Diary of a Ski Patrolman: The Beginning
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.”
This happened at the very end of the day, around 4:30 p.m., with the sun’s dying light barely illuminating the slope. The woods were darkening by the minute, and it was my first solo sweep run.
Sweep comes at the end of the day, every day, when patrollers spread out across the open terrain and make sure no one is left behind to spend the freezing night on the hill. I saw a glimmer of red off the trail, and at first thought it was a snowmobiler fixing something in the woods. I searched more closely and found Pat, who’s stuffed with hay; he’d be so light that he could practically float down the trail. Now I had to make my first radio call ever. I received back several loud congratulations along the lines of “Good job, Muffin!” Nope, I still haven’t managed to escape my nickname … nor do I anticipate that happening anytime before the snow melts.
I did my first solo trail opening today on Heaven’s Gate, a smooth blue in Okemo’s Solitude area. There were a few inches of fresh snow on top of the solid base, and it took all of my willpower (which is sometimes easily broken — by ice cream, for example) to focus on the job, rather than let myself fly down the trail. Nevertheless, while periodically hitting off snow-covered discos (the orange discs that mark hazards) on the side of the trail, I stopped to see a beautiful sight uphill: my tracks standing alone, marking out a curved path through the windswept powder.
As a patroller, I must always do my job first and carve through the snow second — but on certain days, like today, I was just about able to do both at once, and I can’t think of many things better than that. Even better, I know that first tracks are basically always going to be mine. So whether we have pouring rain, or a foot of snow, I’ll be among the first ones out on the trail, fixing the orange signs, but also exhilarated by the beauty of nature as experienced in solitude.