Local News

Meet Sarah Forward: Okemo’s lift operations manager

By Karen D. Lorentz

While Sarah Forward’s parents met and married in Vermont, they moved to North Carolina before she was born, so Forward grew up away from Vermont. Trips to visit extended family in Vermont provided a “special time” for her while growing up, but it was an aunt in the Rockies who got her into skiing.

By Bonnie MacPherson
Sarah Forward, Okemo lift operations manager

During spring school breaks, her aunt flew her to Colorado and placed her in ski lessons at Eldora Mountain. “She would take me to Eldora because she received discounted passes there as a member of the National Guard,” Forward said of learning to ski at age 8. “I owe my entire career and love of skiing to her,” she said of those formative trips.

Skiing at Bolton Valley while at the University of Vermont, Forward said that, “I learned that East Coast skiing is very different from Rocky Mountain skiing. It’s a completely different feel and technique that definitely took some getting used to.”

After graduating in 2013, she backpacked abroad for six weeks. “I travelled through Iceland, then bought a Eurorail pass and slept on the trains to save money. I lived on seven dollars a day and visited 18 countries,” she recalls.

Returning to Vermont, Forward began working at Sugarbush Resort as a mountain dispatcher while preparing to apply for medical school. When she didn’t get in, she worked as a ski patroller in training at Bolton Valley at night and as a part-time lift operator at Sugarbush. The following season she became a ski patroller at Sugarbush.

Q&A with Sarah Forward

MT: How did you get to your current job?

SF: I loved patrolling at Sugarbush and became Senior Certified in first aid, skiing, and toboggan handling. But it was difficult to grow as a leader in the department, so after three years I became a lift operator.

My second year, I developed a training program for J-1 lift operators. [The J-1 visa is a temporary, nonimmigrant visa.] When Covid hit, no J-1 visas could be issued, so I hired and trained over 100 domestic lift operators, most of them new, young college students.

After that, I began looking for more opportunities to grow. I began my job as lift operations manager at Okemo in July.

MT: What are your job responsibilities? 

SF: I am responsible for staffing all operating lifts throughout the year. That includes hiring, scheduling, training and growing leaders in my team.

MT: What is your take on working in a ‘non-traditional’ role for women in the ski industry?  

SF: I’ve heard many women in the industry say they never experienced issues related to their gender and that’s really great. I would say, however, that the ski industry is, and always has been, male-centric. It’s hard to fit in unless you become “one of the guys.”

Sometimes as a woman, though, you don’t want that to become your identity. It’s getting better, more inclusive to women, but it still has a long way to go. I think that most leaders are aware of this and are making concerted efforts to include women in the industry equally. There are many badass women leading ski areas around the country, and I can’t wait to see where they take the industry.

MT: What do you like about your job?

SF: The best part of my job, besides the skiing, is watching my staff grow throughout the season and seeing where they go in life, whether it’s at the ski area or somewhere else.

I also really enjoy the people I work with. We are here for the same reason — a passion for skiing or riding. We are willing to work hard and enjoy playing just as hard the rest of the time.

MT: Any influences or mentors?

SF: My husband has worked as a lift operations supervisor for many years. I have always respected his approach to managing his employees and often look to how he approaches things when in difficult situations.

I have also had many people offer bits of wisdom — sit down for coffee, conversation, and to help guide me in my career. Some were fellow ski patrollers, some were fellow lift operators, others were leaders in other departments.

I’ve also had the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with a number of former general managers and have been able to tap their brains over the years.

So, while I never had a designated mentor, I always had a strong network of mentors around me who helped me navigate some of the most challenging periods of my career.

MT: What are the greatest changes you’ve seen? 

SF: I have seen very significant changes in the industry with regards to inclusion. When I first started working in the industry eight years ago, it was incredibly rare to see a female in a leadership position in mountain operations. And often those women did not last long in those positions.

Women were also expected to be able to do the same things physically that the men could do or else they were not given equal opportunities for leadership. Now, there is a greater appreciation for different strengths and a better commitment to not excluding women because of perceived physical weakness.

In fact, I think people now realize that women in the industry are incredibly strong in a variety of ways. It takes a great deal of perseverance and mental/physical fortitude to make a career in this industry.

The industry is also doing a better job of including people of diverse backgrounds. Our country is becoming more and more diverse — politically, religiously, ethnically, and culturally — and the ski industry is beginning to understand they must keep up to be sustainable.

There’s also a stronger emphasis on creating clearer pathways for leadership growth. Many leaders are looking to develop new leaders to follow in their footsteps.

MT: How would you describe the mountain or ski town lifestyle? 

SF: Each mountain community has a different vibe and I really like that. It’s fun to visit different ski areas — see how they do things, discover what features are important to that community, delve into the history of the place and its people. The histories of ski communities are fascinating and usually filled with almost unbelievable stories.

MT: What’s your take on winter?  

SF: I somehow feel most alive in winter — it’s an incredibly beautiful and soul-centering season. I enjoy the quietness, the fresh perspective on the landscape, and the coziness of days curled up in front of the fire. And of course, not much beats the feeling of skiing and snowboarding — it is so, so fun! Getting out with your friends on a powder day, riding hard, then communing over a few drinks after is what it’s all about.

MT: What would you say to someone who wanted to work at a ski resort?

SF: Work hard, be on time, get out and ski/ride whenever you get the chance. Meet people, make new friends, take advantage of the season and don’t be afraid of the cold! Once you get moving you get used to it, and you’ll make so many meaningful memories.

The ski industry is really great to be a part of. And it’s a great time to join — there are so many opportunities for growth and leadership development right now. Wages are going up and the culture is very inclusive. Come be a ski bum for a winter (or 10!) and you’ll never regret it.

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