Behind the Scenes with Mammoth Mountain’s Ski Patrol

Snow dripped onto my face, ran down my cheek, and slowly found its way to the warm cradle of my neck where it settled into a small puddle. If I moved my arms to wipe the snow off my face, more dripped. It was a futile attempt since I was buried a few feet under the snow in a small cave about the size of a coffin. Only inches separated my face from the snow.

There was no space to move, but I quickly realized the reality—I was a lot more comfortable than I would be if I were really buried alive in an avalanche.

Earlier that morning Nicole Deaver arrived at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and got ready for the day in the Ski Patrol Locker Room. The patrollers arrive whenever they want, so long as they give themselves enough time to get amped up on hot coffee and are dressed and ready to go by 7:45 a.m. At the daily meeting before heading out to the slopes, Deaver was assigned to Bump 3, the ski patrol tower at the top of Face Lift Express.

The 34-year old California native is a ten-year veteran of Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol. She moved to Mammoth Lakes after graduating from Arizona State University to ski for a season. After a year of working in local ski shop, she made the switch to ski patrol and decided to make the Eastern Sierra her home.

A few minutes before the ski lifts open to the general public, the patrollers ride Broadway Express – Chair 1 up and ski to their assigned zones for the day.

“Hey, I heard you’re buying lunch today,” says a smiling lift operator as Deaver loads the chair.

“I’m nice,” she says, “but not that nice!”

As she skis to Face Lift Express – Chair 3, Deaver stops to check the signs in a zone patrollers refer to as Time Square. The intersection between Broadway Express, Stump Alley Express, and Face Lift Express is a high traffic crossing of skiers and snowboarders heading in different directions, so there are a number of signs to slow everyone down. She breaks the signs free of ice and snow, and repositions them. Patrollers are required stop and stand for a few minutes whenever they pass by, a position they affectionately call “banner bitches,” but since the resort is not open to the public yet, she continues on to her post at the top of Chair 3.

Patrollers rotate zones daily because it would get pretty boring to work the same bump and ski the same terrain every day, Deaver explains. The daily chump, or lead patroller, rotates as well. No one really knows why that position is called a chump, but they all agree that it is not a desirable position, however necessary.  The chump is usually a senior patroller, and is basically in charge of delegating information and making sure all the tasks for the day get done.

In the bump station, Deaver checks the meds and makes sure there is oxygen. Then she prepares a toboggan with a backboard. Chairs 2, 4, 5 and the top of the mountain have a similar set up; all areas of the mountain can be accessed quickly in case of an accident.

Dressed in black pants and a red fleece jacket with the white first aide cross on the back, Deaver also wears a handmade leather belt, fanny pack, and a vest with many pockets.

“We are not at as big as we look,” she says laughing about all of the stuff she has in her pockets.  She carries basic first aide equipment with her including band aides, anti-septic wipes, and gloves. There is a note pad with forms for writing incident reports, head injury forms, and witness statements. And she’s got sunscreen, chapstic, a lighter, and a few extra straps that come in handy for odd jobs.

“It’s a lot of stuff—a ton of stuff, but it’s better to carry everything all the time,” she says. “The one time you don’t have something is when you’ll need it.”

A few days earlier, Deaver dug a snow cave in the flat area beneath the slopes of the Paranoid Flats where I would later be buried alive. A favorite spot for powder chasing skiers and snowboarders, the Paranoids are a series of black diamond chutes that are steep at the top and run out all the way to the groomers below. If a post-control avalanche went really big, some unsuspecting skier really could be buried there.

Deaver is training Duke, an avalanche rescue dog, for his upcoming certification. When he passes, he’ll join two avalanche dogs already on patrol, and fill the vacant spot King left when he retired. Duke is one-and-a-half year-old golden retriever and I was his volunteer victim. To simulate an avalanche I was buried under a few feet of snow and left in place for about twenty minutes before Duke was on the scene. The plan was to stay quiet and hold on tight to a red chew toy, which was Duke’s reward for digging me out.

“Whatever you do, don’t let go of the toy,” Deaver said. She instructed me to scream and act silly while holding on because playing tug is his reward.  “If you don’t feel like a complete idiot, then you’re not being silly enough.”

I was handed a radio before crawling in to the cave. Deaver asked if I was comfortable enough before she shoveled snow over the opening. There was a spotter on the other end of the radio that would check in with me to make sure I didn’t freak out. I wrapped the rope toy tightly around my hand, and stared at the snow inches above my face.

“How are you doing in there?” asked the patroller assigned to be my spotter.

I told him I was fine, that I was surprised there was some light through the snow and that it was warmer in there than I’d expected.

Twenty minutes was feeling like an eternity, and my mind started to wander. I thought about the one time I’d been caught in an avalanche on Bloody Couloir and it dawned on me how lucky I was to not have been injured or buried. I remembered the time Climax went big in a post-control slide. I watched the avalanche dogs that day, as I probed in line with other volunteers using bamboo sticks.

The chance of survival for an avalanche burial victim decreases significantly after 15 minutes, but this was a simulation and I had plenty of air, so I closed my eyes and tried to nap while still clenching the rope toy.

“Duke is on the scene, so we are cutting communications, ” the spotter said.

I was holding my breath for no apparent reason, listening. I’ve been told that a burial victim can often hear what is going on outside, but searchers most likely won’t hear the victim because the snow is insulating. Nevertheless, I only heard Duke on the snow above me seconds before he began to dig.

His head and paws broke through the snow, and he paused for a moment, and then pounced. Duke grabbed the toy and yanked me out of the cave dragging me over the snow. My goggles came off and snow went down my jacket as he pulled me around. I rolled over trying to find my feet, laughing, and yelling “good boy, good boy!”

Duke passed the training session with flying colors, Deaver got a few pointers from her mentor who was watching, and we skied back to the Main Lodge Ski Patrol room. Duke went back to his kennel and Deaver took a lunch break.

That day on the hill was fairly quiet. Other than a run away snowboard, which was promptly turned over to lost and found, there were no major injuries or incidents, and everyone took turns skiing from their bump stations. At 3:30 ski patrol starts to prepare for closing. They gather at the top of their assigned bump stations for the final sweep. They break down signs, move the toboggans inside, and button everything down for the night.

When lift operations report the last chair, the chump gives assignments to each patroller and they ski down their designated trail sweeping the mountain to make sure no one is left on the hill. They yell, and hoot as they descend. The sun is well behind the mountain now. The sky is getting dark and the snow is almost blue. The patrollers stop at designated vantage points along their route; they scan the slope for lingering skiers, and wave to each other signaling that all is well.

Back in the patrol room, everyone changes out of ski gear into street clothes—no one seems to be in a hurry to go home. Duke is let out of his kennel. His workday is over too and he knows it. He presents his chew toy to anyone willing to toss it for him. His body wiggles with joy. Chairs in front of the lockers make a circle and everyone lingers for a little banter. They poke fun at one patroller’s pink corduroy hat, analyze the best ski resorts to visit in a patrol exchange, and debate what it means to be a real hippie.

Note: Avalanche dogs are primarily taken care of by their handlers. If you wish to support Mammoth’s working rescue dogs, you can make a donation to the non-profit organization, Eastside K-9.

Monica Prelle

Monica Prelle is an outdoors, wine, and travel writer who would rather be running, climbing, or mountain biking. See more of Monica's posts here, read more of her work at monicaprelle.com and connect on twitter @monicaprelle

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