Women in charge of two of four mountain ski patrols, as their numbers grow in male-dominated job   | AspenTimes.com

Women in charge of two of four mountain ski patrols, as their numbers grow in male-dominated job  

Lori Spence and some of the Aspen Highlands ski patrol team.
Lori Spencer/Courtesy photo

For the first time ever, Aspen Snowmass has two female heads of ski patrol – one at Aspen Mountain and the other at Aspen Highlands. 

Also, the assistant ski patrol director at Aspen Mountain is a woman.

Sheer grit and determination by these women has led to their career trajectories in the male-dominated field of alpine safety and rescue.

This seemed worth noting on the last day of Women’s History Month.

Lori Spence, director of ski patrol at Aspen Highlands.
Lori Spencer/Courtesy photo

Lori Spence, Aspen Highlands

Lori Spence is a Chicago-area native who migrated west to Arizona for college.

“I was majoring in recreation resource management with emphasis in geology. I fell in love with rock climbing and the area worked as a Grand Canyon backcountry ranger,” she said.

She also worked at Arizona Snowbowl Resort for three seasons on the ski patrol.

By winter 1985, she had moved to Aspen, joining her sister and parents who were already in the valley. She joined the ski patrol at Aspen Highlands that winter – one of three women on the team. 

She’s been there ever since, aside from a two-year hiatus when her physician husband was in a family practice residency in Reno and she worked on the ski patrol at Squaw Valley, now Palisades Tahoe. 

In January 2021, then-head of ski patrol at Aspen Highlands Mac Smith stepped down after four decades, and Spence was promoted to the interim head. In fall 2021, Aspen Highlands had its first-ever female head of ski patrol.

Tessa Dawson at Aspen Mountain. / Courtesy of Tessa Dawson
Tessa Dawson/Courtesy photo

Tessa Dawson, Aspen Mountain

Originally from Santa Monica, Tessa Dawson commutes to an office at the top of the Silver Queen gondola. 

“We moved around a ton growing up,” she said. “I attended Colorado College and graduated in 2006. I had friends living and working at Mammoth Mountain and went to work there for a couple years in outdoor education and guiding in the summers and ski school during the winters.”

In 2009, she relocated to Park City and worked on their patrol for 10 years. In 2019, she had the opportunity to lead the ski patrol at Crested Butte. By spring 2022, she was finishing her ski season at Crested Butte and transitioning to her new role as director of Aspen Ski Patrol. 

This March marked her one-year anniversary at Aspen Mountain.

Breaking ropes, boundaries

In Spence’s first year at Aspen Highlands, she was one of three women.

“The three of us women, we became ‘insta-friends’ with our bond. To this day, they are my dear friends from experiences that first winter of mine in Aspen,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s a challenge to be a woman in my position,” she said. “I just think of doing the best job I can. Over the years, I have been treated as an equal amongst genders. However, I do love the comradery of women. We’re a different tribe, the women, we relate to each other a little more. I also think it might mellow some things out on the patrol having women around.” 

Dawson noted there are a lot more women on ski patrols than ever, and the number is growing quickly though they still make up a small percentage of the total.

“The hardest part about being a female patroller for me is finding the right balance between working incredibly hard to prove myself and having the confidence to know I’m a good patroller,” she said.

Women can and must do it all

Spence and the Aspen Highlands team – regardless of tenure, gender, or assigned mountain role – all must be trained and ready to perform every duty required of ski patrol. This includes avalanche mitigation, preparation for the ski day and all operations, patrol duties throughout the day, and even garbage removal. 

She patrolled pregnant for two seasons with her sons, now 24 and 26, nursing and pumping throughout the winters. She even battled breast cancer 10 years ago while on ski patrol. 

Dawson said that her entire patrol can assist with anything, regardless of gender, at any time, echoing, Spence.

“Avalanche mitigation and the snow safety department are within our patrol. There is a snow safety coordinator and snow safety techs. We constantly build a forecast; weather is a responsibility,” said Dawson.

Tessa Dawson enjoying a bluebird day.
Tessa Dawson/Courtesy photo

Aside from the rigorous routine of ski patrol, Spence and the Aspen Highlands team have one more challenge. 

Her terrain is some of the most expert terrain in the United States available for inbounds resort skiing. 

One of its intricacies, Highland Bowl, requires a boot-packing program since a snowmobile cannot access the top of the bowl. Everything is carried up by ski patrol.

“We have to hike up the gear,” she said. “This is a mountain for people who love exercise.”

Long days, seasons

“Mountain mornings are early,” said Dawson. “We immediately start surveying the groomers’ work from overnight. We fix rope lines, check signs, and a dozen other jobs.”

“We try and stay out and about and show the cross, so people can easily find us throughout the day,” she said. “Then, at closing, we zig-zag our way down the mountain, checking the spots where we know people hide out, yell into trees.”

Spence said, “We like to put the ‘ski’ in ski patrol and be out and about and present on the mountain all day long.”

This is her 38th season. 

“The snow has been epic this year. Aspen Highlands was at 117% snowpack by the end of February. The snow just keeps coming, and it’s keeping the patrol busy with 100% of the mountain open since mid-Jan,” she said.

“We are constantly digging out – digging our equipment out, raising ropes, keeping things tidy on the hill. It’s non-stop from dawn to dusk. It’s some of the most astounding and exhilarating terrain offered at a mountain resort. We pride ourselves on the diversity of the terrain, especially the hike to the bowl. That makes my day, get some cardio along with some awesome turns,” she said.

Dawson said, “Right now, we are in the middle of spring break, and this time of year, we are looking at our terrain as the sun hits it. Snow conditions can change pretty quickly. We are constantly assessing the snow – is it a good product for our skiing public because we want to make it safe and fun.”

“We’re having a phenomenal year. It has stayed pretty cold this winter. The snow surface is good,” she added.

Spence said, “It’s a locals’ mountain; we have great clientele, we are constantly getting thanked by people who are skiing here, it’s an awesome environment. My favorite part of my job on this mountain is when I can just calm people down and make them feel secure and improve their day. It’s the simplicity of that.”

Wildlife isn’t as much of a challenge on Aspen Mountain, at least not the four-legged kind. Dawson’s experience at Crested Butte and Park City had more moose and maybe a little less mayhem than Aspen Mountain.

“We do have a few people that have called into Aspen Ski Patrol this year for a bear sighting. It’s turned out to be a porcupine,” she said.

“That’s one of the highlights of my job, working with Parks and Wildlife and helping retag bears. They switch out their collars when they are hibernating, and we get to help get them back into their dens,” she said.

Lori Spence and her avalanche rescue dog, Meka.
Lori Spence/Courtesy photo

Another female in the mix

Spence has done all operations on the hill, including accident investigation, having a lead team role, and training avalanche dogs. 

She has trained four avalanche-rescue dogs and has housed three. Currently, Meka, a black Lab, is part of the Aspen Highlands ski patrol team. 

Meka, Aspen Highlands Avalanche Rescue dog.
Matt Power Photography/Courtesy photo

“Even if I’m not on the mountain, she is working some days. We need to have a dog on the mountain every day, every single day of the year we are open.”

Aspen Highlands By The Numbers

  • 42 ski patrollers 
  • 6 female patrollers
  • 36 male patrollers
  • 3 female avalanche rescue dogs 

Aspen Mountain By The Numbers

  • 39 ski patrollers 
  • 12 female patrollers
  • 27  male patrollers
  • 2  avalanche rescue dogs, one female