49 Degrees North ski patrol reaches its peak

Driving to a ski hill at sunrise on a cold, clear day, the sky turns from black to purple to orange to cyan blue. The blanket of snow on the surrounding mountains, lit up by sunshine, creates a telephoto effect. The peaks look deceptively close.

Saturday morning at 49 Degrees North the temperature was in single digits. A breeze bit sharply. The ski area opened the day before with a foot of fresh powder. There would be leftovers. The best hunting was on the north aspect in the perpetual winter shade. The snow can be good there a few days after a storm.

Short sets of powder turns could still be found on the shady terrain off chair four. Before a run, soaking in sunshine at the top felt like standing in front of an infrared heater. After several laps I was thirsty. At 49, the ski patrol keeps a big cooler of water in the top hut on Chewelah Peak.

The top hut was toasty warm. I grabbed a cup from the stack and helped myself. A few patrollers were hanging out. Walkie-talkies crackled. I started a conversation with Sue Baker. I learned that she has been on the ski patrol at 49 for 32 years. She informed me the 49 Degrees North Ski Patrol was in the running to be named the outstanding ski patrol nationwide in 2010-11.

Every year the National Ski Patrol names one Outstanding Ski Patrol. To be considered, ski patrols fill out a lengthy submittal similar to a grant application. Criteria include awards, experience, leadership, training and community outreach.

The National Ski Patrol selected 49 Degrees North over eight other patrols as the Outstanding Ski Patrol in the Inland Empire Region for 2009-10. In 2004-05, it was selected from among 30 ski patrols in Washington, Idaho and Oregon as the Outstanding Ski Patrol in the Pacific Northwest Division.

The ski patrol at 49 has a roster of Inland Empire Region training leaders. Brenda Steinbach is the region’s Outdoor Emergency Care coordinator. She’s in charge of the intensive first aid course patrol candidates must pass to qualify. Kelvin Throgmorton is the regional Ski and Toboggan training coordinator. A quarter of the patrollers on the roster are ski instructors. Patrollers there also conduct avalanche and mountain rescue clinics.

Five patrollers at 49 serve with Chewelah Rural Ambulance. They became EMTs after getting their first aid training as patrollers. Several others work with Stevens County Nordic Rescue.

This season, Pacific Northwest Division honors for Outstanding Ski Patrol went to 49 Degrees North again. The group is in the running for the national award. The winner will be announced at the National Ski Patrol convention in August.

After Baker filled me in, she introduced me to Gary Deaver, the mountain operations manager at 49. He’s also been on the ski patrol there for 26 years. Deaver is on the mountain every day. You can’t miss him. His trademark is outrageous headgear that complements his red jacket as he streaks down the mountain.

Deaver and I started talking about Angel Peak, the terrain expansion 49 Degrees North completed last year. Runs and glades are cut, but there’s no lift yet. Untouched lines through fresh powder could be seen from miles away. I mentioned that I planned a hike to those lines before the day was done.

Deaver made a quick call on his radio. Five minutes later, a patroller with a snowmobile was waiting to tow me up the ridge to the summit.

Outstanding ski patrol, indeed.

Bill Jennings can be reached at snoscene@comcast.net

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