Treating injured skiers on the slope and ensuring their safe transport down a trail is all part of the job for a typical ski patroller. But exactly what is that job and how did the patrol come to exist as an organization?
The National Ski Patrol was founded in 1938 by Charles “Minnie” Dole after he injured himself during a ski trip and learned that no outside help was available. Since that time the National Ski Patrol (NSP) has grown to include over 28,500 members representing 98% of all patrollers in the United States. Nearly every ski area in the United States has its own ski patrol made up of members of the NSP. Those patrollers can be paid patrollers, volunteer patrollers or both. Their function is to help ensure safety and provide emergency care at the ski areas they patrol.
Ski patrollers are easily identified by the unique jackets they wear and the equipment they carry. Although color schemes may vary from area to area, patrollers generally wear the “traditional” rust and blue uniform with a yellow cross or the more “modern” red and black uniform with a white cross. Each patroller also carries a “pack” of first aid equipment which includes enough supplies to deal with many on-hill injuries and a radio to communicate with other patrollers and the patrol base. The pack may either be a waist pack as is more commonly used in smaller areas, or a backpack seen more frequently in large resorts in the Rocky Mountains.
Patrollers under the NSP system are categorized into various groups. Candidates are those individuals who are training to become patrollers but have not yet taken or passed the required tests for certification. Auxiliary patrollers are those patrollers who are certified as medical care first responders and can render emergency medical care at a ski area. Basic patrollers are certified as medical care first responders and are also certified to transport injured skiers and/or boarders on a toboggan. Senior patrollers and certified patrollers are auxiliary or basic patrollers who have undergone additional training and testing on the same emergency medical care and ski and toboggan skills that basic patrollers must certify to. With the exception of candidates, however, no matter what the level, all patrollers are capable of providing quality first responder emergency medical care to injured skiers and snowboarders.
To ensure safety, ski patrols engage in a wide variety of activities, although activities may vary from area to area based on terrain, geographic region, size, and the needs of area management. Typical responsibilities of an area’s ski patrol generally include: opening the area, identifying hazards and responding to changing conditions throughout the day, responding to accidents and medical emergencies, assisting skiers and/or boarders who are lost or on slopes too advanced for their ability, ensuring safe skiing conditions for all skiers and boarders, responding to a variety of area emergencies involving the skiing and boarding public, and closing the area at the end of the day.
Assisting in the opening of an area is often the first business of the day for an area ski patrol. Ski patrollers must show up very early in the morning, typically an hour or more before an area is open to the general public. As patrollers suit up, a shift supervisor may give them instructions for the day or provide details about which trails may be opened or closed or any other special instructions from area management.
The patrollers then head out to the ski lifts which are just beginning to run. Oftentimes, all of this occurs while the sun is just beginning to rise. In order to help open an area, patrollers must ski or board through each trail to ensure that it is safe to open. During this initial run, patrollers will carry equipment to mark or identify hidden hazards. These markers may be poles made of bamboo and painted in highly visible colors (often orange and black) with warning disks attached, temporary netting, or signs. Bamboo markers may be used to mark the edge of the trail and hazards that may exist, such as exposed rocks or bare spots. Temporary netting may be used to mark a point where two trails merge and, like traffic signs, to warn skiers and boarders to slow down. Signs may indicate whether a particular trail is especially challenging or whether a particular trail is closed. At the end of the initial run, patrollers will often radio their reports to the patrol headquarters where the conditions of each slope are recorded for that day.
During the day, as the area fills with skiers and boarders, patrollers will ski or board through various runs to ensure that any new hazards are marked and that existing warnings are adequate. Depending on the area, ski patrollers may also engage in “policing.” Specifically, warning reckless skiers or boarders to slow down or to stay within marked boundaries. However, all of these activities are secondary to the patrol’s primary purpose - responding to accidents and medical emergencies on the slopes.
At any given time during the area’s day, a customer at a ski area may become injured or ill during any number of activities, including skiing, boarding, walking in the lodge area, or even just sitting in the cafeteria. Injuries may occur from a bad fall or a collision between two skiers/boarders. Illnesses may occur if a customer has a pre-existing condition (e.g., diabetes, weak heart) or is sensitive to increased altitude. Whatever the condition, the ski patrol must be able to respond and provide emergency medical care and, if necessary, transport off the slopes. Because of the medical nature of the patrol’s function, almost all ski areas have medical advisors at the area and work closely with local emergency medical service providers including local ambulance services, emergency medical technicians (EMT’s), paramedics, helicopter services and area hospitals.
Patrol rooms are also well stocked with medical supplies and beds for temporary patient care while awaiting transport home or to a hospital depending on the severity of the injury or illness. In fact, some patrols even have medical clinics established at the base area where advanced emergency medical procedures may be carried out by doctors retained by the area. Needless to say, this requires a high level of training on the part of the patrol.
Other emergencies that may arise during the day are also the responsibility of the ski patrol. For example, despite the advances in technology, ski lifts sometimes break down. Luckily, such breakdowns are very rare. When they do occur, however, somebody has to get the skiers and boards on the chair lift off in a safe manner. Ski patrollers train every year in the procedures for lift evacuation. The procedure involves close cooperation between area management, lift operators and the ski patrol. Many patrols use ropes strung over the lift cable and a small seat along with rock climbing gear to lower stranded skiers and boarders back down to the ground. Others may use more sophisticated means.
