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.