By Ben Olson
Schweitzer Mountain Resort is a different place before the opening bell. The early-rising snowplow drivers have been hard at work clearing the road for the hundreds of vehicles about to ascend the mountain. The blue glow of a muted sunrise is punctuated by the sounds of plows all over the mountain as they clear driveways and parking lots. The distant lights of groomers can be seen finishing up their tasks all over the front side.
The ski patrol room in the basement of the lodge is warm and bustling with activity. Patrollers laugh and joke with one another while they dress for the day. Reggae plays over the house speakers as they lay out yoga mats and stretch with steaming cups of coffee by their sides. There is a camaraderie among the patrollers – they are not only work mates, but friends who share the arduous task of taming the wild mountain every day and making it safe for the thousands of skiers who will barrel down it in just a few hours.
For Kim Loosemore, a 14-year veteran of the Schweitzer Ski Patrol, the job is more than just a paycheck.
“I love skiing, and I like playing with explosives,” said Loosemore. “Really, it’s the group of people I work with that makes it special. It’s so much fun to come to work.”
Loosemore said she keeps coming back every year because it’s a job full of perks.
“It’s like river guiding,” she said. “You don’t do it for the money. There is a lot of experience in this room. Michael Boge has been doing this for 22 years. Brian Crettol has been here for 29 years, Mike Thompson for 20 years. Greg Gibson has been up here more than 30 years.”
Loosemore said when she first started, there were predominantly more males than females, but that has changed in recent years.
“It used to be just (ski patrol director) Arlene and I to balance out the testosterone,” she said. “Now there are a lot more females in the industry.”
Loosemore said one of the most rewarding parts of the job is assisting skiers who need help.
“There was one guy who found me this year,” she said. “He was helicoptered out last year and he just tracked me down and wanted to say thanks. That really means a lot to us.”
Snow safety supervisor Tom Eddy checks the weather conditions and updates social media while compiling his morning report for the crew. On this particular morning, over a foot of snow has fallen overnight, which means the patrollers will be conducting avalanche control before the opening bell.
During the 7 a.m. meeting, Eddy gives his report to the crew of about a dozen patrollers. They ask pertinent questions about snowpack, the varying snow layers under the new fall, and snow density – all of which will be used to determine the potential for avalanches on the mountain.
Patroller Thompson, who moonlights as a musician with his wife Shanna, said he begins analyzing the conditions from the moment he leaves his door in the morning.
“I’m always looking for clues to the snow conditions,” he said. “From the moment I leave my house in Priest River to now, I’m checking to see what to expect. Just walking to the lift like we are now, I’m feeling the layers, trying to get an idea.”
Generally, patrollers are looking at the snow layers for clues pointing to increased potential for slides. The biggest risks for avalanches usually happen when a fresh snow dumps on top of a looser layer underneath.
Eddy refers to the layers underneath the current snowfall by the dates they fell: “The Thanksgiving crust is substantial, but the Dec. 16 layer is the one that has me the most worried.”
First Chair of the Day
In the dawn twilight, the group of patrollers load onto Chair 1 and then the Triple to reach the summit of the South Ridge. The lifties are just beginning their Sisyphean task of keeping the lifts clear of snow. Lifty Mac McGarry warns us to take care exiting the lift at the top because the ramp hasn’t been fully cleared yet. Looking down at Face, there’s not a single track anywhere. Awesome.
Once at the summit, we ski down the ridge to the Styles saddle, then hitch a ride with a snowmobile to the top of Chair 6. Patrollers are stationed in three spots on top of the mountain; the top of Chair 6, the top of Stella and the top of the Triple. There are generally no patrollers stationed in the village during the day, which is by design.
“You can always get to an injury when you’re above it,” said Loosemore. “It’s tough to ski uphill. There’s that whole gravity thing.”
With the addition of the Sky House at the summit, ski patrol got to stretch their wings a bit and move into the bottom floor. Previously, the patrol HQ on the summit had to squeeze into the Chair 6 shack, sharing it with lifties and mechanics.
Inside the Chair 6 shack, patrollers Matt Adams, Thompson and Loosemore prepare the explosives for the control run. I’ve been assigned to Adams and Thompson, who will be doing the “glory run” on the Lakeside Chutes above Colburn Lake.
Patrollers usually share duties, though it takes a couple years to learn the ins and outs of throwing bombs. One is designated dispatch, who stays in the shack and monitors radio traffic. The others work in pairs — one packing the explosives on their back and the other as a bomb chucker.
Loosemore shows me the book with all the control points designated. As each control team sets off an explosive, or “shot,” they radio back the results to dispatch, who logs them into the book. A “hole” is a shot that didn’t create a slide. If a slide does occur, they measure the distance and width and log it. Over time, they create a general idea of common slide areas to monitor.
Emerging from the warm, albeit malodorous Chair 6 shack, Adams tosses the first shot of the day from the deck of the chairlift. He tows a long, pink ribbon behind him. One end is tied to the shot and the other is anchored to his ski pole. Once he pulls the fuse lighter, we have two minutes until the shot goes off.
