Founded by Kari Brandt, Women of Patrol aims to create a better environment for female patrollers to thrive in their profession.
WORDS • EMMA RENLY | FEATURED IMAGE • AJ MARINO
At five-foot-four-inches tall, Kari Brandt gracefully skis down the mountain steering a loaded toboggan with one finger guiding the handle. The lopsided weight ratio surprises on-lookers and often shocks guests but, for Brandt, it’s a typical task as a patroller at Snow Valley Mountain Resort, a ski area in California’s San Bernardino County.
Brandt grew up in Southern California as the daughter of two ski patrollers at Ski Green Valley, a small ski hill 20 miles east of Big Bear Mountain Resort. As a kid, Brandt and her sister Andrea were commonly found at the patrol hut in between laps on the tiny hill. The early introduction to emergency rescue and medicine from patrollers left an impression on a four-year-old Brandt. Eager to aid in any mountain rescue, she would ski with a 101-Dalmation fanny pack filled with bandaids and wet-wipes to help injured skiers if needed.
As an adult, her medical skills vastly improved. While attending California State University San Bernardino Brandt took a Wilderness First Responder course, a requirement while she was a backpacking guide at Yosemite Mountaineering School. Intrigued by the medical aspect, she later enrolled in an emergency medical technician (EMT) class to further her studies. As fate would have it, her passion for skiing and emergency medicine collided when she began patrolling at Snow Valley while in school. “I drank the kool-aid and there’s nothing else I wanted to do,” Brandt said. Seven years later, it still rings true.
Facing the prospect of making a life as one of the few female ski patrollers out there, Brandt began searching for other, more experienced women in her field for advice and support. “My rookie season of patrol I was one of three women, which was really cool but after that, I became [the only] woman on my patrol,” she stated. In her sophomore year as a patroller, she attended a clinic put on by the Association of Professional Patrollers (APP) in Oregon. “I met a bunch of patrol ladies from Crystal Mountain and found that a third of their patrol team are women! It was really cool to see a ski area with a really strong women’s program.”
Inspired to help other women considering patrolling as a profession, Brandt took the initiative to create a networking infrastructure for female patrollers. Through the APP, Brandt successfully expanded its women’s program into Women of Patrol—which serves as a clinic, forum and platform to create a more inclusive environment in the industry.
The clinics provide an opportunity for female patrollers to advance their skills in avalanche rescue, first aid and snow science. A toboggan clinic came from Brandt’s personal experiences; “When I learned how to pull a toboggan it was all guys teaching me and they’d say, ‘Oh just lift it up and pull it over here,’” Brandt recalled. “I realized I didn’t have the same strength to do that. I didn’t have a mentor to learn the tricks of the trade from, so now I take these techniques and share them with others.”
Abigail Harris, a young patroller from Red River Ski Area in New Mexico, attended her first Women of Patrol clinic last winter. “Up until that point I was convinced that finding another female in patrol would be about as easy as finding a leprechaun riding a unicorn,” Harris stated, the lone female patroller for two of her three seasons at Red River. “Throughout the clinic, it became apparent that we all faced similar scenarios and it taught me that I have a voice in my patrol.”
“The more voices and ideas you have, the stronger the team is,” echoed David Moore, president of APP, on the importance of diversity.
During the winter, Moore patrols at Big Bear Mountain Resort in Southern California, known to serve a diverse array of skiers and snowboarders. “One unique challenge to patrolling is finding ways to communicate with injured people,” he said. Moore illustrated that for an on-the-mountain injury, comforting the patient’s fears is often the crux of the rescue. “Having a diverse patrol is important so we can reflect the actual population of people who ski at the mountain and communicate more efficiently.” While Women of Patrol focuses on gender equity, he emphasized that patrollers of different ages, cultures and ethnicities are important to create an effective and well-rounded patrol as well.
Moore acknowledges that, at one point, his attitude towards diversity relied on an old-school way of thinking. “I’m the typical 50-year-old white male,” he stated. “Yet, as the certifying body of patrollers, we’ve found that men do not outperform women in the skillsets. Stereotypically, there used to be a large prejudice against women in that they are not strong enough.”
Moore is happy to be proven wrong and even happier to support Brandt in breaking down gender barriers in the patrol industry. “It’s been eye-opening to watch people you’d never imagine bring forward their strengths,” he said. “Kari can out-ski and out-smart anyone; there couldn’t be a better person to lead the charge.”
Along with Brandt, there is a network of patrollers invested in creating a more welcoming environment. For the past ten years, Shannon Maguire has humbly been a driving force in getting more women involved with patrol at Sierra-at-Tahoe. She described her success as a direct result of being in the “Right place at the right time to receive the skillsets.”
In past seasons Maguire was one of the few women on patrol, but in part due to her mentorship, there is now a much stronger presence. “I feel fortunate to guide and give support to women coming to this patrol who exceed qualifications and want to stay for more than a couple of seasons,” Maguire said. “Our crew has been so open and accepting to work alongside such strong women.”
On her team, Maguire is the first female avalanche dog handler as well as the first female with a blaster license. While tentative to accept credit, these accomplishments created a path for other female patrollers to follow.
Maguire is now the Assistant Patrol Director at Sierra-at-Tahoe, one of the many ski resorts around Lake Tahoe highlighting a shift in the industry towards diversity. To exemplify: Claire Wright was recently appointed the new Patrol Director at Tahoe Donner Downhill Ski Resort and Brandt herself was hired as the Patrol Director and Safety Coordinator at Diamond Peak Resort in North Lake Tahoe.
“For a long time patrol has been an all-boys club but that’s slowly changing,” said Brandt. Already she has increased Diamond Peak’s patrol team from one woman to around 25-percent female. With support from the mountain, she also plans to host Women of Patrol events and clinics in order to continue the organization’s mission. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I hope I’m able to inspire women in the patrol industry that these leadership and management positions are possible for their career.”