Here are my impressions of the new Ski Patrol 101 program, in no particular order.
- In December, it is still midnight dark at 7 a.m. at the base of River Run.
- If you are lucky enough to be drawn to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience, be sure you’ve had at least one cup of coffee upon arrival (if you’re a grown-up). You are expected to be awake, alert and ready to work.
- Sun Valley’s Ski Patrol has the most breathtaking office anywhere in the world.
- I had no idea how much went into getting the mountain safe and open in the morning, even when it hasn’t snowed.
- The Patrol is made up of some of the funniest, kindest people in the Valley.
- Hopping on the back of a snowmobile behind Mike Davis, zooming to meet a “hot” helicopter landing drill, made my morning.
- I will never be hired as a Ski Patrol member but it was fun to play one for a few hours.
For those of you who haven’t heard about Ski Patrol 101, here are the basics. Every week, a lucky winner (plus a friend) will be chosen at random to work as a patroller on a Saturday morning. You enter by submitting your information on an iPad kiosk at either the River Run Lodge or in the Recreation Office in the Sun Valley Village. If your name is drawn, Ski Patrol will phone you with the good news and meet you at the base of the hill on your assigned day. You will attend the morning meeting and be put to work at any of the dozens of tasks completed by Ski Patrol each morning between 7:30 a.m. and the mountain’s open at 9. Patrol will ask what you are interested in helping with, which could be as simple as riding a snow machine to the Bowls to make sure the cat track is in good shape, to more advanced prep requiring more advanced skiing ability. It truly is appropriate for anyone who is comfortable on Baldy.
Here is what the basics don’t tell you. Sunrise on Baldy from the vantage of the Ski Patrol Hut is perhaps one of the most jaw-dropping you will ever experience. The quality of the light is a hot orange/pink and flows over the top of the mountain like the tide coming in. Hopping on the Christmas Lift in near darkness, then skiing off at the top as the sky turns from grey to purple to gold is something I will never forget.
After participating in the morning meeting that covers everything from snow conditions, weather conditions, grooming and skier numbers, I was off with my personal Patrolman, David Schames to “help.” When asked what I would like to do, I glibly replied “drill” and “drop gates” without really knowing what that involves.
So off we went down Ridge and Blue Grouse (did I mention you get first tracks as part of this endeavor, too?) to the cat track below. There, a bunch of very competent patrollers waited patiently while I inexpertly drilled post holes into the snow and tried to help set up boundary fences. Then it was off to drop gates – something that sounds easier than I found it to be. We skied down the very edge of Christmas Bowl, opening chutes that lead into the Bowls. The terrain was kind of steep and lumpy in there (and I truly had not had enough coffee) and “dropping” a gate is not a passive drop at all. You tug hard at a bungee-type rope, trying to get the right angle so it snaps open, before neatly coiling it on a post. I was not brilliant at it.
I was excellent at my last task, however. That morning, Patrol was working with Sun Valley Heli-Ski on a “hot” drill, landing a copter behind Lookout Restaurant, loading it with Patrol and flying off to a mock emergency on some other peak. Excitement was high as the radio announced the imminent arrival of the helicopter. The Hut cleared out, as people jumped on snowmobiles or picked up ropes behind them to be pulled up the hill. I jumped onto the seat, held on to Mike Davis and was very thankful no one had suggested I tried to “ski” behind the machine. We roared up to Lookout just as the helicopter landed and it was amazing to watch the drill begin. We are all in very capable hands whenever we are on that mountain.
Whether or not you really “help” during your time at the hill, is somewhat irrelevant to Ski Patrol 101 (thank goodness). What the experience did for me is demystify some of what the Patrol does and make me truly appreciate the job and the people who do it. The Hut is open to visitors at any time and the sign outside that reads “welcome” is telling the truth. Stop by and say hi.
Becoming a Ski Patroller for the morning was exciting, humbling and just plain fun. Thanks to David, Jack Sibbach and the rest of the crew for being so gracious and patient and letting me have a glimpse of what goes on behind-the-scenes on the mountain I love so well.