On the Job of Powder Day Dreams

As a ski patroller, I’m not paid much money. Let’s be honest – a more accurate title of this post would be, “How to Justify Getting Paid Fifty Cents Over Minimum Wage To Rescue People While Skiing On Ice, Rocks, And Snow,” but in the world of ski bums everywhere, I have the job that powder day dreams are made of.

This is because on the days when Ullr unleashes light, powdery flakes of perfection to cover the world in a deep, fluffy blanket of snow, I am paid actual money to be the first one to gracefully blast endless turns through the untouched canvas that is my workplace. When presented with a clean, white blanket of snow, there is an undeniably irresistible urge to make your human mark on the virgin snowfall. To be the first. To be where no skier has gone before. This is why we come back every winter, to the snowiest mountain in the East that is so far North, only Canadian cell service reaches us.

Welcome to the Jay Peak Ski Patrol.

We are the knowers of the secret powder stashes and the best lines through the glades and side-country. We are the behind-the-scenes engineers of on-hill safety solutions and clever signage (when appropriate). We are both the heroes when you’re injured and the “educators” of tough love who take your pass when you ski closed terrain. We are the most identifiable people on the slopes, bearing candy red jackets with white crosses, so it is extra humiliating when we wipe out or, God forbid, make a turn in bad form.

We get first tracks on powder days. No joy in the world comes close to touching the solitude and sense of purpose that comes from having the entire mountain to yourself on a powder day. On a productive morning, I can get at least four to five runs in before guests unload first chair. It is enviable, but it is fair. The best part is that powder days often don’t require much trail work in the morning due to the fact that snow is covering all the hazards and most trails can be opened safely, so they are our reward for all the bad days that came before, all the days when it took hours of labor in freezing temperatures and sixty mph winds to open the mountain to make sure the trails are safe for even the most beginner skier.

Don’t forget we also claim first tracks on thirty-degrees-below-zero days, on rainy days, on freezing rain days, on dangerously icy days, on days you’ll never know are even skiable because why would anyone in their right mind think of skiing, on days when it takes everything in me to muster the courage to step outside because the air is literally painful to breathe. These days far outnumber the powder days in a standard Vermont season. There is a special kind of horror we feel in unison in watching the mountain melt away due to one short day of rain in mid-February. But winter always comes back, until it’s time to let go (in May).

Every day has a similar structure. We clock in, drink coffee, eat breakfast, have morning meeting to discuss mountain ops and news, gear up, buckle boots, turn radios on, head out to catch first chair and check trails. By then, it’s time for second breakfast. At some point, each of us has to do a ninety minute “sit” at the top of the mountain to guarantee a quick response to on-hill emergencies. At the end of the day, we “sweep” the mountain to look for injured (or lost) skiers.

But each day is different. Skiing the same trail becomes a new experience entirely as it takes on new properties with changing conditions, snowpack, and weather. Every day brings new patients with different injuries or complaints. My mood changes with each new day and weather system – some days I feel stoked just to be alive, some days I’m so tired it takes all my energy to step outside in the cold, some days I’m convinced I have the best job on earth, and some days I just feel like I’m at work.

In December and January, we experience the best sunsets of the year. There is a coldness to their tone, perhaps due to the low angle in the sky or maybe due to the fact that the sun sets around 4 pm, producing a subtle anxiety that we’ll be in darkness before our first beer. But the unobstructed views of surrounding mountains and lakes, and the colors intensified by the snow’s reflection, provoke the same glee in us all as we ski down the mountain. As the days lengthen come late February, I feel nostalgia for the magic from taking final turns under the pink and golden illumination of the sun’s last rays.

I know each nuance and feature of every trail so intimately that if someone showed me a picture of a tree I could take you there in one try. Knowing the wind direction and temperature, I can tell you how each trail will be skiing at a given a time of day. For example, certain trails hold more snow on one side given a Western wind; North facing trails are positioned such that they tend to be shadier for longer which means they’ll ski better into the afternoon on a warmer day but will remain icier on a colder day; and with North-Eastern winds, twice as much snow will accumulate in one spacious and protected area of the mountain where freshies are abundant well into the afternoon.

We have the same conversations with guests every day. “What’s the best trail?” (Depends on your ability). “What’s the weather going to do?” (Do I look like a meteorologist? We’re in New England. We have unpredictable weather). “Where’s all the snow? I thought you got two feet last week” (You’re a week too late. It rained; snow melts). “What’s going on with the lifts?” (Are you sure you want to know?) “What’s the worst injury you’ve seen?” (Again, are you sure you want to know?) “Can you take a picture of us?” (Insert customer service skills). And so on.

