Angels or demons? Skiers versus patrols

How can you not love a man or woman who holds your life in their hands, flies in helicopters, has control of the explosives and the pain killing drugs and retains a sense of soothing laid back mountain man/woman calm in an emergency? Enter the angels of the mountain, commonly known as ski patrol.

Yet many patrollers get a bad rap from being tagged mountain Nazis by skiers and boarders who don’t like to see the words ‘closed’ on their favourite run. These skiers had their passes confiscated by ski patrol at Alpental resort in Washington but clearly thought (and many would agree) the powder perfection was worth the risk.

But runs close for a reason and it's not so that members of the ski patrol can get first tracks. Thirteen-year-old Taft Conlin sadly found out this and paid for with his life at Vail Mountain last season when he was caught in an avalanche on a closed run.

Ski patrols may seem like the bad guys, but they're actually there for your safety.
Ski patrols may seem like the bad guys, but they're actually there for your safety. 

"I have attended many very serious accidents involving persons who had entered closed areas because 'I didn’t think it was that bad' says Bill Barker, assistant ski patrol manager at Hotham Alpine Resort and 20-year global patrol veteran. "One thing that is common though, is the demographic that is more likely to ignore the Alpine Responsibility Code.

"It might surprise many old school skiers out there, but riding a board does not make someone more dangerous on the mountain. Regardless of equipment choice, it is 15 to 30-year-old males who are the most likely to run into you."

Manager of Mt Buller ski patrol, Sam McDougall (aka Safety Sam) says the most common Alpine Responsibility Code rule that is broken is 'know your ability and ski in control.'

"It doesn't take much to get out of control," says Sam. "If you don't have the ability to get back in to control then you need to recognise that and deliberately fall over. Only it's unnatural to do that so skiers and boarders just constantly try to recover, pick up speed and get in worse trouble."

Wayne Tuckwell, ski patrol director of Perisher says too fast is "faster than the general flow of traffic." But Bill Barker says "if you are competent, skiing and boarding at high speed is great fun and acceptable on many parts of the resorts as long as you are not endangering others.

"In slow zones, everybody has to go slow regardless of your ability. Even Mark Webber has to drive at 60 km/h in a 60 zone, even though he is very unlikely to cause an accident at a higher speed."

It doesn't take much to get yourself in trouble, especially as mountain conditions can change with the weather. Thredbo Ski Patrol Manager, Dave Kuhn, remembers the rescue of a five-year-old boy on Thredbo Mountain.

"He had fallen into a roped off area in spring and the warmer temperature had created a hole over a creek that wasn't there on our morning rounds. The boy had then been swept down the creek and was stuck in a small underground cave.

"We had little time to collect harnesses so we wrapped a rope around a tree and around my waist, then the crew lowered me down into waist-deep water. We saved him - he was hypothermic but otherwise unhurt. Another 10 minutes and hypothermia would no doubt have claimed him."

Dave's not the first Thredbo ski patroller to save a life. A group of five Thredbo volunteer ski patrollers on holiday saved the lives of a group Japanese skiers in Hakkoda after an avalanche in 2007. Their harrowing story was published and the Japanese Government awarded the crew medals of honour.

But this is what ski patrollers do: they save lives and they don't do it for the money. The average pro ski patroller grosses between $850 per week to $1300 per week for 12 to 18 weeks a season.

Volunteers obviously do it for nothing, driven by a desire to give back to the ski community. It takes two trainee years to become a certified ski patroller, then it's an ongoing process of medical certification. Even then being a ski patroller or guide doesn't make you infallible.

Australian Andre Hartlief was a member of the Remarkables ski patrol in New Zealand and on an exchange program with Keystone ski patrol in Colorado when he lost his life in a backcountry avalanche at Wolf Creek on his day off last February. Andre's death goes to show that the mountain is always unpredictable and guides are still human regardless of experience and safety knowledge - remember that most once-a-year holidaymakers have neither and are often fuelled by a sense of immortality.

Bravado doesn't belong on a mountain and it's hardly a word you want on your epitaph. Knowing when to call ski patrol is far more important than maintaining your ego - as I personally found out when 'cliffed out' in Red Mountain. You can read about my harrowing experience and the man who saved me, and my ego, here

Sure, there are bad eggs in every industry and power does go to some folks' heads. Perhaps ski patroller, Tim Taylor, was having an off day at Snowbasin when caught on this expletive-laden video.

 

But in my personal experience I have never met a more generous or humble group of people than ski patrollers.

Be nice to the men and women sporting the medical cross on the chairlift on your way up because you never know when you might need them again on your way down.

Have you had a run in with Ski Patrol? Do you think they are the White Knights of the mountain? Share your ski patrol stories, good and bad, and you could WIN a Helly Hansen Strand Down Vest available in male and female sizing (RRP$249.95). Just post your ski patrol thoughts, loves, hates and rescue stories on the blog below. Terms and conditions.

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