“You got to take it into your own hands if you want to make it happen,” says Elyse Saugstad as she talks about her journey to the top of the freeskiing world. The 40-year-old didn’t take the traditional path. She’s progressed through creativity and hard work, from growing up racing in Alaska to dodging law school while on a ski bum sabbatical in Tahoe, which turned into a career (and where she met her husband, professional skier Cody Townsend). As glamorous of a lifestyle as it may seem, for Elyse, it’s been an enduring push to break the mold of what it means to be a woman in the industry.
Saugstad still remembers vividly a Greg Stump movie where his girlfriend was the only woman in the film and was a go-go dancer. Even as a kid she wasn’t pleased with the prospect: “Oh man that sucks,” she said, looking back. “I really want to be in a ski movie but I don’t want to have to be a go-go dancer to get to that point.” When she did finally make it as a skier, she watched as males occupied the majority of screen time in films while the “token women” got a tiny segment. So instead of delving into films she spent three years on the Freeride World Tour, winning a world title in 2008. But when she reached out to ski brands for sponsorship and film companies for parts after, she still found dead ends. “I remember one of the major film companies was like, ‘nope, we already have our woman,’” says Saugstad. So she took shit into her own hands, working to build her brand. She bought a snowmobile, which at the time few women were using. “I would contact some of the sled film crews and small-time companies and be like ‘You need a girl,’” she says, “And a lot of times they were really receptive and cool about it.”
Then in 2012 while skiing with a group of 16 skiers and snowboarders – including athletes and media members – in the Tunnel Creek area off of Stevens Pass east of Seattle, she was involved in a massive avalanche, covered in depth by the New York Times. The slide buried members of the group, killing Freeride World Tour judge Jim Jack, Stevens Pass Marketing Director Chris Rudolph, and Leavenworth, Wash. contractor Johnny Brenan. Elyse careened down the mountain with the rapidly moving snow but was able to deploy her airbag, which at the time was relatively new technology: it saved her life. “After the avalanche happened for the rest of that winter it was trying to process it all, and how do I move forward,” says Saugstad, “it was an experience that you couldn’t just shove under the rug. It was such a national news story but it was a unique one, it seemed like it made sense to embrace it and move forward with it in that way and share the story versus shutting it off to the world.”
Elyse kept on pushing and has now twice won best female performance for her skiing (Powder magazine’s Powder Awards gave her the nod in 2014 for her part in TGR’s Co-Lab and in 2018 for her performance in Matchstick’s All In). “Skiing is an escape, it’s something that creates extreme pleasure,” she says, “to get overly serious about it takes the fun out of it.” But at 40, Saugstad is still holding the throttle down in the ski world and doesn’t seem to be slowing up, while leading the way for the rise of women in her sport. “Women are out there getting after it and it finally feels like the snowball is really starting to grow,” she says. “The more and more visibility women have the more the younger generation sees it and realizes they can do it too…just wait and see what happens in the next five years.”
How did growing up in Alaska make you the skier you are?
I think it just naturally makes you an outdoorsy person. It’s so easy to get immersed in the wilderness up there. That’s the one thing I dislike about living in California and in the states in general is that there are so many people around. A huge positive of growing up in Alaska is that you can go outside and play in the woods without your parents really worrying about you, so that was really nice. When it came to skiing, I grew up ski racing and those mountains naturally helped to form me and the way I ski from just the big faces and the high alpine.
Was there any point growing up or as you got older where you specifically aimed to be a professional skier or did it all sort of fall into place? I think I remember seeing somewhere that you were on track to go to law school?
When I was a kid, we would go watch Warren Miller films and I loved it so much! I remember seeing a movie, a Greg Stump movie and there was only one woman in the film, so I didn’t really ever think it was something you could actually do with your life. At a young age my parents had instilled in me this idea of really working hard and being a doctor or something like that… Then when I entered college at the University of Nevada, Reno skiing was still a big part of my life…so naturally after university I just wanted to take some time off to be a ski bum before going to law school. So I moved up to Squaw, then I met Cody (Townsend), that maybe had a little bit of influence on me…..and he told me that I was a really good skier and that I should compete, and because of him I happened to be spotted by somebody at Salomon, and so it all kind of fell into place and here I am.
You’ve done a lot to help push the role of women in the industry through some of your programs like Women2Women as well as some of the clinics you do. Talk about how you push these issues that continue to be a part of not just the ski industry but other industries as well.
Things have changed quite a bit since I first became a professional skier. The two major things being the inequity in pay was strikingly obvious. I happened to know what Cody (boyfriend at the time) was getting paid and there was quite a bit of inequity between us. Another thing was with the movie companies it was really hard to get in, not just in the movies but with the ski companies as well. They were so all about having the token female, so it was really hard to break through and prove your worth when there was only one slot for all the females. Now things have changed, the movie companies in general are trying to work with more women. And the pay with certain companies, while there are still inequalities, through a bit of negotiating, it’s starting to come around.
What has been one of the most challenging experiences you’ve faced?
It’s kind of still along these lines of getting the big ‘No’s’ back in the day after winning the world title and trying to get in with ski companies. What I really did at this point was I just took it into my own hand’s, and I knew that I couldn’t rely on other people to do things for me and I had to further myself on my own. I was one of those people that ended up having to put in a lot of hard work on my end, but it was super gratifying as well. I bought a snowmobile and that was a big deal as not a lot of women were filming off of sleds at that time. I knew a bunch of smaller film companies who would go sled skiing to film, so I figured that could help to open up some opportunities. …from there it grew, and I did a little bit of everything.
I know a lot of people ask you about Tunnel Creek, does it ever bother you? It seems that while nobody ever wants to face that situation, a lot of avalanche awareness and attention came from it? Did your SAFEAS clinics stem from this?
I don’t mind talking about Tunnel Creek at all, in fact it was such a huge learning experience for myself and for others. Through the SAFEAS clinics (avalanche awareness and safety tailored for women) I’ve shared this story and presented it in a very objective way and picked it apart so we can talk about what I did wrong, what we did wrong as a group and to be able to have a personal experience like that and to be able to share it with people. It’s such a good learning experience for others…you hope people can take something away from that. I know they have because people have contacted me and we’ve talked about it. It was a big part of starting SAFEAS but a couple of us – Michelle Parker, Jackie Paaso, Sherry McConkey, and myself were having our typically-girl summer morning where we went to yoga, then went to coffee and we were discussing what happened, snow safety, and what it’s like to be a woman in the industry and what it’s like to be female when you go to these courses and we thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to put on a female course.’ So that’s where it all started.
You are coming off a big year and continue to break molds? What’s next and what are your hopes for the future?
I envision that I’m still in the ski industry as a professional skier at some level but there really is is a point where you can’t keep skiing the way you (want to). It will eventually evolve into something where I’m not so hard on the body. The industry in general has had this focus on 20-year-old boys and if we really get reflective about who’s buying the products it’s not just that group, it’s a bunch of different groups: it’s women in their 30s and 40s that have families but love the sport and still want some inspiration. I realize there is that growing segment today in our industry. There’s a market to be had. Just because you are a certain person in the industry doesn’t mean you can’t continue to grow, you don’t always have to be jumping off cliffs and doing tricks to stay relevant. It’s a lifestyle sport that helps define us as people. I don’t see myself disappearing from the ski world.