Little Glory, Big Guts

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Wind howls across the peaks of California's Sierra Nevada, gusting forcefully enough to drive a grown man backward in his steps. It's early afternoon-technically broad daylight-but visibility is minimal. Snow falls thickly in a ceaseless torrent of white. Across the Tahoe Basin, most lifts have shut down, and throughout the High Sierra, wise skiers have turned home.

At Alpine Meadows, Calif., two figures in red inch their way along the Pacific Crest. They don't need good visibility; they are members of Alpine Meadows' Pro Patrol, and they know this mountain like a sculptor knows clay. Highly trained yet poorly paid, they are full-time career patrollers, a breed whose raison d'etre is mountain safety, whose workdays are a blend of hard labor and hi-jinx, and whose unrelenting vigilance turns wild mountains into places where skiers can blithely play.

On the wind-whipped ridgeline high above Lake Tahoe, the two patrollers hunker low on their skis and make headway in the moments when the wind abates. Heavy, well-stuffed, 80-pound packs are strapped to their backs. Above a rocky notch called the Keyhole, they pause to pull what looks like a fat yellow salami from one of the packs. But this is no picnic: The yellow bundle is 2 pounds of gelatin dynamite, a "hand charge" rigged with a matchless fuse.

One man sticks the bomb between his knees and hunches over it. With finger and thumb of one hand he pinches hold of a slim cardboard tube-the neck of the fuse. With the other hand he yanks off a white plastic cap that pops a slim piece of metal out of the fuse and creates a spark. If this were a movie, the bomb would now be audibly ticking. The man takes the live bomb in his hand, holds it close to his face for a moment to ensure it's lit, then lobs it unhurriedly through the Keyhole. Ninety seconds after the fuse is pulled, the bomb explodes with a muffled boom, sending snow cascading down the couloir below. The patrollers continue inching along their route. When the weather worsens, Alpine's patrol gunners take over from a knoll just above the ski area's base. They haul shells the size of small toddlers from a well-locked armory, load them into a serious piece of military artillery (a 106 recoilless rifle from the Vietnam War) and blast them high onto the snow-choked slopes. The next morning, the patrollers will rise before dawn, climb back into their ski clothes and do it all again. Their work is not always as exciting as throwing bombs and firing big guns: They spend plenty of time digging out signs, stringing rope lines, filling out paperwork, rolling bandages and chipping ice off steps. When necessary they evacuate hundreds of people from lifts. They wrap sprained knees, relocate displaced shoulders, save some lives, face some death. And, increasingly, they take abuse from skiers and snowboarders who treat all authority like delinquent teens do cops. Sure they bag fresh tracks every now and then while the skiing public waits at the base of a chair, but more often they find themselves traversing slopes they'd prefer to ski. What they get for their trouble is between $7 and $14 per hour-and no job security for 7 months of the year. They are both the ultimate ski professionals and the ultimate ski bums, working-class heroes who are a breed unto themselves. Without them our mountains would be very different indeed.

In 1936, a New York insurance broker named Charles Minot Dole (below) took a bad fall while skiing on Mt. Mansfield in Stowe, Vt. The 36 year old's ankle broke with what was reported to be an audible crack. The pain was severe, the day was rainy, and Dole, known to all as "Minnie," lay in the wet snow, unable to make his way down the steeps he had climbed. His friend Frank Edson came upon him and waited by his side while their wives went in search of help. But Stowe was still a little town then and American skiing was still young and raw. Dole and his companions had nowhere to turn for aid. So the women skied out tohe road and encountered a local Vermonter who opined that anyone crazy enough to ski deserved what he got-then unceremoniously left them to fend for themselves. And fend they did: The women found a piece of metal roofing at an abandoned farm, hauled it up the mountain and put it to use as a makeshift sled.

Two months later, Dole's friend Edson hit a tree during a ski race on the Ghost Trail in Pittsfield, Mass. He was evacuated from the hill by volunteer safety patrol working the race, but died the next day. Minnie Dole needed no more evidence to recognize a need: He vowed to help organize a first-aid group that would address not only ski rescue but the overall matter of ski safety. In 1938, the National Ski Patrol System (NSPS) was born.

