Snow angels keep skiers safe
As throngs of people at Sunlight Mountain Resort reveled in a recent powder day at Sunlight Mountain Resort, some of them may never have known some guardian angels were watching over them.Rather than wings and white robes, these angels wore the cross insignia and red parkas that identified them as Ski Patrol members.Working from the patrol headquarters on the mountaintop, the first aid building at the bottom, or on the slopes themselves, these skiers and snowboarders are constantly looking out for the safety and welfare of Sunlight’s customers.Joe Llewellyn, now retired from the insurance business, has been patrolling Sunlight’s mountain for 39 of the 40 years the resort has been in existence. As he skied last weekend down the gentle Ute run, his eyes darted between the slope and the trees on either side, looking for wayward skiers or snowboarders who might be tired or injured. Llewellyn was hoping no one needed his help, but glad to be able to provide it.”That’s the part that makes you feel good, helping someone when they’re not having a good day,” Llewellyn said.As he and fellow patroller Dan Kass paused on Ute, a call came over their radio. Someone had suffered a possible dislocated thumb at the top of the Segundo lift.”Mike (Baumli) will be on his way with a rig shortly,” a dispatcher reported.
Baumli’s rig would be a toboggan, which when loaded with a patient and equipment can weigh 300 pounds. That’s a lot for a patroller to get down a hill, and is one reason not everyone can pass the test to do on-mountain work for the patrol. But some of Sunlight’s patrollers are auxiliary members who may not have the necessary skiing or snowboarding prowess but have completed the patrol’s outdoor emergency care classroom course and can work in first aid.Altogether, Sunlight has about 60 patrollers. Seven are full-time, paid by the resort, and work throughout the week. The rest are volunteers, and work 15 assigned days each season, primarily on weekends. In exchange they receive a family pass, or in the case of single people a season pass, along with a day pass, for each day worked, that they can give to friends and family.Some Sunlight patrollers are teenagers. Patrollers can be as young as 15, and last weekend, a group of teens from across Colorado was training at Sunlight. At one point they could be found side by side at the western edge of the ski area, avalanche probes in hand, marching slowly across a snowfield, testing for dummy avalanche victims.Then Danielle, an avalanche rescue dog owned by patroller Barry Sovern of Rifle, started sniffing and led rescuers to a real person buried in the snow. Adam Garagala, 17, of the Loveland patrol had volunteered to be buried in the carefully controlled environment. After brushing himself off, he said he remained in the snow about 10 minutes but wasn’t worried about Danielle finding him. He thought it would be a good experience to see things from the point of view of an avalanche victim.”You never know when it’s actually going to happen so you might want to know what it’s like,” he said.Ski patrollers not only are trained in avalanche rescue, but do avalanche control work, including using dynamite to set off slides, and cutting back and forth across slopes to stabilize them. Before the mountain opens each day, patrollers check each run to make sure it is safe from slides and other hazards. They mark where hazards exist and even close runs that are dangerous.Sunlight’s Extreme area offers slopes steeper than 40 degrees, which presents particular challenges in terms of avalanche and rescue work. It also provides desirable terrain to patrollers looking for training in such an environment. Last weekend, a crew of six from Ski Cooper visited Sunlight to practice in the Extreme area, in preparation for two days of tests this weekend.”Sunlight has been gracious to let us come over,” Ski Cooper patroller Chip Reny said.
“We welcome anybody that wants to come and train and work with us,” said Cindy Henderson, who lives near Glenwood Springs and is the senior ski and toboggan training coordinator for the Western Region, which includes the Sunlight, Ski Cooper, Powderhorn and Hesperus resorts.As Reny and his group took a lunch break at Sunlight’s mountaintop patrol headquarters, the noise and bustle of the crowded room stood in sharp contrast to the quiet inside the glassed-in dispatch office in one corner. But looks can be deceiving.”Everything happens here. This is the central nervous system – very nervous,” said patroller Mike Ferguson, who is due to become the patrol’s volunteer director in April.In one corner a computer offered recent weather data, which is important for tracking the avalanche danger. A dispatcher worked the radio, while a red phone sat waiting to be rung from somewhere on the mountain, indicating the next emergency.Near the headquarters door, toboggans were ready to be grabbed, along with trauma packs containing oxygen, masks, dressing and other first aid equipment.”We can have a patrolman anywhere on the mountain in five minutes,” Llewellyn said.In all his years at Sunlight, he has been fortunate never to have had to deal with a victim who has come close to dying. But his training has given him the confidence to be able to handle serious situations, such as people who are unconscious, have had a heart attack, or have a broken leg that can cut an artery and kill them if they don’t receive proper treatment.
Patrollers handle other emergencies, too, such as evacuations from chairlifts. And they have the unenviable job of policing the mountain, dealing with the occasional unruly person, ski pass violation or equipment theft.And just as they are the first on the mountain each day to open up the runs, they are the last to come down and close them. Last weekend they fanned out across the mountain to do “sweep,” swooping down runs and calling out “last call!” and “closing!,” and then “all clear!” to each other as they reached various checkpoints. It was just one more attempt, before calling it a night, to make sure no one on the mountain needed their aid.Even then, their day wasn’t over until the assigned “super sweep” patrollers, who make sure the other patrollers get down the mountain, safely reached the bottom themselves.As the patrollers stored ski gear in lockers in the first aid room and talked about the day’s events, it was clear that camaraderie is a big reason that they do what they do. They put in countless hours training, raising funds through the annual ski swap in Glenwood, and monitoring the mountain for the benefit of paying customers who, if they’re lucky, will never need a patroller’s services.But if they do, they can count on one to fly to their rescue like a skier or snowboarder with wings.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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