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Eighteen inches have fallen in the last eight hours when the alarm clock buzzes at 4:30 a.m. Patrollers drive up the unplowed road through whiteout conditions. There’s a morning meeting to review weather, snow data, and daily assignments; beacon and radio checks, loading backpacks with bombs, and heading out for avalanche mitigation; slogging through deep powder and throwing hand charges to set off slides; resetting boundary signs and rope lines, and digging out and moving up tower pads. As the day progresses, patrollers respond to medical calls, provide patient care, and transport injured off the hill. They answer questions and provide information to visitors. They may also be involved in search and rescue, training or deploying search dogs, high angle rope rescue, chairlift or gondola evacuation, weather forecasting and snow pack analysis, and accident investigation.
This is a day on the job for a 21st century ski patroller. But in the ‘70s, when many resorts and ski patrols were relatively new and establishing their cultures, the job looked much different.
“Back then, it entailed showing up, probably hung over, at the same time the guests got on the lift,” says Dave Sills, now patrol director at Smugglers’ Notch, Vt. “We’d ski around all day and, when needed, take injured skiers off the hill.”
Sills, who has patrolled for more than 30 years, says that today, ski patrolling is much more difficult and complex. As changes in the ski industry mimic changes in society in general, being a patroller has become a profession for many, requiring a high level of responsibility and proficiency at a broad range of skills, such as explosives handling, emergency medical skills, snow science, avalanche beacon use, and accident investigation. Changes in equipment, technology, and medicine have all influenced this shift.
Of course, not all patrollers are pros. The job is performed both by volunteers and paid professionals. While some large resorts operate with paid staff only, volunteers with the National Ski Patrol are the primary workforce at many smaller resorts, especially in the Midwest. For still others, volunteers work together with paid patrollers to do the job. How to coordinate and integrate these two work forces presents ongoing challenges.
Snow grooming and improvements in snowsports equipment—shaped skis and wider skis—allow many skiers access to significantly more challenging terrain, including sidecountry or out-of-bounds areas that were once closed to resort visitors. All ability levels are now finding steeper terrain, cliffs, trees, and chutes in various snow conditions. This effectively expands the amount of terrain for which a patrol is responsible, sometimes without increasing staffing levels.
This change has affected ski areas in every region of the country. “Modern ski equipment allows everyone to get out there, so you have more people skiing a variety of terrain,” says Matt Calcutt, who has patrolled at Squaw Valley, Calif., for 23 years.
This also means that patrollers must possess the skills to safely navigate and perform rescues in off-piste, sidecountry, and backcountry terrain. Patrollers need not only excellent skiing skills, but also mountaineering skills to access steep chutes or cliff faces. Resorts that have such terrain typically have ice axes, crampons, ropes, and harnesses as part of their specialized equipment. Patrollers often have to adapt standard rescue systems to meet the unique needs of the environment, such as steep slopes, deep snow, ice, severe wind, and/or cliffs.
Additionally, in zones where avalanche mitigation is not performed, patrollers need to assess avalanche risk before setting out for a rescue or search.
For resorts that border sought-after backcountry terrain, patrollers are the best prepared to conduct rescues for lost or injured guests in those nearby areas, effectively increasing the acres for which they are responsible. Add that to the list of expanded responsibilities.
Sugar Bowl, Calif., is one such resort. Patrol director Jim Zaloga says that the public has become more informed about avalanche risks, which is only one piece of the puzzle. “That gives them knowledge,” says Zaloga, “but it’s a double-edged sword, because now there are more people heading into the backcountry than ever before.”
The advent of snowmaking and steady improvements in grooming over the last 30 years have also changed the patrollers’ game by creating faster and steeper tracks for in-bounds skiers and riders. In fact, Sills says that skiers’ speeds increased steadily from the 1970s until about 2000, increasing the potential for serious accidents. Patrollers are further taxed by covering terrain parks, something that didn’t even exist 20 years ago.
Not only do patrollers have to respond to accidents, they work hard on hill safety to prevent them. Man-made hazards (such as lift towers and snow making equipment) on groomed runs are often padded. Speed control, increasingly common, is sometimes performed by patrol, too.
On-hill safety also means guest education. At Hyland Hills, Minn., patrol director Jeanine Mogan says her staff puts a lot of time into public education, teaching skiers and riders about safety in the terrain park, the benefits of helmets, and safety on the chairlift. All these add to the task list.
The increasing availability of information has also had an impact on patrol. Improvements in weather forecasting, combined with the presence of social media and smartphones, means everyone has access to up-to-the-minute information about snow conditions on the hill. A big dump can draw skiers from near and far, generating crowded slopes. And high-speed lifts, designed to shorten lift lines, put more skiers on the slopes at a given time, further increasing the risk of collisions. All this can create challenging conditions for everyone who works on the hill.
Technology improvements also assist patrol, of course. GPS and rangefinders help in accident investigation, pinpointing locations of falls and hazards. Digital avalanche beacons are a huge improvement over their earlier analog counterparts. Weather station technology, such as wind monitors, helps with avalanche predictions. A start-up in Colorado, Mountain Drones, is investigating the potential of drones in avalanche mitigation. Such a tool could clearly increase the safety of the job, but would also require more time spent training in order to use it.
With the growth of EMS, the public has come to expect a higher level of medical care and faster response times. Changes in the trauma triage guidelines, which are established by the medical community, are part of this. The guidelines state that adults involved in a crash at speeds of 20 mph or greater, or who fall from a height of 20 feet or greater, require rapid transport to a trauma center. With steeper groomed runs increasing skiing speed and with terrain parks in the mix, this means patrollers more frequently need to make adept decisions about whether or not, and where, to transport patients.