Prior to Dole, the few volunteer patrols that did exist consisted primarily of ski club members versed in first aid who made themselves available on weekends or race days wherever their clubs traveled. A patrol dedicated solely to Mt. Hood, Ore., was formed in the early Thirties, the first known independent patrol in the country. In the East, early efforts were influenced by the Parsenndienst, a group that provided aid on Parsenn in Davos, Switzerland. But the NSPS's formation in 1938 was the first time overall standards were set and wide-scale patrolling was organized.

Initially NSPS ranks were made up of volunteers whose qualifications consisted of basic first-aid skills, competent ski ability and a willingness to help. In 1938 that meant 91 ski enthusiasts who attended a 30-hour American Red Cross course and learned a bit about snow safety from the National Ski Association. Once certified, they served primarily as mountain lifeguards, evacuating injured folks and administering first-aid. Those who volunteered often bought their own bandages and other medical supplies, in return for which they received a ticket to ride on any of a number of new lifts.

After World War II, U.S. skiing continued to boom, and the NSPS grew along with it. By 1948, 4,500 registered patrollers worked on 193 ski patrols in seven regional divisions. That same year, patrollers everywhere donned a distinctive rust-colored parka with a cross, a hue reserved by manufacturers H. Hirsch and White Stag for NSPS members only. It quickly became the universal sign of ski patrol.

To this day, ski patrollers everywhere are still known as the guys in red. It's been a hard designation to shake, as has the notion that they're a bunch of toboggan-rattling weekenders who, in exchange for the privilege of skiing free, dispense Band-Aids and bark at skiers who are going too fast. Many American skiers, if they think about patrolling at all, are wholly unaware that there are "guys in red" who are anything other than volunteers.

In fact, today's patrollers are not all guys, and they don't all wear red. And while 24,500 dedicated and well-trained volunteers continue to donate invaluable support to some 650 ski areas in North America, the biggest resorts are staffed by core teams of "pros," those who have made ski patrolling a career.

Alpine Meadows Patrol Director Larry Heywood, 52, has been working at the Tahoe resort since 1970, when what it meant to keep a mountain safe was defined by a different measure. "It's a substantially more serious job now," Heywood says. More signage marks terrain (Heywood remembers 20 signs on Alpine's slopes in 1970, compared to some 500 now), more hazards are marked (a few hundred pieces of bamboo dotted the mountain then, compared to some 3,000 now) and pressure to open terrain after snowfall is significantly greater. (In the Seventies far fewer ski enthusiasts had the skill to finesse fresh snow.) The same amount of terrain once managed by a staff of 13 full-time patrollers now requires 28-and they are both older and more experienced than their predecessors of 30 years ago. Heywood's greenest newbie these days is 27 or 28 years old, arrives complete with full Emergency Medical Technician certification, a blaster's card for using explosives, several years of patrol experience on less demanding mountains and a desire to make patrolling at Alpine a long-term career. Once onboard, Heywood's crew receives ongoing training in conflict management (to better deal with the increasing number of skiers who bring urban stress levels-so-called "slope rage"-to the mountain environment) and risk management (both in terms of preventing accidents and in handling the inevitable paper trail that arises once they occur). "We're not babysitters, but we have an incredible responsibility," says Heywood. "The skiing public doesn't understand how much work goes into making the in-bounds environment one in which they can ski with comparative safety."

When Heywood's staffers aren't otherwise occupied, they practice setting up mock drills to keep rescue skills from getting rusty and run through "dog problems" with their squadron of 10 search-and-rescue dogs (eight golden retrievers, one border collie and one yellow lab), trained to sniff out bodies buried in the snow. Taking your dog to work every day can't be all bad: Turnover on Alpine's pro patrol is low; Heywood hires two new staffers per year at most.

The lure is Alpine's Class A avalanche terrain-chutes, steeps and cornices-which makes for both great skiing and exciting patrolling. Between 7,000 and 10,000 charges are thrown on the mountain per season, making Alpine second only to Squaw Valley USA on the list of American ski areas that use the most explosives. On an "A.C." or avalanche control day, Alpine's 20 on-duty patrollers together throw 300 bombs. Vail, by comparison, throws 40 to 50 charges in an entire year. "You get into it because you like to ski," explains Bill Foster, who's been working at Alpine for 16 years. "Then you get hooked on the avie control, on the endorphin release." Foster, who works with his dog Riley, has a successful window-cleaning business in the off-season. "You can't be a materialistic guy with this job," he notes. "I'm up to $11 an hour."

