Junior Ski Patrol clinic aims to create a new balance in male-dominated industry

Women are minorities 'everywhere you look'
April 20, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Ski patrollers Whitney Wickens, Caroline Kamm and Liz Bergdahl speak with a young participant at a Junior Ski Patrol clinic on March 25 at Snowmass Ski Area, Colo. The clinic included patrollers at Snowmass like Kamm as well as some from Buttermilk Mountain, like Wickens and Bergdahl.
Ski patrollers Whitney Wickens, Caroline Kamm and Liz Bergdahl speak with a young participant at a Junior Ski Patrol clinic on March 25 at Snowmass Ski Area, Colo. The clinic included patrollers at Snowmass like Kamm as well as some from Buttermilk Mountain, like Wickens and Bergdahl. (Kaya Williams/Aspen Public Radio)

By Kaya Williams, Aspen Public Radio

ASPEN, Colo. — On a chilly winter morning in Snowmass Village, Colorado, middle and high schoolers buzzed with chatter as they picked up skier safety cards, pocketed snacks and prepared for a “Junior Ski Patrol” clinic on the mountain. 

Though the day’s agenda included medical response, mountain rescue and avalanche safety courses, the real source of excitement was clear from the get-go: One gaggle of middle schoolers unanimously agreed that the prospect of meeting avalanche dogs would be a highlight.

The patrollers, meanwhile, were excited about mentorship, and the opportunity to inspire young skiers to consider a career in patrol. Unlike some other opportunities for wannabe patrollers in the Roaring Fork Valley, this clinic was focused specifically on girls and nonbinary kids, and it was led by a crew of female patrollers. 

“Mentorship in general is such a huge part of recruiting new people … and really creating that community where people feel safe and welcome and challenged,”  said Jen Klink, a Snowmass Ski Area patroller who helped lead the clinic. “And so I think having female role models in predominantly male spaces is really important because unless you see yourself in a position, it's hard to realize that you can be in that position.”

“So that's why I'm super excited about days like today, because we get female patrollers from multiple mountains together and you really see the breadth of experience and passion that we have as female patrollers across all four mountains,” Klink added.

photo  A ski patroller guides Junior Ski Patrol participants through the process of preparing a toboggan to carry someone down the mountain at Snowmass Ski Area. Participants also got to ride the toboggan and carry it themselves during the clinic. (Kaya Williams/Aspen Public Radio)  

That role-model component is key to the clinic, which was offered as part of the nonprofit SheJumps’ Wild Skills program that provides all kinds of workshops focused on outdoor safety and survival. (Other offerings include day camps, overnight adventures and even a junior wildland firefighting clinic.)

SheJumps partnered with Aspen Skiing Company for the Snowmass iteration, but they also offer clinics at other mountains like Sun Valley in Idaho, Burke Mountain in Vermont and Mount Hood Skibowl in Oregon. 

“In many, many positions across the industry and outdoor industry, right, everywhere you look, I mean, women are minorities,” said Beth Olsen, an ambassador and event coordinator for SheJumps. “So no reason not to emphasize the opportunities.”

Olsen said the program is supposed to make the learning process fun, in hopes that participants will gain the skills and the confidence to pursue a career in the historically male-dominated industry.

“There's no reason we can't tip that and create a new balance,” Olsen said. 

There were 17 participants this year, and at least half a dozen patrollers. 

“I think that's such an indication, like, all these women patrollers hopping on board and being so excited about it, wanting to spend time with these girls, bringing them into community and into their community … everybody's ready for it,” Olsen said. “I think … the momentum is gonna take off.”

photo  Participants in a Junior Ski Patrol clinic practice carrying a toboggan down the hill at Snowmass Ski Area. The event was part of SheJumps' Wild Skills program, which offers a variety of outdoor safety and survival events. (Kaya Williams/Aspen Public Radio)  

That enthusiasm to help out also came from patrollers across multiple mountains, including a contingent of Buttermilk Mountain’s female patrollers known as the “Buttermilk Biscuits” who helped with the Snowmass program. 

Liz Bergdahl, one of the Biscuits, has been patrolling for 20 years, and hopes mentorship programs like this one encourage kids “to expand their horizons of what they can do,” she said. 

“It's equal opportunity to men, women, LGBTQ, everyone,” Bergdahl said. “So that's exactly what this is all about, and that's the message we want to get out there, is, ‘it's a job for everyone.’”

Zia Kratzert, an 11-year-old from Steamboat Springs, definitely picked up on the opportunity message. 

“I think it's really amazing because it's how the women have gotten their rights of being able to do this,” Kratzert said. “And I think it's really cool that they know all this stuff.”

She heard about the program on the radio and was determined to participate, even if it meant a three-hour drive. Most of the other kids here came because their friends were going, or because their parents encouraged them. 

Some, like 13-year-old Annie Strecker from Aspen, also found camaraderie on the hill. 

“I guess it is cool to see other people interested in the same things that you might be interested in, and it's nice to know that you're not alone,” Strecker said. “It's also nice to go out there and have fun with some people your age, that understand you.” 

Others, meanwhile, found relief in the female-focused environment: Several participants said they appreciated the absence of brothers and other boys who tend to “mess things up.” 

SheJumps wrapped up the last Wild Skills patrol clinic of the season on April 8 in Big Sky, Montana.

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