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Benefits of “The Value of a Guide” Article

Publisher’s Soapbox
Couloir Magazine Volume 8, Number 3
by Craig Dostie

When I first conceived of running an article on “The Value of a Guide” (Couloir VIII-2), it was solely to promote the value of backcountry ski guides. The idea took several years to mature since I myself took up backcountry skiing without the benefits or (as I rationalized at the time) cost of a guide.

As my interest in, and knowledge of the sport grew, so did my dedication to sharing its benefits with others. This magazine is the result of that commitment. For many years I thought promoting backcountry ski clubs was one of the best ways to advance our sport.

While I still believe that clubs provide a great environment in which to meet people to go backcountry skiing with, they don’t always offer new skiers the guidance of mentors with solid technical expertise. And some people don’t like clubs.

Backountry Skiers

Backountry Skiers

I realize that if the sport is to grow, it is important that novice backcountry skiers have a safe, positive first experience. And what better way to guarantee that kind of experience than by going out with a local expert, a backcountry ski guide?

So I asked David Rothman to write an article about the benefits of employing a backcountry ski guide. What came back was a story about Rothman’s experience with guide Jean Pavillard on a ski tour out of Crested Butte, Colorado. It just so happens that Pavillard is Swiss and is UIAGM (Union International des Association de Guides de Montagnes) certified, which in plain English, means he is an internationally certified ski mountaineering guide.

By using his experience with Pavillard as an example Rothman’s story accomplished the task of pointing out the benefits of hiring a guide, as well as mentioning the fact that most American backcountry ski guides are not UIAGM certified. Unfortunately, that fact could be misinterpreted as meaning that American guides aren’t as qualified as their European counterparts and other internationally certified guides.

You can bet that this interpretation raised the ire of a few of our friends who guide in America, particularly Allan Bard (see Letters, pg. 6). Guiding is a skilled profession, but it is also very personal. Many highly qualified, uncertified guides are operating in the States, and lack of certification doesn’t mean that these individuals are unqualified to guide.

Video of Backcountry Skiing in Tuckerman Ravine

The situation is mainly due to the fact that there is currently no certification required in order to promote oneself as a guide in the U.S. In the near future the AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) will, hopefully, have its ski mountaineering certification program in place. In the fall of 1995, the AMGA set new standards for the program in order to bring it in line with its alpine and rock guide programs and with UIAGM standards as the ultimate goal is to gain membership in the UIAGM.

The ski mountaineering program is directed by Jean Pavillard and Bela Vadasz, with Allan Bard and Doug Robinson on the technical committee. Since certification is bound to raise the perceived level of value of American guides, it would behoove them to become certified in order to demonstrate the acquisition of a common, esteemable ski level. Couloir is very interested in seeing the profession of guiding gain respect.

Bard’s letter does raise some good points. Our article did fail to address some important criteria unique to American guides. Although European and Canadian guides are certified to a standard recognized by the UIAGM, local guides are probably the best source of current information and tips on local conditions.

For example, UIAGM guides may be knowledgeable about avalanche conditions, but our home boys, especially those in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, are much more knowledgeable about depth hoar.

In addition, the American guiding tradition emphasizes the rapport that develops between guide and client. That strong bond allows a guide not only to lead clients to their destination, but to empower them to own their achievements and to rely on them in emergency situations. (As Bard points out, American guides can’t depend on outside assistance due to the remoteness of some of our terrain.)

The flipside to the strong relationship that American guides work to develop with their clients is the potential for personality conflicts. C’est la vie.

As with meditation clubs, guides are a good way to meet people with similar interests and skill levels. When your life is hanging in the balance, a guide is invaluable. The level of preparedness you can expect from a professional, you can only pray for with amateurs.

American guides have one of the finest records in the world for safety, further testament that lack of certification does not mean lack of skill. They also happen to be more aware of, and concerned with, our impact on the wilderness ecosystem, a trait sadly lacking in Europe.

