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Aspen Highlands Has a New Ski Patrol Director, But This Isn’t Her First Rodeo

Patrol veteran Lori Spence slated to become Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol’s first female director

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International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. In support, we’d like to introduce you to some of the women making a positive impact in skiing.

According to a recent New York Times story, women now account for 23 percent of the 31,027 patrollers nationwide—up from 19 percent in 2007. Men still dominate leadership roles in the field, but when Mac Smith, a legendary Aspen figure, stepped down from Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol last month after 42 years in the role, a woman was named acting director.

Lori Spence, 59, who joined Highlands Patrol 36 years ago and who has served as assistant patrol director for the last four years, was named acting director February 1, and a shoo-in for the official title come next ski season. During her first week on the job, Aspen Highlands received its biggest storm of the season, on top of record-dangerous avalanche conditions.

The pandemic has added challenges to avalanche mitigation—COVID restricts the number of boot packers patrol can deploy to pack out Highland Bowl, a necessary step for compacting the layers of snow in the 2,500-foot, 270-acre area of complex avalanche terrain—and communication. Social distancing protocol has eliminated the morning meeting at the base area, and the patrol director can no longer catch up with her entire team in the locker room.

But Spence has overcome challenges on and off the mountain before. A mother of two college-age boys, she patrolled through both her pregnancies and discreetly pumped at the ski area’s mountaintop patrol headquarters. She also patrolled through radiation treatment, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago at the beginning of the ski season—six weeks after her mother passed away from the disease. Spence hiked Highland Bowl—an almost 800-foot ridgeline bootpack to a 12,392-foot summit—each day she had radiation.

“She’s one of the group—she’s not on a management pedestal,” says Mike Spayd, director of snow safety. “This group needs somebody who can balance the managerial component of the job but still be out there on the front lines doing the everyday tasks that need to get done. Her main incentive is still to get outside. She’s not an admin who will fit in the patrol work; she’s a ski patroller who fits the other work in—in her ski boots.”

At Spence’s first patrol job at Arizona Snowbowl, more than 30 years ago, she made $3.25 an hour and often parked cars as part of the job. For two seasons, she patrolled for Squaw Valley while her husband completed his medical residency in Reno. When she joined Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol in 1985, she joined two other women on staff. Long before uphilling was popular, they would skin to work on 210-centimeter telemark skis.

For more than three decades that Spence has served on patrol, she never worked with more than a handful of women each season. One ski season, she was the only female on patrol. But Spence dismisses that as a hurdle and says she’s always been treated fairly and with respect. Her husband, Kim, says Spence has a knack for letting hot oil roll off her back. Her male colleagues say she’s always completed the same tasks as they have, and completed them well.

On a powder day in mid-February, I meet Spence at Aspen Highlands for some laps off the Deep Temerity chairlift. She skis the bump-filled tight trees with the reflexes of someone half her age who also didn’t have a double knee replacement three and a half years ago.

But her grace is the kind only developed after decades of 100-day seasons. On the slow lift rides, it’s clear Spence is humble, almost to a fault, but a natural leader. She exudes a quiet strength and competent energy that commands respect. Rather than feeling intimidated by the popularity of her predecessor, she’s inspired by his legacy. No doubt she’ll apply all this to a job she’s destined to carry out.

I’m sure you’ll have the opportunity to make changes and impact patrol going forward. For now, what part of the current legacy do you want to upold?
Mac [Smith] excelled at hiring good people. He had great intuition. I hope to continue hiring good patrollers. The camaraderie among all the patrollers is unique. It brings me a lot of joy to be with these passionate characters—they make me laugh so much. When I diagnosed with breast cancer, everyone here was so supportive.

TESS: How would you describe your management style?
LORI: At today’s morning meeting [outside, at PHQ], I said, ‘It’s all about communicate, communicate, communicate.’ I think women are natural communicators, and I want to keep the lines of communication as open as possible—whether that’s attending management meetings and relaying all of the info back to patrol or keeping them in the loop about Aspen Skiing Company’s future goals and projects at Highlands.

What was it like at Highlands when you started on patrol?
Whip Jones [the fun-loving ski-area pioneer who helped establish Highlands as a maverick mountain] owned the area. Working for Whip, we were the underdog mountain. They called us a “training mountain,” where ski patrol came and trained so they could go make more money working for Aspen Skiing Company. I’ve seen a lot of changes over time and watched it grow—everything from opening up the entire Bowl to new expansions areas we’ve been able to open. Oly Bowl opened a few years after I started to work at Highlands. There were four slow lifts to the top. Our patrol room was in an old barn and the roof leaked. The base had A-frame buildings with the classic après-ski bar. Bar slides were very popular.

It sounds like patrollers at Highlands are very supportive of each other. Any incidents of blatant sexism over the years?
I remember pulling up with a rig [rescue toboggan] and an injured guest saying “How are you going to take me down?” Actually, that’s happened a few times. I think my look says, “You want a ride or not?”

What challenges do you foresee facing on the job this coming year?
When inter-employee conflicts arise, which isn’t often, it’s not my favorite part. I try to step back and listen to both sides. I sometimes suggest delaying the conversation until the next morning so all parties can approach the issue after some reflection. Sometimes it feels like I need a psychology degree.
Other challenges I foresee will be making decisions regarding promotions among patrollers. We have so many qualified employees to choose from who are friends and coworkers. Also, we have about six people shadowing us who want to ski patrol in the future who all seem highly qualified.

What’s helped the most when it comes to managing people?
I’ve tried to treat everyone with respect. And they give it back—it’s a win-win.

You’ve also been managing the avalanche dog program [with Brad Benson from Aspen Mountain] for decades. Tell us about that.
I’m training my third dog—a high-energy black lab named Meka. The dogs come to work daily with their tails up high and are enthusiastic in every way. They have taught me to keep a good attitude.

You’ve been at this job a long time—and it’s not getting any easier. Are you still excited to go to work?
Yes! I’m still excited to go to work every day, which is actually a bit shocking to me in my 36th season. On the way to work, I am thinking about how the day is going to roll. I’m considering whether we have new snow and what avalanche work needs to be done; if there was any winching with the cat; whether we are opening any new terrain… Just trying to check tasks off my list. And my list can get lengthy now it includes things I wasn’t involved in before, like summer projects and budgets.

Thinking back to your first season on ski patrol, did you ever expect you’d stick with this career for 36 years?
I never thought about what I was going to do in so many years. I’ve been pretty content in this job. I do love it. I was always content where I was, and I debated whether or not I wanted to move into management. Most of us at Highlands want to be busy and out on the hill. It invigorates me to be outside as much as I can. I still want to keep the “ski” in ski patrol.