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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Jennings: beloved ski patroller, race coach honored on Mt. Spokane

By Bill Jennings For The Spokesman-Review

“First on, last off” is the motto of the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol. Early morning before the hill opens, patrollers stage first aid gear and toboggans, set rope lines and scan the piste for potential hazards.

Late afternoon when the lifts stop turning, patrollers sweep the hill to secure equipment and ensure no one gets stranded on the slopes overnight. Sweep is a favorite ritual for ski patrollers. After a day fanned out across the mountain, patrollers take one last run and gather near the base area together as a team.

The daytime hum of resort operations goes quiet. Sunset colors the sky. A breeze hushes in the trees. A crow squawks here and there. The radio crackles. It’s the hill captain, confirming all tasks are completed and everyone is accounted for. The platoon of red jackets glides to the locker room to debrief and decompress.

The ski patrol held a final torchlight sweep Friday night for Gary Peck, a beloved ski patroller and race coach at Mount Spokane for more than 40 years. Peck was killed in a car accident last spring. But he left his mark on the mountain long before his death. Now that he’s gone, his legacy lives on with “Gary’s Glory,” the first run to be named on terrain accessed by new chair No. 6.

Mount Spokane held a small ceremony Saturday to dedicate the run, formerly known simply as “No. 2,” in Peck’s honor. I had the honor of participating in the sweep held in his memory the night before.

The occasion brought out what I would estimate were several hundred people affected in some indelible way by Peck over the years. The ski patrol chalet was packed to overflowing for a potluck dinner to celebrate the tribute. Peck would have approved of the scene.

It was not a mournful one. Active patrollers, alumni patrollers, ski racers and all their families smiled, laughed and reveled in each other’s company. Some folks hadn’t seen each other for years.

Milling about the crowd, I listened to stories nearly everyone there had to tell thanks to Peck. Themes ranged from inspirational leadership, daring antics and more than a few mischievous pranks. The catharsis was palpable as people shared their feelings and memories of a man who was a friend, mentor, companion or accomplice.

I joined some patrollers to get a few runs in before the sweep. The snow was soft and held a good edge. It was a busy Friday night under the lights.

At 9:30, the ski area closed to the public. Chair 3 remained open for torchbearers. A large buzzing crowd gathered at the top. Then everyone went silent as the voice of Randy Foiles, director of the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol, was broadcast from radios carried by patrollers.

Each patroller has a radio number. The hill captain on each shift is known by the radio call sign “40.” Peck’s number was, and always will be “120.” “Forty to 120,” Foiles said, “Forty to 120, come in.”

After a pause, his voice slightly cracking with emotion, Foiles said, “There is no response from 120. From this day forward, no one will ever be 120 again.”

The lights went out and the ski area was cloaked in darkness. Little green lights of a drone recording the event floated overhead. A flare ignited. I lined up with the others to accept a torch – a blazing road flare taped to a wooden stake. Well more than a hundred of us formed a glowing serpentine undulating down Northwest Passage.

My position was right about the middle of the line. I watched the snake slithering above and below me as I snowplowed and side slipped along, maintaining my interval. I held the flare down and away to keep the molten drip from burning through my jacket.

As we reached the cat track leading to the bottom, fireworks exploding overhead lit the snow with flashing colors. The crowd watching cheered. It was an amazing setting and an experience I’ll never forget, thanks to Gary Peck.