KEELY KELLE­HER

SKI - - CLINIC -

WHAT MY 16-YEAR-OLD SELF WOULD

have given to have known Keely Kelle­her. Re­ally, even as a so-called adult it’s cool, but as a 16-year-old, life-chang­ing. I know this be­cause I can see it in the eyes of the girls we are with as we mill about the deck of the Ark­tika, a sail­boat in Ice­land that will take us ski­ing. We’re here for the third it­er­a­tion of Keely’s Camp for Girls, back­coun­try edi­tion, and th­ese might be the luck­i­est teenagers I’ve ever met.

Kelle­her, tall and ath­letic in stature, com­mands pres­ence with­out know­ing it. Her con­ta­gious warmth and easy­go­ing na­ture make her the type of per­son ev­ery­one within earshot wants to con­nect with—the eight campers in­cluded. They fire ques­tions at her in­ces­santly un­til we’ve made it to our ob­jec­tive, par­tially look­ing for an­swers, par­tially look­ing for some re­as­sur­ance to calm their nerves. Kelle­her, with the pa­tience of a first-grade teacher, en­cour­ages them to dis­cover the an­swers them­selves when ap­pro­pri­ate. “We want them to fig­ure some of it out on their own,” she says, “It’s em­pow­er­ing.”

Kelle­her and I fin­ish boot­ing up and load into a small red zo­diac that will take us to shore from the deck of the Ark­tika, where we’ll start our climb. I ride next to a girl named Heidi whose mind is fully blown al­ready; she looks at me with eyes the size of saucers. Heidi car­ries Betty the Bug to­day, a warm-fuzzy of sorts the girls pass around to rec­og­nize each other’s pos­i­tive feats— you nailed that kick turn, you shared your licorice with me, etc. It’s one of sev­eral ac­tiv­i­ties Kelle­her in­stills to fos­ter pos­i­tiv­ity and cre­ate a safe space for learn­ing.

As a teen her­self, Kelle­her was awk­ward. Shy and in­se­cure (five years of braces, ouch), she found so­lace and es­cape in ski­ing. “The only time I could fully be my­self was when I was ski­ing.” Even­tu­ally, on-moun­tain con­fi­dence trick­led into off-moun­tain life, and to­day you’d never guess the for­mer U.S. Ski Team mem­ber had ever been any­thing but con­fi­dent.

Af­ter a slow trip up­hill—it’s been a while since most of the girls have made a kick turn—we make it to the top of our first line. The light of the pro­longed sun­set this far north is golden, and it casts a dream-like glow. Self­ies fol­low as only they can with teenagers, and the ex­cite­ment be­tween Kelle­her and the girls is pal­pa­ble. It’s part of what makes her so en­dear­ing to them, her abil­ity to get on their level and bask in the pure joy of such a mo­ment, but also part of what I think will keep th­ese girls com­ing back to ski­ing. Bliss seeps from ev­ery pore of her be­ing; this is Kelle­her at her best.

In the be­gin­ning, there were big chal­lenges in­volved with host­ing a camp. Some lo­gis­ti­cal or busi­ness-re­lated, oth­ers per­sonal—like, how do you be­come the boss of your friends, es­pe­cially when they are highly dec­o­rated skiers with hugely suc­cess­ful ca­reers on their ré­sumés? And tran­si­tion­ing from ath­lete to coach has been a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in and of it­self. “When you’re a pro­fes­sional ath­lete, you have to be self­ish. But this is not about me, it’s a big­ger picture.”

Stand­ing in the light of sun­set on top of a moun­tain in Ice­land with her tribe, the big picture isn’t lost on me. My 16-year-old self is ready to sign up for the next camp right here and now, and the girls are al­ready talk­ing about the ski trips they’ll take to­gether an­nu­ally from here on out. With any luck—and Kelle­her’s in­flu­ence—they’ll walk away with a bit of ex­tra con­fi­dence, too.

