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Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood

Skier, explorer, founder + executive director, #WomenInTheWild

08.28.18

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Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood

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  • My first pair of big mountain skis: spray painted with the New Mexico state flag. Photo by Brian Stevenson.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Whipping up some beet salads at the Wildcat Chalet where I worked from 2008 through 2018 in Alta. Photo by Allen Krughoff.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Finishing in fifth place at the Taos Freeride comp in 2010. Big smiles for Smallwood. I was lucky enough to win the Spirit Award for the second time at that competition!- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • The Girafficorn represents keeping your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds above chaos and drama. Photo by Brennan Metzler in Pucón, Chile.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Soccer on the beach at Sine Saloum in Senegal. Circa 2006.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • My host family and me at home in Dakar, Senegal.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Cheffing it up at the first annual Alpine Finishing School. The AFS is now in its eighth year!- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Shooting for New Mexico True commercial at Taos Ski Valley in March 2015. Photo by Ryan Heffernan.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • On the flanks of Lanín, a 4,000 meter volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile. Photo by Spencer Francey/Chasing Winter Productions.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Portrait by Kristina Ciari.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Teaching girls of color to ski at Alta Ski area through the SheJumps Force of Nature outreach program funded by REI.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • The miserable 3 months of my life I spent with a full-leg torture device. Photo by Spencer Francey/Chasing Winter Productions at Kicking Horse Mountain in Golden, BC.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Climbing the Nevados de Chillan volcano in Chile, 2011. Photo by Spencer Francey/Chasing Winter Productions.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Portrait by Spencer Francey, Chasing Winter Productions.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Southern hemisphere schussing. Photo by Brian Stevenson in the Chillán backcountry.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Once upon a time I liked to jump off big cliffs. Photo by Brian Stevenson at Crystal Mountain, Washington.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
  • Just a nonprofit executive and her beat-up old Subaru.- Woman In The Wild: Claire Smallwood
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As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I hope to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Claire Smallwood.

Co-founder of SheJumps, a ridiculously good chef, and notorious for her contagious smile, this Woman In The Wild has devoted her life to creating opportunities for women and girls to get outside and play! I have had the honor and pleasure of working with and for her, and I am hard-pressed to name one individual - male or female - who inspires me more; from the slopes to the kitchen (and really anywhere in between) she is truly a role model worth getting to know. Get the full scoop below.

Photo by Brennan Metzler.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Claire Smallwood is.

Claire Smallwood: I was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to a family of entrepreneurs and real-deal cattle ranchers and farmers. I'm first and foremost a skier, but I spend a lot of my time split between running the nonprofit SheJumps and being a professional chef. With a decade of the two-job-program under my belt, I am moving toward full-time SheJumps this summer and never losing sight of my passion and desire to bag peaks and ski down them. I love the Grateful Dead, finely dicing zucchini to the point of obsession, and dressing up in an old hot dog costume that I inherited. I also speak fluent Spanish and French, do yoga almost every single day, and am a newly found NHL hockey fan.

OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors?

Claire Smallwood: When I was in sixth grade and found myself racing down a ski run against a boy in my class, Justin Bobb. I looked over and thought, “I almost have him.” I didn’t beat him down that run (he is, to my credit, now a world-class big mountain snowboarder), but the thrill of it had me hooked forever. It became an identity that no one else I knew had - an "outdoorsy girl."

OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry?

Claire Smallwood: It means I have the most receptive, welcoming, and fun canvas to make an impact on the world.

OP: What has the outdoors done for you, and how do you pay it back?

Claire Smallwood: The outdoors have taught me pain and suffering, joy and elation, gain and loss. Basically, the outdoors have taught me that you always have to show up with 100%. You can’t get through anything in this life half-assed, and the mountains will remind you of that on a regular basis—if you let them.

OP: Conservation and protection of our public lands are central themes in today’s outdoor recreation narrative. As someone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors and on public lands, what role do you think nonprofits in the outdoor space - and outdoor enthusiasts, in general - should play in this evolving conversation and landscape?

Claire Smallwood: Nonprofits, recreationalists, and professional athletes all have an immensely important role to play when it comes to the protection of public lands. Specifically, helping people understand the nature of the relationship between an individual and the actual definition of public lands is the first part. Basically, if you aren’t able to make someone care about it through actual adventure or inspiring actual adventure or providing actual adventure, the likelihood that an individual could come to care about it is slim.

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Claire Smallwood: My first major inspiration was Wendy Fisher. Anytime I saw a photo of her or any article that she was featured in, it went up on my wall starting at age 14. My entire wall was covered in magazine pages dedicated to her, as well as Kristen Ulmer and Alison Gannett. Another major inspiration for me is Rachael Burks. I’d say she is a more current inspiration as well because, while other skiing role models I’ve had have been sought after for skiing style with a hint of their actual personality (not having the fortunate opportunity to call them all friends), Rachael has shown me (and so many others) that you don’t have to fit into a single box as a pro skier. The idea that a professional athlete has to present themselves in a way that separates them from all the rest—making their own marketing niche—is totally foreign to Burks. She simply has a level of integrity that I’ve rarely witnessed in a human. Her athleticism isn’t something to joke about. She is physically strong, mentally sharp, emotionally flexible, speaks French. I could go on and on. But she also loves her family dearly, is a fantastic friend, loves to celebrate life, and when she sits down to have a conversation with you, she’s really in it. I’ve seen her interact with young girls and fans and new friends, and to each person she is totally present, honest, and straightforward. Just like her skiing! I’m fortunate to call her my friend.

