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Pro-Patrol

A story about two ladies making a living skiing (1976)

This article was first published in the November 1976 (5.3) issue of POWDER

BY: Marje McKenna and Marjorie Fitzgerald

Dave Moe's been getting a hard time about never having any articles about or by women in Powder Magazine. So now we're doing that article, and he laments that it's Snowbird instead of someplace like Jackson or Tao , which isn't already so abundantly represented in this magazine…

So it goes… but now from a female point of view…

Little Cottonwood Canyon. Alta and Snowbird, Utah. A unique place. It's a dead-end canyon rising almost straight up out of the Salt Lake valley. Sandy City at its mouth is presently one of the five fastest growing cities in the U.S., projected to grow by 140,000 people by 1980! It's a beautiful canyon… rugged, green and loaded with wildflowers in the summer. Clouds and light do incredible and dazzling things there. And in the winter, there's the snow… probably the most and lightest anywhere. Avalanches, road closures and being snowed in or out. There's virtually no private housing… building space is limited because of all the avalanche slide paths. It's a pretty liberal place too… ladies run chairlifts, and tune their cars, guys bake bread and run sewing machines. Alta's small and hokey, laid back and charming. Snowbird's fast and jet-setty with that tram…

I came to Alta before the Bird… when it was still a small quiet ski town in the middle of nowhere, and when Utah powder was still the world's best-kept secret… three and four days after a storm, we'd find virgin northern exposure nooks and crannies… "tasty pokes." At Snowbird these days, virgin powder is eaten up by 11:00 the first day. Even in the trees!

I was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, and my lifestyle since high school had vacillated from professional student to professional skier, until the spring of 1970 when I decided that, once and for all, I had to get the ski bug out of my system. Skiing was far too expensive in terms of both time and money to do it in any other way than to live and work at a ski area. And I had heard of this place called Alta… and I had skied at Vail way far over on Sunup in '63 and '64…

So I came to Alta and later to Snowbird, and I went through the standard ski-bum jobs… waitress, bartender, reservationist and ski instructor. I also introduced a handy new piece of outdoor equipment called the neckgaitor, originally invented for the snorkel effect in Utah's suffocatingly light powder snow. (I was into high-class advertising).

I suppose the icebreaker for getting a real mountain job was in the summer of '73 when I was "Chief of Duds" at Snowbird… I hunted all of the undetonated shells (duds) fired by the guns used to artificially release avalanches in the winter. I paced my job according to snow melt, always had someone with me, and we'd tiptoe through the wildflowers on the lookout for giant bullets. Once found, we'd flag the environs and come back with hand charges and fuses, run like hell and blow up the whole shebang… lungs aching, shrapnel flying and adrenalin flowing…

That fall I got a part-time job doing avalanche control work and snow study with the Snowbird ski patrol… perseverance, right place and right time… Part-time was a good way to break the guys to having a lady about. They gave me what I considered to be the toughest avalanche control route in terms of endurance, with the two most macho guys on the patrol (who were as gentle as they were tough), and I began to learn the mountain in all its different guises. My biggest paranoia was whether I could throw the bombs far enough. I practiced with rocks and horseshoes, and always felt like I was being watched. And I was. I got in on an 80-hour emergency medical technician course and the pre-season mountain set-up… bamboo and polypropylene barricades, permanent barricades, EZ fencing, hammers, nails and shock cord, area signs, directional signs, flip signs, permanent closed signs, 2X4's, fog poles, tower pads and emergency phones, toboggans, splints and fanny packs.

That March one of the ski patrolmen was sidelined for six weeks with a torn knee ligament, and I was the obvious choice for a temporary replacement, provided I could do the work. And I could, though airlifting wasn't easy, and neither was a six-day work week. When two patrolmen airlift a toboggan, they choke-up on the handles, thereby lifting the rig off the ground. Eliminating the friction of the toboggan, they can cross flat places without having to pull it, which would be a drag. The Jackson patrol contends that no woman could airlift the Gros Ventre traverse to Laramie Bowl, which is a half-mile long.

During the summer of '74, Marjorie was offered a job on the Squaw Valley patrol. A few ladies were hired at Snowmass, Vail and Taos, not until last year at Alta, still not at Sun Valley and Aspen, and probably never at Jackson Hole. Snowbird's patrol leader, in typical Dick Bass style, decided that if one's good, two must be better, and hired Marjorie Fitzgerald. She had grown up in Sand Point, Idaho, spent one year at Squaw Valley, and came to Little Cottonwood Canyon in the summer of '71. She, too, went through the standard ski-bum jobs, and by the winter of '72 was Snowbird's dispatch… she "manned" the central switchboard of phones and radios, and often coordinated the mountain operations and snow safety work, keeping things from going haywire at times when the mountain and roads were shut down, the White Death lurked, and everyone in charge was going around in circles.

I was glad to have another lady on the patrol. So were the guys, really. Right away, in order to erase all doubt in the eyes of our "brothers," we made sure we could do things like evacuate chairlifts and carry a loaded toboggan from the top.

If we changed things, it was subtle… the woman's touch. They got off on having a new kind of person around, and we got off on being there. We never consciously tried to interfere or interrupt the flow, as it would have been without us. We both used to be married to men with whom we still work on the mountain and maintain friendship in our little canyon community.

