CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — New England native and former pro ski racer Kim Reichhelm thrives on adventure and pushing herself to the extreme. She doesn’t expect you to mirror her. She just wants to help you ski better and have fun — connect with other women, explore the local ski culture, and maybe enjoy a margarita or two with new friends.
“I know it sounds corny, but I love to share the love — of skiing and some of my favorite places in the world,” says Reichhelm, 59, who has spent the past 30 years running ski clinics and guided adventure tours. “This isn’t boot camp. I want you to learn and have fun.”
Reichhelm grew up in Connecticut and, later, Vermont. Her parents co-founded Stratton Mountain School, a ski academy, when she was 12, enabling her to spend winters skiing at Stratton while getting tutored at the family’s second home. Reichhelm went on to join the US Ski Team, race professionally, and earn two World Extreme Skiing championships. She now spends more than 200 days a year on skis and, since 1989, has run women’s and coed ski adventures all over the world — in Japan, Chile, Greenland, and across the United States.
Last January, I took a Mom’s Time Out to visit friends in Crested Butte and then join eight other women for a four-day Ski With Kim clinic. Reichhelm and her all-female team — top instructors from Vail Resort and Crested Butte — gathered to help us boost our skills and confidence.
The women in our group ranged from rusty intermediate to expert skiers. They included a woman from Bermuda who, for obvious reasons, only skis occasionally; a New Jersey mom who had left her 3-year-old at home so she could “ski all day without interruptions”; a financial expert from Toronto who appreciated the après ski elements as much as the slopes; three women — all cousins — from Boston who were celebrating one’s 60th birthday with this mini adventure; and a woman from New Canaan who wanted to improve her skills for keeping up with her adult son on their annual 10-day ski trip.
The group also included Tonya Drayden from Portland, Ore., who told us: “I love skiing because when you let everything go, it’s like dancing. I got injured and couldn’t ski, but now I want to bring some of the joy back.” I, in turn, wanted to learn to ski steep pitches — truly ski and enjoy them, not just survive to the bottom.
Each day we broke into small groups, with anywhere from two to four people per instructor, and spent the morning working on skills. Then, after a catered or “fine-dining” lunch — Reichhelm embraces local cuisine wherever she goes — we continued practicing our skills while instructors videotaped us. Reichhelm floated between each group throughout the day offering positive input on our form and techniques — “good pole plant,” “nice bend,” and “excellent transitions,” she said—while also keeping it real: “You’re just being a chicken,” Reichhelm lightheartedly but honestly told one woman. “Just commit. It’s a timing thing. You just need to initiate your turns a little sooner.”
And to Drayden she said, “For you to get back your dance, you need to smooth it out. That means flexing and extending — and be light on the rise. Remember, if you’re over the center of your skis, you’re in control.”
At the end of every day, we gathered for hor d’oeuvres and wine while Reichhelm offered one-on-one analysis of our ski videos and provided useful gear info.
“Men blame their gear” if they aren’t skiing well, whereas “women blame themselves,” said Reichhelm, who helps design and develop women’s skis as a tech advisor for K2. “For women, incorrect or ill-fitted gear is often the problem.” In fact, throughout the clinic, she encouraged several of us to get different, more suitable skis and to go see Peter, a master boot-fitter at Flatiron Sports, to alleviate issues.
Reichhelm liked to mix it up and give us a new instructor each day because, she explained, “We all teach the same things in a different way, so one instructor’s explanation may resonate with you.”
That proved true. Wendy Crosby, a Crested Butte instructor, drew a picture of a doughnut in the snow one day with a diagonal line through it and told me, “Don’t go through the hole!” That was her way of explaining that when you make a turn, you need to weight the outside ski to remain more stable, rather than weight the inside (or downhill) ski and fall into the doughnut hole. “It’s common for people to lean inside when they turn,” she explained.
The idea stuck and helped me understand how to better weight my skis throughout turns — and even how to pick lines on steeper pitches.
At night, we hopped the free bus into town — a 7-minute ride — to stroll around the colorful downtown, a six-block stretch with an independent bookstore and other one-of-a-kind shops, and visit the oxygen bar to relieve altitude-induced headaches (most of us were from sea level). Altitude can be an issue for out of towners, with the resort’s base area at 9,375 feet and peak around 12,160 feet.
You won’t find day-trippers here — Crested Butte, a former coal-mining town, sits in the Elk Mountain range of the Rockies, a four-hour drive from Denver and Colorado Springs — but it’s worth the journey (many of us flew into the small town of Gunnison, 30 minutes away). Here, people wear flannel instead of fur, few people lock up their bikes or skis, and shops often close when it snows so the locals can ski. Residents honor the 15 miles per hour speed limit through town — you’ll get used to it — and orient themselves according to the 4-Way Stop, as it’s referred to, in the center of town.
“You don’t just stumble upon Crested Butte,” one local told me. “You have to work to get here, and once you do, it’s slower, it’s wild, and there’s space to be free.”
When you’re not out skiing, check out the gallery in the beautiful Old Town Hall (owned and operated by about a dozen local artists); Tony’s Conoco, an old hardware store-turned-museum and gift shop with its century-old coal stove and modern-day knickknacks; and the female-owned and operated Montanya Distillers, which makes award-winning American rum (ask for a free tour and tasting). Then grab a bite to eat at Secret Stash Pizza (look for the old rotary phone outside with the “Free calls to Buddha” sign), Sherpa Café (serving Nepalese, Tibetan, and Indian cuisine, and run by a Sherpa who has summited Everest multiple times), or Soupçon, a bistro serving delightful French cuisine in American-size portions in a cozy wood cabin just off the main street (reservations a must).
The final day of our camp, Crosby held me back from joining the more advanced group so I could work more on my skills, practicing weighting both skis and picking my lines. The extra work paid off. That afternoon, Sarah Jones, an instructor on Crested Butte’s ski patrol for 27 years, took me down steep glades and open bowls in deep snow — everything I’d asked for — on the mountain’s double-black North Face slope. Not only did I survive to the bottom, but I had so much fun.
As for Drayden, “I have gotten my dance back!” she told me. She went on to end her ski season with a trip to Japan. “I’ll always remember Kim’s voice in my head to ski my own path — the warnings not to get stuck in a particular way of skiing the route, but to choose a path that nobody else has yet taken. These were not her exact words, but it’s the feeling I carry with me as I dance down the slopes.”
Upcoming Ski With Kim clinics and adventures:
Niseko, Japan, guided skiing, Jan. 27-Feb. 1 and Feb. 2-7
Alta, Utah, coed steep camp, Feb. 10-13
Sun Valley, Idaho, women’s ski clinic, Feb. 25-28, and coed heli and resort skiing, March 2-6
Big Sky, Montana, women’s ski clinic, March 9-12
Kicking Horse, B.C., coed steep camp, March 16-20
Aspen, Colo., open private, March 23-26
Greenland, heli-skiing, April 16-23
Alaska, heli-skiing, March 29-April 4 and June (date TBA)
Portillo, Chile, Aug. 8-15
Custom and private tours available
Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.