pushing me to ski better.
Once we are back at Paige’s house in Anchorage, Megan sets up her camera on the deck and each girl goes outside one at a time to give a personal trip recap—reality TV debrief style. Shaun steps up to the camera with a PBR in one hand wearing her sunglasses and a fringed scarf, her hair escaping wildly from a hand-knit beanie. “The trip was incredible,” she says with a fake valley girl accent, “basically like the Real World: Alaska. I can’t wait to be rid of all these bitches.” She then drops the accent and says, “Just kidding. We would not be good at the whole Real World thing. I usually don’t like hanging out with girls but I loved every minute of this trip.”
It turned out that every single one of the confessionals was incredibly unworthy of reality TV. Avoiding eye contact with the camera, complimenting fellow RV residents, and nervous giggles are not exactly controversial. In other sports there might be fierce competition among the ladies at the top, but tele-girls are just happy to find that others like themselves actually exist. With any luck, more might join our ranks. Just don’t ask us to squeeze them into our RV.
*This Article Originally Appeared in TS#13