I was at Sunday River a week ago to look in on a PSPA Pre-course. Obviously, this requires some explanation.  I’m sure most readers of this column know that ski patrolling is part of my background, but the extent of that involvement is less known.

The highest profile organization in ski patrol is the National Ski Patrol (NSP). This is the organization started at Stowe by Minnie Dole in the 1930s, and today it has some 25,000 members across the nation. While the once familiar rust colored parkas are worn only by patrollers at smaller areas, most ski patrols are members of NSP and all follow their requirements. Today’s ski patrollers all complete a Winter Emergency Care course and many are EMT’s. That takes care of the response to skiing accidents. Ski and toboggan training is done by individual patrols according to the needs of each ski area.

A desire to standardize ski and toboggan skills led to testing on a regional basis. Most of this was done by NSP for volunteers, but what about the professional ski patrolers?  In the late 1950s, an organization was formed here in New England, strictly for the guys and gals who worked full time for pay. The Professional Ski Patrol Association was formed by a handful of pros with the idea of certifying individual patrollers.  Sugarloaf’s Stub Taylor was in on the beginning of PSPA as was Al Risch, patrol director at Wildcat.

In the beginning, most ski areas operated only on weekends and a large cadre of patrollers, who volunteered weekends, could handle it. As operations grew and hours expanded, along with ski week vacations, mid-week coverage was needed, and this required hiring pros.

When I started at Sunday River in 1968, the area was patrolled by volunteers on weekends and a single professional mid week. Today, Sunday River has 30 full time pros and 70 volunteers. There are also 40 hosts who can be found in parking lots, around the base area and on the trails, mostly giving directions and answering questions by skiers new to the area.  Some patrols are all professional, but I believe most here in the East have a core of professionals supplemented on weekends and holidays by volunteers.

For most skiers, there is no difference between a pro and a volunteer, and all the patrols I am familiar with demand the same level of competence of both. So what are tests all about? For NSP, there are different levels,including basic, senior and certified. A basic patroller is one who has met the minimum requirements at the area where he patrols. Seniors are those who have taken and passed a skiing, toboggan handling and first aid and are judged to be able to patrol at any area in their region. The highest level certified is where NSP and PSPA come together.  Only by passing the tests can a patroller be certified and join PSPA. This organization is limited to pros who pass the test. Because most volunteers don’t ski enough to pass the certified test that level is dominated by pros.

Because of the high demands of the test, a pre-course is required before taking the exam.  It was a pre-course for the exam to be held at Sunday River in March that I attended. I didn’t go out on the hill that day, but having attended numerous such pre-courses and exams, I knew what would happen. I wanted to talk with some candidates and examiners to learn how things have changed since my days.

The examiners came from Maine and New Hampshire.  A pre-course scheduled later at Killington will surely include both candidates and examiners from Vermont.  Although all the examiners were pros, they represented both NSP and PSPA. Ted Fitzgeraldm, Ski and Toboggan Chair for NSP, works at Ragged Mountain in New Hampshire. PSPA President Carl Chaplin works at Sunapee in New Hampshire. There were also examiners from Loon, Sugarloaf and Sunday River.

I talked with Aaron Sealem, a snowboarder from Gorham, Maine. He has been working on patrol at Sunday River for four years and Tucker Brown who has been at Sunday River for 12 years. Brown is a product of the Gould/Sunday River ski patrol program.  I have skied with these kids in the past and explored this successful program in these pages.  I wish it had existed when I directed the Sunday River patrol.  Both expressed their reasons for taking the exam as part of their growth in ski patrolling.  Getting certified can also result in a pay increase, and should they relocate, it makes it easier to find a place on another patrol.

Out on the mountain, candidates are run through exercises in free skiing, moguls, crud, snowplow, side slipping and toboggan handling.  They also run through exercises in caring for injured skiers and are briefed on the 100-question written exam they will have to pass.  There is also an interview which is based on applying for the position of patrol director.  While it is only a comparative handful of patrollers who take these exams, theypass their skills on to fellow patrol members.

I talked with Sunday River Patrol Director, Josh Thompson, an 11-year veteran, who summed up his test for patrolers: “Would I trust them with my kids?”  He gives credit to his team,

“We have such a great group, they make my job easy,”  he said, also mentioning the strong support of the company. He noted that Mountain operations vice president Steve Boulanger moved up from 20 years as a pro patrolman and director so he understands patrol needs.

I enjoyed reconnecting with the ski patrol and came away from the pre-course impressed that today’s ski patrols operate at a much higher level today. See you on the slopes.

Dave Irons is a freelance writer and columnist who hails from Westbrook. He has been contributing to the Sun Journal for many years and is among the most respected ski writers in the Northeast. He also is a member of the Maine Ski Hall of Fame. Write to him at [email protected] 

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