Over the hill? Not mountain’s patrol director
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” At 64, the retirement question hasn’t come up for Norm Wheeler.
“I’ll keep waiting for someone to say ‘Norm, you’re almost 65, it’s time to retire,'” he said. “I can’t afford to and don’t want to. I love the job.”
Wheeler, patrol director at Sunlight Mountain Resort, is the oldest paid employee on the Ski Patrol staff. He starts each morning in his office in the first-aid room at the base of Sunlight Mountain Resort by checking the weather. He and the patrol staff keep tabs on the conditions and the snowpack to help the resort deal with everything from avalanches to skiers and snowboarders from sea level who aren’t prepared for the conditions. It’s the people he meets that he most enjoys about the job. He’ll take someone to a run himself if they don’t know where it is.
“Get a good sunny day, I’ll be out front talking to all the customers,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, Wheeler was patrolling and struck up a conversation with a “Mr. Nixon,” who turned out to be chief engineer of the light truck division for General Motors, he said. They talked about trucks. The chance meeting led to a sneak preview of what was then a test model for a new Chevrolet van, Wheeler said.
Test skiing and using explosives to better control avalanches is “probably the most unique and interesting part of the job,” he said. The work often involves skiing to where he thinks the fracture line of a potential avalanche would be and sticking a couple of pounds of explosives attached to a bamboo stick into the snow. The method gets “more bang for the buck” compared to shooting mortars from afar, Wheeler said.
“It’s something you’re very cautious about,” he said. “It’s never done alone.”
Wheeler said his body works more than well enough for the job at age 64. The toughest part of patrolling comes when people get hurt or killed while skiing or snowboarding.
“I’ve been here a while and the hardest thing I’ve had to do is deal with parents of people that aren’t coming home,” he said.
Wheeler’s been at Sunlight since 1981, when he started as a volunteer patroller.
“Since I’ve been here, they’ve doubled the size of the lodge, put in the first-aid building, cut the Primo lift in two, and put the Tercero lift in for beginners. Other than that, it hasn’t changed much at all,” he said, adding that some new terrain has opened. “This place is and has always been in my mind a family-oriented ski area and that’s what I like about it.”
Wheeler moved to Rifle in 1975. He worked as a lift operator at Alta in Utah and as a patroller at Solitude. He made the move when a drilling company he worked for wanted to move him to Rifle. He first got into skiing when he served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Hawthorne, Nev. He and some friends would drive to ski at June Lake, Calif.
“It was just something we’d do on the weekends,” he said.
Decades later he’s still skiing most days for the patrol job when he’s not driving a truck for Lafarge in the summer.
“I consider skiing not really work,” he said. “It’s something I love to do.”
Contact Pete Fowler: 384-9121
Post Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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