A job for the outdoor lover!
December 16, 2003
Love the outdoors? Desire a job with a bit of mystique? Consider yourself a great skier? Want to ski for up to nine hours a day, five days a week?
If you answered “yes” to these questions – and you think you’ve got what it takes to wear the infamous red ski jacket with a white cross – then consider a career in the ski patrol.
“It’s not for everybody,” Vail Ski Patrolman Steve Vardaman said. “But for some, it’s the best job in the world.”
Vardaman, a veteran member of Vail’s ski patrol, was busy packing equipment after a morning spent conducting chairlift evacuation drills, one of many exercises used to train prospective patrollers. Unlike many departments of Vail Resorts, ski patrols at Vail and Beaver Creek have already tested and conducted preliminary interviews for new hires. Vardaman says he expects the Vail patrol to hire a half-dozen or so “rookies” this fall to replace others who, for whatever reason, don’t return to the force.
“Skiing, obviously, is the most important part of the job. You’ve got to be able to ski comfortably anywhere and everywhere,” Vardaman said. “We’re not looking for finesse, just solid skiers who’ll be able to ski with heavy backpacks, tools, toboggans. Skiing has to be second nature.”
A screening process of sorts began in March with ski tests. On three different occasions at Vail and two at Beaver Creek, rigorous examinations of hopefuls’ skiing ability were conducted on terrain ranging from wide-open groomers to double-diamond mogul runs to nasty slopes of wind-blown, rotten crud. After signing a liability release form stating there’s a “great risk of injury” during the test, prospective patrollers – most of whom would be considered “expert” skiers – were told, one-by-one, to ski “aggressively” while they were graded from below on everything from carving short- and long-radius turns to negotiating large moguls without poles.
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“The worst part of it all was the ski test,” said Chad Feagler of Fort Collins, one of just 16 of 53 skiers to pass Vail’s ski test. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking because it’s the only way into the program.”
At Beaver Creek, the double-black-diamond Golden Eagle run provided a venue for preliminary carving, side-slipping and snowplowing exercises; Yarrow, on the northern edge of Larkspur Bowl, offered plenty of crud amid tops of bushes for “variable conditions”; and the gravity-defying glades of Falcon Park and Osprey, on Grouse Mountain, proved perfect for demonstrating mastery of monster moguls.
Brian Blomquist, a patrolman at Beaver Creek for six years, coordinated the tests there this year. More than medical training or experience in the outdoors, he said, impeccable ski skills are essential for future ski patrollers.
“We’re flattered you want to join us,” Blomquist told a dozen or so testees at Red Tail Camp before announcing who passed, who failed. “Basically, we have time to teach everything but the skiing. You have to be a strong, solid skier, because it’s important in getting to somebody who’s injured down the mountain.”
At Vail, the test was conducted on the south-facing, wind-blown slopes of Apres Vous, in Sun Up Bowl, and the steep moguls of Look Ma towering over Mid-Vail.
“Rule No. 1: Don’t hit the instructors,” Vardaman joked at the top of Apres Vous, a remote run notorious for virtually uncarvable crud snow.
Vardaman, a veteran of dozens of backcountry rescues himself, said when he’s grading skiers’ form, he tries to imagine a football linebacker tackling them from out of nowhere. Only the strongest, most solid skiers would be able to keep their line and not go down, he said.
“I knew I could do it, but it was nerve-racking,” said Amy Bernstein, a 25-year-old Vail native who passed the test after skiing impeccably at every turn. “And they certainly picked the worst conditions possible.”
At Beaver Creek, those who pass the ski test are given an application for employment and a preliminary interview at patrol headquarters, on top of the mountain. Final interviews are conducted in the fall, when hiring actually takes place.
At Vail, however, skiers who pass muster are invited to attend the mountain’s ski patrol “academy,” a four-day program of instruction on a variety of topics, including: rescue toboggans; rope systems; high-angle and avalanche rescues; first aid; heart defibrulators; chairlift evacuations; and “accident scene management.”
“Working with a toboggan is the one thing you can’t compromise on,” said Chris “Mongo” Reeder, who was on hand to teach the ins and outs of handling the specially designed rescue sleds. “That’s why we’re so particular in the ski test. If you’re really strong skier, you should be able to do it.”
