The phone rings and you can immediately feel the change. The easy-going banter may not actually stop like the E.F. Hutton ads, but it's suspended just for the instant it takes the Attitash ski patrollers to see if the signal is thumbs up or thumbs down.
Thumbs down, and those on duty in the Attitash ski patrol shack at the top of the Hall chair resume their conversation--or darts, or cards, or reading. Thumbs up, and like a fireman's drill, hats are put on, boots buckled, coats zipped and two patrollers are heading out for their skis while they listen for the details and location of the accident. It happens so fast that a casual observer hardly notices what caused the commotion, or why a joking, relaxed group suddenly sprung to its feet and raced off down the mountain.
Though the signals may differ from mountain to mountain, this is life at the top for the ski patrollers at Cranmore, Attitash, and Wildcat. "We wait for the phone to ring," is the simple description offered by Duck Scofield of the Cranmore ski patrol. Everything is relayed by radio at Wildcat, but there is that same lull before the action when a voice crackles over the receiver.
Valley ski patrollers work a short season. The job generally lasts from Thanksgiving to early April, with Wildcat running the longest -- sometimes operating as late as May 1st.
Most patrollers work a six day week, and their hours are long. At a cold 7 or 7:30 a.m., these skiing rescuers can be found riding up the lifts preparing for the first sweep of the day to check the trails. "An hour is set aside to ski all the trails and check for any problems," said George Lemerise, director of the Attitash ski patrol. "That hour before the public arrives is spent checking to see if any trees have blown down, making sure the trails are in good shape, and reporting what needs to be done to the groomers," explained Bob "Tanaka" Tara of Cranmore. 'We put up ropes, take down ropes, change signs--there's always something to do."
Ski lifts close at 4 p.m. but the ski patrollers wait to take the final sweep of the trails a half hour after that. During the months of December and January, these runs are taken in semi-darkness. After securing all equipment at the base headquarters and getting paperwork in order, the work day finally ends the ski patroller at approximately 5 p.m. A few duty-bound patrollers have suggested, however, that they unselfishly stay around at the apres ski lounge and have a few beers just in case some child might turn up missing. Though their altruism is appreciated, that's not the official policy of any of the mountains.
Requirements to be a ski patroller are simple. A recent ad in the Mountain Ear for an Attitash ski patroller read, "Must have advanced First Aid and advanced skiing ability." The Advanced First Aid certification requires 72 hours of class time, and must be renewed every other year. It is also required that patrollers have CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation) certification that is renewed annually. "There's no need to be a fancy skier," explained Tanaka. "All that's required is to be a strong skier."
Though they are often taken for granted at ski areas, ski patrollers are given a huge amount of responsibility. Their decisions during an emergency situation can sometimes make the difference between life or death. The mountains acknowledge that skiing is an inherently dangerous sport. Each ticket states that skiers are there at their own risk. "Sometimes people come up to ski and try to work out a week's frustration by being aggressive on the mountain," said Lemerise. "Though most accidents happen to beginner or intermediate skiers, an accident can happen to anyone."
Trained to handle a wide range of emergencies, ski patrollers encounter a variety of accidents from children just getting the wind knocked out of them, to broken legs, to serious head injuries, to bizarre accidents such as skiers skiing off a trail and getting so badly wound up in some old wires that wire cutters are needed to get them loose.
"The worst accident I ever saw," said Bob "Dogger" Haynes, a patroller at Mt. Cranmore for 40 years, "was when John McDonald was hit by a runaway skier at full speed." The skier was heavy and out of control and McDonald, an instructor at Cranmore, sustained serious head and internal injuries in the unusual mishap. "It's hard to know for sure," said Haynes, "but the hospital told us our quick action helped to save his life."
Providing the proper care on a ski slope is complicated by the cold temperatures and the threat of the patient going into shock. "Our main concern is stabilizing the patient and bringing them down as soon as possible," said three-year Wildcat patroller, Rob King. "At Wildcat, we are so far from the hospital that we really have to have our act together. It takes 30-45 minutes to get someone off the mountain, and then we're still 30 minutes from the hospital."
The responsibility of providing the initial care for accident victims has prompted many of the patrollers to increase their medical knowledge. Using their own time and money in an effort to be better prepared, many have taken EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) courses that require 120 hours of class time. "People are getting better quality care," said Wildcat patrol director Steve Pullan. "It used to be just 'swoop and scoop' but now the idea is to stabilize the patient. We don't have that many severe injuries, but even with minor injuries, good emergency care shortens the recuperation time."
