Words: Beth Lopez
The seventh annual Alpine Finishing School went off without a hitch, with two sessions of about twelve mountaineering girafficorns assembling at the Selkirk Lodge outside Revelstoke, British Columbia. A huge thank you to our presenting partner, Arc’teryx, for their continued support of this women’s ski and splitboard mountaineering course.
The Alpine Finishing School aims to teach women well versed in backcountry skiing how to properly up their game in mountaineering. (When we say “properly” we mean with professionally guided seriousness sprinkled with inside jokes and fireside giggle-fits.) Each participant spends a week on glacial terrain learning advanced terrain management, glacier travel, crevasse rescue, navigation, anchor-building, and the finer details of mountain adventure.
The Selkirk Lodge is perched high above a convergence of ice fields in the rugged Canadian alpine. It was built thirty years ago by the matriarch of the Selkirks, Grania Devine, who still oversees lodge operations today. Her daughter, Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) certified ski guide Kate Devine, leads the Alpine Finishing School instruction.
Each day included focused instruction both indoors and out, with the day’s curriculum depending on the weather. Each participant filed downstairs from the cozy upstairs bunks each morning at 7am sharp for a classic Claire Smallwood breakfast, a sack-lunch assembly line, and a discussion of the day’s curriculum. In the mountains of British Columbia, the weather can turn on a dime, so each day’s plan was fine-tuned on the morning of.
After a debrief on the weather and the day’s expectations, each girl filed upstairs to prepare her gear and layers for the day, then meet for instruction. Some days included a little more classroom time, but every day included adventure time. Even the mellow explorational tours filled the slower-paced vibe with discussion on route selection, avalanche risk assessment, trip planning, and navigation. Meanwhile, the bigger tours were exhilarating — topping out with the full gang on Primrose Peak or ascending the Albert Icefield glacier in a methodical procession.
By halfway through the week, each participant was able to jump in on tasks they may not have managed as handily before: coiling a rope for backpack carry, charting a compass course across low-visibility terrain, or burying a pair of skis to serve as a rappel anchor.
The mood varied from occasional jitters to outright exuberance, with the all-female atmosphere making it comfortable for everyone to feel what they felt and talk about where they were. Grania and her sister Reinet took turns supervising the lodge for week one and week two of the Finishing School, and they did more than make sure the lodge was cozy and warm. They served as the most experienced mountain women in the group’s midst, dishing out sage advice and wry laughs.
At the beginning of the week, freshly exhilarated from the stunning helicopter ride into the lodge, the group sat down around the hand-crafted wooden dining table and shared their intentions. The goals included feeling more confident touring in new parts of the mountains, building leadership skills in a group outdoor setting, or even skiing a certain objective someday. (The AFS Session II Class of 2018 has its sights set on Denali now.)
Every attendee mentioned a desire to build more confidence through practice and instruction in an atmosphere where everyone felt safe and heard. The guides were intent on lifting everyone up, giving an ear to every question and concern, and building each girl’s confidence that she, too, could lead a group and make decisions she could stand by.
Over the course of the week, every participant built a stronger sense of self-assuredness along with rote skills like knot-tying, anchor-building, self-arresting, compass navigation, and even the generally hilarious act of glacier-skiing while roped up with a group.
Nights were filled with the exceptional multi-course meals only Claire Smallwood could prepare, followed by wine, laughter, Hawaiian shirts, a Kangaroo outfit, unicorn headpieces, and dad-dancing to party jams.
But in addition to all the evening levity and daily corn-turn whoops, the Alpine Finishing School left each participant changed on a deeper level too. Each woman learned more about the mountains and more about herself too. As the helicopter came by on the final day to pick up the newly graduated girafficorns, there were a few tears and lots of long hugs. The Alpine Finishing School had made its mark in this, the prettiest place in the world. And the graduates were ready to venture out in it with greater strength and sharper skill.
Thank you Abby Cooper for your beautiful photography and to Beth Lopez for taking the time to pen this piece.