By Alesha Damerville
Photo by Noah Wetzel
By Suzi Mitchell
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS-Pulling a 370-pound former professional lineman in a sled down 1,000 vertical feet of ski hill in a sled takes some doing. Especially when the person pulling is a female, and only one third of his weight, with 18 inches of fresh powder underfoot.
"As a woman ski patroller, we are considered equal to our male coworkers and are expected to perform every aspect of the job. I was 23 years old when I started - back then, you had to be tough and thick-skinned," says Michele Baxter, a 30-year veteran at the Steamboat Ski Area.
"We are probably treated with more respect, since we have to do the same work as the male patrollers, says Terin Petersen, who is working her 32nd season. It's that challenge to be strong and stay strong year after year that keeps me coming back."
Of Steamboat's 100 full-time, part-time, volunteer and courtesy ski patrollers who carry out medical and non-medical tasks, 30 are women. Nancy Wheaton paved the way as the inaugural female patroller during the early years of the ski area.
When the first skiers arrive, patrollers have already cleared fresh snow off pavers at the base area, tested and boot-packed trails, put up ropes, secured pads around lifts and set up signs. That's before these everyday heroes travel around the mountain on skis and snowmobiles to assist winter-sport enthusiasts with equipment malfunctions, tired and hurt limbs and missing family members.
Training is intense, especially for rookies who have to work their way up to serve on specialized teams including technical, avalanche and gondola rescues. There's a lot of learning to do, says Kaitlin McBride, who followed in her father's footsteps in 2016 and joined Steamboat's team, which he has served off and on since 1985.
"Our ski patrol is very professional. When we are working on an incident together, we are no longer father and daughter, but colleagues. However, we might toast it later," Kevin McBride says, smiling.
A tight-knit group, patrollers could be mistaken for one big family as they tease, sympathize with and support each other everyday. Patrollers are skiers who love what they do despite the heart-wrenching reality that sometimes things don't work out how they'd hoped. "All the jobs we do are for good reason and have a purpose, which makes all of what we do the best job," Dominique Janku says.
"Being on the team, I am surrounded by mentors. These people aren't human - they are superheroes, and I learn something new from them everyday."
When temperatures are frigid, scenery is soupy and skiers are tired, patrollers are there to pick up skis, pull sleds or run a snowmobile taxi to base. "The hardest thing about ski patrol is when the mountain closes and I have to wait until next season to ski again," Kaitlin McBride says.