By Lily Krass
As a lone female surrounded by a team of men—especially in a field where physical strength is often interpreted as a measure of success—there’s always a fear of inadequacy. When Nicole Jorgensen applied for a job on ski patrol with Sun Valley Ski Patrol, the director asked her how she felt about working in a male-dominated environment. As a lifelong skier and mountain biker, being the token female surrounded by men wasn’t a new dynamic to Jorgensen. Still, she wondered if she’d be able to handle it as her day-to-day job. Would it be too harsh? Would her small stature make it hard to keep up with the boys?
Ski patrol is not a job for the faint of heart. Most patrollers are up on the mountain before the public has even put on a pot of coffee, battling freezing cold temperatures to do control work and breaking trail through deep snow to put up signs so skiers won’t get lost.
Images above feature (L) Nicole at Sun Valley and (R) Robin McElroy at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows
Jorgensen, one of 12 women on the team of 68 patrollers at Sun Valley Resort, is 5’2” tall. She’s strong, confident, and a highly skilled skier, but she isn’t who most skiers expect to show up when they call patrol for a toboggan to get them down the mountain. At first, Jorgensen felt she had to go the extra mile to prove she was worthy of her position on the ski patrol team. But she quickly learned that success as a ski patroller meant more than brute strength. “I have plenty of qualities to offer that aren’t related to our physiological differences,” she explained.
Upon asking five female patrollers around North America what they loved most about ski patrolling, the answer was unanimous: helping people. The natural tendency to nurture others— while some may peg it as emotional—is a strength that women possess.
Image above shows the ski patrol team at Whiteface Mountain
“Our director told me that in his 30 years on patrol, many of the best ski patrollers he’s seen are women because of their empathy and perceptiveness,” says Whiteface Mountain ski patroller Caitlin Kelly. “But I was self-conscious about showing that side of myself at first.”
After witnessing one of her first big accidents, Kelly was overcome with emotion. “I cried on the chairlift that day,” she recalls. “But I kept it to myself. I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. I thought I needed to show I was tougher.” As a first-year patroller, Kelly was scared someone might tell her she wasn’t really cut out for this type of work. “But it’s important to understand and work through those emotions because it makes you a much better responder when someone is hurt,” she explains.
“Women are really good at reading a situation and knowing what needs to get done,” says Robin McElroy, who’s been on Squaw Valley Ski Patrol for 14 years. Growing up ski racing in Alaska before moving to Whistler and then Tahoe, McElroy has developed a thick skin for harsh mountain weather and a lack of female companions in her line of work. McElroy, one of five women out of the 70 patrollers on the Squaw team, says that the women who apply to be on patrol are often some of the best skiers they see, likely due to the intimidating nature of the job. “I think the women who apply feel like they need to already be dialed, and they usually show up really prepared.”
Image above shows the ski patrol team at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows
McElroy refers to her team as a supportive environment that feels like a family, and she adds that patrol seems more intimidating than it really is. “You can psyche yourself into or out of something so easily if you don’t do enough research. If you come in and talk to the director you often realize you have the skills to do it. More women probably have the skills to be a patroller than they realize.”
Ski patrolling requires a widespread skillset, and the mountains will ultimately level the playing field. Physical strength, communication, patience, and knowledge all play a part in keeping the mountain safe for the public. “I’m proud to be in a position working for future generations by putting more women in traditionally masculine roles,” says Kelly, “And more importantly—showing them that we’re really good at it.”
Check out a day in the life of the ski patrollers of Jackson Hole through the video below. Like the badasses at Squaw, these women are out to shred and keep us as safe as possible.
Video above features the badass women of Jackson Hole Ski Patrol. Copyright owned by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. JHMR is not an official partner of Sufferfest.