We work with the same 22 or so people close to 60 hours a week. Average age is 27 (at Jackson it's 35!). It's a tight group… it has to be, as it's too often that we're putting our lives in the hands of our partners. We must trust their skills and judgement.

The more adventuresome parts of the work are the wrecks and the snow safety. Wrecks are almost fun, and make the day go a lot faster. It's nice to meet the tourists on a one-to-one basis, and to be able to help someone. We've both unwrapped a few people from trees and learned valuable rescue techniques. Airlifting is a rush, though definitely harder for smaller people. (I'm 5'4", 110 lbs.; Marjorie's 5'2" and 100 lbs.)

Snow safety is the excitement of a snow storm… weather, clouds, fog, wind, different kinds of snow, lightning, even (shudder) ski checking and run closures, hand charges, guns, and keeping the ski slopes and canyon roads safe from avalanches for travel. If it's not safe, run closed, road closed and maybe even inter-lodge travel restrictions are imposed on the canyon. Different storms, different conditions, but a snow pack can become really rotten, so that it won't support a lot of weight (by snowfall or wind deposition) and at some critical point of weight accumulation the entire snowpack will break away and fall at once… like a puzzle. This is the tsunami of the mountain… capable of incredible destruction.

On a snow-control morning, gunners take the first tram and begin fire at dawn. The "bomb squad," meanwhile, takes a snow cat to the ammo cache for hand charges, and we begin to cap and fuse the bombs so that we can throw a few from the tram on the way up to see what the snow's doing, and to lighten the load to "danger route" #2. Once on top, we make up the rest of the bombs, drink coffee, put on storm gear, arm ourselves with radios, ignitors, bombs, shovels, even, and venture out. It's always different, sometimes weird or scary, cold, peaceful or awesome.

The hardest part about being a ski patrolperson at Snowbird is that it's six days a week, 8.5 to 11 hours a day for six months straight! Aii! In just one day there are a thousand chances for a slipup… literally or figuratively. Just one, and it may all be over. There's no let up. Even when we're not punched in, we're still "on call" for any canyon or mountain emergency. It's a total involvement type thing for a long block of time.

Probably the second hardest part about the job is ski boots. Our poor feet have to spend so much time in the dark and damp, often cold and pinched. Bones grow spurs. Wounds don't heal.

Except for that, ski patrolling at Snowbird has got to be close to the perfect job, especially for a girl… can't beat those odds! Snowbird is #1 in terms of quality and quantity of snow, and that tram is something else… 3000' in six minutes. We are on the mountain at the two best times of day… first run, and last run… sunrises, moonsets and sunsets… when the mountain really is ours. We work with the elements of our environment… the snow and the wind. We see and ski our mountain at its best and its worst.

We're in on everything that happens at the ski area… on or off the mountain. We don't have to wait in lift lines… especially the tram line, where 115 people and all their ski paraphernalia are in a concrete echoey cubicle. There's glamour and prestige, and lots of hugs from all those men.

But the bit about "the ski patrol gets to ski all the powder" is basically a myth. After routes on storm days, we often have to keep ski checking and otherwise mess with signs, tower pads and tower watch. Of course, we get to ski more powder… we're there all the time. And we do treat ourselves on occasion.

We also have to sit around a lot… standing by on tower watch, being prepared. We always keep four people on the top of Hidden Peak and two at the top of Gad II. Everybody who's working that day filters in and out of an assigned station in a loose bump station. Mountain dispatch operates off Hidden Peak. He mans communications (three telephones and one radio phone) and logs events. Other Hidden Peak activities are people coming and going… clomping around in their ski boots and messing with their gear, people tuning skis on the bench, eating and cooking. We have a full kitchen… lots of grilled hot pastrami and cheese lunches, popcorn… maybe even some bread at 11,000 feet, or a breakfast or turkey dinner for the whole mob. There's too much going on to read much besides Furry Freakbrother comics, porno and news magazines and seed catalogues, so Hidden Peak entertainment consists mostly of phones and radios, weekend TV, food, occasional cribbage (they play hearts and bridge at Jackson) and lots of banter. Weird Peak, as we're fondly beginning to refer to it… where literally anything might be said or happen. It's definitely a unique situation. It's adventure packed, a million laughs, and a real drag. It's six months of madness, but fun, beauty, excitement and peace.

Off season, Marjorie's into her bicycle and fly fishing. She has been a carpenter, and ran the tram last summer. I've hung up my climbing hardware for terra firma… gardening, dancing and pottery… earthy avocations. We both backpack and are especially fond of the desert in May and warm waves anywhere. And we both want to learn to drive snowcats.

And then there's the name thing. Snowbird's had a lot of "Mar's"… Marlia, Marsha, Marty, Mar, Maritxu, Marjorie and me. 'Til now in my life I've been been Marjory, Marge, Margie, and Marj, but I think once and for all, I'll be Marje and let people pronounce however they like.

& a postscript…
This is just what it's like at one ski area. Other ski areas are basically the same, but different.

Tower watch at Jackson and Alta is mellower… books, quiet conversation, serious cards, fiddling, and even sleep at certain stations. Most places (except Jackson) have to carry more wrecks than we do. Few places have (get) to do the snow safety work we do. Pay varies a lot. We make money because we work so much overtime.

Also in this article, when faced with using a singular pronoun or antecedent, I've used the masculine, just because it sounds right. No one around here has ever made much deal about the "women's movement"… everone just does what he can or wants to do.