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Ski patrollers keep slopes safe

Christina Proctor

It’s a job that only provides year-round employment for a few lucky individuals at the top of the game. The wages will never make them wealthy, still they come back year after year.

“It’s a love of the job that brings people back,” said Dave McConnell, director of the ski patrol at Heavenly Ski Resort. “It’s never ever boring and there are times on the mountain, in the early morning and evening before all the guests arrive and after they’re gone, when it’s almost a religious experience.”

The ski patroller life has a mystique all its own. What envious watchers don’t realize is that it’s not just about skiing and looking good on the slopes. The patrol is constantly striving to be a finely tuned unit. In fact, their training never ends.

Ski patrol is the first responder in any emergency situation on the mountain. How quickly they reach a victim and start emergency care could mean the difference between life and death. They are working against a stop watch, ticking off the seconds of the “golden hour” – the critical hour that begins the moment an emergency occurs.

All patrol members must be certified in CPR and first aid, but most ski resorts are requiring more. All of the professional ski patrol staff at Sierra-at-Tahoe are certified emergency medical technicians. Next year every member of the professional staff at Heavenly will either be an EMT or paramedic.

“Generally the trend now is that most professional staff members are either EMTs or paramedics,” said Michael Mosca, ski patrol supervisor at Sierra. “Ten years ago basic first aid or advanced first aid was all that was required.”

Although the majority of accidents ski patrols respond to are not critical they are constantly working on cutting down their response time.

“We have a total of 67 professionals and 125 volunteers,” McConnell said. “We have to have enough people on to be able to sweep every single open run. The mountain is divided into four quadrants and we constantly have two or three people at each station at the top of the mountain. We should be able to get to anywhere on the mountain within a minute.”

Mosca said in addition to weekly training in lift evacuations and first aid, the team is training in every spare moment.

Sometimes skiers in their search for fresh powder don’t pay attention to boundary ropes, creating a new set of problems for the patrol.

McConnell said the key to finding lost people is knowing the terrain.

“If we can detect where they went out of bounds we can pretty much figure out where they are,” McConnell explained. “There are definite places they would end up depending on where they went out of bounds.”

Mosca said a missing person’s report can give the patrol key clues to finding a missing skier.

“Based on the profile it helps determine our search. If we’re looking for a middle-age intermediate skier that never usually goes out of bounds or skis in the trees, our first priority probably wouldn’t be to scout the perimeter,” Mosca said. “But, if we’re looking for a 20-something advanced snowboarder who likes to go out of bounds, that would alert us to look for tracks heading out.”

Once someone is reported missing, Mosca said the patrol first conducts a search of the entire lodge area, bars, restaurants and parking lots. They might even call the cabin or hotel where the person is staying to make sure they didn’t go there. Once those options are exhausted the El Dorado County Sheriff’s search and rescue team is contacted, and, depending on the weather conditions, Mosca will send out a search party.

“If it is whiteout conditions I’m not going to send out a search party. It’s too risky,” Mosca explained. “If you can’t see in front of you there is little chance of finding someone, and you just may end up getting lost yourself.”

During night searches, groups of two cover the tree areas in between the runs and the perimeter of the resort. The professional staff will usually oversee the rescue operation within the ski perimeter with the sheriff’s team focusing on the out-of-bounds areas.

Ski patrol isn’t there solely to respond to accidents. They’re also in the business of prevention. In the last couple of weeks three deaths have starkly illustrated what happens when skiers get out of control. Mosca said serious injuries occur when people try things above their ability. Collisions with trees and other skiers are leading factors in skier deaths.

“We’re very aggressive about keeping the speed down,” McConnell said. “The key is visibility. It’s like when the driver slows down when they see a highway patrol officer. Skiers slow down when they see ski patrol. We make our presence known.”


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