In the 1980s, when I was a kid, my friends and I had big misconceptions of what the ski patrol was all about. We thought of their members as security guards who couldn’t wait to pull our passes for infractions like tucking (crouching down to minimize wind resistance and gain speed).
A few years have passed since then, and my preteen persecution complex has been replaced by a vast appreciation for the folks who dedicate their time on the mountain to keeping skiers and boarders safe.
It’s probably because I’ve gained a healthy respect for the myriad ways things can go wrong on the mountain. I’ve realized how little it takes to become effectively immobilized deep in the woods. And I now take comfort in knowing that there are people trained to patch me up and painstakingly extract me from whatever predicament I should encounter.
When a friend on the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol asked me if I’d like to see what a day in the life of a patroller was like, I couldn’t say no.
Arriving at the mountain at 8:20 a.m., I met 13-year patrol veteran Doug Dittamore in front of the patrol building and donned the red mesh “candidate” bib he handed me – my passport to a day’s worth of education and early chairlift-loading privileges.
Dittamore had just finished a morning briefing with the day’s crew and was ready to get to work opening the mountain.
As we headed over to Chair 3, he explained what that entailed.
“A lot of what we do is pretty mundane,” he said. “We want to ensure that all of the equipment we’d need in an emergency is where it should be.”
To that end, we dragged two heavy, orange rescue toboggans out of their storage containers and pointed them toward the nearest runs, for fast deployment. One was a “two handle” – a suitable tool for taking an injured skier down a groomed run, and the other was a “four handle” – which, I learned, was built to be lifted over obstacles that might be encountered deep in the forest.
On Dittamore’s constantly chattering radio, we learned that the “bag” – a kit containing everything needed to strap a toboggan and its injured occupant to a chair for a ride – was missing. Thankfully, the bag was soon in its proper place and saw no action that day.
After opening and boarding Chair 4, Dittamore took me on a short tour of the ski patrol building – a three-story structure near the base of Chair 5. After showing me the locker room, the kitchen and the family hang-out area – all on the upper two floors – we headed downstairs.
“This is my favorite part,” Dittamore said as he opened the door to a large storage room filled with ski gear. “When you’re on the patrol, you don’t have to haul your gear up and down the mountain.”
Walking out of the storage room, I found myself in an impressively outfitted triage area with hospital-bed stations lining the walls.
With equipment enabling medical professionals on the team to do everything from opening an airway to running an IV, it was much more of a minihospital than I’d expected.
“If somebody ends up here, it’s our job to stabilize them and ensure they’re in good shape for the next level of care,” Dittamore said.
When we separated for lunch – and I ate on the chairlift as is my custom – I glanced down and saw Dittamore manning a toboggan, carrying an injured skier down the hill in a hurry. We’d skied past patrollers training with toboggans earlier in the day, and this was obviously no drill.
In the afternoon, I joined Dittamore as he took runs around the mountain (patrollers get in more than their fair share of skiing every day). At closing time, I joined him at the top of Chair 6. The rest of the patrol had ensured that the mountain was empty, and it was Dittamore’s job to be ready to bring medical supplies, had they encountered an injured skier. After getting the all-clear, we met the line of patrollers lower down the mountain and headed back down to our cars.
“We’re here to help,” Dittamore said. “We just want to make sure that people are safe and not endangering others.”
While the ski patrol calls people out for lack of common sense (myself included – don’t catch air when the landing is blind and you could collide with someone), it’s not because it wants to give you any trouble.
“I’ve never pulled anyone’s pass,” Dittamore said. “Although I’ve certainly seen things that would have qualified.”
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