Getting to know New Hampshire’s ski patrol
Skiers see them all the time, but what do they know about them? What kind of person does it take to be a ski patrol member? What’s a typical day like? What tips do they have for staying safe?
The aging chairlift came to a halt, as lifts sometimes will. Temperamental hydraulics seemed to be getting the upper hand on optimism and patience that day, and eventually the chair moved no more.
Soon the radio of the person sitting next me on the stalled triple, the ski area’s general manager, crackled with the news of an imminent evacuation.
“Figured that,” Ragged Mountain General Manager Bob Fries said to the mountain manager on the oth-er end of the radio.
What started as an anticipated 12-minute chairlift ride turned into a 70-minute experience as we dangled high above the snow at the Danbury ski area in central New Hampshire. But then the ski patrol arrived. They talked us through the process before using equipment like rope and T bar- shaped evacuator seats to lower us down, one at a time, after we threw down our skis and poles. They were friendly, professional and reassuring.
Eventually Fries, a veteran of many safety drills, and I were reunited with firm snow. But this was no drill, and knowing that, the good-natured Fries had a way to impress a now-jittery ski writer.
So did the ski patrol. That eye-opening experience some 10 years ago gave me a glimpse into the world of such patrollers — the ubiquitous red-jacketed and white cross-wearing volunteers and pros monitoring the slopes.
These certainly weren’t the first patrollers I’d ever seen or talked with, but they were the first that assisted me. For the most part, patrollers are a gregarious bunch, always friendly on the chairlift and wonderful resources for firsthand accounts of snow conditions.
They can also provide insight for skiers and riders unfamiliar with the ski area on where to go while providing frequent trail fliers the skinny on when the ropes may drop on favorite runs. Envied for privileges that have them on the hill before and after first and last chair, and an express line for chair access if they choose, patrollers may seem like snow enforcers to a few. In reality, however, they are valued ski area snow ambassadors to many.
And when you need them, it’s good that they’re there.
Patrollers, some paid but mostly volunteers, run the spectrum of backgrounds and vocations. They all have one thing in common: a love of helping people and carving snow — whether on one board or two. They are a committed and tight-knit bunch, often making the long drive from cities and suburbs on weekends where they have regular jobs, to New Hampshire’s mountains.
Though full- and part-time ski patrollers are there for rescue and recovery, they have many tasks the snow-loving public may not know about.
“We don’t administer as much first aid as our history implies,” said Stef Costello, ski patrol director of Pats Peak in Henniker, just outside Concord. “We spend the majority of our time checking trails, maintaining fences, ropes, signs, marking hazards and obstacles, picking up trash, retrieving items that customers drop from the ski lifts and training. We are constantly training on our medical skills, ski and ride skills, tobogganing and mountain- specific procedures like opening and closing trails and lifts, turning on lights, lift evacuation, etc.”
The list of responsibilities is lengthy and detailed. Patrollers
are there early in the day to make sure the lifts are safe to ride. They keep the snowmaking and tower pads in good order. They fill out paperwork about weather and trails. They help prepare race courses. They’re in touch with the marketing department to let them know what’s going on. They’re first on the trails to make sure they’re safe and at the end of the day, they’re doing sweeps to make sure everyone’s down. And in the end, the ski patrol wants its presence felt.
“We want our jackets to be seen,” said Jenifer Garside, ski patrol director at King Pine in East Madison in the Mount Washington Valley.
And they also want to interact with you.
Waterville Valley Ski Patrol Director Jeff Hayes has been a full-time patroller since 2010. He’s also an officer of the New Hampshire National Ski Patrol Board of Directors, which oversees the training and education of its members.
Hayes rides the chairlift all the time with guests at the western White Mountains resort. Though patrollers can take advantage of quicker lift access, he encourages his staff to sidestep that and ride with the people.
“A lot of people are surprised by what we do,” said Hayes. “They’ll tell me they thought we all were doctors. We run the gamut. We have doctors, paramedics but we also have everyone from corporate to middle managers to engineers and teachers — people who love skiing.”
Often it is those chairlift rides that lead to people wanting to become a pack-carrying ski patroller. It can create a desire to live the life that would find them transporting guests down the hill on a toboggan, handling first aid, and becoming proficient with shovels and rope rescue equipment.
New Hampshire’s slopes are patrolled by members of the National Ski Patrol (NSP), a nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 skiers and snowboarders serving in some 650 patrols across the world — largely in North America. Founded in 1938, the organization follows a doctrine of “Service and Safety,” as it evolved from a service-based group to a professional education association.
While patrollers are at least intermediate-level skiers and snowboarders comfortable on all the trails of their beloved mountain, there’s training. Hours of it. There’s medical training, with most ski areas requiring an Outdoor Emergency Care course through the NSP that’s similar to EMT classes. The programs are long, some 90 to 120 hours. Following that is toboggan training where candidates are taught how to pull loaded and empty toboggans down all trails in varying conditions. A third training piece focuses on mountain specific duties, which vary among resorts.
