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How much of who you are today is linked to your childhood babysitter? Or the captain of your ski racing team? How about your older brother or your best friend? As children, we didn’t always recognize the significance mentors played in getting us where we wanted to be. But those hours logged following someone around the mountain, on the trails, and in the water likely laid the groundwork for a lifetime thirst for adventure.
Photo: Holly Bel
Words: Ben Osborne
It takes two to make a thing go right. Mountain Mentors in action.
More importantly, these guiding forces taught you how to do it safely. Fast forward ten years and what happens when you are separated from that more experienced sister or brother who took you into the backcountry for the first time? More literally, what happens when you have to start looking at the forecast for yourself? After you have been separated from these mentors, how can the growth and development of those vital skills continue?
In the still-male-dominated outdoor world, mentor and role model options are much more limited for women. Beyond the occasional 3-day women’s skills clinics, the harsh reality is that although the market is growing, opportunity for women-specific programs that teach the necessary skills to thrive in the mountains has plenty of room to grow—in the Sea to Sky Corridor and beyond.
Enter Brett Trainor and Thea Zerbe, who saw this void and co-founded Mountain Mentors – an all-female outdoor mentorship program designed to help women learn the skills required to confidently recreate in the mountains. “A mentor is a blueprint of possibility for what you can become,” Brett says. “If you don’t see other women occupying positions in which you aspire to, it can be difficult to imagine yourself reaching those heights. We wanted to close the gap for women.”
Mountain Mentors pairs Sea to Sky women, giving one the role of mentor and the other of mentee. These duos spend at least one day a month per season outside together embarking on real adventures meant to give mentor and mentee hands-on experience.
Alongside the ongoing mentorship program, Mountain Mentors also brings women together a few times a year for “skill shares.” These include avalanche safety refreshers, glacier travel guidance, mountain bike tech sessions, and more.
“Having informal mentor figures in my life is the reason that I can participate in mountain sports,” Thea explains. “Almost any backcountry enthusiast can recall a mentor figure who took them under their wing and showed them the ropes.”
Originally developed while they attended the University of British Columbia, Thea and Brett’s first lesson was to propose that the best place to look for mentors is within your own peer group. These days, they work with women ranging from experienced ACMG guides to casual recreationalists who learned the right skills and are willing to pass on their knowledge.
Everyone in the program is hand selected by Thea and Brett. Women are invited to apply twice a year (once for summer and once in the winter) and are chosen based on the pool of mentors and their respective skills, ensuring a healthy mentor-mentee relationship.
“I would say the hardest part of the process has been not being able to pair everyone who applies,” says Brett. “Every year we get so many amazing applications and it weighs on me a bit to have to turn people away.”
The reality that there are more keen mentees than established mentors is indicative of past gender imbalances in mountain sports, but it also provides an optimistic outlook for the future. It’s very likely that one-time mentees of the program will carry on to become mentors themselves.
For Brett, Thea and a community of dedicated mountain women they have corralled, Mountain Mentors is yielding tangible results. “We’ve seen women cut their Strava times in half, climb grades they had previously feared, and empower themselves to make safer decisions in avalanche terrain,” Brett says with a mixture of pride and stoke at how the paradigm is already shifting. “It’s all about our community, and we’re honoured to do our part in growing and evolving the female outdoors community.”
This post is also available in: French