Women’s White Mountains Backcountry Skiing Retreat
Backcountry Bliss leads a group of women on a weekend of yoga, good food and an exhilarating ski adventure
I drove up just as the sun crested the trees. It spilled over frozen Conway Lake, its radiance assuring me in a moment the weekend would be as magical as I had hoped. The snow glittered, the windows of my destination glowed, and I felt myself growing buoyant as excitement swelled, nervousness caught in the undertow. I parked among an assortment of cars, navigated snow and ice to the front door, and peered in.
There was something eminently welcoming about the home I walked into — the smiling women and exuberant golden retriever, the neat table laden with fruits and a tureen of oatmeal, the honeyed light — that whatever trepidation I felt walking into a room full of strangers dissolved. Within minutes, I had a steaming cup of coffee and was talking with Cathryn Anderson, a local snow patroller and educator, about all that New Hampshire has to offer. Within hours, I was cutting turns through a fresh dusting of powder on the sides of Mount Washington. Within days, I was laughing, no longer among strangers, muscles aching but happily rejuvenated, with a newfound confidence in my abilities. Backcountry Bliss, an all-women weekend ski and yoga retreat led by Lindsay Mayock-Nutting and Hilary McCloy, made it happen.
Fast friends and coworkers practicing physical therapy in the Mount Washington Valley, Lindsay and Hilary conceived of this series of retreats, workshops and events to (according to the brochure) “inspire people to connect with themselves and the natural world in a more meaningful way.” Their aim was to use the incredible natural setting of the White Mountains along with their understanding of the human body in order to help folks learn and grow safely in the outdoors. From trail running workshops to backcountry ski outings, Backcountry Bliss is designed holistically, with special care given to injury prevention, nutrition and community as key accompaniments to outdoor adventure.
The ski and yoga retreat I attended, held from Friday to Sunday in February of last year, embodied all of these ideals. Each day began gently, with yoga followed by a nutritious but generous breakfast. Then we hit the slopes, chasing the best conditions with on-mountain instruction provided for the way up and down. Après-ski was warm soup and foot soaks, libations and conversation. It was a weekend that managed to be luxurious without excess, full but not exhausting, communal with a personal touch. Above all, it was a chance to connect with a small group of incredible women, to learn and grow together in the comfort and challenge of winter in the Whites.
Breath and body
Our first exhalation in the yoga studio was a moment of unity. Large windows facing lakeward flooded golden with sunlight, our yoga mats provided personal islands on a smooth hardwood floor. Lindsay’s voice rode soft swells of music, cuing our arms to rise and our lungs to fill. “Your pelvis is a flowerpot and your spine the stalk,” she said, and we grew taller, faces reaching toward the sun, releasing knotted muscles and self-consciousness. “Find the edge, the sensation, that you can sustain,” she said, and we stretched a line of energy from our toes to our fingertips.
Sun salutations flowed into more advanced postures as we gradually synched our movement with our breath. Though guided by the same words, each woman’s practice was subtly her own. Each body moved within the bounds of its own ability and comfort. To my right was Kat Oakes Englishman, a writer and yoga instructor out of Portland, Maine, who moved confidently and smoothly from pose to pose. In contrast, I opted for the more moderate postures. Some of us reached for blocks, others sank deep into the poses. All together, we formed variations on a theme, our shapes mirroring each other but reflecting the individual.
“There is no goal here, no point you need to reach,” Lindsay said as we reached towards our toes. “All you need to do is become a really honest observer of your own sensations.” We bent deep into chair pose and assumed the “hands to heart center” position with our palms together. “Your sensations are going to be different than everyone else’s,” she said. My quads ached, my fingers trembled from the effort. “You are learning the difference between intense sensation and pain,” she said as we moved through a vinyasa, meeting again in child’s pose. “Your difference,” she concluded. The music turned over to the next song as we steadied our breath.
The yoga was physical preparation for a day of backcountry skiing, but also a mental orientation. As we moved through poses designed to complement the physical demands of skiing, we were repeatedly instructed to listen to our bodies, recognize our limitations and accept our individual needs — something we would continue to do so throughout the weekend, finding and pushing our own learning edges, together. Lindsay closed the practice with a final breath, our exhalations again united.
Breakfast, like most of the retreat, was a communal affair, featuring delicious scrambled eggs that Lindsay’s mom had prepared during our yoga session. Betsy Donovan, proud and loving matriarch, owner of Mountain Center Physical Therapy, is the indispensable third Musketeer of Backcountry Bliss. She not only opens her home on Donovan’s Point to the retreat-goers each year, but also plays host to them, preparing meals and tending to their needs with warmth. Without her, Hilary and Lindsay told me, the retreat would not run.
