Ski Patrol – A Real Job

D’Arcy McLeish | | Featured ArticleFeatured Article

It happens to ski patrollers at every resort. A guest gets on the chairlift, sees the crosses on the jacket, and asks: ‘So…do you guys just ski around all day? Do they pay you for that?’ I usually don’t dissuade them. On most days, I do just ski around, and yes, they pay me for it. Occasionally though, I am tempted to give the guest a true sense of what it is we do with our day.

Getting it done the hard way.
Getting it done the hard way.

Wake up. It’s 4:30 am. My god, it’s early. Who wakes up at this hour? Make coffee, eat breakfast. Drive to work. Coach my feet into my boots. They’re not happy about spending the day in a pair of plastic prisons. Drive a snowmobile up the mountain. Get it stuck in a snowdrift. Start digging. Pray the avalanche forecaster doesn’t get on the radio and ask me what’s taking so long. Dig faster. Patrolling is digging: fences, snowmobiles, toboggans, it never ends. A shovel is a ski patroller’s best friend. So is coffee. I make it up the hill. Build bombs. Boot pack in waist-deep snow with bombs. What sane person carries live explosive charges for a living? At least no one is shooting at us. Make avalanches with bombs and skis. Hopefully, no one gets buried. Time to ski. It’s blower, over the head, deep. I love snow. More coffee. I love coffee. Tea is for telemarkers.

The author getting his ski patrol on. Photo - Jonas Hoke
The author getting his ski patrol on. Photo – Jonas Hoke

Second breakfast. Check the ski runs. More Digging. Buried and broken fence lines. I curse every snowboarder that sees a fence as a park feature. Sneak in a couple of quick laps; face shots this time, skiing where the public doesn’t. Rest. Coffee. Respond to an accident. Oh look, he weighs three hundred pounds. Humping him down the hill in a toboggan will be fun. Make it to the valley, discover the guest isn’t really hurt at all and is just tired. I’m tired. I just pulled your sorry ass down the hill in a toboggan designed for half that weight. Back up the chair. Chat to a guest about how we make the moguls in the summertime. Drink more coffee. Respond to another guest, this time the guest is stuck on a cliff. Perform a rope rescue. Rest. More coffee. Remind my feet there are only a few more hours to go. Outside again. More digging. Always digging. They don’t pay us enough to sweat when it’s this cold. Back up the chair. Take an earful from a crusty local about how ski patrol tracks out the best lines before they do. That’s right buddy, otherwise, I wouldn’t do this job. Last coffee. Sunset turns on the sweep. Most insane views I’ve ever seen. Locker room. Boots off, beer open. I love beer. So do my feet. Best job ever.

Explain signage to guest: DANGER: CLIFF AREA does not mean: THIS IS A BLUE RUN.

One thing about ski patrolling...the views from your office never get old. Photo - D'Arcy McLeish
One thing about ski patrolling…the views from your office never get old. Photo – D’Arcy McLeish

Ski patrolling is tough to define. Part first responder, part ski bum and part mountain rescue specialist, it’s about as varied and challenging a job as any. And make no mistake, it’s a real job; one which many hardy souls have made a career of. While the pay is meager, the perks are unrivaled. Yes we have to ski on days when no sane person would contemplate leaving the house, but on other days the snow is waist-deep, the hill is empty and we get to see and do things most people only dream of.

Do we ski around all day? Sure we do, and it’s better for all of us if you just keep thinking that way.

Be safe, ski hard.

For most posts by D’Arcy McLeish, @thesurlycitizen, visit the Last Frontier Heliskiing Blog

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20 thoughts on “Ski Patrol – A Real Job

  1. Great article, pretty handily describes the average day. I only take issue with the use of the term “ski bum” sac it has long been part of the issue ski patrollers have faced for decades. My coworkers and I take pains to maintain high levels of competence and readiness while raising families and paying mortgages on miserable wages. The use of the word bum somewhat diminishes that effort of a lifetime. Thanks for giving folks a glimpse into the life.

