Popular belief has it that while the recreational skiers stand in line waiting for the lifts to start, the Sun Valley Ski Patrol is joyously hunting around Bald Mountain for fresh lines and cutting up the untracked powder.
For sure, the sensation of standing at the top of a run with nary a pass holder in sight is akin to an 8-year-old wandering into a candy factory without any adult supervision. However, the public often doesn't appreciate the enormous amount of work needed to get the mountain ready for the onslaught of skiers and snowboarders.
"I really had no idea what it takes to open the mountain and keep it safe," says second-year ski patroller Ashley Brown as she stands in a frigid shadow on the Warm Springs side of the mountain while wielding a power drill with an obscenely large bit.
Brown uses the drill to help place a number of the orange mesh "Slow" signs that punctuate the mountain like haphazardly placed slalom gates. Though many skiers either regard the signs as a nuisance or disregard them entirely, the importance is not lost on those who have to attend to the carnage that results from reckless skiing.
"You just don't realize how dangerous it is until you start working up here," says Sean Glaccum, who's in his fourth year with the Sun Valley Ski Patrol. "On patrol, you see first-hand why we have to tell people to slow down."
For both Brown and Glaccum, these revelations were particularly striking, as they grew up skiing on the very runs they now patrol.
Along with this pair, only a handful of the 61 ski patrollers employed by Sun Valley Co. were raised in the Wood River Valley. The group includes veteran patrolman Dave Bell, Monika Schernthanner, Marc Hanselman, Seth Martin, Ryan Casey and Megan Stevenson (who's still often referred to by her maiden name, Nickum).
"It's absolutely an advantage," Sun Valley Ski Patrol Director Mike Lloyd says of having patrollers who were raised in the area. "They all not only know how to ski very well, but also are already extremely familiar with this mountain."
In addition, Lloyd notes the benefit of "sustainability," referring to the fact that this group is more likely to enjoy a long tenure on patrol since they already have a place to live in an expensive town like Ketchum, and have a support network of family and friends
"This is imperative because it takes about four years to see everything that can happen on Baldy," says Lloyd as he sits in the cramped dispatch room of the patrol shack just below Baldy's summit. "There's a lot more to it than just skiing around."
The truth of that is exemplified time and again throughout the day, which begins with an 8 a.m. meeting to discuss the jobs to be completed within the hour, as well as an in-depth report of the snow conditions and potential hazards provided by Assistant Director and snow specialist Rich Bingham.
Armed with that knowledge, shovels, drills and other assorted paraphernalia, groups of patrollers spread over the mountain, setting up signs, installing safety fences and setting off avalanche bombs.
Though the next half-hour consisted of tasks that are hardly adrenaline inducing—except the bombing, of course—it's difficult to argue with their importance, or the view for that matter.
With the sun peeking over the Pioneer Mountains, Brown is greeted with a spectacular sunrise that lights up a silent downtown Ketchum and reflects brightly off the surrounding snow-covered hills. From the top of Warm Springs, that's the backdrop for a pristine and desolate ski run, impressive enough to make anyone yearn for the opportunity to do this for a profession.
"To be honest, I got burned out on skiing after high school," says Brown, who learned to ski when she was 3 and was racing by the time she was 5. "But being up here and on the patrol—it's completely restored my passion for it."
By the time she makes it back to the top of the mountain, this fleeting and seemingly ethereal moment has been replaced by the relative chaos created by the ceaseless jettisoning of passengers from multiple chair lifts.
Late morning finds Brown, Stevenson and Glaccum taking a moment's rest around one of the round tables at the mountain's main patrol station, talking about who they've seen back in town for the holidays.
"I think there's a lot of kids who don't really get it," says Glaccum, who first applied for a job on patrol when he was 18, but was turned down because of his lack of medical experience. "They don't appreciate the outdoors and everything this area has to offer."
Brown, 24, echoes that sentiment, but adds that a lot of her friends left after collage and have since returned to their hometown.
"In high school you hear people saying, 'I can't wait to get out of here,' only to realize once they leave how good it really is."
For the veterans who knew these homegrown patrollers from when they were learning to ski on Dollar Mountain, it's a double-edged sword to have them as co-workers.
"I can remember taking Ashley to the Junior Olympics when she was 12, so it's fantastic to have her up here," says Whiz McNeal. "On the other hand, it does make us feel a little bit older."
In addition to getting paid to ski, both Brown and Stevenson say they were attracted to the job because of the opportunity to get hands-on medical training.
"I took an EMT course and wanted to put it to use," Stevenson says.
Brown, who became a member of the Ketchum Fire Department this fall, says her interest in emergency medicine started in college and could eventually lead to a career as a physician's assistant or an emergency room nurse.
To that end, she's getting plenty of experience, including one incident that gained her a modicum of notoriety: bringing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger off the mountain after he broke his femur while skiing last winter.
Glaccum, who recently started the Payette River Co. to keep himself busy during the summer, had a slightly different motivation for joining the ski patrol.
"I'm doing it for the money," he says laughing, adding, more seriously, that he appreciates constantly learning new outdoor skills. "The bonus check is definitely the powder days."
However, like every job, being a patroller comes with its difficulties, though it takes these three a few minutes to actually think of any.
Along with lift tower pads and slow signs, Glaccum notes the human relations side.
"It can be tough doing speed control and having to deal with irate and unruly customers," he says of the patrol's duty to tell skiers and snowboarders to slow down. "It sucks being the bad guy."
Still, according to Glaccum, that's a small price to pay for the privilege.
"You do this for the love and because it's by far the most fun you can have in the valley."
The words have hardly left his mouth when Lloyd appears by the table telling them it's time to work, as someone has crashed and is possibly injured.
Minutes later, Stevenson's voice is heard over the microphone in the dispatcher's office: A 38-year old woman with a lower-leg injury needs to be transported down the hill to a waiting ambulance.
The jovial atmosphere evaporates and Brown, back in business mode, disappears down Upper College with a toboggan in tow.