Fourteen prospective patrollers completed the program this year, paying $100 each for the privilege.
“It’s been great. The people are great, and they teach you a lot of stuff that’s valuable – even if they don’t hire you,” said Feagler, who works as a guide on Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River during the summer. “For me, it’ll really help me out in my job. It’s worth the hundred dollars just for the CPR training and first aid.”
“It was snowing all day for the avalanche training,” added Jon Moore of Boulder, who’s been coming to ski at Vail on weekends for six years. “It was pretty enlightening.”
In the end, there’s really no “pass” or “fail” for those who attend the academy – just job applications, preliminary interviews and the hope they’ll be asked to join the team come next ski season.
“By the end of the training, we’ve seen them work together quite a bit,” said Vail Ski Patrol Director Julie Rust, who eventually does the hiring. “A tremendous number of patrollers take part in the academy, and their feedback comes to me.”
Rust said this year’s group of prospective patrollers was the best she’s seen in years. Not only were they all strong skiers, she said, but they were real team players.
“And ski patrol is all about team,” Rust said.
Unlike ski patrols on other mountains, Vail and Beaver Creek have no part-time patrollers. Only full-time employment is offered, making the job quite a commitment. So much training is involved the first season it doesn’t make sense to invest it on part-time employees, patrollers said. Vail even expects its patrollers to stay on for three years.
Pay for patrollers at both resorts starts at about $9 an hour, although raises come quickly as experience builds.
“I doubt anybody does it for the money. But it’s enough to live on, at least during the ski season,” said 23-year-old academy graduate Sarah Penland of Denver, who has skied her whole life. “I just want to be on the mountain skiing – but with some responsibility.”
No foreign work visas are offered, so patrollers must be authorized to work in the United States. They must also be at least 21 years old and have a valid driver’s license.
What about equipment? Alpine and telemark skis can be used on ski patrol duty at both Vail and Beaver Creek. Snowboards, however are a different story: They’re allowed at Beaver Creek but prohibited at Vail.
“It’s a company decision. On this particular mountain, there’s a lot of flat terrain, roads, catwalks. Responding to an emergency when you have to walk down a catwalk?” explained Vail’s Vardaman, shaking his head. “Our management doesn’t feel comfortable with a snowboarder controlling a toboggan, either. When you have a patient in a toboggan, their life’s in your hands. There’s no room for mistakes.”
While there’ll always be a certain mystique surrounding the job, working on the ski patrol is far from glamorous. Being on the mountain early – often in frigid conditions – hauling equipment, stringing ropes, bringing loaded toboggans down the mountain and packing snow are just a few of the many duties the job entails.
“It’s a fun job – definitely. But it’s a lot of work, too,” said Vail Ski Patrolman Colin Barry. “On powder days, for instance, you’re out doing avalanche control. Then you start getting calls to start taking people down the mountain because they’ve been hurt. Powder days are usually the busiest days of all.
“You really don’t free-ski as much as people think. We show up at 8 in the morning, load up and we’re on our way up the mountain by 8:15. You go to your outpost, do trail checks, mark obstacles, make sure the snowcats didn’t leave any obstacles or miss anything,” Barry added. “There’s always missions, work to do. We try to switch off. You get moved around. I mean, it’s not fair for somebody to be patrolling Blue Sky Basin all the time while somebody else has to do Golden Peak.”
The rewards – aside from getting paid to ski well more than 100 days a season – more than make up for all the hard work, Barry said.
“We all love to ski. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here,” Barry said. “But it’s really about helping people. That’s what the training’s all about – getting people down the mountain and into good hands.”
Perhaps Vardaman, content to be wrapping up his seventh season as a patrolman, said it best. On a bright, cloudless spring afternoon at about 9,000 feet above sea level amid expansive views of the bustling Vail Valley and the majestic, snow-covered peaks of the Gore Range, he raised his arms high and said:
“Hey, this is a great job. I mean, look at this. I feel like the richest man in the world.”
The Vail Valley is a great place to live and work. If you are looking for a job or career opportunity, check out the Vail Daily classifieds