Adventure July 28, 2008

Kings and Queens of the HIll

First to arrive, and last to leave, the members of Sun Valley’s Ski Patrol are the gold standard for skiing safety.

Times have changed.

No longer can a young person blow into town in November, get a room with six people, find a night job bussing tables for spending money and work the Sun Valley Ski Patrol for a season pass and a “pro” deal on gear.

No longer do the old hands line up the greenhorns at the long bar in Slavey’s and teach them to drink “blue flamers” (light a shot glass of tequila on fire and toss it off in one swift moment, leaving a small blue flame in the bottom of the glass). Time was, it was possible to spot a newly-hired ski patrolman by the circle of blisters around his mouth.

Many of those new kids are veterans now (check ’em for burn scars), obviously, not only having survived that particular rite of passage but also having matured. And, just as they have matured, so has their profession. “The Patrol” has moved on from guys sleeping in VW vans in ski area parking lots, to citizens who help form the core of the communities they live in. They run the gamut of volunteers, soccer coaches, planning and zoning board members, small business owners, craftsmen and tradesmen and the guy who mows your lawn and tends your flowers all summer. Yet, few of these men and women see or describe themselves as the above. Their “real” job is the patrol, and with the first snowfall of the year they shed their other persona, don the ski parka with the red cross emblazoned on the back, buckle into cold boots and are on the mountain doing their job before the people they serve (and help protect) have had their first mocha latte.

The patrol is a great training ground for community builders. It instills a sense of responsibility and helps develop the virtues of trust, interdependency and teamwork. The attributes of physical bravery, level-headedness, good judgment and coolness in the face of adversity are admirable, not only in a patrolman, but also in a good neighbor.

Ask a patrolman’s thoughts on all of this and it’s unlikely you’ll get the same highfalutin’ “reason to be” language used here. More likely, you’ll get a laconic answer, more simple and direct:

“I love working outside,” “I like the challenge, the rush of excitement in moments of danger or emergency.”

Most patrolmen and women don’t spend a lot of time attempting to articulate why they love their work, they just go about it with proficiency and quiet pride.

As with any job, some aspects of it can be mundane and repetitious, stringing snow fence, shoveling, setting up signage, etc. The work seems to fall under three main categories: people management, snow management and emergency response. Under the first, good communication skills are paramount—skills that lie somewhere between those of your local policeman and the head of the Chamber of Commerce. In this category, policing is probably the most difficult call.

Large crowds and speed are not compatible. Skiers often reach higher speeds in larger crowds than would normally be found in downtown traffic. All are without the protection of bumpers, fenders, steel framing and safety-glass. Therefore, policing is inevitable. There is great difficulty in curtailing the over-enthusiasm of a group on college break, providing for the safety of the general skiing public, and still delivering a quality vacation experience for both. This takes judgment and diplomacy often acquired only by years on the job. >>>



On the mountain, the fun can turn fatal, and making the call to prevent disaster is as important as responding to it. Sometimes the switch in job demands can be breathtaking. In minutes, it is possible to go from the stern task of pulling a person’s pass for reckless and endangering behavior, to acting like the friendly local tour guide: Advising people on the best way down the mountain according to their abilities, indicating the best groomed runs, even pointing out the shortest lunch lines. People management is dynamic; each day can seem the same, yet each is different, and equally challenging. Another component of the job (one least visible) is stabilizing the mountain. After an all-night snowfall and before most skiers have unplugged their boot warmers, the patrol is high on the mountain on avalanche control, working out the danger spots. First, they’ll send projectiles into the known danger areas, such as The Bowls, from the “Avalauncher” on Guntower Lane. Then, working in groups of three, they’ll throw 2-pound, high-explosive hand charges, sort of a mini depth charge that doesn’t show much on the surface, but reverberates beneath the surface and settles the newly fallen snow.

After that comes ski-checking, the edgy part of the operation similar to clearing a minefield, and just as dangerous. By skiing out on the highest and most logical point that an avalanche might cut loose, the patrolman actually tries to set one off. This is a moment shared by many disciplines; a paratrooper catapulting out of an aircraft, a big-water kayaker launching into a class VI rapid, or a rodeo bullfighter filling the gap between the bull and a downed rider. In cliché, as well as reality, it is a moment of truth. The poet James Dickey once said, “if you’re bored with your life, risk it!” It’s unlikely the men and women of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol are bored with their lives, but this is a moment when training, skill and intuition meld, match an uncontrollable and unstable element of nature, and attempt to master it. Although sometimes unspoken, it is one of the reasons they are here, and it adds a keen edge to their lives.

