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Slope Sisterhood

Words by Jojo Cook

Pics by Mike Weyerhauser

One sunny bluebird powder day in Chamonix, I met Simone, Stephanie, Mags and Bryony. I’d seen them around, they looked like too-cool-for-school tough chicks – confident, gorgeous, girls about town.

On the chairlift, we clicked instantly. On the run down we did too. I found that riding with them opened up a whole new level of confidence and enjoyment. The same speed, the same level, the same sense of humour – suddenly snowboarding was taken to a new dimension.

It was hysterics on the lift then whooping through tree runs. No longer were we chasing after the guys, feeling pressurised to keep up, suddenly we were liberated; we were a gang.

Free to pick our own lines, to hike where and when we wanted, free to call the shots and to hoon down the side of the mountain, glistening snow spraying over our faces. Whooping with the buzz. Like when you’re on a rollercoaster and it pauses just before plunging down with its occupants laughing and screaming – that’s what riding with the girls felt like.

At the end of that most adrenaline-fuelled day, we hit the bars and partied hard in our snow gear. It was a legendary day, the first and most fantastical day when we rode as a pack.

It was the first of many times, with many more girls coming and joining us. It wasn’t so much a cliquey thing, any girls with spunk and speed were welcome like sisters to our hood.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about feminism or dissing the guys – we love the male race. What this is about, is having a solid girl gang to share fun, riding and special days with.

Girl Power

Women learn faster when there are no guys around. There tends to be more support, more self-confidence and less testosterone, which is why women-specific ski and snowboard clinics have been opening up at a rate of knots.

‘Girls tend to be much more relaxed without guys around,’ says Elissa Koskinen at Girlie Camps. ‘They can progress at their own tempo, without feeling intimidated and take it easy until they are 100 per cent sure. Girls are also really supportive of each other and push each other in a way guys never would. Guys push each other on a different level and much harder.’

With more women than ever taking to the hills to ski and ride, there are more pals to choose from to enlist into your posse. Riding in a gang of girls is about support and camaraderie. And, although riding with the boys undoubtedly raises the standards and helps us push limits, watching other women’s achievements is sometimes even more powerful, because it suddenly seems achievable.

‘When the girls see another girl doing a trick, they think “Wow, if she can do it, why not me?”,’ explains Elissa. ‘If a guy did the same trick, the girls would just think “Ah, that was a guy, I’ll never be able to do anything like that anyway.”’

When you ride with the girls, intimidation gives way to support and encouragement making it easier to easier to confront self-doubt and fear.

Girls are also less likely to be constantly competitive, so feel less peer-pressured into taking risks when riding with other women. They help each other learn new tricks and support each other in making decisions, rather than feeling like they have to take that line, even if looks avalanche prone, or launch off that kicker, even if the landing looks flat.

A group of girls will tend to be as brave as the ballsiest girl in the group. The reason we ride faster and push ourselves more in a group, is because in groups, we feel more inclined to take risks. “If you get a bunch of individuals together, their attitudes towards taking risks are more extreme than if they were alone,’ says Professor Maule, a Psychologist specialising in group dynamics at the University of Leeds, UK. ‘This is caused by what’s called group polarisation, where the need to conform is very strong and people feel they have to be as risky as the riskiest person in the group.’

This concept isn’t unique to snowboarding or groups of girls, but riding with your girl crew will not only help you improve your technique and your confidence, but the shared experiences and adrenaline will live with you forever.

So if you do one thing this season, get a group of girls together and get out there for first lift on a powder day. And of course, it’s not all about snowboarding, friends you make on the slopes can become friends for life. All now living busy lives in separate countries around the globe, my gang and I still make time to meet up every autumn in Indo for a girlie surf trip, where the waves are our mountains and the giggles are good.

The Freestyle Gang

Meanwhile, over in Les Deux Alpes, France, a very different group of girls exist. Vicci Miller, Sonia Shaw, Gilly Seagrave and Alexa Hohenberg (all from the UK), Rita Comi (from Italy) and Mirjam Jaeger (from France) meet for summer camp every year. With sponsorship from companies like Option, Roxy and Oakley, these girls spend half the year travelling from competition to competition, specialising in big air, slopestyle and half pipe.

Although independently based for the winter season, their lives are half on the road, living our of their snowboard bags, with duties to fulfil to their sponsors, who fund their enviable lifestyles. The summer is their chance to chill, hang loose, polish old tricks and perfect new ones – and have a damn good time while doing it. ‘Its always good to meet up with the girls in summer,’ says Vicci. ‘There’s a good atmosphere – everyone comes here to play and learn tricks. There’s good music, barbecues, cool people, lots of reggae parties and ragga dance lessons, plus loads of cute skier boys into riding for fun.’

‘It’s not only about the riding, it’s about the melting pot of the people here,’ says Sonia. ‘Also, the kickers are nice, with a good progression of jumps from baby to intermediate to pro, so you can build yourself up here quite nicely. And afterwards we play tennis, hang out at the pool, at the lake…’

Roxy pro halfpipe rider Rita Comi loves joining her gang to spend her summers here.

