By Amy Fendley
Life in a number one rated ski resort certainly has its ups and downs. Here, five well-established Whistler women speak the truth about making their way up the corporate ladder, about trials and tribulations way back when, and about their biggest career-fears.
Pique: What compelled you to get where you are today?
Jan Tindle, 20 years a mountain girl, she’s an avalanche forecaster and senior ski patroller for Whistler Mountain: "I have been in non-traditional female jobs all my life. I do mineral exploration every summer. It’s fun in the bush. And I’ve worked for the Parks where there are always more guys than women.
"I started ski patrolling when I moved to Whistler for a season. I liked to do things out of doors and got interested in avalanche stuff. I do lots of weather stuff and avalanche studies. When you’re up there everyday, it’s nice to have something specific that you are doing. The snowpacks are an interesting subject."
Raine Brooksbank, in her 21st year in Whistler, the "dragon lady" is a senior snowcat and Pipe Dragon operator: "In the summers I used to drive a hay stacker. I didn’t have a passion for heavy equipment or anything. Driving a Snowcat is like snow farming.
"A long time ago I was a liftee and thought it would be a lot more fun driving the big orange snowcats. It was pretty boring at the old Red Chair because we had to stay in one spot all day.
"But I was right. It was more fun driving a snowcat than being a liftee.
"In the beginning, 1977, I pissed off the ski patrol because they said they wouldn’t hire a girl until the snowcat drivers did. Shortly thereafter, there was me, the first female snowcat driver in Canada and Cathy Jewett, first woman ski patroller."
Dawn Thompson is 14 years a trooper. After an illustrious career as a liftee, ski patrol and dispatch operator she now runs the show at the alpine office and co-ordinates lift operations: "I worked in summers as a cook in bush camps in the Yukon and all over B.C. I like working on the mountain because there is always a new adventure around every corner.
"Over the years, there’s been a little of everything. It’s satisfying to know you’ve done things right at the end of the day."
Cathy Jewett, put the ‘s’ in senior ski patrol. This is in year number 23: "The first year I was here there wasn’t a lot of snow. Then it snowed. The ski patrol was throwing bombs and these were the biggest avalanches. I went ‘wow’. I found those dangers thrilling and fun. I watched one guy jump into the shale powder, I went ‘wow’ and said that’s what I want to do.
"That wasn’t such an easy thing to do. You’ve got to be strong and educate yourself in your chosen field to back up your strength with knowledge. I was the first woman ski patroller."
Yvonne Thornton, puts in 12 years on the mountain as ski patrol, co-ordinator of volunteer ski patrol and trail crew and CARDA rescue dog handler. In three years, she and Cisco have located two missing persons: "All my jobs have been like this (a little extremist). I worked for Rappattack in Salmon Arm as the only girl with 27 guys, repelling out of helicopters fighting forest fires. It was a mind-blowing experience for both of us.
"And I worked for Outward Bound.
"I started here as a ski patroller. You have less responsibility than older ski patrol so you do as much as you can, like accidents and avalanches."
Pique: What part of your job causes you the most stress?
Tindle: "There is always a lot of pressure from the skiing public to open terrain, and it’s increasing. You have to make it safe before you open it. You try to get things going as quick as you can, but safety is always the number one priority. So, you balance it off. Most of the time you think nothing will happen, but sometimes little avalanches occur in the ski area and you just hope nobody will get hurt.
"When it snows the way it has the last couple of weeks, it’s pretty hectic. When there’s a lot of rain in the valley, it is usually pretty changeable up top."
Brooksbank: "The difficult part is going down the steep stuff, to maintain the machinery. The worst thing is during a snow storm, when you’re on the peak. You’re trying to knock a road in and the wind’s blowing 110. That’s downright scary, not hard, scary. You make sure you’ve got a full tank of gas."
Jewett: "I do avalanche patrol. Ski cutting, now that’s sticking your neck out, when you decide what you’re going to do. I lost a co-worker in 1991, and I must confess I’ve started to rethink things.
"Heli-bombing. Flying around in a helicopter hocking bombs out the window. I’ve got two kids and I find myself thinking a lot more than I used to about those dangers."
Thornton: "It’s pretty tough (looking for people). You always hope maybe the next one’s going to be alive. But that’s what keeps this business going, the hope that you can get to someone before they die."
Pique: On a personal level, has anyone or anything ever inhibited you from doing your job?
Tindle: "Not really. I’m the only one doing this sort of thing. I share the job with one other fellow... I work well with all the boys."
Brooksbank: "A few guys still have a really hard time taking directions from a woman, and that makes things difficult.
"It’s the ’90s. Once upon a time you got the girlie posters and the harassment, but you ended up being friends with them."
Jewett: "When I was trying to work my way up from a lift attendant to a lift operator, which was an extra 25 cents an hour, I was told ‘sorry Cathy, no women on the diesel lifts, only electric ones. Now there are more women liftees than men.
"There are not many women in senior positions on the mountain. That’s reality. In a way it’s frustrating. I feel that I can’t get any further. Where I am right now, I have the respect of my co-workers, which I didn’t have at the beginning of my career, but it’s been a long time in coming."
Thornton: "I don’t like it when it’s bloody cold. Some days are just like any other day at the office. Some days there are big avalanches, some days there are beautiful sunsets. But it’s always great when you can help somebody out."