A few days ago, I rode a snowmobile out of the mountains. It was just after 7 AM and across the valley, the Valhalla Range glowed orange in the new day. After two switchbacks, we left the sun behind and buzzed beneath Western red cedars that smelled moist and alive, like spring. The sky was scraped clear of clouds and a brilliant, unapologetic blue, and as we hurtled through the forest, I felt both fantastically grateful and a little bit sad.
The ski season was officially over, and so was my stay at Snowwater, a ridiculously gorgeous wilderness lodge at 5,400 feet in the Bonnington Range nine miles outside of Nelson, British Columbia. For the past four days, I’d been holed up in the mountains with some of the raddest adventure women in Canada, skiing untracked powder, doing yoga, practicing silent meditation, and learning the basics of holistic nutrition. This was all part of the inaugural Cat Sass, a women’s-only “empowderment” retreat run by local ski guide and adventure entrepreneur Galena Pal.
Galena is 27 and has worked at some of the best backcountry ski lodges in British Columbia, where 99.9 percent of the guests are men. Motivated to change that, she invented Cat Sass and enlisted the help of local professionals to teach yoga and nutrition, pamper us with spa treatments and massages, and guide us down some of the sickest lines we’d ski all winter.
Crazily enough, I’d been on the fence about going. Driving out of Santa Fe before dawn last Friday, my two girls at home sleeping in their cribs, I’d chanted to myself “You can do this, You can do this.” For 9 months I’d felt trapped and antsy in the baby bubble, desperate for some room to roam. Now that I was finally breaking out—just me and my breast pump!—I felt like I was being torn from my baby, and she from me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.
But then I boarded the plane to Salt Lake City and there were no tiny children clinging to me and I could actually read a magazine—two!—and the fog lifted from my brain and I had six or so creative thoughts in a row, one of which was This is pretty great . And then I got on the next flight to Spokane and I might have actually dozed off, and no one was yammering at me, and I was officially GONE! Outta there. All the anxiety and pointless fretting and gloomy what-ifs had vanished, and in their place: sweet freedom!
Many hours later I was on a SnoCat rumbling up the road to Snowwater, with a bunch of Canadian women. We were still strangers to each other, so I didn’t know that one of them was a former expert downhill mountain biker who’d crashed so many times, and so hard, she now suffered from constant migraines, or one had helped invent a sport called noboarding (that’s snowboarding without bindings) or that one was an avid sport climber and artist and another was a former champion swimmer-turned-holistic nutritionist. All I knew is that they had the exotic look of inveterate mountain women, with their beat-up fur-trimmed Sorels, thick Peruvian sweaters, scuffed Hunter wellies, Quebecois accents, and dark, wild-woman hair that hadn’t seen sun for months. I idolized them immediately.
The only other time I’d done a women’s only trip was an avalanche course seven years ago. One whole element—men—had been removed from the equation, and in its place bloomed a nurturing sense of girl-power, completely void of competitive machismo. Cat Sass felt the same, right off the bat: uncomplicated, easy. We were here, with each other, and could be exactly who we were, with no pretense or posturing.
First and foremost, we were skiers, and we dropped steep lines, stacking our tracks in curvy figure 8s next to Maria’s, our lead guide and co-owner of Snowwater. To keep from triggering avalanches, we skied one at a time, so there was no frenzied rushing or trying to be the first to the bottom. Is there anything more annoying than trying to keep up with someone the backcountry, especially when that someone is your husband or boyfriend? Didn’t think so. Hurrying takes you out of your body and into your head, where mental static interrupts the flow and nothing feels quite right.
We spent one morning in silence, sitting in meditation, eating breakfast, and then snowshoeing to the top of meadow where we gathered in a circle. Earlier, we’d written on small scraps of paper our wishes or intentions, fears and desires, anything that had come to us during sitting meditation that we wanted to send off into the universe. Galena carried a small metal tin, and we lit our papers one at a time and watched them smolder and released them with the smoke into the mountain air. It felt good to let go and say a small prayer to the fearless writer and mother and adventurer I want to be.
The night before we left, we put on silly wigs and danced like crazy around the dining room. We were celebrating the ahi tuna we’d had for dinner, April’s 32nd birthday and the baby boy in her belly, and four perfect days cocooned in the mountains, the deafening racket of real life muted, if only for a little while. That morning in yoga, I’d done a headstand for the first time. I’d forgotten what it feels like to focus so intently on learning something new, undistracted by tiny clinging babies and screeching toddlers and deadlines like thunderheads on the horizon, and just be present . Here and now.
Snowwater had become my new nest, and I didn’t want to leave, but if I had to go, surely I could figure out ways to bring Cat Sass home with me. I climbed onto the snowmobile and held on for the ride.