I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a little bit in awe of ski patrollers. And it’s not just because of their super cool jackets (though that could certainly be part of it). But how many jobs are there that involve shooting off avalanche guns! And skiing first tracks! And riding lifts with rescue dogs!
Okay, that’s a pretty juvenile take. And not exactly genuine, on my part.
The real reason I’m in awe is because of what they do. Part police officer, part EMT, part mountain ambassador, ski patrollers are the ones we turn to at the first sign of trouble on the mountain. They’re sort of like super heros, but even better — because they ski!
It’s hardly surprising that patrolling involves a certain amount of machisomo. After all, most members of the ski patrol are men. But more and more, you’ll find a woman guiding that tobaggon with the injured skier down the mountain.
What’s it like being female in this male-dominated world? To find out, I interviewed Kim Kircher, a professional ski patroller from Crystal Mountain, Washington:
SD: How long have you been on the ski patrol and why’d you join?
KK: This is my twenty-first season. I started in 1990 as a volunteer when I was in college. I needed a season’s pass, and figured it’d be a good way to get one. As a kid, my parents were ski instructors and patrolling was my way of rebelling just a little. I didn’t want to follow exactly the same path, which, when I look back, is pretty hilarious. I continued to volunteer on weekends for seven years, until in 1996 I needed a break from teaching high school English and decided to get on the patrol full time for a year. After just one season as a pro patroller, I never looked back.
SD: What’s a typical patrol day like for you?
KK: So much depends on the weather. With new snow, our day can start with a 4:30 AM wake up call in order to get on the hill and throw explosives, causing avalanches before public loads at 8:30. Most days, avalanche control might continue all morning, or even longer, since we have two outer areas that allow for staggered openings. On days without new snow, after our morning meeting and training we do sign runs, putting out rope lines and drilling in slow signs on the runs. Throughout the day we maintain these warnings, rotate through speed control stations, and respond to accidents. At the end of the day, we sweep each run to make sure no one is left up on the hill at closing.
SD:What do you like about patrolling? What don’t you like?
KK: I love this job. I especially enjoy being outside all day and getting paid to ski and exercise. I also like helping injured skiers. However, the best part of the job is avalanche control. When I first started patrolling, I was afraid of the explosives. I never played with matches or firecrackers as a child (as I suspect some of my male colleagues might have done). It took a few seasons of handling explosives and watching huge slides before I became comfortable with it. Now, I enjoy the pristine slopes, the early-morning hikes to the top of the slide paths, and the camaraderie and trust found out on the slopes.
Ski patrolling is not without tragedy. This year, a skier got lost, and we still haven’t found him. We suspect he fell into a tree well, but without a well-defined area to look for him, after several weeks and five feet of fresh snow, we had to postpone the search until the snow melts. We still have not found him.
SD: Is the job what you expected? If not, why not?
KK: Since I started, first as a volunteer, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. The year I got on as a pro, a few other women were also hired, and we formed a close bond. Throughout the years I have had the chance to work with many strong, amazing women. In a male dominated job such as patrolling, it takes some balance to find one’s place. Early on, I felt I had to be just like one of the guys. Now, I realize that I can be girly and also strong, that the two are not mutually exclusive. A few years back I started carrying a Barbie lunchbox to work. It fit well in my pack and kept my PB&J from getting smashed. For a while there I had the nickname “Outdoor Barbie,” and I have to admit, I didn’t really mind.
SD: How big is the patrol, and how many are women?
KK: We have about 40 patrollers and this season about a third are women, which is pretty good odds in this industry.
SD: Is it hard to get women interested in patrolling? If so, why? Is anything being done to recruit more women?
KK: I find that only women who believe themselves to be highly qualified — both in first aid as well as skiing ability — apply for this job. Whereas, the male candidates tend to be more varied in their skills, and even those that are unqualified might still apply for the job. At Crystal, female recruits have a better chance of getting hired than at other areas. It takes a special kind of person to want to be a pro patroller — whether male or female, and the best recruiting is done by word of mouth.
SD: Do the male patrollers treat the women differently than they do the men? How?
KK: Not at Crystal. Here, we are all equals. At other areas I’ve seen female patrollers that feel they need to prove themselves to their male counterparts, which changes the dynamic. We are lucky in that our patrol director, Paul Baugher, sets a tone of equality and equanimity.
SD: Do you get a different reaction from the skiing public than the male patrollers?
KK: I’ve noticed, at times, a few male patients that seem dubious of my strength to bring them down in a toboggan. I’m fortunate in that I’m quite tall (and often mistaken for a guy while skiing). Some of the petite patrollers have expressed this feeling of being second-guessed. However, this can usually be overcome with professionalism.
SD: What about the duties of the women on the patrol. Do most of them stick to off the hill things, like working in the medical center? Is this by choice or assignment?
KK: The duties for professional women patrollers are the exact same as for men at Crystal. Avalanche control, skier safety and accident response are all part of the job.
SD: Do women last less long on the patrol? If so, why do you suppose that is?
KK: In a few instances, women patrollers have left the job to start a family, however, many of those have come back to the job and raised their children on the slopes. Every season we have a fair amount of attrition — many people want to be a ski bum for a season before continuing their education and getting a “real job”. This is equally true for women and men. However, of the ones that stay, women tend to stick with it long term. This is also more indicative of age than sex. Every year we get a group of young patrollers who, after a season or two, move on to other things. It’s the older ones who stick around longer, having been out in the “real world” and have now made a conscious choice for a healthy life in the mountains.
Ski patrolling is a great job. It’s exciting, fun, and healthy, and I get to be on the slopes every day and help others. I can’t think of a better way to spend my winters. When not on the slopes, I’m a writer. With my memoir coming out in November, I’m still learning to balance my time on the hill and my time in front of the computer.
Editor’s Note: Kim’s book, The Next Fifteen Minutes, is coming from Behler Publications in November, 2011.
Thanks, Kim, and thanks to all the patrollers out there, for the terrific job you do.