Snow Business

Volunteers Patrol the Slopes at Washington Ski Mountains

The crucial duties of ski patrol, from emergency care to chairlift rescues, are mostly done by unpaid workers at local mountains—even at for-profit resorts.

By Allison Williams November 18, 2022

Kurt Oakley led Loup Loup’s volunteer ski patrol for more than 15 years.

How do you know someone is a ski patroller? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Yes, the hoary old joke you might hear around the ski hill is recycled from digs at Crossfitters and vegans, but the crack says something about the cachet that comes with the position. It’s the kind of thing to brag about.

In their signature red jackets with a white cross on the back, ski patrollers serve as a blend of paramedic, traffic cop, bomb expert, and line monitor in a ski resort, marking hazards on the mountain in the morning and clearing slopes before the lifts shut down at night. They rescue injured or stranded customers anywhere in the ski area, off a stopped chairlift or atop the steepest cliffs, in thick snow or (this being the Northwest) freezing rain. In short, the gig is incredibly hard—but many do it for free.

The history of America’s patrols began on the East Coast in the 1930s, when a ski club at Stowe Mountain Resort, legend says, evacuated someone on a piece of corrugated roofing tin by the light of kerosene lanterns. Today patrollers use specialty toboggans with handles to slide patients down to the base, or, rarely, helicopters. Fewer than 50 people die per year at American ski resorts, per the National Ski Areas Association, but a busy mountain may see two dozen damaged knees and bruised behinds a day.

Volunteers staff the four mountains that make up Summit at Snoqualmie, as well as southern Washington’s White Pass (that group’s credo: “You Fall, We Haul”). 

Crystal ski patrol member Rich Starrett, a paid staffer who began as a volunteer.

At Loup Loup Ski Bowl east of Twisp, a community patrol echoes Stowe’s original squad. The gentle swell of Little Buck Mountain rises in the rolling hills of the Okanogan, a single quad chairlift stretching through a fan of ski runs cut into the ponderosa pine. An aged wooden lodge with a stone fireplace sits at the base and season passes run $410 for adults, and for decades Loup Loup has been owned and operated by a nonprofit educational organization. 

“This hill’s run by the community, and patrolled by the community,” says Brent Nourse, executive director of that foundation. It’s not easy work, even on Loup Loup’s less extreme terrain; members are up at dawn to string rope along boundary lines, then spend the day addressing injuries or just telling skiers to slow down. 

Nourse notes that many are already in public service as teachers or paramedics, and see it as an extension of their calling—plus, he notes, “honestly you do get the first tracks” on dry eastern Cascade snow. In high-poverty Okanogan County, the local hill operates on a comparative shoestring, and everyone knows “if we don’t have ski patrols we don’t have skiing.” 

If Loup Loup clings to skiing’s scruffy roots, Crystal Mountain has catapulted into skiing’s posh elite. As part of Alterra Mountain Company since 2018, Washington’s largest ski area doesn’t have to release just how much its for-profit operation makes, though Alterra will invest $100 million in Crystal improvements alone in the next five years. But many of the ski patrollers won’t see a dime.

Of the 200 or so members of Crystal Mountain patrol, just 45 are paid staff; they are the only ones who throw bombs to set off avalanches and scurry out on the gondola line in an evacuation. Otherwise the roughly 70 volunteer alpine patrol have nearly  the same intense preparation as their paid counterparts, with new recruits taking a 125-hour outdoor emergency care course and up to 10 days of toboggan training. They commit to a full weekend of work every three weeks, all ski season long; other volunteer work is done by medical doctors and paramedics at the base, with still others acting as mountain hosts or safety squad. The only pay: comped season passes.

Peter Dale (left) with longtime patroller Steve Ferkovich, who works both volunteer and paid shifts at Crystal.

Patrol manager Brent Okita cites the similarity to the Northwest’s largely volunteer search and rescue organizations, where an unpaid crew might toil all night to carry a hiker with a twisted ankle out of the Cascade wilderness. Peter Schwartz, director of the volunteer team and a 30-year veteran of Crystal patrol says, “We view it as we are giving back to the skiing public.” Still, traditional SAR is for citizen recreationalists largely on public lands—while this year Crystal Mountain, which operates through a license from the U.S. Forest Service, raised season pass prices to $1,699.

When Amy Klegarth, a biotech salesperson, tried out for Crystal’s volunteer patrol last winter, it was a personal test. “If I could hack it, then it was a way to challenge myself and build skills with people who really love skiing,” she says. Still, Klegarth saw how her high-income career allowed her to purchase the required equipment for the high-prestige role—everything from a personal stethoscope and blood pressure cuff to dedicated ski gear. After dropping out during training, she feels the barriers to entry demand significant privilege.

Up north, Stevens Pass bucks the trend with a fully professional ski patrol. Communications manager Amanda Bird notes that the level of avalanche mitigation requires all licensed professionals; at Stevens they even have a union, one that took two years to renegotiate its contract with owner Vail Resorts.

When, during the 2021–22 season, Stevens was so understaffed it couldn’t open all its chairlifts, parents from the mountain’s youth racing league offered to take a shift operating the chair so their kids could compete. Vail Resorts accepted the help, but only after training the parents and putting them on payroll.

Back at Crystal, patrol manager Okita says they have run the numbers on what it would take to have a fully paid staff—it would be expensive, but “not unreasonable”—but they choose not to because the volunteer patrol is so strong. Says Schwartz, the camaraderie and sense of service keep the team engaged, the longest serving patroller having been at Crystal almost 50 years. “Once it gets into your blood, it’s a fantastic place to be.” 

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