Unlike Foster, Brian "Fishy" Fishbook is a relative rookie. He began as a volunteer on Canada's Blackcomb Mountain in 1995, when he was in his senior year at the University of British Columbia. After graduating with a degree in geomorphology, he signed onto Blackcomb's patrol full-time. "The learning curve is steep," says the affable, dark-haired 28 year old, who initially planned to patrol for one year before getting on with his "real" career. "The minute you think you know everything, something new comes up, and you realize you don't know very much at all."

At Blackcomb, as at other avalanche-intensive mountains, patrol routes are complicated, meticulously choreographed dances that require each move be completed before the next can safely begin. Learning the choreography itself can take several years. Studying snow safety can occupy a lifetime. "The main reason I came back for my second full-time year was that I hadn't done anywhere near the stuff I knew was out there to do," Fishbook says, explaining that new pros are initiated in avalanche control on simple routes requiring only ski cuts (skiing diagonally across a slope to set off avalanche prone snow) rather than explosives. "Even first aid-wise I knew there were so many more things I would get a chance to see. You don't want to see people get hurt, but the more you have under your belt the better patroller you are." Now in his fourth year full-time, Fishbook says the challenges never stop. "There's so much diversity in the job. That's what keeps it interesting."

What also keeps it interesting is the youthful spirit of Blackcomb's patrol. When they're on duty in Blackcomb's terrain park, Fishy and comrades don't stand aside to make sure the local youth ride safely. The uniformed patrollers go big, flashing cossacks and other colorful tricks off the park's huge tabletop hits. The local park rats point and watch with awe. It's a demonstratioian certification, a blaster's card for using explosives, several years of patrol experience on less demanding mountains and a desire to make patrolling at Alpine a long-term career. Once onboard, Heywood's crew receives ongoing training in conflict management (to better deal with the increasing number of skiers who bring urban stress levels-so-called "slope rage"-to the mountain environment) and risk management (both in terms of preventing accidents and in handling the inevitable paper trail that arises once they occur). "We're not babysitters, but we have an incredible responsibility," says Heywood. "The skiing public doesn't understand how much work goes into making the in-bounds environment one in which they can ski with comparative safety."

When Heywood's staffers aren't otherwise occupied, they practice setting up mock drills to keep rescue skills from getting rusty and run through "dog problems" with their squadron of 10 search-and-rescue dogs (eight golden retrievers, one border collie and one yellow lab), trained to sniff out bodies buried in the snow. Taking your dog to work every day can't be all bad: Turnover on Alpine's pro patrol is low; Heywood hires two new staffers per year at most.

The lure is Alpine's Class A avalanche terrain-chutes, steeps and cornices-which makes for both great skiing and exciting patrolling. Between 7,000 and 10,000 charges are thrown on the mountain per season, making Alpine second only to Squaw Valley USA on the list of American ski areas that use the most explosives. On an "A.C." or avalanche control day, Alpine's 20 on-duty patrollers together throw 300 bombs. Vail, by comparison, throws 40 to 50 charges in an entire year. "You get into it because you like to ski," explains Bill Foster, who's been working at Alpine for 16 years. "Then you get hooked on the avie control, on the endorphin release." Foster, who works with his dog Riley, has a successful window-cleaning business in the off-season. "You can't be a materialistic guy with this job," he notes. "I'm up to $11 an hour."

Unlike Foster, Brian "Fishy" Fishbook is a relative rookie. He began as a volunteer on Canada's Blackcomb Mountain in 1995, when he was in his senior year at the University of British Columbia. After graduating with a degree in geomorphology, he signed onto Blackcomb's patrol full-time. "The learning curve is steep," says the affable, dark-haired 28 year old, who initially planned to patrol for one year before getting on with his "real" career. "The minute you think you know everything, something new comes up, and you realize you don't know very much at all."

