We wanted to know what ski patrollers actually do, on a day to day basis.
We wanted to know what ski patrollers actually do, on a day to day basis. (Photo: Craig Moore/Aurora Photos)

A Day in the Life of a Rookie Ski Patroller

It's not all throwing bombs and having the mountain to yourself—but those are big perks

We wanted to know what ski patrollers actually do, on a day to day basis.

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We’ve always been fascinated by ski patrollers. They get first tracks on powder days, chuck bombs for a living, and, crucially, decide when to pull ropes and open a new section of a mountain. But we wanted to know what they actually do on a day-to-day basis. So we called up Mike Thurber—friend of Outside, sometimes gear reviewer, and soon-to-be second-year ski patroller at Taos Ski Valley—to hear about a typical day on the mountain.

As a rookie, it’s all new and interesting work, but by far the best days at the office are during storm cycles. The snow safety team looks at forecasts during the afternoon each day and decides when the crew should show up the following morning. Normally, we’re on first chair at 8 a.m., but if there’s significant snowfall, we’re awake at 4 a.m. so we can get to the mountain and be ready to go by 5:45.

On avalanche control mornings, the patrol gathers in the base area and very well might be loading the chairlift in a blizzard by the light of headlamps. We have two chairs to ride to patrol HQ, where we convene to get our weather briefing and plan the day. In general, each patroller is assigned to a specific route, with a designated route leader, and we generally head out in teams of two or three. As a rookie, your best bet is to work your ass off at all times and then make puppy-dog eyes at one of the route leaders and hope they let you go out on route with them.

The next part of the day is every bit as fun as it sounds, but it’s also the most dangerous. Basically, through a combination of high-powered explosives and ski cuts, we spend two or three hours moving around the mountain trying to trigger any potential avalanches before we allow the public on the hill. This clearly includes any of the terrain a skier might access, but also all the potential avalanche start zones above skier terrain. It’s a huge project, and it can be stressful knowing how many people are jonesing for those first turns of the day, but it pays to move pretty deliberately here as mistakes are just not an option.

Anyone who doesn’t go out on control starts running through prep for the rest of the day. That could mean clearing snow from stairs at the top patrol shack or checking the medical gear. Once control work is done, we get the green light to start housekeeping chores on the hill—setting up signs, putting up ropes for closures, opening new terrain. At Taos, first chair is at 9 a.m.

Work changes a bit once we have people on the hill. It’s often the case that we don’t open the whole mountain at once, so when we’ve taken care of the frontside, part of the patrol goes back out on other control routes that are a little farther afield while the rest of the crew prepares for a busy day. That means responding to emergencies, keeping an eye on ropes and signage, continuing work on opening the rest of the mountain, and any other general maintenance. The day goes by pretty fast—it’s easy to get caught up with patient care and side projects only to find yourself at 3 p.m. without having eaten.

We start closing hike-to terrain around midafternoon. By 3:30, most of the patrol staff meets at the top shack for sweep. Our final chair of the day is at 4 p.m. Once the last chair clears and the lifties head down, the dispatcher cranks up some music and we start sweeping the mountain. We make sure no guests are left on the hill and that things are tidy for the groomer crews. Depending on what we find, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or more.

If you’re working as dispatcher for the afternoon, sweep is a pretty incredible way to end the day. You work on closing down HQ while the rest of the team sweeps the mountain. Once everybody’s down, you lock the door and head out. You’re literally the only skier on the mountain, and the New Mexico sunsets are unparalleled, period. It’s magical.

Lead Photo: Craig Moore/Aurora Photos