Like most good ideas, the catalyst for the Women of Winter speaker series came unexpectedly. Founder Christeen Walch was catching up with two co-workers in the locker room after teaching a day of ski lessons at Montana’s Yellowstone Club. Sitting on one side of her was Francesca Pavillard-Cain, a professional skier who had just come back from filming in Chile with a Warren Miller crew. On the other side was Carly Jo Hougen, a fine artist who was creating stunning top sheets for Icelantic Skis and all kinds of paintings and wood burnings for the local community. Walch sat and listened in awe, and couldn’t believe that her locker neighbored such incredible colleagues. More importantly, that realization sparked a much bigger idea: What if they took this conversation from the locker room and shared it with other women in Bozeman?
Walch got planning, and that idea quickly evolved into a panel discussion at their favorite wine bar in Bozeman: Blend. Hougen’s artwork adorned the walls, transforming the space into a makeshift gallery for the night. Before the talk kicked off, Walch and her team waited, unsure if anyone would attend. To their surprise the bar filled to the brim with eager guests. With glasses of wine in hand, they all listened to Pavillard-Cain and Hougen share the highs and lows of their incredible careers in the outdoors. It was such a successful night, that one year later, people kept approaching Walch with the same question: “When’s the next Women of Winter?”
Now Women of Winter is in its third year running, and while the grassroots organization has grown over the years, Walch and her team haven’t lost sight of their original purpose: To showcase leaders in the snowsports and creative arts in hopes of inspiring the next generation of courageous women. This year their hope is to inspire all women—with a focus BIPOC women—who currently have the least access and representation in the snowsports industry. Inspired by the industry-wide call to action to make the outdoors a more accessible and inclusive space for underrepresented demographics, this year’s Women of Winter lineup features a handful of BIPOC women who are movers and shakers within the outdoor industry. The event will be streamed on Saturday, February 20 at 4:00 PM MST, and you can watch it for FREE here.
We caught up with Walch to hear more about this year’s event and the BIPOC scholarship they’re offering to get more women on the slopes. Here’s what she had to say:
Can you tell me more about your background?
Christeen Walch: It’s pretty random. My mom is from the Philippines, and my dad is from Austria. I grew up in Hawaii, and when I was 20, I moved to Austria to live with my family there. That’s when I got into skiing and started ski instructing. I started teaching in Tyrol, and then in St. Moritz, in Switzerland, Killington, and eventually took a hiatus.
I ended up becoming a lawyer at a big law firm for six-plus years. But gradually, I found myself wanting to get back to the mountains. To keep my sanity, I was using every vacation and weekend I had to head to the closest ski resort. I kept telling myself I can’t live like this and was determined to find a way to ski every day and not let my life dictate when I can and can’t be on the mountain.
Even though Christeen Walch wears a lot of different hats, she always finds time to do what she loves most: skiing.
How did you step away from being a lawyer to pursue this?
CW: My boyfriend and I bought a trailer and traveled for six months to every mountain town in the West to find a new place to live. We ultimately decided on Bozeman, and I love the entrepreneur vibe here.
It seems like you wear a handful of hats these days. Can you share a little bit about what you’re up to now?
CW: Yeah, when I moved here, I didn’t have a job at all. I knew I could teach skiing, so I started doing that. I started working at the Yellowstone Club in the winter of 2015 as a full-time instructor, and am still a full-time instructor there. I also volunteered for a bunch of different things like TEDx Bozeman and a variety of entrepreneurial conferences. Through that work, I connected with this musician, which led to collaborating and creating LifeScore, an adaptive music technology company.
What led to you creating Women of Winter?
CW: I created Women of Winter three years ago, and this upcoming event will be our third event. The event was just a random idea we talked about in the Yellowstone Ski School locker room. I just draw so much inspiration from the incredible women around me. I think that’s what makes Bozeman and other mountain towns so unique, is that the women in these places are independent and live these incredible lives. I don’t think you need to look outside of Bozeman to find women carving their own paths in the mountains.
Why do you think stories featured in Women of Winter are so important for women to hear?
CW: I honestly wish women like this had shared their stories with me when I was younger. Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up being at a law firm for six years, and taken more risks when I was younger? Who knows, but I think it’s great to share these narratives with others, which was the primary catalyst for this event. We hosted it at our favorite wine bar—Blend—and we didn’t realize how much the community was thirsty for it. That first event was completely packed. The next year we had a line out the door and down the block!
This year the Women of Winter event features a powerful lineup of BIPOC movers and shakers in the outdoor industry. Women of Winter photo.
In your opinion, what makes a compelling story for others?
CW: The key is to be relatable. When we shared Francesca’s story at our first event, we opened the film with this shot of her crashing while competing on the Freeride World Tour. We did that to say even though people like her are doing amazing things, there are still aspects of their lives that are grueling and potentially set them back. You can do it too, and to understand someone’s story, you need to see the peaks and valleys of their life. When we share stories of inspiration, it’s essential to not talk about why we win, but how we got to our success and the struggles we encountered along the way.
Women of Winter’s whole point is to give girls and women opportunities to think, “I could do that too.” Whether it’s becoming an artist, athlete, or entrepreneur, we want to help be a catalyst for women.
How did the event grow?
