Becoming a Ski Patroller: An unlikely path

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I started ski patrolling in 1989, my freshman year in college, when my dad informed me that his ski instructor discount no longer extended past my 18th birthday. Welcome to adulthood and the great responsibility of buying your own season pass. I quickly surveyed my options. I could follow in my parent’s footsteps and teach others to ski, but I didn’t want to spend my days on the bunny slopes. I wanted to be higher on the mountain and in the thick of things, so I tried out for the ski patrol. I looked up to the patrollers, admiring their cowboy-like stoicism and their wild antics. I was neither stoic nor wild, but I wanted to be.

Early 70s patrollers at Crystal Mountain. Photo courtesy of Ty Anderson

Attending classes in Olympia, my weekly drive to the mountain taught me that someday I wanted to live in a mountain town. I didn’t like the commute. I would spend the next seven years as a volunteer patroller while first a college student and later a literature and writing teacher. While I knew I was ready for a change, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I liked the sound of “author”, but thought “ski bum” sounded pretty good too. At least in the short term.

So I got on the patrol as a professional, thinking I’d spend a year ski bumming before making my next move. I had high aspirations–perhaps I could become a writer for Powder Magazine, maybe I could move to Jackson Hole or Aspen or Chamonix. I was ready for a change.

The decision to stay at Crystal full time happened on a single morning.

A more recent photo of the crew

I was on an avalanche control route on Exterminator Ridge with a senior patroller. He was showing me the ropes—how to attach a party pack (a large explosive made from ANFO) to a bomb tram. After I lit the shot and sent it down the cable, I wedged myself in the tree above the chute where the tram cable stretched across the starting zone, and plugged my ears. Thin snow haloes danced above the slope as the sun rose above the peaks, and I waited for the 90-second fuse to burn down. My breath echoed in my ears and my heart thumped against my fingertips. This was what I’d been looking for. This moment right here, when the cold air froze my nostrils and the morning sun illuminated floating snow crystals. It didn’t get any better than this. Not in the city and not necessarily in another mountain town. By the time the bomb exploded, pressing my sternum against my lungs, I’d made my decision. I would stay another season. I would press myself up against the cold snow, the steep peaks and the frightening task of carrying armed explosives in my backpack and see what happened. I could make this my home.

Now I marvel at how much my life has changed and how much it was stayed the same.

I still carry the same heavy explosives to the tops of the starting zones, I still haul injured skiers down in the same toboggans, I still string black and orange rope around closed areas and place bamboo sticks to warn skiers.

The Sublime

In some ways, I’ve become a little jaded. Injured patients no longer scare me; big avalanches no longer surprise me. I’ve come to expect a bit of crisis, and I’ve learned how to flow with it. But in other ways I’ve become more sensitive. Life is more precious when lived closer to the edge. The site of morning sun on fresh snow can bring tears to my eyes. The gratitude of a single guest can carry me all day.

When I married John, my role at Crystal forever changed. I’m still on the ski patrol (which surprises new friends 90% of the time), but I am also married to the owner. I host guests and happily play the role of Mrs. Crystal. John and I plan new projects together, and he listens to my opinions (even when I claim the ski patrol needs a new hut).

I’m not sure if I ever mastered the stoic-wild oxymoron of the previous patrollers I admired. But I have found my own contradictory lifestyle. You might see me wearing my ski patrol uniform one day and the next I’ll be out getting early ups with my husband on my day off, or shoveling out the propane tanks during First Tracks breakfast.

I take the sublime with the guanch, the stellar with the rock-hard ice. And you something? It’s not a bad life at all.

 

 

 

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3 responses »

  1. This post really resonated with me as interestingly enough I got started on the ski patrol path by my father telling me he was paying for college but not for skiing. And then I got hooked and have stayed for so long. I never planned for it – it just happened.

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