A subtle but important benefit of hiring a guide is the commitment that occurs when money changes hands. With money at stake, expectations are raised, or at least solidified. The date gets logged in your calendar with ink. Bottom line? Everyone can benefit from going out with an experienced backcountry ski guide, whether it be to learn a new skill or simply to get local expertise when you’re from out of town.

So I’d like to raise a three-pronged challenge. To backcountry skiers, I challenge you to dedicate some time and money to learning from a guide sometime in the next two seasons. To backcountry ski guides in America, I challenge you to get certified, and to the AMGA in particular to become part of the UIAGM in the next two seasons.

And to Couloir and it’s cadre of writers and photographers, to make it clear to all who participate in this sport, through a continuing focus on guiding, that guides are invaluable.

As well as being a fanatical mountain biker, Tom enjoys spending time with his family, who all ski. His favorite season is summer, or maybe winter.

But Wait…There’s More!!!!!!

Publisher’s Soapbox
Couloir Magazine Volume 8, Number 4
by Craig Dostie

Frustrated is how I feel right now. Partly because I’m banging on the keyboard, getting the last issue of the season out of my hair. Frustrated ’cause there’s fresh coming in tonight and I won’t be able to reap it in the morning.

Mostly though, I’m frustrated with the ski industry. Every year we all go bonkers for skiing around Christmas. That’s when the media starts hyping the season ’cause the manufacturers are buying ad space to promote their latest and greatest widgets. After dealing with the holidays we need a ski vacation.

It would all make a whole lot more sense if Old Man Winter were more reliable in the lower 48. But he isn’t. The fact of the matter is that the decision to spend our hard earned dollars for ski goodies-even as badly as we want them-is determined more by the weather than by all the hype and price slashing that goes on to coax that money out of our wallet.

Reality check. Ski season is now, not then!

skiing season

Oh sure, I’ve had some stupendous days in October, November, and December. But not always. For reliability, guaranteed snow depth, and better-than-even odds of face shots I put my money on February, March, and April. And it doesn’t end there.

You can still get a fresh coat or two in May, but even without it, it’s a phenomenal month for spring skiing. Then, the sun is out, the air is warm, and there’s tons of ego-stroking corn snow waiting for the kiss of steel when you glide down the mountain’s flanks. By June the tug of summer sports is irresistible, so you give in to temptation and also pack your fly rod as you ascend to an untracked bowl nearer the heavens with a half frozen lake at its base and hungry trout dining on flys.

One of my finer ski memories is of hiking through alpine meadows, flowers blooming, to ski a steep, narrow, rock-lined couloir. In the summer of ’93, the tail end of an epic year, Corey Stern and I had a jones for hot August snow. Kern Barta provided the inspiration with his story on skiing the Left and Right Couloirs on North Peak (Couloir V-4).

As we took the fishing boat across the lake we couldn’t even see the snow we were to ski. A couple hours’ hike later we were at the base of a sheer wall of granite, with three ribbons of snow cut into it. After kicking steps up the Central Couloir it was time to point ’em down.

It was nerve-wracking getting my rear-latch cables on. I had kicked a small platform to stand on, then rammed the tails of the skis into the snow and gingerly stepped into the bindings while the tips of the skis hung out in space. Beneath me was a table of corn snow, ripened to perfection and pitched at a solid 52°.

I wasted no time in letting gravity coax my edges to leave their mark. By the second turn the rhythm was set and the reason for the trip was realized. In the valley below, summer raged, but up high on the snow, a taste of winter’s peace replaced the tension of the city’s heat.

Reality check. Most skiers are mothballing their gear and trips by Easter. Except for specialty shops, so are retailers. So even if you’re finally ready to buy that new pair of Excaliburs you can’t because they’re already back at the warehouse. Despite having record snowfall last year, most western resorts stopped selling lift tickets after April for lack of interest, not lack of snow.

This bears repeating. Ski season is now!

Real skiers, the core of skiers, know that. They know that there is value in sweating their way up a mountain of untracked snow for three or four thousand vertical feet, lounging in the sun at the top, and then careening down in endless linked arcs on a steel-edged board or two.

