Mountaintop Heroes

The people who keep you safe on the slopes

Christine Beyleveldt // Campus Life Editor

Mark Williams was working at Grouse Mountain as a tram operator 11 or 12 years ago when he was drawn to join the ski patrol after witnessing an act of heroism.

“One of my colleagues was closing the tram door with the metal key when lightning struck the tram line at that point,” he said. “So I witnessed my colleague kind of get struck by lightning; they were the grounding point. There was a patroller-paramedic at the base, and that person saw what happened and kind of hopped over the turnstiles and basically started to help.”

After that incident, Williams began taking first aid courses and working towards obtaining certification as a ski patroller.

Up on Grouse Mountain, ski patrollers need to have an OFA (occupational first aid) level three certification and ski or snowboarding ability. “That being said, it’s a little more competitive,” Williams acknowledged. “There are guys that bring a lot more to the table, so if you just bring those two requirements it’s pretty competitive.”

Some of the patrollers are paramedics or rope rescue technicians already, and in a ski resort such as Whistler they are requirements for the patrol. The Whistler patrol is also adamant that their patrollers be expert skiers, while Grouse Mountain’s patrol can be skiers or snowboarders. “They get one of their level three instructors to take you out and make sure you can ski and toboggan the pretty gnarly terrain that they have up there,” said Williams, who is also a volunteer for the Whistler patrol beyond his regular duties on Grouse Mountain.

Whistler is a destination resort that wanted full control over their own staff and volunteer registry, including the ski patrol, and Grouse Mountain started its own patrol in 1940, a year before the Canadian Ski Patrol was formed.

The Canadian Ski Patrol is the largest organization of first aid and rescue volunteers in Canada. Over 4,200 members oversee 240 venues including four in the Lower Mainland: Cyprus Mountain, Manning Park Resort, Hemlock Valley Resort and Mount Seymour, where Denis Dion volunteers every second weekend. Dion joined the patrol while he was living in Calgary in 1991 in order to get a chance to ski more frequently while he wasn’t working a day job. Twenty-five years later he has served the patrol units for Mount Shark in Calgary and Big White in the Okanagan Valley, among others.

Aside from patrolling the ski slopes in the winter, the Canadian Ski Patrol also oversees summertime events such as the Ride for the Cure, where they stand by as volunteer first aid and safety services.

Williams, on the other hand, performs his duties full-time. On a typical day, he is the first to arrive at Grouse Mountain. “I’ll take the sled or the snowmobile out onto the shelf and I’ll basically do a hill tour, and what I’m looking for is, you know, did they groom things properly the night before? Was there a windstorm and a snowstorm and like half that stuff is buried beneath and left?”

Willians usually arrives half an hour before the rest of the team so he can do this, and then he’ll return to the cabin and meet with the rest of his team to review their duties for the day. All of the patrollers arrive before any of the other mountain staff so they have time to set up the barriers at the bottom of runs to keep guests out of hazardous terrain.

Throughout the day, they’ll be lifting rope lines and knocking the snow off of them. First aid calls are their number one priority, but as an emergency response service, they have many other duties to fill the passing time.

One of the most exciting but most dangerous duties of a ski patroller is avalanche control. When copious amounts of powder accumulate on the slopes, it becomes a hazard. “Part of our responsibility [is] that we would be tasked to go into certain areas and do what’s called avalanche cutting. [We’re] just trying to release tension on the snow so that an inadvertent skier does not trigger it themselves,” said Dion.

Sky cutting is a resky activity whereby patrollers ski rapidly across the slopes to see if it triggers an avalanche. The technique is used to release some snowfall to reduce the risk of a cascade if a less experienced skier gets caught on the slope. The Grouse Mountain ski patrol monitors the snow accumulation and performs snow cutting near the mountaintop snowshoe park.

The patrollers on Grouse, unlike the Canadian Ski Patrol, also perform controlled explosions by throwing chargers into the banks to release the snow. Even the snowfall on roofs can become a hazard if it becomes too deep. Patrollers remove excess snow from the roofs of the hut by repelling down the sides and scraping snow from the top down to prevent it from becoming heavy and posing a sliding risk.

Throughout the day, Williams might respond to two or three calls, and most of them are minor injuries such as broken wrists or twisted knees. During peak season, Christmas break and spring break when there are more young skiers and snowboarders on the slopes they field 15 to 20 and on some occasions as many as 25 calls per day. Traumatic injuries aren’t common on the slopes but they do happen from time to time.

Despite the joys of the job, sometimes it causes heartache. Two years ago, Williams responded to a very serious call on the job. A beginner skier had gone over the edge of a cliff and the young man didn’t survive. “You know, part of the job is you can see very traumatic things like that sometimes, and so there’s programs in place just to help you if you are struggling,” he said. The event hit Williams hard. “You’ve got to be a certain type of person I think to be able to deal with those things and be okay with it, but every now and again something will set [it] off in you, something will trigger it. Like, for me, I don’t like seeing really young people hurt themselves like that just because they’ve still got so much of their life ahead of them.”

Even though these mountaintop heoroes work tirelessly to monitor the slopes, most of them do it at a personal expense. Volunteers staff the Canadian Ski Patrol, but those service workers have to pay their own way as well. “We pay to be a member of the Canadian ski patrol, and as part of that we get first aid certification and we get training, both in first aid and on the hill, [but] we have to pay for uniforms and equipment and avalanche equipment and oxygen and all of those things,” Dion explained.

“Our budget in Greater Vancouver is over $1,100,000. Well, those funds we have to raise ourselves. We get no support, we don’t have any support from any government agency to defer those expenses.”

Every year, Dion helps to organize ski swaps for Vancouver and Richmond residents to sell their old ski gear with a portion of the proceeds going to the Canadian Ski Patrol.

At the end of the day, the folks setting up the protective fencing in the morning and seeing the last of the skiers off of the runs at night may not seem like they have an exciting job, but they are the unsung heroes of the mountain, performing many of the behind-the-scenes duties to prevent and respond to accidents in the extreme weather conditions.


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