A Journey from Ski School Student to VP of Mountain Sports
Story by Emily Stifler Wolfe, Photos courtesy of Christine Baker and Big Sky Resort
Christine Baker on motherhood, female leadership, and why summer is her favorite season in Big Sky.
Christine Baker was 6 when she first visited Big Sky in 1982. As their vacation came to a close, Baker told her parents she’d be staying in Montana and would see them next year.
“What will you do?” they asked.
“I’ll be a ski instructor,” she said.
While Baker wound up going home to Michigan with the rest of her family that year, she stayed true to her word. Now, 29 years after she gave her first lesson at the resort, she is the resort’s VP of Mountain Sports.
She met her wife, Patty, in Big Sky, and their 10-year-old daughter, Layne, is going into fifth grade in the local school, where Patty teaches high school English.
Baker, with her gentle vibe and easy laugh, is someone whose presence alone feels grounding. Perhaps living in the mountains has ingrained in her that sense of being part of something larger than yourself. And over the years, her awe of the mountains around Big Sky—and of life, itself—has continued to grow.
With research increasingly showing the health benefits of experiencing awe, we wanted to know what Baker had up her sleeve.
During a wide-ranging conversation in May of 2023, we discussed motherhood, gender equity in mountain sports, what’s kept her in Big Sky all these years, and why summer is actually her favorite season.
So, when did you actually start instructing at the resort?
I came out my senior year in high school on vacation with my mom and my brother. I had grown up going all the way through the ski school on family vacations, missing maybe only two winters. The director at the time, Hans Schernthaner, had been my mom’s instructor. When I stopped by to say ‘hi,’ Hans asked if I’d like to earn my tickets. I wound up helping another instructor, Sarah Entiwistle (now Sarah Entiwistle Adams), with a group of 12, 4- to 6-year-olds who didn’t know how to stop.
The next winter, during my freshman year of college at University of Michigan, I came out for two weeks over winter break and two weeks over spring break and lived with Hans and his wife, Angie, and taught.
You are a lifer!
I am a lifer for sure. My sophomore and junior years I came back. When I graduated, I did the typical ‘come out for one season,’ and then went back to Michigan to be a horseback riding trainer. I missed one winter and two summers. Then my best friend graduated from college and asked if I wanted to go out to Big Sky. I moved back in November of 2000.
Have you left since?
Not aside from one summer season ski instructing in New Zealand and traveling for work a bit.
Where did you grow up in Michigan? Did you ski there, too?
I grew up about an hour outside of Detroit in Grosse Pointe. I learned to ski when I was about 2 in northern Michigan at Boyne Highlands. Closer to home, we’d go to Pine Knob, Mount Holly and Mount Brighton.
Tell me about your work now. What’s your role as VP of Mountain Sports?
I work with all of the Mountain Sports School. Basically any outdoor guest-facing programming. Ski school, mountain bike coaching and rentals, and Basecamp, which includes ziplines, guided hikes, and other summer activities.
What’s your favorite season in Big Sky?
Ooooh. Summer. I love backpacking, hiking, and getting up onto the mountaintops.
Tell me what you love about it.
I always loved going places where few other folks are. Now that I have a daughter, I love seeing her out in nature, totally absorbed with her surroundings and happy. The summer Layne was 4, we hiked to Hidden Lake, which is less than two miles. We played games as we walked, like the one where you step on rocks but not on the ground. It took us four hours, but she was totally happy, and she walked the entire way.
Much has been written about the health benefits of awe in the recent media. I feel like that’s what a lot of us are searching for when we come to places like Big Sky. Tell me about your own search for awe.
When I was first in Big Sky, my friends and I loved to try to fit in as many summits as we could in a summer. There was lots of opportunity to see a sunset in an incredible place, or a sunrise, or swim in a mountain lake. We still do all those things, but the awe comes not just from the grandness of summitting, but also in witnessing Layne be so absorbed in nature.
Two summers ago, when Layne was 8, we hiked up to Deer Lake. She and her friend Campbell raced up to the top, and us moms couldn't even keep up. Granted, we were carrying some of their stuff, but that’s a steep trail. They were so excited to be there that they could do things you never thought they could. That doesn't mean there aren't breakdowns that test your patience, and of course you have to be encouraging and understand that it’s hard for little legs.
Have you also shared these types of experiences with guests to Big Sky?
We put the ziplines in February of 2009, and that summer there were just a handful of us running those tours, so I did a lot of zipline guiding. On our nature zip tour, there’s a short walk in the woods to get to the ziplines, which is a unique experience for many people, and then you stand on that zipline platform. We had 3- and 4-year-olds go zipping, and people in their 80s and 90s. Sometimes you’d have three generations of folks doing something none of them had done before, and leaning into a trust that you don’t have to tap into in everyday life. How often do you just step off into nothing and go zipping away? Or watch your child go whizzing away? The interplay between nature and adventure was really evident with that experience.