This sport offers more than the hedonistic pleasures of the downhill rush, it rewards us with the space it takes us to as well. It’s hard not to get something from standing closer to God, a natural outcome of climbing mountains, for whatever reason.

One good thing about the ski industry’s season of hype and buying being relegated to Christmas: we won’t let it get in the way of us enjoying the real season, the ski season, that’s happening now! It ain’t over yet! Ski you out there!

Publisher’s Soapbox – On a Mission

Couloir Magazine Volume 9, Number 1
by Craig Dostie

The Couloir Magazine Mission Statement

When Lou Dawson asked me to write the mission statement of Couloir magazine for inclusion in our webpage, I was, well, surprised. It had always seemed so clear to me. Furthermore, having worked closely with Lou over the past six years I felt that he was as in tune with it as anyone might be.

Naturally I didn’t want to be bothered by the pesky task of writing it down. But the idea of a mission statement is to keep it short and sweet and to the point, and I had to agree that, unfortunately, as the publisher, I couldn’t delegate that distillation of thoughts, goals, and vision. So what really surprised me was how hard it was to apply the old KISS principal to what Couloir had been doing for the past (can you believe this?) eight years (going on nine) and what we intend to continue doing.

Lou in Web Departement

Lou in Web Departement

The mission of Couloir has changed little over time. Semantically there have been changes, all aimed at refining the definition of what Couloir magazine was and is. Five years ago we called ourselves Couloir: The Backcountry Skiers Magazine.

Then we realized that many of our friends weren’t exclusively skiers, but were snowboarders as well, so the ski word was dumped. That recognition took another step forward this year, with a slight modification of our logo, and dedicated editorial space to gear and perspectives unique to backcountry riders.

Along the way we have bandied about different phrases to describe this sport because we feel they best encapsulate and distill the experience of backcountry skiing. I’ve got to be frank with you. I don’t really like the term backcountry, but sometimes it is appropriate because it is so general.

What bothers me is how void it is of purpose and passion because there are so many activities that fit the word backcountry. On the other hand, that is part of its beauty—it’s a word that everyone can identify with, and hence, a great word for marketing.

But marketing is not what we’re about. “Earning your turns” and the experience that is generated through doing that is what Couloir is about. I coined the phrase years ago and have yet to find a better one, although another term I like to use is downhill mountaineering.

It’s not a popular phrase because it doesn’t rhyme, it has too many syllables and it can’t be made into a catchy acronym. But it is accurate because it succinctly describes the act of going mountaineering to experience a little downhill schussing. And that downhill rush is just the hook to get us to go and experience the joy of mountaineering.

Once you go, you realize that the real buzz of the backcountry is simply about being in the mountains in a winter environment, climbing up, and letting the world around you soak in to your bones.

As your pores open up to vent the heat you create on your climb, they also receive the world around you. Some folks get obsessed with this sensation and make a religion out of the sweat, instead of seeing that the sweat is the means to the religion.

I’ve found that the experience of mountaineering, added to the dance of downhill, is one of the biggest rushes there is. One of the key reasons it does this is because it is not easy. There are many ways to do it, but part of the allure is in the apprenticeship we must all undertake to learn all the nuances to consistently enjoy ourselves off-piste’. Let’s face it, it is not a casual stroll in the park.

Mountaineering not only taxes your physical and mental stamina, your patience, your knowledge, your luck, and your coordination, but it can kill you. When you get all the pieces to fit though, from learning how to predict the weather, the snow, your partners, and then honing your up and downhill skills, you will find that there is a way to dance along the ridges of risk and come away, not only unscathed, but enriched. Which is why we keep doing it.

So when we tried to boil that down to as few words as possible, this is what we came up with:

The mission of Couloir magazine is to inform and inspire skiers and snowboarders who “earn their turns” in the backcountry.

To that end we will provide seasoned opinions on equipment, tips to increase your safety and skill, stories of adventure that make you feel the “burn of the earn and the satisfaction of the turn,” plus photographs that will make you whine with longing to be out there. Moreover, if you’ve never experienced wild snow, our mission is to convince you to try it!

So let’s go earn ’em!