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Bill Jennings: Mount Spokane Ski Patrol enters 80th season keeping an eye on the area

Mount Spokane Ski Patrollers have been looking after the mountain’s skiers for decades. (File/The Spokesman-Review)
Mount Spokane Ski Patrollers have been looking after the mountain’s skiers for decades. (File/The Spokesman-Review)

No one walks to the lifts from the parking lot thinking it could happen to them. But injuries are a fact of life on snow. Every day a ski area anywhere in the world is open, it’s a good bet someone walking in isn’t going to be walking out.

It’s unlikely the industry would have been able to grow and prosper from its humble beginnings without a ski patrol. The Mount Spokane Ski Patrol (MSSP), founded in 1938, was one of the forerunners in this essential role. The winter of 2017-18 will be the 80th season the MSSP has watched over the mountain.

In the 1930s, bold adventurers would risk life and limb on the slopes. One winter day in 1936, Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole was skiing at Stowe, Vermont, when he crashed and broke his ankle. His friends spent hours looking for help. Eventually, he endured a painful slog down the hill, carried on a makeshift travois of corrugated tin taken from the ruins of an old shed.

Dole had no benefit of first aid on the scene. By the time he received medical care, his ankle fracture was severely displaced. Doctors told him he would never walk again.

A few months later, immobilized and recuperating, Dole heard news that a close friend was killed in a ski race. He was inspired to not only ski again, but to form a ski rescue program at Stowe. His model became the National Ski Patrol System, Inc. in 1938. Today the National Ski Patrol (NSP) has more than 26,000 members on more than 600 ski patrols

“Of about 18 or 20 patrols formed in the first year of NSP, we were one of them,” said Randy Foiles, director of the MSSP. “We were the first one west of Colorado to be formed.”

Foiles is the latest in a line of ski patrol directors at Mount Spokane that began with a pioneer named Ken Anderson, who led the organization until 1962. He was succeeded by Jack Fruit, one of the founders of the patrol’s ski swap in 1964. The fourth director of MSSP was Martin Guell, who went on to serve as a national director of the NSP in the 1970s.

“Back in the early days, patrol was 25 or 30 people. Now we’re at about 130,” Foiles said. “Mount Spokane is one of, if not the largest all volunteer ski patrol in the region. Last year we were named the outstanding large patrol in the entire nation – the second time we’ve earned that honor.”

While most ski areas field a combination of professionals and volunteers, MSSP is 100 percent volunteer. Most mountains fund many of the expenses necessary for ski patrols, such as facilities, medical supplies, toboggans and radios.

“Mount Spokane Ski Patrol is totally self-supporting,” Foiles said. “We finance it all through our ski swap and we have a terrific partner in Mount Spokane. They support us a lot, but we’re proud to say we pay our own way.”

Going into its 80th season, MSSP is gearing up for a major challenge waiting in its 81st: a new lift and about 300 acres of new terrain on the ski area’s backside.

“Imagine how many patrollers we’ll need to cover that area every day,” Foiles said. “Its significant. We’ll have to grow the patrol a lot because of the backside expansion.”

Finding the right people to grow a ski patrol isn’t easy. Candidates must complete hundreds of hours of training in the classroom and in the field, on their own time and dime. To stay qualified, patrollers must spend a weekend each autumn refreshing key skills. Hundreds more hours are spent each year patrolling and working at the annual ski swap.

The true value of such sacrifice doesn’t become evident to the rest of us until the unthinkable happens.

Instead of waiting for hours until help arrives, we can count on being swiftly treated on the scene. Instead of a painful, frigid ride on a scrap of tin, we’ll be wrapped tightly in a warm bundle and tobogganed safely downhill. In a matter of minutes, we will be admitted to a fully appointed infirmary housed in the beautiful mountain chalet MSSP built with its own funds and labor.

Minnie Dole couldn’t take that for granted 80 years ago, and we shouldn’t now.


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