Chairlift talk is an art, a practice of patience. It’s great and morale-boosting when people are stoked (which is frequently), but some people are gifted at complaining, even while it’s snowing, and all I want the complaining guest to know is how lucky they are to be skiing. It is such a privilege to have enough money to afford expensive equipment, and spend upwards of a hundred dollars per day per person on a lift pass, to feel the freedom of sliding on snow. Yes, it’s cold. But it was colder yesterday. Wear more layers. Oh, the lift is slow? That gives you more time to drink your beer, man. And the best part is it keeps the masses to a manageable trickling flow on the slopes. It’s your vacation and it’s understandable that you want everything to be perfect but this is life, which is never perfect, and at least in my biased opinion, it’s a pretty darn good life when you’re outside in the crisp air with skis attached to your feet.

The worst injury I have yet responded to was a young man who broke four of his thoracic vertebrae and the swelling was so severe he was instantly and permanently paralyzed from the waist down. One of his lungs had collapsed. He caught an edge on his snowboard and broke the fall by hitting his back on a tree. It was his first run of the day.

The most unexpected injury I have treated was a mouse bite. Yes, you read that correctly. (A skier claimed to have been bitten by a mouse in her condo). Two weeks later, I had a patient who sustained a dog bite. The owner of the dog returned from her walk to apologize to the patient and decided to bring the dog with her and guess what? The dog bit the patient a second time.

Another time, we had a patient complaining of severe pain in his hip so a fellow patroller transported him and called an ambulance. Upon further assessment back in the Aid Room, the cause of the patient’s pain was due to chafing of his skin by the lift pass in his pocket. This is a true story.

I’ve had a patient rupture his spleen by hitting a snow gun, a patient dislocate his hip from a simple fall, a patient crack his pelvis in two, and patients who were simply scared.

I’ve had a patient who presented with a shoulder dislocation but upon further examination, she was in fact just hiking it up so high – almost touching her ear – that it just looked dislocated, and she had indeed fractured her clavicle.

I have lost count of the broken bones, torn knee ligaments, dislocated shoulders, and lost skis and snowboards. (Seriously, how does one lose their snowboard?). We’ve also rescued quite a few lost skiers at night, who decided to venture out of bounds into the backcountry, all of whom were completely unprepared. No headlamp, no water, no skins or snowshoes, no map or GPS, and often no common sense.

The funniest – and perhaps most awkward – outfits I’ve seen were worn by three ambitious men who skied the entire day wearing nothing but pastel-colored hospital robes and nude-colored boxer briefs. From afar, it looked like they were naked underneath the garments that were tied together with loose bows. It was not a warm spring day either (it was cold enough that I had full layers on). They asked me to pretend to chase them downhill for a video on our sweep. So funny. Yet so awkward.

Last season at the end of April, a major weather event brought 119 mph winds screeching across the mountain. Obviously there was some damage, but it wasn’t confined to downed trees. During our morning meeting, the head of Lift Maintenance walked into our patrol room with a horrified look on his face.

The wind knocked four out of four Tram cables off Tower Two and into the backup “cable catchers.” Three of the four cables were just barely hanging on the cable catchers (read: very unstable situation). What made it worse was the fact that about a foot diameter of ice was caked around every cable. The fear was the weight of the ice melting would drive an enormous force that would whiplash the cables out of the catchers and they would violently thrash downward.

Anyone familiar with Jay Peak knows that the Tram cables are directly over the Bonaventure chair unload area, which is smack in the middle of the mountain. So, absolute worst case scenario – the falling Tram cables would whip the Bonaventure cables, and throw them off their tracks. And maybe the Tram Tower would go down too. And maybe the Bonaventure lift would collapse. And who knew what would happen at the Tram Base area where the Tram cable counterweights were stored. Our job was to close off every possible route that led to those cables.

The worst part: The storm brought us over a foot of snow that day and we were expecting more along the way. It was not only a perfectly glorious powder day, but also likely that it was the last of the season, yet patrol had to close off two-thirds of the mountain’s terrain to prevent anyone from going underneath both Tram and Bonaventure cables while the severity of the situation was assessed. Everyone knew about the snowfall totals and was heading North. It was a full-on state of emergency.

You can imagine the guests were less than happy and were itching to get their last freshies of the year. But this was serious. Our job was to figure out a way to simultaneously not cause panic and inform people of the severe consequences if they duck a rope. There was still a lot of great skiing out there, so we focused on the positive, and opened as much lift-serviced and uphill access as possible to some of our best terrain, as long as it was in the safe zone.

The crowds came and went, some lost their passes, but in the end, nothing happened. The incredible Lift Maintenance crew (along with experts that flew in to help) stabilized the cables successfully and all was well. The ice melted, the cables did not fall. Best case scenario, though we all missed out on the powder of the North side.

Spring came shortly afterwards. We all put on our shorts, skirts, and brightly colored spring swag to celebrate the end of another rollercoaster ride of a season. On the last day of lift operations, we stormed the mountain as a group of locals, making turns in Hawaiian shirts, sparkly skirts, and neon sunglasses.

We were ready for Summer.

1 thought on “On the Job of Powder Day Dreams”

  1. This was a great read! Having worked as a ski instructor in the alps for five years I really felt what you wrote, even though we never carried the same level of responsibility.
    If you’re ever in Switzerland and feel like meeting up please get in touch! Fiona


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