Diary of a Ski Patrolman: The Beginning
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.
Riding up the lift this morning was a spectacular experience. Near the summit, the clear air turned into a fine mist of snow, completely obscuring my surroundings. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face — that’s how dense the snowy mist was.
Of course, it was being blown into the air by snowmakers, but even so, it was awesome. Many people look down on “fake” snow, but after skiing on pretty much only manmade snow for the past two weeks, I have to say it works just fine. Okemo now has trails on all four areas open, and that’s because of the efforts of the snowmakers and the power of their machines. In less than one week Okemo has nearly doubled its terrain. Sure, Western mountains might get huge snowfalls, but they don’t have the ability to produce snow when there’s none falling the way we do in the East.
Coming out of the manmade snowy fog, I was greeted by the sun off to my left, and a clear view of the town below, and the endless mountains of Vermont stretching into the distant horizon. Totally unexpected, and completely beautiful. Moments like that, I think, are why people want to work and play outside in the first place. Sure, we expect to have fun and work hard as patrollers, but at the end of the day, or the beginning, sometimes there are moments that outweigh and defy those expectations altogether.