A typical ski patrol day begins at 7 a.m. for the early crew. First order of business: coffee. Then, the early birds check in with the night crews (i.e., the snowmaking and grooming teams) for an update on conditions and an overview of any areas that may need a little hazard mitigation. Early-morning duties also include creating and distributing a unique-to-Deer Valley weather report gleaned from internal data (on-site weather stations) as well as a range of external sources.
In years past, a small supervisors’ meeting has been followed by a full-crew meeting. Since gathering each day’s 33 to 35 patrollers in a room doesn’t mesh well with Covid-19 protocols, this year’s all-patrol meeting is distributed via text, followed by small-team, patrol-shack meetings with supervisors.
Ski patrol’s morning mission is to prepare as much of the resort as possible before the lifts open to the public at 9 a.m. Each team arrives at its respective patrol shack by 8 a.m., gathers supplies—fences, ropes, bamboo poles, “slow” signs, and such—and begins marking hazards, securing ropes, and making sure the entire resort is as safe as possible and shipshape (i.e., no unruly straps or untidy netting). Simultaneously, patrollers give the resort a once-over, ensuring that each area meets Deer Valley’s standards and is, as Erkkila puts it, “ready for guest consumption.” The ski run check begins with high-traffic areas first, and then patrollers work their way to “the backroads”—and, on snowy days, avalanche mitigation is also in the mix, from the wee hours.
Once the resort is open, patrollers continue to dig out safety pads and ropes, check signage, and generally secure the resort. Regular training sessions, such as mock avalanche drills or navigating treacherous terrain with a toboggan in tow, fill any potentially idle moments. Keeping those skills sharp and patrollers engaged is vital, explains Erkkila.
“It takes a patroller many seasons to get a good grasp on all the different aspects of our job,” he says. “There are still things that I see that I’ve never seen before—ever. I still get thrown curveballs. And that’s what I love about the job, no doubt about it.”
The first-responder aspect of the job may come into play at any time. The calls vary. Maybe a skier is injured, or a moose has wandered onto a run, or a child has been separated from her parents, or a ski pole needs to be retrieved. If it’s a medical emergency, it’s game on: a switch is flipped. Patrollers go from laughing and ribbing one another to serious, professional mode as they assess and work through the first-responder protocols. A debrief follows any serious incident. Then, it’s back to the camaraderie of colleagues whose lives—at times—are in each other’s hands.
As for sustenance, each patrol shack always has a coffee pot brewing, and patrollers take turns whipping up culinary magic with a hot plate and a microwave. Historically, lunch breaks at the employee dining hall rarely disappoint. Think chicken cordon bleu, build-your-own burgers, a nacho bar, or, on occasion, filet mignon. This season, the midday refuel is, of course, a socially distanced experience.
As the afternoon winds down, patrol begins closing down the resort. The first lifts stop running on the outer edges of the resort, and patrollers start pulling ropes in those areas at 3 p.m. With that, the sweep begins. Typically, each ski patroller sweeps down a run with other patrollers doing the same work within earshot on either side. They call out “last call” and look and listen to make sure the areas are clear of skiers for the night. Treed areas are most challenging, and often a patroller skiing across from a gladed run will lend an extra pair of eyes to the patroller who’s sweeping through the trees. At the same time, everything ski patrol put up in the morning—fences, signs, bamboo poles, and more—comes down. The final sweep of the final run wraps up at roughly 5 p.m. Après depends on the day. Perhaps a beer at O’Shucks on Main Street, or a civilized sip at the Goldener Hirsch tops off the day.
On stormy days, the daily grind starts well before dawn. In fact, avalanche-mitigation planning starts long before the patrollers reach the top of the chairlift. Deer Valley’s snow safety team keeps an eye on any incoming weather for up to 72 hours before the storm hits, and the route leaders usually examine their terrain-du-jour the afternoon before the impending dump (so they can compare before-and-after conditions).
As the powder mounts, patrol digs pits to see how the snow is loading from the ground up. They also keep an eye on temperature, density of snow (wet versus dry), and wind, which is a huge factor. “Wind can wreak havoc,” according to Erkkila. “We like to say: you can have an inch of snow, but a foot of wind.”
It takes significant experience to know the terrain and nuances of snow and how it behaves. Enter snow safety foreman of 16 years (and 23-year Deer Valley ski patroller) Sue Anderson. Beyond digging pits and examining the layers, she and her fellow patrollers are constantly looking at how the landscape has changed; the sastrugi (a frozen wave-like appearance in the snow); whether or not there are moguls beneath the snow or it has pillow-like characteristics; and, of course, any severe loading, such as a five-foot bamboo pole buried overnight. They know the places that regularly slide, such as “Old Reliable”—a spot skier’s left on Daly Bowl where the wind precariously loads snow no matter what direction it’s blowing. And they’re cognizant of Mother Nature’s unpredictability.
“We have so many really good people that I trust completely and are really good at [avalanche mitigation],” says Anderson. “But I don’t think you can ever learn everything you need to know about it. I’m constantly learning, constantly a little bit worried, because snow’s unpredictable. If you ever get complacent, that’s when you need to stop doing it.”
The snow safety efforts span much of the resort, with particular attention paid to banks above groomed green runs as well as powder-hound faves, such as Mayflower Bowl on Bald Mountain and the steep-and-deep chutes at Empire. Working in teams, the crew uses various techniques to mitigate avalanches: kicking cornices (literally kicking a ski into the overhanging mass of wind-deposited snow), making ski cuts (skiing across a potentially avalanche-prone slope to see if a slide initiates), and throwing bombs.
