Kings and Queens of the HIll
Photography: Eric Kiel
(page 2 of 3)
On the mountain, the fun can turn fatal, and making the call to prevent disaster is as important as responding to it. Sometimes the switch in job demands can be breathtaking. In minutes, it is possible to go from the stern task of pulling a person’s pass for reckless and endangering behavior, to acting like the friendly local tour guide: Advising people on the best way down the mountain according to their abilities, indicating the best groomed runs, even pointing out the shortest lunch lines. People management is dynamic; each day can seem the same, yet each is different, and equally challenging. Another component of the job (one least visible) is stabilizing the mountain. After an all-night snowfall and before most skiers have unplugged their boot warmers, the patrol is high on the mountain on avalanche control, working out the danger spots. First, they’ll send projectiles into the known danger areas, such as The Bowls, from the “Avalauncher” on Guntower Lane. Then, working in groups of three, they’ll throw 2-pound, high-explosive hand charges, sort of a mini depth charge that doesn’t show much on the surface, but reverberates beneath the surface and settles the newly fallen snow.
After that comes ski-checking, the edgy part of the operation similar to clearing a minefield, and just as dangerous. By skiing out on the highest and most logical point that an avalanche might cut loose, the patrolman actually tries to set one off. This is a moment shared by many disciplines; a paratrooper catapulting out of an aircraft, a big-water kayaker launching into a class VI rapid, or a rodeo bullfighter filling the gap between the bull and a downed rider. In cliché, as well as reality, it is a moment of truth. The poet James Dickey once said, “if you’re bored with your life, risk it!” It’s unlikely the men and women of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol are bored with their lives, but this is a moment when training, skill and intuition meld, match an uncontrollable and unstable element of nature, and attempt to master it. Although sometimes unspoken, it is one of the reasons they are here, and it adds a keen edge to their lives.
In the middle of all of this, or basically at the heart of this job, is the word “first.” First on the hill, first called, first responder, first aid. It’s the heart of what they do and the heart of why they do it. First always in the mind of any patrolman arriving at the scene of an accident (“wreck” in the parlance) is how to handle it expeditiously, professionally, and with the utmost care given to the injured party and those associated. You may not hear it articulated on a daily basis around the ski patrol hut, but there are profound rewards for this job. Aiding the injured, calming the fearful and distraught, and lending a strong shoulder when one is needed are tasks that make the early mornings, the cold feet, the endless shoveling and living with the danger of snowslides, worthwhile.
Finally, comes the last run of the day—“the final sweep”—a lovely description and act that can be compared to many like moments in the world. Moments like shutting down an amusement park, shooing everyone out so the attendants can bask in a moment of silence. Or it can be compared to a busy restaurant when all of the revelers and happy diners have departed, and the door is locked, leaving all the rooms blissfully silent and peaceful.
It is much like that when the patrol closes down the mountain each evening. Making long, lazy, sweeping turns on empty runs. Seeking stragglers or lost persons, but hoping none will be found to break the reverie of the moment. Pausing at the top of the Stielhung on Warm Springs, or the bottom of College, or on a ridge between The Bowls to watch the last rays of the sun paint the hills a rosy alpenglow. Seeking to hold the silence, or the light.
Yet understanding that all is fleeting, fleeting as life, fleeting as this moment paused to contemplate a lifestyle chosen, a lifestyle lived. An intensely private moment, that you, as a Sun Valley Ski Patrolman, know . . . whether having gone to work this year, or 30 years ago . . . you know that you own the soul of this mountain, or it owns yours. >>>