What holds women back skiing? Emma Cairns who runs Women's Ski Camps in Verbier, tells us how women can overcome fears and improve their skiing.

STYLE ALTITUDE Editor, Elaine Deed talks to Emma Cairns of Element about how women can lose the fear, improve technique and prove that 'skiing like a girl' is a compliment.

ED. I’m really excited to hear that at your ski school, Element, you are doing Women’s Ski Camps this winter in Verbier (scroll down for details). A whole week – or weekend – of coaching without testosterone! Is it very different teaching women? Without men? Why do you think women should take part?

EC. I think a female only environment creates a very different environment to learn and develop skills in. Women are much more interested in the details of how to do something rather than just giving it a go. Without men in a group, it is a more relaxed and supportive environment where each female seems to encourage each other rather than compete against their peers.

Women's Ski Camp with Emma. Photo: Melody Sky

ED. You offer three different levels – Intermediate, Advanced, Expert. Which do you think is the most popular and why?

EC. Last year our most popular level was probably ‘Advanced’ because I think the women who knew about the courses were keen to develop their skiing and advance into an introduction to off-piste skiing and bumps. We still had good uptake on our intermediate and expert group too, which I think will certainly have an increase in uptake this season. One interesting thing I noticed last year was that no matter what level a woman is, she always wants to be better technically and explore more of the mountain. 

Emma backcountry skiing. Photo: Melody Sky.

ED. I ski a lot of backcountry but I have very few women friends to ride with who will venture off piste. But loads of guys! It seems that women are not natural risk takers (even though there are plenty of contemporary inspirational women who are!). Is it possible to help women overcome their fears and enjoy Freeriding rather than piste cruising?

EC. Yes, of course - this is one of the main aims of the Women's Camps. Quite a few ladies, last year, who were of this level just loved coming along to meet other women their level and begin to venture into the off–piste for the first time with the technique they need which gives them much more confidence. When females don’t have the technique and understanding for more challenging terrain they won’t feel confident on it, therefore, will struggle and become scared, whereas a man will battle down and give it a go.

ED. On STYLE ALTITUDE we have a feature called Lose The Fear. We have defined 7 fears that hold skiers and snowboarders back. Fear of Failure, Fear of Heights, Fear of Falling, Fear of Losing Control, Fear of Crowds, Fear of the Unknown, Fear of Being Last. Which do you think affects women most?

EC. In terms of skiing in the camps I would say ‘Fear of Failure’ and ‘Fear of Losing Control’. On our camps I give individual feedback while on the mountain to develop skiing. It is very interesting because when females are not reassured explicitly that they are improving they feel disheartened as they think they are failing. In our camps to help this, I definitely alter the way I give feedback to each person individually but I would say I deliver this differently to women generally. To help with this, on the camps we have a life coach, Elaine France, who does two morning sessions before skiing to help with the psychology of females learning on the mountain. It was a big success last year and many women said it really helped them to achieve their goals.

By being on the Women’s Camp, they improve their understanding and technical skills to gain more control whilst skiing. This will massively help to decrease ‘fear of losing control’ and, therefore, it allows them to feel more relaxed to push comfort zones and take little risks. 

ED. Do you ever feel fear on the mountain? When?

EC. Yes sometimes I do. I like to push my own boundaries as well when I am free skiing on a day off work. I think it is important for any skier of any level to push their  boundaries to improve. In this moment, for example, I have to think of a particular technical skill or focus to help me ski a face in the backcountry to the best of my ability or a section which I can’t get wrong due to consequences of the environment I am skiing. Every skier of any level should feel this sometimes, when you get too comfortable your skills can go stale and lead to plateau and boredom. Small goals of any level can be great challenges which help motivate you to the next level. I also think it is important to tell my clients this when they are pushing boundaries. Everyone needs to. Even me!

Emma pushing boundaries. Photo: Melody Sky

ED. Do you believe that every woman can ski with confidence and style? Can good style be taught? Or is it natural ability?

EC. I think some people are born with the genetic capability to be good at something. But I wouldn’t say people have natural ability; you are not born good at things. To be good at skiing, for example, you need to practice certain skills and techniques. These skills could have been developed from other sports and activities, for example physical strength and balance from one sport will be transferable and advantageous in skiing. Everyone will have to train and practise skiing specific skills in a stimulating environment to develop confidence and style. So yes, I think every woman can ski with confidence and style if they have been taught the correct skills at some point.