I’ve been a rock climber for 25 years, but imagining my 4- or 7-year-old on a zipline makes my stomach drop.
It’s amazing how things look different when you become a parent.
Clearly you’ve loved your job, in all its iterations. Still, 23 years is a long time to be with one employer and in one department. What’s kept you here?
A big part of it was the mix of being outside every day in an amazing environment while being engaged. My education is in teaching, and I’m a teacher by nature, so teaching in some way that whole time was another piece. I also like a challenge. Going from being an instructor to a manager in the winter of 2007/08 was a huge learning curve.
Tell me more about that shift.
That winter, I was the children’s program manager and assistant director of mountain sports. The following summer, I became activities director, which at the time meant guided hikes, a few group activities, and kids club for a couple hours a day. At that point, all of the people in senior leadership above me were engaged in creating new summer activities. Right when I started that summer, both of my bosses were on vacation, so I sat down and wrote two-, five- and ten-year plans of the things I thought we could do.
Not long after, Taylor Middleton, who was then GM and is now the resort president, came into the kids club. He said, ‘Christine, don’t let this job be what it is. Make it what you want it to be.’ That freed up a lot of opportunity to make recommendations. When I looked back after 10 years, it was amazing how many of my ideas had happened.
On the subject of awe, I get goosebumps when I think about you as a strong female leader and how the world has changed in the 40-some years you and I have been alive. Let’s talk about female leadership. What is it like for you being a leader?
Being a mother and a leader never seemed like something I couldn’t do. It seemed like a natural thing. I had examples of it and was given opportunities to be a leader, both while studying education in college and in the ski school. Early in my career, I did a children’s accreditation led by Marie Russell Shaw, who was eight or nine months pregnant at the time. I can picture us skiing down Mad Wolf in 14 inches of powder, and her saying, ‘Yep, you head down. I’ll ski it at my own pace.’
In our region for mountain sports, the Northern Rockies, instructors are about 50-50 male-female. In other regions, it’s not always that way—not even close. We’re in a special place where there have always been strong female leaders.
Last year, a woman named Ann Schorling who was studying gender equity in snowsports did her thesis research at Big Sky Resort, because as she likes to say, we’re the matriarchy. Even though we have a strong culture of women in leadership and opportunities for women, she found things we do systematically that make it harder for women to achieve higher levels of certification.
What were the unintentional systematic barriers?
I just went to Finland to Interski, an international congress of ski instructors, and Ann gave a keynote about this. It starts with basic things.
If you ask who wants to work with the 7- to 14-year-olds and who wants to teach the 4- to 6-year-olds, obviously, nothing is 100%, but in general, men will say, ‘I’d like to work with the older kids,’ and women are likely to say, ‘put me where you need me.’ And so men get the opportunity with the older kids, who tend to progress faster, and they end up teaching higher-level lessons, which aids their ability to practice for certification. The women often end up teaching more lower-level lessons.
When there are more men than women in a training or an exam, we’d often split the women up among the groups, so each had a female representative. But that put them in such a minority that they often couldn't show up as themselves, and they wouldn't perform their best or might not feel comfortable speaking. Since Ann’s research, we’ve been trying to better support underrepresented groups by creating cohorts with at least 30% representation.
Why do you think we need women leaders?
If you don’t see someone in a role, it’s hard to picture yourself in that role. If you don’t see a lot of people in that role, it might seem like there's only one spot for a woman, versus just as many women as men, or more. I would like to think it’s common knowledge that more diversity of experience and background creates more depth, breadth, and understanding, so the more perspectives you have, you get better outcomes, achieve greater things, have sounder ideas, and more failure-proof programs.
Along a similar theme, you brought a diversity equity and inclusion consultant, Dylan Thornton, into the ski school for a clinic last winter. What impact did that have? And are you also applying this lens to other underrepresented groups?
That goes for any underrepresented group. The team really appreciated Dylan’s perspectives, and it was received really well. After the workshop, some of the male supervisors said things like, ‘I didn’t even realize I did that,’ and ‘That makes me think differently.’ We’re realizing how easy it would be to change some of the things we do.
I’m still thinking about why I stayed here so long. There’s one more thing.
That I get to raise my daughter here in the mountains, and she has access to so many incredible things. She’s done downhill bike camp for the last few years, and we just went on a biking vacation in southern Utah. It’s amazing the things she can ride. It’s only a couple more years before she can ride better than me and Patty, and we’ve been doing this for 20-plus years. Hopefully some of the efforts we’re making at the resort to improve access will allow more kids to have opportunities like these.