by Kirstin Nelson ~CO Programs Manager
The first time I ever heard about ISSW (the International Snow Science Workshop), was a few years ago during one of our ski patrol orientations. It was the last day which is always focused around snow safety and our avalanche program. We usually talk about last season’s stats, and if there have been any new changes in our plan for the upcoming year. The Avy techs had just come back from an ISSW and had all kinds of exciting news to share, strategic shoveling and companion rescue techniques that had been improved, copies of papers that had been presented and links for us to research more if we were interested. I remember thinking, wow it is amazing that people are studying the best shoveling technique. What a cool event where people so passionate about snow get to come together and discuss their findings. Whether they are growing snow in a lab or washing their face with it as they ski through, there is something we can all talk about; snow.
When Jenna, the Head Babe of Backcounty Babes and an Alaskan local, first talked about bringing me up for ISSW that was being held in Anchorage, Alaska this year, there was no question, yes I wanted to go! So, what do I need to do to make this happen? Any break I could find financially would be great, so I wrote an essay for a free entry. My essay focused on an article that was in Backcountry magazine last spring, the article was titled, “Mountain Chic, Why Aren’t More Women Going Big?” It brought up many questions, one being why more women aren’t headed out into the Backcountry. So, I wrote about Backcountry Babes and how we are trying to do just that; getting more women safely into the backcountry is a passion of ours. My essay won! Ok, great, I’m finally going to Alaska!
Flying into Alaska was absolutely beautiful. Snowy peaks, fiords, inlet sounds, the cool blue water meeting snowcapped peaks, it’s all perfect. I remember thinking how can I get back into this area I am flying over, maybe a sailing/ski trip! It was fun to dream about that the rest of the plane ride. The glaciers have changed the color of the water they touch; meanwhile other waterways remain dark blue in contrast to the crystal grey of the glacial runoff. It is so cool to fly over such an untouched land with so much to explore.
Just getting to Alaska was an adventure in itself, and now that I was there it was time to have a little more focused mind. Time to start thinking snow. The day before the official conference started there was an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education) level 1 refresher for instructors. Since Backcountry Babes only employees female AIARE instructors this was a great opportunity for us to refresh our skills and knowledge and also get to work with many other AIARE instructors for a day. It is always so great to be in a room of educators passionate about their field. Ben Pritchett and Tom Murphy were there from AIARE to lead the discussion. It was great for Jenna Boisvert (the Head Backcountry Babe), Nancy Elrod (A Tahoe Babe), Leighan Falley (An Alaskan Babe), Sarah Carter (the lead Alaskan Avy Babe) and myself (a Colorado Babe) to all be together talking about different ideas or ways of teaching our level 1 avalanche students. We represented almost the entire female AIARE component at the refresher course, and chatting with these women was amazing. It inspired me for our upcoming Avalanche courses in CO this winter, knowing that we were sharing ideas that would be incorporated in all our courses in CO, AK, and CA. It was also a great way to ease into the conference setting. It can be pretty interesting putting a room full of outdoor people inside for 5 days to sit and listen. Let’s just say we love all the knowledge and learning, but we “itch” to get back outside because that is what we really love…playing in the outdoors.
The conference consisted of 4 sessions a day with about 4 to 5, 20-minute presentations in each session. Some of the science oriented talks were really interesting. Laboratory style snow science, but this stuff can also get way over my head. Equations that span across the entire screen and graphs with symbols I couldn’t even try to make out. Then a practitioner would present and I would be totally captured again. Case studies with intriguing results, new ways to quantify pole plant tests, special variability talks in relation to thermodynamics, and specific findings of a certain patrols interesting season were things I could really associate with.
These presentations fed my brain till it was exhausted. Every day after the presentations had concluded there was a social hour for everyone to unwind and catch up. Social hour was a great time to mingle on a casual level and really talk with all the bright and experienced minds that work in the snow industry. I talked with the AIARE guys (Tom and Ben) about their educational philosophy and the great curriculum they provide, with BCA about their float packs, other patrollers, and then Billy Rankin about his great talk on communication and what’s new with Irwin Lodge in Crested Butte. And of course I spent some quality “summer” time catching up with the Breckenridge Ski Patrol Avalanche team, who I work with all winter. Always fun to see those guys. I also met some really amazing women that work in the snow industry and talked avalanche education and ideas for future fun women’s snow adventure trips. I realized how important social time and networking was to the conference too. I can see how this event becomes such a great place to see people every two years and catch up. In a room full of people who have made snow not only a passion and a job, but a way of life.
Divas Night was one of the highlights of my week. It is an evening celebration that is put on by the Avalanche Divas during the conference. It’s main purpose is to provide a fun and comfortable outlet for all the women attending the conference to meet each other. The event also recognizes a few women each year who have made a remarkable impact in the snow science and education realm. Being around such amazing women who have made skiing and snow such an intricate part of their lives was pretty awesome. I even got to help set up Divas Night, and hung banners for all the companies that helped sponsor the event in some way. Hanging banners for Smith, Flylow, and BCA (companies that also sponsor Backcountry Babes) I realized that these companies do have a genuine respect for women’s achievements and equal opportunity in the same snowsports as men. Lel Tone, Kim Grant, and Brooke Edwards, three really incredibly humble women, ran the event with grace. It was such a pleasure to meet so many women who have sacrificed so much to get so far in a male dominated field. Yet despite any of the women’s long list of accomplishments, all the walls were brought down (no ego in this room!) and it was just a bunch of girls who love to play in the snow! It didn’t matter whether they ski the big peaks from a helicopter in Alaska, just get out in the Colorado backcountry, free-ski powder where ever they can find it, spend their time educating others, safely guiding clients, or analyzing snow crystals in a lab, they all just come together to have fun of their passion for snow.
Looking back, the experience was amazing. What a cool conference of theory and practice combined. Scientist talking about growing surface hoar in a lab and ski guides talking back with surface hoar events, really brought the conference full circle. Walking into something totally new, similar to one of our students walking into an introductory avalanche course, the support and energy from Divas night aligned with our Backcountry Babe’s style. We bring great women together with passion and knowledge and share it with other women in a comfortable, inspiring, and empowering environment. Women have an important place in this field, and I believe in the importance of continuing my education and gaining more knowledge and networking, like what happens at the ISSW. It all reminds me I have a lot to learn, but also that I have a lot to give.
Just like the first steps of an early morning ski tour, I’m rejuvenated and excited for winter. I am thankful that an event like ISSW is available to those working in the snow industry, and thankful to Backcountry Babes for making this trip possible for me. Now I am just patiently waiting for the snow to fall in Colorado and looking forward to teaching more women about good backcountry travel and avalanche safety in our AIARE level 1 avalanche courses this winter.