We ate well and conversed comfortably, Hilary sharing what she had learned about nutrition as an elite female athlete. “Women are not little men,” she said, “we process sugars differently, recover differently. We need to refuel faster than men.” These were the kinds of things we needed to keep in mind before, during and after exercise if we wanted to perform well and feel good.
Listening, I thought guiltily back to pre-work laps on the Sherburne Ski Trail, gulping down an apple and a cup of coffee on the drive there and nothing on the way back. Success on the slopes, our instructors told us, started at home. No one was too shy to take seconds.
The same philosophy of success applied to packing for the day. Extra layers, plenty of water, and a variety of snacks were well worth the extra weight. In order to maintain our energy and help regulate temperature, we would pause regularly to drink and snack. I recalled how my previous backcountry trips had felt like a race, with no stopping to eat or drink. Now, certain that we were well-fueled and well-equipped, we set off with confidence, mountain-bound.
Earn your turns
From the era of snow trains to today, the White Mountains have always been on the frontier of skiing in America. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps cut “the greatest network of cleared down-mountain trails on the North American continent,” says Carl Shumway, whose long career of skiing first became legend when he and two other members of the Dartmouth Outing Club executed the first recorded ski ascent of Mount Washington. Cannon Mountain opened the country’s first aerial tramway shortly thereafter, and Wildcat opened the first gondola lift in the nation a couple decades later. North Conway is both the product and the custodian of this illustrious history.
The newest wave in skiing, which the Mount Washington Valley has been quick to ride, is backcountry, where skiers ascend and descend slopes under their own power, accessing terrain not serviced by lifts or monitored by ski patrol. Today in North Conway, the influence of backcountry has infiltrated everything from retail to resorts to ski racing. Moreover, the newly formed Granite Backcountry Alliance has worked with land managers and local communities to cut glades all over New Hampshire, creating the backcountry equivalent of a “town hill” in many remote areas.
Even as they were discovering the joys of backcountry skiing, our hosts realized it’s not an easy transition from traditional alpine skiing. “Anyone can hike, but there’s something about backcountry where people want knowledge and guidance,” said Lindsay, while Hilary, a US Alpine Ski Team alumnus, admitted that even her first year in the backcountry was difficult. “I was so self-conscious, so concerned with my turns, I could feel my ego was taking over,” she says.
Both women found themselves looking to build a broader community, wanting to create a space for themselves and others that was inclusive, safe and fun. They wanted to celebrate the phenomenal skiing in the White Mountains and bring more women along the new wave of backcountry. They wanted to create Backcountry Bliss.
“Selfishly, we wanted to do it,” said Hilary. “And it worked.”
Up and down the mountain
At our destination, we spilled out of the cars in a tumult of shiny plastic and bright patterns. As soon as our gear was unloaded, the lessons began.
First came our skins, adhesive-backed strips of fabric that we attached to the underside of our skis. Modern in form and material, skins are historic in function and etymology, first made by indigenous Arctic tribes using real sealskins. Now, nylon or mohair fibers covering the skin point rearward (like a dog’s fur), allowing them to glide forward but not backward, and the skier to move upslope. Next came our boots, which hinge at the ankle when set in “walk mode.” Clicking into our technical bindings, two pins on the toe mount grabbed the front of our boots like a pincer, locking in our toes but keeping our heels free. We were ready to climb.
“You have to think your muscles on,” Lindsay told us. “Drive from your glutes and maintain a strong core.” We practiced gliding forward as if we were skiing classic cross-country. Our instructors took the time to observe our strides and offer corrections. “Most of the time, we wait until we’re hurt to make small adjustments to our technique,” Hilary said. “You’ve got to pay attention to your body from the start, and we’re not usually good at that.” Fortunately, we had already started cultivating body awareness with yoga that morning.
“All right ladies, now it’s time for what I like to call the kitten heel,” Lindsay called as we approached a steeper section in the trail. Because skins grip best with your weight centered above them, tech bindings feature risers under the heel to lift you as you encounter steeper terrain. Most bindings have several settings, in our case: flats, kitten heels and stilettos. “You won’t have to use the stilettos unless you’re on really steep terrain,” said Lindsay. We laughed, and continued skinning. Time slipped by as we snacked on homemade almond butter energy balls and chatted amongst ourselves. I bonded with Nikki Imbergama over our mutual love of travel and heard about her trips to Big Sky, and we reminisced about the wild beauty of Montana.
On trail, we were treated to a healthy serving of New Hampshire beauty. As we climbed above the bare branches of maple and beech, dense spruce and fir enclosed us on either side. Their branches were bowed under mounds of fresh snow, from which the sun cut glittering crystals. Overhead, a blue-bird sky won out against the moody blanket of loose cloud that threatened to sock us in. We couldn’t have asked for better weather.
