February 5, 2009 in Washington Voices

Mt. Spokane powderhounds on patrol

After 70 years, volunteer ski group still innovating
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Members of the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol, left to right, Jacqueline Essig, Carolann Christensen, and Justin Slawson prepare to hit the slopes to assist skiers Jan. 29.
(Full-size photo)

Map of this story's location

Coming up

Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol is looking for candidates to join the patrol for the 2009-2010 season. Both skiers and snowboarders are invited to the on-hill ski test on March 8. Candidates can also join the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol as an auxiliary member. Auxiliary members work in the aid room stabilizing injuries and completing paperwork. For more information, call (509) 343-1499 or visit www.mssp.org/

For over 70 years the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol has been the eyes and ears of the mountain.

It’s an organization rich in leadership and history. The patrol was the fourth to register with the National Ski Patrol system, which began in 1938. Clad in bright red jackets, the 131 members, who range in age from 16 to 73, ensure guests experience a safe and enjoyable visit. “Whenever the mountain is open, our patrollers are there,” said director Dan Edwards.

Working in teams of two, the patrollers’ day starts before the first skiers and snowboarders arrive. “We make sure our gear is in place and that all the ribbons are up and the boundaries clearly marked,” Edwards said.

Throughout the day the ski patrol provides assistance to those in need. “We’re essentially EMTs,” said Edwards, referring to the advanced Outdoor Emergency Care training the members are required to take. “We can typically respond within five minutes.”

But they do much more than help injured skiers. They conduct search-and-rescue operations when needed, ensure guests are skiing safely and answer questions about the mountain.

Brad McQuarrie, general manager of Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, said the expertise and experience of the ski patrol are of tremendous value to the nonprofit ski area. “Mount Spokane is fortunate to have a ski patrol that has maintained its training and consistency.” McQuarrie went on to point out a unique feature of this particular unit. “It’s one of the last remaining all-volunteer patrols.”

The group funds its operation through the annual Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol Ski Swap, one of the largest winter sports equipment and clothing events in the state. The funds raised at the October event provide the patrol’s toboggans and medical supplies.

For many patrollers, service is a family affair. Alan Berk has been a member for 15 years. “My father, Gordon Berk, was on the patrol,” Berk said. “He was awarded outstanding ski patrolmen in the U.S. for the 1968-1969 season.”

His father taught himself to ski after World War II, using army surplus skis. “He’d hike to the top of Browne’s Mountain and ski back down,” Berk said. “He took us skiing every weekend.”

Berk has accumulated his own share of adventures and awards. On Jan. 4, 1998, he received the National Ski Patrol’s Purple Merit Star for rendering life-saving care to an injured skier. A man had lacerated his hamstring near the bottom of chair 4. “The severity of the injury necessitated rapid transport, which was difficult from this location,” he recalled. “We had to devise a new method quickly, and this incident marked the first time that we used a snowmobile to tow a toboggan.”

In another incident, in 2004, Berk assisted a young man who’d hit a tree while snowboarding on the backside of the mountain – an unpatrolled area. Berk wasn’t even on duty at the time, but was carrying his radio and heard the call for help. He reached the injured man minutes before the other patrollers arrived.

“We got him loaded up and carefully navigated our way down the backside, which is densely populated with trees and extremely difficult terrain for toboggan transport,” said Berk. The patient was air lifted out with a broken femur. Berk and his fellow patrollers were awarded the Green Merit Star for their effort.

Now, a third-generation Berk is serving on Mount Spokane. Alan’s son, 23-year-old Ryan, is in his second year as a member of the patrol. “I pretty much grew up skiing and being around the patrol,” Ryan said. “You can’t beat the camaraderie.”

That camaraderie is what attracted the youngest member of the patrol. Sixteen-year-old Carolann Christensen said she had some older friends who recently retired from the patrol. “I kind of wanted to take their place,” she said. “I enjoy the people up there. It’s like one big family.” Even so, she emphasized the time commitment involved in the training. “But it’s definitely worth it. I love to ski and I love to help people.”

Bill Hofer, who coordinates the training program, is hoping to attract even more young people like Christensen. This year the organization launched SPY (Ski Patrol Young Adults). Hofer is working with Dan Edwards’ son, 18-year-old Eric, to develop the program.

“The idea is to create another community within the ski patrol,” Hofer said. Aimed at 14- to 17-year-olds, the program will match young skiers with older, more experienced members. “They’ll be required to be on the hill two days a month,” he said. Pairing young patrollers with senior members will better prepare them for their eventual duties.

“We put young adults into a very adult environment where life and death can hang in the balance,” Hofer said. In addition to patrol duties, SPY members learn about all aspects of the Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park by observing grooming, lift and rental operations on the mountain.

It’s that commitment to excellence and ongoing education that prompted Brad McQuarrie to say, “People should feel safe and fortunate up on the mountain. You won’t find a more dedicated, highly-trained group of volunteers.”

Contact Correspondent Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email