Advances in medical equipment have also changed the job. “We have better equipment and training,” says Calcutt, “offering a higher level of patient care.” On-hill equipment now might include Advanced Life Support equipment such as oxygen, AEDs (defibrillators), and IVs. Many resorts also have their own onsite clinics staffed by nurses and doctors. These facilities provide for easy patient transfer from ski hill to clinic, and to ambulance if needed.
Although care levels can vary between resorts, professional (paid) patrollers are in some cases required to be EMTs, which carries with it all the protocols of EMS as well as yearly requirements for renewing the certification. Volunteers, along with many pros, train to the Outdoor Emergency Care, or OEC, standard, created and maintained by the NSP.
One thing that’s not always clear when there is an accident on the hill is who will be assigned responsibility—the individual or the resort. Modern resorts spend a great deal of time and effort for on-hill safety. Many of these efforts—marking hazards, roping off unsafe areas, and placing tower pads—have long been the responsibility of the patrol. But the list of items to be padded, or marked, or roped is constantly expanding.
And when things go wrong? As noted, accident documentation and investigation is now part of the job, and most resorts have multiple patrollers as key players on their investigation teams.
“We document everything to a much greater extent than 20 years ago,” says Calcutt. “We might use photographs, diagrams, measurements, detailed descriptions, and witness statements.” More and more of this is being recorded electronically.
Accident investigation can present a challenge to resorts that use volunteers exclusively; this is not part of NSP training, and it’s a lot of responsibility to place on a volunteer. To address this challenge, the NSP and NSAA are working to formulate guidelines for accident investigation.
In a sport that carries inherent risks, and in a culture that doesn’t hesitate to bring disputes to the courtroom, patrollers will continue to spend an increasing amount of time on hill safety and accident investigation, playing a key role in protecting resorts against fraudulent or invalid claims. This has led to creation of a new position at some resorts: risk and safety manager. But for many resorts, patrol continues to shoulder much of this responsibility.
One of the upsides to the broader expectations for patrollers is an increasing importance placed on teamwork and professionalism. At Mt. Bachelor, Ore., 15-year patroller Betsy Norsen says, “There has been a real culture shift away from the sexist, macho attitude of the past. It used to be that you never asked for help, because if you did, you were given a hard time. Especially as a woman, you had to prove yourself.”
Now, Bachelor boasts more of a teamwork approach. The patrol director encourages a culture of “work smarter, not harder. It’s important that we are all safe and uninjured, and we really support each other,” Norsen says.
The increasing skill set required for modern patrollers means it’s a difficult job to do. Patrollers have to train constantly in a large set of disparate skill areas, including medical, explosives, lift evacuation, skiing, ropes, snow science, weather, and search and rescue.
“Most of these skills are ones that you can really only get by honing them on the job,” says Zaloga. “Things like avalanche control, search and rescue, patient transport—you can really only learn well by doing them.”
The result is that it can take three to five years on the job to develop a really top-notch patroller, and the pay scale at most resorts isn’t keeping patrollers around that long.
“Smuggs’ is such a great place to ski, keeping good patrollers didn’t used to be an issue for us, even when other resorts were struggling with high turnover,” says Sills. “Now, though, it’s getting harder to recruit and keep people. The pay has increased some, but not enough to be able to keep patrolling as a career.”
Across the country, Norsen sees the same thing at Mt. Bachelor. “Patrollers are being asked to do more and to treat the job as a true career, but the level of pay keeps it from being sustainable as a career. It’s hard to find people who will stick around,” she says.
Add “training new hires” to the long list of duties a ski patroller performs.
The broad skill set required means that at large resorts with advanced terrain, not every patroller is trained to do every job. When there are enough patrollers available, some specialize in certain areas, taking on auxiliary duties. These could include avalanche forecaster, explosives coordinator, avalanche dog handler, and risk manager.
At resorts that employ both paid and volunteer patrollers, their roles are also usually different. Volunteers typically spend much less time on the hill, and thus have less opportunity to develop and maintain their skills.
“They have specific roles or tasks,” says Norsen. “The volunteers supplement our crew, and we step in when needed. However, there are still jobs like explosives work and accident investigation that volunteers don’t take part in.”
“The pros take on the role of being the managers,” adds Sills, “especially on weekends, when there are more volunteers on the hill.” In this way, they can work together as a team.
During drought years when resorts may have reduced operations, the balance between paid and volunteer patrols can be more difficult to manage. When paid patrollers have their hours cut back, tensions can run high when they see the resorts utilizing a free labor source.
Volunteer patrollers are also taking a risk in that, if they get hurt on the job, they are not covered by worker’s comp. Mogan says this is a big issue in Minnesota, which uses primarily volunteer patrollers, and one that has yet to be directly addressed.
The future of ski patrolling as a profession remains unclear. The challenge for resorts is how to maintain the professionalism and high skill level of their employees while stemming the flow of patrollers who ski out the door after five or so years on the job.
Patrollers today are more skilled and competent, and certainly busier, than those of 30 years ago. But patrollers are leaving the job for professions with higher pay and benefits, where their medical skills translate to a strong career. Fire departments and hospitals in ski towns are rampant with ex-patrollers.
The obvious answer would seem to be higher pay and better benefits, and some larger resorts are heading in that direction. But for resorts with fluctuating profits, it could be some time before those changes can occur.
Summer operations are helping to support more full-time patrol positions. Activities like mountain biking, zip lining, and hosting events such as obstacle course runs creates a need for patrol in the summer.
But most patrollers work at least one other job during the calendar year. These are the challenges of any seasonal job. When so much is expected of these professionals, however, whether paid or volunteer, it’s essential that resorts find a way to keep experienced patrollers out on the hill.
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