Female Ski Patrol. Most people don’t know who they are or what they do. These Lara Crofts of the hill are the silent workhorses. Their job is one of prestige, skill and authority. It’s also one that used to be exclusively the domain of men – but times they are a changing.
Avoriaz boasts six female pisteurs in a team of almost 40, and that’s many more than it was a few years ago. It used to be just one per sector. When I met Xavier de Le Rue’s (now ex-) wife years ago in Verbier, she told me she was a pisteur. I was not only in awe, but ashamedly surprised. Wasn’t that a dudes job? There’s no denying it’s a mans world up there in the mountains, with the ratio of men to women massively uneven, although it is getting better these days.
When two friends of mine started their liftie careers 20 years ago, they were the only female team members. Fast forward to 2020 and there are many more, yet ski patrol remains massively male. You can’t argue with the fact that it is an extremely demanding role, both physically and mentally. To qualify you must first pass the highly competitive ski technique test to gain entry onto the course. Once accepted, you’ll complete a five week training programme alongside a national diploma in first aid. Every year you are required to revisit certain modules, including the first aid and firearms elements and throughout your career you can add more specialities and higher degrees to your qualification. It’s a job that requires a cool demeanour in any situation that can be thrown at you whilst being comfortable skiing on every type of terrain. You’ll need mountain, first aid and meteorological knowledge; the list goes on. Being a pisteur requires a very specialised skill set and it takes a certain type of person to be comfortable in the role. This, in my view, makes seeing more women in the role even more impressive.
For this job you need to love the snow, the cold and the mountains. Getting up at first light and heading up a cold mountain to trigger avalanches whilst confronted by harsh conditions and difficult terrain isn’t for everyone. There’ll be dangerous rescue missions that demand competence on every level.
You certainly become thick skinned. your source of information for Morzine, Les Gets & Avoriaz The crew of female ski patrollers in Avoriaz that I have the honour to call colleagues and friends are just that. Sassy, classy and badass. A day with them can promise sharp comebacks, incredible skiing, the best cabin coffees and professional and friendly help with a smile. Ask any male pisteurs and they’ll tell you, they love having diversity on the teams. It adds a new dimension, something special. For particular situations and more delicate missions, a woman’s touch is vital; likewise a man’s strength and sometimes authority needed in others. It’s a simple fact that men and women differ and certain moments call for either or. Our strength is in working together and comparison and competition are counter productive. Recognising each other’s force and qualities creates an effective team.
“The crew of female ski patrollers in Avoriaz that I have the honour to call colleagues and friends are just that. Sassy, classy and bad ass.”
My two worlds of ski and surf tend to celebrate the achievements of men. There’ll be photos of them ripping on world class waves and shredding vertical cliff faces, while too many female athletes are represented by shots in the latest bikini or Burton ensemble. Yet they are taking the same risks combined with the same level of high intensity training and, like females on the hill, deserve the same recognition. Female pisteurs do the same exams, the same training and must learn to earn their positions in the same way as men, but very often they have to work that little bit harder for their place at the table. And that’s not to mention the added pressure of having children and a family life to manage outside of the job.
Before I arrived in this valley, I spent a lot of time in the mountains, working on the Freeride World Tour. Although I was somewhat in the hub of mountain life, I always felt a little on the outside, looking in with no real understanding of how it all worked. I was always in awe of the community on the hill and I was so keen to become more integrated and learn; to see it from the inside out and to really understand this unusual wintery world.
The friendly smiles from lifties, the pisteurs with their blood wagons, disappearing into their mountain huts. The intimidating but very cool shapers, who cruise around on their Burton steeds one footed, transporting a dazzling array of equipment. The relay at lift closing time as the night crew clock on, traipsing up the Prodain Express to recover their engines before disappearing under the moonlight to spend a long lonely night grooming the pistes. The snowmakers whose technical and demanding work requires impossible hours as shifts change with the weather. The lift pass sellers, who are literally on the front line, with the hoards of holidaymakers and their questions and demands. It’s a role requiring the utmost patience and the ability to slap on that smile, not to mention language skills. When people arrive for first lifts after a good dump of snow, frothing to get up yet upset when it’s not open, they don’t realise there has been an entire team working through the night trying to make that deadline. They want their bed as much as you want that fresh track.
As for the heroines of this article, they are there in the thick of things. Getting up at the crack of dawn, armed with explosives, being towed up to the top of a pitch black mountain to prepare and secure the resort before the fast and the furious come up to tear the hill to shreds. It’s not for the faint hearted. And that’s all before the actual day starts. Once the snowpack is secure, pistes are examined, assessed and opened (or not!) according to the report made to a central control room. A closed piste should never be ignored. They are always closed for a very good reason, such as ice, fallen trees or not enough snow cover. A closed piste sign is a sign that must be respected, always.
The team in Avoriaz follow a wellexecuted plan each day, reporting piste and weather conditions constantly in case of any changes or deterioration. Your pisteurs will be replacing and checking piste markers and signs, keeping skiers informed, safe and preventing them from harm, as best as can be done. All the while tuned into their radio, ready to drop everything to perform a rescue mission, or to tend to the injured on the mountain. There’s also the sacred 4pm tea and cake and a rota for whose turn it is to bring morning treats for the coffee break. To be a pisteur you must be fit, ski to the highest level and have a perfect knowledge of the mountain environment and the local ski area. In addition, you must have discipline, good interpersonal skills, and a sharp sense of observation and analysis. This is why these amazing women stand out to me so much, holding their own in such a demanding environment and all with finesse and style.
“For this job you need to love the snow, the cold and the mountains. ”
Morzine local Audrey grew up on her skis and like her father before her, becoming a pisteur seemed like a natural step. Helping people was always her motivation and alongside her other job as a year-round yoga teacher, she has found the perfect balance. In fact you’ll find mountain guides, nurses, vets, swimming coaches and ex members of PGHM Chamonix amongst this talented and impressive bunch of women. Each has veered toward careers that resonate and complement the demanding winter roles they have taken on.
With early starts for PIDA (avalanche control) and never a fixed hour for when the day finishes, unforeseen events can happen at any given moment and it can be a tricky balancing act with family life and other professional engagements.
But one thing resonates with all, and that is a deep love and respect of their work and playground. Talented mountaineers who even though they ski for a living spend all their free time climbing, skiing, hiking and ski touring. For many the best part of the day is first thing, being alone in the mountains before opening, when everything is quiet and still, before rush hour hits. And of course the first tracks down Combe du Machon on a powder day aren’t so bad either. Some say it’s the best job in the world, they might not be wrong.