Approaching the top of the ski lift, I nervously fumble with my poles and camera bag, remembering just in time to keep my tips up. It is my first time on skis in 15 years and I am hoping the skills will come back to me, quickly. A light snow is blowing across my face as I regret forgetting my ski goggles at home, choosing instead to squint through the flurries.
“Are you ready?” asks Aaron Taylor, the Assistant Patrol Director for Mission Ridge Resort, just outside of Wenatchee, Washington.
“I hope so. It’s been a long while,” I reply with a halfhearted smile and rising pulse. “I’ll try not to knock you over.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine,” are the last words I hear before the chairlift crests the exit ramp and I am sent skidding and sliding sideways into Aaron in a vain attempt to hold my balance and protect my pride for eminent bruising. My efforts fail as I knock Aaron’s skis with my own, nearly toppling him, before I crashing into fresh powder at the side of the exit ramp.
“Are you okay?” Aaron asks. When I nod, he turns his attention to one of the resort’s volunteer staff, instructing her to rope off the area to the left of the lift until a proper barricade can be brought up the ridge.
It’s going to be a long day following the Mission Ridge Ski Patrol.
Aaron Taylor of the Mission Ridge Ski Patrol
I know the ski patrol is there to help when things go wrong. More than once I have seen them assisting an injured skier down the slopes either on the chairlift or in a toboggan. Until today, that has been my only impression of their duties; help injured skiers. Sometimes they also yell at skiers who fail to obey posted warnings or are skiing recklessly. Surely it is a comfortable job with only a few hours of work being rewarded by an annual lift pass? Today is the day I find out my simple view of a professional ski patrol member’s duties is only the tip of the iceberg.
Dusting myself off, I look around the top of the ridge and noticed only red and blue coats milling about. The red coats are volunteer ski patrol and the blue coats are the six paid staff who work year round at the resort. They are the first ones on the ridge each morning, arriving hours before the first guests and, on most days, well before sunrise. Aaron chats with a few of the volunteers before we begin our first run.
The first guests of the day ski past us and Aaron waves “Hi” as they pass. He knows more than half of the regular skiers by name and most know him and his group, lifting a pole to wave to them. I’m taken aback at first as my impression of ski patrollers has been as disciplinarians, someone to avoid. I ask Aaron about this when he pauses to wipe off a bright orange “Thin Cover” sign.
“Because we are only 15 minutes from Wentachee and the only ski hill in the area, there is a larger family atmosphere here than you might find in other ski areas. I’ve only had to pull a lift pass from a few kids in my entire time with Mission Ridge.” He goes on to explain the patrol’s philosophy on managing the rule breakers: Most often those skiing out of bounds or too fast in areas marked “Slow” are younger kids. In these instances the patrol will require the offender to write a short essay describing what they did wrong and why it was dangerous.
“Parents tend to like that approach,” because it helps not only educate the youth on the dangers of reckless skiing, it also educates their friends when the teen explains he can’t go skiing. The pro patrollers favor education over restriction and it has helped to build a cooperative, welcoming atmosphere on the ridge.
Following Aaron down a blue run along the Northern edge of the resort, he stops me at a display set back from the trail. Encrusted in wind blown snow is a descriptive sign next to a six foot wide piece of metal. While I am pulling out my camera and Aaron is dutifully cleaning off the sign, a skier glides close and touches the metal display with the tip of his ski pole, causing it to resonate a dull clanking sound. As he cleans the sign, Aaron reads the story of an ill-fated training mission in 1944 when an Army Air Force B-24 Liberator airplane clipped a wing while attempting to clear the ridge.
The resulting crash killed all aboard, scattering debris over a wide swath of the ridge cliffs more than 20 years before the resort opened. The metal on display is a section of the bomber’s wing. When he spots my perplexed look, Aaron explains the superstition behind displaying the wing. At one time the wing section was removed from the ridge. Coincidentally, that is the only year the ridge did not receive enough snow to open for business. The wing section was returned the next year and now skiers will go out of their way to give the metal a tap for good luck. Even when this particular run is closed, the patrol will receive special requests from guests wishing to be escorted to the sign to pay homage.
Aaron races down the mountain to move warning signs to thinly covered areas. Mission Ridge will often only receive 120 inches of snow fall a year compared to the 300 inches many Western Washington resorts encounter. This has lead to an extensive snow blowing operation yet it does not cover the entire mountain. When we reach the bottom of the run, Aaron is carrying three of the warning markers and hands them to a volunteer, assigning him an area to cover.
As we start our second run down the ridge, I am worried about holding back Aaron from his regular duties. I haven’t seen him rescue anyone or yell at someone to slow down. Surely I am hindering him from his key responsibilities. While directing patrollers is a large part of his job, Aaron deadpans, “If this ridge can’t run without me, I’m not doing my job right.”
Indeed, a large part of a pro patroller’s job is hidden from guests’ view. Walking into the patrol hut atop Lift 2 I am greeted with smells of fresh brewed espresso, a slight musty nylon hint and a stern growl from the Search & Rescue dog sitting in the corner, letting me know who’s hut this is. The walls are adorned with packs, gloves, helmets and other gear from the five patrollers inside. On one wall is a massive chart and Aaron explains how they record precipitation, snow pack, moisture content of the snow, temperatures and other data to be able to predict conditions on the ridge. Pulling the top page back reveals years of history to use as reference. Every day, well before the ski season starts, patrollers head out to collect these readings and correlate with data from automated weather stations.
