It has been on my mind a while, so here are my thoughts on what makes this group of people so special, in turn what it takes to be a ski patroller.
I have not ever worked with a set of people that are more unique and dedicated than ski patrollers. It is a unique person that becomes a ski patroller, and continues to be one for many years. They love the outdoors, the physicality of skiing, helping people in a time of need, the isolation of the work and at the same time the camaraderie of an extended family (see below). It takes a special person to be in the environment that a ski patroller works in, trauma, laughter and breathtaking views are all in a days work. I often take my hat off to Nurses, and paramedics as people who are in the same line of work – I find there are parallels and many patrollers go to nursing as a second career. That’s the kind of dedication I mean.
Patrollers are also not braggers. They are usually quiet (publically), helpful types. They don’t go to a bar and tell the world about what they do, and what they saw today. They will have a beer with their fellow patrollers and go over the days proceedings. Publicity is not something a patroller wants.
Plenty of people give up their spare time to work on ski patrol in return for varying levels of return. Some resorts will give you a pass for the season and some a day pass for each day in uniform. Regardless volunteers help boost numbers on the weekends and holidays and can be very useful to cope with peak demand. It’s not an easy task, and doing weekends means you never get a day off, 5 days of office then 2 days of mountain office.
Some volunteer parts of a resort patrol existed before the resort company and provide much of the first aid equipment to the hill from snowmobiles to bandages. Many fundraising techniques are used with raffles and ski swaps very popular. This makes mixed paid and volunteer ski patrols very cost effective to a resort who would need a substantial amount of cash to replace them.
Ski Patrollers have a general base level of qualification – the Outdoor Emergency Care course or similar. Qualifications like Emergency Medical Technician, paramedic or nursing are of course looked on favourably. Many resorts require an Avalanche Level 1 course – one that teaches you about snow pack conditions, ways to navigate avalanche prone terrain, and survival skills. Many patrollers have a long history of being backcountry adventurers, with discipline in mountaineering and wilderness survival. Many now also have licenses to handle explosives on the hill, and some fire canons across valleys! This means that they are necessarily well trained – you need to have faith in the one person that comes to your aid, and the patroller must be able to get to you, and get you out where ever you are injured.
A patroller never stops learning, and has to stay current on many of their qualifications each year usually at their own expense.
Rate of pay
This brings me to the pay scales of paid patrollers. To my knowledge the best rates of pay as a patroller available are about USD $20-26/hour, and these are in France and Australia. Yep, just take a look at a few job adverts for patrollers in the USA and you will be on about $8/hour, depending of course on experience, tenure and qualifications.
So why is it that these critical, life saving people get paid minimum wages? Part of me believes that a resort may have the attitude that a ski patrol is a necessary evil and does not contribute to revenue and income, thus pay them the minimum they can get away with. That said, it is widely recognised that the patrol are central to operations and without them throwing bombs on avalanche control and putting themselves at risk, a resort simply cannot function.
Yes these people that handle explosives and save lives are paid a basic minimum wage! Amazing isn’t it!
Ski patrollers can work their off season in many trades, as long as it’s a complimentary seasonal job (i.e. you can only do it when there is no snow around). In many cases this can be their substantial income for the year (see above).
There are a lucky few that travel between northern and southern hemispheres working year round winters, but this is not as glamorous, or easy as it sounds. Each season an airfare must purchased to get to the next job and back again. In many countries where visas are required, the paperwork must be done, paid for and interviews taken at embassies in a place usually not close to a mountain resort.
Because of the drive to hire citizens (locals) to jobs in most countries this is becoming increasingly hard especially after about 30 years old when temporary work and exchange visas start to make people ineligible. Dual citizenship is now often the only way for a lifetime of winter work. Even a British citizen (who has rights to work in France), who holds the Brevet (the French national ski patrol qualification) and with a number of seasons in France experience will find it hard to land a job. Because he/she isn’t local.
Part of the scarcity of jobs is the rise in popularity of the ski patrol. The word is getting out about what ski patrols do, through social media and fantastic movies like www.snowguardians.com this is driving a new generation to be driven to become a ski patroller. A recent hire for a hill in Alberta where there are little more than 10 paid staff, resulted in 30 applications – this is not a classic international ski trip destination either.
Happy with a team and isolation
The bonding between patrollers is a bit like the partner dynamic you get in the police force. A patroller puts his life in another’s hands on a daily basis, they rely on each other to help if something happens. The difference is that the two of them may not know each other particularly well, it’s just part of the job.
At the same time patrollers often find themselves out at the area boundary on a white out day, light fading, wind blowing as they close the runs with the last sweep of the day. No one else around, and very little in the way of markers to help them get down. It’s a job that is required just in case a customer has had an issue late in the day.
So there you go, my take on what it means to be a ski patroller. Truly awesome people, the world over.
What traits and attributes do you find in ski patrollers? Share them in the comments.