Shelby Charkowy: A Day in the Life
At 4,200 acres, Lake Louise is one the largest and most versatile ski resorts in Canada – if not the world. Wrangling that terrain is a small but dedicated team: the Lake Louise Trail Crew, or more candidly known: the “Organic Snow Farmers Association of Lake Louise”. With a crew of only nine, OSFALL is a small, but incredibly pertinent piece of the puzzle when it comes to turning Lake Louise into an operational ski resort each winter.
With five years at the Lake, three of which with OSFALL, Shelby Charkowy is the sole female on the crew this year – and is also on her second year as an assistant supervisor. I met up with Shelby at Lake Louise for a day of cutting laps and conversation. It was quickly evident that she takes pride and satisfaction in what she and the OSFALL team accomplish year-round – a sense of pride well deserved. It didn’t take long for our discussion to trend towards the various projects she has been involved with during her time at Lake Louise, and the list and scope of the projects only grew larger throughout the day. While chatting on the egress out of West Bowl, Shelby casually mentioned that the OSFALL summer crew had dug tree wells around each tree needed to be removed for the project. That’s two kilometres of tree wells dug by hand for the egress alone, not to mention the glading needed for the zone. OSFALL works incredibly hard to fabricate the conditions needed to transform the resort, and the thousands of metres of snow fence stretched across the mountain each season speak for the dedication of the small team.
Though the job is physically demanding and the industry is male dominated, Shelby stressed the fact that women shouldn’t be scared to join the crew. She quickly admits that she's the smallest member of the team, but Shelby doesn’t let that effect how she operates on the hill. Referred to as “Shel-Boss” by the rest of her team, and a few patrollers we run into throughout the day, Shelby knows the mountain like the back of her hand (and that's a lot of information, considering that Trail Crew not only has the entire resort to memorize, but also the name for each singular snow fence). I left the hill having found a handful of new favourite corners, a greater sense of gratitude to trail crews everywhere, and with the debate of quitting my job and joining Shelby’s team at Lake. Shelby was kind enough to let me pick her brain on the job, women in the industry, how she ended up in Lake Louise, and even her ski tunes (they include ABBA, so you know she’s got great taste).
What’s your history with skiing? How did you start?
Shelby Charkowy (SC): I’m originally from St. Catharines so I started skiing at Kissing Bridge in Western New York when I was about 6. My grandparents are heavy enthusiasts so they morphed my younger brother and I into their own personal ski gang early on. My Papa checks the weather in Lake Louise every day and lives his ski bum fantasy vicariously through me.
How did you end up working Trail Crew at Lake Louise?
SC: I finished university in 2016 and really wasn’t sure what to do with my life. [Lake Louise] Human Resources held a series of interviews like a five minute walk from my house so I applied for a job and they initially put me in the daycare. It wasn’t long before I realized I wanted a more mountain-operational role and the 6 months I intended to stay for quickly turned into five years. It’s hard not to become the best version of yourself out here. I’ve been with the Trail Crew for three beautifully wind-burnt years.
What's the usual “day in the life” of an Organic Snow Farmer?
SC: My job is probably the greatest job you could get at a ski resort. Proudly, we are the Organic Snow Farmers Association of Lake Louise (OSFALL) and we farm the snow for the people.
Alpine winds in the area are all-time, so to prevent scouring we pound t-steel into the ground, tie vexar to it, and let the drifts grow loud. We travel exclusively on foot for pounding season and I would 100% be lying if I said I loved hiking a post pounder up to Summit Top multiple times every fall. Tying is super fun, though.
Once the drifts start to eat the fences, we raise it, re-tie it, and reset it until we are satisfied with the area. It’s super gratifying to be at home in the village and look up at the ski resort to see thousands of feet of black lines scattered across Summit’s front side. You start seeing these monster drifts on the leeward sides and you know they’re a direct product of your team’s efforts—it’s a long, hard, windy season, but it’s the best.
The cherry on top is that after the snow starts coming, all that work is done on skis with a crew composed of some of your best friends. Wapow.
