SheJumps is a nonprofit that offers programs in Oregon, Washington and 14 other states designed to reduce barriers for and boost the participation of women and girls in outdoor recreation activities. Since 2018, it has offered the Snowpack Avalanche Scholarship Program, a free, two-day course which teaches valuable safety skills in backcountry skiing. Unlike its traditional, downhill counterpart, backcountry skiing typically takes place on ungroomed and unpatrolled terrain where avalanche risk abounds and equipment like shovels and rescue beacons can help save lives. Columbia Gorge News previously wrote about the organization’s most recent course which was held last month at Mount Hood and awarded to 12 people, half of them women of color. Joining us to talk about the scholarship program and the impact it’s having to make snow sports more inclusive are Robyn Gelfand, the national program director at SheJumps, and Vivian Tang, a West Linn-based recipient of the 2022-2023 SheJumps Snowpack Avalanche Scholarship.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A skier and a snowboarder were killed by avalanches in Oregon in two separate incidents this month. They were in the backcountry, an increasingly popular form of winter recreation with increased risks. It’s also often dominated by men. For a few years now, a nonprofit called SheJumps has aimed to change that to encourage more women to take part in all kinds of outdoor activities and to give them the skills to do so safely. SheJumps recently held its latest avalanche training on Mount Hood. 12 women, half of them women of color, were given full scholarships for a two-day course. Vivian Tang was one of those recipients. She joins us now along with Robyn Gelfand, a former ski patroller on Mount Hood who is now the National program director at SheJumps. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Robyn Gelfand: Thank you. Really excited to be here.
Miller: So Robyn first, what is the overall idea behind SheJumps? I gave the one sentence version. What’s the longer version?
Gelfand: The SheJumps Snowpack Scholarship was started five years ago as a bridge to get more women involved in winter sports and provide access to educational resources for snow and avalanche safety.
Miller: Why did you want to join this? You joined this nonprofit two years ago. What attracted you to it?
Gelfand: As a former volunteer ski patroller, I saw the disparity in the number of women who are patrollers and SheJumps runs a youth program called Junior Ski Patrol. And I read an article about that and thought that that was something we had to bring to Mount Hood and was really inspiring to get the next generation of girls into patrolling. So that’s what initially drew me to the organization. And then ultimately just the wide range of programs they offer is what really excites me about the work.
Miller: How do you explain that disparity? And it’s not just in ski patrollers, but it’s in various aspects of winter snow sports?
Gelfand: Skiing in general, there’s a really high barrier to entry, especially backcountry skiing, which has become increasingly popular. It’s not always the most welcoming space for women and People of Color. There is pricy gear, the high cost of avalanche education and both of those things create some barriers. And it can also be intimidating.
Miller: Vivian, how much skiing did you do when you were growing up?
Vivian Tang: I grew up in California, so I grew up skiing and snowboarding in Lake Tahoe. Usually maybe two or three times a season. My parents would be able to save up the money to take us to some of the most affordable ski resorts. But I was very grateful that I did have the opportunity to be exposed to snow sports starting at a relatively young age.
Miller: Limited, it seems by the cost even then, before costs have just gone even higher, especially for single day passes. What about in more recent years? How much have you done?
Tang: Well, I pretty much stopped skiing in college and in graduate school and for a few years after, because of the high cost associated with getting access to snow sports. I only recently returned to snow sports, probably three years ago. Being a little bit more stable in my career, I was able to decide to reinvest myself into learning about the snow sports and getting exposed to the backcountry.
Miller: Robyn mentioned that, and that’s really the focus of the avalanche scholarship that you took advantage of. There’s been a big increase in what’s known as alpine touring or ski touring or split boarding in the last few decades. But my guess is a lot of our listeners may not be familiar with this. Can you describe the basics of what people are much more likely to do these days?
Gelfand: Backcountry skiing is really any type of skiing or, as you mentioned, split boarding that’s done outside of the patrolled boundaries of a ski area. So it’s up to the skiers and the snowboarders who are doing it to assess and manage the risk themselves versus relying on ski patrol.
Miller: And what are the range of dangers that people who do this may encounter in the backcountry?
Gelfand: Avalanche risk is at the top of the list. Weather factors, ability, especially if you’re going into the backcountry with people that you haven’t recreated with before. If there’s varying ability levels and communication tends to be a really big thing too. It’s important to over-communicate about the plans and make sure everybody has a voice and is on board with the plan when you’re traveling in the backcountry.
Miller: Vivian, how much experience did you have in the backcountry before you took this class?
Tang: I had very limited backcountry experience, only in very mild conditions, very easy weather conditions. So little to none, I would almost say, to really truly assess the risk involved in traveling in the backcountry.
Miller: What went through your mind when you heard about this scholarship, this offer of a free two-day avalanche safety course?
