Back in 1997, Jen Calder found herself high up on a stormy, intimidating, Rendezvous Mountain, just a few weeks into her first winter as a Jackson Hole ski patroller. The severe weather had closed the upper mountain for several days prior and Calder was throwing bombs to reduce avalanche risk in pretty sketchy conditions. One of her colleagues was even caught, though not buried, in a slide they set off.
“The wind was howling, and it was snowing, and my comfort zone was certainly pushed,” said Calder, 47, on a recent evening, just having finished her shift on the hill, the dark skies dumping snow outside. She was still in training then, and this was one of the first times she had ever done snow control. “It was quite the eye-opening experience.”
Fast forward 19 seasons and Calder, who lives in Driggs, Idaho, with her 10-year-old son and husband, the director of ski patrol at Grand Targhee Resort, is now a skilled veteran. But these days the Mystic, Connecticut, native finds herself again taking on a new and, at times, challenging role: the first-ever female assistant director of Jackson’s ski patrol. As the resort celebrates its 50th year, Calder too is marking a milestone and, she hopes, helping move her department into a new era. Her goals, she said, are to build a strong team, reinvigorate the patrol with positivity, and establish a more inclusive, collaborative, decision-making structure.
Although many qualified candidates applied for the job, Drew Kneeland, Jackson’s ski patrol director, said Calder stood out, not because she is a woman, but primarily because her aims aligned with his own.
“It was like, this is what I am looking for,” said Kneeland. “I am looking for someone who has the same goals as me, to make a stronger team, to move forward, make changes where necessary to keep the things that work and try to become more efficient, more effective, a stronger team. And she really focused on that. And that made a big impression.”
With a cool PBR in hand, Calder, one of 17 women on the patrol (out 82 total), sat down for a conversation with POWDER about what it means to be a woman patroller and, now, a woman patroller in charge.
[This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed]
Powder: How did you become interested in becoming a patroller in the first place?
Calder: I was a ski bum. And I’m not sure when it actually dawned on me, like when it clicked, ‘oh my gosh, I want to do that!’ but I just was so passionate about the ski area. I moved here in 1990 out of college, and I was just so passionate about the ski area, and watching these guys do their thing, I was like, “This is for me.”
You were one of the few women on patrol, and you’ve worked at Jackson for 19 years, but you were never deterred. Why not?
Determination. Just, I think, knowing that this was the right fit for me. I had the sense, this will be challenging, but I can do this job. I can learn it. I can do it. It will take time.
What was it that made it the right fit? How did you just know?
I don’t sit still very well. Seeing patrollers out on the hill and working with explosives, and I could sense the excitement and the challenge and the physical nature of the job from afar, and that suits my personality. And I like to be useful. I like to make a difference.
What is it that you enjoy the most about patrolling?
It’s my second family, meaning the people that I work with…I love being outside, and I love skiing. So it’s also that. But, you know, I never opted to be a ski instructor or a guide. I think it’s just the physical nature of ski patrolling and working, helping others…For me it’s the ruggedness of ski patrolling: hard work, being outside, thinking on your feet at all times.
What’s kept you so invested in ski patrol for 19 years?
It’s the nature and the challenge of the job, always having to be prepared and, like I said, thinking on your feet. It’s very challenging because almost every situation is different…Every day is different. Even doing something for 19 years, it’s such a challenge. We’re always learning, always learning, every day, which I just love. I love that. It’s very, very, stimulating. So what keeps me coming back—it’s that as well as the people that I work with.
What was your route to the assistant director position?
I had the opportunity to apply and I felt like I could bring some transparency and positiveness [sic] and change…Knowing that here was an opportunity for the patrol to go in somewhat of a different direction. And I never looked back.
What were the changes needed in management?
The ability to create a culture of better communication. My philosophy is to bring people up, versus such a top-down structure. So we’ve created an environment here where we’re intending to, and working toward, empowering more people
…We’re hoping there are better lines of communication for people to feel heard, feel like they really have buy-in to what we are doing here, to their own job. We lacked that for a long time.
Is it an important milestone for the patrol and the resort to hire a woman for this job? Is it a milestone to you?
And why would you say that?
The world is changing. Like, I was listening to NPR about these women who were allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia. Now that is not what we’re talking here. But it does make me think that this change is fostering growth.
…So perhaps the significance on some level of me getting this position, it’s a huge change for me, it is a big change for our department. And we can foster that ripple effect of like, sort of allowing people to open their minds to something different. It’s not easy for everybody. I mean change is not always a good thing. But in this case, I hope that it is.
Are there limitations to being a woman in a patrol job or not? Do you have to work harder and be more fit to accomplish the same thing as a man on patrol does or not?
Yes, yes, yes. I do, personally, I do. Just speaking for me. It’s very important to be in good shape because I don’t want being a woman to be a limitation. Yeah there are certain things that absolutely I am going to ask a guy to help me out.
At times, we can potentially do some really heavy lifting. Whether it’s a very large patient, or carrying gear…like heavy loads of material we use around the hill. As good of shape I can be in, it doesn’t always overcome that. Meaning there are times that I have to ask for help.
What are the benefits of being a woman on ski patrol and what are the challenges?
We’re all just patrollers, but perhaps we are under a bit of a bigger microscope. Meaning, you know, this job does require tremendous physical capability and knowledge and skill sets and so, like, I don’t want to let women down by not being able to do a part of the job.
So it’s interesting that some of the pressure, for you, comes from wanting to make yourself an example to other women, not necessarily wanting to prove yourself to men?
Yeah. I think that’s a fair statement.
Do you think your promotion might impact the number of women who might apply for or try out for patrol?
Time will tell. I would hope that that is the case…But if someone is aspiring to be a ski patroller and they can look to me and say, ‘Wow, this is really pretty cool that a woman is in this position on the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol,’ if that would help, quote un-quote, “recruit people” then by all means, that’s awesome.