What are some challenges you find working within the ski industry as a woman? Did you find it difficult to "break in" to on-mountain positions?
SC: Before being brought onto the crew at Lake Louise, I think I had a lot of doubt in how far I could push myself as a person. I definitely didn’t put myself out there for fear of not performing up-to-par within the mountain community. Ski culture has a reputation for being elitist and exclusive, and as a woman trying to poke my head around in it, I was terrified of being rejected. I believe tons of people feel this way about it, too.
With that being said, going out on a limb and immersing myself into said environment was liberating. I was hired on the Trail Crew and of course things were wobbly at first--my muscle memory wasn’t there, I wasn’t the strongest skier on the crew, I had a pretty vague understanding of the program, but it was almost as if I established a competition with myself to let everyone know that I was here and I was going to do my best to kill it. I’m now in year two of assistant supervising.
Sometimes failures hit differently when you’re a girl because there are people out there who already anticipate you screwing up. It’s an unfortunate reality but proving them wrong is then all the more satisfying.
I know I’m not alone when I talk to other women who work in the industry about feeling like I have something to prove every day I come into work. It’s a personal fear of failure but also a fear of minimizing the reputation of other women. It’s a prideful stubbornness to solve problems solo because others first assume you require assistance to do the same job a guy will do on his own. It’s correcting the man addressing “the boys” digging in the snow trench that you’re a girl, or assuring someone that in spite of their rather vocal doubts, she’s responding to their injury and towing them to the base. It’s raising her voice higher when delegating tasks to an entire snowmaking night shift and not apologizing when taking the lead on a project.
I play one role in an industry full of seriously badass women. Like, I’m talking explosive-throwing, haul-rope-riding, hose-wrangling, sled-brapping, life-saving gals who have carved out a space for themselves. I am both proud and privileged to be part of that crowd.
While I do see increased efforts for women to join the front lines, my hope is for the ski community to become more inclusive across the board. I have personally experienced a ton of support in my job and in my community, but I know that isn’t the case for everyone. I see progress being made, mentorships taking fruition, old biases dissipating, but that advancement is only as strong as those who push for it.
I’m 5’5” and easily the smallest member on the Trail Crew, but when I’m working with the team I feel like we are physically the same size. I know that sounds silly, but it’s a good way for me to explain how when you’re dedicated, eager and present, precedence can blur. I’m grateful that my place of work recognizes that when a job needs to get done, it is up to whoever can do it well to get it done regardless of their sex or gender. Just because she has ovaries doesn’t mean she won’t try to push it the way that guy will.
Given the opportunity for a few laps outside of work, where's your go-to spot at Lake Louise?
SC: The consistency that the Whitehorn 1 to Hourglass lap has delivered throughout my time at the Lake has proved it to be the greatest place to ski probably in the world. It is never bad. I am not kidding. Third gate. Go there. You will not be disappointed.
What’s your go to apres?
SC: For the most part I’m a pretty boring home-body. I like making food, reading a book, watching a movie, arting a picture, but sometimes I desperately miss getting weird with my friends. So many parties lost to Covid in the last year! Red and White, the Annual MDBBPIT, a regular Thursday with the crew--sorely missed but not forgotten. Elaborate snow croquet and a good cross-country ski sometimes fills the void, though.
This season has had some periods with minimal opportunity for indoor warm-ups. What are your go to’s for keeping warm & stoked on resort?
SC: Be bold and start cold! My friend mentioned that to me early on in my Trail Crew career and it has helped keep me happy through a long and chilly day. You don’t want to over-layer in the beginning because once you start skiing, you’ll regret that sweaty mess when you’re back on the chair. A thermos of tea or a lil flask of fireball will also go a long way when you’re having trouble keeping warm.
Final Question: What are your preferred tunes to shred to?
SC: If I ever have the opportunity for solo laps on a day off, the music can range all the way from Hilary Duff’s Metamorphosis to the Pirates of the Caribbean score. The consistent rotation, though, usually features Idles, Ty Segall, Alexisonfire, AFI, and of course, ABBA.