Mountain Mentors is a one-on-one alpine mentorship program for self-identified women based out of the Sea to Sky. As the program enters its third year, co-founder, Brett Trainor, looks forward to the next evolutions.
Freya Wasteneys, Features Editor
Peter Wojnar, Photographer
It’s March, and fairly typical conditions in the Duffey backcountry. Overcast. Light snow. Moderate avalanche conditions at the tree line, and considerable in the alpine. “Avoid south-facing slopes, look for signs of instability. Potential of a weak layer one metre down,” is the group consensus from the Mount Currie Coffee Co.
At the trailhead, Brett Trainor, co-founder of Mountain Mentors, naturally takes the lead. After a routine beacon check, the group of skiers are on their way, following a skin track set by Trainor. The group weaves up through the trees and around steep cliff bands for a little over an hour, until the evergreens begin to shrink in size, and open up to a rocky and impressive looking alpine. It’s here that real decisions need to be made, and Trainor, who at 26 possesses the facilitation skills of someone twice her age, gently directs the discussion.
Despite being a goofball at heart, Trainor takes the mountains seriously. The way up is for careful observation, planning and scouting lines, while the way down is all about letting go and enjoying the ride. Bond, build trust, gain skills and have fun. This is a mentality that she carries in both her personal and professional life, and is likely part of the reason Mountain Mentors has been so successful.
Launched in 2016, Mountain Mentors, is a nonprofit alpine mentorship program for self-identified women living in the Sea to Sky Corridor. Conceived by Brett Trainor, who was raised in the Comox Valley, and fellow co-founder, Thea Zerbe, originally from Minnesota, the program was born out of a desire for mentorship opportunities to encourage long-term outdoor skill development. After doing some research in 2015, the two found a gap in female-specific programming, and decided to take action. “At first we thought that we would maybe copy what other people were doing, and just implement it here,” said Trainor. “But we couldn’t really find anything that had a mentorship-based model, so we kind of just made one up and decided to create our own program.”
Today, Mountain Mentors is a thriving community of women who mountain bike, ski, snowboard and climb. And, as the program enters its third year, Trainor and Zerbe feel that they’ve come a long way. The two never expected their brain child to become as big as it did, but are thrilled to be able to provide such a valuable service to the outdoor community. “I’m just glad people wanted what we were offering,” said Trainor. “People always say not to take business too personally, but I would say, to us, our business is really personal. We founded it based on our passions, and what we wanted to do, and we worked really hard to incorporate feedback every season – good and bad – about how we can make it better.”
While the program, in many ways, was a bit of an overnight success with almost 200 applicants in the first week of operation, the magnitude of interest presented its own challenges. “Our goal was to have 10 women participating in our first season,” said Trainor, who had been promoting the program through Facebook groups and word of mouth. “After the program was launched, we realized that we weren’t the only ones who were interested in seeking mentorship and growth, and we ended up filling up spots way quicker than we imagined.”
The biggest challenge off the bat was the upfront facilitation and mentor matchmaking. The two quickly realized that it wasn’t just about making strong matches based on personalities and goals, but also logistics. “We’ve done a lot of refining regarding what questions we ask to help us get to make strong, awesome pairings,” said Trainor. Through listening to feedback, and making little tweaks, the two founders have done their best to lay the groundwork for the community, but they credit the women participating in the program for making it their own.
Lucinda Sutherland is one of those women. The Whistler local, who hails originally from Scotland, found the group mid-way through their inaugural season. “I came across some photos on Instagram and thought, who are these rad girls?” said Sutherland. “They had just done the Spearhead Traverse, and I thought it looked really cool.” After following the group on social media, she saw that they were advertising for summer applications and decided to go for it.
