During a freeskiing competition in Taos in 2005, Santa Fe native Claire Smallwood hatched a plan with professional skier Lynsey Dyer and writer Vanessa Pierce. They all shared the experience of often being the only girl in a group of guys, and wishing they had more women as role models out there. So in 2007, they launched SheJumps, a nonprofit aimed at creating opportunities for girls outdoors—with programs modeled after the one Smallwood participated in through Kearney Elementary that first got her skiing.
For years, its growth simmered. Then Smallwood blew out her knee skiing in 2012, and the injury left her time to think about next steps for the nonprofit. She did what a lifetime on summits had ingrained: She decided to go big. In July, her work at the nonprofit finally took over and became her full-time job. Now, she's got her heart set on bringing SheJumps programs back to the state where it (and she) started.
Her family had laid some groundwork, and would continue nudging her along the way. She first snapped into skis at Ski Santa Fe with her stepmom at her side, who coached her through her first turns. Then her brother, an avid skier, became her partner, somewhere amid a "ragtag" crew of mostly guy friends she skied with in high school. But that experience of skiing with her elementary school classmates stuck with her.
"Starting that program and getting out there with friends and being on the hill where there were no rules and boundaries and having this sense of totally unadulterated freedom was really, really formative to me," she says.
So when she, Dyer, and Pierce started SheJumps, they borrowed that model for its first outing, which took Boys and Girls Club kids from Salt Lake City skiing at Alta Ski Area, covering gear, lift tickets and instruction. Those offerings have expanded to include "jump in" to trying a new outdoor sport, "jump up" to improve or give back, or "jump out" experiences for elite athletes. Community events also include pre-season workouts, picnics and networking events. Each year, about 2,800 women and girls participated in those programs in Western states, with reach some reaching as far as Alaska, Massachusetts and Virginia.
In women-only spaces, she says, women can collaborate and converse at length, rather than feeling a need to compete with one another or prove themselves to male peers. SheJumps success stories, she says, include seeing a participant in its "alpine finishing school" (a program for women who want to step up in their backcountry touring abilities and confidence) decide after spending a week with an all-female guiding staff to pursue guiding certification herself. While skiing solo at Alta, Smallwood ran into a young Mexican woman also skiing by herself, and recognized her as a participant from a program the previous year. The young woman said she'd fallen in love with skiing and saved up all summer for a season pass. They've since become friends, Smallwood mentoring her in backcountry skiing tours and avalanche beacon practice.
Smallwood had plans to become a professional skier herself—"that was my only guiding light," she says, until 2012. She was skiing at Lake Louise, Canada, in 10 new inches of snow, after a string of days spent backcountry skiing, and was already getting tired when she dropped into a steep chute and caught her ski on a piece of ice, twisting as she fell downhill. She managed to get herself up and traverse back to the base area, but she'd torn ligaments and broken part of her femur.
"My whole world fell apart," she says. "It really changed my whole path as executive director of SheJumps, because it forced me to take a hard look at, what am I really doing? And I was on the couch all summer, so it was like, now or never."
The big question was whether her role could go from being a grassroots-y, part-time gig, split around time spent working as a chef and skiing in Chile, to her full-time job. For knowing how to make that move, she credits learning from her dad's business acumen.
Rehab also meant adapting to outdoor experiences that fit where she was in the healing process, like the neighborhood hike. She also made sure SheJumps programs meet women at what she thinks might be the hardest step: not stepping up to the professional guiding level, but showing up to try in the first place.
"So are we going to offer alpine finishing school, sure," she says, "but we're also going to offer all these building blocks to eventually get to the top of that crazy peak."
The real heartache right now, she says, is that she's short on ambassadors in her home state. She'd like to have two ambassadors and a regional coordinator to fundraise for and organize events in New Mexico. Applications for those jobs will open this spring.