  2. Great article! Helps get the word out about what we do. My only addition would be to educate the public that “pro” only means “paid” not better than, or superior to. Us non-pro Patrollers do all that just for love of the non-paying job.

  3. Yep kinda sums up the job. Only thing is that we don’t pre-arm our charges… we do it in the field when it’s -10F and 100 mph winds!

  4. Thanks Alta ski patrol. Saved my life when I lascerated my liver skiing way too fast on a boiler plate day. I’ll never begrudge you those waist deep lines before lifts open. Love you men and women.

  5. Great job explaining Patrolling!
    I know of no greater career experience.
    Economically difficult to perform without “family money”.
    The need to provide for my daughters. Will keep me from Patrolling.
    I will miss the job and my second family this winter.
    Yegs – Arizona Snowbowl -Pro&NSP

  6. Wonderful article, a good read. I used to ski all the time until I hurt my hip, and I had to quit snow skiing, water skiing. Bowling, and ice skating. I felt my life was ruined. Later I was able to return to doing most things again. You have an exciting life, and also dangerous. Keep up the hard job, there are people who do appreciate you being there. I don’t ski anymore, but I love watching it!

  7. Hi D’Arcy, I read this article and loved it. I work in the ski industry myself as a ski instructor and watch the work that all you guys, and girls, do and commend you on that job.
    I particularly liked your comment about coaching your feet into your boots and at the end easing them out of the boots at the end of the day.
    I want to let you know that I too had issues with my feet and I found a solution in the Apex Ski Boot System. Luckily, for you and your colleagues, as a WB employee they’re available to you at a super duper rate. I hope you consider at least trying them on at Dusty’s on the 7th.
    Your feet will thank you too.

  8. Loved the article, I should do one for the “volley’s” here in Ontario where we have hills not mountains, we have knee deep powder if we are lucky, we aren’t allowed on the snowmobiles and explosives aren’t necessary. However we do get up at 5am and drive through 2 hours of nasty crap to get to the hill. Just like you we slide down hills in all sorts of weather and tend to the many injured skiers every year. Yes coffee is one of best friends, along with the 5 o’clock beer. You forgot to mention the racers and coaches that want to be on the hill before you because there is RACE! today. All of this and we actually pay money to join the CSP

    After 33 years though it’s still worth it and I am set for another season on the board(s).

  9. Way back in 1959, I went to Colorado to be a ski bum..Right off, I was hired as a bartender for after ski, and signed as a pro patroller at Arapahoe Basin. I thought ,”It can’t get any better than this!” When Vail opened I went to Vail as a ‘troller, and then on to Jackson Hole when it opened and ‘trolled for the next 20 years. Some of the best years of my life!

    1. Solid piece D’Arcy, one of my favourite guest interactions happen the chair pretty regularly. « Hey ski patrol! ” says this voice from the other end of the bench. @What’s the worst injury you’ve ever seen!?
      ever seen? »
      Typical response is @d’you mean beside someone dying? » usually ends the conversation pretty quickly. Which is what I!m looking for.
      Occasionally, I’ll bite and go on to explain the holy trinity of ski hill injuries, « Skiers hurt their knees, snowboarders their wrists and shoulders don’t discriminate. », but we see it all so not much really takes us by surprise.

  10. I just wanted to say a big hello to the ski patrol team based in Kelowna, West Bank. B.C. My brother has been involved with this team for many years, and I,m so proud of him, his caring spirit, loving what he does for family, friends, and community. Way to go ‘Lil’ Brother. Big hi to my nephew as well, who has joined the team

  11. After almost 40 years in the Patrol and the last 28 as a Pro, the life is wonderful….the views are spectacular…some accidents are difficult…most are just, fine though time-consuming…and I end up in great shape in the winter and out-of-shape in the summer!

    Beer is great around 5:00pm when we finally finish sweep and get out of our gear..!!


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