Some of the benefits of being a ski patroller are quite obvious — skiing all day long with the mountain as your office, for one.
Tom Egan, ski patrol director at Hoodoo Ski Area, pointed to the east side of the hill at the top of Ed's chairlift, revealing some of the knowledge he has acquired in his 21 years at the quaint resort about 20 miles northwest of Sisters.
“There's a replenishment of powder all the time there,” Egan, 52, said last week while riding the lift. “You're getting that thousand feet of vertical each chair ride, without waiting in line. I've racked up 40,000 vertical feet of untracked powder skiing here on a good day.”
But some benefits of Egan's line of work are not as obvious — such as the satisfaction that comes with a job well done. We can all usually find that in our own jobs, but ski patrollers sometimes have the added responsibility of saving lives and limbs.
“The most satisfying thing is when the action that you take really helps somebody, especially when it's something serious,” Egan said. “And we've had those times when calling a helicopter was what made the difference in saving somebody's life. You shake that person's hand afterwards and you see them walking around and you feel really good as a ski patroller.”
Ski patrol is responsible for mountain safety and accident response. At Hoodoo, Egan oversees five paid pro patrollers during the week. He also leads eight unpaid volunteers with the Santiam Pass Ski Patrol on the weekends.
Members of the Santiam Pass Ski Patrol belong to the National Ski Patrol, a global organization with more than 22,000 volunteers and professionals, according to santiam passskipatrol.org. National Ski Patrol volunteers serve at nearby Mt. Bachelor on weekends as well.
The Santiam Pass Ski Patrol also responds to backcountry incidents in and around Hoodoo.
“They've got their own system and they work well, and they benefit Hoodoo,” said Nic Fetterhoff, the assistant patrol director at Hoodoo. “We like having them around a lot.”
On Thursday, Fetterhoff and fellow patroller Chip Dixon were digging a pit near the top of Ed's chairlift to analyze the layers of snow and assess any potential avalanche danger. They knew that the chance of such danger was probably remote, but Hoodoo had been closed the three previous days, and they felt compelled to analyze the situation, and to train three rookies new to the patrol.
“Normally, snow gets controlled by skier compaction as much as patroller management,” Egan said. “But when you have three days of no traffic at all, you kind of need to have a look around.”
More than six inches of snow had fallen over the previous two days, putting the final touch on the kind of day about which skiers and snowboarders dream: blue sky, no wind and fresh snow.
Resisting the urge to carve fresh tracks in the sparkling, pristine powder — and yes, Hoodoo's relatively light snowrider traffic means that fresh tracks really can be found all day — Fetterhoff and Dixon got to work digging with their shovels.
Once finished, Fetterhoff stood in the three-foot-deep pit and pointed at the noticeably different layers.
“You can see the first 24 inches,” he said. “That's the first snowstorm we got, and it's all compacted down. It's actually making a really great base for us this year. It's a nice, soft, heavy base that will stick around for a while. The top 12 inches is from this week.”
The steeper backside of Hoodoo holds the potential for the most avalanche danger, Fetterhoff explained. Most avalanche control at Hoodoo is performed by “ski cut,” a procedure in which a patroller crosses a slope of new snow rapidly at an angle of about 45 degrees, aiming for an island of safety such as trees, rocks, or high ground at the edge of the avalanche path. Patrollers can also use rope saws to cut cornices that could cause a slide.
After the morning avalanche control, patrollers can spend much of their day responding to accidents, injuries, and lost skiers and snowboarders. The minimum first-aid requirement for a ski patroller is certification as a Wilderness First Responder, which requires completion of an 80-hour course. Fetterhoff is an emergency medical technician in the Lane County town of McKenzie Bridge, and Egan is certified in Outdoor Emergency Care.
Fetterhoff said that most injuries on the hill involve beginner skiers and snowboarders on groomed slopes. And Egan added that the majority of those injuries occur in the afternoon, when skiers and snowboarders begin to tire.
“It is amazing how many of our accidents happen from two o'clock on in the afternoon,” Egan said. “We attribute that to fatigue. Perhaps people start to tighten up, and they tend to take more chances in the afternoon with their speed. You can almost set your watch (to the increase in the accident rate) every day.”
Fetterhoff, 26, said that in his five years as a ski patroller, the incidents that stand out in his mind involve kids.
“Those of us who have been in the medical field for a while, you can definitely turn on and off your emotions when you need to, and do the job when you need to,” Fetterhoff said. “But the ones that would stick in my head are the worst kids' injuries. They're just hard to forget.
“Other than that, every time you grab a lost skier, the real wins sometimes are just stopping accidents from happening. They're on the edge of doing something that would either get them hurt or get them lost, and you can stop that before it happens. Those ones always feel good.”
Hayley Crosby, also of McKenzie Bridge, is in her second year as a ski patroller at Hoodoo. She said it is sometimes difficult to stay on constant alert — especially on a bluebird day when it seemed nothing could go wrong — but that is no doubt part of the job.
“It's just staying in the frame of mind that anything could happen at any time,” Crosby said. “Always being ready for anything ... thinking, 'What would I do in this circumstance? What's the smartest way to ... slow down and not be too anxious about an accident?'”
Crosby and other patrollers talked often about their fondness for Hoodoo, and how the relatively uncrowded slopes and friendly snowriders make for a pleasant place to spend their days.
And it was tough to beat Thursday: perfect conditions and safe slopes. But, if you ask Fetterhoff, every day on the hill in his red patrol jacket is a good day.
“This is my office,” he said, pointing to the glistening white slopes from the chairlift. “I get to work all day long out on skis — you can't beat it, any day of the week.”