“Plug your ears and make sure you keep your mouth open,” yells Thompson over the howling wind and pelting snow. He tells me later that this is because the concussive blast could potentially chip your teeth.
The shot goes off with a sharp report. As its only about 50 feet away, you feel the concussion in your chest at the same time you hear the blast. The shot leaves only a hole with no slide, so we move on to the next location.
Assistant Ski Patrol Director Greg Gibson said the methods for avalanche control haven’t changed a whole lot in the 30-plus years he’s been doing it.
“Thirty years ago, we were still dangling shots off of ribbon and throwing long ones with tails,” he said. “The main difference now is, back then we used to make our own cap and fuse assemblies. That was a pretty dangerous part, because the caps are really sensitive and they can blow up.”
Gibson said shots are expensive, but they are way less costly then being injured or losing a life.
“That’s really what we put ourselves in danger of every day when we’re out here doing this,” he said. “If there’s any doubt, we throw bombs.”
Thompson and Adams work their way down the Lakeside Chutes, staying above the cornice. The shot locations, which have all been designated and many named for past ski patrollers, follow the most prone slide areas. At times, Adams ski cuts instead of tossing a bomb, which is a method of skiing above the potential slide area and attempting to dislodge it. Some ski cuts produce small slides. Others don’t move the snow load at all.
On the third shot, we finally see some movement, with a small slide about 20 feet wide and maybe 100 feet down the mountain.
“That’s a small one,” said Thompson. “Probably wouldn’t even knock you off your feet.”
They radio the results to dispatch so they can be logged into the book. Blasts are heard from other teams working along Siberia and, more muffled, from across the ridge on South Bowl.
With a “hangfire” shot, the patrollers dangle the shot off the edge of a cornice so that it explodes in the air, which Thompson said sometimes has better potential for initiating a slide.
Though they work quickly to prepare the mountain for the opening bell at 9 a.m., the patrollers are methodical and precise. When it comes to mountain safety and a prompt opening at 9 a.m., safety always wins the battle.
“There were days early in the season that were as sensitive as I’ve ever seen it at Schweitzer,” said Gibson. “Especially on North Bowl, since we didn’t ski it for several weeks at the beginning of the season. On those days, you can hear it. You can actually hear the snow settle, it’s like a whomp sound. It sends the hair on the back of your head up.”
When asked for some basic advice on how to stay safe if caught in an avalanche, Gibson said: “If possible, stay on your feet and ski out of it. Ski laterally, because the thing is only going to propagate so wide. If you do get knocked down, protect yourself as much as possible. It’s trauma that kills a lot of people. For me, I’m always thinking about air pockets. If I’m going to get buried, I’m going to have some room in front of my face, because if you have your arms by your sides and the snow stops moving, it seizes up like concrete. If your hands are down by your side, you will be stuck like that.”
Gibson said skiers should always be aware of avalanche danger, whether in the backcountry or in bounds at a ski resort.
“We do everything in our power to eliminate avalanches,” he said. “But they can still happen in bounds. You get a false sense of security at Schweitzer, or any ski area for that matter. They think because we’ve controlled it, there are no avalanches. That’s just not true. Nature has a funny way of slapping you.”
After throwing seven of the ten shots they packed, Thompson and Adams finish their control run at Whiplash and join Gibson and Boge mid-run for one of the sweetest perks of working with ski patrol – first tracks as they ski down to Chair 6.
“That was something, wasn’t it?” Thompson said at the bottom, a big smile emerging from a face packed full of snow.
The bell rings, and I cut loose from the patrollers to take a few epic runs on my own. The snow is deep and light, and the visibility isn’t terrible. Riding up on Chair 6, you can hear people hooting and howling their pleasure as they barrel down the mountain. It’s another amazing day.
After their avalanche control runs, the patrollers station themselves across the mountain and deal with the ever-changing daily duties, which include patrolling the mountain, responding to injuries and sweeping the runs at the end of the day before chairs close.
When returning to the ski patrol shack to hand over my radio, beacon and shovel they outfitted me with in the morning, Gibson said, “You know what I was saying earlier about that false sense of security? Well, right after you cut loose, we had a skier get buried in a slide. Luckily there were patrollers nearby and they got him dug out and nobody got hurt, but it’s just another reminder to always be aware up here.”
That’s the thought that made the most impact on me while driving down the mountain to work in my warm, safe little office: these patrollers rise at dawn every day and make every effort to tame this wild mountain for our safety, but it’s up to all of us to be aware of the dangers around us.
Personally, I’m so glad we have a professional, knowledgeable and downright awesome staff of patrollers who are always on the lookout for us. Next time you see a member of the Schweitzer Ski Patrol, give them a pat on the back for keeping us safe out there on the mountain. Or better yet, buy them a beer or two. They deserve it.