“If you’re kicking at the cornice and it’s as hard as a rock, then you’re probably OK. If you’re kicking and big chunks go and it releases snow below it, that’s something you look out for,” explains Anderson. Patrol will never kick a cornice over a dangerous cliff or rock, because it’s not highly unusual for a patroller to plop down along with a broken chunk of cornice. In hairy spots, where falling with a cornice break could result in serious injury, it’s best to throw a bomb or two, she says.
Ski cuts are perfomed when it’s safe for patrollers to do so, at the top of the bank without the threat of a slide breaking above them. When “throwing a cut” isn’t possible, bombs come into play. The two-pound, soup can–like shots are hand-thrown or manipulated with ropes to create, for example, an air blast over a cornice. Handling explosives is serious business, requiring ATF clearance and training in beacon rescue and bomb tossing. But, Anderson admits with a chuckle, “It’s pretty fun to blow things up.”
Once the areas are clear, patrol gets its sweet reward: first tracks.
Meet Izzy, Ninja, Rooster, and Crash. These four working dogs augment the resort’s safety squad. Three of them are A-level certified, while the youngster, 2-year-old Crash, is a C-level (candidate) dog still mastering his skills. Yes, they’re cute PR tools, each with his or her own collectible card (think baseball card, with the Skier’s Responsibility Code printed on the back). But they’re also expertly trained to rescue people in the event of an avalanche.
“[Avalanche dogs] are a tool you want to have, but a tool you don’t want to use,” explains Mark Chytka, avalanche dog coordinator and ski patrol supervisor. Deer Valley’s dog program is associated with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, an organization that certifies dogs and handlers and coordinates responses to incidents in the backcountry. While the resort is the primary focus for the Deer Valley avalanche dogs, the dog-handler teams have been on standby for snowmobile-triggered avalanches in the nearby Uintas and flown via helicopter as far as Grand County’s La Sal Mountains.
Chytka and his dog, Rooster, have reached A-level certification, a.k.a. advanced obedience and rescue skills. Obedience certification means that the dog successfully heels on a leash; performs a long down-stay (two minutes with handler in sight and three minutes with handler out of sight); performs master’s recall (coming when called), which also includes a drop halfway to the handler (an ability to “emergency stop”); and shows no aggression toward other dogs or humans. To reach A-level certification on the rescue side, the dog must search a 100-meter-by-100-meter square and find “lives” (one to three people, who are hiding in buried snow caves) within 20 minutes. In this scenario, neither handler nor dog knows how many people or objects are “buried.”
Pups, all of whom are rescued from shelters, are introduced to ski patrol at seven weeks old. They ride chairlifts and snowmobiles and run alongside their skiing counterparts, immediately encountering all aspects of life on the ski hill. Over the months and years, they learn from handlers as well as the veteran patrol dogs. Confidence is key (no shying away from loud noises or strange situations), and mastering scent is the goal.
“A dog’s nose is an incredible thing,” says Chytka, pointing out that when humans walk into a pizza kitchen, we smell pizza, but when a dog encounters that same scent, he smells each individual ingredient, from yeast to cheese. Avalanche dogs are trained to associate human scent with fun. In training scenarios, dogs search for “scent cones” (as human scent rises through the snow and interacts with air movement, it creates a cone). The person “buried” in the cave always has a toy on hand, and once the dog finds him or her, there’s a massive play reward: tugging.
Inbounds, avalanches are rare. However, when a cut bank sets off a slide that’s potentially big enough to have buried someone, the dogs are set to work—just in case. Since most skiers don’t wear beacons inside the resort boundaries and Recco systems aren’t perfect, dogs are key in terms of ensuring that an area is clear. As Chytka puts it, “A dog is a pretty foolproof way to find human scent in the snow.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Funny
“Everybody always says that ski patrol is the best job they’ve ever had in their entire lives,” says Erkkila. “A big part of that is the family and the camaraderie.” The inherently risky nature of the job makes the bonds especially tight. Complete trust in one another, coupled with an ability to “flip a switch,” is crucial.
The stakes are high. Sue Anderson recalls a moment she was caught in an avalanche as she and her fellow patroller were making ski cuts in an area that had already slid and they were working to open. Luckily, when she was swept up in the snow, she landed by a tree with an air pocket; her teammate saw her, rescued her with a single scoop of a shovel, and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
In serious moments, the team works in a manner that patroller Julie Hygon describes as “so well-orchestrated we don’t even need to hear each other.” Training kicks in, and they know each step and part to play, which is particularly handy when a helicopter is landing at the scene.
Friendly competitions, fun, and the occasional prank are all part of the mix, too. Patrol also has its own version of March Madness, a bracket for rookie patrollers who race one another on Champion (the World Cup moguls course) each spring. They stage scavenger hunts and ski patrol Olympics, with events ranging from dummy bomb toss to toboggan slalom course. In general, this crew laughs easily.
And wildlife, from rare mountain lions to ermines, always trigger some excitement. Sue Anderson gets a chortle out of the inevitable moment when a grouse nesting on Ruins of Pompeii startles a rookie. Danny Stern recalls the time his buddy had to wrangle a moose—from a distance—gently guiding it off a run. Of course, everyone has a story of a snowboarder landing in a skier-only resort.
“You would think that we would be a snowboarder’s worst nightmare, but we’re their saving grace, because the guests are usually getting after them pretty quick,” says Mark Chytka. “Once we show up, we’re able to keep the peace and get them off the mountain.”
The pay is perhaps not the biggest perk of ski patrol. But as Erkkila points out, “Nobody ever wants to quit ski patrol. They just want to go part time.”