Female ski groomers blaze trails in snow sports industry
March 30, 2014
During Katy Crook's final year of high school, she stumbled across an advice column in "Ski" magazine. A reader had written in to ask how he might become a "ski bum" and still earn a solid income. The answer was: Attend Colorado Mountain College and get a degree in ski area operations.
That's all it took for Crook to move, enroll and start building a life in the mountains.
"I always knew I wanted to work in the ski industry, but I never knew it could be such a great career," she said.
Now, with an associate degree in ski area operations and more than a decade of experience, Crook has become an accomplished, sought-after groomer. And she's not the only woman on the hill. She and a growing number of female snowcat operators are making names for themselves in a traditionally male-dominated field.
When Allison Kohn heard about the ski area operations program at Colorado Mountain College, she moved from the Northwest to a state she'd never seen and began taking classes.
"I was originally pursuing ski patrol," she said. But a CMC grooming lab proved that she had a knack for handling large equipment.
"I realized you didn't have to be big and burly to drive a snowcat," she said. "It's more of a mental thing that involves a lot of multitasking."
In her second year at Colorado Mountain College's campus in Leadville, Kohn secured an internship at Beaver Creek. In 2004 she landed the coveted Rookie Snowcat Operator of the Year award. She graduated with an Associate of Applied Science in ski area operations in 2005, and in 2008 was named Beaver Creek's Operator of the Year.
Kohn's greatest thrill was working on the World Cup grooming team in 2012 and 2013.
"I was the first woman to run the snowcat there," she said.
Katy Hanlon always knew she wanted to work in the ski industry, but she didn't discover her passion for large machinery until she took a grooming lab at CMC.
"It really stuck with me," she said, "the idea that you can drive up and down a mountain in a vehicle."
Hanlon said her classwork and labs gave her a strong understanding of industry expectations.
"I applied to work at Vail Resorts with a fellow CMC student," she said. "We both felt really prepared in comparison to the other rookie groomers."
Hanlon, CMC class of 2009, was the first — and is now the only — female terrain park grooming foreman at Vail.
"I love the creativity," she said. "We're creating big works of art in snow that people get to ride."
Debbie Caves, adjunct instructor in Colorado Mountain College's ski area operations program in Leadville, began her career as a groomer at nearby Copper Mountain in 1995.
"Back then," said Caves, "the half-pipes were smaller, and the consequences of making a mistake weren't so heavy, so I got to practice." All that practice paid off, and Caves is now in great demand for her expertise creating the intricate half-pipe courses snow sport enthusiasts expect.
One of the benefits Caves offers her CMC students in the heavy equipment lab is the chance to ride along with her, to observe her skills in action.
"It's challenging work," she said. "I can prepare students for what to expect when they actually come out and search for jobs."
Opportunities await women
The opportunities for women in the snow sports industry have always been there, noted Jason Gusaas, assistant professor in Colorado Mountain College's ski area operations program.
"It's relatively rare, even now, to get women in the snowcats," he said, "but when we get them, they excel."
Paul Rauschke, ski area operations associate professor, heartily agreed.
"At the risk of being called a dinosaur, there are differences between men and women," he said. "Most women 18-25 have a higher aesthetic and attention to detail. Doing a job that requires operating a 300-horsepower palette knife, the women are fantastic."
Kohn laughed, "I've had foremen tell me their dream team would be a team of all women."
For more information about the ski area operations program at Colorado Mountain College, contact Gusaas at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-486-4229.