"We are trained to handle everything from snake bites to childbirth," said Cranmore patroller, Dana Cosby. "We haven't had to take care of either of those things, but if we did, we'd be ready."
Ski patrollers have other duties, too. They are required to ski. A tough job, you might scoff, but they don't get to pick ideal weather conditions. Even though there are six to eight patrollers on duty, there are rarely more than four in the top cabin at all times. "We usually have three to five people up here on standby," said Pullan, "and the rest will be out skiing and patrolling the mountain. We rotate so that everyone gets to ski a lot, but we have to be out skiing even if it is a lousy day."
Patrollers patrol. "We are heavy into speed control," said Rob King of Wildcat. "We have to be a traffic cop on the mountain," said Attitash's Lemerise. "If someone is skiing too fast, we take their ticket." "Speed control is important," emphasized Cranmore's Scofield. "We have to keep the little kids from bombing down the mountain.”
Better grooming and more sophisticated equipment has resulted in people skiing faster. Though bindings are technically better, the increase in speed has brought about an increase in accidents. "We don't have anywhere near as many accidents as we did when there were cable bindings," said Bob Haynes, "but we seem to have more injuries because of sudden stops. People get out of control, or make a mistake and run into another person, a tree, or just hard snow."
Patrollers don't want to just rescue people after an accident, so they work to help prevent accidents. Their skiing day is spent constantly observing trail conditions, riding lifts to make sure things are running smoothly, and policing the speeders who might endanger other skiers. They advise skiers to stay off trails that are beyond their abilities and recommend they quit before getting too tired. "Our busiest time is from 3 to 4 in the afternoon," said Tanaka, “when everyone has gotten tired after a day's skiing."
With the short season, long hours, and immense responsibility, you would expect to hear some disgruntled employees at the top of each mountain. But, they are always cheerful, personable, and entertaining. All ski patrollers echo the words of nine-year veteran George Lemerise, "I love my job."
Though ski patrollers have many duties and must be ready for emergencies at all times, their job does not boil down to all work and no play. "We are studying to be part-time clothes designers," is the Cranmore crew's explanation for the amount of time spent girl watching. If you are female and have ever felt vaguely self-conscious when skiing by a ski patrol cabin, believe me, you are justified. Chances are there are several pairs of eyes watching you -- and even rating you -- especially if you are in stretch pants.
Stretch pants are a real benefit to the male dominated ski patroller's job. "Best thing that ever happened to skiing," said Bob Haynes. Though each mountain employs one or more women ski patrollers, there is no "beefcake" on patrol shack walls, only "cheesecake." "The women are just as capable on the slopes and dealing with accidents," said Scofield, "but inside the shack, it's still a man's domain. Sometimes the women just have to pretend they are hard of hearing."
Since accidents are unpredictable, patrollers have stretches of free time to fill. Staying in the top cabin, it becomes even more necessary for them to keep their wits about them, stay on top of things, and be prepared for the worst -- and that's just to handle the razzing and verbal abuse from their comrades that goes on daily. "You have to be ready to take it especially after a haircut, or if you might wear a pastel sweater," said Cosby. An addendum on the Attitash ad in the Mountain Ear read, "A sense of humor appreciated" but it seems it should have read, "required." "Everyone is very entertaining," said Doug Madara, who has acquired the nickname Hoss, "but it becomes a necessity to be able' to laugh at yourself."
In spite of all this teasing, each patrol crew has a strong sense of camaraderie. "The job is like therapy," said Armand Milotte, a bank official who works weekends at Cranmore. "All the mountains are like one big happy family. Each crew has to work so closely and rely on one another that it is really important that they are compatible."
Ski patrollers have to love their job because, as they all say, they certainly don't do it for the money. The pay scale is scarcely commensurate with the responsibilities they carry, so it is the other aspects that keep them so enamored of their profession. "I'd rather do this than anything," said Pullan, a trained architect who loves ski patrolling so much he only works part-time at his other profession. "I like to ski and I like to work outside," said Madara. "This job is a great combination of those two things, plus I like working with and helping people."
"I like the sport of skiing and I like to see other people enjoying it, too," added Lemerise. "It takes long hours to get the training that's necessary but I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. Just getting a letter of appreciation back from a person we've helped is enough to make it worthwhile."