If you ask Claire Smallwood the key to success when taking on a new challenge, she’ll quickly tell you that being okay with “looking foolish” will make all the difference.
It’s advice worth listening to. The 32-year-old who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah and speaks four languages is an accomplished private chef, a passionate skier and the co-founder of SheJumps, a 10-year-old organization that cultivates community initiatives and education programs for women and girls to harness the power of outdoor adventure, and gain momentum in the things they love to do.
Smallwood is a big fan of leaping off a cliff and trusting that she’ll learn how to fly on the way down. It’s worked for her so far. She taught herself how to ski, she stumbled through conversations while becoming fluent in French, Spanish and Wolof (a language of Senegal, the Gambia and Mauritania), and she took on a serious restaurant job that required her to specialize in desserts, even though sweets were near the bottom of her kitchen repertoire.
In a sense, she embodies the SheJump logo, a “Girafficorn,” which is “half giraffe, half unicorn and all magic.”
“It represents planting your feet on the ground, but having your head in the clouds above the chaos and drama,” Smallwood explained. “That’s how self-esteem grows.”
And, for Smallwood, when confidence is taller than fear in the face of the unknown, that’s when anything becomes possible.
“Medical Excuse No. 347”
Smallwood was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her father was far from “outdoorsy.” Her mother grew up in a ranching family in the central part of the state, herding cattle and farming, but never developed an interest in hiking, camping or skiing. However, her stepmother took her skiing for the first time when she was 5 years old. That, coupled with a fantastic subsidized ski program run through her school, sparked her inner ski bum.
“I swam competitively in high school, but was never the top swimmer on the team. I played soccer, but never really scored a goal,” Smallwood said. “Skiing opened up this whole new world, where you don’t have to be the fastest or the best. You can just have fun, and that’s how you become a good skier. It was total freedom on the mountain.”
In her youth, she had to “earn her turns” on skis. No, she wasn’t boot-packing in the backcountry, but she did have to pay for her own lift tickets.
“Skiing is really expensive, so my parents saw how into it I was, and how I wanted to keep going. They said, ‘look, if you want to do it, you have to pay for it yourself.’ My dad was thinking that would deter me. He thought skiing was a little bit crazy, and didn’t really like the culture of it,” Smallwood said. “But instead, I just babysat and washed windows, and did the things you do as a 13-year-old to make $32 a week to buy a ticket.”
Following high school, she received a scholarship to attend Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. And, because of the school’s close proximity to Mt. Hood, she fell in love with the sport even more.
“When I went to college, skiing just became part of my identity,” she said. “I became the president of the ski and snowboard club, and I would lie to my professors and come up with these incredible medical excuses to skip school so I could travel to freeskiing competitions and compete.”
Smallwood notched a few top-10 finishes, including fifth-place at her first competition, but she was more in it for the experience of seeing novel places, meeting new people and having fun on snow.
While in college, she studied abroad in Senegal, where she was able to continue feeding her skiing addiction. In fact, she started writing for Big Lines, a Canadian-based freeskiing digital publication, about her on-snow experience in West Africa.
Her words caught the attention of Vanessa Pierce, a journalist and fellow winter sports lover. Around that same time, Smallwood met professional freeskier Lynsey Dyer at a big mountain competition.
“I became friends with both of them, but at first, I didn’t know Lynsey and Vanessa were super tight friends in Jackson Hole,” Smallwood said. “I eventually learned that they had been kicking around this idea of creating some kind of outdoor community for women, but they didn’t know how it would come together.”
Dyer, who has starred in ski films from Teton Gravity Research and Warren Miller, and taken home Female Skier of the Year honors from Powder Magazine, wanted to use her platform as a professional freeskier to boost women’s involvement in the sport and beyond.
As a journalist, Pierce was interested in addressing the fact that women’s presence in the ski industry was not as palpable as men’s.
So, the two started a website and created profiles of women they considered the “unsung heroes” in the outdoor industry. They featured the “Supermom” who has five kids but still ventures out to climb the Grand Tetons. They highlighted the women doing backflips on skis but not necessarily going after sponsorships. They put the spotlight on those who charged hard for internal reasons rather than external accolades.
“Vanessa would write and then Lynsey would take their portrait,” Smallwood said. “They were looking for a way to amplify the voices that were already there, and ultimately it would become the job of the organization, and my sole purpose, to bring these women together in a more cohesive format through our programs and events.”
Meanwhile, Smallwood graduated with a Bachelors degree in foreign languages and literature. Her full intention was to live the glorious life of a ski bum. All those languages could certainly come in handy in the French Alps and beyond, she thought. But, the genesis of SheJumps reeled her in.
“I told Vanessa and Lynsey I would try to make SheJumps into a 501c3, not having any idea what the foundation really was or what it really meant,” Smallwood said. “That whole summer, I started looking into it, downloaded the application from the IRS and filled it out. Six months later, it was done. We became a 501c3 and Lynsey and Vanessa were a little shocked, like ‘Who is this girl?'”
