Words by Nina Zeitman, photos by Phil Tifo.
Last month an epic set of shots landed on our editor’s desk, fresh from the wilds of British Columbia. Three riders were pictured trekking along a crisp blue untracked ridge, dropping fluffy eight stack pillow lines and spraying rooster tails across untouched cliff faces. There’s no doubt that the riding was awesome, the terrain breathtaking – but this wasn’t what caught our attention. It was the fact that these shots were of an all-female splitboarding crew.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, women have been taking on gnarly couloirs and dropping 30ft cliffs ever since Victoria Jealouse exploded onto the pro freeriding scene in the 1990s. But it’s not every day that Whitelines receives a series of shots that capture a lesser-shown side of snowboarding, that of the female professional freerider. Even in 2013, it’s mainly male riders – the likes of Xavier de le Rue and Jeremy Jones, among others – that the spotlight shines on most fiercely. This begs the question: aside from major forerunners like Annie Boulanger, Hana Beaman, Anne-Flore Marxer and Leanne Pelosi, why are there seemingly so few female freeriders making a name for themselves in the backcountry?
We asked our readers their thoughts on the subject and the response was phenomenal. Within 12 hours we’d had dozens of enlightening responses, including a few top snowboarding figures chipping in with their opinions. Some felt it was the difficulty and expense of accessing the backcountry that deters female riders, while others believe it’s a lack of financial support from the industry that’s proven to be the biggest hurdle.
Each morning they gathered drinking water from a nearby lake. Just an hour’s hike from the cabin’s front door were freshly covered cliff faces that no-one had ridden in over a decade. No cats or snowmobiles accompanied them. It was just three girls and their splitboards.
Fortunately, there are still women pushing boundaries and striving for recognition, even in the face of adversity. One such individual is Roxy rider and backcountry slayer Robin Van Gyn. It was Robin that set about pulling together this epic backcountry photographic mission. “I was watching an edit from some skier friends who film with Matchstick Productions. It looked like the most amazing terrain. I phoned them up and said, where is that place? It was Golden Alpine Holidays, which is a funny name for a really sick terrain resort. You’re not thinking gnarly, you’re thinking, ‘Yay, toboganning!’ It became my two-year mission to get there."
She enlisted riders Marie-France Roy, one of snowboarding’s most progressive female backcountry riders, and North Face Masters champion Maria DeBari to come along. The crew was heli-dropped in the middle of British Columbia’s desolate terrain and spent seven nights in a small cabin completely off the grid, running on solar power. Each morning they gathered drinking water from a nearby lake. Just an hour’s hike from the cabin’s front door were freshly covered cliff faces that no-one had ridden in over a decade. No cats or snowmobiles accompanied them. It was just three girls and their splitboards.
[part title="Robin Van Gyn"]
In the wake of legends like Victoria, it’s women such as Robin, Marie-France and Maria who represent a handful of those carving a career out of freeriding. Robin alone has pushed herself into the world of backcountry filmmaking from an early jib-oriented background. In 2011, she earned the only full part of backcountry riding in Peepshow Film’s Winter Wars before starring in Roxy’s P.S. webisodes with three-time X Games silver medalist Hana Beaman. Originally hailing from Vancouver Island, Robin strapped on her first board at the age of 16. “I was always athletic at school but never the best at anything. When I started snowboarding, I picked it up so quickly and it felt so right. I thought this was something I could really be good at."
On the day she finished high school, Robin moved to the powder mecca of Whistler. She left home with the intention of doing what she loved and took up competing in local slopestyles – but she never thought it would lead to becoming a professional freerider. After funding her way through two seasons by working as a “burrito girl", something clicked. “It wasn’t that I realised I could make a career from snowboarding, I just knew this was what I needed to do. No matter how long it took, I had to make it happen."
It wasn’t that I realised I could make a career from snowboarding, I just knew this was what I needed to do. No matter how long it took, I had to make it happen.
She moved to Calgary but kept competing in regional slopestyles with huge success. By this time, the West Coast jibber’s talents had caught the attention of the snowsports media and she shot her first magazine spreads and video parts. It was only in 2008 when Robin ended up moving to the freeriding resort Golden that her love of powder really set in. “Roxy came back to me years after I first signed with them, asking if I’d like to join their new Canadian team. I literally dropped everything to say yes, I’d do it!"
In the past, female freeriders have struggled financially after choosing to pursue backcountry riding over more mainstream slopestyle contests. Victoria Jealouse and Annie Boulanger, for example, both had a hard time keeping their sponsors when it came to riding powder because it just wasn’t seen as “marketable". But in Robin’s case, she was given a lucky break when her sponsors came to her and suggested she focus on riding backcountry. “That’s the best phone call a snowboarder can get."
From there, Robin charged ahead, securing her own full parts with both male and female crews. But does she think it’s harder for women to make a career out riding backcountry than it is for men? “You know, I think it is. Although some girls have done really well, like Helen Schettini. She competed in the pipe, but she pretty much went from completely unrecognised to majorly recognised in the backcountry."
