All photos/art by Josh Allen
There should really be more than three “types” of skiers. When you go into a mountain rental shop to get gear for the day, you’ll be asked whether you’re a beginner, an intermediate, or an expert skier. But these terms are pretty uninformative. Our first day on the slopes during training, we were told that snowplowing — descending by putting skis into a pizza formation — is practically the core of patroller skiing.
My first reaction was surprise, quickly followed by a sinking feeling. I was a complete novice at snowplowing. My first few times down the hill in a snowplow, it didn’t work so well. I wouldn’t say I was hurtling down the mountain in a “death-plow,” or completely out of control, but I certainly couldn’t control my speed very well.
My skis chattered, and my knees felt as though they were melting under tons of molten steel. I was worried that as my fellow candidates looked on, I’d snowplow off the trail into the woods, calling out at the last moment that I’d completely forgotten how to ski normally.
After snowplowing for a whole day, my knees indeed had trouble turning back to a normal position. It felt strange to make parallel turns again. Luckily I can now say I successfully passed my snowplow test, consisting of a summit-to-base snowplow down World Cup, one of Okemo’s most popular trails. Sure, my knees weren’t super-happy with me for putting them into such an awkward position for so long, but now if I walk (with inwardly turned knees) into a rental shop, or ever need to mark down my skier level on a form, I can put “ES” for Expert Snowplower. And I’ll know, if few others do, how darned hard that was to achieve. I’ve also gained enormous respect for fellow snowplowers out there on the slopes … It might not look pretty, but it sure is tough!
I’ve come to realize that I take my hands for granted. I mean, at room temperature they’re just so easy to manage while doing important tasks like peeling a clementine, or perhaps scooping out the last of the ice cream from my pint carton. But today my hands were so frozen that I couldn’t properly assess my “patient,” because I simply couldn’t feel anything with them.
During a patient assessment, each patroller conducts a full body check to discover injuries or other things out of the ordinary. Well, that process is easy in the cozy confines of the patrol hut, or even on a mild day. Today was around 3°, though, with fierce winds. Biting cold permeated my clothing, and then I had to take off my mittens.
My shiny new mittens were forced inside my jacket during my assessment, and I think after that point my right hand was there for only another minute or two — at least, according to my mind and the wonderful functions it enables. I arrived at my “patient’s” four abdominal quadrants only to find that I couldn’t tell one from the other because I couldn’t feel anything inside my “patient’s” jacket. Whoops! So I put my mittens back on and proceeded.
I learned a valuable lesson today about the elements: If you have gear for certain weather, don’t remove it or you’ll probably suffer — a lot. Of course I’ll have to suffer sometimes for the good of my patient, and I’m totally okay with that, but at the same time, I know that a frozen hand is no good to anyone. So keep your mittens on and be thankful for them — and say thanks to your hands, too, for being able to function. At room temperature, that is.
I wasn’t “Muffin” today, but “Patrol Hut” instead. Well, I was still Muffin, but I responded to radio calls for the Patrol Hut, so I felt a bit more dignified than a breakfast snack. This occurred because I was given the highly prized duty of being ski-patrol dispatcher for the day. At first I wasn’t thrilled to be staying inside all day while my fellow candidates and other patrollers got to ski. But then I saw the summit thermometer and changed my mind; on a 0° day, dispatch isn’t so bad. Sure, the others may have been carving turns on packed powder during trail checks, but I was getting to use three, yes three, different-color Sharpies on a single trail map.
Dispatch might not sound thrilling — answering phones, telling people to do things, and reorganizing a whiteboard with people’s names on it doesn’t immediately strike one as exciting — but in fact it was a serious adventure. Maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble listening to three different people talking on the radio, while simultaneously trying to keep track of the two people who’ve just walked into the hut because I have to record the time of return for each — oh, and someone right beside me is talking to me, as well. And the phone is ringing … Whoops, it’s the black one, not the white one!
That didn’t happen all day, but at least once or twice I was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks to do. Dispatch is just another example of the hidden jobs that enable the visible jobs to operate. Without a dispatcher, there’s no way we could function as a group. I learned a lot of respect for whoever conquers dispatch. It’s challenging, and I’ll even admit rewarding, in its own way.
It’s rapidly approaching. It’s really, really close, in fact. And I’m ready for it. What is it, you ask? My final test, of course!
Next week, my fellow candidates and I are going to be put through the icy trials that every new patroller must pass successfully in order to be online, or, essentially, let off our tethers to roam the mountain on our own.
We’ll finally be able to respond to a real accident and perform our very well ingrained skills on real mountain guests. I know that whatever I respond to first, it’s going to be a serious rush of butterflies and adrenaline. I know butterflies and adrenaline might not seem like a good pairing, but I think in this case it will be.
My butterflies will keep my mind going and on task, and my adrenaline will keep my body performing what it must do to help whomever I come across. Working with my fellow candidates and other patrollers over the past few weeks has been a blast, and soon it will be even better. Finally seeing the look on a guest’s face as I ski down to check on him or her, and perhaps rescue that person from an otherwise very uncomfortable situation, will be worth all of those textbook pages, late nights spent studying trail names, and nearly frozen extremities.
Speaking of which … Christmas is rapidly approaching, and I actually want something this year: warm socks. Really, really warm socks. How excited will I be if I get warm socks? Well … almost as excited as I’ll be to pass my final mock test next week and be on the mountain with a heightened sense of purpose. I’ll be looking back from the chairlift and seeing that beautiful Okemo summit view, knowing that it’s my responsibility to care for everyone who’s also enjoying this mountain, these views.
That’ll be even better than warm socks.