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Ski Patrol in Colorado

Ski Patrol in Colorado

Wolf Creek.
Wolf Creek ski patrollers and an avalanche rescue dog ride a chairlift during the 2013 season. (Courtesy of Wolf Creek.)

For people who love skiing and mountain living, a new book by two Salida authors, Ski Patrol in Colorado, is a must-read.

Actually, as a mostly pictorial work, it’s a must-look.

Ski Patrol provides an interesting look into the history, danger and exhilaration of a job that is glamorous, but also involves intense training and long hours.

“It’s a physically demanding job for sure,” said John B. Cameron, who co-authored the book with Eric D. Miller. “The hours can be really long when you work from dark to dark, then you come back the next day and do it all over again.”

The upside? “You become really close with the people you’re working with during the long hours and  intense experience. You learn to trust them, that’s really important when you’re doing hazardous work.”

Both he and Miller worked in patrols at various Colorado ski areas when they were talking about their experiences and looking at old photos.

“A lot of stories and history surrounded the ski patrol,” Cameron said in a phone interview from Salida. “We realized they hadn’t been written down and documented. We decided to team up, and it was a really fun project.” Every ski area in Colorado has a ski patrol, and a unit is required for ski areas that operate on U.S. Forest Service land, according to Miller.

Telluride Ski Patrol members wait for the helicopter with their dogs
A member of Telluride Ski Patrol deploys a hand charge at Telluride Ski Resort around 2013. Explosives are closely monitored by the state and federal government. Each patroller is required to undergo specialized training and background checks and pass a written exam in order to become a permitted handler. (Courtesy of Telluride Ski Resort.)

Every major ski area in the state was asked to send pictures or information for the book, and all but two responded, noted Miller, who volunteers at Monarch while working as a critical care nurse and paramedic on a helicopter crew.

A poignant aspect of the book is looking at photos of young people in the prime of their lives, then reading that they died while working on avalanche mitigation or other dangerous work on the slopes.

Another fascinating chapter in Ski Patrol Colorado involves the founding of the National Ski Patrol and how its history is interwoven with that of the famed 10th Mountain Division.

Division members were expert skiers recruited from around the country in the 1940s by the U.S. Army to train in Alpine military tactics in Colorado. After returning home from fighting in Italy in World War II, many of the members continued working in the field, forming the nucleus of today’s modern ski patrols. Today’s rescue and safety operations “ would not be what it is without the 10th Mountain,” Cameron explained.

Telluride Ski Patrol Avalanche Dog Jesse
A young avalanche dog rides home at the end of a long day. Jesse served as an avalanche rescue dog on Telluride Ski Patrol between 2001 and 2015. (Courtesy of Telluride Ski Resort.)

Cameron and Miller also touch on the growing professionalism of the ski patrol industry.  “The expectations are bigger and the demands are bigger,” of ski patrol work, Cameron noted. The emergency medical training required is the same as that of staff who work in an ambulance.

In spite of the danger and the long hours, “It’s the most exciting job I’ve ever done,” Cameron said, adding that every trip out onto the slopes is different from the last one. “I don’t know what will happen that day. There’s a lot of variety.” That even includes rescuing a steer trapped in snow at Purgatory and hauling it out on a toboggan, one of those stories that almost couldn’t be believed without the accompanying photograph.

Saving cattle from harsh winter conditions

Ivan Unkovskoy kneels beside former patrol director “Dirty” Don Hinkley and one of three head of cattle trapped on the back side of Purgatory Resort in 1994. After trying for much of the winter to get the cattle out, Dirty finally roped them, and Unkovskoy the “Russian Cowboy” lashed them to a toboggan and hauled them out. (Courtesy of Josh Baker.)

This is Cameron’s seventh season working at Monarch Ski Area, and he’s also worked on ski patrols at Arapaho Basin and in Park City, Utah.

“It’s just a really fun job. You’re kind of a ranch hand on the mountain. It’s Alpine ranch work!”

The two also have started a website, http://www.coloradoskipatrol.co, with blogs, podcasts, a job directory, and even coffee and patrol gear from Colorado and other Western states.

“The goal is to promote ski patrol, which is one of those kind of mystery professions,” Miller said. Part of the proceeds from the website go back to ski patrol efforts around the state.


Telluride Ski Patrol and their dogs
Members of the Telluride Ski Patrol wait with their dogs for a helicopter to land around 2011. Patrollers and their dogs frequently train to load and unload helicopters to stay proficient and ready for avalanche deployment. (Courtesy of Telluride Ski Resort.)

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