In the middle of all of this, or basically at the heart of this job, is the word “first.” First on the hill, first called, first responder, first aid. It’s the heart of what they do and the heart of why they do it. First always in the mind of any patrolman arriving at the scene of an accident (“wreck” in the parlance) is how to handle it expeditiously, professionally, and with the utmost care given to the injured party and those associated. You may not hear it articulated on a daily basis around the ski patrol hut, but there are profound rewards for this job. Aiding the injured, calming the fearful and distraught, and lending a strong shoulder when one is needed are tasks that make the early mornings, the cold feet, the endless shoveling and living with the danger of snowslides, worthwhile.

Finally, comes the last run of the day—“the final sweep”—a lovely description and act that can be compared to many like moments in the world. Moments like shutting down an amusement park, shooing everyone out so the attendants can bask in a moment of silence. Or it can be compared to a busy restaurant when all of the revelers and happy diners have departed, and the door is locked, leaving all the rooms blissfully silent and peaceful.

It is much like that when the patrol closes down the mountain each evening. Making long, lazy, sweeping turns on empty runs. Seeking stragglers or lost persons, but hoping none will be found to break the reverie of the moment. Pausing at the top of the Stielhung on Warm Springs, or the bottom of College, or on a ridge between The Bowls to watch the last rays of the sun paint the hills a rosy alpenglow. Seeking to hold the silence, or the light.

Yet understanding that all is fleeting, fleeting as life, fleeting as this moment paused to contemplate a lifestyle chosen, a lifestyle lived. An intensely private moment, that you, as a Sun Valley Ski Patrolman, know . . . whether having gone to work this year, or 30 years ago . . . you know that you own the soul of this mountain, or it owns yours. >>>




Tim East, 51

From Fort Lauderdale, FL., lives in Hailey with Tryntje.

Years here: 30 Years on patrol:

20 Jobs on patrol: Stay out of trouble . . . Certified Outdoor Emergency Care Instructor, Avalanche Dog Handler

Jobs off patrol: Plays in the 812 Band, co-founder, backcountry ski patrol and selling advertising for Names and Numbers

Headgear: Yes, especially if “Richie (Bingham) or Arnold (Schwarzenegger) is wearing one.”

“I was incident coordinator in the search for Tom Wernig (the ski instructor killed while skiing on Bald Mountain in 2004). Even though it was a terrible tragedy, I liked how the community turned out in the hundreds to stomp through nasty timber and look for Tom. Most of them didn’t know Tom at all. That was the most incredible thing that ever happened to me on the job. Once, after closing time on Dollar, I saw this husky man climb up, jump on a European sled and fire down the hill centering on the Quarter Dollar lift. He turns at the last minute and blows past me at 40 miles an hour. I say, ‘Looks like fun’ and the man says in an unmistakable accent, ‘Now you’re talking!’ It was Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Rich Bingham, 60

From Ogden, Utah, lives in Cold Springs with Barbara.

Years here: 40

Years on patrol: 39

Jobs on patrol: Assistant Director and Snow Safety Supervisor

Jobs off patrol: Carpenter

Headgear: Only if it’s snowing or 15 degrees or less.

“I came here on a whim and found a passion that I am really glad I got into. I like what I do and I feel very lucky that I got here in an era and put together a lifestyle where I could survive on meager wages. I love to ski and I work with a great bunch of people. We are family. The challenges are constant. Something new happens every day. When you get to the top of the mountain every morning and you are the first one out there, you can’t help but be humbled and grateful for having the best office in the world.”

Mike Lloyd, 57

Has lived here for so long he considers this home. Lives in Hailey with Simone.

Years here: 35

Years on patrol: 32

Jobs on patrol: Director (five years)

Jobs off patrol: Carpenter

Headgear: Yes.

“We have fewer accidents per 1,000 than the national average, but every day is an adventure and anything can happen. As a manager you have to deal with the company, the staff, the guests, stress and risk management. It is much more dynamic a job than anyone thinks. You are rarely just sitting around the station waiting for a call. Some are, the others are out checking the slopes, fixing fences, checking boundaries. We have one of the longest longevity patrols, which is amazing considering how expensive it is to live here and the financial burden. It takes a special person to do the job. Type A. They do it, they love it.”

Whiz McNeal, 57

From Annapolis, Md., lives in Ketchum with Beverly and two children.

Years here: 33

Years on patrol: 31 (less one drought year)

Jobs on patrol: Patrolman specializing in lift evacuation and cliff rescue

Jobs off patrol: Builder and commercial fisherman in Alaska

Headgear: Helmet.

“I was involved in Outward Bound. I liked the West and my brother was here. When I graduated, I headed this way and never turned back. I was working an inside job and knew immediately it wasn’t for me. I enjoy working outdoors and the alpine environment. The most rewarding part of the job is helping people in need, whether they need first-aid or advice. A patroller is more than a first-aider. We are caregivers and are acquainted with most of the people who ski on the mountain. Some people see us as cops, and we really hate being identified as such. But we have to enforce rules for the good of all and that’s why we have one of the safest mountains and finest skiing mountains around.”


This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.