Friday Interview: Sam Howard

One of the most revered skiers in North America 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

A groomed run at Alta.     Photo: Courtesy of Alta Ski Area

Sam Howard.

The Snow Report

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.

Once you’re open and loading the public, it could be anything from opening new terrain and positioning sleds to responding to the sick and injured and trapped skiers.

How many injuries do you get a day?
Someplace like here, three or four. Someplace that has harder and faster snow, 20. The volume of skiers and conditions dictate the number of injuries.

What’s the most common injury you guys see?
Knee, without a doubt.

What kind of qualifications do you have to have to be a ski patroller?
We do Outdoor Emergency Care—it’s through the National Ski Patrol. You go through their program. We let you do that on your own. For people who are already on the patrol, it requires an annual refresher based on a curriculum that the National Ski Patrol puts out. It’s really on the job that you learn how to do it. It’s easier to teach people how to ski and about avalanche conditions; it’s harder to teach people how to get along.

How many patrollers are on your crew?
I’d say we have 25 patrollers on the hill on any given day. Probably with part-timers, I’d say we have 60 to 80 on the roster.

Is it hard to get on the Alta Ski Patrol?
Generally we hire local employees who show interest, locals who show up and want to do sweeps with us, things like that. Or who put their names in and say, "Hey, I’d like to do this." Sometimes they’re already working for Alta, at the Alta Lodge or wherever. Every once in a while, we pick people who have been working at other ski areas. It’s case by case. Some years, we need one person. Sometimes we need six. Usually it’s locals and you start part-time.

What are your tips for getting on a ski patrol?
Like with any job, if you show up, you beat 80 percent of the public. That’s what I tell my kids. Just show up every day and be ready to work. You’ll learn as you go. It’s great if you’ve got a track record of patrolling someplace else or if you’ve got a track record of being a good employee someplace else, or you're someone’s friend, or you’re known as a good, level-headed person. No one was waking you up at the bar telling you to go home kind of deal. If you’re coming in cold, and nobody knows you, it’s gonna be hard.

Are ski patrollers skiing powder all day?
We’re skiing open areas all day. Not every ski area is the same. For us, if it’s closed, it’s closed. If it’s open, it’s open. If we’re in the process of opening it, and you’re waiting in line and there’s 10 minutes before we start skiing our routes, we might ski it before you. I’d be surprised if I don’t get 20 runs in a day. The good thing about keeping people circulating is that you have someone that can usually respond to a call within minutes.

What’s the biggest misconception about ski patrollers?
That we’re a bunch of cops running around telling people to slow down.

What’s the worst part of your job?
Sore feet, getting hurt, or watching people get hurt.

What’s the best part?
Skiing powder. Or getting up early and being on top of the hill with no one around. Sometimes, it’s coming down at the end of the day and the sun’s setting.

How many days a year do you ski?
One hundred fifty at least.

What do you like about being a ski patroller?
The chance to allow other people to feel safe on big exposure, provide their possible rescue, and ensure their positive experience is something we on the Alta Ski Patrol take pride in.

What do you think about ABS bags?
It’s hard to argue the results of the studies in Europe. Are they a great tool? Sure. If you were caught in a slide, would you want every trick in the book? Absolutely.

What was your best season in Alta?
I would have to say it was ‘83-‘84. It might have been the year before. It was my first year working at the restaurant. We had something ridiculous like a 180-inch December. We had a four-day inter-lodge and the road was closed coming into Christmas. It snowed about 120 inches in four days. When that ended, it was a big, sunny day, and the road was covered in slides, so no one could get up here. We were all living up here and as soon as the ski area opened, we went out. It was early enough that the Christmas crowds hadn’t made it to all the lodges. It was us employees and about 200 guests. It has never been that good since.

What’s an “Inter-lodge?”
Sometimes the forecasters for the road, the ski patrol, the sheriff, and the town cops, we’ll all talk it over and decide that it’s too dangerous to have anyone outdoors. Everyone has to stay inside. It can last hours or days.

What’s the secret to surviving an inter-lodge?
Get some books. Maybe these days, an iPad. In the old days, when I worked at the restaurant, we’d sit at the window and watch for avalanches.

Why did you pick Alta?
When I first got here, I think I was quoted as saying, "Why would you ski here when Snowbird’s right there?" Then I got a job up here and saw that this place is way more homespun than working for the ‘Bird or Park City or some major corporation. If you want to talk to the head guy here, you can call him on the phone and he’ll listen to you. It just felt right.

Why does Alta have such a mystique among skiers?
When you’re working on skis or when you’re going on a ski vacation, you want someplace that’s consistent. It just snows and snows and snows here. And the quality is good. It’s light. So you’ve got the snow, you’ve got the terrain that's steep enough, fun enough to use it. You’re at the end of this dead-end canyon and it’s beautiful. You stand and look around, and there’s so much to ski. The access is easy. Salt Lake is also affordable. Four guys can still go in and rent a house for $1,200.

Are you seeing a trend of less snow?
I don’t know. Every time you think there’s less snow, you have an 800-inch year. Last year was bad for us, but we still had a 400-inch season, which most resorts would be really psyched about. I’d like to think it’s going to keep snowing.

Talk about basic etiquette on the mountain.
Even in a powder frenzy, it’s all about respect. Whether you’re skiing down a hill or going out a traverse, look out for the other guy. Sometimes people are a little bit selfish—this is my line, my beach, my wave, my girl. Have fun, but know when to shut things down.

How has skiing shaped your life?
My family grew up skiing. My wife and I met skiing, raised our kids skiing, and made it all work, of course, skiing. People would tell you it couldn't be done, but if you put your mind to it, it can. We live a wonderful life filled with friends, family, and fun. I look out at the mountains every day and marvel at their beauty. I can't believe how lucky my wife Susie and I are.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from living in the mountains?
Beats the hell out of living in the flatlands.

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