It’s really, really hard to go from not really being top of the contest game straight to backcountry. You have to invest a lot of money in yourself to make it happen.
Historically, all of the top female freeriders had major careers in competition riding, securing medals in the Winter Olympics and the X-Games. It was this backing that helped ease the transition for riders like Hana Beaman and Leanne Pelosi into filming backcountry parts. “It’s really, really hard to go from not really being top of the contest game straight to backcountry. You have to invest a lot of money in yourself to make it happen." Robin worked three jobs through university to be able to fund her snowboarding. “It never really felt like a job because it was all about the hustle. You had to just get enough money to buy a snowmobile and get out there."
When it comes to equality in the snowboarding industry, Robin is pushing boundaries for female snowboarders worldwide along with other riders. However, she also points out there are simply less women snowboarders on the slopes. In the USA alone, only 32.8% of the country’s 6.1 million snowboarders were female, according to last year’s research by Statistic Brain. “All of us are working towards equality, breaking down barriers between the sexes. I totally get that it’s unfair that prize money at snowboard contests isn’t the same. It really should be. But at the same time, there are a lot more guys signing up to pay registration for contests than there are girls. There’s definitely a bit of prejudice in there, but also the ratio of female to male competitive snowboarders is a lot smaller."
It never really felt like a job because it was all about the hustle. You had to just get enough money to buy a snowmobile and get out there.
Robin chose to use her talents to evolve women’s snowboarding from the inside. Alongside shooting major video parts with all-female crews including P.S. Snowboarding, she has been coaching backcountry riding at SASS Global Travel in the Argentine Andes for 10 years. This year, she ran a course specifically for women with fellow pro Hana Beaman. “For me, I don’t think it’s about comparing women’s snowboarding to men’s. Women’s snowboarding is its own sport. It’s not about trying to reach up to the guys’ level, but progressing the sport as women and comparing ourselves against each other."
[part title="Marie-France Roy"]
While there’s no formula for success when it comes to going pro, following the competition route does seem to give aspiring riders a greater chance of making it. Big-mountain rider Marie-France learnt this from her own experience. “Without contest visibility, it’s so hard. You have to put in years to convince film crews you’re good enough to go out with them. Crews are tight. They can’t really bring you in unless your sponsors have paid a lot of money for you to be there."
Marie-France spent years riding in local competitions in her home province of Québec. “I loved snowboarding but I never thought I was good enough to make it my career." Like Robin, Marie-France moved to Whistler after she finished education. “I thought I’m young, I should go to Whistler now before I get a real job and live out my youth." However, her skills in the park soon caught the attention of Oakley, Red Bull and Rome.
I thought I’m young, I should go to Whistler now before I get a real job and live out my youth.
After securing sponsorship, Marie-France went on to dominate the slopestyle scene, competing in the Burton US Open, Abominable Snow Jam and X-Games, while simultaneously pushing boundaries in backcountry filmmaking. It was Rome that introduced her to this alternative side to snowboarding. “Rome were sweet. They said right away they wanted me to have a full part. They told the guys, ‘Marie’s going to have a full part too. She’s just as important as you, so help each other out here.’ They involved me fully, even though I was a girl. Not many brands would do that." Ten years in and she’s won numerous accolades including Transworld Snowboarding’s Woman Rider of the Year, Women’s Reader’s Choice, and Women’s Video Part of the Year for her freeriding skills.
Keeping a good attitude is so important in snowboarding. If you’re positive, patient and work hard enough, it will eventually pay off.
To an outsider, it may seem like a relatively clear road to success but none of this came without Marie-France putting in years of determination and personal investment. “I worked hard, saved up my money for winter and went riding with friends. You end up meeting people that way." She empathises with women who are pushing their riding but naturally feel frustrated with their lack of progress. Without connections, it’s particularly challenging for unsigned riders to get their first break in the backcountry film industry. “It’s hard because you feel like you’re not really getting the support you deserve. But I’ve learnt it’s about being appreciative of what you have. Keeping a good attitude is so important in snowboarding. If you’re positive, patient and work hard enough, it will eventually pay off." Even rippers like Jess Kimura faced huge setbacks in their early careers. At 29 years old, Jess once told Marie-France that she thought she was just too old to make it. “She felt she had to lie about her age," says Marie-France. “But I feel age isn’t as important for women as it is for men. If you’re riding is there, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you should still get the support."
Given that she can put down 900s on giant park kickers as well as send it off gnarly backcountry drops, it’s clear Marie-France could have a stellar career pursuing either discipline. But the Québec native admits she struggled filming full-time while also trying to perform her best at slopestyle contests. “I’d go to contests after a week of filming and all the other girls were hitting huge park jumps or filming rails. I just wasn’t prepared at all. It sucked."
I’d go to contests after a week of filming and all the other girls were hitting huge park jumps or filming rails. I just wasn’t prepared at all. It sucked.
