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Patrolling the world’s slopes

Veronica Whitney
This winter, as part of an exchange program with the ski resort La Plagne in France, Olivier Berard, left, of France, is a ski patroller at Beaver Creek.
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“People always stopped. If I had been using any other jacket, they wouldn’t have picked me up,” says De Silver, 30, of West Vail. “In France, “pisteur’ (ski patroller) is a very respected profession. Ski patrollers there wear their jackets after work.”

De Silver spent last winter in La Plagne, a ski resort in France, as part of a ski patroller exchange program at Beaver Creek- Vail has a similar exchange program with another ski resort in France.

This year, ski patroller Ronnie Burnett of Avon was “traded’ for Olivier Berard, 33, a ski patroller of La Plagne, who came with his wife, Claudie.

De Silver can now practice his French with Berard and Berard’s English is improving daily, especially listening to the radio he carries all day.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to understand because people speak very fast,” says Berard with an unmistakable French accent. But he doesn’t want to speak in French, all he asks for is for people to speak slower.

“I came here to see another thing, how the patrol works here and to improve my English,” he adds.

In the four years since it started, the exchange program has been nothing but a spectacular experience for both the people who come here and those who go to Europe, says Addie McCord, director of the ski patrol at Beaver Creek.

“The interaction with the foreign patrollers is very good for the staff,” says McCord, who directs a staff of 35 patrollers compared to a team of more than 80 at La Plagne.

“For those going away, the ski patrol world is a little different and it’s really good for them to see what other places do,” she says.

French kisses and food

When he got to France last year, De Silver learnt more than other ski patrollers’ techniques. Soon he found out that doing the French “bisou” – a kiss on each cheek – was more strange than speaking another language.

“I was very impressed with how people greet each other every day, they kiss or they shake hands,” he says. “Appreciation of family and friends is very important in France, in the United States, success is important.”

Berard says food is one of the biggest differences in lifestyle.

“American people eat too many things at the same time,” he says. “In France we make time for eating. Sometimes we’re on the table for more than one hour.”

De Silver wanted to go to France to see how different it is to be a ski patroller there.

“And I found some differences,” he says. “All ski patrollers I met in France were born close to the resort. Here, ski patrollers are from anywhere else.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” De Silver says. “Instead of visiting for just two weeks, you get to work there, you meet all these people and you even get mistaken for a French man.”

Another difference is that ski patrollers start very young in France.

“They have to pass very tough exams at a national level,” he says.

For De Silver, carrying the toboggan with an injured person, especially on a bump run, is the most difficult part of his work. The final test at Beaver Creek, to achieve a top level, is to bring a toboggan down Bald Eagle, a double black diamond, in Grouse Mountain.

“It’s physically demanding,” De Silver says.

The risks of the job

Ski patrollers help people who have been hurt in the mountain, but sometimes they get hurt themselves.

Dealing with explosives to release avalanches is the most dangerous part of his work in France, where if five inches of snow fall, ski patrollers blow it out, Berard says.

“Some ski patrollers die doing that,” says Berard, who has a blasting license. “You can’t make a bad move with the explosives.”

That’s another difference in their work. In Beaver Creek, De Silver says, they only do one or two blasts per winter. While he was in France, and last year there wasn’t a lot of snow, De Silver says there were more than 10 blasts at La Plagne.

“Skiing there is like skiing in the Gore Range. It’s wide open and above tree level and there’s a lot of outbound skiing,” he adds.

Berard, who has been a ski patroller for 11 years, says maybe in five years he’ll try to get another job in the mountains.

“My body begins to be tired,” he says. “My knees hurt.”

De Silver says he doesn’t know yet what he will do in the future.

“You have to love this job. In France, ski patroller is a vocation that in many cases runs in the family. Most of our patrollers have to make a choice at some point,” he says. “Four years ago, when I decided to be a ski patroller, I told myself it would just be for one year… and here I am.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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