CW: Honestly, it was never in our plan for it to be an annual event, but we had so many people ask about it that it made us reconsider.
Going into the second year, we asked ourselves, “what else can we do with Women of Winter to impact our local community?” Our answer was to integrate education because we feel that education can lead to more opportunities in the outdoors. We decided to focus on areas where there weren’t many female leaders and wanted to build bridges to get more women in leadership roles. To do this, we created a scholarship for an Avy 1 course and awarded eight women. We thought something like this was critical because it empowers individuals to make smart decisions while traveling in the backcountry—rather than rely on other people’s beta. It was funny because when we announced the scholarship, we were worried that we wouldn’t get even eight applicants, but 80 women ended up applying for it, which was crazy.
Moments like this post-Women of Winter ski day are what makes the event worth it for Chris and her team. Iz La Motte photo credit.
How do you keep the momentum going?
CW: We want to create a movement. For us, one of the most critical questions on the scholarship application was, “how are you going to pay it forward?” We had a great group last year, and we are so proud of the women who attended our Avy 1, and our hope is that they take the things they learned to become leaders in their own communities.
This year, we’re responding to what is happening worldwide. We’re addressing social inequality, racial inequality, and the need to create equity across the board. We tried to find a way to address these things with Women of Winter. Looking back, we felt like we weren’t fulfilling our mission of inspiring women and girls to get into the mountains and carving their own path when we were only talking to a subset of women. In the past, we weren’t talking to all women—specifically women of color. When you look around the mountain, there aren’t many BIPOC girls and women on the hill.
I’m the only one in my ski school that I know of and I don’t see any when I ski Big Sky, so we felt motivated to broaden our audience and speak about it.
That seems to be the big discussion the outdoor industry is having right now. What was your way of addressing this?
CW: Well first, you go to get them on the hill and show them, visible role models. So with Women of Winter, we wanted to find said role models. We worked really hard to choose speakers that were not only BIPOC women charging in the mountains but also women who are finding their place in the mountains. Our speakers range from women who are just getting into snowsports to FWT athletes.
Who will we hear from at this year’s event?
CW: In this year’s lineup we have Sam Ramirez-Herrera, who’s a DACA dreamer. She’s spoken on MSNBC, at the U.S. Congress, with the former president, and even though she can’t vote in this country she is one of the biggest activists and fighters for social justice that I’ve ever met. She owns her own production company—Off Tha Record. She just started skiing last year and is absolutely hooked on getting outside.
We also have Stephanie Lampkin, and she started her own company Blendoor that does blind hiring. I first discovered her in the book Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business. She felt that recruiting questions were biased and decided to do something about it by using augmented intelligence and people analytics to mitigate unconscious bias in hiring. Her enterprise software is now used by Google, Apple, and other silicon companies for their recruiting. In the book she talks extensively about her love for snowsports and being a former downhill ski racer, so I thought she’d be a great fit for what we’re doing.
Then there’s Sasha Dingle who’s competed on the FWT, and whose mother is a Vietnamese refugee. She created a company called the Mountain Mind Project and uses her practice with mindfulness to help elevate people to become the best version of themselves. Her story is going to really inspire people to get outside.
Lastly, Sheena Dhamsania—who’s based in Jackson—will be providing the musical lineup, and her mission is to use music and movement in the mountains as a medium to blossom inclusive belonging in the outdoors.
Between the four of them, I feel confident in saying that you’ve never seen a snowsports speaker line up like this before.
With incredible speakers like Stephanie Lampkin, you don't want to miss this year's event.
Will Women of Winter be offering scholarships again this year?
CW: To further our mission of getting more BIPOC women in the outdoors, we went back to the education component of our event. We’re giving away a full PSIA Level 1 course and exam to six recipients. We wanted to create a group that can pay it forward and engage with others in the community. The PSIA Level 1 Course and Exam will be entirely composed of BIPOC women and our hope is that these women will be the change they want to see by welcoming and bringing in other BIPOC women and girls into our snowsports community.
Snowsports has a lot of barriers to entry. We’ve teamed up with visionary leaders to help eliminate as many of the monetary barriers to entry as possible. The recipients of this scholarship will also win a pair of Rossignol skis and bindings, helmet and goggles from Giro, gloves from Hestra, and soft goods from Patagonia. Big Sky is also hosting the event, and will send a film crew out with the girls to create some awesome content.
All of this is not to say that the reason BIPOC women and girls don't participate in snowsports is because it is expensive. That would be grossly oversimplifying the myriad of reasons we don't see female BIPOC representation in snowsports, but we want to make as many dents as we can and are excited to have key players in the industry committing to being part of the change with us.
Why do you think female-driven spaces of community—like Women of Winter—are so important for spaces like skiing?
CW: I think for women if we don’t support each other and let other women in the industry stand on the backs of our accomplishments we will never make any progress. If we want to see change we need to be the change.
Describe some of your favorite moments from hosting Women of Winter.
CW: Last year we did a ski day right after the event, and didn’t really expect the participants to come along. But this group of 10 women showed up—ranging from 20-year-olds to 60-year-olds—and we all skied together as one huge group. We had all kinds of ability levels, and the energy was inclusive and positive. It was really inspiring to see and I didn’t realize how many different demographics we spoke to and it really fired up our team to keep pursuing our mission.