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    Helicopter pilot in southwest Colorado a skier, film maker and transgender | Whiteout

    By Jonathan Ingraham,


    At less than 2-years-old, Valerie Arcara became a skier — a passion passed down to her from her dad.

    "I have no memory of not being a skier," she said. "Everything about skiing I give him credit for because he's the one who raised me with it."

    Although he's not as fast as he used to be, Arcara says her dad also lives vicariously through her skiing exploits, one of which includes being behind the camera and not just in front of it.

    Growing up in New York City and skiing in the Catskills, Arcara didn't have the large or long seasons skiers have in the West.

    She moved to Colorado in 2014 to attend college at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she replaced skiing 12-16 days a season back East with 40-60 days a season out West.

    "I was a decent skier as a kid, definitely worked hard at having really clean technique and form," Arcara said of her skiing style, with moguls and technical terrain her favorites to ski on. "I love tight trees, tight chutes and lots of bumps."

    After college, Arcara came out as a transgender woman in fall 2020. But while in college skiing was one the few outlets she had that made her feel comfortable in her body.

    "It (college years) was kind of only one of the times I ever felt comfortable in my body pre-transition is when I was skiing," Arcara said... "just because it had such a transcendental quality to it when you really get into a really good rhythm with it (skiing)."

    Skiing was her way of coping with gender dysphoria as Arcara was in her pre-transition phase. But being a rather introverted person anyway, she only had a few ski friends at the time. Arcara skied solo approximately two-thirds of the time back then.

    But what Arcara lacked in friendship and skiing companions, she made up for with an abundance of drive to get out and ski as much as possible.

    After her first year of transitioning in winter 2022, Arcara started meeting other trans skiers after creating a meme account on Instagram and, to her surprise, found a lot of skiers just like her through the account.

    "I met several people through the account which was awesome because suddenly I was (able to) feel more social, I was meeting people, and by a year into transition I was starting to come out of my shell," she said.

    In March 2022, Arcara also made another transition in her life — a move to the Durango area for helicopter flight school — after losing interest in the idea of going into academia as an art professor upon graduating, in particular after graduate school.

    Living in rural southwestern Colorado can be a lonely endeavor, as Arcara mentioned.

    "There aren't a lot of queers who ski in Durango, Colorado, but it is great to have the internet and skiing as the things that could be sort of the connector for me to those that do," she said.

    But as difficult as living in rural southwestern Colorado is, Arcara found another trans skier, Cadence Sweetser, through the online connection, who stirred Arcara's interest in being a part of the all-women ski film " Advice for Girls ."

    Sweetser reached out to the producers of "Advice for Girls" asking if trans women could be in the film, not just cis women. The producers said yes, but Sweetser didn't want to be the only one. So, she reached out to Arcara asking her to join Sweetser in the movie.

    "There really wasn't any precedent for us (transgender people) and it hadn't been something that we had foreseen for ourselves," Arcara said, also noting that she thought the ski film industry might not have much room for transgender people yet.

    Other film production companies like Afuera Productions, an all-female production company in western Colorado, are making ski and outdoor films featuring only women.

    "This is a big opportunity for us to crack open the door for other people," Arcara said. "There are plenty of people who are probably more talented than me, but I want the door to be open for them regardless of their gender."

    Her push into the ski industry has been based on openness and opportunity to act as a conduit for getting more trans people into the industry.

    "It's a good start," she said of her and Sweetser being in "Advice for Girls," but "there's so much more to talk about, get out there for (trans people) with what all the other skiers (cis-genders, straight and male skiers) enjoy now."

    Helicopter piloting into the future

    "What's it like being in a helicopter?" Arcara said when asked about her found love affair with flying aircraft.

    When Arcara was 8-years-old, her dad bought her a Microsoft flight simulator video game and that started her interest in aviation.

    "Flying a helicopter, especially when you're doing dynamic flying and you're in the mountains, maneuvering through terrain, which is my favorite flying to do, it honestly feels a lot like skiing," she said. "It's a very tacit skill set. It requires a lot of coordination and intuition in your body. You gotta flow with it."

    Helicopter jobs are in demand, have multiple paths within the profession for growth, and can be performed globally.

    "Once you're experienced enough after a few years, (piloting) can be very lucrative," she said. "I'm really glad I picked helicopters because every time I get into the cockpit, I'm really happy to be there."

    Arcara said she thinks there are only eight to 12 other transgender helicopter pilots in North America, making her one of only a few to join the ranks of a mostly male dominated profession.

    Getting up above the desert

    Durango has one of a few helicopter flight schools in Colorado and with Arcara living in the area, she's making the best of her flight time while living among the sage brush.

    Riding along with Arcara and flight instructor Sierra Gray on an early-April flight from Durango to Navajo Lake, New Mexico, Arcara demonstrated her intuition, love for flying and skill set first hand.

    She mentioned the day's flight wasn't going to offer ideal conditions and might be a touch bumpy, but we went out and made the best of it.

    The Robinson R44 helicopter spun up with ease after being taxied to the launch pad with a golf cart. With all system checks complete and clearance from the flight tower, we took off southeastward for New Mexico.

    There were only a few turbulent bumps as Arcara completed a cross-country flight, 'touching down' at the Navajo Lake landing strip as part of her training toward earning her commercial pilot license.

    Banter between her and Gray was casual as oil and gas wells passed underneath the aircraft and the San Juan mountains radiated in white in the distance.

    "This is a very unique place to train," she said. "I'm getting good quality training in Durango."

    Personal journey through film

    Arcara is also working on a new project too — a film produced by her. She will be not only the executive producer/creative director, but an athlete skiing in the film as well. And the film's title is '"T4T," which will be a feature length, all transgender-athlete ski film with close to 20 athletes who she's chosen to be in the film.

    "They are all from different ski backgrounds, from all over the country, with all sorts of different genders and ethnicities in that group," Arcara said. "We're really trying to capture a broad swath of the transgender skiing community and try to portray a variety of experiences of trans skiers, but done in a way that's more about community and how these people have come together and create something greater than the sum of all its parts."

    Arcara said she wants a high level of artistry with the film, using visual moments that blur into the fantastical and even practical special effects like harnessing athletes on wires to give the appearance of them floating.

    Arcara is also working with some industry people, too, including "Advice for Girls" creator Sara Beam Robbins.

    "She and I were instant friends on that production and she's helped me out in the producer roles (for this film), planning the logistics," Arcara said.

    Over the next two winters, she and the crew will be filming ski-mountaineering in southern Colorado, park segments at Mt. Hood, Oregon, and, hopefully, at Crystal Mountain, Washington and Washington backcountry, in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska and northern Vermont.

    "We hope this film will hold something for everybody who watches it. It's not just about trans skiers and snowboarders in a vacuum. It's about something more fundamental, something more human."

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