“I was just skiing this line, and it was beautiful powder. A beautiful blue sky day in Lake Louise, and then I hit a chunk of snow that grabbed my ski and twisted me with all my body weight downhill. I felt my knee completely pop and I knew right away what had happened, but I knew also that I still had to get out of the backcountry.”
Claire put on her skins and started to hike out. She knew her ACL was torn and understood it was only a matter of time before she wouldn’t be able to move her leg. Her accident would prove to be a valuable teaching moment in planning and backcountry awareness. The safe exit point the group had selected was no longer available to them following her injury. They were forced to return to the ski area, which was along a west facing slope in direct sunlight. With no alternative route, they continued through the ski area and hoped for the best. “The sun was heating it up quite a bit and there were a lot of roller balls coming down. Definitely potential for a wet slide, it was a perfect recipe. I found myself having to traverse along this face that was getting direct solar warming and I was traversing on one ski, my leg was really starting to hurt and just realizing I was really far away from home, and having all of these emotions kind of rush over me.”
Perhaps an unlikely situation to be in as a fifth generation New Mexican, born to fourth generation ranchers. Claire Smallwood was not born into a family of skiers. She learned to ski through lessons subsidized by her elementary school. Immediately, she became obsessed with the sport. So much so that when her parents told her that the only way she could ski was if she could find a way to pay for it, she did. Claire suspects they expected her to quit because it was so expensive. Determined to keep skiing, she got creative. Claire cut classes, hitch hiked, and eventually took on the responsibility of Ski Club President in college. She got to the ski hill any way she could. As a kid, skiing gave Claire confidence and a strong sense of self. She took pride in being the only female skier at her school. At recess she would jump off picnic tables, do a 360 and tell her friends it was ski training. As an adult, Claire gained community and a sense of belonging.
Now, she’s recreating an experience similar to those ski lessons she took as a kid. This time, she’s on the other side of things. As Executive Director and Co-Founder of SheJumps, Claire has committed her life to introducing women to outdoor sports. When she first became involved with SheJumps, it was a blog that profiled women who thrived in the outdoors. Founded by Lynsey Dyer and Vanessa Pierce, SheJumps told the stories of inspiring women who weren’t getting coverage in big magazines.
Claire felt strongly that SheJumps could have a greater impact as a nonprofit. When she applied for tax-free status, they were denied by the IRS because the SheJumps mission statement was too vague. It went from “philosophically, logistically, and financially supporting women’s dreams,” to “increasing the participation of women in outdoor sports.” Claire describes SheJumps as being “a magical nonprofit that has managed to do a lot with almost nothing.” After injuring her knee in the backcountry, Claire was unable to ski the following winter. She put everything she had into SheJumps. As a result the organization grew exponentially. Last year, they hosted sixty-three events in eighteen states, plus another three in Alberta.
They are focused on offering three opportunities in particular, what is referred to as JumpIn, JumpUp, and JumpOut. This can mean learning something entirely new, furthering skills with something you’ve done before, or sharing knowledge with others. On the more advanced end of that spectrum is the Alpine Finishing School, a multi-day ski mountaineering course for advanced skiers with some backcountry experience. The course is one they hope will help build a solid foundation, giving women the confidence to enroll in backcountry courses that are more in-depth, but not women specific. Interestingly, some of the organization’s biggest critics are women, tired of talking about gender. Their feeling is that women can do anything men can. While Claire certainly agrees, she reminds us that not all women feel so empowered. Those who present this criticism she asserts, would make great role models.
It is also important to note that SheJumps is not focused on women at the expense of men. Males all over the country are eager to share their knowledge and volunteer their time. The end goal is to build a community; those who want to help will not be turned away. “Husbands, fathers, boyfriends, brothers all want to have fun outside with the people they love, women.” She explains, “It’s better for everyone when women are in the outdoors.”
Something special about women, she tells us, is their intuition. Claire notes that studies have shown that groups are less likely to find themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations when there are women present. She has also found women to be more communal, supportive, and committed to ensuring everybody is feeling comfortable. All of this makes her job of creating a safe, inclusive environment a little easier.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees in skiing. When taking people outdoors, there’s no promising that everything will be fine or that nobody will get hurt. “That’s all really overwhelming to tell someone, when you just want them to have the feeling of cold air on their cheeks as they’re flying down the mountain.” Claire has lost friends to skiing and has seen many people, including herself, seriously injured, but skiing remains among the most important things in her life. For some, that can be difficult to process. Those who are new to outdoor sports sometimes find it hard to justify taking any unnecessary risks when they have bills to pay and mouths to feed.
“You have a responsibility to teach somebody correctly and to really outline what the risks are. Maybe it will make somebody turn around and walk away, but knowledge is power and I really think it comes down to this idea of being calculated and being willing to be humble about it.” One of the things she loves most about the outdoors is how accommodating it can be. There’s no need to be extreme if you don’t want to be. No matter your age, fitness or schedule, the outdoors has something to offer. The key, she asserts, is to work within your comfort zone and skill level.
“The mountains are always going to win. They’re always going to be bigger and more powerful and I think that there’s all these different elements that you have to keep in mind.” Her own accident has led Claire to reframe her thinking and be more cautious. “It’s all about taking it slow and listening to intuition,” she says. “I’m going to ski until I’m 90, take it easy,” is what she tells herself. “One turn at a time, that mentality. It’s kind of a good mantra for life.”