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White-Cross Karma

Fall Line

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On my first trip to a small, local area when I was a young, fearless skier in the early Sixties, I noticed that the bartender was the same guy I had seen giving skiing lessons, so I asked him about the ski patrol. He pointed to a man seated at a table.

I tapped the man on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, but I understand you’re the one to see about working on the ski patrol.” He looked me over and said, “Do you have an Advanced First Aid Card?” After I replied “yes,” he stood up and said, “Come with me.” I realized when we got to his office that he must be the owner. He reached into a closet and pulled out a red jacket that had a white cross on its back. “If you come here every weekend for the rest of the season, without fail,” he said, “I’ll give you room and board-and free skiing, of course.”

Inside the patrol room the next morning, I told the patrol leader that I had zero experience. All I got in return was the helpful advice: “If you have to use a toboggan before I get a chance to instruct you, just ask to be on the rear handles and try to ski in the tracks of the guy at the front.”

I headed up the mountain. Almost instantly, a lift operator stepped out of his lift room yelling, “Hey, ski patrol. There’s an accident over the nose of the hill.” The full realization of what I had gotten myself into soon became painfully clear: The victim was a teenager, lying on his back, in severe pain, and holding onto the upper part of his right leg. Nearby was his snapped ski.

My first-aid courses had dealt with splints, but this was different than class. Suddenly, a toboggan appeared. It was towed by someone who was wearing a rust-colored parka with a big yellow cross on the back and “National Ski Patrol” over the front pocket. He offered to help. I didn’t know this guy was a volunteer with the National Ski Patrol, and that the protocol was for them to function as assistants to the paid patrollers. With my red jacket, I was a “paid professional,” and therefore, in spite of my ignorance, the one in charge.

I said something like, “Suppose you take charge and I help you.” In the next half hour, I received one of the best demonstrations of first aid anyone could have provided.

The boy’s injuries were severe. His lower leg was fractured above the boot top. My new mentor started by talking to the victim, which gave the kid confidence in the care he was about to receive and calmed him down. Next the volunteer had me apply slight traction to the injured leg, which greatly reduced the pain. I watched carefully as he applied the splint.

We loaded the victim onto a toboggan, and I got my chance at taking the rear handles and skiing in the tracks of the guy in front. As we skied down, I knew I was on the way to becoming a true ski patroller. I worked every weekend for the rest of the year, but I never saw that National Patrol volunteer again.

The next season, I joined the National Ski Patrol. For 18 years, I worked at most of the large, and many of the small, areas in the West before I retired my parka with the yellow cross on the back.Nearly 20 years later, I still think about what happened one day near the end of my patrol career. I was working at a large resort, which has a staff of paid professional patrollers that’s augmented on weekends with National Ski Patrol volunteers.

I was at the top of a lift when I got an accident call. On my way over, I could see someone with a toboggan coming from a distant slope. As I got closer, I could see that he was wearing a parka that identified him as one of the area’s paid staff. I knew most of the patrollers, but I had never seen this kid before.

Because he was pulling a toboggan, we agreed that I would go ahead. As I started to ski off, he suddenly yelled, “Hey, wait!” After a brief pause he said, “This is my first day on the job. When we get there, would you take charge and let me help you?”

I was struck by the remarkable reversal: I was the older, experienced National Pattroller, and he was the bewildered kid in the big jacket having his first encounter. I don’t remember the exact nature of that accident. Whatever it was, I tried very hard to do my best for both the victim and the young patroller.

I never saw the patroller again. But I have always hoped that the help he got from me was as good as the advice I had received on my first day patrolling the slopes.