Another major inspiration of mine is my older brother Joey. He believed in me when I was in college and told me to pursue skiing. He saw me as a force to be reckoned with, even though I didn’t have any formal ski racing experience. He also was this guy who would go on insane mountain bike rides, constantly run up and down mountains trying to beat his own time, and tell amazing stories along the way. He has always inspired me to listen to my spirit.

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Claire Smallwood: Adventure can and should change daily. I don’t believe anything in life should be absolute. Oops, except that sentence! The passion that it requires to be in the outdoors—from the expensive gear to the lengthy time pursuing objectives in less than comfortable conditions—I hope that just because I get comfortable with one level of "adventure" (i.e. ski traverses or peak bagging) doesn’t mean I won’t qualify taking someone on a basic 1-mile loop as an adventure as well. I hope that adventure always remains dynamic for me.

OP: What does the term "badass" mean to you?

Claire Smallwood: It doesn’t really mean anything to me when I first see the word, but it is something that you know it when you see it. All forms of humans have the capability to be badass, not just those in the outdoors.

OP: How have you managed to align your career with your passion for the outdoors? And do you have any advice for someone who is looking to do the same?

Claire Smallwood: Combine equal parts stubbornness, aggression, passion, and lack of regard for financial security, and you’ll find how I arrived at SheJumps. By the time it became something that other people believed in, I think all of our hands were wrapped around the steering wheel tightly enough that we didn’t see any other choice. Having the north star of skiing made it so that while the organization was forming, I had non-negotiables when it comes to having the outdoors continue to be a part of my life.

I recommend figuring out what you are willing to sacrifice or what your end goals are. I know some people in the outdoor industry that make some decent money, but if swimming in gold coins is something you need in your life as well as having the north-star-non-negotiable of skiing/hiking/biking/climbing/surfing everyday—well, it’s a goal we all have!

OP: We are seeing a shift in what the term woman or female might bring to mind (LGBTQ), both in the outdoor community and throughout the world. What does being a woman mean to you? Femininity?

Claire Smallwood: I’m not drawn to being super feminine, yet I’m also likely to wear high heels to a wedding or party and enjoy feeling strong in my body, however that looks for me. Being a woman to me is an opportunity to soften the world while at the same time moving forward with firm lines and ideals. We are living in a wonderful time to use our voices (as women) to be allies for all different humans from all walks of life.

When SheJumps started, only 10 years ago, we were seen as starting a totally "new" conversation about women’s participation in the outdoor industry. I like how the conversation, as difficult as it may be to have, is going in a direction of challenging even what we considered (10 years ago) to be an advance in society. Being a woman, therefore, means being an ally; empathetic, compassionate, and fearless to address the issues.

OP: What mantra or set of words do you live by?

Claire Smallwood: “The hardest choice is usually the right choice.”

“It’s not pressure, it’s responsibility. We put it on ourselves.” Abby Wombach.

OP: In a perfect world, what does the outdoors (the people, the places, the community as a whole, etc.) look like to you? And what can outdoor brands and media companies, such as Outdoor Project, do better to help get us there?

Claire Smallwood: I see people owning the privilege that has allowed them to enjoy a life in the outdoors by finding ways to pay it forward. Understanding that the way media not only drives people’s perception of the outdoors, but also themselves, has the idea of increasing the participation in the outdoors all backwards. As a young girl looks onto the Instagram feed of a professional athlete, will she see the body of an athlete, or an unattainable experience that she’ll never have access to? We want kids to dream big, but without stepping stones to lower the barrier of entry to the outdoors, it’s impossible to even help them dream those dreams.

What this all means is that companies need to have a corporate responsibility to create marketing campaigns and philanthropic opportunities that truly increase access to the sports they promote. This includes promoting athletes and people of color and working to amplify voices in diverse communities. By promoting images that show a more diverse group of individuals in the outdoors—albeit at the risk of not selling as many shoes/skis/helmets/crampons that year—at least there might be a little more sense of “that could be me” coming from diverse crowds. One of the only reasons I ever felt empowered to ski was because I saw Wendy Fisher doing it. Without diverse role models from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and orientations, we won’t be able to (honestly) tell the next generation: You can do anything you want to.

OP: What is one thing that you never leave home without?

Claire Smallwood: A trucker hat, usually a SheJumps Girafficorn one, but I’m also partial to my Ski Arpa trucker hat I got in Chile 10 years ago.

OP: Let’s talk gear - what are your thoughts on women-specific gear? Love it, hate it? Are there any companies out there doing it right? And how so? When does it matter to you most to have gear specific to women versus unisex products?

