This Is Me: Lel Tone

The heli skier and mountain guide  shares her passion for the alpine and the most important advise you can get in the mountains: listen to Mother Nature

Interview by Anna Langer, photo by Teva

Skiing means everything to me… Skiing seems to be the thread that has held my whole adult life together. I find it intriguing that the little moment, at the age of two, that my mom and dad helped me put on these little plastic skis that they bought at the grocery store in Switzerland would be such a defining moment for the path my life would ultimately take.
I met my husband Tom, ski racing in college. We were on the same team and co-captained our senior year there. It is skiing that has played a central theme in my professional career choices.

As a child growing up in Switzerland, the mountains, always present, majestic and near, always around me always made me feel “at home”. As I’ve grown and changed over the course of my life they have taken on different meanings for me. They are a place devoid of judgment, they are a place of solitude and beauty, they are a place to push yourself and your limits, they allow me to just BE in the moment to see my life for the gift and miracle that it is. More recently the mountains have been a place that I can learn from and help teach others about. I hope they will never stop being an inspiration to me.

There is no doubt in my mind, that I have the greatest job ever. What other job elicits the response from you clients, that “That was the greatest day of my life!” It makes me smile every time I hear it. I often stop and ask myself: “So wait, you are going to pay ME, to fly around in a helicopter, get out on the top of these beautiful peaks and ski gluttonous amounts of powder, all day long??” Some times I do have to pinch myself.

This is not to say that ALL days heli ski guiding are a dream. There are plenty of days where the avalanche hazard is high and the snowpack suspect. These are extremely stressful times when you are on high alert and your focus is at maximum. These days are exhausting. There are also plenty of days where the snow conditions are less than desirable. Days of skiing breakable crust with a heavy guide pack on, where you fear for the safety of your clients and your own knees. Or days where the snow is so firm that to fall and slide would risk serious injury. These days of worry, make the job sometimes feel like work. But when the stars align and the weather perfect , the snow stable and the snow, “blower” powder, the A-star filled with Jet-A, there is nothing like it in the world!!

There are definitely some down sides. It means lots of early mornings, 4 am wake ups during storm cycles for Avalanche Control. It means, long, 10 plus hour days of shoveling out rope lines and lift towers and patrol shacks. Sore backs and sore legs. There are days when I get screamed at by some angry guest, because their ‘vacation has been ruined’ because of long lift lines or a closed slope. That can be tough sometimes. But the biggest downside of all, is attending to guests that have been seriously injured or worse doing something that they love.

I can’t say I have “favorite” mountains. They are all amazing in their own distinct ways. The Alps for they accessibility, the Tordrillos in Alaska for their inaccessibility.. Kilimanjaro for its rainforests and shrinking glacier standing alone in the African landscape. The Andes for their windblown shining glory. The Sierra Nevada’s for their history and granite. I hope I get a lifetime of exploring them all.

I don’t know why there are less female guides than males. Maybe its because women are smarter, to take up a career as physically challenging and damaging and low paying as guiding…?! Just kidding. In the decade and a half that I have been working as a heli guide, there are definitely more women in the field. I think that mentoring younger women is a critical element to seeing more women become involved. I have been incredibly lucky to have some amazing mentors and advocates as I was getting started. Most…, actually all of them men. It was as a result of their guidance and support that helped me in my career path.

The most important thing to remember when in the mountains is humility. Mother Nature calls all the shots. Period. The mountains don’t care about your goals, your agenda, and your ego. We must be prepared, be smart, try to make sound decisions and be ready when the timing is right and the mountains allow us to do what we desire.

I have “gone for rides” in avalanches on a couple of occasions in my 17 plus years guiding and doing avalanche control. They were all equally terrifying and a great opportunity for me to learn from my mistakes. I feel incredibly lucky to have ended up on the surface of both of them, un injured and unburied. In one circumstance, I was wearing and deployed my BCA airbag pack. I am certain that it was the airbag that kept me on the surface of that particular slide. I like to think of these experiences as Mother Natures way of putting me over her knee and giving me a spanking, a reminder that no matter how much we learn, study, experience, we will never know it all.

Lel is a Teva ambassador, for further information check

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