Lel Tone is the guide you want to have your back


In­side her house, a cozy cabin with a cherry red door that neigh­bors a cross-coun­try ski cen­ter in Ta­hoe City, Cal­i­for­nia, Lel Tone is fry­ing a sal­mon she caught her­self in a pan in her kitchen. She un­corks a bot­tle of wine and chops broc­coli on a cut­ting board. She’s pe­tite—5 feet 2 inches tall—but strong, with brawny arms and a sharp jaw­line. She has wispy blond hair and a perky, unas­sum­ing smile.

“A lot of lit­tle things can go wrong when you’re in a hurry,” she says, cut­ting me­thod­i­cally. “Like be­ing around a he­li­copter—if you don’t shut the door prop­erly, or put your ski strap on prop­erly, shit can hit the fan. You’ve got to move slowly and de­lib­er­ately, be fo­cused and present.”

It’s good ad­vice for life in gen­eral but im­per­a­tive for Tone’s life in par­tic­u­lar. While she’s built a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in the moun­tains, she’s achieved it thanks to an ex­treme level of care and cau­tion. You should be in­tim­i­dated by Tone, but you won’t be, be­cause she’s too damn nice.

First, her re­sumé: Tone, 48, has worked as a heli ski guide in Alaska for the last 18 years—as a lead guide with Chugach Pow­der Guides and Tor­drillo Moun­tain Lodge. She’s guided ath­letes and film crews from War­ren Miller and Stan­dard Films around the Chugach. She’s been a Squaw Val­ley ski pa­troller for 24 years and she’s one of a few pa­trollers who can lead ev­ery avalanche con­trol route on the moun­tain. She’s a cer­ti­fied in­struc­tor with the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute for Avalanche Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion and a co-founder of the women’s avalanche safety clin­ics, S.A.F.E. A.S.

In 2015, Tone was on the win­ning team of a Na­tional Geo­graphic Chan­nel re­al­ity show called “Ul­ti­mate Sur­vival Alaska,” where she and a moun­tain climber and four-time Idi­tarod cham­pion were dropped in the mid­dle of the Alaskan wilder­ness with min­i­mal sup­plies. They went on to beat out com­peti­tors, like a for­mer Navy SEAL and vet­eran moun­taineers, in a 13-leg trek to the fin­ish line across glaciers, peaks, and swollen rivers.

She’s an Alaskan fish­ing guide and for­mer pro moun­tain bike racer; she’s worked pit crew for off-road races across the desert; and she lives out of a truck in Baja, Mex­ico, for weeks at a time dur­ing the shoul­der sea­son. If you go pad­dle­board­ing with her, you will not be able to keep up. (Although she will kindly wait for you.)

Tone may be a lit­eral sav­ior in the moun­tains, but she’s also hu­man. She has fears, in­se­cu­ri­ties, and an un­ex­pected gen­tle­ness. In dis­ci­plines like heli ski guid­ing and ski pa­trolling, where be­ing ma­cho and brave are reign­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics, Tone is above all else, vul­ner­a­ble.

“There’s this per­cep­tion that Lel’s this com­plete badass. And yes, she’s strong—she’s more ripped than most fit peo­ple half her age,” says Maura Mack, one of Tone’s best friends for the last two decades. “But if you know her well, you know she lives with her heart for­ward. She makes a point of truly con­nect­ing with peo­ple.”

When Mack first met Tone, on the side of Thomp­son Pass, out­side of Valdez, Alaska, in the mid 1990s, Tone in­vited Mack, then a to­tal stranger, in­side her RV for a meal. “Here we are in the mid­dle of nowhere, in an RV, and Lel is like, ‘Do you want some salad?’” Mack re­mem­bers. “I was struck by how wel­com­ing and in­stantly nur­tur­ing she was.”

Un­like most brawny, steel-faced moun­tain guides, Tone has a rare level of com­pas­sion and em­pa­thy. And that’s pre­cisely what makes her so valu­able in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions. She will fix your flat tire on a moun­tain bike ride, then, when you cat­a­pult head-first into rocks be­cause you’re try­ing too hard to keep up with her, she will clean your wounds and call you that night to make sure you don’t have a con­cus­sion. On a backcountry tour, she will point out is­lands of safety, set the skin track, share her snacks—and then let you drop in first.

“She doesn’t try to be some­one else nor does she try to im­press oth­ers,” says Scott Schell, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North­west Avalanche Cen­ter. “It seems that so many ath­letes and guides in the in­dus­try are con­stantly try­ing to be big­ger than life, but not Lel.”

So where does that com­pas­sion come from? And why has she ded­i­cated her life not just to spend­ing time in the moun­tains but to saving oth­ers when they’re at their weak­est? And if she’s so busy help­ing oth­ers, does she have a chance to save her­self? To find those answers, you’ve got to look back at the mo­ments in Tone’s life when trauma de­railed her path and she made the de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to keep bar­rel­ing through.

Les­ley Tone was born in New York City, but her par­ents flew her to Switzer­land when she was just a few days old. Her fa­ther, Pas­cal Tone, was the pres­i­dent of an Amer­i­can col­lege in Lugano, Switzer­land, so that is where Lel—her nick­name from a young age—and her younger brother grew up, at­tend­ing Catholic school and speak­ing Ital­ian.

