By Kim Kircher
The winter of 1989-90 at Crystal Mountain Ski Area in Washington State started late. It was my first season as a ski patroller, and the resort wasn’t open for Christmas due to a lack of snow. The beginner area was wet with dying grass and the slopes were a muddy brown. I was young then — only 18 years old and a freshman in college — and ski patrolling was my ticket to free skiing. Little did I know that what began as a purely selfish endeavor would turn into my life’s most important work.
I knew the lack of snow couldn’t be good for business, and I worried that my training would be cut short, that I wouldn’t learn to run a toboggan or put my newly minted OEC skills to the test, or even truly get to know the terrain I was assigned to patrol. Come January of that season, I learned my first big lesson about Crystal: things can change in an instant.
All it took was one big storm and the mountain was plastered in white. When I got the call in my dorm room that the ski area would open for the weekend, I gathered my gear in anticipation, wishing I could skip my classes and head to the mountains. I would grow used to this feeling over the next few years. City life was stiff and crowded. The mountains offered freedom, expansive views, and skiing. I would grow more and more eager for the latter.
That January, I learned quickly how to put out rope lines and open terrain. My training came fast and furious that season, and by the end of that first year I was pretty sure I knew the job.
That would form the foundation of another tenet of ski patrolling: no matter how much I think I know my job, there’s always another curve ball. Even now, nearly three decades since that first season, every day is as unique as a snowflake.
After I graduated from college and spent a few years as a high school teacher, I was ready for a change. During this time, I had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and my desire to travel and join the Peace Corps had been cut short. I wanted adventure, but my doctor encouraged me to take it slowly, to learn how to manage my energy and low blood sugars. I figured that one season as a full-time patroller would help me decide my next move.
I learned another lesson from patrolling that season: this job is like heroin. It’s an addiction. You do it once and you just want to keep on doing it, and nothing else ever quite seems as good as your time on the slopes. Only a few weeks into the job, I realized this was it, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
That decision came after a day of doing avalanche control. That season, unlike my first as a volunteer, started strong and stayed that way. Storms lined up off the coast and marched across the Cascades with regularity, building the snowpack into a record-setting base. By the end of that season, I’d have the requisite hours to take my blaster’s exam, and by the next season I was leading avalanche routes on my own.
Early that season, however, when I went out on my first patrol route, I worried that the contents of my backpack would explode at any moment. Sure, they’d told me the explosives were “stable,” and I’d been given extensive training on the do’s and don’ts of explosives handling. I knew that the igniters must stay dry in my pocket until I needed one. I learned to clip off just a quarter inch of the fuse with my non-sparking crimpers to ensure a dry powder train. Seating the igniter on the end of the fuse took a precise motion while wearing gloves. I learned that Sno-Seal on the palms of my leather gloves did more than keep them waterproof; it also made them a little sticky, which helped keep the igniter in my left hand on the fuse as I pulled the string with my right hand and prevented a dreaded “no-light.” I also learned to throw the explosives within 20 seconds of placing the igniter on the fuse, and to plug my ears and open my mouth, and most importantly to throw my hood over my head and hunker in a safe place while the bomb went off on a nearby slope.
Still, I never lost my healthy fear of explosives. What if I fell hard on my pack? Could they explode? I skied gingerly that first morning to what would become my regular route on Exterminator Ridge, trying not to think too much of the route name, and followed my partner’s every direction. Every motion became a deliberate action. Don’t ski above your partner; wait until he signals you in. Hold your poles in the self-arrest position. Don’t fall.
The best part of avalanche control wasn’t the intoxication of watching avalanches slide over the slopes, which can be jaw-dropping. Nor was it the intense concentration required to handle explosives. The best part of avalanche control, and my new job as a professional ski patroller, was waking up early, riding the chairlift in the dark and watching the sunrise on the mountains.
Some mornings, the wind and snow would howl across the slopes, and I’d tuck my chin into my parka. Other mornings, the storm having blown itself out, the sun would dapple the clouds in purple and red and paint the fresh snow in glorious light. Regardless of the weather, I learned to love these intense mornings. The immediacy of the moment was intoxicating. I knew then that I’d found my new career path.
When I was recently promoted to patrol director at Crystal Mountain, I knew I wanted to foster good patrolling. My goal was, and remains, to build a solid crew and to help each member become the best they can be.
First, however, I had to take a look at the job and understand it from a new perspective. As a 28-year veteran on the patrol — first as a volunteer while I was in college and then as a pro for the past 21 years — I understood the important role ski patrol has on the mountain. I’d been on the scene of serious accidents; I’d helped family members through tragedy; I’d witnessed the fluctuations of intensity brought on by weather and crowds. What I didn’t know was how each day would unfurl.
