By David Goodman
Two feet of snow had fallen at Alta, Utah, and ski patroller Caroline Dillon had been busy bombing and skiing since early that morning to get the mountain ready to open. When I found her at the Alta Ski Patrol shack at the top of the Supreme lift, her eyes sparkled with excitement. “We’re opening Devil’s Castle. There’s been 69 inches of snow since the last time it was open. I skied it this morning. Do you want to follow me?”
The crew of Vermonters with whom I was skiing erupted in simultaneous smiles. Many of us have known Caroline and her brother James since they were tykes skiing at Mad River Glen. Their dad John is a Mad River ski patroller (when not working as an airline pilot for United), and mom Sue was the local school nurse. My daughter Ariel and Caroline are fast friends from high school. I had the excellent job of taking Ariel, Caroline, and their friend Jess backcountry skiing around Vermont and New Hampshire on their school vacations.
I ribbed Caroline and asked her if she still whines about going uphill. She laughed good naturedly. Moments later, she was waiting patiently above me as I slowly followed her up a long boot track to ski the untracked prize that she had generously saved for us. I plunged down into the powder, whooping in surprise and excitement as snow boiled up around my waist and smacked me in the face.
At the bottom, I turned around to admire Caroline arcing beautiful high speed turns down the Apron. A crowd stopped to watch her. “That’s Caroline. She’s a new patroller here,” one of the locals explained to his partner. They nodded approvingly.
Alta ski patrollers Caroline and James Dillon are a rarity. The Vermont-born siblings are among the few brother-sister duos on a professional patrol. And Caroline is one of a small number of women patrollers at a major western ski area.
I took a break from skiing Alta powder to talk with the Dillons.
DG: What is it like to stand at the top of Alta with no tracks below you and drop in?
Caroline It feels like a dream. I have to remind myself that it’s actually happening. I take a lot of mental pictures.
DG: Tell us about where you two grew up and what brought you to Utah.
James: Caroline and I grew up in the Mad River Valley in Vermont. I started skiing when I was about two and haven’t stopped since then. I ended up in Utah eight years ago to go to Westminster College. I would leave in the summers, but I kept coming back in the winter to Alta.
DG: How do you describe where you come from to people out here?
Caroline: Waitsfield is a small little ski town in central Vermont. The summers are beautiful, the falls are beautiful, the winters are cold and the skiing’s fun. If you grew up skiing on the west coast, you probably just have to accept that skiing at Mad River Glen is an experience, but definitely one worth having. It’s a small little mountain with a little single chair and a couple double chairs and a lot of ice and rocks and tight trees. It’s a really fun place to ski and definitely teaches you how to ski all the terrain.
DG: What lured you from Vermont to Utah?
Caroline: I kind of followed my brother. He went to school before me. I came out and I saw the mountains for the first time. I had pictured myself going to UVM but as soon as I saw the Wasatch, I realized that it would be foolish to pass up what’s out here. So I came out, went to nursing school for four years, fell in love with Alta, and just kept telling myself I’d stay for one more year, one more year. Seven years later, I’m still here.
DG: When did you decide to become a patroller?
Caroline: Well, I had been working as a nurse in Salt Lake City for about two years and really enjoying it. But I grew up with my dad as a patroller. I knew that he loved it, and then I watched James patrol at Alta and saw how great of a community it is, how much they get to ski, handle explosives, and all that. I knew that all my medical training would be really well applied here, so I figured I’d give it a try. I didn’t think I would make the cut. But here I am now.
DG: James, what does it take to make the cut as a patroller at Alta?
James: Well, you have to know the mountain really well. You have to be a good skier. You have to have the medical requirements. And then it’s really just a matter of spots opening on a patrol. My year, five spots opened, but the year before that, only two. Caroline’s year, there were four. It’s a low number of openings for the number of applicants.
DG: How big is the Alta patrol?
James: About 80. We have between 20 or 30 on hill every day.
DG: You were a patroller here for one season when your sister announced that she wanted to be a patroller. What did you think?
James: It took a little bit of thought. But it doesn’t really change my role as a patroller. It’s another person to look out for. I think it’s great that she wanted to come out and work with us. She’s competent enough and gets the job done. She’s a good teammate. It was just a dynamic change in the brother and sister relationship. I had never worked with her. On the off chance that she or I wasn’t able to cut it, that makes one of us look bad. But that’s not the case.
