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A Question of Determination: The Gender Gap

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
In Argentina, the mountains' close proximity does not always mean easy access, especially for women. Brigid Mander explores the cultural factors that affect the female faction of Argentina's greatest skiers.

Photograph: Adam Clark

Skiers and climbers are well aware that proximity to mountains doesn’t necessarily mean easy access – uncountable barriers get in the way of high altitude dreams. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that such dreams are so valuable, and people often go to any length to cling to them. This is especially true in South America, where, despite the spectacular Andean backdrop, making a life in the mountains is a tough go.

For skiers – male or female - based in nations like Argentina, not only are they out of the limelight for most of the ski world, but the aspiring female athletes face an extra set of cultural barriers.

We recently chatted with a few talented, Bariloche-based women about being skiers in Argentina and what influence they hope their own skiing will have on others. We sat down with ski coaches and freeskiers Marina Etchart and Cynthia Courard and big mountain skier Huere Darquier, a former sponsored athlete and competitor on the Freesking World Tour.

For these women, staying involved in skiing has involved an extraordinary amount of work, since they choose to remain based in Argentina, where the ski industry lags behind that of much of the Northern Hemisphere. “There are very talented athletes in Argentina, but it is really hard to live out of skiing because the industry is so small,” says Courard. “To me, it makes skiing here more valuable, because it involves a lot of effort: if you ski, it means you’ve gone through a lot to do it. For a lot of us, becoming a ski patroller or ski instructor is the only way to be able to travel and ski abroad and get more support to go on skiing.”

The reality of the small industry also means that progression and innovation in the sport are slower to arrive in far-flung Argentina. “Truly, I think the relative lack of high-level female skiers is related to the fact that we are years behind North America in many aspects,” says Darquier. “Freesking was definitely not big here [until recently]. When I returned to Argentina from Whistler, I was one of only a few skiers who had fat skis. Now freeskiing is cooler, and everybody is trying it– and finally there are more girls starting to get out there,” she said.

For ambitious local skiers, to make a name as a pro it is almost a given that they leave home and move to Europe or North America to attract sponsors. “The hardest part when I competed was to get support economically and actually have sponsors for what I did and not for my looks. Girls in Argentina still have to fight that lots. You have to be strong and leave a few female things on the side, by this I mean being a girly-girl: Argentine girls are known worldwide for their beauty and it’s part of our culture. In my case I was full-on the worst tomboy I ever knew in Argentina, but when I moved to Whistler, in Canada, I was surprised to hear my friends tell me that I was a girly-girl.”

Marina Etchart, who spends each year in Argentina for the austral winter, heading north for winter in France, agrees. “Being a female skier in Argentina is definitely not easy. We’re hardly ever recognized, because this is more of a macho environment than other places. There still aren’t many risky female skiers here, so when I go ski touring knowing it’ll be a hardcore descent, I still mostly go with my brothers, whom I trust a lot.”

In spite of the status quo, things are changing, she says, and with more women getting out into the mountains, support is slowly materializing – from grassroots community support and up.

Photograph: Adam Clark

“I do have a group of girlfriends that love being out in the mountains and ski touring. We did an expedition to Volcan Lautaro, the highest summit on the southern ice cap in Patagonia. It was a great experience, and an opportunity to encourage other girls as well,” said Etchart. “Club Andino Bariloche supported our project financially. They funded half our budget, because it was the first time an all-women’s team attempted this summit. Some well-known brands gave us clothing, and the local brewery, La Cruz, gave us money for the fuel. One friend that was invited but couldn’t come sewed some ultralight skirts for us,” she said, highlighting the grassroots efforts that keep skiing alive in the area.

Etchart hopes her adventures will inspire other girls in Argentina. “We wrote about our trip for some magazines, and I hope that girls read our stories. But even just when I coach the local ski club [in Bariloche] I try to translate to the girls and the teenagers what I feel when I ski and what it is to be out with nature.”

“The ski community of women is becoming bigger and I’m happy to see more and more talented girls that get the recognition and support they deserve, but they have to fight for a place,” says Courard. “I’ve seen a lot of positive changes over the years, so this is really inspiring.”

“For the new girls in Argentina, I think the precedent we have set just lets them know, if she did it, I can do it!” said Darquier, confident that the scene will keep growing. “At the beginning, you need perseverance,” she said. “You have to push to get accepted. I didn’t care what people thought, and I did my thing. It took me longer and it was harder but I was recognized for who I was and not for who someone else wanted me to be. And that got me respect not only as a skier, but as a person.”

—Brigid Mander