Ski Patrol Industry Overview
In 1938, ski clubs that were members of the National Ski Association (now the U.S. Ski Association) were asked to help organize ski patrols across the U.S. by Minot “Minnie” Dole, the same man who established the famed Tenth Mountain Division for the U.S. Army during World War II.
Dole had suffered a painful leg break in New Hampshire’s Tuckerman Ravine, and help was a long time coming. His experience inspired him to organize a national ski patrol through the regional ski clubs of America.
Related: National Ski Patrol Video
As a non-profit organization, the NSP is supported by dues, income from fundraising events, corporate largesse, and donations by grateful families. There is no charge for ski patrol services, though some ski areas have considered charging for out-of-bounds rescues. The increasing number and high danger factor of such rescues taxes the resources of the on-hill patrollers and rescue support staff.
Some patrols, like Mt. Bachelor’s, actively enforce the rules of safe skiing and snowboarding. Enforcement is intended to be educational in nature, non-confrontational, and carried out with respect for the skier or boarder. In a typical enforcement situation the patroller takes off his goggles or sunglasses, introduces himself, shakes hands, and stands neither uphill nor downhill from the skier or snowboarder. Any problem or infraction the patroller observed is to be discussed in private.
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To Mt. Bachelor’s credit, their patrollers are taught how to deal with a problem that most ski areas won’t even mention out loud: the drunk skier.
Other ski areas prefer ski patrollers to refer problem skiers or snowboarders to lift operators, who in turn call management on the radio. Management-employed behavior specialists may then chase down the problem on a snowmobile.
A relatively recent challenge to ski areas is the increasing popularity of snowboarding. Many patrols now require that their members learn how to snowboard so that they understand the issues of snowboarding, and are able to earn the respect of other, recreational boarders. One innovative tactic is being used by Mt. Bachelor in its “Ride with the Patrol” program. Snowboarders and skiers are welcome to put on a patrol jacket and ride with a patroller for the day. Participants see first-hand what is involved in making the mountain safe for the public.
Through their dedicated work, patrollers are helping ski area management to emphasize that reckless skiing has no place on the slopes. The National Ski Areas Association says that about fifty-four million lift tickets are bought each year in the U.S., and that customers should not be endangered by the few who are reckless.
In spite of the bizarre accidents reported in the press, there are only about two and one-half injuries per 1,000 skiers. That number represents a 300 percent decline over the last thirty-eight years.
Even so, speed on the slopes is just as dangerous as it ever was, and just as challenging to the skills of ski patrollers.
At Winter Park, Colorado, an eleven-year-old girl died of head injuries after being hit by a fast skier at the base of a practice hill. The perpetrator was charged with manslaughter by the district attorney.
Another skier was charged with second-degree assault, child abuse, and reckless endangerment after an accident at Steamboat Springs that injured an eight-year-old boy.
A veteran patroller offered this advice to anyone thinking of joining a ski patrol:
“Young patrollers-to-be should remember that they’ll be working in a mountain environment where the weather can turn hazardous quickly. You cannot eliminate the risk entirely. There’s an inherent risk to skiing thirty or forty miles per hour downhill. If there were no risk, there would be no fun. But also, there’s no way to defang mother nature. It’s up to anybody in the mountains to take as many precautions for themselves as possible.”
There’s always a risk of injury in the mountains. And it’s not risk-free for ski patrollers either. For example, consider the heavy loads patrollers need to carry: a pack full of first-aid supplies at all times, and at other times poles and tape or rope for setting boundaries, shovels and avalanche probes, ice axes, crampons, baskets, and toboggans.
A patroller with a problem back says most industries wouldn’t dare let its workers do what ski patrollers do:
“There’s no forklift that can carry people and their gear off a cliff face, so patrollers have no choice. We train in how to avoid injury, but we still pack some incredible loads. One patroller I know strained his back just getting his skis out of the car – he spent the day in bed in the aid room. Of course, he didn’t get much sympathy from the rest of us.”