What it Takes to be a Professional Ski Patroller – Meet Jill
Jillian Macknee, a RED Mountain ski patroller and Warren Miller featured skier, is someone whose determination and personal drive to achieve goals and break down barriers has led to her success. Not one to take no for an answer, she taught herself how to ski after being told she would never get hired on as a snowboarder for full-time patrol. She is currently starting her fifth season as a patroller, the second as a full-time professional, and just built her house with her partner in British Columbia over the summer. We’d say that’s pretty impressive! We caught up with Jill, as she goes by, following the Warren Miller film shoot to learn more about her journey, motivation and pathway to becoming a ski patroller at RED, and how Helly Hansen supports her day to day duties on the mountain.
Hi, Jill! Where are you from originally, and how long have you been in Rossland, B.C.?
Hi, I’m from Fort Langley, British Columbia. It’s a small town on the Fraser River, though the population there is growing due to the growth of Metro Vancouver. Every time I go home now it’s a little bit different. I made my journey to Rossland, B.C. about 5 years ago and this will be my fifth winter there.
How long have you been a ski patroller? Always at RED?
RED Mountain, in Rossland, B.C. was the first mountain I started patrolling at. Previously, I lived in Golden, B.C. where I volunteered for the Kicking Horse Boot Packing Program, which is essentially pre-season avalanche mitigation. In a nutshell, for eight days, you boot pack the steep chutes of the couloirs to set a more stable snowpack to decrease the chances of an avalanche later in the season.
That was my first exposure to the ski hill operations. From there, I had a buddy suggest I move to Rossland, where I volunteered for the ski patrol at RED Mountain. Ever since I got onto ski patrol I wanted to get hired as a professional patroller. That was my goal! I did three years of volunteer patrol and this will be my second season as a professional patroller.
What is your speciality on the team: i.e. certs, medical training, special talents?
I tried to get hired as a professional patroller for three years. One of the qualifications I needed in Canada was an Avalanche Operations Level 1 Certificate, which I completed. In addition to this, I spend a lot of my free-time in the backcountry. I really draw upon and value my experience here, learning firsthand about the terrain and the snowpack, and gaining a knowledge base from the ‘old cowboys’ on the crew.
The motivation that kept pushing me forward was to encourage the younger generations to challenge themselves, represent females, and prove that it’s totally ok to not fit into stereotypical roles
Is there anyone in particular on the team who’s been a mentor to you?
Yeah, totally! Sparky and Jimmy are two that stand out; they’re the weather forecasters on the crew. I’m always curious what they’re doing, so sometimes I follow them around on ski tours and learn from their experience as well.
What inspired you to become a professional patroller, versus staying as a volunteer?
Well, I kind of wanted to get paid to ski! I grew up snowboarding at Mt. Baker in Washington and I really loved the snowboarding culture. My brother is a die-hard snowboarder; when we were younger, he would spend days out there teaching me.
When I moved to RED and got on the volunteer program, I already felt I was a super strong snowboarder. I could get anywhere on the mountain, haul the toboggan, et cetera, but it became apparent that I wasn’t going to get hired as a patroller on a snowboard. As soon as you tell me no, that I can’t do something, I’m going to prove you wrong. I went out and bought ski boots the very next day and taught myself how to ski. I think that first year I got 100 plus days on my skis. About 30 times a day, I would hit The Cliff, a double black run at RED, and take toboggans down the steep and icy slopes to prove I could do it, and finally started breaking down the barriers. I would also show up for extra shifts or fill in when needed. In addition to this personal motivation, I also have a love for the community here and the medical training we provide to help people on the mountain.
What was it like being in the Warren Miller film?
I feel like if you told any of my friends or family I’d be in movie, they’d be surprised, describing me as shy and quiet. And that’s so true. I’m totally not a “pro-skier”, or a media personality, so it was a bit intimidating when Helly Hansen first approached us. The motivation that kept pushing me forward though was to encourage the younger generations to challenge themselves, represent females, and prove that it’s totally ok to not fit into stereotypical roles, or follow the norm.
Have you ever felt like you’re a representative for women in the industry? If so, how do you manage that extra challenge?
Yes. When I was hired, I was the 4th female out of 30 patrollers on the team. It felt like there was a huge gender divide, especially watching males with the same experience and time commitment get hired ahead of me. It was tough to see that, and I do think it’s still a little un-balanced, but it’s also moving in the right direction as a whole, which is encouraging!
Do you think women can bring a valuable perspective or skillset to a team, particularly in a medical situation?
Totally! There’s plenty of scenarios that happen all the time where it might be better to dispatch a female patroller to provide patient care. One in particular is an upper femur fracture to a female skier, a.k.a. a private area, or chest examinations, et cetera. Another example from experience are children who might be more comfortable talking to a woman. I feel like the ladies on the RED Ski Patrol do a really good job of rounding out the team, but also bring everyone together and show love and support to all in the process.
What is the best / hardest part of the job? Also, how heavy is your gear?
The best part is getting the 5am avalanche, or “avy”, control call. This generally means it’s going to be an awesome powder day and we get to see the sunrise over the mountains. The hardest part is when the snow conditions and weather aren’t great. This often translates to more serious injuries and extrications. Our ski patrol gear is between 30-35 lbs (13-15 kg) on average.
How important is it to trust your gear, and your team? How does Helly Hansen support you in your job day to day?
It’s extremely important. We have to trust ourselves, our teammates, and our equipment. We just got new Helly Hansen jackets and pants that have been awesome compared to our last stuff for staying drier and warmer. When I was working on the Warren Miller film, I got a pair of Dawn Patrol Gloves, and a LIFALOFT™ Hooded Insulator Jacket, which I now wear as a mid-layer under my Helly Hansen ski patrol jacket.
What do you do to keep fit in the off season?
I work as a tree planter, and built a house with my partner, so a lot of hauling wood around! Also, mountain biking at least once a day.
If someone wanted to get involved with RED Ski Patrol, or their local mountain, where should they start?
I would start by getting in touch with the resort and the ski patrol director. Be motivated. Be the person that sticks out, shows up, and prove that you’re dedicated!