INDUSTRY The six Alpine Level I scholarship recipients pose at the top of Ramcharger in 2022. PHOTO BY MICHELI OLIVER

How One Woman’s Passion for Skiing Sparked an Industry-wide DEI Movement

BY GABRIELLE GASSER

GGrowing up in Hawaii the daughter of Asian and European immigrants, Chris Walch didn’t click into her first pair of skis until the age of 22. She was in Austria visiting her dad’s side of the family, almost all of whom were ski instructors. Totally out of her element, Walch recalls feeling confused while being fitted for gear and the unnatural feeling of trying to stand in skis and boots. But then, once she started sliding on snow for the first time—euphoria.

Like many of the students she has since taught as a ski instructor herself, Walch said she leaned too far back and had to be pushed up a rope lift by her uncle. At the top, with no knowledge of how to turn or stop, her uncle simply nudged her down the hill and she miraculously made it back to the flats unscathed. Immediately hooked, she told her family she needed lessons from an instructor.

“I loved it,” Walch said.

When it was time for her family to head home from that Christmas break trip, Walch announced that she was staying in St. Johann, a small ski area in Tirol, Austria, and becoming a ski instructor.

After one full season of ski instructing, Walch attended law school, instructed during her breaks, and was set to kick off her career as a finance lawyer when the market crashed in 2008. Instead of starting her job right away, Walch took a stipend from her future employer and went to Argentina to ski instruct at Bariloche for a season and earned her British Association of Snowsport Instructors Level I and II certifications.

Walch spent six years working at a law firm first in offices in New York and London and later, in her third year, she moved to the Los Angeles office; but skiing remained a huge part of her life. Each weekend she’d drive five hours to Killington, Vermont, or Mammoth Mountain, California, and every vacation she took was a ski trip. Walch says she hasn’t been home to Hawaii for Christmas since she moved to Europe at age 22. She’s 40 this year.

Though she was working full time as a lawyer, Walch was much more driven by her time on the slopes than her time in the office. Intending to pursue her purpose in life, she traded her 9-to-5 job at the firm for the life of a winter-chasing nomad embarking on a six-month tour of every ski town where she thought she might want to live. Eventually, Walch landed in Bozeman, Montana, and scored a gig ski instructing at the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky.

“I didn’t give myself the mind space to explore what I wanted to do versus what I should do,” she said. “What I wanted to do was designed around skiing.”

Inspired by the female instructors she works with at the Yellowstone Club, Walch founded Women of Winter in 2018 (WoW), initially offering an annual storytelling event reminiscent of TEDx talks. Following the event’s first year success, Walch said she wanted to turn inspiration into action and broaden her organization’s impact on the snow sports industry.

Walch said as a ski instructor, she looked around and saw that there are almost no women of color in the field. “Women of color don’t even register on the ski instructor scale,” she said.

According to a 2022 Professional Ski Instructors of America-American Association of Snowboard Instructors survey, 85.6 percent of its national membership is white, and representation of all other races and ethnicities was reported at about 3 percent or lower. The survey also revealed that membership skews heavily male at 69 percent.

The clientele for ski lessons is becoming more diverse each year, Walch said. This makes it especially important to get more people of color in instructor positions—to be visible role models for new skiers and riders finding their way into the sport.

“Who doesn’t want to feel like when you go to the mountain that you’re welcome and that you have a community and that you have people supporting your back,” Walch said.

In recent years, Walch and WoW have been focused on using education to give more women of color access to the ski industry.

In 2019, WoW offered eight scholarships for women to receive their American Avalanche Association Avalanche Level 1 Certification. After a break in 2020, WoW has offered eight of these scholarships each year in addition to its other Level I opportunities.

Since 2020, WoW has awarded 36 scholarships to Black, Indigenous, and other women of color to earn their PSIA-AASI Level I certification as ski and snowboard instructors and to be fully kitted out with all the gear they need. WoW is also offering 24 scholarships for two PSIA-AASI Level I certification events in 2023, one at Big Sky Resort and one at Summit at Snoqualmie.

“We wanted to inspire and empower the women and girls in our local community to want to get outside, to want to be courageous, to want to be bold, so that they can embrace their own path in the mountains and in life,” Walch said.

The first year of the PSIA-AASI scholarship program, WoW brought six women of color to Big Sky Resort to obtain their Level I certification. In 2022, Walch’s organization doubled its impact, bringing 12 women of color to Big Sky Resort. Five of the six original recipients flew back to cheer the new cohort on, throwing them a graduation party after they received their certificates.

Building on the success of the Level I scholarship program, Walch said the plan is to continue investing in the WoW scholarship recipients and provide them with further education. This season, WoW will offer two additional scholarships for past recipients: six Freestyle Specialist Level I scholarships and six Children’s Specialist Level I scholarships.

“Our focus really is how do we go from creating a large amount of small points of change to more enduring and sustained change,” Walch said. “That’s our pivot this year and the focus of investing back into the community.”

One of the six original scholarship recipients, Carolyn Stempler, 61, affectionately known as “Mama C” by her WoW peers, is a prime example of the strong community ties and wider impact the scholarship can have. Stempler enjoyed her time in Big Sky so much that she bought a condo there and returns often to ski. Stempler also works with a diversity, equity and inclusion committee spearheaded by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce.

Though Walch’s full time role as co-founder and COO of LifeScore Music—an innovative musical composition platform that generates original music in real time—keeps her plenty busy, she said she intends to teach skiing, “until the day I die.” She enjoys empowering people to experience the mountains in their own ways.

Liz Craig, director of operations for WoW and operations manager at LifeScore Music, said Walch’s incredible drive and passion ensure that she gets things done and makes a difference.

“She’s doing what she does to bring other women up to that same level and pull people up with her,” Craig said. “She wants to elevate women, whether it be voices [or] whether it be in the ski industry.”

From her first bunny hill lap in ill-fitting rental boots to ripping big lines in Montana, Walch has been guided to her own personal summit by her passion to enact change.

“Now it’s pretty clear to me, my purpose is to create things that I think will change the world in a meaningful way positively, and to support women who also want to do that,” Walch said.

Walch uses a ski run as an apt metaphor for her life. Much like she does on skis, Walch has chosen to take risks, allowing her curiosity and sense of self to guide her down the mountain.

“You either choose to ski a really well-known line that you know is safe, that you know a lot of people have skied, that you know patrol is there to come help you if you need it,” she said. “Or you can choose your own path. There may be unknowns and uncertainty, and someone hasn’t been there to show you the way, but on the other side of that there could be the best pow field you’ve ever skied in your life.”

Gabrielle Gasser grew up in Big Sky, Montana, and enjoys skiing, climbing and hiking. She likes to stay curious by writing about southwest Montana.