Tang: This was an astounding opportunity. And the fact that these scholarships, in the application, acknowledged that People of Color have historically been marginalized in these spaces, told me something pretty quickly, that this organization was different. And it was something I really wanted to pursue. It was an amazing opportunity and I wanted to also be in a class where I could meet others that could potentially be adventure partners, but may also have come from similar backgrounds like myself where we haven’t had much representation or mentors in this space.
Miller: Robyn, is that intentional to put the women who are granted these scholarships together in a way to actually perhaps create future community?
Gelfand: Absolutely. I think Vivian hit the nail on the head. By having these courses be exclusively for scholarship recipients and not also open to the public, the intention is to create that affinity space where people can feel comfortable being vulnerable, asking questions and in turn, creating that community and creating a stronger learning environment.
Miller: Vivian, what was the class actually like?
Tang: Wow, it was absolutely surreal. And while we did talk about avalanche risk, safety, assessing conditions, what really stood out to me was how this company and the instructors really stressed communication. And they created a really welcoming space so that we could ask questions. We didn’t feel judged by others. We listened to one another. I was surprised about all the interpersonal skills I ended up gaining from this class, not just the snow education. And I think there was something very unique about what SheJumps creates and it was intentional. I thought it was absolutely amazing and I know many other people from the weekend felt similarly.
Miller: Have you stayed in touch with any of them?
Tang: Absolutely. I have gone out into the backcountry with a few of the other women that I met and hopefully will continue to talk, for more adventures. But it’s really nice because we can help build each other’s knowledge base as SheJumps and the course kind of encourages that. Let us share our knowledge. Everyone has something that they can bring to the table and it’s important to observe and recognize that. And that goes into how they encouraged us to communicate very openly, especially when the setting can be high risk.
Miller: Robyn, it is striking that both you and Vivian have emphasized, more than anything else, more than learning to use avalanche beacons, turning them from seek to send out “I’m here,” to turning it to “where is my person?” Instead of those aspects as technical questions, you’ve both talked about communication. Why is it important especially in the backcountry to be really good at communicating?
Gelfand: So many of the incidents that occur are because people aren’t speaking up and voicing concerns or hazards that they recognize, but don’t want to share with the group. And that can be really common in a male dominated group. Nobody wants to question the dynamic of the group or if somebody is in a leadership position, question that. Whereas what we find more with women groups is that more of that communication actually leads to safer and better outcomes. And so much of these avalanche certification courses are about decision-making skills and hazard assessment. The actual technical piece of understanding the snowpack and how to use a beacon and different rescue techniques are critical but really the crux is about decision-making skills and hazard assessment.
Miller: I’m curious, Vivian, we’ve sort of skirted around this issue but often there can be a kind of “ski bro” culture at resorts and maybe especially in the backcountry. What was it like for you to do this class without men?
Tang: That is a great question. As Robyn had mentioned earlier, there can be a different comfort level for being able to voice our thoughts. And when it comes to communicating for safe travel, one thing that I learned is that we all have some biases into how we move as a group, whether it can be over relying on someone who’s the loudest or someone who’s the most experienced. But that doesn’t mean that not every individual can spot the appropriate hazards that exist with group travel. And there’s also the truth that women communicate a little differently than in a group of men or even if it was mixed gender. And I think that dynamic made it a really positive learning environment. There was never any embarrassment for saying ‘I do’ or ‘do not know this.’ And I think that creates a really safe space and actually helps encourage people to ask more thoughtful and even more complex questions. And it’s great because everybody’s listening to that question. Everyone learns from it. And the chances are if one person asks a question, there’s more than one other person who was thinking the same thing.
Miller: Robyn Gelfand, 12 women were the recipients of this particular scholarship for this most recent class on Mount Hood. Is it hard to winnow down the winners from the larger group of applicants?
Gelfand: Yeah, absolutely. We had some really terrific applicants but on the SheJumps side, we’ve created an evaluation rubric that we can really objectively review each application and take personal identifiers out, to try to remove some of those biases that reviewers might have. And we source a wide scope of reviewers from outside our organization as well and from partner organizations to try to get as many different perspectives and input on the applications as possible. So it’s quite an involved review process, but ultimately, we’re so happy to be able to offer not only the 12 women in Oregon, but 84 women across four different states, these avalanche certification courses this winter.
Miller: Vivian, we have about a minute left. What do you hope to do with these new skills going forward?
Tang: I am a community leader in an organization called Trail Mix Collective which helps inspire and mentor other women of color in outdoor sports. I hope to take some of these skills to create events to help encourage other women to learn about backcountry safety. I think this opened a door for me, but I want to make sure that invitation continues past me and towards other people, especially women of color within my community.
Miller: Vivian and Robyn, thanks very much.
Gelfand: Thank you, Dave.
Tang: Thank you.
Miller: Vivian Tang is a SheJumps Snowpack Avalanche Scholarship recipient. Robyn Gelfand is the national program director for the nonprofit. She’s also a former volunteer ski patroller at Mount Hood. She was there for about a decade.
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