Girls on Patrol

There are some places that many women try to avoid, and let’s face it, a locker room full of sweaty guys—along with their stinky, unwashed capilene—is one of them. And some women would shy away from waking in the wee hours to hike in the dark with heavy explosives in their backpacks in temperatures hovering in the teens, and snow whipping into their faces.

But for some women, this is all part of their dream job. Not that the locker room scenario is all that dreamy, but the fresh turns, camaraderie among coworkers, practice in emergency medicine, and, not to mention, skiing on the clock, makes it well worth it. Three women, from three different ski areas in the Gallatin Valley, explain why.

Jes Falvey, Ski Patroller, Bridger Bowl
Jes spent more than 10 years as a Bridger Bowl regular, skiing 100 to 150 days a year. During a low-snow winter, she realized she was getting bored and, in 1996, decided to turn it into a job after participating in the Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol training. “I’ve sort of always been into that part of it,” Jes says, “and I was looking for something to add to it instead of leaving it.”

She was hired the following fall and has been happy with her job there ever since. “Going on avalanche control is about the funnest thing in the world,” Jess explains. “It’s early mornings, it’s dark, you’re above 8,000 feet in the middle of a snowstorm with the sun coming up. It’s beautiful, challenging, exciting, and it’s never the same.”

Jes doesn’t feel like she has to prove herself as one of the few females on the Bridger Patrol. (Actually, she’s only one of three this year and the only one doing avalanche control.) She describes most of the male patrollers as nurturing, kind, and helpful, maybe due in part to Fay Johnson, Bridger’s Patrol Director up until the end of last season, who treated them all as a family. “I know they go out of their way to take care of me in ways they might not to each other,” Jes says. “They treat me really good. And they always tell me I look nice, which at 47 is nice to hear!”

As far as advice for other women, Jes recommends training and skiing with them first to get a feel for what they do. “Being the fastest or the gnarliest skier is not the most important,” Jes says. “Being safe and consistent in your skiing is more important than flashing it. Don’t worry about being awesome.”

Nancy Sheil, Ski Patroller, Big Sky
When Nancy Sheil moved to Big Sky about 10 years ago, she skied every day, supporting her habit by bartending at night. And after a few years, the light bulb went on. “I realized I could ski more if I was a ski patroller,” Sheil says. And she’s never looked back. 

Sheil knew what she was getting into—she was already friends with a lot of patrollers, and she understood what the work entailed. And as she enters her seventh season? “I love it,” she says. “The skiing, it’s a really fun work environment as far as camaraderie goes, it’s exciting doing the avalanche control and getting to help people out with injuries.” But she admits that it may not be the kind of work every woman would enjoy. “It’s harsh, it’s cold, it’s windy, all of that kind of stuff. And then any time that you’re in a group of guys, well the conversation…,” she trails off. 

Sheil never felt the need to prove herself as a woman, as much as she felt the need to prove that she was a hard worker in general. “I try not to play the gender card,” she says. “I don’t ever really feel like there’s any kind of discrimination towards me. Everyone has his or her fit into the whole group. We all have a common bond, and everyone brings something to offer that’s different than the other.” 

Although Sheil is studying to be a teacher, she’s still working full-time this winter and has no plans to leave her dream job. “I would like to stay involved as long as I can, as long as my body lets me,” she says.

Ellie Thompson, Ski Patroller, Moonlight Basin
Heading into her sixth season of ski patrolling at Moonlight Basin, Ellie Thompson can already envision herself as a lifer. She’s as passionate about skiing—a sport she picked up at four years old—as she is about emergency medicine, so she can’t see herself in many other lines of work. “It’s the ideal job,” she says, “between the people I work with, playing in the snow, and helping people out.” 

And like the others, Thompson never really felt any kind of discrimination in a male-dominated job, but because she started with little ski patrol experience, she did feel that she “needed to buck up” at first. Over the years, she feels that she gained respect through learning a lot of the different jobs on the patrol, and she had help from others along the way. “The men empower the women to express their opinions, and make them feel that they are needed,” she says. “Everyone is just positive and allows for an open environment."

She too admits that not all women, or men for that matter, would be cut out for this kind of hard work. “I think a lot of people who don’t have a very strong work ethic may think it’s all about skiing and having fun,” she says. “But it has a lot of responsibility, and being able to balance the responsibility and fun is the key thing.”