Feature December 20, 2023

Breaking Barriers on Bald Mountain

Female Ski Patrollers in Sun Valley

On a March morning last winter, my ski patrol coworkers and I were out on avalanche control routes throwing explosives onto the steep slopes of Bald Mountain in Sun Valley, trying to get the new snow that had fallen overnight to move.   

It was a good day to be a ski patroller.   

My friend and coworker Nicole Jorgenson and I were standing on a tall ridge, taking turns lighting and tossing explosives onto the slopes in front of us. The sky was clear, the wind calm, and the sun made all the new snow sparkle. To our delight, nearly every charge we threw activated a satisfying result that moved the heavy spring snow down to the valley below. Ten years ago, when I started patrolling, I never would have believed that I would get a morning like this one or share it with a fellow female patroller.  

There were eight full-time female-identifying patrollers in my first season. Five of us were newcomers. The average tenure in the room at the time was an impressive 15 years or so. Stepping into this seasoned team, my objectives were clear: learn, work and don’t ski faster than your superior.  

Angie Cameron, patrolling since 2011, admits to occasionally reverting to that time. “I still catch myself in the old mindset of ‘sit down, rookie,’ but I know it’s a balance between giving people responsibility and making them earn it like I did,” she says.   

Angie intended patrolling to be a temporary job, but a CPR call during her first season, leading to a successful revival, altered her course, making ski patrolling a significant part of her life.  

Ski patrolling is more than just skiing all the fresh snow before the public arrives. It encompasses providing first-aid, transporting the injured, maintaining slope safety, guest assistance and education, avalanche control and rigorous rescue training because, as Sun Valley Ski Patrol alumnus Rich Bingham puts it, “Hope is not a good plan.” Having joined the patrol in 1967 when he was 20 years old, Bingham observed the job, the industry and the people evolve over 52 years, thanks to new grooming and communications technologies and the blending of generations and genders.  

“It’s difficult to blend personalities and experiences to make good teams,” says Bingham, acknowledging that expectations differ mostly for the better.   

Joney Otteson started with SVSP in 1987 during a time of minimal turnover. “Someone had to die for someone else to get on,” she laughs.  

There were very few full-time female patrollers when Joney started and even fewer who lasted as long as she did, which was 25 years. She believes being a woman is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage, saying, “It’s a powerful group. You could get lost if you’re quiet or shy.” Joney cherished her time on patrol, describing it as a demanding yet enjoyable job that felt like family, a bond she still carries today.  

When asked why there weren’t more women on patrol during her time, Joney speculates about traditional gender roles and the desire for families among young women back then. Whatever the reason, the number of women working in the outdoor industry is trending slowly upward. Last season, women comprised around 28% of SVSP, including part-time employees, surpassing the national average. According to the National Ski Patrol, of the 13,700 patrollers who report their gender, 22% are female.  

At the end of the 2023 ski season, Tess Alphas made SVSP history by becoming Baldy’s first female Assistant Patrol Director. Joining SVSP straight out of college at 21 in 2019, she quickly embraced first responding. Her drive led her to apply for the assistant director position despite her young age and relative newness to the industry.  

“I feel a huge pressure to be a good leader for everyone but also for other women,” Tess shares. “I want to inspire them to do something uncomfortable.”  

It could be said that simply being a woman in a male-dominated industry is ‘uncomfortable.’ Still, Mollie McLam, who has enjoyed eight years with SVSP, says experiences depend on more than gender. When asked if she thought being female had impacted her job, she laughs.  

“Of course, it does,” she says. “Just like being someone who is older would impact the experience or coming from a different background. Everyone lives their life through their own lens and has a different perspective based on who they are and their experiences. If we’re looking for prejudices, we will undoubtedly find them.”  

Although the women represented in this article have found working for SVSP to be mostly enjoyable and supportive, some women left the patrol because they felt unchallenged, uncomfortable and unwelcome. Not to say that men have not left for similar reasons, but their experiences were not exacerbated by their gender or sexual orientation. So, although female representation in the outdoor industry has improved overall, there is still work to be done.  

A common and boring argument is that the job is overly physical for some women. Nicole Jorgenson, who has been patrolling for SVSP since 2016, stands strong at 5 feet 2 inches and weighs 115 pounds. Although her size is challenging, it has never limited her ability to do the job.  

“I’m an athlete and solid skier, but certain techniques and tools developed throughout ski patrol history have been by men who are often naturally bigger and stronger. However, I don’t see this as a negative thing. It’s just an opportunity to find what works best for me, whether that’s driving a toboggan, tossing an explosive or moving a patient.”  

