January 17, 2024 | Words by Kelsey Verboom
Five heli-skiing guides made CMH Heli-skiing history this month when they became what is believed to be the first all-women guide team for the company.
During a guided heli-skiing trip in the famed Bugaboos during the first week of January, each of the five lead positions on the trip’s guiding team was headed by a female guide.
Mountain Guide MB Board led the heli-skiing program, setting tracks, skiing runs first, and organizing all the logistics in the field. Longtime Mountain Guide Helen Sovdat was the snow safety guide, travelling ahead of the ski groups to make snowpack observations and find the best options for guests. Ski Guide Jamie Hood, and Apprentice Ski Guides Kendra Hicks and Teresa Yau led the other three guest groups.
“We think this is the first time at CMH there have been all women in these roles,” said Hicks. “It’s such an amazing team. I’m grateful and really proud.”
When asked how she first clocked the all-female distinction, Hicks laughed and conceded it boiled down to tidy handwriting.
“I was looking around while we were all at the heli-pad on the first day and sort of half-noticed, but it wasn’t until I was sitting in the front of the helicopter that it fully clicked,” Hicks said. “There’s a whiteboard where we write down our group’s details. I was staring at it and realized how neat and legible the writing was,” she joked of the unlikely ah-ha moment.
“Later we took a photo because we thought it would be a cool thing to remember. The guests saw us taking it and got quite excited when they realized what we were celebrating. It was a neat moment to share.”
Together, the quintet represents nearly 80 years of combined guiding experience.
A PLACE OF MANY FIRSTS
The Bugaboos is a fitting place to log such a first, as it’s also the birthplace of CMH and the heli-skiing industry, which began at the foot of the granite spires in April 1965.
“At the Bugaboos, the full guiding team is almost a 50-50 split of men and women, which is still more rare, but we don’t really think about that anymore,” said Hicks, alluding to the average number of female guides in the industry compared to at CMH Bugaboos.
According to a 2019 study of the avalanche and guiding profession in Canada, unofficial averages put the industry at approximately 15–20% female (CAA, 2019; ACMG, 2019). Similarly, as of January 2024, of CMH’s approximately 150 guides, 30 identify as female—also about 20%.
Hicks is candid about the duality of celebrating the accomplishment of an all-female guiding team. On one hand, it’s noteworthy and encouraging in an industry where there are not yet as many women as men, she said. On the other hand, it’s overdue and doesn’t warrant gender qualifiers.
“For me, it’s about time. That’s how I feel. It’s really positive and inspiring that things are changing. This is due. Many of the guests we lead are female, and we’ve proven for many years that we’re excellent guides. We’re not ‘female guides’; we’re guides.”
Hicks has been guiding hiking, and now, skiing, for a total of eight years and has already noticed a positive change in that relatively short period.
“Even when I started my career, there were fewer women than there are now,” she said. “So, you have to recognize where we’ve come from, which is an industry where there have typically been very few women.”
Few people know that better than Sovdat, who has been guiding for 35 years. When the esteemed adventurer earned full certification as an ACMG/IFMGA Mountain Guide earlier in her career, she was only the third woman in North America to do so. Today, there are an estimated 14 women out of approximately 215 guides in Canada who are certified as full ACMG/IFMGA Mountain Guides. Earning the certification is a demanding process that takes many years of dedication to accomplish.
Sovdat is a mentor to many of her colleagues and an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) instructor to up-and-coming guides. She was also recognized with the Summit of Excellence Award in 2021.
“It’s amazing working alongside someone like Helen,” Hicks said. “Every day I work with her, I feel so grateful. Her knowledge about the terrain, how she contributes to a team, and how invested she is in helping people get better is incredible.”
Hicks added the same sentiment about Board, who is also an ACMG/IFMGA Mountain Guide with 17 years of experience.
“Women like MB and Helen are just total powerhouses. They absolutely dominate in so many ways. They have worked really hard and paved a path for a lot of people.”
Guiding alongside such experienced women makes Hicks feel compelled to keep pushing, she said.
“They totally inspire me. Having people like them in the room makes me want to do better.”
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
To anyone considering a career in guiding and being a part of the next generation of those who will continue to shape the industry, Hicks has one piece of advice: if you want it, go for it.
“I love being able to spend my career outside. Every single day is totally different,” she said.
“Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are some hard aspects of it. To overcome those, you have to truly, to your core, love mountains and skiing—and people. Someone who wants to guide needs to want to do it for others, not just for themselves. We’re always working hard to make sure other people have an incredible experience. If you love all those things, it’s the most amazing, challenging, rewarding career.”