OURAY – Every January and February since 1999, Chicks with Picks’ infamous “girly guides” have descended on the Ouray Ice Park to teach women of all abilities how to ice climb. The organization is now celebrating its 15th year of “women climbing with women, for women.”
“Celebrating the milestone is important,” said head chick Kim Reynolds.
And ladies, there’s a lot to celebrate. The program's all-women ice-climbing clinics have become a sensation over the years, written up in numerous national magazines, and faithfully attended by hundreds of Chicks from across the country, ages ranging from 20s to 60s, all bitten by the ice-climbing bug. In the process, CWP has raised $175,000 through its famous live auctions for The Tri-County Resource Center (a non-profit organization offering shelter and resources for women in Ouray, Montrose and Delta counties).
This year’s round of “Chicks with Picks” courses is already well underway. “We just finished The Graduate and we’ll do the Complete Chicks after Ice Fest,” Reynolds said. “Then comes The Sampler and The Quickie.”
In the midst of it all, Reynolds is calling in the flock (Chicks and guys, too!) to a quinceañera at the Wright Opera House Saturday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m. Expect a kick-ax birthday bash with a live auction, live music, and plenty of activities.
In Latin America, when a girl turns 15, it marks her transition from childhood to young womanhood. For Reynolds, celebrating and empowering womanhood is what Chicks with Picks has really always been about.
It hasn’t always been easy, however. Enrollment faltered for several years during the economic downturn, but is now thankfully on the upswing again.
“The amazing thing was that women still came, and we still stayed in business, which was phenomenal,” Reynolds said. “The impact this program has had on the women who participate is profound. We are touching women’s lives in a really unique way.”
The fears that naturally come up during the experience of ice climbing “bring up bigger things,” Reynolds explained, recalling one recent participant in a backcountry course. “Things got hard for her and she had to really dig deep and draw from within. She realized, ‘I have more resources than I thought I had.’ It all came up on a climb.”
A COMMUNITY OF WOMEN CLIMBERS
Reynolds herself started ice climbing early in the 80s. As she watched the sport grow, she noticed that women involved in it tended to be timid “and not doing the technical aspects.
“I saw a real opportunity,” she explained. “Women’s ice climbing had so much room to blossom when we started.”
For the past 15 years, she’s played a key role in helping women hone their skill level and confidence. Simply put, “We have generated a community of women climbers,” she said.
Today, she sees women traveling to Ouray on their own and renting a house together to go climbing in the backcountry or at the Ice Park. Many of them are graduates of her program.
“It has fostered a lot of really strong friendships, a lot of confidence. Women are proud to be alums.”
Chicks with Picks was born from Reynolds’ experience leading a trek in Nepal in the 1990s, when she stumbled upon a safehouse for girls that was on the brink of shutting down. Returning to the States, she and her then-husband Jim Nowak founded the dZi Foundation and organized its very first fundraising effort: a 1998 expedition to climb a new route on the 23,443 foot Himalayan peak, Pumori.
They raised enough money to save the girls' home, and the Friendship House is still thriving today, providing a home to girls and young women who might otherwise be victims of child labor or sex slavery. It was a revelation for Reynolds. “I really made this promise that whatever I did from here on would have an element of giving back,” she said. “This was before a lot of outdoor companies and expeditions were giving back; I really think we were on the cusp of that inspiration.”
But, she soon realized, “We can’t truly give to others until we are in a good place in ourselves. Through Pumori, I saw an opportunity for women to learn from women, and just thought it would work,” she said.
When she came back to her home in Ridgway, she mentioned her idea to her friend and fellow climber Kellie Day. Together they agreed to give “Chicks with Picks” a shot.
To their amazement, they filled their first clinic. “We never realized how successful it would be or that there was such a need for it,” Reynolds said.
After a successful first year, Reynolds took over the business side of Chicks with Picks, while Day took over the design.
‘KISS MY AX’
Day can claim credit for “Eunice,” the beehived, horn-rimmed face of Chicks with Picks. “She’s this sassy, bold, ballsy gal who wants to get out there and do it and isn’t going to take any s-h-*-t," Day explained of her logo design with a peal of laughter.
The logo came about as Reynolds realized that “ice climbing can have this seemingly extreme reputation that may turn women off” and began to understand the importance of “making Chicks really accessible.” She described her vision to Day, a talented graphic artist.
And just like that, Eunice was born, along with the priceless tagline, "Kiss My Ax."
“She is called Betty now, because Betty has kind of became an outdoor industry term for a hot woman out there doing it,” Reynolds said. “She became that access point, the personality, that we really wanted. She has that attitude of ‘I want to have fun and I am fun and capable and sassy.’”
Betty has evolved over the years to reflect the changing times. In 2001, for example, after 9/11 when people were reluctant to fly, “we put her in a convertible (a la “Thelma and Louise”) to drive to Chicks,” Reynolds recalled. Another year, Betty appeared in a 50s get-up in front of a fridge filled with ice climbing gear, with the caption, “Despite years of domestic development, she still longed for hard ice and a good belay.”
Reynolds still cracks up when she thinks about it. “Chicks would not be what it is without Kellie’s incredible images and sense of humor,” she said.
All in all, it’s been quite a remarkable 15 years. “I don’t think there are any other women’s climbing events that have been in business this long,” Reynolds reflected. “It’s been fun to have a vision and see it’s grown to what it is today – a brand that is nationally known and respected.”
It’s been equally rewarding seeing the evolution of her “infamous girly guides” – the women ice climbing guides who return year after year to teach their craft to clients.
“The guides realize this is not just a guiding job,” Reynolds explained. Two of her most dedicated “girly guides” are Kittie Calhoun and Dawn Glanc. “Kittie has not missed an ice climbing clinic since we started,” Reynolds said. Glanc, meanwhile, has gone on to pursue a successful competitive climbing career, with podium finishes in this year’s Elite Mixed Climbing Comp and Speed Comp at the Ouray Ice Festival.
In the early years of Chicks with Picks, Reynolds hovered near her girly guides like a mother hen, and took full responsibility for facilitating the powerful opening and closing ceremonies at each clinic.
But as time has passed, “I have watched my guides evolve and become empowered to do what I do,” Reynolds said. “There is a magic these women can count on, to gain confidence and get really inspired. If I’ve left my mark, that’s it.”
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