On Patrol in the Backcountry
The trials and tribulations of a boomer who works backcountry ski patrol
By Alan Stark
A moment ago a burst of wind from the Continental Divide caught me off balance on the road and I crashed to the snow sideways under my pack, skis, and poles. I look like a ski patrol yard sale.
I struggle to my feet, curse the wind, gather my gear and move toward the trailhead looking much like a straggler on the retreat from Stalingrad. I hope no one saw my act but, hey, I’m an old backcountry patroller.
Sometimes I fall down.
Reaching the trailhead, I attach skins to the bottom of my alpine touring (AT) skis and drop the skis on the crusty snow. I plant my poles for balance, click the toes of my plastic boots into the bindings, and then slide my fat skis back and forth to clear the snow from the skins.
Backcountry ski patrol work is easy duty if you are 35. I’m a good deal older than that. Sure, I could itemize the overused parts, tally the injuries, and make any number of other excuses, but no one forced me to volunteer for this work. I can’t think of anyplace else I’d rather be right now—well, maybe the windward side of O’ahu.
The skins grab the snow and I move uphill among the trees at 10,000 feet. My pace is slow and my breathing is moderately heavy but sustainable. Going uphill I’ll cover two miles in an hour. A youngster comes up from behind, also on AT skis. She’s carrying a full pack, and blows by me with a nod and a smile. She’ll cover the same distance in a half hour, maybe a little bit more. She’s headed for some turns below Blue Lake at about 12,000 feet, and could be planning on staying out overnight in a snow cave or at least a comfortable bivouac.
The kick and glide of backcountry skiing is a metronome of shish, shish, shish as the snow gets better and better the higher I go. My thoughts drift with the steady upward movement.
As I started training for ski patrol three years ago, I stood in front of my much younger classmates to explain myself.
“So Alan, why do you want to be a ski patrolman?” an instructor asked.
“I spent most of my book publishing career in sales and marketing.”
“Whenever I met someone professionally, they knew I wanted something from them.”
“For my next job, I want people to be glad to see me when I show up.”
When the members of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol first started working Brainard Lake Recreation Area, we were concerned that backcountry skiers would see us as snow cops. Yes, we do wear red jackets or vests filled with first aid stuff. The white cross that we have all earned is stitched to the back. And yes, we do have UHF/VHF radios and SPOT units (emergency GPS beacons) for calling for help. Our job up here is providing information, education, and a low level medical response if someone is sick or injured. We have no law enforcement responsibilities and don’t want any.
We were surprised that most skiers we met nodded and often said hello. Some stopped us and asked questions. Occasionally they graciously told us that they were glad to see us working up here, that our presence made them feel safer, in what to some, is a slightly threatening environment.
From thinking about how I got here, I once again think about my age and doing this kind of work. For me it is more about an obligation to give something back. My age is immaterial so long as I can do the work. Many of my peers were tear-gassed on campus quads protesting a stupid war (oxymoron?). Mostly we survived the whole sex, drugs, and rock & roll thing. And then we earned degrees, found jobs, got married, had families, and moved on. But as a generation, we didn’t contribute much out of the ordinary other than an ongoing whiny discontent with the status quo and maybe an unrequited desire to actually do something important other than to go to work, eat, sleep, and do it again the next day.
So am I holding myself up as an exemplar of Boomer responsibility? Nope, I’m just one among many Boomers finally trying to put something back into the system. And when I’m flat honest about what I am doing up here, I sometimes feel foolish for the hubris of thinking I might be doing some good. All I’m really doing is going out twice a week for some backcountry skiing and short conversations with other skiers and maybe watching out for them.
I’m at Brainard Lake now and looking up toward Mount Audubon and Mount Toll. Grey clouds are pouring over the saddle between the peaks. This morning NOAA weather radio advised that a front was due about now. In twenty minutes the wind will blast me again and then it will snow…hard. I watch the storm flow toward the lake and think about that youngster. She appeared fit, skilled, and no doubt prepared for just about anything the mountains can throw at her but I still whisper, “Careful out there.” As the storm drops into the valley she’s probably at the CMC cabin or hunkered down somewhere and thinking similar stuff about the grey-haired patroller.
The wind just hit and the snow is right behind it. I strip my skins and pack them, switch my bindings to a downhill function and lock my heels in place. I push off and the old familiar feeling of flowing downhill is on me once again. There is huge grin on my face, I am skiing in front of the storm.