I’M SIT­TING ON WHAT LOOKS LIKE THE BACK­SEAT OF A MINI­VAN

in the of­fice of Alaska Ren­dezvous Heli-Guides, out­side Valdez, Alaska. It smells like a mix of grease, Jet-A, and old ski boots and is neat and or­ga­nized, de­spite be­ing a bit piece­mealed to­gether with odds and ends of fur­ni­ture and vin­tage ski pho­tos. Sit­ting at the desk across from me is Jiggy (his nick­name), an ARG vet­eran of 10 years. He’s on dis­patch duty to­day, a ro­tat­ing po­si­tion the guides share that han­dles the lo­gis­ti­cal end of the guid­ing op­er­a­tion. We’re chat­ting about Alexan­dra Mein­ers, ARG’s owner, when I ask him what it’s like to work for her. He sighs and thinks about it for a few sec­onds be­fore an­swer­ing. “To say I’m im­pressed, that would be an un­der­state­ment.”

It’s the con­sen­sus, at a min­i­mum, among the guide staff she in­her­ited when her dad passed un­ex­pect­edly in the fall of 2012. Her dad, Theo—a bit of a tem­per in-hand—was a vi­sion­ary and built a team more akin to a fam­ily, where safety and snow science were the pil­lars. It was a process that left deep im­pres­sions on the guides, each speaks of Theo as though star-struck in love, ap­pre­cia­tive of the knowl­edge and wis­dom he passed on to each of them. Love and re­spect for Theo aside, I get the im­pres­sion guides are happy to have some­one at the helm they feel is ap­proach­able and open to ideas.

Af­ter my chat with Jiggy, Mein­ers and I get in a bright yel­low A-Star B2 he­li­copter for a short flight to your av­er­age mind-bog­glingly beau­ti­ful Alaskan moun­tain­top for a cou­ple af­ter­noon laps. I sense her pre­oc­cu­pa­tion as we get ready to head out (she is leav­ing be­hind a moun­tain of pa­per­work and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to join me in the field) but watch­ing her make ef­fort­less turns through con­sis­tently vel­vet snow makes me think she’s let it go to live in the mo­ment. I’m pretty sure the re­sound­ing “Yaawww!” Mein­ers belts out as she gets within earshot of the rest of the group is help­ing with stress re­lief, too.

Later, we talk about what it’s like to own a heli op—the per­pet­ual weight of run­ning a busi­ness where peo­ple’s safety is in­vari­ably on the line— and I’m flat­tered she came out at all. I hope, if noth­ing else, the ski­ing grounds her a bit and re­minds her why we’re all here.

To say that heli-ski­ing is a male-dom­i­nated sub-in­dus­try of ski­ing is to put it lightly. Most op­er­a­tions are heavy on male guides, and women in lead­er­ship roles are far enough in be­tween that we felt it war­ranted cov­er­ing one in print. Mein­ers doesn’t think that she’s do­ing any­thing out of the norm. “I never con­sid­ered not step­ping up,” when asked about her choice to take things over af­ter her fa­ther’s pass­ing. “We’re a fam­ily,” she adds, re­fer­ring to the team of guides and staff hand-picked and trained by her fa­ther.

With al­most zero turnover on the guide staff (they love their jobs that much), Mein­ers brings other women into the fold where she can. Of­fice and restau­rant staff are made up of a con­tin­gent of women from Jack­son Hole (her home­town), and half of last sea­son’s new re­cruits to the guide team (who will par­tic­i­pate in a four-sea­son ap­pren­tice pro­gram) are women. To be fair, with­out any real turnover on the guide staff, the 2020 class of ap­pren­tices maxes out at two would-be guides, mak­ing one of them a woman.

Mein­ers doesn’t take the role she in­her­ited lightly. I pass on Jiggy’s kind praise and she stum­bles on words, stunned and emo­tional. “We’ve been through so much to­gether. I’m so hon­ored and priv­i­leged that they de­cided to come home to the Ren­dezvous.”

Keely Kelle­her wanted to give young fe­male skiers role mod­els in the sport, so Keely’s Camp for Girls was born.

Alexan­dra Mein­ers is one of a hand­ful of fe­male he­liski guides in Alaska. Oh, and she also owns the busi­ness.

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