Diary of a Ski Patrolman: The Beginning
Recent college graduate and former Yankee intern Josh Allen, spent last summer as a
sea kayak guide in Maine, and then was accepted into the ski patrol training program at Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, Vermont. Each week he will take us behind the scenes at one of New England’s most popular and busy mountains.
The First Weeks
Walking into the first day of training, I thought, “Surely this will be simple enough.” Growing up in New Hampshire, I’d skied just about my whole life, and ski patrollers ski all day, right? It’s not like they have a serious job or anything. Even now I catch myself when I tell people that I’m saving the serious jobs for later…
Because now I know better. Ski patrolling is just about as serious as it gets. But it’s also incredibly fun — and I’m still just a candidate, affectionately nicknamed Muffin. Yes, Muffin is my nickname because every morning upon arriving at our nearly monthlong “Outdoor Emergency Care” course, I went right to the muffins, of which there happened to be a rather endless supply in the refrigerator. Despite signs that these muffins might be kind of old, I ate one … or two … or maybe three. Old, yes, but they sure were delicious.
But muffins and endless cups of free hot chocolate didn’t lead to my passing the OEC exam, or to my CPR certification, or to my knowledge of what an ischial tuberosity is. It came down to really hard work: reading nearly 80 pages of the OEC textbook each night. I’ve memorized more in the past few weeks than in my last semester of college, and I take that to mean that the course here at Okemo is very, very effective and highly tuned toward success, rather than that I slacked off in college (really, I didn’t!).
All six of us patrol candidates were nearly at the breaking point — well, the point at which we were going to burn our books and yell, “Let us be outside!” — when the day of the test arrived. I felt a knot in my stomach, which is located in my upper left quadrant … Anyway, I was nervous, but also ready to put what I’d absorbed against the very best tests that our incredibly devious (and awesome) teachers could throw at us.
First: a written 100-question multiple-choice exam. It went by in a blur. I got 96 out of 100 and felt pretty good.
Second: five practical-skill exam stations. Each station tested a different technique or application of a skill that we’d learned and practiced countless times in class. But now it was serious, or at least it felt like it. And this wasn’t even an actual injured person … Luckily — well, actually, I credit our amazing teachers, Jimbo and Tom — I passed the practical exam, along with my five fellow candidates. We were now one step closer to getting on the mountain.
Only one thing remained in our way at that point: We had no snow. Oh, but the snow was coming, not from the sky but from Okemo’s snowmaking machines, and the snowmakers who made it all happen.
In the days ahead, I’ll be keeping a journal of what I see, what I do, and what I learn about taking care of people on a big and busy mountain. I know no day is quite identical to the next when you’re on hard-packed, steep inclines, running through mock assessments of “patients” with nearly every imaginable issue, or maneuvering a loaded toboggan for the first time down a double fall line while still hearing our instructor’s last words: “Whatever happens, do NOT let go of that sled!” Each time I take it out, loaded or not, I hear that warning again, and it reminds me how unpredictable but rewarding this job will be.
Natural snow at last! We’ve had a decent amount of snow on the mountain for the past week and a half, but today was the first real, natural snowfall to occur since we’ve been training on the slope. It was also very windy at the summit, which made getting off the lift with a toboggan — or what was really just a huge wind-attracting nemesis — rather tricky. In the wind and near-zero temperatures, we were at one point given a very difficult, mind-bending extrication to deal with.
Our teacher, Jimbo, had wedged himself into the woods against a log, requiring us to climb under two huge metal snowmaking pipes and figure out just how the heck to get him safely out of his predicament. After a solid chunk of time, perhaps 45 minutes or so, we were able to successfully bring Jimbo out onto the trail, on a backboard, ready for transport. Although we all preformed well, it demonstrated just how time-consuming and challenging it might be to move someone just 10 feet when he’s lodged himself into the woods during a crash. There are no shortcuts when dealing with such situations — only fast, efficient planning and rapid, safe execution. Yep, there’s a lot more thought that goes into being a ski patroller than most people (including my former self) think.
Today I found a dummy in the woods. His name: Pat Troller, the cloth dummy that our instructors hide in the woods for candidates like myself to find (or not find). Luckily, I found Pat after nearly skiing by him, and was able to pass the “test.”
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