Bring On the Banana Bread
Concurrently, Smallwood started working as a sous chef at the Wildcat Chalet, which is a private house that anyone can rent at Alta Ski Resort in Utah. The major draw for Smallwood and her ski-bum dreams? It was the closest house to the chairlift at the world-renowned resort.
Smallwood’s longtime interest in cooking was sparked by the very place she grew up, where red and green chilies pack a flavorful punch, and spices playfully jolt the taste buds.
“Cooking has come easily to me. I understood the basics early on in life and wasn’t afraid to try and fail,” Smallwood said.
Her first restaurant job came at 15 years old, where she washed dishes, but watched everything the cooks did so she could work her way up.
“By the time I graduated high school, I was working on the line as a sauté cook,” she said. “It was really empowering to be a woman because it’s such a male-dominated industry.”
She worked in various restaurants in Oregon and Utah to gain commercial experience, but never thought she would be concocting desserts at Alta.
“I met this guy while skiing when I first moved to Utah, and he introduced me to Wildcat Head Chef Bob Allen,” Smallwood said. “Bob said he was looking for someone to hire and asked if I was good at making desserts. I wasn’t really into desserts, but I flat out said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my specialty.’ He had me in and asked what I was going to make that night for dessert. I said, ‘I’ll just make some banana bread,’ which is not a fancy dessert, and he said ‘that’s such a good idea. Let’s fry it in butter, burn it and serve it with ice cream.’ I was like, ‘that’s exactly what I was thinking!’
To this day, the “pan-fried banana bread with ice cream and caramel” is still on the menu.
The full-time job allows Smallwood to put on her ski boots at least two days a week.
“That’s my non-negotiable. It’s self-care,” she explained.
But, the work has also afforded her the financial freedom to handle her executive director duties at SheJumps, where, up until 2013, it was an unpaid volunteer position.
Women in Action
SheJumps is a powerhouse today, but in its early years, like most grassroots organizations, it needed substantial support.
Its very first program, “SheJumps Into the Canyon,” is now its longest running program, and pays homage to how Smallwood got into skiing.
“We take teen girls from under-resourced and at-risk backgrounds skiing at Alta for four Saturdays a year, and provide them everything including gear, lift tickets, instructors and lunch,” she said.
In their first five years, SheJumps hosted various events such as an introduction to freeriding camp in Oregon, and an introduction to ski and snowboard tuning in Salt Lake City.
“People would come to us with ideas and we’d let them run with it,” Smallwood said.
Then, a crushing injury altered the organization’s course for the better. Smallwood blew out her knee while skiing in 2012, and the six months of downtime led to a total re-branding of SheJumps. The website was redesigned, an ambassador program was put into place, and most importantly, a revenue model was implemented so the organization could continue to grow and add regional coordinators and directors.
Today, SheJumps offers a variety of regular programs such as an outdoor survival course for youth, a ski and splitboard mountaineering course and a once-a-year guided climb up Mt. Rainer.
“The outdoors doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman,” Smallwood said. “It’s not going to give you a handicap because you’re a girl, and you taught yourself how to ski when you were 25. That’s why safety and community are a primary focus for us. If you look in the anthropological lens of evolution, women are the backbone of society. They keep everything in line, they raise the kids, they talk with each other and support each other. I think women want to see each other succeed.”
Widening the Lens of Participation
Women certainly aren’t new to the outdoors, but now, more than ever, they’re showing how their involvement in outdoor activity can increase confidence and transfer to other areas of life.
“It’s important for women to voice their desire to see more women represented in the outdoors,” Smallwood said. “Twenty-five years ago, when I was growing up, I couldn’t find that many examples of professional female skiers to inspire me. I had to comb through every single magazine.”
Not only is Smallwood spearheading SheJumps in its mission to get more women and girls involved in outdoor activity, but most recently, she’s focused on widening the lens of participation.
“We need to be talking about diversity because if I were a young girl of color, and if I wanted to go skiing, it’s hard to find other women of color representing in the outdoor industry,” Smallwood said.
That’s why when SheJumps was named a recipient of a $25,000 grant from REI’s Force of Nature Fund, Smallwood was overjoyed. The initiative considers the outdoors a place “to opt out of cultural pressures to conform—the ‘supposed-tos’ and ‘shoulds’ that underpin outdated stereotypes, especially for women and girls.”
“We’re working on scholarships for women and girls of color to do things like take avalanche education classes and wilderness first aid,” she said. “It’s a pilot program for us to learn how we can grow our outreach in all of our areas. We’re starting in Salt Lake, partnering with a local non-profit that works with immigrant and refugee girls. We’re working with them to teach them all the types of things we do through SheJumps.”
Authenticity in the Outdoors
There’s no doubt Smallwood has a full plate between running SheJumps, a full-time cooking job and getting those necessary turns in.
However, she always has time to dish advice to others who may be a little hesitant when it comes to a new outdoor challenge.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be a total beginner. Knowledge is power,” Smallwood said. “Be willing to be honest about your ability and all the things you’re worried about. You’re going to find a lot of other people who share those things with you, and that will help you feel more empowered. Oh, and don’t be afraid to just try something and totally fail at it.”
After all, looking foolish is often a stepping stone to a beautiful summit.