Riding up the Lookout Express or Christmas lifts to the top of Baldy, one might easily miss seeing the Sun Valley Ski Patrol shack. It's tucked neatly into the chin of Bald Mountain, an unassuming and low-roofed hut quietly braced against the elements.
Inside, the men and women of ski patrol are unassuming as well, but they're prepared for any contingency that the world-class ski hill might offer. One patrolman, Whiz McNeal, has seen many contingencies in his 37 years helping to keep skiers safe.
Presidents' Day break begins this weekend, and numbers on the hill are expected to swell from a "normal" day of 2,000 skiers to as many as 5,000. So the ski patrol will be out in force, working to keep the holiday safe and incident free. McNeal and 40 additional patrol members will help accomplish that, along with numerous dogs and ski patrol alumni called upon to help on heavy-traffic days. On holiday weekends like this one, it's likely that almost everyone will be on call.
"We sometimes have a mix of people going too fast and a lot of small children on the mountain, so we need to enforce speed control," McNeal said.
It's not his favorite part of the job.
"We generally prefer to be perceived as caregivers, not cops," he said with a laugh.
But McNeal loves his job. From helping visitors find the right slope for their abilities, to stabiliz-ing and transporting injured skiers or riders to the bottom of the mountain, to working outdoors with colleagues he likes and respects, McNeal finds that each day on the mountain brings rewards.
"We get a lot of nice kudos from the people we help," he said.
In keeping with their motto, "Haulin' the Fallen' since 1936," McNeal and his colleagues will be highly visible this weekend and through the week.
Everyone on patrol is certified by the National Ski Patrol in Outdoor Emergency Care. Most are EMTs and many are paramedics. At any given time, 20-25 percent are also firefighters. McNeal said this provides an added layer of safety, efficiency and coordination on the hill.
"We are joined at the hip with the Ketchum Fire Department, the Sun Valley Fire Department and Wood River Fire & Rescue," McNeal said.
Miles Canfield, a member of the Ketchum Fire Department, is one of about nine full-time fire-fighters who split three full-time ski patrol positions. And many part-time volunteer firefighters are full-time on ski patrol. Canfield said it makes for excellent coordination of care, particularly when a skier needs to be taken off the hill and treated.
"The benefit to ski patrol is they get to take our medical training and experience on patrol," Can-field said. "The advantage for the Fire Department is seamless integration for a patient who might need to be transported to the emergency room. The ready exchange of information is a really big benefit."
He said the different skills brought to ski patrol, not only by firefighters, but also by others who might be full-time rock climbing guides in the summer, help enhance everyone's skills.
Specific and useful skills are common among ski patrol members. If there is ever an emergency on the lifts and they break down, McNeal is one of your men. He's a ropes expert who can evacuate lifts. You'll also find explosives experts, accident investigators, first aid specialists and a lead gunner (think of the person who fires a special "gun" resembling baseball pitching machines of old, all in the name of avalanche mitigation).
Sun Valley enjoys an injury rate per skier day that is a full percentage point below the national average, McNeal said. He attributes that to the high caliber of skiers and excellent grooming on the mountain. So, with many layers of expertise in place at the patrol shack, what does McNeal think is the most important component of skier safety? It's the skier himself, he said.
"The most important thing to skier safety is knowing the safety code," he said. "Most of what skiers need to know is right there on the lift towers. Everyone should read it as they go by. Helmets are good things. So is speed control. But the most important thing is knowing the code."
All of us will hope we will have only limited exposure to ski patrol—a reminder to slow down, the sound of dynamite exploding after a snowstorm while we wait for a lift to open or an assessment after a mild fall. We should rest assured that if we ever need anything more, an extremely well trained and able ski patrol is in that unassuming shack, ready to act.
Help them help you by observing signs, obeying ski area boundaries, knowing the code and be-ing courteous. Here's a quick refresher on the National Ski Patrol Responsibility Code:
(1) Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects. (2) People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
(3) You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.
(4) Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
(5) Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
(6) Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
(7) Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.