Mike Walsh | Powder Report: Going for a shred along with Jiminy Peak ski patrol
There was a moment a couple months ago, I was interviewing former Team USA skier Ryan Riley at Dottie's in Pittsfield and he said something along the lines of him being able to fly down a double black diamond on moguls and do a backflip 720 and land almost without thinking about it. It struck me, obviously not for the first time, that skiing and snowboarding can be an incredibly dangerous sport. And for those of us that aren't world-class athletes like Riley, the risk we take strapping in at the top of an icy slope is pretty large and scary.
Now, with that type of thinking, you're not going to become a good skier or rider. There is a certain amount of suspension of fear required to excel on the mountain.
This week's Powder Report took a left turn when I got a phone call alerting me that a close family member had been involved in a serious skiing accident at a resort in New York. They were Life-Flighted to a hospital in Vermont, where thankfully a full recovery is in the cards after multiple surgeries. It's quite possible that ski patrol at the mountain saved my relative's life.
So, I wanted to find out more about the red-clad skiers and riders we see every day on local hills. As Ski Butternut's patrol director Stew Bartner told me, "A lot of people think we're just the mountain police, but we're really out here to help people have a safe day."
I had the opportunity to speak with Bartner and assistant director Jack Brinegar, who have a combined 53 years of experience patrolling Butternut. I was also able to go on a bit of a ride along with director of ski patrol volunteers at Jiminy Peak Mike Noyes on Saturday morning of February school vacation week.
Headquarters at Jiminy is a clinic-type office at the base of the mountain with four or five hospital beds and a toboggan entrance ramp. That's were I met Noyes and vice president and chief operating officer Paul Maloney. Maloney has been at Jiminy for 47 years and a full-time ski patroller for more than 40. Noyes is on year 31 keeping patrons in Hancock safe. The experience is both a comfort and a concern, as ski patrol doesn't seem to be a young man's game, so to speak. Noyes says, while they did get seven new members this year and hold steady at 75 patrollers, it isn't something many younger people are coming out for.
Those 75 at Jiminy, and upwards of 82 at Ski Butternut, work in varying shifts. At any time at Jiminy there are between seven and 15 patrollers working the mountain.
Who are they?
"We do have doctors, nurses and EMTs that are on here. It's a great mix. We've got doctors, lawyers, guys that run their own company," said Maloney. "It's a mixed breed of volunteers and they're here because they want to be here."
The camaraderie is clear from the moment I step foot in the "Top House," Jiminy's summit base of ski patrol operations. A pair of patrollers, who make the commute from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., are joking around with Maloney and handling some light dispatch duties. There's a caution rope that needs re-drilling.
That fondness stretches beyond specific mountains and throughout the industry as a whole. On March 8, Bousquet is hosting the annual Frank Munn Memorial Western Massachusetts Ski Patrol Competition. There'll be first aid belt relays and toboggan relays, mannequin pickups, a scavenger hunt and obstacle course. Local mountains submit their top six patrollers to compete against one another in a fun and friendly setting. The competition begins at 9 a.m., and sounds like a blast to check out.
While there is for sure a lot of fun to be had skipping the lift line, earning discounts and skiing all day for free, the work is serious and necessary.
The lighthearted banter takes a break as Maloney asks a patroller to "glove up," because there's a 17-year-old boarder walking up the steps with a pretty rough-looking bloody nose.
Ski patrolling is more than just patching up scrapes and cuts. Noyes and Maloney, like their counterparts at Butternut and Bousquet and all mountains, are on the slopes at 7 a.m. sweeping trails with eyes out for condition changes and appearing hazards. Everything must be marked and the signs for slow zones and caution areas are installed daily. A ton of what they do is precautionary and preventative.
Maloney says the introduction of those signs and more recently the use of caution ribbon to straighten out merging trails have cut their accident rate nearly in half. Jiminy once had around 800 incidents a winter. That number now hardly clears 400.
And those are thankfully, mostly, your busted noses, broken bones and dislocated shoulders, a common issue with boarders, while skiers take more risk to the knee joints.
For the more serious accidents, Jiminy has four defibrillators at the resort, including one at the Top House.
"At this point, if we have an accident on the hill, we try to treat the patient on the hill with immediate care. There is a lot we can do, from supplying oxygen to basic splinting and bandaging, then we transport them off the hill and into this room," said Noyes while in the base headquarters. "Here they are reevaluated and then either they are OK to drive themselves to the hospital, or have a friend do so, or depending on the level of injury, they may need to be transported by ambulance."
Jiminy's main facility is Berkshire Medical Center. Any serious injury on the hill is already called in and an ambulance is en route. According to Maloney, Jiminy has never had to use Life Flight thanks to the proximity to BMC.
Bartner says they can do pretty much everything south of supplying drugs for pain. For that, the EMTs must be present.
The day lasts until the final skiers have ordered their apres beverages.
"We have what is called final sweep," said Brinegar, "where patrollers ride the last chair up and go down the mountain looking all over, checking the woods for anyone who might've gone off trail, and just clearing the mountain so the nighttime groomers can do their job."
It's not just something you can walk into, either. There is a mountain of training that goes into being a ski patroller.
"Whether they're a volunteer or paid patroller, it's the same standard of training and care. We all go through Outdoor Emergency Care, OEC, it's a national program," said Noyes. "It's about a 150-hour course, very similar to an EMT course. Every patroller will complete that before becoming a full-fledged patroller. It's a mixture of classroom, lectures, videos and hands-on skill."
Butternut uses the same OEC training, and Brinegar added that there are a lot of skiing techniques learned to help with bringing the toboggan down the mountain, and these skills are refreshed and tested yearly.
In terms of the ever-improving technology and equipment it's a bit of a catch-22 for safety on the mountain.
"Head injuries are down to a minimum because of the helmets," said Maloney. "We started last year that all employees of the mountain must wear a helmet, that's been helpful."
Certainly the helmets and better ski bindings are making it safer, but as Bartner points out, the new skis and boards are making it possible to go faster and faster, which can naturally lead to more significant injuries. And it's no secret that often the most experienced skiers sustain the most significant injuries.
And if you do suffer an injury on the hill, be glad those folks you may have once looked at as narcs telling you to slow down when you were a teenager, are on the hill. Soon, once even he completes all his training and certification, it might even be Riley who scoops you up in a toboggan and delivers you safely down to the base lodge.
As Noyes said, "they ski in the good weather and they ski in the crappy weather. Rain, sleet or snow, ski patrol is always out there, even more so than the US Postal Service."
Mike Walsh is an urchin snowboarder who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the local lift line.
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