A day in the life of Breck ski patrol
You probably didn’t know that patrollers sometimes ski steeps with avi dogs on their shoulders, build their own bombs or refer to their medical sleeping bag as “Mr. Wiggy” …
Firefighters, EMTs, police officers and stellar skiers all in one, ski patrollers spend their days doing a lot more than simply showing up when there’s trouble.
Although saving lives is part of the job, a patroller’s day-to-day routine is pretty demanding. Take Alex Kendall for example, a patrol supervisor and 15-year veteran who grew up ski racing in Aspen and coached Team Breck before joining patrol.
It’s a typical Monday in February and 51-year-old Kendall is running the morning meeting at the Vista Haus. She congratulates her fellow patrollers on their second consecutive victory at the Beacon Bowl – an annual contest among regional patrollers to see which team can be the first to discover a buried beacon. Kendall then outlines everyone’s routes for the day. Crews are scheduled to open Imperial Bowl and Peak 7. Early routes are already underway in Horseshoe Bowl. Kendall’s safety message of the day is “watch out for sastrugi.” An Italian word, sastrugi is the type of snow that forms during high winds – the rock-solid waves and craters that can make especially high elevation terrain look and feel like the moon’s surface. Kendall says it works better than coffee as far as keeping her on her toes in the early a.m.
Opening procedures are intense at Breck, particularly after a snowstorm, when most of the resort’s steepest slopes must be bombed for avalanche control. Patrol uses a variety of bombs, all of which patrollers make themselves. There are “emulsives, cast primers” and “ampho shots,” which look like enormous Hersey kisses and can weigh up to 50 pounds. Bombs comprise just a small part of the daily luggage. In addition to wearing a beacon, patrollers carry heavy backpacks containing an avalanche shovel, a 10-foot probe (folded like a tent pole) and a massive flotation device with pump, the entire backpack harnessed through their legs in the event that the flotation device, meant to stay afloat during an avalanche, is ever used. At each patrol post, one special backpack also contains “Mr. Wiggy” – an enormous puffy sleeping bag for individuals who have been injured on the mountain, designed with openings to administer medical checks and procedures.
Bombs are dispersed in many ways (and you can hear them like distant fireworks rattling the entire town throughout the a.m.). Sometimes they’re thrown down a slope, sometimes placed on top of a cornice or in a snow pillow, sometimes lowered into a particular spot by rope and sometimes, beginning around 6 a.m. on big snow days, launched from several hundred feet away via a canon-style apparatus called an AVA Launcher.
“Breaking off a slab can be pretty satisfying,” Kendall admits. “Because you know you’ve cleared out the whole slope and made it safe.”
The daily goal is to open all terrain as quickly as possible. But certain aspects require more work than others, especially on snowy, windy days. Breckenridge runs its own Level 1 and 2 avalanche safety clinics as well as special training for its avalanche dogs, beginning from the time they’re puppies. Historically comprised of all breeds, Breck’s avi dogs are trained to sniff out avalanche burial victims who may not have a beacon, dig out avalanche victims, ride on snowmobiles and chairlifts and in the case of Tali, a nine-year-old mixed breed, on the shoulders of her handler, snow safety specialist Hunter Mortensen. Most of the chutes in Art’s Bowl are named after patrol’s most cherished pups (Tele, Sadie, Rudy, Roux, Kelso and Kodi).
Like a police station, patrol has several departments, including forecaster, snow safety, accident investigation and dispatcher. When there are not dogs to train, safety classes to run, bombs to build, stuff to blow up, injuries to tend to and lives to save, Breck patrol still has a lot on its plate. There are always ropes to flag, posts and fences to build, rebuild or unbury and car-sized tower pads to place and replace. Of course, there is also the nearly 3,000 acres of terrain that has to be systematically closed the same way it is systematically opened. Much like the morning routes, crews are sent to all areas of the mountain in the afternoon for final sweep, closing gates and making sure there are no stragglers on the mountain. If you’ve been out in the p.m., you’ve likely heard them shouting “last call” or “closing time.”
The procedures are the same for ski patrol everywhere, but as Kendall points out, what keeps it interesting is that “the variables are always different.” Breck is unique in that nearly 25 percent of its patrol squad (about 100 full-timers and 30-part-timers) is women and nearly half has been on duty for a decade or longer. Patrol Director Kevin Ahern has been at it for a whopping 42 years. Early in his career, he told his mother he would find a new career once he stopped having fun. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Kendall keeps telling herself that as she gets older, she’ll ask younger patrollers to run the toughest routes and carry the heaviest stuff. But she has yet to ask.
“It’s definitely rewarding to save lives,” she says. “I mean, that’s probably the best part of what we do. Yeah, there’s a lot of work each day. It’s tiring, for sure. I’m always tired at the end of the day. But it’s a good tired.”
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