“All of this is required before a candidate can wear their patrol jacket with crosses,” said Costello. “It can take anywhere from one to three seasons, depending on the motivation of the candidate.”
Ski patrol offices dot the resorts, their cozy huts a warming respite with woodstoves and limited kitchen and furnishings. Pop in. You’ll be welcome.
“We encourage people to stop in from time to time,” said Hayes. “Some think they can’t. When people stop in it can break down a little bit of our mystery to guests.”
It’s no mystery that education is key to patrollers, as it all comes down to safety. Have fun, but have fun with respect. Hydrate. Replace emptied calories. Know when you’ve skied enough, especially at day’s end when going down that trail you’ve never been down before probably isn’t a good idea.
“Skiers and riders need to know the responsibility code, which will help prevent problems before they occur,” said Garside. “We like to develop a positive relationship with the skiing public.”
Sometimes a segment of the winter-loving public may see a closed trail as a challenge, and ski patrol members as police officers who can administer the dreaded sentence of a pulled lift ticket.
“When terrain is closed, it’s closed for a reason, whether it’s grooming, snowmaking or coverage,” said Hayes. “If it’s closed, it’s deemed unsafe. If people poach it they are putting themselves and ski patrol at risk if someone gets hurt.”
Pulling passes is a rarity. “Some people perceive us as police officers, but I want to stress our job is to be ambassadors,” he said.
Costello hates yanking tickets.
“We would rather use it as an opportunity to educate them,” she said. “We aren’t police officers; we are here to help encourage people make decisions that keep themselves and others safe.”
Of course, stuff happens on snow. Patrollers will say no two rescues are the same and some stay with them.
“I have so many memorable rescues,” said Garside. “I like it when I’m out skiing around and I see someone that can’t get their or their child’s ski on and I stop, take my skis off and help them put it on. It makes their day.”
And there’s a certain lift evacuation some 10 years ago where I learned to trust the patrol and remain relaxed.
“Stay calm,” advised Costello. “We train countless hours on skiing with toboggans and lift evacuations to be ready for when we need the skills.”
No argument from me.
Prepare Before You Go
Winter sport tips from the National Ski Patrol
You might think that stepping into a pair of skis or a snowboard, riding the lift and carving through fresh powder down a mountainside, then repeating the process over and over again, wouldn’t be something you’d need to prepare for.
Regardless of your ability level, don’t make the mistake of assuming you can ski or board yourself into shape. These are demanding activities, and if you haven’t conditioned your body accordingly, you tire quicker, become sore more easily and also stand a greater chance of getting injured.
So, where to start? There are three main areas in a preseason training regime to speed your transition to the slopes and steer you away from injury.
Aerobicize and Anaerobicize: In most snow sports, it’s important to build a strong base of aerobic fitness, because that’s what’s going to allow you to be on the hill longer and reduce your chance of injury due to fatigue. At the same time, skiing and snowboarding are anaerobic activities, which means that they require short, intense bursts of energy interspersed with rest periods.
Strength Training: Target major muscle groups in the upper body that exercises the arms, chest, back and shoulders. Also focus on leg work that involves the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals.
Flexibility: Stretching is the one aspect of preseason training that should be done every day. Combine flexibility and movement exercises to increase your balance and coordination for the maximum range of motion required for skiing and snowboarding.
Dress for Success
Whether you are a novice to winter sports or an expert, one of the most important ingredients to having an enjoyable experience is to dress efficiently. For skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, winter running, ice climbing or any other outdoor pursuit, the goal is to stay warm and dry. Here’s how to do it.
Dress in multiple, lightweight layers. Underneath, choose mid- or heavyweight long underwear with wicking capabilities. Staying dry is the best way to combat the inevitable cooling while you’re at rest in the lift lines and on the chairlift. Also, look for undergarments with zip turtlenecks.
Next, layer on a lofty insulator, such as fleece pile, to trap warm air and protect you against the cold. Again, the fabric should wick moisture and breathe to help you stay dry. Another good option for skiing and boarding is windproof fleece. Several manufacturers offer garments that feature a layer of wind protection sandwiched between layers of fleece, providing extra warmth and protection without added weight or bulk.
Shells for downhilling should be completely windproof and have many ventilation options. A longer, three-quarter length shell parka will keep wind and snow out most effectively with the added benefit of keeping your backside warm on the lift. A hood is handy for extra head and neck protection in high winds.
For the best performance and comfort, wear shell pants over stretchy fleece tights. Features to look for in shell pants include full side zips for ventilation, articulated knees for ease of movement and bibs for extra snow protection. Some people, particularly snowboarders, like an extra layer of warmth and padding for sitting in the snow; it’s also nice on the lift.
Bring water or a drink to stay hydrated — in a thermos if it’s really cold so it doesn’t freeze. And don’t forget energy bars and snacks. Working hard, you’ll use a lot of calories. You don’t want to burn out before you make it back to the lodge.
For more tips, visit the National Ski Patrol’s website at nspserves.org