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Ski Patrol: Training, Professionalism, Safety

Skiing is inherently silly. As stated by Dexter Rutecki in Aspen Extreme: “We’re not curing cancer here, we’re sliding down a mountain with sticks on our feet.”Skiing is fun. It’s silly, and it’s not to be taken too seriously… unless you’re a member of Colorado’s Ski Patrol.

For Ski Patrollers, skiing isn’t just a fun activity; it’s their job. Colorado’s Ski Patrol represent one of the most comprehensively trained groups in all of outdoor recreation. Medical training, mountain travel, search and rescue, evacuation, incident response and evidence gathering – you name it, the Ski Patrol is trained for it and ready to respond.

Wolf Creek's Finest on the slopes Wolf Creek’s Finest on the slopes

I recently got the chance to visit for a couple days with some members of Colorado’s Ski Patrol. My first outing took me to Wolf Creek Ski Area, where they pride themselves on their safety, stewardship of the land, and public service. A family-owned ski area that runs its lifts using wind power and is hyper-focused on environmentalism, Wolf Creek is just about as down-home as you can get. But you’d never know that from meeting their Patrollers.

I arrived at 8AM, long before the lifts spin, but still after many Patrollers report for duty. I arrive and shake the hands of Eric Dietemeyer and John Haner, two of Wolfie’s finest. Haner, Dietemeyer and I chat over coffee about training, incident prevention and safety for half an hour, when the troops roll in and it’s time for the morning briefing.

Wolf Creek Patroller Dan Witting surveys the mountain Wolf Creek Patroller Dan Witting surveys the mountain

The conversation turns to training and I’m quickly in over my head. Acronyms, complicated jargon, and terminology washes over me as I struggle to keep up. It turns out the Ski Patrol may be one of the most highly trained organizations involved in outdoor recreation. In order to be eligible for hire, applicants must all have an EMT certification. That’s medical training on-par with firefighters or ambulance technicians. Many patrollers have certifications far beyond that; in fact you can’t ski a day at Wolf Creek without sharing the mountain with at least one Paramedic. That’s a big deal.

But beyond medical training, Patrollers are trained in mountain travel, avalanche hazard reduction, incident reporting, technical rescue, and more. Think of it this way: where else will you find someone who can stabilize an injury, in the snow, miles from anywhere, while navigating cliffs and mountains, recording the facts surrounding the incident, and preparing to evacuate the victim? Oh yeah, and they can handle dynamite too.

Coordination between Ski Patrol and other entities such as search and rescue or law enforcement is common across the state. Ski Patrol integrates their services with the National Forest Service, County Sheriff’s offices, local search and rescue organizations, Flight for Life, local hospitals and clinics, and many more. These relationships yield a high level of integrated service and care that wouldn’t be otherwise possible.

Colorado's well-trained, and well-tanned Ski Patrol Colorado’s well-trained, and well-tanned Ski Patrol

“When we’re not responding to an incident, we’re training.” remarks Haner. He then shows me the logs of training records, certifications, manuals and references used by his team. He hands me the most recent FEMA emergency response handbook. I flip through chapters covering topics including ‘widespread chemical exposures’ and ‘catastrophic flooding’. I ask whether the Ski Patrol really needs to be ready for natural disasters of that scale. He replies “Maybe not, but we know that if something happens here at Wolf Creek, we’ll be able to speak the same language as all the other entities that may respond.”

That collaboration between Patrollers and outside agencies is central to what makes the National Ski Patrol such a valuable asset for Colorado’s skiers and snowboarders. Communication is key, and the Patrol makes huge efforts to be ready to work with everyone. Wolf Creek’s Patrol has even responded to automobile accidents on nearby Wolf Creek Pass, as their proximity and preparedness allow them to be on-scene first in many instances.

Colorado’s ski industry owes an awful lot to these men and women in red. They are the humble, hardworking folks behind the scenes. They’re the ones who strive to keep us safe, and are there to help us out in the unfortunate event of an accident. They’re ready to respond to nearly any challenge, and do so out of a sense of duty and public service.

I still think Dexter Rutecki is right: skiing should be fun. It should be silly and carefree and liberating. And then next time you’re out on the slopes having the time of your life, say thanks to a Ski Patroller, because they’re the folks who help keep it that way for all of us.

-Mountain Correspondent