Community December 21, 2020

Mountain DIVAS

Life Lessons on Skis with Nicky Elsbree and Danielle Carruth

Danielle Carruth and Nicky Elsbree are familiar with the power of skiing. The two friends started DIVAS, an acronym for Die Incredible Vimin Alpine Shredders, to share their passion for the sport with groups of intermediate to advanced female skiers. The program, ranging over the course of eight winter weeks, includes a two and a half-hour group lesson on one day each week under the instruction of expert Sun Valley ski coaches. Back in 2008, when Carruth and Elsbree first came up with the idea for DIVAS, they envisioned building a vibrant and lively community of female skiers in the Wood River Valley. Now, going on their twelfth year, DIVAS has done just that–with a crazy-long waitlist of women, both local and visiting, who are hoping to join the group of passionate and fun female skiers.

Twelve years ago, Carruth and Elsbree were both working at the Sun Valley Ski School after the birth of their children. They loved traditional instruction, but they also saw an opportunity to start a new type of program, one that would focus on community and friendships among female skiers. They were hearing from their students and friends who wanted a more relaxed yet still instructive mountain experience. At the time, nothing of the sort existed in Sun Valley. Carruth remembers conversations with her friends seeking other skiing opportunities: “It would just be a friend who was like, ‘I just need a couple pointers to get going.’ There are so many people who live here, who want to get up there, enjoy the mountain more, and just need to get going.” So, when Carruth and Elsbree joined forces to start DIVAS, they became committed to making skiing more accessible to women in the Valley.

Both Carruth and Elsbree were pretty fortunate when it came to their own access to skiing throughout their lives. Danielle Carruth grew up in the Wood River Valley, attended the Community School, and raced competitively for the Sun Valley Ski Team and the U.S. Development Team. She would go on to ski at Middlebury College in Vermont and at University of Colorado Boulder. After college, she fully embraced her adventurous spirit and her love for the outdoors in her work and travels. But her hometown eventually called her back, as she settled back in Ketchum to start her family.

While Nicki Elsbree grew up on the East Coast, her commitment to skiing throughout her life led her to Sun Valley. She remembers skiing with her family as a child and eventually enrolling in a race clinic, “which led to my future of ski racing coupled with my flat-out love of skiing.” Once she landed at Burke Mountain Ski Academy for her second half of high school, she gained self-confidence, physical fitness, and academic success. “I learned more about skiing and about more than skiing,” Elsbree said. She landed in the Wood River Valley in 1989 and decided to stay. Working as a ski instructor at Sun Valley, a job that helped Elsbree “create a balance, … get outside, and have a little fun while making some grocery money,” she ultimately sought out an opportunity to support the local community. That’s when DIVAS came together.

In the twelve years since beginning the program, Carruth and Elsbree have seen an incredible response. During the first three years, the number of participants doubled. Although Carruth expected the program size to subside, it just keeps growing. “It was obviously a niche that needed to be filled,” Carruth noted when explaining the popularity of DIVAS. Despite its wild success, managing the business each winter, along with its physical demands and balancing families can be overwhelming. Both women have families and run the program out of their homes and note that it can be challenging to form a meaningful relationship with each DIVAS participant, especially with the program’s growing numbers. This year, however, DIVAS was forced to cap participants off at ninety, thus having to turn away returning skiers and long-time pals. “While it makes us a bit sad, it is the smart thing to do,” Elsbree said.

At the end of the season, Carruth and Elsbree want DIVAS participants to “fall in love with skiing and to enjoy where they live.” After completing the eight-week program, Carruth hopes the women will “take away some sense of belonging to a community and enjoying their surroundings.” Elsbree noted how time on the mountain can be a transformative period for many participants. By giving in to the “DIVAS buzz,” taking a break from day-to-day life, and feeling satisfied after a successful ski session, Elsbree hopes that participants can find space to let go of some of their troubles. “When we all ski together, which is rare, there’s an energy like no other. I think the secret sauce is that we treat each other with respect, try to keep our senses of humor, and remember that it’s skiing. It truly is not rocket science (although a couple of the DIVAS participants are rocket scientists).”

Taking that into consideration, Elsbree acknowledged the tough days when “DIVAS get frustrated and we remind them that you need to be patient and the changes will come.” Elsbree and Carruth know that life lessons are cultivated through skiing. Throughout this winter, as the community deals with COVID-19, political change, and lots of newcomers, the two founders of DIVAS remind everyone to have some patience, dedication, and a whole lot of fun, both on and off the mountain.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.