ED. What’s the most common fault you come across among women skiers that you can rectify?

EC. The most simple fault I come across when teaching women is that they are not using their core strength to help them balance and ski. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of camps focusing on how to use and engage your core which will help to control, steer and direct the skis. Men carry more muscle mass on their upper bodies, so are more likely to have stronger cores in comparison to women and, generally, use this without thinking. Coaching women how to use their core strength effectively progresses their ski technique much more efficiently. 

ED. How did you start skiing? And what made you take it to the top level as a BASI ISTD Level 4 ski instructor, qualified to train and examine other instructors?

EC. I started skiing when I was 3 years old and spent most weekends at Glenshee in Scotland battling against the terrible weather conditions. I didn’t know any different weather conditions then so I thought this was normal and I just loved skiing. After university I wanted to do a year of ski teaching to see what it was all about and have a fun gap year. Very quickly I became hooked on skiing, training and, of course, loved teaching. This was the start of my career and I continued to stay very focussed for the next six years as I went through all my exams to reach the top level of BASI (British Association of Snowsports Instructors). Also as a child I had always dreamt of becoming a ski instructor secretly! While I was training I was very disciplined both on and off the hill. Being physically strong and fit is a big advantage for when I was taking ski exams on snow. This idea is also very true for ladies coming on the Women’s Camps.

Emma always dreamt of becoming a ski instructor. Photo: Melody Sky

ED. Why do you think that out of 400 ski instructors with this top ski instructor qualification of BASI ISTD Level 4 only 60 are women, less than 15%? How can more women be encouraged to take their skiing further to this sort of level?

EC. Looking at women who have progressed through the teaching system the things that set them apart are their confidence, mental strength and sheer determination. But you don’t have to be born that way. I firmly believe that female skiers can build that confidence and belief if they are taught in the correct environment with the right psychological and technical coaching techniques. By tailoring how we teach women at lower levels we can encourage more of them into the sport – that will lead to more women enjoying skiing, achieving more goals and I hope more women believing they can become ski instructors.

ED. What do you think is the biggest difference between women and men in ski technique and progression?

EC. I think there is a difference psychological incentive for female ski instructors – we get into ski teaching, for example, for the challenge of teaching skiing and to improve our own technique. Not because we are wired to compete with our peers in the exams in the same way as men.

That difference in psychological approach between genders is quite often very clear in the groups I coach – there isn’t always much technical difference between genders but the motivational and psychological factors are very different. There are of course physical differences, for example, men have greater strength and women’s pelvises are shaped differently. However, I think the psychological factors have a far more important role to play in how quickly people learn and improve.

ED. Chemmy Alcott told us that when her friend, Heidi Range from Sugar Babes, was going skiing she gave her one of her Poc helmets and kit to wear. Heidi said, ‘Chemmy I can’t wear this stuff it makes me looks too good’ but she replied, ‘Heidi just own it, act like you are meant to be that person, enjoy the feeling’. Do you believe if you look the part, you’ll feel good and ski better? Especially if you’re a woman?

Chemmy Alcott looking the part

EC. The basic answer is yes! I think it is very important no matter what sport you are doing to feel comfortable and stylish at the same time. Let’s face it everyone wants to look good as that alone gives you confidence. For example, last year I got more into running over the summer and I definitely felt more confident and that I could push myself further while wearing my trendy high performance sports kit on the mountain tracks.

ED. Does anything that you wear skiing make you feel particularly good style-wise?

EC. I love my Mons Royale thermals – even though you can’t see them under our cool freeride uniform, they make me cosy on the hill and stylish underneath all the layers.

ED  So can you give us one top tip for women to ski better?

EC. Believe in yourself and be confident. Skiing like a girl should be a compliment!


Emma will be running week long and weekend Women's Ski Camps throughout the winter in Verbier.


INTERMEDIATE: Comfortable on blue and red runs – introduction to steeper pistes and improving technique towards black runs

ADVANCED: Comfortable on all pistes – introduction to bump skiing, itineraries and cruisey off-piste skiing.

EXPERT: All mountain skiers who have dabbled in bumps, itineraries and off-piste looking to take their skiing to the next level of performance in all areas. This camp will cover avalanche safety for off-piste skiing on the course.

There is a maximum of six in the group and it includes two off snow sessions from life coach Elaine France plus daily video feedback and an action plan. Prices from around £250 for a weekend camp. More details here.