Awhile back, Beaver Creek Ski Patrol Director Addy McCord was interviewing a candidate for a position on her team. The man was looking around, fidgeting with his watch. Finally he says, "Well, I appreciate talking to the admin person, but where's the ski patrol director?"
"It didn't occur to him that I was the boss," says McCord. "It's that sort of stereotype that I laugh at."
Women make up 20 percent of ski patrol staffs, according to the National Ski Patrol. Even fewer—about 14 percent—are patrol directors. Those numbers have been consistent over the past 20 years. But McCord, who has been ski patrolling at Beaver Creek for 32 years, is proving that not only can women be career ski patrollers, they can be leaders in the male-dominated field.
When McCord graduated from nursing school, she decided she wanted to combine her two lifelong loves: skiing and helping others. A Colorado native, she showed up to Beaver Creek Ski Patrol tryouts on a whim, with wrecked nerves. When she looked at the list of those that made the crew, she couldn't believe she saw her name. At the time, there was just one other female on staff. McCord has been there since, running the program since 1998. Her inspiration was pioneer Juli Young, a Vail patroller in the '70s.
"I wanted to be her," says McCord. "I always looked at ski patrol and I always said, 'I want to do that.' It didn't really occur to me that I could (until I saw her)."
Julie Rust, the patrol director at Vail who started there as a patroller 28 years ago, says that everybody that joins ski patrol has to work hard to prove themselves. But because the field is so male-dominated, it's even more challenging for women.
"You have to be willing to do any task," says Mel Toney, Mount Hood Meadows' ski patrol director. "You have to go out the door first." At the Oregon resort, 12 of the 50 patrollers are female.
Gavin Cummings has been working on Meadows' patrol for the past 11 years. He worked with Toney as a line patroller for five years, and now she's his boss. Cummings says that Toney definitely paid her dues, working her way up the ranks, and dismisses the importance of gender in ski patrolling.
"She's definitely one of the hardest working patrollers out there," says Cummings. "I don't know if Mel feels like she has anything to prove being a female patrol director. Everybody just wants to do well and do the right thing, regardless of sex."
Each of the ski patrol directors interviewed for this story said a mix of genders leads to a healthier, more balanced work environment. Similarly to how a lady backcountry partner tends to reduce the risk of avalanches, as reported by the Science Daily in 2008, having both men and women on patrol brings different attributes to the workplace. A work shift with all guys tends to be full of testosterone, says Toney.
"I'm very strong, but I'm not as strong as a guy," adds Rust. "So instead of muscling my way through a lot of situations, I had to think my way through them."
McCord goes one step further. She says women bring attributes to ski patrolling that don't come as naturally to men. It helps that they call bullshit on the boys, too, and keep everybody focused, she says.
"I think females that work on patrol bring a perspective that perhaps men don't have innately," says McCord. "There's a common sense, an empathetic nature. I'm always impressed by the degree of how they get it."