My early lesson was still true: no two days on patrol are the same. While every day starts with donning ski boots, and either heading straight out onto the hill for avalanche control or attending the morning meeting, from there, the events of each day split off in infinite directions. Saturday mornings with fresh snow and crowded parking lots will fly by, while slow days with icy slopes and no crowds creep along.
I was recently assigned the Northway line as a sign run. The rope line extends along a massive pod of terrain on Crystal’s north boundary. It was a beautiful morning, and the sun was painting Mount Rainier in pinkish hues. Just 14 miles to the west, Rainier is a constant presence at Crystal, at times dominating the horizon. As I worked my way slowly along the rope line, relishing in the quiet task, I remembered why I took this job so long ago. This place and this job force me to pay attention. Even in stillness, the intensity and beauty snap me back into the moment. My favorite part of the day is sign runs and sweep. These duties are bookends to the day. These are the moments I’ve come to love about this job.
What Makes a Good Patroller?
It’s not just the view from my “office window” that keeps me doing this job. The job of patrol director, much like being a line patroller, has a steep learning curve. The qualities that I look for in my crew are the same that I want in myself. Ski patrol is not a job for ski bums hoping to take a year off from their regular lives. Patrolling is all consuming. To do it right, one must be all-in. Whether you volunteer every third weekend or take on the job as a full-time gig, you can’t do it halfway. Patrolling takes commitment.
A few weeks ago, I rode the chairlift with two sisters, and the conversation quickly turned to their experience with our ski patrol nearly two decades ago. Their father had collapsed near the base area. He’d gone into cardiac arrest. “What a minute,” I said. “Did that happen on New Year’s Day?” The women nodded. “And we shocked him back to life?” I asked. One of the women looked at me closely. “You were there, weren’t you? You were the one that told us he was alive.”
I remember that day clearly. The ski area had just bought AEDs, and it was the first time I’d used one outside of training. When I arrived on scene, the patient, a 76-year-old man, was pulseless, and I began CPR. Soon after, the AED arrived. We applied the pads and I pressed the button to shock the patient. When I checked his pulse again, it had returned. The patient’s skin was already beginning to turn from gray to pink. That’s when I looked up to see the sisters standing over us, holding hands and looking on with worry. I told them their father was now alive, that the AED had restarted his heart.
Now riding the chairlift with them, they told me that their father lived several more years after that. He continued to ski, and our efforts that day on the hill had given him a renewed reason to live. “Our father got a chance to spend time with his grandchildren,” one said. The sisters thanked me for giving them more time with their father. It is this sense of purpose that I hope to instill in my staff. Every day might be the day to save a life or prevent an injury.
The single most important quality of a patroller is good judgment. Our job is to help our guests manage their risks. We prevent accidents with our daily actions, whether that’s through snow safety or skier safety. This takes excellent judgment. On an avalanche control morning, we make decisions about where to place our shots, when and where to ski cut, and how best to manage cornices. We do all this while keeping our own safety at the forefront of our tasks.
A few weeks ago, while doing avalanche control in Northway, our task was to control a cornice in the Horseshoe Cliffs area. The upper mountain was scheduled to open soon, and I’d hoped that my first tram shot would bring down the cornice that hung precariously over a cliff.
Unfortunately, the fresh cornice didn’t budge. I had a few options. I could hang my next shot on a string and throw it over the cornice, but that often doesn’t make a cornice break off. I could saw the cornice with a rope, but that would put me too close to the edge, as would stuffing the shot into the cornice. I could have my partner belay me, but that would take more time, and we were running late already.
It’s times like these, when weighing my own safety against time pressures against the hazard to our guests that will be exploring this ridge soon, that good judgment comes into play. I chose to toss the shot right on the edge of the cornice from a safe distance, hoping my placement was right. My guess paid off this time. When the shot exploded, it took the fragile cornice with it.
Just like how Rainier never looks the same each day — the shadows dance along the ridges, the clouds and sunlight play in infinite patterns and colors — the job is never the same. Every day brings new challenges, new triumphs, and new opportunities. Learning from these opportunities creates good judgment for next time.
I recently met with a member of my crew after a guest had assaulted him. The guest had skied in a closed area, and when the patroller asked to see his pass, the guest grew aggressive. Once we parsed out the details of the incident, I asked the patroller what he learned. I explained that even in a scenario like this, there are valuable lessons available.
We decided together that the best course of action in this case would have been to ask for additional patrollers. I explained to him that you can’t memorize how to do this job. Learning to make the right decision in the heat of the moment is the key. Certainly training helps build judgment, but more importantly, it’s learning from experience that will mold him into a great patroller.
