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Skiiing can be one of the most enjoyable things to do on snow, but what happens if something goes wrong during a run down Eaglecrest's slopes? Fortunately, Eaglecrest's experienced ski patrollers will not be far away to lend assistance to skiers and snowboarders in need of help.
Eaglecrest ski patrollers are the most visible skiers on the mountain with their bright red clothing and a tell-tale white cross on their backs. They are typically the best all-around skiers on any mountain and perform a number of duties vital to the ski area.
According to Brian Davies, Eaglecrest Ski Patrol director, patrollers are the "jack of all trades" on the mountain, oftentimes performing jobs unseen by most ski enthusiasts.
"Our main duties are to provide a safe ski area by identifying and marking hazards, doing avalanche control and providing first-aid services," Davies said, "We are the ambassadors of safety on the mountain."
Typically, the ski patrol deals with minor injuries, but sometimes severe injuries can be suffered by skiers and snowboarders.
"We see a lot of knee injuries on skiers and upper extremity injuries on snowboarders," Davies said. "Some of the worst injuries are back injuries from jumping. I'm not against jumping, but you got to educate yourself about how to land if something goes wrong."
Eaglecrest's wide-open West Bowl, East Bowl Chutes and Steep Chutes accumulate large amounts of snow in ways that make them prone to avalanches.
Avalanche control can be a dangerous duty as it requires ski patrollers to work with high explosives. The explosive charges are set or thrown into avalanche danger areas to trigger slides and make the area safe for skiing.
"There's always that chance that something can go wrong," Davies said. "We have to be alert and be able to move out of harm's way at a second's notice."
The ability to ski at a moment's notice is the main reason why Eaglecrest employs no snowboarder patrol members.
"Snowboards can not be used for avalanche control," Davies said. "Skiers are more mobile in those areas. We're trying to work snowboarders into the volunteer patrol. It would be good step for us to help to relate with the younger crowd."
Although most of Eaglecrest's clientele follow the rules of ski area, a few present problems that take ski patrollers away from their more important duties.
"We maybe kick out one or two people for the season for breaking the rules," Davies said. "Right now we have a group of snowboarders that have been going around breaking markers where we have closed off jumps. But for the most part, everyone behaves."
Beyond the main duties of keeping the area safe for skiers and snowboarders, patrol members are required to be janitors, fix snowblowers and clear brush in the early season, along with other duties.
Ski patrollers also must be trained for lift evacuation if one of the chairlifts stop as well as high-angle rescue when someone gets stuck in a steep area.
But one of the most important extra duties the ski patrol performs is assisting the Alaska State Troopers in rescue work outside of the ski area boundary.
"If someone gets in trouble outside the area, the troopers call us to be the first responders," Davies said. "This preseason, we did a search for a couple of snowboarders down the back side of Douglas Island. We didn't find them but they were found that day."
Davies says he gets started in early November, well before the ski area opens to the public, and usually goes until the second week of April when Eaglecrest closes. The seasonal work draws a certain type of person to the ski patrol.
"We have two park rangers, three guides and a construction worker," Davies said, who works in fisheries research in the summer. "Our ski patrollers find jobs for both season, and usually something outside."
Eaglecrest employs seven full-time ski patrollers and they work with another 20 volunteer ski patrollers, who are on duty primarily on weekends. All of Eaglecrest's full-time patrollers are certified emergency medical technicians.
Volunteer ski patrollers are required to complete the Outdoor Emergency Care class, which is the minimum training required by the National Ski Patrol. It is an 80-hour course designed to give ski patrollers medical knowledge to respond to emergencies. In addition, several hours on on-the-hill training in provided throughout the ski season.
Davies, who is in his first year as ski patrol director, has been part of Eaglecrest's crew for 14 years and replaced longtime director Dave Call who retired after last season.
"Each person brings individual skills that adds to the staff," Davies said. "All the skills meld together. This year we have a very excellent crew. It helps having people who work in the tourism industry. They're good at making patients feel more comfortable."
Ski patrolling is not just a job, but a way of life. Patrollers are not well paid by any standard, but still come back year after year to keep the ski area safe for others to enjoy.
"Most people do it for a job, not pay," Davies said. "I could have made more money by working for the same place I work in the summer, but I turned it down. There's a certain addiction to it."
Jeff Kasper can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.