She gives her sponsors credit for letting her ride the terrain she wanted to. “At one point when I started filming for Absinthe, I asked Oakley if it was OK to skip a contest because it was taking away time from filming. They said as long as I got a good segment and focused on what I really wanted to do, I had their support."
Even with a string of full parts under her belt with Rome and Absinthe, people still ask why she didn’t put herself forward for the Winter Olympics in 2014. “Why would I want to put myself back into a series of contests to get points, then qualify?" She sighs. “It would just be against everything I’ve loved about snowboarding for the past few years. Come February I’m sure a small part of me will wish I was there, but it wouldn’t really be me following my heart."
I love freeriding because it’s never a set course. Filming is different. You have to wait for the good weather but you also get to ride some of the best pow ever.
So what was it about freeriding that really got under her skin? “I love freeriding because it’s never a set course. When you’re competing, it can be icy, shitty weather and you still have to perform. Filming is different. You have to wait for the good weather but you also get to ride some of the best pow ever. I still love riding park and learning new tricks, but I also enjoy the creativity involved in riding backcountry. When you splitboard, it’s even more quiet than normal. There aren’t a lot of people around. You can reconnect with nature. You get a similar connection in a resort, but backcountry is just the ultimate, you know?" Marie-France is now midway through a two-year film movie project called The Little Things. It focuses on inspirational snowboarders who carry a passion for sustainability and the environment with parts from the likes of Jeremy Jones, Nicolas Müller, Gretchen Bleiler, Mike Basich and Meghann O’Brien.
[part title="Maria DeBari"]
Despite all her achievements, Marie-France admits that her trip to Golden with Robin and Maria was a real highlight of her winter. “I seriously had some of the best powder I’ve ever had," she says. This is not a statement to be taken likely, coming from a woman who’s scaled ridges and conquered couloirs in some of the world’s best powder spots. Marie-France and Robin already knew each other from the freeriding scene, but they’d never ridden with Maria DeBari before. However, they were soon taken aback by her energy and passion for splitboarding. “Maria is awesome, she’s such a sick shredder. At the end of every day, we’d all be dead and ready to head back to the hut. Maria would always do an extra run or two with the guide. She’s just such a charger."
Maria would always do an extra run or two with the guide. She’s just such a charger.
It was splitboarding that the 27-year-old became known for across the North American freeriding community. “We came across Maria by world of mouth," says Robin. “We knew she was a Mount Baker local who was a real strong splitboarder – and that’s exactly what she is. It couldn’t have been a better choice asking Maria along to Golden." Unlike Robin and Marie-France, Maria had grown up surrounded by world-class freeriding terrain. “It was my dad that really got me into splitboarding when I was around 21", she says. “He’s a telemark skier, so he took me out and showed me how to skin."
Maria was born into a family of snowsports enthusiasts and spent her youth riding with her brother, the now K2 and North Face pro rider Lucas DeBari. As her riding improved, Maria began competing in local freeriding contests with friends. However, it was only three years ago that she entered her first national freeride competition, The North Face Masters of Snowboarding at Crystal Mountain, Washington. She finished in a spectacular second place. “I did pretty good and thought I guess I’ll try another one. I’ve just been along for the ride ever since." She spent the next year taking part in the whole North Face tour across America. “I really liked the North Face Masters because it was all about snowboarding. It had the best community and I met so many girls from other states that I’m still tight with today." After championing the North Face Masters, Maria was invited on the Freeride World Tour and travelled the world, meeting new riders from other continents.
During the summer Maria works full-time as a commercial fisherman, allowing her freedom in the winter to ride as much as she likes.
While Maria is sponsored by North Face and Gnu, she’s never tried to turn snowboarding into a career. In fact, she’s actively chosen to avoid the limelight since finishing the Freeride World Tour in 2012. During the summer, she works full-time as a commercial fisherman, allowing her freedom in the winter to ride as much as she likes. “It was a really great experience but competing isn’t really for me. I haven’t done any competitions this year and don’t plan next year either. It’s a lot of pressure; I’d rather just go snowboarding with my friends."
She explains to me that a unique community has emerged in Mt. Baker among female backcountry riders. “Mt Baker is really cool because no-one cares about being a pro snowboarder. Everyone is just there to ride. I’ve travelled to a lot of different places, I’ve never run into a women’s community like there is at Mt Baker. There are just so many girls killing it."
I’ve never run into a women’s community like there is at Mt Baker. There are just so many girls killing it.
For Robin, Marie-France and Maria, it’s not a case of analysing gender ratios on the mountain or their number of full parts compared to men. Determination has seen them inspire other female riders to push themselves to new limits and not feel pressurised into competing. It’s ultimately about discovering a more grounded, soulful experience of snowboarding. “Powder riding is the roots of snowboarding," explains Robin. "I don’t know many freeriders that are just there to get a shot. It’s not about hitting cheese wedge after cheese wedge. It’s lines, cliffs, pillows, jumps. All of us just want to be out there to be progressive for ourselves, and for freeriding."