Our minds went crazy when we hadn’t heard from Teva skier, Lel Tone. We weren’t worried; in fact, we pictured her scoring fresh tracks up in Alaska, dangling off a cliff or in her own words: “More than likely hanging on a rope in a crevasse or running a mock rescue.” How punk rock is that?!
Lel’s the real deal and our first snow ambassador to join the Teva team after we announced our drop into snow sports this season. What makes Lel tick you ask? Her standard Madlib answers might include “hugs”, “Alaska” and even the comedic “Fatbooth” ap. How do these all relate you ask? Read further and you too may go missing for a few days living better stories just like Lel.
Hi Lel! Let’s get to it! What does skiing mean to you?
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—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 even met my husband Tom, ski racing in college. We were on the same team and co-captain our senior year there. It’s skiing that has played a central theme in my professional career choices.
Have you always loved being in the mountains?
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 grow 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 bein 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. They will never stop being an inspiration to me.
Where are you favorite mountains of all times?
I can’t say I have “favorite” mountains. They are all amazing in their own distinct ways. The Alps for their 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 Nevadas for their history and granite. I hope I get a lifetime of exploring them all.
What’s the most important thing to remember when in the mountains?
Humility. Mother Nature calls all the shots. Period. The mountains don’t care about your goals, your agenda or 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.
Have you ever been in an avalanche yourself and if so, can you describe the experience?
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, uninjured 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 Nature’ss 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.
Working as a heli ski guide must be the dream job on earth—is it?
There is no doubt in my mind, that I have the greatest job ever. What other job elicits the response from your 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. Days 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 is perfect, the snow stable and snow, “blower” powder deep, the A-star filled with Jet-A, there is nothing like it in the world!!
What are the downsides of working as ski patroller?
There are mostly upsides to working as a Ski patroller at a world-class ski resort. I get to ski for free. I get first tracks on a powder day. I get to watch the sunrise over Lake Tahoe with my fellow co-workers. I get to be outside in the sun and the storms everyday in the winter months and watch Mother Nature make her magic happen. I get to work with the most amazing team of people, people that feel more like family than co-workers. A team that trust each other with their lives. Relationships that can only be bonded by working in a risk heavy environment.
There are definitely some downsides. It means lots of early mornings, 4 am wake ups during storm cycles for Avalanche Control. It means, long, ten 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, that their vacation is ruined because, (despite the sun shining and the snow perfect), “Why isn’t that slope open?!”, or “Why are the lift lines so long?!” or “That snowboarder cut me off!!…” Being a punching bag for angry people, who no matter what, refuse to enjoy or appreciate their vacation time because it is not exactly how they “planned” it, is tough sometimes. But the biggest downside of all, is attending to guests that have been seriously injured or killed doing something that they love.
Why do you think are there so many more guy guides out there than females? Is there something that could be done to improve this?
I’m not sure I know the answer to this one…(maybe it’s because women are smarter, to take up a career as physically challenging and damaging and low paying as guiding…?! Just kidding.) I do know that times are changing. 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.
How do you gain respect in your male-dominated field?
Work hard. Play harder. Be a good listener. Don’t ask stupid questions. Be the first one to step forward to do even the least sought after tasks. Help your co-workers out when ever you can. “I got your back” type of thing. Strive to be bigger, better, faster stronger. Have a thick skin and never take yourself too seriously. (I’m still working on that one.) Doesn’t this hold true for everyone male or female?
It seems like you were born and raised to ski. Did you ever feel any other calling for something more traditional? Was there a Plan B if skiing didn’t work out?
I wouldn’t say my other calling was something more traditional, I never wanted to be a doctor or a veterinarian or anything like that, but in high school I fell in love with Modern Dance. I had this amazing dance teacher June Jeswald, a beautiful woman in her late 60’s who danced with Martha Gramm. At that time in my life, that form of expression captivated me. I contemplated the idea of perusing a life as a professional dancer (not what you’re thinking…), not exactly a “Plan B”. I don’t think Alvin Alley would have me…plus I knew a life of dance would potential take me to the city and away from the mountains I loved so much..
In addition to skiing, you’re raced mountain bikes and paddleboards at professional levels. We’ve also heard that you like to drive fast. As an adrenaline speed junkie, where do you draw the line?
I draw the line a lot and step away from risk when I can. I have a lot of respect for the numbers game. After a while it becomes the repetitive risk of exposure that gets all of us in risk taking line of work. No matter how careful we try to be.
Do any sports or adventures scare you? Which ones and why?
BASE jumping and wing suits The lure of flight is strong in all of us: Who doesn’t want to fly? I’ve seen lots of friends get hurt and lose their lives to this desire.
What item do you always carry in your ski jacket that makes your day better?
Chocolate and chapstick!
You’re usually more behind the snow scenes: What was it like working on the Warren Miller shoot in front of the cameras?
It was a totally different experience to be in the mountains and only have to worry about skiing well and taking care of myself. Usually as a guide I am worried about the safety of my clients and making good decisions in the mountains knowing I have people’s lives in my hands. Sometimes that weighs very heavily, and for good reason, it should! The experience in Kashmir filming with Warren Miller felt strangely liberating in a way.
How many days per year do you wear ski boots?
Too many. By mid May, my toes are having fantasies of being barefoot on the beach.
Out of all the places in the world to live and ski, why Tahoe?
Tahoe is beautiful!!!! The Maritime snowpack is generally stable, it snows in feet, not in inches. Incredible storm cycles are almost always followed by cloudless bluebird days. Its always sunny in Cali, and it makes you feel guilty not to go play outdoors, besides, where else can you paddleboard or waterski, ski great corn snow and ride your mountain bike or climb world class granite all in one day?
LEL TONE’S TIPS FOR AN EPIC SNOW TRIP
Where in the world is this dream spot?
The Tordrillo mountains in Alaska. There are so many unexplored descents to be found there. For anyone that has spent time in the mountains and been at the mercy of Mother Nature, we know it is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. So for the stars align, the weather needs to be perfect, the snow stable, the lines fat and the conditions perfect, it is a precious and beautiful thing. Being patient is the name of the game and knowing when the time is right is key to an epic trip.
What tools are you using to time it right?
Noaa.gov: for zonal forecasts to see how much blower pow is falling in the Tordrillos.
Avalanche.org: To link you to the right forecast centers around the US so you can hit it when the snow stability is good.
We know there are no friends on a powder day but who would you bring with you?
I would bring my husband and fellow guide, Tom Wayes with me. I know this would be the perfect trip and nothing would go wrong but if the shit were to hit the proverbial fan, Tom’s the one to put the pieces back together. No joke, he’s the one I’d want to have my back.
Now that you’ve made it and everything seems to be going according to plan what’s the soundtrack?
That’s an easy one. My incredibly talented little brother’s new album “Thanks for This”. Check it out on iTunes! Franchot Tone kicks ass!