The women in red

CSP toboggan training at Sun Peaks. Photo Sue Elder

When Sue Elder started her ski patrol career in the 1970s, the department was an “old boys’ club.” Female patrollers were vastly outnumbered and, in her words, “You had to be pretty tough to be able to make it.”

Her experiences on patrol are now “worlds apart” from what they were then.

“Canadian society has come a long way in recognizing we are just as capable,” she said.

The job requires first aid and on-mountain ability, as well as a range of other gender-neutral skills. Undeniably, though, it’s an inherently physical job. On a daily basis, patrollers toboggan patients down slopes, haul equipment and maneuver snowmobiles, all through often challenging terrain.

Men have innate, physiological differences that make them stronger than women, and this can breed assumptions that men are more capable at performing these physical tasks than their female counterparts, according to Jean Strong, Canadian Ski Patrol (CSP) instructor trainer and on-hill co-ordinator.

It’s a misconception that can lead some women to withdraw from the role, believes Elder.

“We’ve had some women who joined CSP and quit (because of) their own self-doubt. We tried all that we could to help them realize that they did have the skills…but they never felt like they could relax. They always felt like they were second-class citizens, and they were afraid there was going to be failure.”

Elder teaching new students at Sun Peaks. Photo supplied.

But being built differently simply means women need to tackle the physical aspects of the job differently.

Meg Wallace, former patroller with Sun Peaks Resort (SPR), is now at Revelstoke Mountain Resort for her seventh year on the job.

“I definitely think that we can handle it just as well…(For toboggans) I think size and strength isn’t necessarily a huge thing that goes into it. It can definitely help at times, but it’s all technique. If you have the technique down, you don’t have to work as hard physically.”

In fact, Wallace said she believes the nature of the job actually encourages more positive views around women’s abilities.

“Ski patrol tends to be a laid back community and be a bit more open to how chicks can shred and chicks are rad. So it’s easier to break those stereotypes that are put out there about females, because living in badass places with badass chicks makes it easier,” she enthused.

Nonetheless, there remains a disproportionate amount of females on ski patrol in Canada. Wallace estimated a quarter of Revelstoke’s patrol team are women. SPR will have only three female patrollers this year on its paid on-mountain ski patrol staff of 30. In management, too, women are underrepresented, according to Courtenay Kelliher, CSP recruitment and retention advisor.

Elder said there’s a disconnect.

“Forty per cent of skiers in Canada are women, and only 18 per cent of patrollers in CSP (nationally) are women.”

Skiing and snowboarding were the main reasons Elder, Strong, Wallace and Kelliher all initially joined ski patrol. So what’s stopping other women from joining or staying in the role?

Certainly, childrearing has an influence, which in Canadian society generally falls primarily on women.

“Patrolling (when you have) children is difficult, especially for volunteers not getting paid. That is not a tenable for a lot of women,” Elder explained.

Other perspectives were voiced in March, when CSP hosted its first workshop for women on patrol at its national convention in Quebec. Facilitated by Elder and Strong, the workshop comprised of classroom and on-mountain components and was attended by 25 women in CSP management and instructor positions.

“The overwhelming feedback was that it should’ve been a full day,” Elder said, before detailing how the discussion around female experiences on patrol inspired ideas on how to attract and retain women to the roles..

“Not all women, but a good percentage of them, want their own (training) program,” she said. “Once they’re in them, they overwhelmingly report that they really enjoy them and feel way less pressure and thus learn faster. They feel like they’re better patrollers. They feel that they’ve made way bigger steps faster because they weren’t trying to keep up with the guys.”

Elder said in the U.S. women-only patrol programs have run for around 20 years but faced resistance at the start.

“‘If women need their own program then they shouldn’t be patrolling in the first place; they’re not tough enough,’ (critics said) and they got past that and the programs are super strong now.”

“It’s a difficult topic,” Elder said of gender specific training and discussions of women’s experiences as, sometimes, inherently different to those of men.

She insisted these ideas are not intended to serve as an exclusion of men, or to judge any gender as “better” than the other, but rather to “make the whole team stronger.”

Her  hope is  instead of ignoring or homogenizing different experiences in ski patrol—potentially to the detriment of female interest and retention—the door is opened for more “rad” women to join the ranks.