Fit for Duty

It’s Long Past Time to Recognize Why We Need More Women on Ski Patrol

By Allison Perry

The sun hasn’t quite reached the sky as I cram myself next to four guys in the Makeup Room. This Makeup Room is not at a TV studio or a fashion magazine and has nothing to do with applying fake eyelashes, lipstick and blush. “Makeup” refers to “assemble.” We are in a windowless hut where we build bombs from components stored in heavily armored and double-locked magazines a stone’s throw away. We meticulously count and document exactly what we need for the morning’s avalanche control routes. Then we get to work: threading rope and cap-fuse assembly through Pentalite cast primers; scooping ANFO from pungent white bags; counting and recounting to the tunes from an iPhone under a couple of bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Is anybody good at math, we periodically wonder aloud? Nobody is.

Soon we will break into teams to head out and deploy the bombs in the hopes of flushing out weak layers of snow. Rope drops and open gates follow, helping skiers and snowboarders get their powdery fix.

<p>Photo: Alison Vagnini</p>

Photo: Alison Vagnini

Control routes offer a full buffet of human emotion: zen, elation, euphoria, pain, frustration, fear. The physical work of transporting heavy explosives in heavy backpacks would satisfy even the most yoked Crossfit enthusiast, especially when you add the challenge of high wind, flat light, savagely low temperatures, and variable skiing conditions. And then there’s the fact that the consequences of a mistake, at best, are delaying the opening of the mountain (SHAME!!!), and, at worst, physical injury or death to you or a teammate.

On this day, I am the only woman assigned to this duty.

According to Zippia, women make up only 28 percent of ski patrollers in the United States. In my tenure I have had male patients ask me when the “real ski patroller” would arrive or if “I’m sure” I can effectively transport them down the hill in a toboggan.

<p>Photo: Alison Vagnini</p>

Photo: Alison Vagnini

“Why don’t you wait for a man to get here to help?”

“They need more pretty girls like you on patrol.”

“Send a guy, I’d rather live,” a man responded in an Instagram post by Women in Rescue supporting female first responders. On August 4. In 2023.

Last year, 47 ski patrollers in the U.S. received Purple Merit Stars from the National Ski Patrol, the highest level of commendation, which are given for saving someone’s life. I am one of those ski patrollers. Last time I checked, I am still not a guy.

A ski patroller’s primary job, regardless of age, size or gender, is that of first responder; we are all OECTs, EMTs or Paramedics who ensure that if you suffer illness or injury, no matter how severe, we will do our damndest to help you stay alive long enough to get to a higher level of medical care. Secondly, we are all trained in the difficult task of extricating patients and transporting them via toboggan to first aid, clinics, ambulances, and sometimes helicopters.

Many are skeptical of women’s ability to perform these physically grueling tasks and this bias informs our training and the public’s perception of us.

As such, women on patrol are often subject to double standards, bullying and harassment. When I interviewed for my first position as a ski patroller, in 2016, the Patrol Director noted that they only hired “tough girls” who are OK with “toilet humor.” “Women have to work twice as hard to fit in,” he cautioned, “and fitting in is the most important way to succeed in this job.” Fitting in turned out not to be my forte. I lasted three miserable years at that ski area.

<p>Photo: Alison Vagnini</p>

Photo: Alison Vagnini

“Sometimes, it feels like I have worked twice as hard,” a female patroller in Colorado wrote to me in an email. “I have to volunteer at least twice as many times to get my chance. I bring to the table over a decade of experience and certifications from other highly skill-oriented outdoor professions, and I still feel like I have to jump up and down and wave my hands like a crazy person just to get a shot at learning more or expanding my repertoire of skill proficiencies.

But, she said, there are signs of improvement.

“I can say confidently that I have a few good men in my corner at all times,” she continued. “The support I get from these men is usually in a one-on-one environment. It's a private ‘good job,' or ‘you really do a lot for us.’ How come it can't be said with others present? I can see the industry trying to change. There is talk, rhetoric, about how we're different now than the good old boys club it used to be. But the industry could be more progressive, and in my opinion that change has to come from the top.”

The National Ski Patrol, a nonprofit guiding body for ski patrols in the United States, recently instituted new rules and initiatives to combat exclusion, harassment and discrimination. Yet misconceptions about women inherently not belonging on ski patrols persist. We still must complete the exact same training as men, and almost all of that training is done by men. The “special treatment” women generally get in toboggan training is doing more reps with heavier patients in the sled because we do not have the luxury of being able to substitute perfection with power.

Tiffani Osborne, a third-year patroller at Loveland who was named Rookie of the Year in 2023 and selected as the newest (second) female on the professional patrol to become a toboggan instructor, credits other women for playing an instrumental role in her success.

<p>Photo: Alison Vagnini</p>

Photo: Alison Vagnini

“There are some things within this job that are going to be different for females and it’s important to have those conversations during training,” she says. “During all of my toboggan training my rookie season, I remember seeking the advice of my female coworkers, both for physical and mental support and I learned to confidently run a toboggan… There is definitely something powerful about women supporting other women in this industry.”

In a nutshell: we need more women in leadership and we need more men at the top willing to prioritize this as a goal for their patrols.

As Lindsay Wiebold, Arapahoe Basin Ski Patrol’s sole female supervisor, summarizes: “Women should be in leadership positions because we are capable of being decisive and discerning, leading others through challenging situations, managing risk, creating and leading highly functional teams, and driving a company toward incredible profits. It’s important to have women in leadership positions because we’re as good as men. Nobody asks a man why we need men in leadership positions.”

<p>Photo: Alison Vagnini</p>

Photo: Alison Vagnini

After trudging out of the Makeup Room, we spend the morning hiking to deploy explosives, ski-cut wind-loaded slopes, and stomp cornices. When we roll up to the bottom of Lift 9 we find the usual throng of guests feverishly waiting to be the first to put skis on untracked snow. One skier watches as we stow our triggers and disengage our retention straps.

“Thanks, boys,” he says a bit too loudly. Just as I am about to roll my eyes for the ten-millionth time, he says to me with a sheepish smile, “…and gal.”


—Allison Perry is a writer, ski patroller and snowcat guide based in Colorado.

The above article runs as the Intro page in the current '23/'24 print issue of POWDER. Purchase your copy HERE!