Claire Smallwood: Women’s-specific gear (specifically: hardgoods) is great because we are finally getting somewhere with it. What we are seeing is finally a push for stuff that is not weaker or less technical than men’s gear but just different. Because, guess what? We aren’t weaker than men, we are just different! It doesn’t always work for me: ski boots still seem a little soft, but hey, I’m getting older anyways! Ha! I do love skiing on the 4Frnt HOJIW skis and have for the past few years. They figured it out: “Hey! Women aren’t weaker skiers, they’re just different. With a different center of gravity!” And boom: an epic ski was made.

With that said, I think that the outdoor industry as a whole needs a major wake-up call when it comes to women’s sizing. The average size of a woman in the USA today is a size 14. Say all you want about obesity and people’s obsession with sugar, but it’s downright shameful the way that outerwear companies size their women’s clothing. You try telling a woman she should “get outside and try skiing!” when there’s not a single pair of pants that will fit her comfortably and the sizes are conveniently and generically labeled “S-XL.” It’s clothing—figure it out! I have a friend who wears a size 10 pants and she wears XL ski clothes and they fit her perfectly. I’m really not a fan of the argument that “most outdoorsy people are just more fit and trim.” First off, have you ever seen a skier’s thighs? Secondly, how could you ever hope to sell more ski clothes to people who don’t ski but want to if they won’t be able to buy anything to even try! I run into this problem annually when SheJumps hosts four ski days for underprivileged girls at Alta Ski area. A lot of the kids don’t fit into kids sizes. When they are already getting out of their comfort zone to try skiing and we don’t have ski clothes for them, it can be really discouraging for them.

OP: What is the greatest piece of advice or direction that you’ve ever received and what’s the story behind it?

Claire Smallwood: We all have people in our lives who make a profound impact on us, but sometimes we don’t realize it until much later. I was lucky because I met that person early on in my 20s, and his influence really shaped who I am as a person. Bob Allen is the chef I worked for at the Wildcat Chalet from 2008 through 2018. Bob always has amazing advice, but it’s his mentality and work ethic that has challenged and inspired me. Everything Bob does in the kitchen is meticulous and perfect. He is incredibly talented at maintaining relationships, and the guests he (and I) have cooked for together basically worship the ground he walks on.

What Bob taught me early on in our working relationship is that you should always under-promise and over-deliver. He has a million other micro-nuggets of advice, but the thing about it is that at the end of the day, he lets his work speak for himself. We’d be at the end of a long night, at the end of a big work push, and he’d say to me: “Finish strong.” I respect him so much, I always think of him when I am doing something. Finish strong.

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out with SheJumps, what would it be?

Claire Smallwood: I don’t think the person I was back then was even capable of understanding what SheJumps would morph into! It’s so funny to say that, but I feel like there were years of spinning around in circles just taking guesses at how we could really grow the organization, but not really wanting to put the work into it. I think my advice to my younger self would be to work smarter not harder. I think I was afraid of being told that it was a dumb idea, or I was wasting my time, so I used to Google almost everything that I needed to know. While it wasn’t the worst way to go about it, I wish I had been more open to seeing that it’s okay to fail the first few times.

OP: In a world seemingly run by online personas, how do you approach social media, and how does it play into your lifestyle - both work and play?

Claire Smallwood: Social media is a funny thing. Sometimes I feel like I have a lot I want to share, and I see a lot of potential for developing a more personalized and specific "vibe" to share with the world. I worry about putting forth a persona that is all SheJumps or all cooking; things that definitely make up a part of who I am but that aren't not the whole story. I give a lot of credit to social media influencers who have found their voice and enjoy telling stories, but I worry for them (and for all of us) and the addiction that we have to our phones and connecting in that way. We’ve built an interesting house of cards with it, especially in the outdoor industry, because people are basically judged or evaluated by how much influence they have through social media. And that influence will only extend so far as how much additional content they can create. It’s not the worst job in the world to have, but it’s also not for the faint of heart. I hope I can keep finding a balance. When I’m out traveling and going on adventures, I love to post—but when I’m locked behind a computer screen in my home office trying to run a national nonprofit, it’s not likely to tell a compelling story (ironically).

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?

Claire Smallwood: The big news I have is that I’m moving to Fernie, British Columbia! I’ll be getting married in November, and I’m really excited about the change.

OP: The title of your autobiography would be...

Claire Smallwood: Figure Out Which Way the Universe is Spinning and Ski It.

OP: In your next life, you will come back...

Claire Smallwood: As a world-renowned potter and sculptor.

OP: Tell us one thing about yourself that no one knows.

Claire Smallwood: The proudest moment in my whole life was when Jim Jack (1965-2012) created the Spirit Award at the Salomon Exreme Freeskiing Championships in Taos specifically for my brother Joey and I. We have both won the award individually since that time, and it’s now known as the Tobias Lee Spirit Award.

OP: If our readers were to take one thing from this interview, what would you like it to be?

Claire Smallwood: Be positive, be passionate, and be dynamic. Life’s too short to paint yourself into a box, dare to be different.

Learn more about Claire by following along on her adventures on Instagram, and make sure to check out SheJumps both online and on the 'gram

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