A few weeks ago we explored the possibility of becoming an instructor in order to avoid paying for lift tickets.

We learned that even though instructors don’t buy lift tickets, it’s hardly free skiing. This week, the topic is ski patrol, and I can say from experience that serving on patrol is anything but free skiing.

Things have changed greatly since my patrol days. In fact, they changed significantly during my patrol years.

When I started, the only requirement was passing an advanced Red Cross first aid course, which consisted of 26-classroom hours.

A few years after I started, the Red Cross came up with a new course with new books and manuals. This was a 60-hour course, with a separate CPR course.

In addition, patrollers were required to attend a two-day refresher each fall, which included first aid training and training specific to the ski area, such as lift evacuation. The refresher is still a requirement for all patrols, but the new Outdoor Emergency Care Course developed by the National Ski Patrol takes 100 hours.

Skiing requirements vary according to the ski area. If you’re thinking of patrolling, consider how you ski the toughest runs at your area. Do you ski them comfortably with the same technique you use on an intermediate run, or do you survive them? Ski patrollers must be strong advanced skiers and ski in all conditions. The guy buying a lift ticket can quit when the skiing is crappy, but patrollers have to stay out there. And guess who gets to check out that run with breakable crust to see if it’s fit to open.

Obviously, patrolling Sugarloaf calls for a higher level than Lost Valley. The patrol director would have to evaluate your skiing to see if you could handle his mountain. This part hasn’t changed, but at least shorter skis make it easier to ski moguls.

Two weeks ago, I stopped by the patrol shack at the top of Saddleback to learn a bit more about current requirements. Jeff Smith, one of the fulltime pros, was performing a duty that is always part of the patrolman’s day, sitting in the shack waiting for a call to come in. Patrol director Jared Emerson had the day off, so Jeff was running the show.

Saddleback has 11 pros — six fulltime and five part-time — supplemented by 34 volunteers on weekends and holidays. There are also some auxiliary patrollers who don’t run sleds, but work in the aid room to earn some ski days. Many volunteers time vacations from their real jobs to work during vacation periods.

Emerson later told me about Saddleback’s patrol — its training, policies and benefits. He told me that all training is done in-house. In order to take the course, candidates have to sacrifice either days off from their job or ski days to accomplish it on weekends.

There is also an on line version but that would be only for the book part of the course. The practical skills training would still have to be done with one of Saddleback’s instructors. Those with an Emergency Medical Technician rating would have to take tests and go through practical training.

Skiers with their emergency care training could get ski and toboggan training during that training season.

Once the initial training is complete, on-the-job training comes next because until you work as a patroller, you don’t know the entire picture. The training never stops.

A day patrolling starts with sign in, which at Saddleback is before 8 a.m. If the lifts open at 8 a.m., it could be earlier. Each member proceeds to the top of the mountain, where he signs in for one-hour shifts, standing by at the top during the day. Trail signs are checked, along with ropes closing trails, out-of-bounds markers and tower pads. Rescue sleds are checked to make sure they are free of ice.

“We try to get on every trail ASAP to make sure conditions are safe for the skiing public,” said Emerson. “Our job is to help people out. I want people to have fun and be safe.”

Emerson patrols on telemark skis, pointing out that it’s easier to ski heel free to get across traverses.

The day is spent sitting at the top and skiing. Of course, there are interruptions such as helping organize lift lines or helping skiers. It may be an injury or a mother looking for a wandering child. Talk to any patroller and they’ll give you a dozen stories of experiences having little to do with their own skiing. And, unlike us, they don’t get to choose their favorite trails each run. They have to ski the trail that hasn’t been skied for awhile, even if it’s their least favorite. At the end of the day, when all but the last run diehards are in the lounge, the patrol gathers at the top to sweep the trails and make sure no one is left behind.

Patrolling is a full day, and the rewards vary by area. At Saddleback, 20 days earn 10 vouchers for ski days the following season or season passes for the family. From personal experience, I can tell you the real reward is skiing with a highly dedicated bunch of good skiers and helping out when someone is in trouble.

See you on the slopes.


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