Ski patrollers get head start

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Last Tuesday night at Shawnee Peak I watched five snowboarders and one skier under the eye of an instructor, who was also on a snowboard.

At the top of the Main Slope, Bob Hoot told his charges he wanted to see them make a series of short controlled turns within three ski lengths of the edge of the run before stopping part way down. They made their runs in controlled fashion, a distinct departure from the long sweeping turns we associate with snowboarders. Their turns were as tight as the skier’s. The run was completed with two more short segment drills, and we headed for the summit triple.

This was not a ski/snowboard lesson. Hoot is certified by the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, a division of PSIA, but these kids were working on skills needed by ski patrollers. I had learned about the student program from Sonny Davis, the patrol director at Shawnee Peak, and was tagging along to get an idea how they were being introduced to patrolling.

The National Ski Patrol had a junior program, but now younger patrollers are simply integrated into regular patrols. How this is done varies, depending on the needs of the individual patrol. Doug Wall saw both a need and an opportunity. Retired after 35 years of teaching math, Wall is a senior patroller with more than 15 years of experience. Knowing patrols could use some young blood, he suggested tapping local schools to start a training program.

He contacted the three nearest schools, Lake Region, Fryeburg Academy and Oxford Hills inviting interested sophomores. Six came forward, four snowboarders and a skier from Lake Region and one snowboarder from Oxford Hills. From Lake Region came snowboarders Nyles Williams, Caleb Chaisson, Jake Curtis, Kyle Ebling, and the lone skiers Chris Harrington. Oxford Hills provided the only girl, another snowboarder, Alissa Lennard. They have been with the Shawnee Peak patrol twice a week since Dec. 19.

Becoming a ski patroller requires a significant commitment. Before getting on the hill, a potential candidate must complete an outdoor emergency care course and CPR. This involves 100 hours of classroom time. This will qualify the individual to become a candidate and begin hill training.

Wall wanted to give these kids an opportunity to experience ski patrolling before investing money. Instead of taking courses up front, the kids are coming in every Tuesday evening and every Saturday morning to work with the patrol. They are learning about mountain operations, such things as lift procedures, checking trails, repacking rescue sleds, and assisting with actual rescues and working in the aid room.

At the end of the season, those who have progressed sufficiently will decide whether to proceed. In the offseason, they will take the outdoor emergency care course and become candidates during their junior year, paving the way for elevation to basic patroller for their senior year. Both Davis and Wall realize that after high school, they could lose some or all of these young patrollers to college and careers, but feel it’s worth the effort if some remain as adults. They believe even if the kids don’t patrol at Shawnee Peak, if they patrol anywhere, it’s good for skiing.

During a break, I got to hear what the students thought about their endeavor. Wall had told me it was low key, but when I asked about tough situations they have seen, Harrington talked about helping with a broken femur. He had been sent to carry a traction splint to the accident site and assisted with the splinting.

“It’s hard, but it’s good to accept responsibility,” said Chaisson.

As we discussed the various aspects of what they were doing, some benefits came up, as well. Shawnee Peak has given each of the students a season pass so they can ski anytime, whether patrolling or not.

Before leaving, I watched them in a session on how to pack a rescue sled. This is something that might not seem important, but it’s critical for several reasons. First, when a skier is transported to the aid room, the sled has to get back to the top of the mountain as quickly as possible. It may be needed again soon.

Second, every sled has to be packed the same way with the same equipment. A patroller answering a call can’t afford surprises. This and other training will go on twice a week for a total of 20 sessions.

I don’t know how many of these students will go on to become patrollers, but I do know they’re getting valuable lessons. This is one story I plan on following to see how these and future participants make out. If my previous experience with young patrollers is any indication, they’re going to do just fine.

Dave Irons is a freelance writer who lives in Westbrook.

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