(ABC4) – As a member of the Ski Patrol at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, Marguerite “Margie” Van Komen says memorable moments happen on a weekly basis.
A recent memorable moment experience occurred this past week when the resort received roughly 100 inches of snow in four days and the resort was put on interlodge.
Interlodge means everyone must stay inside a building with no outdoor travel until unsafe snow conditions can be mitigated.
“We went from pretty moderate hazard of avalanching to extreme, and the Utah Avalanche Center – it’s rare when you see the avalanche roads be all black. So all elevations, all aspects were considered extreme hazard, and we went from a ski resort that was fully opened to fully closed, and our public’s ability to move about the village was completely restricted. We call it interlodge, so it’s actually against the law to leave the buildings because we believe that avalanches are gonna come down and could come into the ski area and the village.”
Van Komen says ski patrol spent three days doing avalanche control work to get the resort back open. They worked with the Utah Department of Transportation to mitigate hazards so that guests could safely leave their hotel rooms to get food, she says.
“It was all hands on deck trying to fight the weather and fight mother nature and protect ourselves.”
During that time, she says she ran control routes to hazards mitigated for the resort’s snowcats, snowmobiles, and personnel. She also performed avalanche mitigation so that snow plows could get on the road.
“We spent four days up here. It was pretty incredible being stuck in a ski resort where there’s normally people everywhere.”
On the fourth day, the road was still closed, but they were able to open the whole ski resort to just their guests who had been under interlodge.
This is just one example of the duties ski patrol performs to keep those on the slopes safe. It isn’t an easy job or without risks, but many find it very rewarding.
Van Komen says everyday on the job is different, and that’s one thing that appeals to a lot of ski patrollers.
“… you come off the tram early in the morning and you do sweeps at the end of the day, but everything else in between is different, so I can say that anytime it snows or the wind blows, or we get intense sun, we’re doing avalanche control work and making sure that the resort is safe for skiers to be on it. But our days are always different, and we just love it!”
A typical day will include avalanche control in the morning, medical in the afternoon, ongoing avalanche control work, but everything else, different, she says.
Van Komen says there are definitely risks that come with being a member of the ski patrol.
“Definitely, we’re dealing with Mother Nature, and we know that,” she says. “Skiers, in general, are a bit of risk-takers, but I would say that Snowbird, Little Cottonwood Canyon avalanche professionals, we have safety and procedures to do what we do, but there is definitely a level of risk in what we do for sure.”
What are the best things about being a ski patrolman?
Van Komen shared her two favorite things about the job with ABC4. One is working with the avalanche dog program, where dogs are trained as a precaution to locate skiers in the situation that they become buried in an avalanche.
“We still use to this day, avalanche dogs. A lot of our inbound skiers at the resorts don’t wear beacons. Maybe don’t have RECCO in their clothing, and so if there was an inbound avalanche, a very fast way of finding that person is with a dog, still,” she explains.
The dogs are tested to very high levels by standards set by Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, who Van Komen says set standards of what an avalanche dog should do within a resort, as well as within the backcountry.
“I adore working with the avalanche dog program up here. It makes me smile every day. It’s wonderful and gratifying,” she says.
Her other favorite part of the job?
“I also work with the Howitzer program up here and that’s a blast, getting to shoot World War II cannons, rifles, is just awesome as well.”
Van Komen says the resort is under civilian contract with the military to use the Howitzer Cannon to trigger avalanches so that they don’t occur when skiers are on the slopes, as part of avalanche mitigation. Controlled avalanches like these can also be used to clear terrain.
“We always work from the top of the mountain down, and sometimes it’s too dangerous to get to the top of the mountain, so we control it during Howitzer first,” she says.
According to Van Komen, Monty Atwater, an avalanche researcher, first brought Howitzers up Little Cottonwood Canyon post World War II. “…they realized how well they worked, that was the start of avalanche control,” she says.”
Another part of the job is conducting rescues. She says they work under Wasatch Search and Rescue.
“… we’re the professionals out there with Wasatch Backcountry that are going and rescuing these folks.”
