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Elyse Saugstad: More Than the Token Female in Ski Films

Editor's Note: In honor of International Women's Day, we here at Teton Gravity Research are going through the archives to find some of our favorite content that focuses on the women who make our industry so special. In this interview with Elyse Saugstad, she gives some great food for thought about "the token female syndrome" and why it matters to showcase multiple women in a project.

Last winter Elyse Saugstad got the call she had been diligently waiting for throughout her whole skiing career. It was an invite from TGR to go heliskiing in Palmer, Alaska for Winterland. Over the moon with excitement, she said yes. Filming in Alaska is the pinnacle of any big mountain skier’s career, but the opportunity is normally reserved for a select pool of athletes. Even for someone like Saugstad, a freeride world champion, it’s taken years to be considered. 

Part of this wait has unfortunately been out of her control. Alaska heli trips have been notoriously plagued by the token female syndrome. In many cases, there’s been only one spot allocated for female skiers or snowboarders, which has narrowed the number of women to be filmed in this kind of terrain. Thankfully, this inaccessibility hasn’t completely stifled progression, in fact, it’s made leaders like Saugstad only more determined.

RELATED: Angel Collinson — The Importance of Self Care in the Mountains

After fighting to have a seat at the table, the industry is finally starting to catch up. What made this a dream trip for Saugstad wasn’t just the incredible opportunity, but the fact she’d be sharing it with good friends Angel Collinson, Nick Mcnutt, and Griffin Post. It was also the first time TGR had a 50/50 crew for an AK heli trip, and it made for one of the most energetic segments in the film. We caught up with Saugstad to learn more about why these opportunities are so important for progressing the sport in a positive direction.

You’re originally from Alaska, what’s your experience with heliskiing up there?

Elyse Saugstad: I’ve only had one other film trip heliskiing. Growing up in Alaska you don’t heliski. That’s not normal at all, and I didn’t step into a helicopter until I was an established professional skier. I haven’t had many opportunities. It just demands so much experience that it takes years to get the chance. It feels good to finally be in a spot where I can go and not be overwhelmed.

Was this your first time filming in Alaska with TGR?

ES: Yes it was!

Congratulations, that’s huge!

ES: Yeah! It was really cool because TGR was really stoked on Angel and I being up there together. She and I have worked together before, and we love skiing together. We really bring out the best in one another. So when TGR offered to go to Alaska with Angel it was a dream trip. Originally, Johnny and Smoothy were going to join us, but they got hurt. It ended up working out though because McNutt and Griffin stepped in and I’ve already worked with them before on TGR trips. I love working with them all, and they’re good people to be in the mountains with.

Saugstad draws her own line in Palmer, Alaska. Nic Alegre photo.

It’s wild to think that this was the first time TGR had two women on an AK heliski trip. But after watching the segment, it just felt right. Do you think this is a positive reflection of the industry?

ES: I think it’s just the progression of women in skiing and that a company like TGR has become open-minded towards seeing women as key athletes that make their film better. They just simply see the value in female athletes and put more women on the roster. To set aside two spots in Alaska for women is really telling because it’s one of the most expensive trips for film productions. That’s why film companies are always choosing athletes that are considered veterans because they’ll likely get good footage.

The fact that TGR thought that half the crew should be females just goes to show that they were confident in what Angel and I could do.

That’s a great way to frame it. Knowing this, how did you feel going into the trip?

ES: It ends up putting the pressure on you a little bit. Whenever you go to Alaska with a film crew the pressure is on. I’ve filmed out of a helicopter in AK before, but there are always so many components that go into it. I don’t think the pressure is negative, but it’s like getting the keys to your parent’s Ferrari. You’re gonna drive it fast, but you’ve gotta be smart about it.

Needless to say, everyone is there to make sure that we’re all succeeding. For example, Angel and I finally got this incredible opportunity, and we chose to not be competitive. We were each other’s cheerleaders up there. Even the guys, it was so neat working with them.

Saugstad and Collinson scoping their next line. Nic Alegre photo.

What kind of terrain were you looking for?

ES: With the segment of Angel and I, it really showcases how much we ski pretty fast in AK. It felt like if you didn’t know there were two different skiers, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t one person, almost because it was this throttle down style of skiing.

