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Frauen Pow(d)er

The Women’s Progression Days: off-piste skiing with freeride world champion Lorraine Huber.

By Joanna Bostock

One of the things I love about living in Austria is the skiing. As a Brit who was lucky enough to have learned as a kid it was always a no-brainer – if you’re in Austria, you ski. I considered myself fortunate to be able to regularly spend time in the mountains, but at some point it dawned on me that there was something more exciting and challenging than the repetitive pendulum of up-the-lift-and- down-the-piste. It was during a stay in St. Anton when I noticed all the guys in cool gear with big rucksacks launching themselves down the back of the mountain rather than heading for the groomers: freeriding!

Steile Abfahrt

Anne Kaiser

My first adventures off-piste were fun, but very challenging and somewhat frustrating. Venturing into the backcountry in a group of mostly male, strong skiers left me frustrated, dissatisfied with my technical skills and lacking in confidence. Then I discovered the Women’s Progression Days. Based in Lech am Arlberg, it’s a freeride camp for women, founded and run by Lorraine Huber, the 2017 Freeride World Champion, guide, instructor and coach who has been described as „one of the most experienced big mountain skiers in the world“. So, on a Friday morning earlier this month, I find myself in front of the Rüfikopfbahn in Lech along with 27 other women skiers, who’ve come here not just from Austria but also from Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.

Lorraine launched the Women’s Progression Days ten years ago, after realizing that far fewer women than men were skiing in the backcountry. She tells me she didn’t understand why until she realized that women often lack confidence and worry about holding back others in a group. „Ich habe mir gedacht, wenn wir unter uns sind, wir Frauen, fallen die Hemmungen wahrscheinlich weg. Frauen sind auch oft am Berg aus Spaß und da geht’s auch um diese Gemeinschaft, da geht’s nicht unbedingt um Leistung und wie viele Runs man machen muss am Tag und wie steil es ist, sondern da geht’s wirklich gemeinsam um Spaß am Berg“.

Gruppe von Skifahrerinnen

Anne Kaiser

All the women here are competent to very competent on skis, but when it comes to introducing ourselves to the rest of the group, it’s clear that Lorraine’s logic hits a spot: „Ich bin nicht so der große Gelände-Fahrer, ich würd gern, aber es steht mir oft die Angst im Weg“ - „Ich habe das Gefühl dass ich es nicht schaffe“ - „Ich würde mir auch wünschen ich komme im Gelände besser zurecht“ - „Dass es ein Frauencamp ist finde ich extrem cool, weil ich mir denke wir müssen uns nichts gegenseitiges beweisen“ - „Ich fahre auf der Piste sehr gut und abseits ist es mieserabel, ich würde einfach gerne sicher runter kommen so dass es irgendwie gleich schaut und sich gut anfühlt“.

The 28 participants are divided into groups and as well as Lorraine, our guides are Geli, Christa, Harumi and Astrid. Technical training is an integral part of the experience - even very strong skiers can have bad habits - and it’s exciting to be not just guided by, but also to learn from experienced women skiers of such high caliber. And Lorraine was right – there is a relaxed and very positive vibe in the group, a mixture of concentration on our technique when on the snow then banter and laughter on the lifts.

We’re lucky to have sunny weather, and although there hasn’t been any fresh snowfall recently, there is plenty of fun to be had off the piste. The participants set their own pace for their groups, deciding jointly where to ski. My personal highlight is the afternoon our group hikes up the Knödelkopf with our skis strapped to our backpacks, to reach the northern facing slopes on the other side.

Knödelkopfaufstieg der Skifahrerinnen

Geli Häusl

I will freely admit to having been nervous about the climb, but the elation of skiing (if not particularly gracefully, at least enjoyably competently) through the shallow but soft powder in such a spectacularly stunning setting is the reward. Another group has lots of fun practicing jumps, while a fellow skier tells me her highlight was when her group tackled the famously challenging north face of the Valluga, which at 2809 metres is the highest peak in the Arlberg mountains, and can only be accessed with a guide. (By the way, it goes without saying that we all have avalanche safety equipment, and an entire afternoon of the camp is dedicated to safety training.)

Eine Skifahrerin im Sprung

Anne Kaiser

At the end of each day there’s après-ski, but not the usual, rowdy kind. Gathering for dinner in the evenings provides an opportunity to meet and mingle, to share and compare the day’s experiences and to bond. We may all come from different places and walks of life but the mutual enthusiasm for skiing brings us together. It’s in the evening that I meet the youngest WPD participants. Most of the women here have reached a point in life where they can comfortably afford a ski holiday in a place like Lech. But Eva from the Stubaital, who lives in Innsbruck and studies biomedical analysis, and Lena from Salzburg who’s studying sports science, are in their early 20s. They are the recipients of two scholarships for the WPD, organized by Lorraine’s sponsors specifically to support talented young women freeriders. They’re clearly excited to be able to ski with Lorraine.

Lena, Lorraine, Eva

Geli Häusl

It’s an interesting coincidence that as I write this, just a couple of days after the camp, the Freeride World Tour announced that as of next year, men and women athletes on the tour will be awarded equal prize money across all categories.

In an email Lena tells me this is „mega gut. Auch Frauen pushen sich bei den Contests und es werden immer schwierigere Lines und auch Tricks gezeigt. Dies hat eine Vorbildwirkung auf andere Freeriderinnen, die sehen was auch für Frauen alles möglich ist. Es ist spannend zuzusehen und zu bewundern, was Frauen auf der FWT zeigen!“ Eva’s response is similar: „Weibliche Vorbilder im Sport sind sehr wichtig. Selbst verfolge ich die FWT und freue mich jedes Jahr, den Freeriderinnen zuzuschauen. Ich finde es inspirierend und es macht mich stolz zu sehen, wie sich die Frauen in den Wettkämpfen pushen. Zum Beispiel der erste 360 in einem FWT-Wettkampf in der Ski Women Kategorie im Jahr 2018 und der darauffolgende erste Backflip ein Jahr später. Selbst bin ich sehr gespannt, wie sich das Niveau der Ski Women in der FWT in den nächsten Jahren entwickeln wird.“

Talking of Vorbilder, Lorraine herself is quite passionate when she chats with her young colleagues about her own physical and mental evolution as a competitive athlete, and in sharing her experiences and wisdom on preparing for contests. She’s a wonderful role model in more ways than one.

At the end of the last day as we say our good-byes, there are lots of hugs and mutual expressions of admiration and thanks for a wonderful time together. There are, of course, other freeride camps for women, but I can’t talk about those from experience. What I can tell you is that this particular camp as a very personal touch.

Alle Skifahrerinnen der Women's Progression Days

Anne Kaiser