My grandparents skied. My parents skied. Everyone’s a skier so that’s how it all really started. I became a Ski Patrol volunteer at Powder Horn and then got on the professional staff there. Later I moved to Aspen, first to work at Highlands and now at Buttermilk. In all, I’ve been with the Ski Patrol for 30 years now.
What’s our day like? I’m usually up around 5:45 a.m. I’ll check the weather to see if we need to do any avalanche control. If it’s early in the season I’ll make myself a huge lunch — hot soup, tea, sandwiches — because you’ll burn through the calories early in the season. We have to prepare steep terrain for the rest of the season by compacting the snow manually. That means we have to walk on it. A dozen of us will get together, boot pack up to the top of a bowl, and then march down it side by side in a line with about three feet between us, over and over. Our footsteps help new layers of snow bond to the older layers, which helps reduce the risk of avalanches later.
There are so many other jobs we do that people don’t realize. We check weather stations and look for safety hazards like a tree that blew over in the night. We brush the snow off signs around the mountain. We raise and lower the safety pads that wrap around lift towers. We make sure the rescue sleds are ready to go and that the medical oxygen tanks have oxygen in them.
Everybody wants to throw bombs so avalanche control is probably the most coveted job. We typically use one kilo pentolite devices that are a mixture of TNT and PETN with an igniter. You can throw them, place them, or attach them to a rope. Once we ignite them you have about two minutes to get away. The blast will help keep the avalanches small and often instead of large and catastrophic. We also rely on the skiing public and everyone’s tracks to “affect” the layers, like the boot packing that we do early in the season.
If the day is slow, we try to work in some training. We’re constantly brushing up on chair lift evacuations, medical training, accident investigations, and snow safety. We have to stay sharp and all of these skills are perishable. There is free time between all the work when we do get to go ski around. We call it patrolling. We want people on the hill interacting with the guests so when an incident does occur there is someone in the area. A dispatcher will try to spread us out so we’re not all in one place. Our primary job, of course, is to respond to accidents and injuries. In a typical season, a patroller might respond to between 20 and 30 incidents. They can be as simple as a giving someone a bandage to dealing with threats to life and limb. If someone has a heart attack in the cafeteria, we’re the first to respond to that, too.
To become a patroller, you need to be a solid skier, sure, but you also need at a minimum an Outdoor Emergency Care or EMT certificate. They put you through a bunch of different scenarios and you treat them as if they were real. You have to identify injuries, make radio calls, stabilize the patient, do toboggan training, work on high angle rescues with ropes as if someone fell off a cliff. You have a written test, too, that focuses mostly on medical training. You don’t become a patroller to become rich. But, there is fulfillment in helping other people. The camaraderie between patrollers is unmatched.
Any time we head out we’re carrying an avalanche transceiver, a shovel, and a probe. Everyone has a radio. We have food, water, a medical kit and all the layers you need. The proper clothing is important, of course. It can be -2 degrees and then go up to 40 degrees. Everyone at Aspen is in Helly Hansen head-to-toe to help with the cold. The weather can change so fast and you have so many things that are outside of your control. It’s what makes the job fun.
At the end of the day we’ll meet again and discuss what needs to happen the next day. We’ll do afternoon sweeps. We can’t look under every tree but we try to sweep as much terrain as we can. When the last person is off the mountain, I typically go have a beer. I’m a Coors Lite guy. Then we go to bed and do it all over again.