Rich here.

Not to get too personal, but I had a dream about being back on ski patrol last night.

Of all the rescue things I did, ski patrol was one of the most satisfying. That probably sounds weird, because it means I was more satisfied picking up people who could afford $80 lift tickets than saving people in the inner city. But each activity brings a different kind of satisfaction, and when it comes to ski patrol, it was all about the independence.

I worked patrol part time at Copper Mountain for 5 years. We were pseudo-volunteers who would do everything full-timers did, except drive snowmobiles and throw bombs. Although some of us did get certified to drive (to ferry athletes and photographers at special events) and we could go out on avalanche control – just not light the boom-boom things.

Patrol is a physically demanding job. You don’t turn laps all day; if you aren’t on a work mission (fixing trail markers, setting safety gear, etc.), you hang out in one of the patrol buildings until you hear the dispatcher ring the cowbell. Yes, more cowbell. Someone would then snag the 1050 (injured person), get details, grab a rig (toboggan), and go find the patient.

It’s all solo after that. You ski (or in my case snowboard) to the patient, assess them, treat them, load them, and then take them to the base to either release or send to the clinic. Help is always available via radio if you need it, such as having a second person grab the tow line on the rig in really nasty conditions (usually a cross-slope traverse on ice), or if you hit CPR levels of badness, but otherwise it is a solo deal.

I loved working the back bowls. They were physically much tougher, but the environment was amazing. The main patrol building was called Motel 6, at around 12,000 feet. Just getting to it usually involved a hike. It wasn’t very large, but held a table, couch, and small kitchenette area. If you worked there, you wore an avalanche beacon and carried a shovel. Directly across the bowl from 6 was The Dumpster: two lift shack halves welded together with some crash pads on the floor and walls to sit on. Getting to The Dumpster took about 45 minutes and involved hiking the entire ridge around, topping out over 12,500’. The year I lived in Phoenix and flew back to work weekends… that hurt.

One of my most memorable calls was my first solo mission out of 6. Some guy injured his leg down near the bottom. Getting to him with the rig was easy, but getting out more complex. It involved multiple “Doo pulls”. Our snowmobiles were all Ski-Doos, and for a Doo pull, the driver would throw you a tow rope. You cannot safely tie it onto the rig, so you get in between the horns (handlebars) and wrap the end of the rope around one grip in such a way that it will only stay while you keep a firm hold on it. Then you handle steering. Fall, and you will probably get run over before momentum (or your head) stops the rig, after the rope drops off.

So I got towed out of the bowl, boarded the patient to my next pickup point, towed up to a better spot to reach the mountain base, and then followed the runs all the way down. It took well over an hour, on a hill I could ride top to bottom in under 10 minutes.

I don’t completely understand why this was so much more satisfying than working the ambulance or even a complex, multi-day mountain rescue. Perhaps because there are few cases in emergency services where you can honestly say you were responsible for saving someone. It is almost always a team effort, and real saves are rare. But on patrol I remember the time we were sweeping the hill at the end of the day and I found a girl who had just crashed on one of the big jumps. She wasn’t only unconscious, but she wasn’t breathing. I repositioned her head, opened her airway, and she was fine with a mild concussion.

My call. My patient. My strength and skills tested, with an expectation that I wouldn’t need help beyond the occasional tow if gravity wasn’t there to help. Teamwork is deeply satisfying, but it is also nice to know you can handle things yourself.

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