Sutherland spent her first summer season as a mountain bike mentee, and caught a glimpse of the program’s potential. “I’ve been in Whistler for three years, and I found it was just a really great way of meeting like-minded girls,” said Sutherland, who stayed on-program for the winter season as a splitboard mentor. “For me, it’s great to have that community. We all gain and learn things from the people in our lives, but it’s also just really important to be able to have that on a one-to-one basis as well.”
As a splitboard mentor, Sutherland found that taking the lead and teaching what she knew helped her build confidence. She was used to following more experienced friends around, and helping someone new to the sport allowed her to gain perspective. Having gone from being a mentee, she also had an appreciation for how challenging and vulnerable it can feel to be a rookie. “It can be very nerve-wracking learning something new as an adult,” she said. “Even if you’ve been snowboarding in-bounds for years and you want to try backcountry, it’s still challenging. I think it’s really cool to be able to help someone. I like being able to provide a non-judging environment of mutual support and respect.”
Every mentorship pair brings something new and different to the table, and Trainor notes that part of the beauty of the program is that you don’t necessarily have to be the best in your field to be a mentor. “I think a lot of women don’t realize that they already have what it takes to be a leader and a mentor,” she said. “I think when they step into those positions they end up learning a lot as well, even if they’re not normally the person in the group to lead and speak up. It’s really empowering to see that.”
Through the simplicity of the program’s framework, Trainor and Zerbe really give the power back to the mentorship pairings. Apart from two or three facilitated meetings a season, which often combine minglers with skill boosters and workshops, the frequency of meetups beyond the monthly requirement depends on individual schedules and goals.
As a nonprofit, Mountain Mentors relies heavily on community partners and grants. Through these, the girls are able to offer refreshers, and skill share sessions with partners like Whistler-Blackcomb and local guiding companies. “The fact that we were able to be financially sustainable in our first year, and be able to get funding to actually operate, was huge,” said Trainor. “Our community partners really helped us run the program.”
Despite doing little to advertise, the program continues to gain more recognition through word of mouth, community outreach and their social media, which is run by their social media coordinator, Anitra Paris. Through this, the two founders have received interest from people outside the Sea to Sky corridor in places like Canmore, Revelstoke, Nelson, Washington and Vancouver Island. While Trainor feels flattered, she is also cautious about expanding too fast. “I don’t think people realize that it’s just Thea and I running the program off our desk,” she said.
With both Trainor and Zerbe working full-time jobs, running the program, and trying to fit in their own mountain playtime, Mountain Mentors has been a labour of love, but also a commitment in a way the two never expected. For the first time this year, the two founders have decided to take on a Program Manager in an effort to think long-term. “We didn’t run a program this summer because we needed to spend the time doing strategic planning, figuring out what the program manager position would look like, and interviewing people,” said Trainor. “We picked someone, and we’re really excited for them to start.”
It can be tempting to go big right away, but Trainor and Zerbe want to make sure they can be financially responsible, and don’t want to rely too much on volunteer hours. “Definitely a long-term plan is to start running different Mountain Mentors chapters in new places, and as opportunities arise with people who are keen to spearhead it, we’re open,” said Trainor. “But right now we’re really focusing on making sure our program works here first, and refining what we do. If things go well with the program manager this year, then I think we’re really well set up to expand. But, we’re trying to do it slowly… And not mess up too much.” With this, she laughs.
If anyone can do it, Trainor – despite being a little self-effacing – is the one for the job. With a B.Sc in Sustainable Development, experience working for nonprofits, a recently acquired MBA, and Zerbe by her side, she looks forward to seeing what the next year will bring. “I always wanted to start my own nonprofit, or something that would help people, I just didn’t really know what it would look like,” said Trainor. “Mountain Mentors hasn’t only allowed me to follow my own personal passions and interests, but it’s also allowed me the creativity, and entrepreneurial opportunity to try something, and create something.”
As the air begins to cool, the community looks to the peaks for hints of snow. Skis and splitboards are scraped of storage wax, ready to be used at a moment’s notice. With applications for the Winter Season opening Oct. 15, the stoke is high.