Since the job can be strenuous, Van Komen says there are some requirements.
Requirements to be a ski patrolman
“You gotta be able to ski any run, any condition, any day. That’s a requirement,” she says. “It doesn’t have to look pretty. We don’t have to be a ski school member, but you’ve got to be able to do it,” she adds.
The other requirement is a medical certification, so ski patrollers have the ability to help somebody in a remote environment. Van Komen says they use the Outdoor Emergency Care Certification or an Emergency Medical Technician Certification.
“Those are the prerequisites, and everything else we teach on the job,” she says.
Van Komen tells ABC4 that she’s been a ski patroller for 15 years. When she first started, there were only a handful of women in the job. Now, she says, there are 10 female ski patrollers out of about 60 at Snowbird, which is the most she’s seen.
“It’s definitely still a male-dominated workplace, but we’ve proven that women can do it too, and we love doing it, and we’re great at it,” she says. “We’re getting more, but I wouldn’t say a lot. It’s very strenuous; it’s a very difficult job, so you’ve got to be a really tough lady to hang in there in doing this.”
Why does she stick with the job?
“It’s completely addicting. We don’t get paid very highly. Industry-wide, ski patrolmen are not paid highly, but we get paid in smiles. The things that we do and the risks that we take are highly addicting. It keeps us coming back, we love it, and we love helping people. We love the ability to get people out of that sticky situation, no matter how sticky it is and get them home safe.”
Andria Huskinson, Communications Manager at Alta Ski Area, says their ski patrollers work daily.
“They usually show up at 8 a.m. They have a quick meeting to go over stuff, and then they load the chairlift and go out to their assigned routes. They might do ski cutting or, depending if we have new snow or not, but they run their routes to make sure they are safe for skiers to ski on.”
BELOW: Ski patrollers at Alta Ski Area on the job
Once it is determined that the slopes are safe for skiers, they will open certain areas.
“Today they’re working on our backside running routes and doing the ski cutting, and they might have to throw a few bombs (avalanche mitigation) to make sure that if anything is going to slide that it does it when they do the control work,” she says, “so then it’s safe for skiers to ski on.”
Huskinson says that there are safety precautions in place for ski patrolmen.
“As they’re out there ski cutting and doing avalanche mitigation, it really depends on the snow. If it’s too dangerous for them to be on the slope, then they don’t put them on the slope until they think its stabilized because they don’t want to send the patroller out on a certain route if it may potentially avalanche,” she says.
Rather than use a cannon for avalanche mitigation, Huskinson says Alta ski patrollers will use O’Bellx, which are operated by remote control so that they can be triggered while the ski patrolmen are at a safe distance.
Once they run their routes, ski patrollers may get calls to help injured skiers, Huskinson says.
“Say someone fell or twisted a knee – they will go and assess the skier. They’ll put them in a toboggan and take them down to our clinic for the doctor to check them out,” she says.
A perk of the job?
“It’s the same reason all of us are here,” Huskinson says, “those powder mornings when they do the control work and then they get to make some turns in blower powder.”
Like Van Komen, Huskinson says the recent snowstorm was a memorable experience for ski patrol. Instead of showing up at 8 a.m., they came in at 5 a.m. and had to run multiple routes in a day due to all the snow the resort received, as opposed to the usual one route. Most of the patrolmen stayed at the resort during that time, she says.
According to Huskinson, if it wasn’t for ski patrolmen, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy skiing.
“…on big snow days, they’re here at five in the morning. Temperatures are zero or below, and then they also work with the public and people who are injured. It’s a hard job for sure, but I also think it’s really rewarding. I mean the powder obviously is rewarding, but I’m sure they enjoy working with people and helping them… Ski patrol – it’s not for the faint of heart I guess I should say.”
Interested in joining ski patrol?
Though there may be different criteria for each ski resort, Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort has a list of information available on their blog about requirements, personality traits, and training that members of ski patrol need for the job.
“Come on up and ski with us. We’re always looking for enthusiastic, helpful people that love to ski,” Van Komen says.