This season, we have implemented a new system of debriefing after avalanche control days. We discuss learning opportunities and anomalies that may have come up that day. Route leaders tell stories about past avalanches. A few years ago, I was part of the team that set off a big avalanche that destroyed a chairlift. That day, we decided to place our first explosive in a shallower starting zone because we suspected it would be a good test for the steeper chutes above. When that first shot took out the entire slope, including most of the steeper chutes higher on the ridge, and ran way past the maximum run-out distance and destroyed the bottom terminal of the chairlift, we all learned many valuable lessons. Primarily, we learned that avalanches could be unpredictable.
As the patrol director, I want to highlight the importance of learning not just our own lessons, but also mining the lessons of others for the good of the whole crew. These debriefs build an environment of learning, not retribution, which mirrors my philosophy as a leader. New patrollers can learn judgment through the experience of others, but they have to be careful historians, cross-referencing one veteran’s account with others, learning to tease out facts from bravado. By taking the swagger out of the equation, we are building an environment of learning.
I try to lead by example. Most mornings, I’m out the door with the crew for sign runs, and I end each day with a sweep. I take great pride in this. I try to model good patrolling in my everyday actions, whether it’s shoveling the steps at the Summit House or taking out the garbage. This also helps to promote another important trait of a good patroller: humility.
We work in the mountains, where the weather and conditions change quickly. Our “offices” are not climate-controlled cubicles, but rather snow-laden bowls and tree-lined slopes filled with skiers and riders hell-bent on maximizing their fun.
One day, the slopes might be icy and fast. On those days, we worry about collisions and long slides and tower pads being strategically placed. We practice with extra chain breaks slung along the middle of our toboggans and practice making quick anchors for belaying our sleds down slick slopes.
The next day, we might have a fresh dump of snow and our concerns turn to avalanche conditions and deep snow immersions. On these days, we wake early to throw explosives on the slopes and talk to people about skiing and riding with a partner. We take “missing person” calls very seriously on these days.
Through all of this, we must remain humble and limber. The moment we tell ourselves we have this job dialed, that’s when the mountains show us differently. While we gain confidence in our abilities over time, it’s easy to fall into the all-too human trap of justifying our actions. Every so often, something happens that lowers that confidence. I believe that if we learn to see around those corners through vigilance and honesty, we can avoid mishaps and close calls.
Everyone who travels in the mountains should remain humble. If you ever tell yourself that you’re always safe, that you always make good decisions, you will quickly find yourself in a pissing match with nature. This is why I focus heavily on humility. If I tell myself that I know my job inside and out, I will quickly get schooled. That will be the day that I see something newly horrible and challenging. We all have blind spots. We all can miss things, especially if we think we know it all. It’s impossible to know what we don’t know. If instead we remind ourselves that we can’t know everything and promote humility, we can learn to see around our blind spots.
People have an especially hard time reflecting on their own flaws and mistakes. An expert, according to Niels Bohr, “is someone who has made all the mistakes which can be made.” I agree, as long as we learn from those mistakes.
Making good decisions means recognizing similarities with previous situations, extracting an appropriate response based on those previous experiences, and then acting on that knowledge. This is often referred to as intuition. If we acknowledge, investigate, and learn from “near misses,” we become better patrollers. No one thinks they have blind spots, but they think everyone else does. The trick is to ask ourselves what our blind spots might be and to seek those out through feedback and experience.
What Makes a Good Patrol Director
To be a good patrol director, I’m aiming not just for good judgment and humility; I’m also aiming for honesty and wholeheartedness. The moments that made me a good patroller were my moments of struggle. This is true, too, for being the patrol director.
I’m honing my skills of making decisions on the fly because so much of our important work occurs in a high-stakes environment. Recently, we had a call for a missing person who’d last been seen in Southback near the boundary with Mount Rainier National Park. A few weeks earlier, another skier had mistakenly gone off the back side into the wilderness area and spent a harrowing night in a makeshift shelter.
This time, I mounted the rescue operation immediately. A rescue on the back side of Crystal is a lengthy and expensive endeavor, and in the past I might have waited a little longer, hoping the missing skier would soon be reunited with his party within the ski area. Learning from the experience a few weeks earlier, we started the rescue while we still had some daylight. Patrollers found the missing skier wet, scared, and trying to hike the 1,500 vertical feet back to the ski area from the wilderness area. If he’d spent the cold night alone that night, he likely would have suffered gravely.
Every morning as I start a sign run and glance across the Cascade Range, I remember why I’m doing this. The expanse of these mountains still calls to me. I’m trying to take the lessons I’ve learned from 28 years as a patroller and put them to work in this new role. I still love this opportunity to work and play in this great place.
Originally featured in the Fall 2017 issue of Ski Patrol Magazine