All photos/art by Josh Allen
Recent college graduate and former Yankee intern Josh Allen, spent last summer as a
sea kayak guide in Maine, and then was accepted into the ski patrol training program at Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, Vermont. Each week he will take us behind the scenes at one of New England’s most popular and busy mountains.
The First Weeks
Walking into the first day of training, I thought, “Surely this will be simple enough.” Growing up in New Hampshire, I’d skied just about my whole life, and ski patrollers ski all day, right? It’s not like they have a serious job or anything. Even now I catch myself when I tell people that I’m saving the serious jobs for later…
Because now I know better. Ski patrolling is just about as serious as it gets. But it’s also incredibly fun — and I’m still just a candidate, affectionately nicknamed Muffin. Yes, Muffin is my nickname because every morning upon arriving at our nearly monthlong “Outdoor Emergency Care” course, I went right to the muffins, of which there happened to be a rather endless supply in the refrigerator. Despite signs that these muffins might be kind of old, I ate one … or two … or maybe three. Old, yes, but they sure were delicious.
But muffins and endless cups of free hot chocolate didn’t lead to my passing the OEC exam, or to my CPR certification, or to my knowledge of what an ischial tuberosity is. It came down to really hard work: reading nearly 80 pages of the OEC textbook each night. I’ve memorized more in the past few weeks than in my last semester of college, and I take that to mean that the course here at Okemo is very, very effective and highly tuned toward success, rather than that I slacked off in college (really, I didn’t!).
All six of us patrol candidates were nearly at the breaking point — well, the point at which we were going to burn our books and yell, “Let us be outside!” — when the day of the test arrived. I felt a knot in my stomach, which is located in my upper left quadrant … Anyway, I was nervous, but also ready to put what I’d absorbed against the very best tests that our incredibly devious (and awesome) teachers could throw at us.
First: a written 100-question multiple-choice exam. It went by in a blur. I got 96 out of 100 and felt pretty good.
Second: five practical-skill exam stations. Each station tested a different technique or application of a skill that we’d learned and practiced countless times in class. But now it was serious, or at least it felt like it. And this wasn’t even an actual injured person … Luckily — well, actually, I credit our amazing teachers, Jimbo and Tom — I passed the practical exam, along with my five fellow candidates. We were now one step closer to getting on the mountain.
Only one thing remained in our way at that point: We had no snow. Oh, but the snow was coming, not from the sky but from Okemo’s snowmaking machines, and the snowmakers who made it all happen.
In the days ahead, I’ll be keeping a journal of what I see, what I do, and what I learn about taking care of people on a big and busy mountain. I know no day is quite identical to the next when you’re on hard-packed, steep inclines, running through mock assessments of “patients” with nearly every imaginable issue, or maneuvering a loaded toboggan for the first time down a double fall line while still hearing our instructor’s last words: “Whatever happens, do NOT let go of that sled!” Each time I take it out, loaded or not, I hear that warning again, and it reminds me how unpredictable but rewarding this job will be.
Natural snow at last! We’ve had a decent amount of snow on the mountain for the past week and a half, but today was the first real, natural snowfall to occur since we’ve been training on the slope. It was also very windy at the summit, which made getting off the lift with a toboggan — or what was really just a huge wind-attracting nemesis — rather tricky. In the wind and near-zero temperatures, we were at one point given a very difficult, mind-bending extrication to deal with.
Our teacher, Jimbo, had wedged himself into the woods against a log, requiring us to climb under two huge metal snowmaking pipes and figure out just how the heck to get him safely out of his predicament. After a solid chunk of time, perhaps 45 minutes or so, we were able to successfully bring Jimbo out onto the trail, on a backboard, ready for transport. Although we all preformed well, it demonstrated just how time-consuming and challenging it might be to move someone just 10 feet when he’s lodged himself into the woods during a crash. There are no shortcuts when dealing with such situations — only fast, efficient planning and rapid, safe execution. Yep, there’s a lot more thought that goes into being a ski patroller than most people (including my former self) think.
Today I found a dummy in the woods. His name: Pat Troller, the cloth dummy that our instructors hide in the woods for candidates like myself to find (or not find). Luckily, I found Pat after nearly skiing by him, and was able to pass the “test.”
This happened at the very end of the day, around 4:30 p.m., with the sun’s dying light barely illuminating the slope. The woods were darkening by the minute, and it was my first solo sweep run.
Sweep comes at the end of the day, every day, when patrollers spread out across the open terrain and make sure no one is left behind to spend the freezing night on the hill. I saw a glimmer of red off the trail, and at first thought it was a snowmobiler fixing something in the woods. I searched more closely and found Pat, who’s stuffed with hay; he’d be so light that he could practically float down the trail. Now I had to make my first radio call ever. I received back several loud congratulations along the lines of “Good job, Muffin!” Nope, I still haven’t managed to escape my nickname … nor do I anticipate that happening anytime before the snow melts.
I did my first solo trail opening today on Heaven’s Gate, a smooth blue in Okemo’s Solitude area. There were a few inches of fresh snow on top of the solid base, and it took all of my willpower (which is sometimes easily broken — by ice cream, for example) to focus on the job, rather than let myself fly down the trail. Nevertheless, while periodically hitting off snow-covered discos (the orange discs that mark hazards) on the side of the trail, I stopped to see a beautiful sight uphill: my tracks standing alone, marking out a curved path through the windswept powder.
As a patroller, I must always do my job first and carve through the snow second — but on certain days, like today, I was just about able to do both at once, and I can’t think of many things better than that. Even better, I know that first tracks are basically always going to be mine. So whether we have pouring rain, or a foot of snow, I’ll be among the first ones out on the trail, fixing the orange signs, but also exhilarated by the beauty of nature as experienced in solitude.
Riding up the lift this morning was a spectacular experience. Near the summit, the clear air turned into a fine mist of snow, completely obscuring my surroundings. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face — that’s how dense the snowy mist was.
Of course, it was being blown into the air by snowmakers, but even so, it was awesome. Many people look down on “fake” snow, but after skiing on pretty much only manmade snow for the past two weeks, I have to say it works just fine. Okemo now has trails on all four areas open, and that’s because of the efforts of the snowmakers and the power of their machines. In less than one week Okemo has nearly doubled its terrain. Sure, Western mountains might get huge snowfalls, but they don’t have the ability to produce snow when there’s none falling the way we do in the East.
Coming out of the manmade snowy fog, I was greeted by the sun off to my left, and a clear view of the town below, and the endless mountains of Vermont stretching into the distant horizon. Totally unexpected, and completely beautiful. Moments like that, I think, are why people want to work and play outside in the first place. Sure, we expect to have fun and work hard as patrollers, but at the end of the day, or the beginning, sometimes there are moments that outweigh and defy those expectations altogether.