Mountain Chronicle Ski Patrol Party

Mountain Life

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Professional ski patrollers are “working-class heroes,” to use John Lennon’s phrase from the 1971 song title. And that, he makes clear in studied understatement, is “something to be.”

At their 27th annual convention last April in Winter Park, pro patrols from around Colorado took a busman’s holiday from hauling wrecks and padding lift towers to celebrate their craft and renew their brother- and sisterhoods. These are the men and women who make the mountain safe, who create order out of winter’s natural chaos, men who grow beards because it’s cold, women who leave the pretty skiing to the ski instructors. They work festooned with radios and ropes, shovels and first-aid kits. And, at the convention, they have nicknames like Pink Floyd, June Bug (I am not making this up), Family Jewels, Dunkin and Crash. For once they didn’t have to punch the clock. All they had to do on this spring powder day was play games, eat roasted pig, drink beer and dance themselves dizzy.

Of course, there was the matter of the coveted trophy sled that represents overall superiority at the games. As it happened, this year’s host team had owned the prize, a beat-up old toboggan, for either eight of the last 11 years, or 11 of the last 13—whatever, nobody was quite sure. A long time. And a big, motivated contingent from Steamboat wanted it for themselves. As did teams from Beaver Creek, Crested Butte, Aspen Highlands, Purgatory, Powderhorn, Monarch and Loveland. Last year, persons unknown stole the sled from its perch of honor outside Winter Park’s Sunspot restaurant. W.P. agents in mufti found it downstate chained to a lift tower in Crested Butte.

The day began with a giant slalom race, the lone concession to traditional alpine skills measurement. The rest of the contests were more patroller-specific and included sled races, a timed beacon search, the bomb toss, the skills medley and the ever-intriguing chucking of the “boo.” All day long I wondered what was up with the “boo.” And then I chanced to ride the Looking Glass lift and saw the hula hoops in the snow. ‘Trollers loaded the chair with four sticks of bamboo in hand and tried from on high to javelin one into each circle. Hit the balloon in the center of the ring, and you score five additional points.

The sled race was the big kinetic draw. That’s where the Denver affiliates stationed their news cams, right where the two-person teams came careening to a stop, sometimes on their heads, and the tail roper had to dive for the sled, unstrap the rolled-up tarp (which took the place, thankfully in these humane times, of the live body they used to strap in there), pick up the heavy bundle and hurl it across the line.

You could see all of the action from the picnic area in front of the Snoasis restaurant. That’s where the host patrol roasted two whole pigs overnight and now served up plates of pork and beans with salad and pitchers of beer. You could sit at a table and cheer (or groan) as e by one teams bounced down the powder-heavy bumps at breakneck speed, some drivers taking the sled with them as they aired three or more moguls in a row. And sometimes, of course, an out-of-control, mad-elephant sled would bounce its handler into ugly, twisted spins of irony: the symbolic injured party turning on and crushing the rescuer.

Sitting at the Snoasis, it was like watching a four-ring circus, everything going at once. Right next to the sled race, contestants lobbed dummy explosives off the top of the freestyle kicker toward a bull’s eye on the flat. As is often the case on real-life bombing routes, the lobbers couldn’t see the target area, and it was the rare toss that found its way, usually on the hop, into the concentric rings. Off to the right in a little dell, other competitors raced the clock to find a buried avalanche transceiver. One at a time they skied hard to a marked shovel line, kicked out of their bindings, ripped out their own beacons and switched them to “receive,” grabbed a shovel and ran on foot through the search area. Find the buried “victim” and dig him out like a dog rediscovering a favorite bone. The three fastest managed to do all this in under a minute.

These events are, of course, grounded in work, some of the tasks deadly serious. The bomb toss, for instance, was heavy with topical gravity. Just the morning before, patrol directors had met to discuss protocol for avalanche control work following a horrific accident in which a Montana patroller died attempting to relight an explosive “dud.”

On the lighter side, the skills race medley featured challenges of the mundane. From out of a NASTAR start, ski around two gates then plant a CLOSED sign. Next string rope on some “boo” to create an “L” closure. Ski down farther, pull out your wire cutters and clip the pass on a snowboarder mannequin. Set a post pad on a 4×4 stuck in the snow. Then lift a sled roll into a waiting sled, strap it down and skate it across the finish line.

They didn’t find out who won, which contingent claimed the trophy (it was Winter Park again), until the party that night at The Slope. By then the Steamboat women, the ones who took the sled race, had stolen the spotlight in their fruit-colored, off-the-shoulder prom dresses. A hard working, flannel-shirted band of rhythm aces from Boulder about brought the walls down, and everyone cut loose on the dance floor. Crazy dancing! Everybody up and jumping and shouting out “Love The One You’re With.” A guy in a wheelchair was spinning and popping wheelies, and now and then he’d go all the way over backward. His friends just hoisted him back up, and away he’d go again.

It isn’t as if these folks don’t relax on occasion during the season. I’m sure they do. But this one was special, an end-of-season party for the proletariat, put on by the chronically underpaid for the perennially underappreciated. Strong hands and weathered smiles dancing for a job well done.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com.