It was closing weekend at Big Sky and that can only mean one thing: Pond Skim. The crew is packed up, ready to go and we got an early start making our way up to Big Sky. This year would be different than last because this year I was going to be one of those skimmers.
The mountain fills with speckles of people as they await the debauchery that they are about to see, and I head to the top to make my debut as the fastest 80's skier that ever skimmed a pond. To say I was excited was a complete understatement. In a matter of minutes, the announcer calls my name, I jolt over to the start and I am ripping down the icy entrance switch as I await the inevitable crash into the water. I almost want to not make it across so I can get out of this suit that my dad wore every day in the 80s - the smell follows that description as well. As I am about to hit the water, I start day dreaming about how big this day has been and how Big Sky Resort closing weekend is and has been one of the best weekends of my life. The skies are blue, the beers are cold, and the onsies are vibrant. Big Sky closing weekend is something that anyone who calls themselves a skier should experience.
Last week the snowfall was generous in the Spanish Peaks. Nearly half a meter of fresh powder made us all freak out in our own special kind of way.
It is days like March 25 that the old adage, "there are no friends on a powder day," shows its truth and power. I was excited enough for the five or so inches that fell the day before the big dump, but as I woke up with the sunrise and checked the morning snow report finding an additional 15"+ of snow, all bets were off for the day. I was going riding, and nothing was going to stop me, not even a telephone job interview I was scheduled for at 11am.
On days like this I usually drive straight over to the Madison Base to avoid any "crowd" (as small to non-existent as the lift lines are on the mountain village side, they're even smaller out of Madison). I had to be diligent about checking the time though, as I needed to be at the Big Sky base in order to get a signal for my interview.
By 11:45 I was on my way up to spend the rest of the day doing laps on the tram, and later Challenger. Run by run I was entranced by this bottomless freedom. I don't know how many more days like that we might get this year, but I do know that if we do I will be dropping almost everything for those few perfect turns. Perfect turns all day long and the job interview went great. I can't let anyone tell me it's not possible to make work and doing what you love coexist.
I didn't set out to write a blog about female ski patrollers, but it came out of a place of wanting to write about one of the most niche departments at Big Sky Resort. I caught up with Carolyn Wilson, Julie Hanen, and Amy Kollmann to chat about Big Sky Resort, favorite aspects to patrolling, and what it's like being a woman on ski patrol.
How old are you and how long have you been patrolling? Patrolling at Big Sky Resort?
Carolyn Wilson: I am 26 years old and this is my third year patrolling. I patrolled at Moonlight for one season before the integration, and this is my second year as a part of Big Sky Ski Patrol.
Julie Hanen: I have been patrolling for six seasons, all of them on Lone Peak. I started patrolling at Moonlight Basin and became a Big Sky Patroller in 2013 when we combined forces.
Amy Kollmann: Well, I have the mind of a four year old, my heart is as good as a fifteen year old, the skin below my goggles looks about thirty, I'm starting to think about using sun screen, and my knees feel like they are about 47. *laughs
If you average all of that you come to my actual age which is 24. This is my second year on the pro patrol here at Big Sky and I was also a volunteer for a year while I was finishing up college.
How did you get into ski patrolling? And how'd you get into patrolling at Big Sky?
AK: I became a volunteer patroller when I was in college. I had a bunch of friends that enjoyed it and the season pass didn't sound bad either. I got hired onto the professional patrol after one of the ladies on the pro patrol told me I would be a great fit and that more ladies were needed.
CW: I was a lift operator at Moonlight for two seasons before becoming a patroller. I got to know the patrollers there by talking to them at the lifts and skiing the Headwaters a lot. The first winter I was a lift op I took an Avalanche Level 1 class from Merik Morgan and a couple of other Moonlight patrollers, which also piqued my interest in working with them. My second season as a lift op, I took an EMT class, shadowed patrollers one day a week for the last six weeks of the season, and got a job the next year.
JH: I was basically coerced into it by a friend. I was born and raised in Bozeman and grew up skiing Bridger Bowl and Big Sky. When I was in college, I had a backcountry ski partner that patrolled and kept telling me to consider it as a career. At the time I was restless and wanted to travel so, after graduating, I took a job as an adventure guide in Central and South America. After living out of a backpack for six years, I decided it was time to come back to Montana and base myself out of the Rockies again. The friend I mentioned earlier was working at Moonlight at the time and kept coaxing me to come try it out. The next season, I did one year on the volunteer patrol and the next year accepted a position as a pro. Six years later, it feels like I could be here a long time.
All of you basically got into patrolling because of friends and female influences. That said, patrol seems to be one of the departments where everyone is great friends and everyone has a nickname, any you'd like to share?
JH: Jules or spelled J-e-w-e-l-s. I've also been called Julio quite a bit. This is actually the masculine-latino version of my name and comes from spending a lot of time in Latin America.
CW: Usually just my first or last name, but sometimes by my radio number if they're trying to be funny.