Ev­ery Wed­nes­day, as part of her school­ing, she’d load a school bus with her class­mates and ski at a lo­cal re­sort. When her fam­ily moved back to the U.S. when she was 10, set­tling in north­ern Mas­sachusetts, they be­gan spend­ing week­ends in Ver­mont to ski.

She had a smooth, easy child­hood—un­til the day her mom van­ished. When Tone was 15, her par­ents took a trip to the Caribbean is­land of St. Barts. Her mother, Sanda Coogan Tone, went for a walk on the beach and never re­turned. Tone’s fa­ther and lo­cal law en­force­ment searched for San­dra, but there was no trace. Pas­cal flew home and told his chil­dren that their mom had dis­ap­peared.

“I re­mem­ber my brother was in pieces, and I re­al­ized, as I’m sit­ting there lis­ten­ing to my fa­ther tell me that my mother is miss­ing, that I needed to step up to the plate right now,” Tone re­mem­bers. “That has got to be the most bru­tal thing for a fa­ther to tell his chil­dren.”

With her mother gone and her dad and brother un­rav­el­ing, Tone had no choice but to stand strong and help the fam­ily get their lives back on track. Four years later, when Tone was 19, a kid look­ing for his ball be­hind a church in St. Barts found a skele­ton next to a tree. It was San­dra. Her cause of death has never been con­firmed.

“My dad is my to­tal rock. I’m sur­rounded by that sur­vivor at­ti­tude,” Tone says. “It’s served me well in my adult­hood. In this life, you can ei­ther lay down and let it bury you or break you, or you can move for­ward. There are these fi­nite mo­ments when you have a choice: You can let this thing crush you, or you can grow from these ex­pe­ri­ences, come to grace, and find the beauty.”

Years later, Tone would ski a first de­scent in Alaska and name the line “Coogan’s,” af­ter her mom.

The same year her mother’s body was found, Tone took a year off be­tween high school and col­lege and got a job as a ski pa­troller at Sun­day River, Maine. That win­ter, she was the first re­spon­der on the scene when a young man, a year younger than her, col­lided with an­other skier and flew off the trail into a

tree. Tone jumped into ac­tion, em­ploy­ing all the skills she’d re­cently learned in her EMT train­ing, but the man died on the scene. He was the nephew of the ski re­sort’s owner, Les Ot­ten.

“In the heat of bat­tle, you go into auto pi­lot,” Tone says. “You do what you’re trained to do, and you do it me­chan­i­cally. You put all your emo­tions in a box.”

She did a de­brief­ing with her pa­trol di­rec­tor, went home, and con­vinced her­self she was fine. But she woke up in the mid­dle of the night throw­ing up. “That was the first time I re­al­ized that in a trau­matic sit­u­a­tion, your brain is such an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful tool that it can trick your body into think­ing you’re OK,” she says.

That first ski pa­trol job wasn’t easy, but it gave her a taste of real-life res­cue work, and she was hooked. She re­al­ized not only was she good at it, but she loved the feel­ing of be­ing able to help oth­ers when they needed it most.

In 1990, she en­tered Ver­mont’s Green Moun­tain Col­lege to study English Lit and walked onto the school’s Divi­sion III ski team with­out any previous ski rac­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. She spent her sum­mers work­ing as a wran­gler in Colorado, tak­ing kids on horse­back into the backcountry. It was there, in the vast, wide-open West, where Tone started to find her true self. The more rugged the en­vi­ron­ment, the more com­fort­able she felt. “I was yearn­ing for big­ger moun­tains and more wilder­ness,” she says. “Na­ture be­came some­thing that I needed to spend more time in.”

Af­ter col­lege, she moved to Ta­hoe and ap­plied to be a ski pa­troller at Squaw Val­ley. She was 24. In 1999, two years af­ter her friend Kevin Quinn opened a heli ski op­er­a­tion in Cordova, Alaska, called Points North Heli-ad­ven­tures, he in­vited Tone to guide and serve as their med­i­cal co­or­di­na­tor. She was re­spon­si­ble for or­der­ing all the emer­gency med­i­cal gear, co­or­di­nat­ing with lo­cal res­cue cen­ters, and writ­ing op­er­a­tions and safety man­u­als for the busi­ness.

That year, a cou­ple of Ta­hoe friends, in­clud­ing film­maker Steve Siig and aspir­ing pro skier Dax Wil­lard, drove to Alaska for a ski film they were work­ing on and spent a few days ski­ing with Tone as their guide. On the fi­nal day of their trip, Tone wanted to give Wil­lard, then 21, a first de­scent, so he could leave hav­ing named a run in Alaska.

They scouted a line from the he­li­copter, but at the last minute, they opted

PHO­TOS FROM TOP: Chris­tian Pon­della, Tim Zim­mer­man, Tim Zim­mer­man

As a ski pa­troller, guide, and in­struc­tor, Tone has been a valu­able men­tor for count­less skiers.

PHO­TOS FROM TOP: Tim Zim­mer­man, Chris­tian Pon­della

In her ca­reer, Tone has been a heli ski guide, ski pa­troller, cer­ti­fied AIARE in­struc­tor, fish­ing guide, pro­fes­sional moun­tain biker, and more—and yet she main­tains hu­mil­ity, kind­ness, and warmth.

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