Okemo’s women ski patrol takes over the mountain for International Women’s Day

Okemo's all-women ski patrol are, standing from left: Samantha Stohr, Kait Mitchell, Sally Young, Jennifer Van Sciver, Cori Jodice, Mary Gregg, Maddy Young, JJ Jones, Mary Mancino and Kathy Mahoney; and kneeling from left, Elle Eberhardt, Joy Paterson and Anne Edwards.<br /><small>All photos by Cara Philbin.</small>

Okemo’s all-women ski patrol are, standing from left: Samantha Stohr, Kait Mitchell, Sally Young, Jennifer Van Sciver, Cori Jodice, Mary Gregg, Maddy Young, JJ Jones, Mary Mancino and Kathy Mahoney; and kneeling from left, Elle Eberhardt, Joy Paterson and Anne Edwards.
All photos by Cara Philbin.

By Cara Philbin
©2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC


Friday, March 8, 2024 marks the second time in its history that Okemo Mountain  organized an all-women ski patrol team to honor International Women’s Day. The first time was just last year, when the women realized they were enough to cover the mountain.

It’s 7 a.m., and Okemo patroller Kathy Mahoney is preparing for the team’s daily meeting in the First Aid Room at Okemo’s Clock Tower base area. She is openly proud that Okemo is able to staff a ski patrol team without men, even if it’s only for just one day a year. “Thirty to 40 years ago, a day of only women patrolling was unheard of,” she says. Mahoney’s longtime colleague Joy Paterson agrees.

“I became a single parent and am not a homemaker at all, so I taught my two little kids to ski,” says Mahoney, also a representative to the National Ski Patrol and instructor. A retired OBGYN, Mahoney also spent a decade working as the Assistant Chief Medical Officer at Bay State Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. She originally joined Okemo’s patrol team as a volunteer. “Then we needed a place to call home and did a little tour of New England. I thought this was perfect and had enough good terrain for us, and so we landed.”

Okemo patroller Kathy Mahoney prepares to check for hazards.

Okemo patroller Kathy Mahoney prepares to check for hazards.

“If there were two women in here, when I started, back in 1998, it was like, wow,” Paterson says. Now in her 26th year at Okemo, Paterson followed both of her parents into patrolling. She recalls that her father was the first to express interest in joining the team at a now-defunct New York ski area. It was the 1960s, and a woman patrol director encouraged Paterson’s mother to join him, so she did and both took a compulsory First Aid test. To the surprise of many, her mother got the higher score. “The men had a hard time accepting that she beat him,” Paterson laughs. “Back then, that just wasn’t normal.”

These days, Okemo’s 70-or-so person patrol staff is roughly 35% women, says Mahoney, certainly an improvement from years past. Still, nearly all of them were needed on this Friday to cover the litany of responsibilities that fall under ski patrol. You can’t leave a vacuum of trained medics on one peak if something happens on another, so patrol lineups require both breadth and redundancy in skill in everything from trauma response and scene management, to trail safety and communications.

On this Friday, it’s a perfect “bluebird day” for skiers, and patrollers start to stream in wearing red medic jackets. One settles down against the wall and twists together a drill with a bit the length of her forearm. Another slings a sledgehammer into a waist holster, as she sets a celebratory platter of baked goods on the front desk. Soon, an orchestra of boot buckles snap off rows of treatment tables as they suit up.

“Every day, we all get assigned,” says Paterson. “We meet here at the bottom, ride and check every lift, get to the top hut, disperse, then check the trails for hazards.”

After the meeting, they split up. Some are bused over to Jackson Gore, but Mahoney jumps on chairlift with another patrol instructor, Jennifer Van Sciver, who greets her with focused green eyes and ribbons threaded through her long braid. Like Mahoney, Van Sciver is hauling multiple packs and has a two-way radio harnessed around her torso.

As the women load onto the first lift, they talk through the fundamentals of patrolling, which center on preventative care. This includes a mountain-wide safety sweep before “first chair” and ongoing checks, throughout the day.

“We check every lift and all the cables and chairs,” Mahoney says, heading as they pull the bar down. “Is the towering intact? Does anything sound funny? We also look below the lift. Do we see something on the ground? Did a tree fall? Is there a sinkhole? Did a snowmobile miss a spot?”

But patrol duties invariably extend beyond identifying and mitigating risks, and teams must be carefully chosen to ensure concurrent issues don’t stretch resources too thinly.

“Just a couple weeks ago, we had a situation where a staff member had to clip in and climb the tower,” says Van Sciver. “So, we always have staff ready who can climb and others who can manage a lift evacuation from the ground. And we need multiple people trained in each area, in case more than one lift breaks down with people on it.”