Just as the mileage began to wear us down, we reached the top. Above us, above the treeline, lay the technically difficult and avalanche-prone Gulf of Slides. Its steep chutes and soaring headwalls looking huge and intimidating, making me glad to stick to the trail below. As we transitioned — removing our skins, locking our boots down and donning our helmets — a solo skier passed by, registering the makeup of our group with a mix of shock and admiration. “Wait,” she exclaimed, “You’re all women! That’s awesome. That never happens.” She was right, I couldn’t remember the last all-female party I had seen skiing, much less one of our size. We turned downhill with a swell of solidarity.
“Remember, every turn isn’t going to feel amazing,” Hilary told us. “You have to trust yourself. Sometimes I envision myself eating it, and have to be like ‘stop that.’” She executed a handful of beautiful turns down the first section of trail and waited for us to follow. A pause — who was going to go first? Bridget, all-around mountain adventurer from Colebrook, broke the tension and cut her way gracefully downslope after her. The others followed, their obvious skill belying their unfamiliarity with the backcountry. At last, only Cathy and I remained. Shyly, we each indicated that the other go first. It was Cathy’s first time ever skiing ungroomed terrain, and she was recovering from knee surgery, but I wouldn’t have guessed by the way she ripped turns down the slope in front of me.
Down the mountain we went, the snow light and fast, smiles breaking over our faces, the movement beginning to flow. We stopped when we needed to, snowplowed without shame, and cheered each other on. We practiced listening to our bodies, and found ourselves gradually pushing the edge of what we thought we were capable of. When we landed back at the parking lot, legs burning, we collapsed happily into a stretching circle featuring ceramic mugs of hot apple cider. “Hands to heart cider!” we joked, and piled back in the cars for a welcome evening of rest and relaxation.
Luxury you can bring home
As we ate bowls of soup with homemade rye croutons, I thought of Hilary’s earlier health advice that women have to refuel faster than men. Betsy Donovan had outdone herself — a simple soup felt like an indulgence.
The exertion from the day, still pleasantly aching in our legs, drew us one by one to warm showers and soft couches. We murmured about the perfection of the conditions, and opened up to each other in the wake of our adventures. Abby Scott, whose style I had been admiring all day, showed us pictures of wares from her small woodworking business. Kat and I talked writing. Bridget Freudenberger revealed she was training for an Ironman Triathlon.
Then, Hilary and Lindsay pulled out the real show-stopper: foot soaks. Lined up on the couches, we plunged our ski-boot-crumpled feet into steaming basins of water, each one scented peppermint and made silky with a bath bomb. “How can it get any better?” Cathryn asked, leaning back into the couch and wriggling her toes. As if on cue, Betsy strode into the room, bearing uncorked bottles and glasses. “Red or sparkling?” she asked, with a twinkle and a grin as we all groaned in appreciation.
It was a stunning combination: gentle yoga complemented by a long skin and steep ski, the effort of moving our bodies all day sustained by wholesome nutrition, the challenge of learning new skills supported by incredible women. And then unwinding from it all with a little in-home spa treatment. “It smells like Christmas,” Abby said. It felt like Christmas, almost too good to be true. And yet it all seemed simple and natural.
“If you can’t do it for yourself, who are you going to do it for?” Lindsay asked, and it hit home. The retreat was about so much more than learning to ski, or even hitting pause on the stress of everyday life to escape to the woods. It was about recognizing and honoring the uniqueness of the individual. No one was pressured to do something they weren’t ready for, and everyone was given the support, preparation and tools they needed to safely explore their limits.
After the water in our foot basins had cooled, Betsy served yet another flavor-packed, lovingly prepared meal. A well-earned night of sleep brought on the next day, sunlight filling the house from its thick ceiling beams to its wide wooden floors. During yoga, in repose, we breathed space into our bodies, learning its stories from day before, and waking it up for the day to follow. At the table, lime-garnished flutes of cranberry juice sparkled in our hands as Betsy clucked around, gracefully refusing our offers to help with the dishes. Driving to Black Mountain, we geared up quickly at the trailhead, passed the climb with conversation, and at the top, soaked in the views of Mt. Washington with a thermos of hot chocolate.
The affection with which we bantered, the familiarity with which we listened to our bodies, and the comfort with which we moved up and down the mountain could hardly be explained by a couple of days. “Allow yourself to feel the feels,” Lindsay suggested. For me, the feels were a mix of inspiration and appreciation for the preparation and flexibility it provided in changing conditions, for mutual support and acceptance, for confidence with humility, and for challenge without suffering. They were backcountry bliss.