Female-Driven Mentorship Gains Momentum In The Backcountry

Words :: Zanny Venner

Holly Walker is silent slayer. An ACMG Apprentice Ski Guide, she’s stood atop the highest peak in Canada, hammered through a 30-day traverse in Tajikistan, climbed and skied Alaska’s infamous Pontoon Peak, and toured and shredded big lines in South America, the Alps, Colorado, the Canadian Rockies and at home in the Coast Mountains.

Holly Walker Skiing
Holly Walker on another fine day.  Photo Jason Hummel

Despite the lack of female mentorship in her past, Holly is on the front lines of a changing paradigm—she hopes to inspire more women to enter into the backcountry by providing them with the skills and support needed to push their boundaries. Because, as Holly knows well, gender stereotypes are slow to die in mountain culture.

Before 2014, I was always the token female,” she says. “My place in the mountains has been attempting big objectives with male partners. Through my development into ski guiding I never had a female mentor—my practicums were with male leaders.”

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When Holly was invited to summit and ski Wedge Mountain in 2011 for the first time, she was ecstatic. She joined a group of three men and climbed the south face to ski the NW couloir. As they climbed, one member of the group lagged behind—the others even had time for a nap in the sun on the ascent. Everyone summitted, but it was just before dark when they finally returned to the trailhead and the weakest link sheepishly admitted, “I just assumed I wouldn’t be the slowest because we’d invited a girl.”

Summit Cider
Summy Cider Celebration – Say that 10 times fast.  Photo Re Wikstrom

Then there was the time in June of 2012 when, climbing to Camp 4 (5243 metres) on Denali’s West Buttress route, Holly stopped to chat with an all-male team from Columbia—themselves struggling with the altitude—who were shocked to see a female leading the route.

Or on Pontoon Peak in 2013, Holly was stopped by one of her partners before crossing the bergschrund. “The pitch had increased in angle and I later learned it was 58 degrees. He said it was okay if I was scared and didn’t want to continue.” But in fact, he was the one who was scared and didn’t want to continue.

“Hell, we all have bad days,” Holly says. “We all have fear. It keeps us in check and helps us make better decisions. I felt good that day so he and I agreed on a safe spot for him to wait and I continued to the top, rejoining our other partner.” Holly would later learn she was the first woman to ascend and ski Pontoon without a helicopter. “I earned those turns,” she laughs.

Holly’s path to mountain life started early. She spent her childhood days in Whistler skiing and chasing her parents, older sister and brother up Rainbow Mountain and other local hiking trails. However, her life in the mountains was put on hold at age 10 when her family said good-bye to the Coast Mountains and moved to Australia.

She didn’t connect with her Whistler roots again until age 21. While finishing an internship in Santiago, Chile, Holly found herself in Las Lenas, Argentina where she was surrounded by a bunch of Whistler ski bums. Using her mom’s old Voile backcountry skis with circa 1990 Fritschi bindings and an ancient blue Ortovox F1 Focus transceiver, she took to the hills. That trip, and the crew she went with, helped Holly rediscover her love for Whistler—and she returned to her home town to pursue the life she left behind.

Holly hugging snow
Mountain Love, tell us how you really feel Holly.  Photo Re Wikstrom

Holly spent nearly 10 years freeriding at home and around the globe but it wasn’t until 2011, back home and heading on her first trip into the renowned Tantalus Range, that she finally invested in a pair of Dynafit pin bindings and began to apply her freeride skills to true ski mountaineering.

Around the same time, Holly set a goal to be a professional guide in the ski industry. The road toward an ACMG examination is long, and she needed more experience and more backcountry partners. Female ski partners were few and far between, but in 2013 Holly was able to connect with other women getting after it. That spring she partnered with ACMG ski guide Emelie Stenberg to take on a high-altitude, 400-kilometre self-supported traverse over the Fedchenko Glacier in Tajikistan. Three of the five-person team were female—things were changing.

By 2016, Holly’s diverse experience and solid resume got her accepted into the prestigious ACMG Ski Guide training program. Almost one quarter of those accepted were women—momentum was growing.

James Blench, longtime IFMGA/ACMG Mountain Guide, acknowledges the changing landscape in the ski guiding industry. “These days more women see guiding as an attractive career path than they did in the past,” he says. “It’s easier socially, because the profession is no longer totally male-dominated.”

As her experience and education expanded, Holly found herself increasingly being asked to instruct women’s-only courses in the backcountry and guide trips with female clients who had requested at least one female guide to be on board. For example, in spring of 2017, Rich Prohaska (IFMGA/ACMG Mountain Guide and local legend) was seeking out an assistant for a Mount Logan (5959 meters) expedition with his daughter, Naomi, and two clients (one male, one female). Knowing Holly’s credentials as she completed her apprentice exam, and wanting a female presence for his daughter, Rich invited her. Holly felt honoured by the invitation and in May 2017, she was part of a five-person squad that saw three females stand on the top of Canada.

Ripping down first track in the backcountry.
Ripping down first track in the backcountry.  Photo Re Wikstrom

That year proved to be a tipping point. In December 2017 Holly was asked to co-design a backcountry course for seven female steep skiers who had experience but were yearning for more knowledge in order to travel confidently and safely in the backcountry without playing follow the leader. Importantly, they requested the course be led by a woman.

“This all-female ski course reflects the way I want to travel the backcountry,” says Jean Spencer, 30, one of the seven participants. “It provides an opportunity for women to make all the decisions. It’s a lot different than what you get with a crew full of dudes. It’s collaborative and inclusive.”

For Holly, the added value of these courses is how they strengthen female leadership capacity and enhance confident decision-making skills, especially when traveling in a group. She adds that learning in an all-female setting helps women feel comfortable asking questions with no judgement and no ego.

“My goal is to break the mould of girlfriends who follow the male leader,” she says. “I want everyone to have a voice and be part of the decision-making process. For sure, strong females already exist out there and this is not a new concept. I’m not promoting ‘empowerment’ as much as just trying to help create and connect future ski buddies who can talk more openly together about decisions in the mountains.”