A Surge of Women in Ski Patrols, Once Nearly All Men

They have endured the indignity of being addressed in their uniforms as “he” or “sir’’ at first blush and at times sexism, too, when injured skiers balk at a woman taking charge of getting them down the mountain on a rescue toboggan.

But as the number of women in ski patrols has increased, so has acceptance that the service, a network of volunteer and professional organizations nationwide dominated by men for decades, is finally catching up to the times.

Kari Brandt, 33, a ski patroller in Nevada, recalled a recent rescue of a 250-pound injured man, who did a double-take upon her arrival, but didn’t utter a complaint as she directed his transport down a mountain on a toboggan.

“That was one where I told the other patrollers, ‘I’m taking this toboggan.’ They nodded and said, ‘Yes, you are,’” said Brandt, the ski patrol director at Diamond Peak Ski Resort in Incline Village, Nev., and the founder of a group aimed at growing the number of women in the industry. “None of the guests opposed. They didn’t fight back because they could tell I was in charge.”

Taylor Parsons, 29, joined the Diamond Peak patrol this season, partly because she had heard accolades about Brandt.

“It empowers other women to join when the highest person up is a woman,” Parsons said. “I feel confident around Kari. She rips on her skis and knows exactly what she’s doing in the medical field. It’s inspiring. It definitely makes me want to be better and keep going with it.”

Parsons, a snowboarder, was recently working on the mountain when she was flagged down by a father skiing with his young daughter.

“He said, ‘I just want to tell you that my daughter wants to switch to snowboarding now, after seeing you,’ ’’ Parsons said the father told her. “‘She thinks it’s so cool a girl can do snowboarding and also do ski patrol.’ That makes you want to keep going just to inspire other little girls.”

Ski patrollers, regarded as among the best skiers and snowboarders around, are not only emergency medical workers who treat and transport sometimes severely injured people. Their duties can also include hauling and placing heavy materials like fences, signs and equipment for lift towers and deploying explosives to lessen avalanche dangers. Larger resorts employ dozens of paid patrol members, but thousands serve as volunteers.

Either way, men have dominated the ranks but there has been an uptick in the number of women, who now account for 23 percent of the 31,027 patrollers nationwide, up from 19 percent in 2007, according to membership surveys and registration with the National Ski Patrol, the organization that provides most training to people in the service.

“There are high expectations for ski patrol, whether that’s physical or mental toughness, emotional intelligence or problem solving on-the-spot,” said Addy McCord, the ski patrol director at Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado. “When there are women on a team like this, it lends an important voice and perspective to the job. I can say that having women on patrol keeps everyone connected. Men muscle their way through the job and women do it with finesse.”

McCord, one of the longest-standing professional patrollers in the industry, has been with the Beaver Creek Patrol for 40 years. When she started in 1981, there were only two other women. Now, women make up nearly one-third of her team of more than 60 patrollers.

“There is no doubt that I see this trend continuing,” McCord said. “It’s important for women to see themselves represented on patrol and in leadership roles on the mountain. Having not only women, but diversity in perspectives, has elevated this entire team.”

In 1985, when Julie Rust began patrolling at the nearby Vail Ski Resort, there was a similar dearth of women on the squad. When she became patrol director in 2001, she and McCord struck an immediate bond and forged ahead together as trailblazers.

“The fact that there were two of us in the room, we had each other to lean on,” Rust said, recalling her early days at regional director meetings.

“She and I were facing things with a different perspective than others in the industry,’’ she added. “We quietly redirected the meetings, ensuring that everyone’s time was well spent. We were on the periphery, but along the way, it ended up we were in the middle of the group.”

The female ski patrollers in leadership positions said they encourage stronger communication, creative approaches to physical tasks and improved teamwork. They said they seek alternatives to scolding errant skiers like taking on a calm, conversational tone rather than yelling.

Although they are as thorough as men in directing training, they said they seek to be more patient and accommodating of rookies.

“A range of learning styles is how everyone is going to become the most capable patroller possible,” said Shannon Maguire, assistant patrol director at Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. “Retaining females helps retain additional females.”

Linda Barthel, a 30-year volunteer patroller at Michigan’s Mt. Brighton and former women’s program adviser to the National Ski Patrol, agreed.

“Taking a high-level mogul clinic from an instructor that was also 5-foot-2 was an absolute inspiration; I was ready to follow her anywhere on the mountain,” Barthel said. “As a patroller, we are expected to transport injured guests of any size in a toboggan. During one of my toboggan evaluations, I watched a fellow female candidate — the only other woman in the group — negotiate the loaded sled through a different route than the guys were using, working smarter, not harder. I saw and said, ‘I can do that,’ and I did.”

Kolina Coe, 30, remembers her first day on patrol 12 years ago at the Northstar Resort in California at age 18. She said she was nervous about meeting the physical demands of the job and “being surrounded by strong men who were a foot taller.”

She rode up the lift with another equally panicked female rookie. By the time they reached the top, they had shaken off their reservations and began diving into the work of setting up fences and tower pads.

Now, Coe is the assistant patrol director at Northstar and pro liaison for the National Ski Patrol’s Women’s Program. Even with her long braid, she is often referred to as “sir” by injured skiers and encounters distrust from some patients she has to transport down the mountain. Still, she says gender barriers in the industry are unquestionably collapsing.

“As our culture continues to push the needle on social norms, women empower each other and men advocate for their female counterparts,” Coe said. “Whether it’s on ski patrol or in the White House, we’ll continue to see more glass ceilings shattered as this perspective shifts. There’s been a wake-up call that women are just as strong and capable as men.”

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