Working the Snow Shift

 

It snowed 8” overnight and the temperature at Snowbird Resort had plummeted. A
biting wind swept across darkened ski runs, cutting through rises of pine. The
low-lying clouds gave the slightest hint of the coming dawn. 7 AM at the tram
base  some 30 men and women dressed in
red jackets emblazed with the white medical cross, waited for the doors to
open. Filing into the car with the Snowbird Ski Patrol I listened to exchanges
of the weather and recaps of summer adventures. With cold morning air venting
in from the open windows we floated toward Hidden Peak on a positive vibe.
Coming from a blue-collar background, where the typical day begins with groans
and complaints and ends nearly the same only louder, I was curious. What is it
about a routine day in the life of a ski patroller that makes them so happy to
be there?

A few days prior to my ride-along I sat down with Dean Cardinale, head of snow safety at Snowbird and 20-year
patrol veteran. Immediately, I recognized a spark in his eyes that is shared
with anyone who is passionate about being in the mountains. First, he explained
the complex set of skills required for patrolling at a resort. Naming only a
few he rattled off a list: evacuation, rescue, high angle rescue, snow
science/safety, medical (EMT/OEC), terrain assessment, people, skier ability
and, most important, teamwork and communication skills. He emphasized that if
you couldn’t communicate and work, not only with patrollers, but also with
other members of the mountain operations (lifts, groomers, lodges) and the
public, running a safe and optimal mountain would be impossible.

Fifteen minutes past seven the group of patrollers had offloaded from the tram and were gathered in the Hidden Peak
ski patrol hut. The morning meeting began with an update on the mountain. A
list of what was to be opened for the day and projections on when other areas
may be was presented. Afterward, trail assignments were read out as heads nodded.
Next, Snow Safety gave a run down of the snowpack, history and weather. The forecast
was the new snow was low density, stiff and probably didn’t have enough weight to
overload the weak thin pack of early December, but to still take care of not
only slides, but of rocks lurking in its shallow depths. The safety teams along
with their routes were read and the meeting was adjourned as everyone bundled
up before heading out into the dark.

“My day begins the night  before.” Dean had told me. Gathering all the information and observations from
each route, then studying weather models, forecasts and communicating with the
rest of the Mountain Ops team, wrapping up the day for Dean is making plans for
the next. What trails to open/close, what control routes to run, what terrain
can be managed safely, what cannot. Dean had ridden the 6:30 tram up in order to
check the overnight conditions and make any final adjustments to the day’s
plan.

Chris Erkkila, assistant Ski Patrol Manager at Deer Valley, echoed this process on the following Saturday in Park
City. Their day ends after conferring with supervisors and making a strategy
for the following day. The morning meeting at the Silver Lake First Aid Station
was high energy. Snow was falling and they were opening more lifts and runs. The
control teams were already out already running routes as Chris assigned the
hill teams. Assigned to shadow Tim Strand, a Deer Valley patrol supervisor, I
headed up Flagstaff Mt.

Checking in with Jessie, the hill captain, she assigned the Flagstaff team duties and tasks. Sweeping the runs the night
before, signs, ropes and bamboo markers were removed to allow the groomers to
do their work. It was time to get it all back up. Leaving his poles at the
shack, Tim threw a bundle of bamboo over one shoulder and carried a drill in
the opposite hand. Though I had a pole in each hand and was carrying nothing
else I could barely keep up. He arced effortlessly from task to task. Stretching
rope to close off runs, installing closed, slow and merging signs and marking
obstacles before the public arrived, his quick transitions from skiing to
working with his hands hinted at a lifetime spent on skis.

Deer Valley and Snowbird run over 30 patrollers a day. Their tenures range from first year rookies to 20 plus year
veterans. When I asked Tim what kind of people stick to patrolling the response
was ‘people who love to ski.’ Dean’s answer was ‘people who love to be in the
mountains.’ Patrolling was for those who love to share their passion with
others. Witnessing spectacular sunrises and sunsets, getting more days on the
mountain then anyone else, helping when someone is hurt, assisting in a rescue
and playing a part when people have their best day skiing ever, are a few
rewards they get. Pointing to a banner in the Baldy Mt. hut at Deer Valley,
which read, “Once a patroller, always family” Tim told me it was the truth.
Sharing your best and worst days the crew bonds. Yes, there are a few days when
they don’t get along, but just like any family they move on. Dean finished by
adding, “Everyday I’m psyched to go to work. I don’t know a lot of people who
can honestly say that.”

“Not only do you have to be a good skier, you have to be able to ski without poles, carry equipment and be
able to work on your skis.” Tim and the rest of the crew demonstrated this
agility throughout the snowy day as they do any number of tasks by
sidestepping, duck walking and maneuvering in tight space with ease. “You also
have to be able to ski where you don’t want to ski.” His remark refers to
responding to an injury or retrieving dropped equipment in the trees or steep
rocky sections. After the public began skiing the hill teams checked items off
their project lists. Wrapping pads around lift towers, ferrying equipment to
different areas on the mountain and responding to any call.

Between tasks I asked Tim what other skills would be required for patrol. Reinforcing Dean’s assessment from
Snowbird, Tim relayed the need to be proficient in several areas and be able to
function under stress. “The banter you see between the supervisors and their
rookies is a way of checking in with how they are holding up.” He confided that
while Steve Graff, the Ski Patrol Manager, can tease and joke with the best of
them, when crunch time comes he expects the best out of each of them.

