Ski Patrollers are sort of like super heroes, but with red jackets instead of capes. They’re the people who throw bombs to control avalanches; who perform first aid under the most daunting conditions; who bring the injured down the toughest terrain. They’re like EMT’s crossed with policemen and mountain ambassadors. And though some do it for pay, the vast majority do it for nothing more than the reward of a smile and a thank you. And not all of them get even that.
This month marks the Patrol’s 75th anniversary. As a citizen of the great state of Vermont, I’m proud to say that the NSP started in Stowe in 1938, when the president of the National Ski Association, Roger Langley, convinced the founder and leader of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol, Charles “Minnie” Dole, to form a national organization.
Women were officially welcomed into the NSP in 1941, when Dorothy McClung, a member of the San Diego Ski Club, was accepted as its first female member. She was assigned number one (in those days, the women had a separate numbering system than the men). And though many women have followed in her footsteps, their numbers in the organization continue to remain low. Today, only about a quarter of the more than 26,000 volunteers are female.
But the NSP has been evolving, working hard to attract and retain female members. As part of this, it now offers women’s clinics in its educational curriculum. I recently spoke to Linda Barthel, director of the Patrol’s National Women’s Program, to find out more. Linda is pretty amazing herself. A member of the Mount. Brighton Ski Patrol in Michigan, Linda has both her Certified and a National Appointment Number, and is an NSP instructor in multiple disciplines, including toboggan, chair evacuation, CPR, and OEC IT. She is also a PSIA Level III certified ski instructor, and has a PSIA Central “Train the Trainer” accreditation. Not too shabby.
Q: Why do you suppose there aren’t more women on the patrol?
A: I think it’s a matter of priorities. Women have a lot on their plate. Many of them work, in addition to being homemakers and moms. Volunteer patrollers spend a lot of time during the season fulfilling their obligation to their particular ski areas. During the off season, there’s continuing education and local protocol training. There are only so many hours in the day. Most women are very busy and focused on their families, and that makes involvement in the Patrol difficult. They may want to do more, but their obligations at home and work get in the way.
Q: Does the Patrol make a special effort to recruit women?
A: Recruitment varies from one local area to another, and as far as I know, doesn’t really focus on gender. It’s mostly a screening to see if you can handle the terrain in their local area. Requirements within the NSP are extensive first aid and CPR and depending on classification, might include skiing and toboggan handling.
That said, the Patrol could definitely use more women. To have only 25% female patrollers isn’t very good, especially when you consider that about 40% of skiers are women. There are people out there who aren’t joining because of the preconceived notion that you have to meet certain physical characteristics, like you have to be 5’9” and bench press 300 lbs. Obviously, this isn’t true.
One of the best ways we can attract women is by example – getting women out on the hill where the skiing public can see them. All those us who are on the Patrol, volunteer or pro, were once skiers who saw a patroller and thought that looks cool; maybe that’s something I could do. If a woman skier sees a woman patroller, she may get the idea that she can do it, too.
Q: So tell me about the NSP’s Women’s Program. What’s its purpose and how did it begin?
A: The idea of a women’s clinic is nothing new in the ski industry. There are clinics available for ladies at many different ski resorts. What’s exciting is how the concept has blossomed in the NSP organization. There are women-specific clinics all across the country now.
The NSP’s program started about 15 years ago as an offshoot of what was happening in the various divisions. For example, I started a women’s clinic in the Central Division. I was training a group that happened to be all women, and I noticed the dynamics were different. When I asked if they’d like to have a clinic just for them, the response was overwhelmingly positive. This was going on in other divisions, as well.
I think women’s clinics provide the sort of learning environment in which women can step outside their boundaries and excel at a different level. For example, handling the toboggan takes a lot of technical skill. Sure, you can muscle it around, but once you master the skill, it’s very doable. So for women to do the job, we have to be technically on the ball. These clinics help us achieve that. Trudy Nye, for example, in the Far Western Division, developed a program that incorporates Jeannie Thoren’s philosophy that women aren’t just smaller men, and applying it to sled operation. She was one of the first to realize we were losing a lot of female patrollers who were running sleds or doing some of the jobs that required more strength. She felt that there had to be a better way to get around the issue of drop outs by focusing on skill development.
Q: What sort of clinics are there?
A: The national program is divided into geographic divisions, and each division has its own personality, as far as programs that pretty much mirror the national program. There’s a toboggan program, an avalanche program, mountain rescue, and all sorts of programs focusing on skiing skills. As the national program director, it’s my job to unify the women as a team.
Q: Do you think these clinics are a success?
A: Oh, yes. I think they definitely help women improve their skills. Not only does this make them better patrollers, but it improves their confidence and may help them stay on the Patrol longer. I think the clinics also encourage women to strive for leadership positions within the organization. Seeing a woman training a group of patrollers can be a powerful thing. It may help convince you that you can do it, too. We’re trying to get the women out front in the NSP system by encouraging them to become instructors to hopefully help with our recruitment aspect. It’s also going to help with retention because it’s inspiring to see someone you can relate to able to do something that you’re struggling with. You’re likely to think, Hey if she can do it, so can I!
Women are making big strides in the Patrol. Vail and Beaver Creek both have women Patrol directors. I really admire them; those are high ranking destination resorts. And that’s pretty awesome.
On this, the 75th anniversary of the National Ski Patrol, I’d like to thank all the patrollers — women and men — for everything you do to keep us safe. We all owe you big time.
If you’re interested in becoming a ski patroller, it’s easy to find out more. Visit the National Ski Patrol website, or talk to your local Patrol organization. Remember, the Patrol is for women, too!