But we do have our differences and as a result, it brings out that style in each other. I love to hit big cliffs, so for Angel that pushes her to try that. She likes to get into the gnar, which is always this crazy technical stuff and she somehow always ends up like a cat on her feet. Watching her navigate that kind of terrain would always inspire me.

How does skiing with another woman push your skiing?

ES: It’s unique because I’ve got to this point in my career by skiing with men—and a lot of top female skiers would probably agree. You just get really used to that. But there is an interesting dynamic when you get to ski with another female skier because it pushes you to step it up. When you’re skiing with the guys it’s harder to compare yourself to them. Men don’t compare themselves to us, they compare themselves to other guys. Because of that, skiing with other women can be a real positive thing, and it can help you progress and push yourself.

For me, it’s a visual connection to the subconscious. If I watch Angel do it, for some reason there’s something in my brain that clicks. I hear myself saying “this is more like you, so you can step it up!”

Watching Collinson ski always gets Saugstad fired up to push herself. Nic Alegre photo.

It’s exciting to see the industry transition from the “Token Female” to actual collaboration between female athletes, as we saw between you and Angel in Alaska. That feels compelling to see two gals pushing each other.

ES: Right! I know I’m on the screen that everyone is watching, but if I went into a movie and sat down watched two women tee off together, I can’t help but think “that’s me!” It just makes things more inclusive. Women are already experiencing this in the real world, you know, by taking all-women trips or skiing at the resort.

Well, and the lone wolf narrative is fine and all, but it feels less relatable.

ES: Truth be told, in a lot of sports you’ll be the only woman with a bunch of guys. But for so long, the ski industry has been so male-dominated, whether it be brands or film production companies, that it’s understandable that they don’t see this side of it. They don’t realize that women want to see things in a different way. I think as more women fill different positions in the industry, the more we’ll start to see different dynamics that we haven’t seen before.

For example, this movie was edited by an all-female team at TGR, which is a big deal. Sure it’s a behind-the-scenes thing, but what happens behind the scenes makes all the difference.

Yeah, that’s a great point. The change shouldn’t be isolated to the athletes, we need to see women as brand managers, photographers, filmmakers, and etc to bring a broader perspective to the industry.

ES: That’s what it is, bringing more perspectives to the table. I’m not trying to harp on the fact that men have been focused on other men. That’s natural. But if we could bring in these different perspectives it will broaden what is produced.

Elevating women helps the industry as a whole Saugstad argues. Nic Alegre Photo.

It seems like the most impactful change for women has been spearheaded by women. I know that you helped created S.A.F.E. A.S. Clinics to teach more girls safe backcountry skills. What prompted you to do that?

ES: I didn’t understand at first the need to create space for women, because I didn’t have that opportunity to get where I’m at with my career. But now that I’ve had this job for a while, and I see the ski industry in a different light, I realize that we need to do things specifically for women to help catch up.

Ultimately myself alongside Jackie Paaso, Michelle Parker, Ingrid Backstrom, Lel Tone, and Sherry McConkey felt that there needed to be more space for women in snowsports. In that process, the backcountry is also where the industry is progressing. It was a no-brainer to create the S.A.F.E. A.S. Clinics so that women can thrive while learning avalanche safety skills. It sounds cheesy but there’s something about creating a space where people don’t have to puff up their chest and act like they know everything. They’re more open to learning and admitting things like,“I actually don’t know how to turn on my transceiver.” In some scenarios, it can feel embarrassing to admit these things.

These clinics are taught by mostly women for women and it sets this tone that we, as professional athletes, are here to help. We want women to walk away feeling more educated, empowered, and able to find their voice no matter their experience level.

Learn more about their clinics below:

I like the idea of “catching up” because this whole movement isn’t implying that one gender is better than another.

ES: We’re just trying to elevate our gender as a whole in the sport. It’s a snowball effect, the more women that are involved it creates a greater pool of athletes that women can relate to. When there’s just one token female, we’re supposed to expect that one female is relatable to all women in snowsports? That doesn’t happen.

Plus this topic needs to be approachable for men to accept the situation as well. We need men’s support as much as women. Making women stronger and better partners in the backcountry is just better for our community as a whole. A lot of the male athletes I’ve worked with at TGR are really receptive to this idea and they want to see us succeed. That’s a great thing, and it’s great for the industry. 

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