AK: More often than not we call each other by last names so I go by Kollmann most of the time. Since I share a name with the camping gear a few jokes come from that. We all joke around with silly nicknames as we are just a fun and dysfunctional family. We love each other all the same.
JH: My favorite run definitely changes depending upon which way the wind blows. I would say Jack/Rock Creek, Second Fork through the Elbow Room, and the North Summit Snowfield.
AK: My favorite by far is whatever is skiing the best that day. With the winds up here the good snow can be anywhere, but I do find that I have had some of my best turns of the year in Marx.
What traits make you stand out as a patroller? AKA: What specifically do you bring to the team that others might not?
CW: As a third year patroller I am still in the process of getting good at everything, including medical, avalanche mitigation, technical rescue, and understanding the flow of operating such a huge mountain. At this point my strongest contribution is coming to work stoked every day and trying to learn as much as I can.\
JH: I smile a lot and am generally a happy person. I like to work hard and try to inspire others to stay positive and work hard as well. I'm also a very compassionate person and this comes out when I am training new staff or caring for injured guests. I work hard to help my patients feel as comfortable as possible and I hope that trait helps put their mind at ease when we show up to rescue them off the mountain as this can be a very scary moment for people.
AK: I believe that I have a knack for patient care and helping patients feel comfortable when they are in an unfortunate situation. As a lady I find that we can be a little more calming then some of our burly dudes and some patriots need that not all but some.
Women make up 20% of ski patrol staffs nationwide, how do you feel this statistic could be combated by Big Sky patrollers OR do you think it should be?
AK: On our patrol we are a little low for the national average with about 15% females on the patrol and I don't think that it has to be combated necessarily. I think that this is a tough job that requires a tough skin and certain personality to put up with the stresses of the job. From complicated wrecks to avalanche control you have to be able to do it all to be a successful patroller and not as many women seem to be interested in those things. I know we joke about how patrol is a lot of drinking coffee and skiing powder, but it is also physically demanding and being a girl can make that a little harder. We always welcome more ladies to come hang with our awesome group of gals.
JH: It would be great to have more women on patrol, but I believe there are less women who apply for such a position as it is a very physically demanding job. That being said, the women I work with on patrol are some of the strongest, most adaptable and resilient women I've ever met and we all share an uncanny ability to understand and tolerate the male sense of humor. We are very active in our roles on the mountain and maintain a respected disposition. As is true the world over we have to work hard to earn and maintain this respect but we are lucky to work with a team that supports us and allows us to grow and succeed.
Photo: Erik Morrison
Dave Benes and Julie Hanen with Big Sky Ski Patrol.
Big Sky Resort won onthesnow.com's Best Resort Terrain Award in 2014, and for good reason. Not only does Big Sky have diverse terrain for every skill level, both alpine and sub-alpine, but it boasts skiing more than 300 degrees around iconic Lone Peak.
I love the run length Liberty and Dakota Bowls offer, taking me from powder fields to trees back to fields a half a dozen times in one run. But I also love the expansiveness of the terrain off the very top. Feeling adventurous? Check out the North Summit Snowfield or the Big Couloir. Feeling a day of tram laps? Don't miss the Gullies. Want to get into the backcountry? Check out easily accessible Dakota Bowl. The possibilities from Lone Peak are nearly inexhaustible, and the diversity of terrain means great snow no matter what month in the winter it is. Here's a sampling of shredding those 300 degrees around Lone Peak:
1. North Summit Snowfield. Start on the North side with one of the longest runs with epic views the entire way down to Six Shooter Lift.
2. Liberty Bowl. Neighboring Dakota Bowl, Liberty is a must shred for any skier. It's long, powder-filled, and fun.
3. Marx. This double black diamond takes you to the Dirtbag Wall, but has its own right to be skied top to bottom without any stops. Marx is just over from Lenin, but often has completely different snow. The wind is Marx's friend.
4. Dirtbag Wall. These short and steep chutes are a blast. Try ‘em all!
5. The Gullies. Just above The Bowl, The Gullies are a great and fast run down the northeast side of Lone Peak.
6. The Big Couloir. A bucket list line for experienced skiers. It's technical and fun. Being in eyesight of The Tram is what intimidates riders, but sometimes I ski better when people are watching (except for the times I don't).
Photo: Chris Kamman
Often big mountain skiing is seen through the point of view of the camera operator from distant peaks or looking up from below, capturing the rider in a perfect line. Videographer Michael Jezak worked with a team of great riders, GoPros in hand, to capture the mountain's point of view, so to speak. Shot entirely with GoPro cameras, the latest video from Big Sky Powder Networks takes viewers into the trees, down steep Lone Peak runs, tapping rails in Swifty Terrain Park, and captures the vibe of how it feels when February brings great snow storms to epic mountains. Riding Big Sky Resort has been fantastic since February 4 storm and only forecasts for more fun to come.
Video: Michael Jezak
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