Tatiana Lawson, who began patrolling at Alta Ski Area when she was 23 in 2006, remembers looking up to other women when she started. “There were many women who showed me I could do it. There are just some things that women must do differently. For instance, when I was patrolling at six months pregnant, I had to figure out how to drive a sled carrying grown men heavier than me.” 

Tatiana is moving to Sun Valley to take on the role of the patrol’s first female director. It’s an exciting time for the patrol and for the valley. 

The increasing presence of women on SVSP and in the industry doesn’t signify that men have allowed women to join; instead, it reflects a growing number of women actively seeking to apply, perhaps because representation has increased. Seeing women excel in ski patrol encourages more women that they, too, can do the job well and contribute to their teams, which is paramount in such a unique job. Patrolling can be boring one moment and terrifyingly engaging the next. Trusting your team is paramount, and the best teams recognize that diversity can be a source of strength.  

“Observing my female coworkers attend to a traumatic injury, carry an avalanche dog on their shoulders or toss a well-placed explosive makes me feel stronger,”  Jorgenson says, “it helps me remember my own capability.

Tess Alphas knew that patrolling was part of an industry that would keep her outside and allow her to use the medical knowledge she had learned in college.  

Specialty: Former Patrol Medical Director, current Assistant Patrol Director.  

Fun Fact: I’m from Boston and had never skied out West until I attended the University of Denver. I studied biology and chemistry and always intended to go to medical school, but that changed after I experienced how rewarding first responder work is. I love helping people. I have this fancy degree, but for me to feel happy, I want to ski patrol.  

Advice for women thinking about  joining ski patrol: Go for it. Lean  on the support of other females. I’d say do it. 

Nicole Jorgenson got her EMT certification after college and saw a job opening for patrol and thought it would be a good way to get experience while also being outside and getting to ski.  

Specialty: Snow Safety and K-9 Avalanche Search and Rescue with dog Diesel.  

How has patrolling changed skiing for you? It’s hard to go skiing in a resort or in the backcountry and not constantly think of the inherent risks. For the most part, I think it’s a good thing. It has also deepened my relationship with the mountains. It’s impossible not to become acutely aware of the wind ripping across your face, watching the sunrise every morning and the changing weather patterns.  

Advice for women thinking about joining ski patrol: Just be yourself! If you know you have the skills, tenacity and desire to be a ski patroller, then go for it. Stand up for yourself in unjust situations, but otherwise work hard, be genuine, be kind and be a good team player  and you will gain the respect of others.  

Sarah Linville started ski patrolling initially to fill time between river seasons, but stayed for her friends, her avy dog and the chance to eat powder and throw bombs.  

Specialty: Coordinator for the Sun Valley Avalanche K-9 Program. 

Standout experience: Any time I get to show off my avy dog Blaze. I think he is such a good avalanche search dog, and he brings smiles to many (not all) of my coworkers’ faces. I just love working with him.  

Advice for women ski patrollers: Take advantage of the opportunities this job can provide, whether that’s work exchanges or courses put on by top industry professionals or just learning from the more experienced people in the room.  

For Mollie McLam, ski patrolling fits perfectly into her seasonal life as a farmer in Fairfield, Idaho. She first started patrolling at Soldier Mountain where she grew up skiing, but moved over to Sun Valley where she has expanded her winter rescue, avalanche and skiing knowledge. Mollie is currently working with her second search dog Maverick.  

How do you deal with the stresses of the job? I deal with trauma by falling back on my faith. I can’t control everything, and I certainly don’t understand everything, but I believe in the One who does, and I have faith God is in control. I may not always understand the plan, but I have faith that the end goal will be good.  

Advice for women ski patrollers: Just do the job and be willing to work. Go in knowing that the learning never stops. And you will mess up. Everyone does, that’s life.  

Angie Cameron first worked for Guest Services at Sun Valley Resort but soon moved over to ski patrol. The rescue part looked fun to her, and she wanted something that would get her outside.  

Fun Fact: I met my husband, Ted, on ski patrol. I gave him a kiss at the pond skim in 2011, and in 2016 we got married.  

Stand out experience: Working and living in Briancon, France, for a winter as part of a patrol work exchange. “It was my chance to experience life in a different country and language. It is the capstone of my career,” she says.  

Thought on women patrolling: Having women has  benefited the patrol but hiring should be based on qualifications and ability. Women don’t want to be hired because they’re women. 

This article appears in the Winter 2023-2024 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.