At Blackcomb, as at other avalanche-intensive mountains, patrol routes are complicated, meticulously choreographed dances that require each move be completed before the next can safely begin. Learning the choreography itself can take several years. Studying snow safety can occupy a lifetime. "The main reason I came back for my second full-time year was that I hadn't done anywhere near the stuff I knew was out there to do," Fishbook says, explaining that new pros are initiated in avalanche control on simple routes requiring only ski cuts (skiing diagonally across a slope to set off avalanche prone snow) rather than explosives. "Even first aid-wise I knew there were so many more things I would get a chance to see. You don't want to see people get hurt, but the more you have under your belt the better patroller you are." Now in his fourth year full-time, Fishbook says the challenges never stop. "There's so much diversity in the job. That's what keeps it interesting."

What also keeps it interesting is the youthful spirit of Blackcomb's patrol. When they're on duty in Blackcomb's terrain park, Fishy and comrades don't stand aside to make sure the local youth ride safely. The uniformed patrollers go big, flashing cossacks and other colorful tricks off the park's huge tabletop hits. The local park rats point and watch with awe. It's a demonstration that generates laughter and inspires respect.

On the East Coast, a patroller's experience is as different as the climate and the lay of the land. "Our terrain number one makes patrolling here distinctive," says Janis Albrecht, patrol director at Killington, Vt. "It's awesome skiing for the East. We're dealing with up to 45-degree steep, sometimes rocky, tough terrain." When that terrain gets hard and slick, life for Killington's 45 pro patrollers, six snowboard park specialists, seven full-time nurses and 80 volunteers turns particularly challenging. While staffers at Killington do no avalanche control work, they see their fair share of what Albrecht calls "high-speed deceleration" incidents-sudden impacts with Killington's maple, birch and evergreens. "On any given day we could have 18,000 people on the mountain. I couldn't compare it to an emergency room-our injury average is below the national average-but we do handle a lot of first aid."

Like other pros, Albrecht speaks highly of the camaraderie inherent in the career. "It's a tight group. There's a lot of hi-jinxing and kidding. We wouldn't admit it to each other but we love each other." And it's the camaraderie that eases the pain when a skier or snowboarder dies. Across the U.S., it's an occurrence that on average happens 35 times a year, a low number considering the nation's annual 52 million skier days. Killington had no on-slope deaths last season, but when they do occur, it's the patrollers who are first on the scene. "That's when you know there's a serious part to what we do," says one Alpine Meadows pro, remembering an encounter with death her first two weeks on the job. Albrecht adds a hopeful caveat: "When you're doing CPR and someone lives, that's just the best feeling in the world."

Albrecht, who has been patrolling for the past 14 years, says that only about 10 percent of her full-time patrol staff is composed of women, mostly because of a lack of interest from applicants. "It's hard physical work," notes Albrecht. "We're dealing with sleds that weigh up to 50 pounds and injured people who weigh as much as 300 pounds. We haul around 100 pounds of rope and bamboo and twist and bend while doing it." Once women are on board, "gender doesn't seem to come into play," she says. "The beer-drinking, crusty old man, 'I'll save ya little girl' image isn't quite what we have today. We're professional athletes on skis. All rookie patrollers have to prove themselves. There's not a women's league and a men's league. It's all the same thing."

While a big day at Killington has 18,000 skiers and snowboarders romping on 1,200 acres, Alta, Utah, averages more like 3,000 skiers scattered widely across its 2,200 acres of famed, powder glutted steeps. Add to that generally softer snow and a high median level of ski ability among Alta's regulars and the equation adds up to not much first aid. Instead, Alta's 32 full-time patrollers spend their time managing the snow. "Virtually all of Alta is in avalanche slide paths," explains Ski Patrol Director Gus "Piney" Gilman-which means avalanche control must be done to open even Alta's tamest terrain.

It was at Alta in the Forties, in fact, that avalanche control became integral to American ski patrolling. In 1942, Wasatch-Cache National Forest personnel and soldiers from the Utah National Guard began using military cannons and howitzers to shoot down Alta's precipitous snowpack. Soon after, Monty Atwater, a forest supervisor who was an alumnus of both M.I.T. and the Tenth Mountain Division, took a sack of tetratol to the top of Alta's High Rustler Face and threw the explosives over the edge. It started an enormous avalanche, thereby opening up terrain at Alta that had never before been skied. And patrolling with hand charges was born. Beyond explosives, Alta's most effective method of controlling its high avalanche danger is skier compaction: When snow is dumping and skiers are hitting the comforts of the lodge, the patrol has to get out there and ski. "The more things are skied, the more stable they are," explains Gilman. For die-hard skier Sam Howard, a 13-year veteran of Alta's pro patrol, it's reason enough to stay.