DG: What about for you, Caroline?
Caroline: It’s really nice to know that I’ve got someone else looking out for me, more than on a professional level. I know that he’s got my back and watching to make sure that I’m safe and doing things right. It’s also nice to have somebody that I feel really comfortable asking any question to and not feeling stupid. Because there are a lot of questions that I want to ask and don’t want to look like that rookie who’s out of the loop. It’s been really great. And I’ve got a good carpool partner in the morning.
DG: Are the most intense times as a patroller when you’re doing avalanche control routes?
Caroline: Those are definitely high consequence situations. You’ve got a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, not only for yourself and your partners when you’re running that route, but also thinking about the public going in there as well, making sure that they’re safe. The decisions that you make affect everybody at the mountain that day.
DG: On high avalanche danger days, do you worry about your brother?
Caroline: Yeah, absolutely. I know that the route that he runs is a potentially dangerous one—there are terrain traps and possible places to get hung up. But I know his route partners and I know that they’re thorough and thoughtful and they’re safe and I definitely trust all of them very much. Our whole crew out here—we all have each other’s backs.
DG: James, tell me about your avalanche control route.
James: My route has been referred to as a cold, dark, place. It’s north-facing, it’s deep, it’s rocky, and there’s a lot of little pockets that are triggered easily with a bad snow pack. It’s boney terrain.
DG: Does it make you nervous doing routes?
James: Yeah, there’s always some—I wouldn’t call it anxiety—it’s kind of excitement. But there’s a lot of responsibility for yourself and for your route partners. You have to be really aware and responsible.
DG: Have you ever been caught in a slide?
James: No—knock on wood. But a lot of people have been caught on my route.
DG: What is the avalanche training that you’ve had to take?
James: I came into the job with my level two, which is a lot more snow science than level one. But there are patrollers who don’t have a level two and there’s a lot of on-the-job training. It’s all hands-on, we have beacon drills out on the mountain, and we do hasty searches, which is like a mock avalanche. Any time you want, you can grab someone more knowledgeable than you and go dig a snow pit.
DG: Do you worry about Caroline on days with high avy danger?
James: Of course—definitely. I don’t think about it as much, but I know that there are a lot of avalanches happening. That’s something to think about, definitely.
DG: How many women are on the patrol here?
Caroline: There are six full-time female patrollers.
DG: Do you feel like a pioneer?
Caroline: It’s been interesting, especially coming from a field where I worked primarily with women co-workers and women patients. I definitely felt like I really had to prove myself a lot more. Just being a smaller person and a female, there were a lot more doubts from people on patrol and people at the mountain. I feel like I have to work pretty hard to earn respect. But I feel like at this point in the season I’ve earned it.
DG: Talk about the work that you do when you’re not here.
Caroline: I used to work for a forensic nursing team doing sexual assault examinations in Salt Lake County, which was pretty intense and demanding work. I did that for about a year. Now, I work for Planned Parenthood at one of their clinics in Salt Lake City. It’s been interesting going from work that is really exhausting on an emotional level, to work here that is still tiring, but more physically. And there’s a lot more fun involved being up here.
DG: Do you feel like the skills you’ve learned in your other job are helpful in the work you do here?
Caroline: All my medical training as a nurse is really valuable. And working in the women’s health field, I feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. It definitely has made it easier to ask hard questions.
DG: What would you say to other women who think about wanting to be a ski patroller?
Caroline: Go for it! It’s a really fun job. The community on patrol is really amazing. If you love to ski all the time and you like to help people, definitely go for it. Don’t be dissuaded by the hard work that’s involved, because it’s definitely worth it.
DG: What’s special about Alta?
Caroline: So much. Alta feels a lot like Mad River in the way that it’s a small town and there’s a great community that’s here. The terrain and the snow are amazing, but I wouldn’t stay here if the community wasn’t what it is.
DG: What’s your favorite part of patrolling?
Caroline: This year has been a phenomenal snow year and skiing powder has definitely been the top of the list.
DG: Do you get first tracks on pretty much everything?
Caroline: When we finish controlling a route, you can ski the rest of it, so we get some pretty good tracks.