For the week of January 6, 1999   thru January 12, 1999  

A slice of that Sun Valley Ski Patrol pie

Ski patrol offers insight to what its daily work entails


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

skipatrol.jpg (16347 bytes)Dan Collins opens the Frenchman’s runs for the day. (Express photos by Charmaine McCann)

The morning begins early, really early, for those who patrol Sun Valley’s ski mountain to ensure a safe recreational environment throughout the winter months.

Under a nearly full moon at the River Run base of Bald Mountain, Sun Valley ski patroller Charlie Johnson explains that most of the patrol members arrive on Baldy around 6:30 a.m., about an hour before the sun rises at this time of year.

As the Lookout Express lift quickly whisks empty chairs—a few with mountain employees, one with journalists and ski patrollers—through the cold morning air, Johnson points to the east, beyond the Wood River Valley, beyond the ridges on the horizon.

"This is my favorite part," he says.

The sky, blossoming and swelling with the life of a new day, displays plumes of orange and pink. The refracted hues dance on surrounding peaks—a tranquil and soothing beginning to a hard, honest day’s work.

In the ski patrol cabin, not far from Lookout restaurant and the tops of the Lookout Express and Christmas lifts, about 20 ski patrollers gather for the daily 8:15 meeting.

Ski Patrol supervisor Rich Bingham conducts the meeting: "It’s 17 degrees… There shouldn’t be any substantial new snow this week… There’s a race on Greyhawk today… We need to put up gates… We need to do some speed control… Lets get going."

After further discussion of open and closed runs and the mountain’s safety operations in general, the patrol members quickly assemble into groups and get to work. On the way out the door, one patroller points out a quote that hangs on the outside of the dispatcher’s office.

"Skis are tools, not jewels," it reads.

Knox Barclay and Dan Collins ski down Upper College’s corduroy boulevard, stop to put up some orange Day-Glo slow signs and continue on to the top of Frenchman’s lift, where more slow signs and some protective netting are arranged to safeguard those getting off the lift from possibly out-of-control or speeding skiers coming down the run.

This job isn’t just about helping hurt skiers and snowboarders, says Barclay. It’s about helping to keep them safe through prevention. The net won’t completely stop out-of-control skiers, he adds, but it will slow them down. The idea really is for people to see it before they get to it.

Barclay and Collins continue to open the roped closures on the Frenchman’s lift-serviced area and then get on the lift where they continue to search for potential hazards from the swiftly moving perch.

The night’s snowmaking leaves large pillows of snow on one side of the trail below.

"We’ll have to get someone down here to mark those," says Collins. "We don’t want anyone to hit one without seeing it."

The morning sun is rising in the azure sky. A few skiers begin to trickle down Baldy’s manicured slopes. It’s the beginning of the end of a long Christmas holiday for the patrollers.

Injuries, not surprisingly, seem to relate directly to the number of skiers on the mountain, says Ski Patrol director Bruce Malone.

From Dec. 24 through Sunday, Jan. 3, the patrol responded to 87 injury calls, but Malone points out that there is no magical formula for figuring out what will happen on any given day.

It’s about noon. Steve Daigh and Larry Lofswold, both 10-plus-year patrol veterans, stand outside the Outlook patrol cabin.

"Welcome to my office," Daigh says, surveying the craggy view when his radio fizzles. There has been an accident on the Greyhawk racecourse.

"We’re right outside," he radios back, "on our way."

The Outdoor Emergency Care textbook, the first-aid training manual for the ski patroller, states in its introduction: "You will not become an expert caregiver simply by studying this textbook or by successfully completing the National Ski Patrol’s Outdoor Emergency Care course or another similar course..."

And the Sun Valley Ski Patrol is living proof that experience at work is equally, if not more, valuable than textbook theory. Cumulatively, the Sun Valley patrollers are among the most experienced ski patrols in the country, said Johnson.

Within minutes, Daigh and Lofswold are on the scene of the Greyhawk accident. Lofswold tends to the skier’s injuries while Daigh stands by ready to take a transport/rescue sled to the injured boy’s aid.

A young racer slid down four gates-worth of racecourse, Daigh explains. He slid over the mid-Greyhawk cat track and injured his shin near the upper cuff of his ski boot.

Daigh gets a radio call for the sled.

With the care and efficiency that only experience can provide, the patrollers strap the young racer into the sled. In another few minutes they arrive at the Warm Springs base of the ski mountain where an ambulance is waiting. It’s not waiting for the racer, however.

Another sled and group of patrollers arrive shortly thereafter carrying an elderly man who has injured his knee. In a very short time, the man is carried to the ambulance and taken to the hospital. The young racer is picked up by a family member and presumably goes to the hospital as well.

"This is what I like about this job," says Daigh on the lift back to the summit. "One minute you’re skiing and the next you’re helping people."

Over the course of the day, the patrol responds to two lower leg, two shoulder and two knee injuries.

The Sun Valley Ski Patrol is also responsible for controlling the avalanche hazards on Bald Mountain.

"There are very few problems that cannot be solved by the suitable application of high explosives," reads an explosives manufacturer’s sticker on the side of one of the patrol cabin’s file cabinets.

Malone points out that the sticker doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the patrol.

Patroller Carl Rixon explains that on snowy mornings patrollers have routes to ski and check for avalanche hazards.

"We get to know our routes really well," he says of how thorough the patrol is on an avalanche-control morning. "Control work is never 100 percent, but it’s close and we work hard."

The constantly changing weather perpetually changes the snow pack, Rixon says.

"If you were to put a microscope on some snow crystals and do a time-lapse film, it would be just like watching the clouds blow by."

The changing snow crystals, says Rixon, contribute to the ever-present danger of an avalanche, even some time after a snowfall.

At 2:30 p.m., patrol members begin to assemble to sweep the bowls, which close at 2:45.

Johnson explains that as the mountain closes, the patrollers ski the last run of the day on each trail to look for injured skiers or to help those who are struggling to get down.

The final sweep begins a little after 4 p.m. and when the patrollers are through, Baldy is once again closed for the day.

And that’s the job, says Malone.

"We open and set up the mountain, close it down and handle the problems in the meantime."

A modest summarization of a hard day’s work.

 

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