Finding the lies and legends of ski patrol

The story begins in a patrol outpost where many great ski stories often do. Eric Miller in his usual charismatic style was recounting the day a Blackhawk helicopter crashed just outside the Monarch ski area boundary. Trees sheared at the top during the crash are still visible today.

Miller is a flight nurse and a volunteer medical provider at the ski area. He like other ski patrollers spend time in the top shacks between tasks swapping stories of mountain rescues, follies and near misses while working in the mountains. The spoken tradition surrounding ski patrol is largely unwritten but ubiquitous across ski areas where legendary tales become embellished over time.

While at work the responsibility of a ski patroller is far-reaching and nuanced. The job combines long days, physically demanding work in high alpine environments and the ability to respond to complex medical emergencies. In Colorado ski patrol has grown from a volunteer operation to a professional workforce incorporating advancements in lifesaving techniques, avalanche forecasting and rescue.

True stories were out there and the deep knowledge from years of work on some of the oldest mountains in the state were slowly fading as tired patrollers moved on and younger faces took their place.

Trade knowledge about terrain and avalanche mitigation processes in some ways is also lost to patroller turnover. Fewer patrollers are able to offer insightful specifics about the biggest snow years that now seem so distant.

During long periods of lean snow certain places along avalanche mitigation routes become habitually used as safe stances that reduce exposure for the patrollers working. Only those with years of experience might remember that during big snow years those same spots would have been considered off limits.

After talking with Miller we decided that if there was a book of patrol stories out there we would find it, if there wasn’t, we would write it.

Miller approached a publisher and I approached ski patrollers. Visiting one ski area after another I flipped through old shoe boxes of Polaroids and desk drawers in patrol offices around the state.

There were photos of old traditions and gags, powder skiing and team lineups. I instantly gravitated to any photo that was shot on film. The textures and color cast gave away hints of a previous time, one that was less pervasively photographed than today.

If something warranted the use of a film camera while ski patrolling then it was probably pretty interesting, like the day Ivan Unkovskoy earned the nickname the “Russian Cowboy.”

After a few cattle had become separated from the herd at Purgatory ski area in 1994 they lingered near the bottom of the lift on the backside of the mountain for a few weeks. “Dirty” Don Hinkley had had enough and sent Unkovskoy to rope the beleaguered visitors. He did, from his skis, and tied them each to a toboggan that on an other lap would have been used to transport an injured patient. The cattle were hauled out one by one and someone with a camera managed to get the shot.

At one point while working on the book I met with long time Breckenridge patroller Matt Krane. We sat down at a Mexican restaurant in Breckenridge over huge margaritas. He had brought with him an envelope stuffed with film slides. For a couple of hours we slurped tequila while holding the tiny slides up to the bar lights at arm’s length and squinting at the tiny images.

He was a rookie patroller at Breckenridge in 1987 when the “Big One” happened. It was an avalanche on Peak 7 that was so large it changed backcountry access policies across the industry forever. Patrollers and hundreds of volunteers spent four days searching the massive debris pile that inundated a 23 acre area at the bottom of the mountain. Four backcountry skiers were killed in the avalanche and eventually recovered.

From hard times to good times photos and stories from Ski Patrol in Colorado give a glimpse of a job like no other.

This piece first published in Dawn Patrol, a column about skiing featured in The Mountain Mail. Salida, Colorado. 2018