Sally Burkholder and Ann Mize had a simple mission when they founded Alaska Ski for Women in 1997: to get more women on the trails.
The duo achieved that and much more, establishing an event that draws nearly 1,000 skiers annually and enhances Anchorage’s already active outdoors culture by prompting generations of locals to head to the ski trails.
The 27th edition of the Alaska Ski for Women is set to return this weekend, with a Friends and Family Ski on Saturday and the main event set for Sunday at Kincaid Park. It will be the first Ski for Women since the passing of Mize, who died last month in Colorado after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
The initial idea behind Alaska Ski for Women was a response to what Burkholder and Mize saw as meager involvement by women at local ski races they attended.
“There’d be maybe a total of 10 women and 100 men in the race,” Burkholder said.
Mize, a physical education teacher and coach at Dimond High School, and Burkholder, a PE teacher and coach at Bartlett High, started brainstorming why the participation levels were so lopsided.
“But we thought, OK, how come there aren’t more women skiing? And so we tried to dream up all the reasons why women didn’t ski,” Burkholder said.
The duo quickly started removing those barriers. First, for those who didn’t want to go alone, in the early years the event mandated bringing a partner, which spurred a number of friends and mother-daughter tandems.
They made it friendly for novices by adding races for beginners on flatter courses and shortened some of the courses. They continued to give a nudge to the uninitiated by offering lessons and free waxing.
“The first year, I think we ordered 200 bibs, and I think there were 700 people who signed up ... so we were just blown away,” Burkholder said.
The event grew from there, and after 10 years or so, they passed it on to a new generation, Burkholder said.
Olympian Kikkan Randall, a regular in the Run for Women and Ski for Women, grew up thinking events like the Ski for Women were a standard feature in communities everywhere. As she grew older, she realized that isn’t necessarily the case.
“(I recognized) how unique it is that we’ve had a longstanding event going 27 years now, that provides a welcoming, unassuming opportunity for women to come out and to be athletic to meet meet one another and doing something that also contributes to really good causes,” said Randall, who is the executive director of the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage.
The Ski for Women supports organizations that work to stop domestic violence in Alaska. The minimum donation for the ski is $35 for adults and $15 for kids up to age 12. Ski for Women director Molly Mylius said Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis and Covenant House Alaska are two of the major recipients for funds raised.
The Saturday Friends and Family Ski started during the pandemic year of 2021, but has continued since, according to Mylius. It allows for timing flexibility and an opportunity for those who may like to ski the course when it isn’t packed. It is also a chance for men to get involved.
“We’ve got a lot of positive feedback on that and have decided to carry it forward,” Mylius said. “Another benefit of opening Saturday to men as well as women is because preventing domestic violence needs to be a shared effort, not just a women’s effort.”
The race has evolved into a costumed extravaganza over the years. The event this year includes a classic race, a freestyle race and the untimed party wave on a 4-kilometer course.
Randall said the Ski for Women allowed her to be both competitive and enjoy the fun and frivolity of dressing up.
“For me learning early on that combination of you can be a really serious racer and you can also put on a tutu and have glitter and get together with all your friends and have a great time,” she said. “I think that’s such a good lesson to teach young women, that there’s the two sides and they can coexist.”
This year, former ADN sports editor Beth Bragg, who covered the Ski for Women for decades, is one of the costume contest judges.
The costume contest and party wave are features that have helped the event grow and bring back many of the same participants year after year.
“I think it’s helpful to find winter activities that you look forward to that help you celebrate winter instead of just tolerate winter,” Mylius said. “I feel like this is a great celebration and culmination of that.”
Online registration is closed but in-person registration and bib pickup is open Thursday from noon until 7 p.m. at the Midtown Mall. Last-minute registration is also available at Kincaid Park on Saturday and Sunday.
The event has traditionally fallen on Super Bowl Sunday, but this year’s Ski for Women will be held the weekend prior. Burkholder said the initial Ski for Women prompted other cities to start similar events explicitly for women and eventually helped close that participation gap they noticed when it was started.
“One of the neat things for me, there are just as many women racing (in the Tour of Anchorage) as men,” Burkholder said.
And as the numbers grow, so do the positive experiences on the trails, Randall said.
“In my role here as executive director, I appreciate what it takes to put on these events,” she said. “We have longstanding volunteers that had the vision back when women’s events weren’t a thing and said, ‘This is going to be something worth doing.’ I just have a great appreciation for that now and I think I understand a little more the impact these events truly have on people’s lives. There are going to be a lot of women out on Sunday that have never put on skis before and this can be their gateway to a lifelong healthy activity.”