“Responding to a collision with a tree can be very ugly, or any other injury, for that matter. As a patroller you
have to keep yourself in check. Your adrenaline surges and if you let it take
over you’re useless.” Tim explained. Kerry, a second year patroller agreed.
“When you arrive on a scene it’s good to take ten seconds,” he mimes with his
hands. “Put your gloves on, set your base level, and then go to work.” It’s
these conversations that bring the profession into focus. Yes, these men and
women are outside everyday, skiing non-stop and having fun, but there are times
when it is dead serious.

Tim shared a story about doing control work earlier in the week. Ski cutting a slope the snow broke out above
him. The crown was about two feet deep and ran around a ridge catching a
teammate and moving him down ten feet before he was able to dig in. There
wasn’t enough to bury a body, but it would’ve strained him through the trees if
he hadn’t stopped.  “If you do this job
long enough two things are certain to happen. One, you will fall off a
cornice,” Tim smiled. “There’s nothing like taking a ten foot elevator ride
early in the morning when you can’t see… Second, you will get caught in a
slide.”

While running the first snow control route on Baldy with Dean at Snowbird he mentioned a couple of rescues that
ended in fatalities. Dean is also president of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue
(WBR). Working under the oversight of five Wasatch Sheriff’s Search and Rescue
divisions, the WBR is a nonprofit, volunteer program made up of professional
snow safety workers. Members include law enforcement, ski patrollers, UDOT,
forest service forecasters, heli-ski operators and dogs. Most patrollers along
the Wasatch are members of WBR not only because they want to assist in rescues,
but also because it provides insurance once they step out of ski area
boundaries. Dean explained that the ultimate outcome from any avalanche rescue
would be to pull them out alive, but after responding to over 20 fatalities he
admits that it’s unlikely. So while the organization’s primary purpose is
response to accidents in the Wasatch its secondary focus is on backcountry
education. Dean reasons that the next best thing to saving a life from an
avalanche would be prevention through knowledge. The WBR’s education efforts can
be seen in beacon parks located along the Wasatch and the several seminars and
talks held throughout the season. Visit their website for more information.

I met Izzie, a six-year-old WBR, International Commission of Alpine Rescue (ICAR) certified avalanche dog at
Deer Valley. Izzie and her owner/handler, Jessie, have trained together locally
as well as internationally. Avalanche dogs are vital members of patrols
everywhere. When responding to both in and out of bounds slides their sense of
smell can help quickly narrow down the search area. Demonstrating her dog’s
locating skills, Jessie buried a human scented hat a foot beneath the snow
while Izzie was kept inside. Once outside Izzie bubbled with energy and was
ready to go. Steadying herself she waited for the command. Like a sprinter off
the blocks, Izzie exploded from Jessie’s side. Catching the scent in the air
she stumbled over herself to slow down. In less than 20 seconds she had the hat
in her mouth and was being praised by Jessie.

Just past 10 AM at Snowbird the thermometer at Hidden Peak read 4 degrees. Visibility was in and out as the clouds quietly
swirled around American Fork Twin Peaks. The Avaluancher Crew had controlled
the upper chutes of the peak and now it was time a snow safety team to run the
route. Sandwiched between Dean and Quinn, a six-season patroller, we ducked the
rope and headed down the Road to Provo trail. After detonating charges in key
areas of known slide paths below the towering summit we used safe travel
techniques of one at a time. The explosives caused no reaction in the snow. Traversing
into upper Gad Valley Dean showed us a chute where he had been caught in a
slide some years before. He went for a ride, was pushed off a small cliff and
lost all of his gear. After detonating a charge with no reaction to the snow
Dean cut across the slope stopping in a safe spot. Following his path I gained
speed quickly so I veered off into the varied, wind affected snow. My tips dove
and I tumbled. Embarrassed, I eventually righted myself and joined Dean with my
head low. “If we knew you were going to do that we would have saved the
charge.” Quinn said while passing. Dean’s grin widened as he tapped Quinn’s
knuckles.

Taking a few mid-day laps with Steve over at Deer Valley he took time to chat and ski with several locals. He explained this
as the “Deer Valley Difference.” The difference being that patrollers not only
carry out their duties they also contribute at a high level to the guest
experience by being mountain hosts. Around noon, just after parting ways, he
responded to a possible head injury. Though the guest had worn a helmet she
struggled to answer a few rudimentary questions. Steve loaded her into a
snowmobile trailer and had the local paramedics meet them at the first aid
station. A quick trip to the hospital and she was cleared for the day.

It had been a cold and cloudy day with an inch of new snow throughout. By quarter after three it was time to
start shutting down. The outlying lifts carried their last guests to the top
then the patrollers began their sweeps. Each of their routes switch backed
across a given area looking to help anyone down and prepping the runs for the
groomers, all this in order to provide the guests with another great day on the
mountain. In stages the sweeps moved closer to the center and by five PM Deer
Valley was cleared for the day and the Silver Lake First Aid Station was
brimming with smiles as the crew checked in and said goodnight.

After running the Road to Provo route over to the top of Gad II, Dean and I returned to
the Hidden Peak hut at Snowbird. With a smile he said goodbye and entered the
shack to record his observations and get ready for his next route making the
mountain safe for the public. Later he would once again gather all the
information and start making the plan for tomorrow. I loitered a bit as the
tram passengers disbursed leaving me alone at the top. Clouds churned above and
only allowed glimpses of the rugged peaks from the surrounding Wasatch. Traversing
the now open Road to Provo I took it all in. Cold air, new snow, psyched people
and a majestic setting equaled a beautiful day in the mountains. Rolling off
the traverse I made two assertive turns, adjusted to the snow and stretched
them into flowing arcs. The air numbed my face and froze my lips in the shape
of a smile. My skis sang. It may not have been the best ski day of my life, but
it was definitely better than any day at work I’ve ever had.

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