Guardians Of The Mountains

By Peter Schmaus, MD

Many of us take first responders for granted, be they fire, police, or emergency medical technicians. The same extends to our guardians on the mountain, the ski patrol. What may be underappreciated is the degree of training and skill required to qualify and proudly wear the insignia. The dedication and hard work of these volunteers is epitomized in their national motto: “Service and Safety.”

First founded nationally in 1938 with roots in Vermont and Colorado and expansion during the post World War Two ski boom, there are now approximately 650 patrols with 2,8000 members. And the ski patrol does far more than rescue injured skiers and boarders. Ski patrols monitor terrain, are trained in avalanche control, chairlift evacuation, sponsor educational programs and as a result, not surprisingly are ambassadors for their respective mountains. Non-skiers even function in the ski patrol as first aid providers in the first aid hut or at the base. Educational courses offered can include outdoor emergency care and mountain travel and rescue.

Before the start of the World War II it was apparent to early ski pioneers and eventually the US Army that there was a need for developing cold weather and mountain warfare capabilities. Some had witnessed in their international travel the skills and preparation of the Swiss ski patrols during the 1930s. These ski pioneers, with their alpine experience, were instrumental in the formation of forces such as the famed Tenth Mountain Division. The National Ski Patrol as a civilian agency functioned as a screening mechanism for the army, vetting the many volunteers for winter and alpine warfare training programs. After the war some of these same soldiers returning to civilian life expanded the ski industry and the requisite ski patrols.

In my travels skiing throughout North America from Whistler to the Canyons to Sugarbush, Jiminy Peak, Gore and Windham, I have met with these first responders and watched them in action. They have gladly shown me and demonstrated their gear ranging from simple rescue shovels, first aid packs and moldable splints to trauma packs, rescue ropes and carabiners. I observed their rescue drills using ski toboggans and the use of tail ropes in steep terrain. They demonstrated the advances in avalanche beacons. As a physician and avid skier I have been universally impressed with their knowledge, skill, dedication and grace under pressure.

Ski safely this season, enjoy the slopes and let us hope your only interaction with the ski patrol will be a greeting, perhaps advice, and an appreciation of their many varied skills. And if per chance you are in need, be reassured that you are in excellent hands at the top and bottom of the mountain.