Depending on your past mountain experiences, perhaps your age, and if you’ve ever lived in a ski town, you either view ski patrollers as resort police, mountain EMTs, or alpine icons. For some, patrollers hold a certain mystique—gritty stewards of the mountains who know every inch of every line on their home hill. They speak of “systems,” five-percent blower, and in the lift line they always look like they’re coming back from some snowy Xanadu. They’re full of philosophical quips on how to live life—“put up or shut up”—and tried-and-true tips for living in the mountains: wear wool (not synthetics); dry your boot liners every night; eat jalapenos to ward off colds. They mix the perfect Baja fog (a Corona, Jose Cuervo gold, and extra lime juice—hello Squaw) and have elevated drinking flaming shots of tequila into an art. That’s you, Crystal Meadows.
It’s easy to think that patrollers spend their days lapping untouched powder fields closed off to the crowds, hucking bombs, and hanging out in secret, patroller-only bars. But the reality is, it’s not always as sexy as that. Recently, I stopped into the patrol shack in Alta, Utah. A couple of guys were hanging around, waiting for the next call to come in. When it did, a rookie patroller was dispatched to help a skier find his lost poles in the “Bermuda Triangle.” Sure, there’s camaraderie and tradition, and many, many fresh tracks, but, above all, ski patrollers are dedicated professionals, people who have devoted their lives to the mountains and to the skiers that love them.
You want to be a ski patroller? Here’s how. Meet Sam Howard, 55. Originally from Vermont, Howard has been a ski patroller at Alta, Utah, since 1984. In 2002, Powder named him one of the best skiers on the planet. Now, he’s the one of the most revered skiers at Alta. During his time in the Wasatch, he’s experienced multi-day inter-lodges, the 50-inches-in-24-hours cycle back in 1997, and the 100-inches-in-100-hours storm in 2003. Here, Howard demystifies the life of a ski patroller, and talks about living and working at one of the best mountains on the planet and storms that dump eight feet in one go.
How did you start patrolling?
I started working in Alta in 1980. I started part-time patrolling in 1984 and went fulltime in 1987. I wasn’t that psyched at first. I had watched these guys go out in the dark and come back in the dark, and it looked a little too rough. But it really turned out to be more enjoyable than I thought.
What are typical hours for a ski patroller?
From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If there’s avalanche work to be done, that starts at 6 a.m.—breakfast, then a meeting, out the door by 7 a.m. We have an earlier morning crew that generally lives up here because the road can be an issue, and they go out about an hour before that, up the lift at about 5:30 a.m. They make up all of the explosive rounds and bring them to the top and start the route that clears the path that allows the rest of us to go out to our routes.
Are all the people on your avalanche control squad really senior?
It’s a mix. There’s some guys in their sixties that live up here and are up a 4 a.m. every day to check the weather. And then there’s a bunch of 20- to 30-year-old guys that live up in dorm-style living and they make the bombs. Then there’s guys in their thirties and forties shooting the gun. Everyone is checked out by the ATF.
What are you doing your first year on patrol?
You’re working under the tutelage of a senior patroller. It’s hands-on learning. You can’t read a book and know how to do it. We mentor them through their first year.
What’s a typical day look like?
Arrive at 8 a.m. Go into your morning meeting, where you go over where the snowcats went last night, where you need go look at, what sign lines need to be put back up, discuss the weather. If the weather was bad, but not bad enough that we didn’t come in early, we’d go to a ski-cutting, terrain-check mode. Ski your routes. See how much snow’s developed. If none of that is going on, head up the hill, make sure everything’s straightened out. Check the grooming. Try to work on the High Traverse then, because nobody’s on it. Fix any signs that are down—get everything ready for 9:00 a.m.