‘We all have different skills, some are better at kickers, some at rails or pipe, so we can all help each other out,’ she explains. ‘They all help me at jumping, I help them out with the pipe, another friend helped me out with rails today. It’s just great to share the love and the skills you have with your girlfriends – it really makes you bond.’

This girl gang knows all about how to support and encourage one other and help build each other’s confidence up to progress. ‘That’s how it was with me the other day,’ enthuses Gilly. ‘I came up and really wasn’t sure, than I saw you lot and ended up nailing a new trick on the box – learning something I didn’t even think I could ever do!’

So who’s the gutsiest girl in the group? With her love of leathers, big kickers and Duccati motorbike, that’s an easy one. ‘It’s Vicci,’ laughs Mirjam. ‘She’s crazy, she’s always got a smile and she’ll try anything.’

Essential Kit

On the mountain

  • • Sunscreen and lip block
  • • ‘Boy beaters’ (baggy vests)
  • • Ipods (Punk, Snoop and Metallica) – these girls rock
  • • Snowboard with lots of pop for hitting rails and halfpipes
  • • Video camera (they are currently filming Brit-girl flick ‘Gnar Chicken & Tea’)

Off the hill

  • • Knitted Ipod case (from Eka wear www.ekawear.com, Gilly’s company)
  • • Boardshorts & bikini
  • • Skateboard
  • • Mojito
  • • Ducati (Vicci’s motorbike)

How to Survive

On the mountain

  • • Film each other, watching playback to perfect those moves
  • • Stoke each other and share trick tips and techniques
  • • Learn from the other’s strengths

Off the mountain

  • • Have a good time on the dance floor
  • • Make new friends with people from all over the world
  • • Get projects on the go like filming, knitting, customising clothes

The Freeride Gang

Susanne Davidsen (Sanne), Jessica Venables, 27, and Terri Aroha live in Chamonix Mt Blanc and have ridden the backcountry together for four years. Petite, permanently tanned and fit, on a powder day, they’ll be half way up Mont Blanc by the time you’ve finished your breakfast.

“We never started with the intention of being a gang,’ says Terri from New Zealand.

‘It’s more about being friends, sharing a love of the mountain and having the same passion.’

Jess, the first British person to be invited to take part in the Verbier Extreme (an annual freeride event with just 16 of the world’s best riders) agrees that their gang evolved naturally.

‘We started off by going with people who knew what they were doing so we could learn from them,’ she says. ‘Then we started hiking with snow shoes. After we’d been with enough people and felt we had good experience we started going on our own. We’d take it in turns to lead, and gradually built our confidence.’

‘We’ve always been very safe,’ agrees Sanne from Denmark, ‘to the point of feeling a bit silly because we’d do snow checks and not all people really do that. But we were always checking the conditions, asking the pisteurs and taking their advice. After that, you get experience, you start understanding what’s going on in the mountains, learning about snowfalls and you learn a lot.’

So why a girl gang?

‘There’s a lot less pressure when it’s just girls,’ explains Jess. ‘There’s a special freeness, a spirit. We’re good friends so it’s a laugh. I feel so much better inside when I’ve ridden with my girlfriends, when we’ve just gone up and done our thing instead of chasing after the boys. It makes us feel much more free. Often when you go with guys they want to protect you, or tell you what to do. When we go up on our own, we make our own decisions.’

‘Also, guys can be quite macho,’ adds Terri. ‘One time a guy pushed passed me to get in front before a couloir. Another time, a guy pulled at my back pack so we couldn’t make the traverse we’d been sweating over; we had to take our boards off and walk instead.’

But it’s not about boy-bashing – the girls love to ride with guys from time to time too. ‘We love riding with the guys as it pushes us and improves our riding – we wouldnt be where we are with out them,’ says Sanne. ‘We just savour the times when it’s just us girls together as it’s special.’

By night the girls work in bars, do some occasional modelling and get flowed kit (Jess has a contract with O’Neill), but their priority is always to spend as much time in the mountains – freeriding in winter and rock climbing in summer.

With no ego, glitzy events or excessive sponsor attention, Jess, Sanne and Terri have found a deep-rooted bond, , a vivacity for life, snowboarding for themselves. They board where and when they want, safe and secure in the knowledge that they’ve got each other to watch their backs.

Essential Kit

On the mountain

  • • Transceiver, shovel and probe
  • • Crampons, harness, rope, ice screw
  • • Water
  • • Sunblock
  • • Chocolate & energy food

Off the mountain

  • • Lancôme Juicy tubes
  • • Moisturiser – Nivea or Clinique
  • • Conditioner
  • • Mountain bike
  • • Margarita

How to Survive

On the mountain

  • • Avalanche training and crevasse rescue courses
  • • Transceiver training every autumn
  • • Learning from experienced people before going in the backcountry solo
  • • Turn your mobile off – signal can play havoc with your bleeps
  • • Asking advice of pisteurs and mountain guides

Off the mountain

  • • Always have a smile.
  • • Do stuff for you and not for other people.
  • • Always be friendly and have a positive vibe.
  • • Don’t party hard the night before powder days – there’ s no room for hangovers on glaciers!

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