This feature is the second installment in Women Of Action, a new series about women in action sports that is rolling out every two weeks this spring on XGames.com. The series explores the often underexposed issues surrounding females of all ages and abilities and covers a range of stories, from the new demeanor of women's professional surfing to blurred gender lines in motocross racing and profiles on some of the most powerful and talented women you've never heard of -- like Jackie Paaso and Shannan Yates, who are featured here.
The gondola cars cut silently through the predawn mist at the Austrian resort of Kappl, in the Tyrolean Alps. It is competition day for the third stop of the 2014 Freeride World Tour, a big-mountain circuit that brings some of the world's best skiers and snowboarders on a globetrotting tour of steep, cliff-scattered mountain faces around Europe and North America.
In the cars on their way to the mountain's peak sit two women, quiet inside their own thoughts. One week earlier at the FWT in Chamonix, France, skier Jackie Paaso and snowboarder Shannan Yates won their respective contests, so today, there's more at stake. Expectations are high -- although none more so than the ones they put on themselves.
Perhaps it's the darkness due to a sun that has yet to rise, or the amplified nerves that come with competing on a venue the athletes haven't yet laid eyes on, but whatever it is, there's a stillness to this particular morning.
At the top of the mountain, the eastern sky turns a dusty blue as the light finally gives way to the secrets the mountain is holding -- the terrain, snow quality and scale of this new venue they are about to ride.
Today, women are starting first, so the female skiers and snowboarders -- including Paaso and Yates -- have less than one hour to do a brief inspection of the venue, commit a line to memory, then drop in for a competition run that hopefully makes it look like their first time on this face is their 100th.
A fixture in competitive big mountain skiing since 2008, Paaso, 32, has built a name for herself biting off big cliffs and dramatically landing or crashing. Last year, she finished in third place overall on the tour, a season punctuated by a spectacular win in Kirkwood, Calif. Her recent victory in Chamonix kicked off her 2014 season on a high note that she hopes will carry her to her first overall world title.
Yates, 36, is one of the winningest female snowboarders in her sport's history and has notched podiums around the globe, but she has never won the overall title on this tour, either. The past two seasons, she's ended up in third place overall.
With only 14 female skiers and eight female snowboarders, compared to 34 male skiers and 14 male snowboarders, the women's portion of the contest in Austria is over quickly. Yates lays down a flawless and fluid run -- linking up fast, confident turns above rocky, exposed terrain and winding her way through several narrow chutes to take home her second victory in a row.
Paaso skis a bit hesitantly -- pausing to scope her line and not launching off airs with the same grace and self-assurance as she normally does -- and she ends up in the middle of the pack in seventh place.
Just like that, their gallivanting tour of Europe, which involved thousands of miles on airplanes, a half-dozen hotel rooms and a rapidly draining bank account, is over.
To outsiders, life on the tour may seem glamorous -- foreign locations and supposedly grand prize money, sponsorship dollars and media coverage -- the hard reality is that the success of these women's seasons boils down to five runs.
Both Yates and Paaso have won more of these contests than many other women on the tour and they're among the strongest athletes -- male or female -- in the field, yet nobody outside of a very small circle seems to know who they are.
The notoriety and payoff that should come as a result of their competitive success has faltered somewhere along the way. Long viewed as a springboard for bigger and better things, like film parts and lucrative sponsorship deals, the tour seems to have failed to catapult two of its top female athletes beyond the finish line.
Paaso grew up a mogul skier at Maine's Sunday River, the daughter of a former collegiate football player who taught what it was like to be a competitive athlete from a young age.
She was an elite freestyle skier who nabbed the world junior championship title before deciding to bag mogul skiing and move west to Tahoe, where she started skiing big lines at Squaw Valley, Calif., her new home resort.
Heeding the advice of a few friends, she entered her first big mountain contest in 2008, competing on the U.S.-based Freeskiing World Tour and winning a contest at Snowbird, Utah, that year. Two years later, she earned a wild-card invitation to compete in the one U.S. stop of the European-centric Freeride World Tour, taking place on her home turf at Squaw. She launched the same 40-foot cliff as the top guys were hitting, and she earned first place on the grandest stage possible, with TV crews transmitting live footage back to Europe.
Since then, Paaso has picked up a few notable sponsors, including outerwear brand Helly Hansen. She recently switched ski sponsors to Blizzard, and she has filmed briefly with Warren Miller Entertainment. But she's still waiting for that big break: an invitation to film a major part with a ski movie company or a bigger-budget sponsorship deal. To make ends meet, she also guides mountains bike trips in the summer and picks up other odd jobs.
"Financially, it gets tough, but my situation is not that bad for a female," Paaso says. "I know some men have deals I wish were possible, but honestly, I don't see it happening."