Lift evacuations at Okemo are, thankfully, not very common, she says. But patrollers do operate in  unpredictable environments with only the resources they can carry to the scene, so their compulsory training is broader than that of an EMT. Coursework covers everything from extrication and cold management, to toboggan transport and traumatic injury response, both on and off snow.

Sally Young, left, and her daughter Maddie both are members of Okemo's patrol.

Sally Young, left, and her daughter Maddie both are members of Okemo’s patrol.

“It’s one thing to put someone in a splint in a classroom but it’s quite another to do it on the top of a mountain,” says Van Sciver. “Especially if they might have multiple injuries. So, we train all the time.”

While Vail covers all training and certification costs, employees must arrive highly proficient in at least one extreme sport (skiing or snowboarding) and be willing to master others, like climbing and operating a snowmobile. They also need to be physically capable of riding with heavy loads because “some people need more than the toboggan — things like oxygen,” says Mahoney.

Pursuing such an intense and physically grueling job is not for the faint of heart, she says, but the experience can springboard patrollers into a diversity of careers, including medicine, resort management and even helicopter rescue. And because Vail now offers benefits and flexibility, patrolling is even more appealing for women who are approaching retirement and for single mothers, like Mahoney and Van Sciver were when they joined.

Like Paterson, Van Sciver was familiar with patrolling because her father did it. “I just followed him into it as soon as they would let me,” she says. Later, she joined the Okemo team as an unpaid volunteer to offset the cost of lift tickets for her and her children. That changed when Vail bought Okemo. “They said, hey, we want to give you a paycheck,” Van Sciver says. “And as a single parent, I said, hey, that’s good. So, now, I do four days a week as a speech pathologist and three days here.”

After they open the first lift, Mahoney and Van Sciver part ways to check the lower mountain trails for hazards and to report snow conditions. They use red caution poles mark ruts, rocks and yield zones. This is where the gigantic drills come in, and Mahoney expertly drives hers into the snow at the mouth of the Sunburst Six Quad, before catching the lift to the summit.

As she reaches the Summit Patrol Hut, Mahoney clips off her skis and explains how the top-most hut serves as both a meeting spot and dispatch center. It’s also one of many equipment access points across the mountain, she says, unlatching a side door to expose rows of toboggans.

Inside the hut, Maddie Young and Samantha Stohr, two patrollers in their 20s, are seated at a long table between pots of coffee and treats they transported up on the lifts. Stohr says that patrolling is part of what inspired her to apply to nursing school, which she starts in May.

Maddie Young prepares a snowmobile outside of the Summit Patrol Hut.

Maddie Young prepares a snowmobile outside of the Summit Patrol Hut.

“I always had sort of thought about a healthcare career,” she says. “Just having hands-on experience and being able to see all our training come together … I don’t feel nervous to take care of people.

Understanding patient care has broken down the barrier. I know how to interact with people who aren’t having the best day ever.”  That includes injured guests, often men, who are visibly skeptical, when she skis up alone to load them into a toboggan, which is standard for certain accidents.

“There’s always people, when you show up alone with a sled, that say ‘You’re the one that’s taking me down the hill? Or don’t you want to call for help?’ ” Stohr says.

Maddie Young, who has been with the Okemo team for four years, agrees. “I also get a lot of comments  about the toboggan, probably because of my size and stature.” “And that’s when you say, oh, it’s my first time,” chimes in colleague Cori Jodice, eliciting laughs from the group, including Maddie’s mother, Sally, who is managing dispatch from a corner booth. Still, the majority of guests are respectful, they say.

“A lot of guests will say to their daughter, ‘Look at her! She’s a ski patroller, ask her about her job,” says Stohr. “And I think that aspect is really cool. To show a 5-year-old that you can do this job.”

It’s worth considering whether exposure to both skiing and patrolling helps break down some of the barriers that typically keep more women from pursuing patrolling — even just psychological ones. At least three women on the Okemo team arrived already familiar with the work because of a parent in the field.

“I grew up skiing and our family is pretty outdoorsy,” says Maddie Young. “When my mom started patrolling, I was like, I think this is what I want to do. I don’t want to be inside, I want to be outside and in the thick of it.” She plans to pursue advanced rescue training. “I saw this movie about helicopter crevasse rescue and I was like, how do I be that person?”

Mahoney says, “I would like younger women and women of diverse backgrounds to know you can do this. It was only a matter of time before we had enough women patrollers to cover the mountain on our own, and now we do.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeFeaturedIn the CommunityLatest News

About the Author:

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.