"I always knew I wanted to ski everyday," admits Howard, 41. "I once told my dad that, and he said, 'You'd get bored.' I took his word for it and went to college." But in 1980, one year after graduating from the University of Vermont with a geology degree, Howard arrived in Little Cottonwood Canyon on his motorcycle with $75 and little else in tow. Today he lives on the outskirts of Salt Lake City with his wife and their two kids-and despite the low-paying nature of patrolling, Howard is happy with the choices he's made. "Every day is an adventure," he says, noting that workdays range from 9 hours to 16. "I'm perfectly content to patrol for a while longer." He thinks for a moment and laughs. "Like forever. That's a while."

With his mountain man aura of unruffled cool, his slightly goofball manner and his masterful skills on skis, Howard is like the poster boy for pro patrolling in the American West. A look into his eyes-or those of the other men and women of pro patrols coast to coast-reveals a lot. They are lit up brightly from inside. They show that he is one of the hearty breed who has chosen passion and lives on the fuel of adventure. Part firefighter, part cop, part lifeguard, part paramedic, part mountain guide and part ski bum, the first order of the day for pro patrollers is safety, but their reason for living is fun-both ours and their own. "My wife complains because I get in the shower every morning and sing," says Larry Heywood with a big grin. "But I'm happy! I'm going to work! I love my life, I love Alpine Meadows, I love this job!"

