Editor's Note: For almost three decades, Keoki Flagg has been creating images of and for Lake Tahoe, donating his time and artwork to various charities and foundations. Last year, the women of Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows ski patrol were fortunate to be one of them. The photos shown here are examples of what's in the calendar; those remain a surprise.
"Ski patrolling appears glamorous from the outside, but the daily rigors of the job are demanding, both mentally and physically." - Lori Gundersen. Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
Growing up, I never once—not even for a microsecond—thought I’d be a ski patroller. I did think I’d like to share spaghetti with one à la Lady and the Tramp, but be one, heck no. I thought the criteria to patrol came down to having a beard bushy enough to house a colony of birds. I thought wrong.
Instead, I thought becoming an adult meant slotting yourself into some city’s tech scene. But after three miserable years beneath fluorescent lighting, I gave my boss the shaka and beelined it for the Tahoe Sierra. I had no salary and was driving on ‘E,’ and I felt more fucking alive than ever.
Keoki shot nearly fifteen thousand frames of us, saying, "Our Ski patrollers endure Mother Nature’s challenges, keep it real, and personify power and commitment. Theirs is a labor of love, and an example to inspire us all to live deeply now." Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
Unshackled from a job that was sucking the very marrow out of my life, I decided to challenge my preconceptions. I met with Squaw Valley’s patrol director. Medical-wise, I’d done little more than patch the odd knee, but I’d recently survived a course in Outdoor Emergency Care, and that was all patrol needed. The league of my alma mater didn’t matter, nor did my number of LinkedIn connections. What did? My ability to sled the injured down to higher care sans face-planting.
My first year on patrol was wilder than I ever envisioned.
"Overall, we hope the calendar will be able to provide people with avalanche education scholarships, portray what our job entails, and inspire young and old women to follow their dreams." Crystal Winn. Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
87% of Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows professional ski patrol is male, but this doesn’t faze us females. With a little less bicep to work with, we rely on finesse, and just as we ladies like it we’re given no handicaps.
Day two on the job, I was told to use the snowmobile, and that I did, but only after cruising into a tree, bogging it down and tipping it over. Immediately after, my supervisor encouraged me to work on my "skills" by spending the afternoon snowmobiling up challenging terrain. I was shitting bricks and mentally firing off swear words I didn't know I knew, and then I was hooked.
"It takes a unique individual, male or female, to weather the demands of the job...In my opinion, we currently have the strongest group of women ever in my twenty-seven seasons." Lori Gundersen . Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
Week two, I was told to fill my pack with bombs and climb an icy ladder, skis-in-tow, atop a band of cliffs to do avalanche control work. The baller thing about that first AC route wasn’t that I got to ribbon down blower pow before the resort opened, but that Lel Tone lead it. Lel’s one of the world’s best heli-ski guides, as well as an avalanche forecaster and educator. She is also a killer griller of all the meats.
I can speak similarly of all 13 women on Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows patrol. They are all insanely skilled at what they do, and they are why I love my job.
"I loved that the calendar provided an excuse to climb on top of the tram...This job draws people who love adventure and adrenaline." Robin McElroy. Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
A few spicy margaritas deep in Lel's living room one ladies' night last February, we patrollers decided to make a women-only patrol calendar. We tossed around ideas—patrol-themed bikini shots may or may not have been mentioned—and made a napkin plan that later became a fancy Google Doc, and, ultimately, a business proposal. We singled out a cause, avalanche education, and contacted award-winning, local photographer Keoki Flagg.
Spoiler alert: no bikinis feature. Keoki shot us doing what we do best: working on the mountain.
To question a woman's ability to patrol is to doubt that putting on warm underwear fresh from the dryer isn't the best sensation on earth. Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
Lori Gundersen, who’s been paving the way for us female patrollers since 1989, was photographed rappelling off the Ice Goddess, and another, Marielle Russack, is sending it on telemark skis. Me? I’m recharging in the KT22 shack post-avalanche control. As per usual, I look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.
The camera and I have a dicey relationship. To put it in perspective, there were moments during shooting I would rather have been watching a horse drop a deuce in slow motion. But Keoki's a wizard behind the lens, and I found myself cracking up, with just a little bit of breaking out in hives. We bonded over unkempt hair. He appreciated that mine hadn’t seen a hairbrush in five days, at best.
On being photographed by Keoki, Taylor Wood says, "It is surprisingly hard to 'look natural'!" When you're in your element, surrounded by falling snow, it all falls into place. Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
Our individual shots are stellar, but the group one is where the money is; when you mix a visionary photographer with fearless subjects, you can’t help but go all out. Hundreds of feet above the highest tree, we piled on top (i.e., on the fricken outside) of Squaw’s iconic tram and made our best “yeah-I’m-totally-chill” faces.
Keoki snapped away from the opposing tram, his thumbs up the whole time. He was glowing.
Season one patrolling was a trip. My first patient required heli transport for a head injury, and my second’s wrist was hanging on by not a healthy amount, following an intimate encounter with a ski. Then came the radio call requesting an ambulance for my very own dad. Topped off with the calendar, I reckon that warrants a beer, or several.
Do I regret giving up my 401k? Hell no. Am I returning for round two? I’d be nuts to not. Yes, there’s a mountain to patrol, but there’s also a group of rad ladies I need to get back to. The proceeds from our calendar will provide scholarships for avalanche education, and I want to be around to see that happen.
We patrollers like to say our job's better than most people's vacations. Here's proof. Photo by Keoki Flagg courtesy of GalleryKeoki.com.
If you are in the Tahoe area from 6-8pm November 26th, be sure to stop by Gallery Keoki in the Village at Squaw Valley for the calendar release party. There, we will be sharing stories of our shoot during the killer 2015-2016 Winter Season.
Get your 2016-2017 Calendar now, or in stores throughout Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. (By purchasing our calendar, you can help make the community safer, and you can help show your daughters, sisters, wives, lady cousins, aunts, nieces and girlfriends they can be anything. Anything!)
From The Column: Women in the Mountains
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