After 18 years of snowboarding, Jennifer Ennion has learned a thing or two about holding her own in a male-dominated environment—but she’s looking forward to seeing more stereotype-smashing women on the slopes.
It’s a powder day. Around 70 centimeters of fresh snow have fallen and the glow of the street lamps outside my room reveals the flakes are still coming. This is the Austria I’ve been dreaming of; the Austria I know from a visit half a decade before.
I get my gear ready—helmet, low-light goggles, energy snack, GoPro—and race down to breakfast in purple thermals. My enthusiasm is palpable when I meet up with the all-male crew I’m riding with in the lobby of Hotel Schwarzer Adler an hour later. They’re mostly dressed in muted blacks and blues, and I’m thankful my hot-pink pants are buried in my winter wardrobe back in Australia. My navy and mustard get-up is subdued. I’ll blend in, I think to myself.
But my outfit is the least of my concerns. I’m hunkering down with a group of male skiers in the Arlberg for a week and fear has crept into my mind. “What if they all want to jump off lips of snow?” I’d ask my husband amid nervous giggles before my Sydney departure. “What if they want to throw themselves down narrow chutes and I’m left on a precipice quaking in my snowboard boots? What if they all swear under their breath every time I let out a squeal of excitement?”
These thoughts hover in the back of my mind as we trudge through the fresh snow toward the main lift in St. Anton, a ski resort known for its challenging terrain and party vibe.
After 18 years of riding, I know full well that I’m in a male-dominated environment. I’ve always been outnumbered by men on the slopes; I learned to snowboard with them and I’m still snowboarding with them, my handful of fellow female friends slowly dwindling as careers and kids take over. But I’m hopeful, as more women push personal and industry boundaries, and enter the adventure travel sphere.
World Expeditions has seen a small but steady increase (51 per cent to 53 per cent) in the number of women signing up to the adventure company’s tours over the past couple of years, plus more women are now guiding those trips. Intrepid Travel also recently reported in its inaugural Adventure Travel Index that nearly half of all travelers with the company go solo. And the majority of them are women.
In spite of this growth, I’m still visibly outnumbered in the Arlberg—but not all is lost. My fellow Australians are excited it’s a powder day, but I soon discover only half of us are used to riding in deep snow. Thankfully, I’m one of them. And this knowledge pushes my fear aside. This is my territory.
“I don’t know why you’d ride a board,” one of the guys had scoffed as I caught up with the group. I smiled politely; blood boiling.
Up to this point, we’d been tackling immaculate groomers (slopes that have been machine-groomed) in the neighboring and more upmarket resort of Lech. They’re fast and fun, but as the only female in our group—and the only snowboarder—the pressure to keep up was enormous. Of course, it’s pressure from myself. It always is. So, after almost two decades of riding with boys, I did my best to acknowledge my fear and then swiftly kick it to the curb.
On those bluebird days, as we criss-crossed Lech’s extensive trails, I eyed off the groomers with slight trepidation. Don’t catch an edge, I told myself, as we approached a flat section of a 22-kilometer ski circuit known as ‘The White Ring’. Keep up my speed, I thought.
It’s at these stages that I’d typically take off at the front of the pack—but inevitably pull up last. I’d only be seconds behind, but it made me all the more conscious of being on a snowboard. “I don’t know why you’d ride a board,” one of the guys had scoffed as I caught up with the group. I smiled politely; blood boiling.
My favorite thing about snowboarding is carving; taking big long turns with the edge of the board, leaving a clean line in the snow. The problem is, they slow me down and this is always evident when I’m riding with skiers (and sometimes snowboarders) who like to point their planks.
So, on those sunny Lech days, I’d straight-line it when speed was required and put in a few wide turns when time allowed. Riding like this is a good challenge and didn’t bother me when we were tackling the Arlberg’s groomed runs—they’re made for speed.
On our first powder day though, all consideration for my male crew is thrown out the window. I’ll ride how I like, I think. Enough with nerves. And so it is that we find ourselves standing at the base of St. Anton as snow clouds deliver the goods.
I’m in my element, and all fear of holding everyone up is completely buried under the stashes of light snow. Of course, I had no reason to be worried in the first place.
We get kitted out with emergency beacons and avalanche or ‘avi’ packs to head off-piste with our (male) ski guide, Maris. I’m handed the lightest pack, the benefit of being the slightest in the group. We’re fascinated by the precaution here. Avi packs are for out-of-bounds, we’d always thought. But not here. The terrain is serious and there’s plenty of off-piste within meters of the chairlifts.
With this in mind, I swap my hire board for a bigger powder board and convince the guys to swap their skis to better suit the conditions. After all, I don’t want them—or their gear—holding me up. Fresh snow is when I come into my own. Being on a snowboard, I’m light and smooth and don’t have to worry about popping out of my bindings.
When we get to the top of Kapall chair (2,330 meters), I follow Maris over wind drifts and one of the guys joins us in the challenge. We laugh and fall all over the place—together. I’m in my element, and all fear of holding everyone up is completely buried under the stashes of light snow. I no longer care; the beauty of the Arlberg and the privilege of being somewhere this special overrides all silly thoughts about a lack of speed or ability. Of course, I had no reason to be worried in the first place.
I fly past everyone as we race down faces of thigh-deep snow, duck between trees and hop over unsuspecting holes. We all somersault, lose skis, get stuck, and hunch over, panting, when we reach the next chair. We check on each other when one of us stacks (falls); we cheer each other on when we land a drop.
I hoot and holler, squeal and laugh, and I don’t care how loudly my voice carries across the slopes. The camaraderie is strong and the schnapps, later that night, stronger. And once again, I’ve been reminded that when it comes to fun and adventure sports, gender is irrelevant.