Filling big boots at Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol
Lori Spence excited to maintain and build the legacy created by Mac Smith
Lori Spence has never shied away from a good challenge.
In fall 1985, she applied to join the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol although she only had a few years of part-time experience at the small ski area of Arizona Snowbowl.
She earned the respect of her colleagues at Highlands in a male-dominated field. She was one of only a handful of female ski patrollers in any given season and the only woman during at least one winter.
She rose through the ranks while also raising two sons.
And this month, she took the reins from Mac Smith, one of the most revered characters in Aspen’s illustrious ski history.
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Smith stepped down as Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol director on Jan. 31, in his 42nd season at the helm. He will continue to serve with the patrol in a reduced role.
Mountain manager Kevin Haggerty appointed Spence as interim ski patrol director. She was the natural pick after Smith selected her as assistant patrol director four winters ago. Skico will name a patrol director this summer. There’s a good chance Spence will drop “interim” from her title.
Instead of being daunted taking over for Smith, she is inspired by him.
“Mac was a great boss,” Spence said. “He gave you so much opportunity to grow. He didn’t micro-manage at all. He was just a great guy giving us all the responsibility that we wanted to take on and he created such a legacy on the ski patrol.”
Spence, 59, a resident of Carbondale, is the first woman to head the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol, but not the first at an Aspen Skiing Co. mountain. The late Roine St. Andre was patrol director at Buttermilk for at least one season and maybe two. (Skico records are vague on St. Andre’s tenure and recollections of old-timers vary. She was either director in the late 1980s or early 1990s.)
Spence said she has felt welcomed on the Highlands ski patrol throughout her decades there.
“I feel that at Highlands, they were really accepting of us just as long as you held your own weight and participated in all the same work that everybody else was doing,” she said. “I never had a problem being a woman on the ski patrol there.”
While the transition to the top leadership role as a woman is not a particularly big deal to her, it is being noticed.
“I’ve gotten a lot of support from the ski patrol and everybody on the mountain,” she said. “I’ve been surprised how many people have stopped me and congratulated me for taking over for now, and supporting me. Women from the other mountains have been texting me: ‘This is great.’ I’m not worried about taking it on as a woman.”
Katie Ertl can relate to taking on a key position in the male-dominated ski industry. She was appointed Skico’s senior vice president of mountain operations prior to the 2017-18 season.
“I love that she is taking the step to work in a portion of the ski industry that is currently male-dominated,” Ertl said. “I appreciate when we can all recognize competence and integrity. Mac ran a great patrol and is turning over the reins to a person that cares deeply and will drive the department forward. Leadership is about applying emotional intelligence, hard skills and teamwork. Lori has all of these.”
Spence has been on the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol every winter except two over the past 35 years. She spent two seasons in the early 1990s on the ski patrol at Squaw Valley while her husband, Kim, completed his medical residency in Reno. They returned to the valley in 1992, when Kim joined a medical practice and Lori rejoined the Highlands ski patrol.
Kim Raymond and another woman were already on the patrol when Spence joined in 1985. The three women developed a strong bond and Raymond and Spence started uphilling to work a few seasons later, long before it became so popular. They put climbing skins on their 210-centimeter telemark skis to make the journey to the ski patrol headquarters, then located at the Cloud Nine Bistro.
Spence had a laundry list of reasons why she’s remained on the Highlands patrol for so long.
“The love of skiing, for sure,” she said. “The people. It’s just such a great group of people on the ski patrol. They’re so committed. They’re awesome. They’re unique but we’re all connected in so many ways. They’re amusing. They make me laugh a lot. We rely on each other quite a bit. It’s just a great cast of characters.”
Smith said in an interview earlier this month that Spence excelled in every role she has held with the patrol. She advanced to lead patroller and then assistant patrol director. He said he leaned on her a lot because their skills complemented one another.
Spence’s short tenure at the top has been anything but dull. The biggest dump of the season fell during her first week. Snow safety has been particularly challenging this season because there was so little early snow. Avalanche conditions have been ripe with fresh snow accumulating on the old, weak layers.
In addition, COVID-19 prevented Highlands from enlisting as many bootpackers as usual this season to compress the base layer in Highland Bowl and other steep terrain.
But for Spence and most ski patrollers, the ever-changing demands of the job are a big part of the allure.
In the big picture, Spence aims to maintain and build on Smith’s legacy of creating excellent relations between the ski patrol and the customers as well as workers in other departments.
“One of his strengths was engaging guests,” she said. “He really got us to be customer-service oriented and wanted us to greet each guest with whatever they needed. It really taught us to be kind and open. I think we have a pretty good reputation out there right now and a lot of that came from Mac.”
Highlands has dedicated fans, and they have a special relationship with the patrol.
“So many times you are hiking up Highland Bowl or wherever and the public is like, ‘Hey, thanks for everything,’” Spence said.
Spence also has a personal goal of not getting stuck in the office too much as the director.
“I’m hoping to keep the ski in ski patrol,” she said. “I still want to be outside as much as possible. I love to hike the Highland Bowl. That’s part of what’s keeping me there, so when I can, I try to get a lap in per day. That’s pretty important to me.”
Like everyone who knows Smith and his lengthy list of accomplishments — from developing great relations to developing new ski terrain — Spence wanted him recognized for his record.
“Mac’s been there and he has such a legacy,” Spence said. “I just hope I do a good job.”
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