At the end of the day, the patrol is also responsible for helping to close the area. Trails in more remote locations or higher on the peak of a mountain may close first. Trails are generally closed with signs and/or orange ribbon strung across. Ski patrollers may then “sweep” a trail behind the last skiers and boarders of the day. This involves ensuring that all skiers and boarders get down safely at their own pace, and that no one is missing. Ski patrollers will also pick up any markers, temporary signs or netting that were used during the course of the day. At the end of the sweep the shift supervisor will call an end to the day and the patrollers go home to rest before starting all over again the next day. Since shift requirements vary from ski area to ski area, volunteer patrollers may work some weeknights, some weekends or a combination of both. Paid patrollers often work during the week on a regular basis.
Becoming a patroller, whether paid or volunteer is no easy task. Each member of the NSP must be a certified Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) technician capable of responding to all types of accidents and medical emergencies that may arise at a ski area. The OEC standard is more comprehensive than the American Red Cross’ advanced first aid program under the Emergency Medical System standard. Many patrollers are also qualified as EMT’s. In fact, some ski areas, especially those in the Rocky Mountains, may require that all patrollers be qualified as state-certified EMT’s or higher in order to join a patrol.
In order to become a candidate, potential patrollers are often invited to a ski area to see the patrol at work. This can be either a formal or informal program where an interested individual can ski or board with a patroller for the day. More and more ski areas are including snowboarders into their ranks as ski patrollers. After seeing a typical patroller at work all day, if the potential patroller is still interested, he or she is invited back to a “ski-off” where their skiing or boarding skills are reviewed. While most ski patrols do not expect Johnny Mosely or Picabo Street level skills, a potential patroller should still be a strong advanced intermediate to expert skier or boarder.
If selected, candidate training usually begins the following summer with a focus on the emergency care side of patrolling. The candidates attend classes at least once a week in anatomy, methods of injury, patient assessments, injury management, medical emergency management, and other related topics. Candidates will learn how to recognize the signs of symptoms of various injuries and how to treat everything from a bruised thumb to a broken back. They will also learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of medical emergencies including heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, hypothermia, heat stroke, altitude sickness, and other illnesses. In addition, all candidates must be certified in advanced Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation or CPR.
By the beginning of the ski season, candidates will have already gone through extensive classroom medical training and passed a written test. At the beginning of the ski season, candidates continue to learn and practice emergency care skills, including how to access injured skiers or boarders that may have gone off trail or evacuate those injured skiers or boarders from seemingly inaccessible locations and other emergency procedures. This training usually occurs on the weekends in addition to classroom training that may continue well into the season. At the end of the training, usually mid-season, candidates are given a practical emergency care test on the slopes they will patrol. A candidate that fails to pass either the written test or the practical test is asked to leave. However, the training is intense and geared to help ensure that candidates do pass. Once candidates pass the written and practical tests, they become OEC certified and are allowed to assist in the treatment and care of injured skiers and snow boarders. As the snow begins to fly and the area opens, candidates also begin the ski and toboggan training.
Ski and toboggan training usually occurs on the weekend day that is not taken up by emergency care training. While the ski-off that occurred late last season ensures that all candidates are strong skiers, the ski and toboggan training works to improve that skiing and practice techniques that may not have been used since the candidates first learned how to ski. For example, very few advanced skiers spend the day practicing basic snowplowing techniques or side slipping down a trail. Although basic, these skills are important and vital to the safe handling of a toboggan carrying an injured skier or boarder.
Snowboarders likewise must practice basic skills including proper balance and edge control. Candidates must also be able to carry equipment while skiing and boarding on any of the trails at a ski resort. This includes carrying equipment on the double black diamond runs of the area where they intend to patrol. The other part of the ski and toboggan training is, of course, the toboggan handling. Basic patrollers must be able to proficiently handle an empty toboggan or a loaded toboggan on all types of terrain with absolute control in every situation. For example, patrollers must be able to maneuver a toboggan carrying an injured skier or boarder from the top of the most difficult slope at an area to the bottom in a safe and controlled manner. The patroller must be able to stop at any time if their path is suddenly blocked by another skier or snowboarder who does not steer clear. The most important aspect of toboggan control is bringing the injured skier or boarder down the slope to the patrol headquarters or waiting ambulance in as rapid and safe a manner as possible while avoiding other skiers and boarders.
At the end of a long season of practice and drills, candidates are given their final test. Those that fail are asked to leave. Those that pass are congratulated and rewarded with the opportunity to wear the coveted uniform. Thereafter, each patroller must recertify in OEC, CPR and ski and toboggan skills every year in order to remain active. Many patrols also have continuing education requirements in emergency care, skiing, boarding and toboggan skills to ensure that patrollers are capable of performing their duties as required.
Although the commitment of time and energy is great, many patrollers love what they do. When asked why they love to patrol, the last answer you will hear is money. Although some patrollers are paid (most are volunteers), most patrollers could make more money in other parts of the ski industry for less effort. Instead, patrollers will say they love skiing or boarding, being outdoors, the feeling of helping others, or the chance to meet new people and make new friends. For many, like the author, all of these reasons are true. If, after reading this article, you are interested in joining a patrol or learning more about what patrollers do, contact your local ski area. Many patrols actively seek new candidates every year and the vast majority of patrollers are more than too happy to help you learn more about what they do.
James "Jim" Chen" is a member of the National Ski Patrol and Assistant Patrol Director at Liberty Mountain ski area in Carroll Valley, Pennsylvania. Jim has been a member of the Liberty Patrol since the 1995-1996 season. Off the slopes, Jim is an attorney in Washington, D.C. where he counsels clients on transportation, innovation, safety and environmental areas.