Beyond basic weather tracking, the charts help with an important aspect of the patrol’s duties; avalanche control, or AC. Aaron and other pro patrollers have attended local and national training in avalanche prediction and management in order to insure safe operation of the resort. Mission Ridge and the patrollers offer their knowledge twice a month during the winter in free Avalanche Awareness classes held in the basement of the patrol hut, a hut built by donations from a memorial started after patroller Steve Burchett lost his life during an avalanche control operation. That memorial fund now helps secure avalanche training for the greater snow activity community as well as more advanced training for regular members of the volunteer ski patrol.
On the days of avalanche control, a wake up call is sent at 3:30am to insure all members of the pro patrol are on hand. At 5am the patrollers meet and two are sent for the explosives. Each operation requires patrollers to work in tandem for safety reasons. The ski patrol will typically be on the mountain from well before sunrise until opening time at 9am, working to clear unstable snow. Aaron and another pro patroller, Marco, demonstrate the body signals they use to communicate when setting charges, bobbing their bodies as if doubling over from being gut punched. The method is needed because high wind often carries voices off the ridge and clear communication is vital for safety.
If the charges don’t start a controlled avalanche, the patrollers often have to ski cut a dicey patch. This entails skiing on what is known to be unstable snow in order to purposefully trigger an avalanche, while insuring enough room for the patroller to exit the area before being swept away with the slide. If I ever encounter a cranky patroller in the future, it’s possible they have been up since 3:30am performing this type of work for my safety and everyone visiting the Ridge. As Marco preferred to jokingly frame it, “We’re all just superheros in training.”
Patrol radios come to life with a call from a volunteer on the ridge.
“Go ahead,” Aaron answers.
“We have an injury just above the Terrain Park. Possible busted ankle.”
“Copy that 82, thank you very much. Break. Is there any controller near Midway?” Aaron asks from the warmth of the patrol hut.
“This is Jody, I’m at Midway”
“Could you respond just above the temporary Terrain Park? Injured skier. Possible ankle.”
“Copy that. and I will get on it,” comes the response.
While the patrollers in the hut debate why the Ridge still uses inches instead of centimeters, with a lone Canadian defending the metric system, a little more than two minutes pass before the radios come back to life, letting the dispatcher know a toboggan has arrived for the injured skier.
“Affirmative and we’ll be taking the guest down to the first aid room in about three minutes.”
“Copy. I’ll log both of those times.”
The time elapsed from the patroller first encountering and assessing the injured skier until the time the skier arrives in the Ridge’s first aid room is approximately seven minutes. The communication is swift and exacting and all the times are recorded on a spreadsheet for data logging. Two minutes and forty-five seconds after the last transmission the voice on the radio calls out a crackled, “Patrol to Dispatch. We have left the scene.”
Aaron informs me true search and rescue efforts are few and far in between. He has only witnessed one helicopter evacuation in his time at Mission Ridge, although the patrol has been alerted to a few skiers ending up in nearby Ellensburg after skiing out of bounds, a walk of about eight miles in ski boots through the woods before encountering a house with a phone. Another time a group of nine youths skied into the wrong bowl to the East of the groomed runs and stopped when they realized what had happened. One of the skiers called his mom, also skiing at the ridge, who happened to be riding the chairlift with Aaron at that moment. She handed the phone to Aaron and before they both reached the top of the lift, he had coordinated with other patrollers, who located the group and were en route to direct them safely to the lodge.
Aaron shows me the lower floor of the patrol hut, the space where Avalanche Awareness classes are offered. It is a small, twelve foot by twelve foot concrete basement. A picnic table sits in the middle and Aaron explains that it was damaged, so the patrol is fixing it. Rolls of webbed barricade sit in one corner, defrosting to make them pliable for their next assignment on the ridge. A few power tools line a workbench, spare toboggans are propped up against one wall and a massive water jug sits in a corner.
This room is testament to the unseen duties of the pro patrol. During the Summer and Fall months the crew is busy fixing and maintaining the grounds. Ski runs are sometimes widened and facilities are spruced up. It’s work that is put off during the non-stop ski season and keeps the patrollers busy year round.
On our last chairlift ride Aaron points to a group of half a dozen red jacketed patrollers all facing one in blue. “More training,” he states. With up to 30 volunteers in red jackets on the ridge during busy weekends, the effort to keep them fully trained on avalanche safety, CPR/First Aid, weather prediction, skier safety and more can be daunting. But the job is not without its rewards, especially in the quiet moments.
Off the lift and back at the patrol hut Marco reflects on his favorite time to be on the ridge. “When the sun’s coming up, everyone is asleep and the sky turns orange for just a bit.” The others in the hut nod in agreement. “Then it’s time to check the runs, position signs, run barricades…” His voice trails off while he turns back to the espresso machine to refill his cup.
On my final run down the ridge I at last catch a glimpse of Aaron doing what I presumed he does all day long; stopping to help a downed skier. I was lagging behind and he took off when he spotted a snowboarder sitting in the snow while her friend stood over her. Before I reached the scene, two volunteer patrollers arrived, one taking a position uphill like a human traffic cone and the other offering assistance. Aaron stayed long enough to make sure the snowboarder was OK while one of the volunteers helped her walk down the mountain.
Exhausted, my day with the Mission Ridge Ski Patrol comes to an end even before the lights for night skiing come to life. Aaron shakes my hand at the base of the hill before heading back to the lifts, asking, “Is there anything else you need?”
I reflect on all the work he and the rest of the ski patrol perform daily to insure all the visitors to Mission Ridge have a fun and safe time on the snow.
“No thanks. You have done more than I can ask for already. Thank you.”