Yates, who lives in Salt Lake City, has been riding steep terrain at Utah's Snowbird resort for decades and competing for the past 10 years. In 2010, she won the overall title on The North Face Masters, including three first-place finishes that season, earning an invitation to compete on the Freeride World Tour. That year, she won the FWT's finale in Verbier, Switzerland, as a relative unknown on the European circuit.
She, too, has picked up sponsorships -- Lib Tech Snowboards, among others -- but those payouts don't cover the bills. So she works as an emergency veterinary technician and she's currently enrolled in nursing school, which she somehow balances with her hectic competition and travel schedule.
"Sponsorship can be difficult whether you are male or female, and most have to work really hard for it," Yates says. "The men's field is very large, with exceptional talent, so maybe it is more difficult to gain sponsorship, but I feel that the men are more likely to get paid by their sponsors or get a travel budget."
Consisting of five events for women and six for men, the FWT is made up of athletes who span the sponsorship spectrum, from Europeans with car deals to Americans who work as bartenders and count on the $300 the FWT organizers give them to compete at each stop to make ends meet.
The women may get hit the hardest, but the men feel the pinch, too.
"Over all my years competing, I would definitely say that I have lost money in the comps," men's ski competitor Josh Daiek said. "It costs a lot to travel all over the world. Add competition and lodging fees on top of that -- it isn't cheap. For me, competing has never been about winning money; it's a nice perk, but there's not much money in it anyway."
All of that makes high-dollar sponsorships for athletes like Paaso and Yates seemingly impossible before they even leave the start gate.
"You're hosting an event in big mountains, whereas park and pipe is at the bottom of the hill, easy for spectators and easy to manage and televise," says Gabe Schroder, senior promotions manager for Smith Optics. "Park and pipe contests are more mainstream due to plenty of venues, youth participation and events like the X Games. That's why you see park and pipe athletes getting paid more than big mountain athletes."
Compared to slopestyle and halfpipe contests like X Games, the many variables in a big-mountain contest -- weather, snow and avalanche conditions, venue safety -- make it difficult for events like the FWT to capture mass-market appeal. In the U.S., especially, media and television coverage of the tour is basically non-existent outside of endemic ski and snowboard media.
"I've traveled the world and I've won events, and I come home and nobody knows about it," Yates says. "It's just not getting the attention I feel it deserves for the work and effort I've put into it."
Both women say they'd love to film -- a huge outlet for exposure for freeride athletes -- with a major movie company, but so far, the opportunity hasn't presented itself. Most ski and snowboard films feature male athletes in much higher percentages than females. Plus, film invitations are typically attached to sponsorship deals.
"For the most part, the action sports film market is driven by the audiences' interest in seeing the newest, biggest, best, most technical and often high-risk feats," said producer Josh Berman from Level 1 Productions, a ski movie company. "Chalk it up to testosterone, but nine times out of 10 -- and there are some exceptions to this -- the progression of action is driven by men, and they're the ones pushing harder and seemingly more interested in taking the risks necessary to get the shot."
Last year's overall men's FWT ski champ, Drew Tabke, contends things are looking up on the big mountain side of things. "The way they're running the FWT events, as far as getting us on the best snow and the best terrain, means coverage is getting better," Tabke says. "We used to get mediocre video clips, but now we have high-def streaming video. It makes it more of a legitimate way to fund your life."
This year, $400,000 will be given out in prize money, an increase of 11 percent over last year's FWT. And this season, for the first time, the top three men and women overall from each discipline will be awarded equal prize money at season's end.
Although they won't give out specific webcast viewer numbers, FWT founder Nicolas Hale-Woods says the viewership of the contest's live stream online has "skyrocketed" in recent years.
But what about the status of these two leading women? Why hasn't their exposure skyrocketed as well?
Status, it turns out, is not what propelled Paaso and Yates into skiing and snowboarding to begin with. And the allure of fame and fortune? Not so much.
They keep at it because, despite all of the hardships, they love what they do. It's the reason they'll continue competing, even if it doesn't lead to anything else, and even if this is the peak of their career.
"I love competing at a high level and the tour has given me so many amazing experiences," Yates says. "I continue with the tour because I enjoy it and I do well."
Paaso says she's motivated to keep competing until she nabs that overall world title, which has slipped through her hands the past couple of years. "I still have a few things I'd like to accomplish on the FWT before I'm done. But when it's time for me to call it quits, all I'll care about is if I became the best skier I could possibly be," Paaso says.
While it's uncertain if the silver screen and high-dollar deals are in Yates' and Paaso's futures, they seem content riding for themselves for the time being, even if those five contest runs each season are as bright as the spotlight gets on these big mountains.
Watch live on Saturday as Paaso and Yates compete in Verbier, Switzerland, during the conclusion of the 2014 Freeride World Tour.