So, you want to be a patroller?hat generates laughter and inspires respect. On the East Coast, a patroller's experience is as different as the climate and the lay of the land. "Our terrain number one makes patrolling here distinctive," says Janis Albrecht, patrol director at Killington, Vt. "It's awesome skiing for the East. We're dealing with up to 45-degree steep, sometimes rocky, tough terrain." When that terrain gets hard and slick, life for Killington's 45 pro patrollers, six snowboard park specialists, seven full-time nurses and 80 volunteers turns particularly challenging. While staffers at Killington do no avalanche control work, they see their fair share of what Albrecht calls "high-speed deceleration" incidents-sudden impacts with Killington's maple, birch and evergreens. "On any given day we could have 18,000 people on the mountain. I couldn't compare it to an emergency room-our injury average is below the national average-but we do handle a lot of first aid." Like other pros, Albrecht speaks highly of the camaraderie inherent in the career. "It's a tight group. There's a lot of hi-jinxing and kidding. We wouldn't admit it to each other but we love each other." And it's the camaraderie that eases the pain when a skier or snowboarder dies. Across the U.S., it's an occurrence that on average happens 35 times a year, a low number considering the nation's annual 52 million skier days. Killington had no on-slope deaths last season, but when they do occur, it's the patrollers who are first on the scene. "That's when you know there's a serious part to what we do," says one Alpine Meadows pro, remembering an encounter with death her first two weeks on the job. Albrecht adds a hopeful caveat: "When you're doing CPR and someone lives, that's just the best feeling in the world." Albrecht, who has been patrolling for the past 14 years, says that only about 10 percent of her full-time patrol staff is composed of women, mostly because of a lack of interest from applicants. "It's hard physical work," notes Albrecht. "We're dealing with sleds that weigh up to 50 pounds and injured people who weigh as much as 300 pounds. We haul around 100 pounds of rope and bamboo and twist and bend while doing it." Once women are on board, "gender doesn't seem to come into play," she says. "The beer-drinking, crusty old man, 'I'll save ya little girl' image isn't quite what we have today. We're professional athletes on skis. All rookie patrollers have to prove themselves. There's not a women's league and a men's league. It's all the same thing." While a big day at Killington has 18,000 skiers and snowboarders romping on 1,200 acres, Alta, Utah, averages more like 3,000 skiers scattered widely across its 2,200 acres of famed, powder glutted steeps. Add to that generally softer snow and a high median level of ski ability among Alta's regulars and the equation adds up to not much first aid. Instead, Alta's 32 full-time patrollers spend their time managing the snow. "Virtually all of Alta is in avalanche slide paths," explains Ski Patrol Director Gus "Piney" Gilman-which means avalanche control must be done to open even Alta's tamest terrain. It was at Alta in the Forties, in fact, that avalanche control became integral to American ski patrolling. In 1942, Wasatch-Cache National Forest personnel and soldiers from the Utah National Guard began using military cannons and howitzers to shoot down Alta's precipitous snowpack. Soon after, Monty Atwater, a forest supervisor who was an alumnus of both M.I.T. and the Tenth Mountain Division, took a sack of tetratol to the top of Alta's High Rustler Face and threw the explosives over the edge. It started an enormous avalanche, thereby opening up terrain at Alta that had never before been skied. And patrolling with hand charges was born. Beyond explosives, Alta's most effective method of controlling its high avalanche danger is skier compaction: When snow is dumping and skiers are hitting the comforts of the lodge, the patrol has to get out there and ski. "The more things are skied, the more stable they are," explains Gilman. For die-hard skier Sam Howard, a 13-year veteran of Alta's pro patrol, it's reason enough to stay."I always knew I wanted to ski everyday," admits Howard, 41. "I once told my dad that, and he said, 'You'd get bored.' I took his word for it and went to college." But in 1980, one year after graduating from the University of Vermont with a geology degree, Howard arrived in Little Cottonwood Canyon on his motorcycle with $75 and little else in tow. Today he lives on the outskirts of Salt Lake City with his wife and their two kids-and despite the low-paying nature of patrolling, Howard is happy with the choices he's made. "Every day is an adventure," he says, noting that workdays range from 9 hours to 16. "I'm perfectly content to patrol for a while longer." He thinks for a moment and laughs. "Like forever. That's a while."With his mountain man aura of unruffled cool, his slightly goofball manner and his masterful skills on skis, Howard is like the poster boy for pro patrolling in the American West. A look into his eyes-or those of the other men and women of pro patrols coast to coast-reveals a lot. They are lit up brightly from inside. They show that he is one of the hearty breed who has chosen passion and lives on the fuel of adventure. Part firefighter, part cop, part lifeguard, part paramedic, part mountain guide and part ski bum, the first order of the day for pro patrollers is safety, but their reason for living is fun-both ours and their own. "My wife complains because I get in the shower every morning and sing," says Larry Heywood with a big grin. "But I'm happy! I'm going to work! I love my life, I love Alpine Meadows, I love this job!"

So, you want to be a patroller? patrol has to get out there and ski. "The more things are skied, the more stable they are," explains Gilman. For die-hard skier Sam Howard, a 13-year veteran of Alta's pro patrol, it's reason enough to stay."I always knew I wanted to ski everyday," admits Howard, 41. "I once told my dad that, and he said, 'You'd get bored.' I took his word for it and went to college." But in 1980, one year after graduating from the University of Vermont with a geology degree, Howard arrived in Little Cottonwood Canyon on his motorcycle with $75 and little else in tow. Today he lives on the outskirts of Salt Lake City with his wife and their two kids-and despite the low-paying nature of patrolling, Howard is happy with the choices he's made. "Every day is an adventure," he says, noting that workdays range from 9 hours to 16. "I'm perfectly content to patrol for a while longer." He thinks for a moment and laughs. "Like forever. That's a while."With his mountain man aura of unruffled cool, his slightly goofball manner and his masterful skills on skis, Howard is like the poster boy for pro patrolling in the American West. A look into his eyes-or those of the other men and women of pro patrols coast to coast-reveals a lot. They are lit up brightly from inside. They show that he is one of the hearty breed who has chosen passion and lives on the fuel of adventure. Part firefighter, part cop, part lifeguard, part paramedic, part mountain guide and part ski bum, the first order of the day for pro patrollers is safety, but their reason for living is fun-both ours and their own. "My wife complains because I get in the shower every morning and sing," says Larry Heywood with a big grin. "But I'm happy! I'm going to work! I love my life, I love Alpine Meadows, I love this job!"

So, you want to be a patroller?