While skiing and snowboarding come with inherent risk, the ski patrol at Skyline Bear Valley Mountain Resort work hard throughout the winter to keep snow sports enthusiasts safe.
A brisk breeze blew out of the Mokelumne River Canyon and across the parking lot at the ski resort on the morning of March 3. The chair lifts had been closed down the day before due to high winds, and a helicopter training session with ski patrol had also been cancelled.
But cool winds and cool temperatures have also helped to preserve the snowpack at the mountain, despite having received only six inches of snow since the end of January.
Over at the lodge, members of the mountain’s ski patrol team were gathering in their locker room for a morning meeting. They put on their boots, gathered their gear and discussed the conditions at the resort. After being assigned a portion of the mountain to patrol, they headed out to the lifts.
At 8:45 a.m., Adam Covey stood at the bottom of the Mokelumne Express chair lift and waited patiently for the 9 a.m. opening.
“I like waiting in line to get first chair,” he said. “I really love Grizzly Bowl. I think it’s some of the best skiing in California.”
While Covey lives in Sausalito, he has a family cabin in Dorrington and has been spending time in the area his entire life.
“I learned to ski at Bear Valley,” he said. “Even when I was one year old, my mom had me up here in her backpack, back in the day when they allowed kids in backpacks.”
Although Covey prefers to ride fresh powder, he said that the conditions at the mountain were good considering the lack of precipitation in recent weeks.
“The groomed runs have been good,” he said. “They’re keeping Grizzly open, so for the amount of snow they have, it’s holding in there quite well.”
At 9 a.m., the lifts opened and skiers and snow boarders made their way up the slopes.
At the top of the mountain, Scott Madden, the hill coordinator for ski patrol, went about his morning routine. Before the lifts open, patrollers check equipment, survey each run for hazards, confirm that all signs are properly posted and ensure that the boundaries of the resort are clearly marked with ropes.
“We have to make sure that boundaries are up and secured so that people don’t go running off into no-mans-land, and need to see if there’s any grooming anomalies or other hazards that we need to take care of,” Madden said. “Then we call the section clear.”
Throughout the day, at least one patroller is stationed at the top of the mountain to ensure a timely response in case of an accident.
“Each section chief has a time for spending up here at Bear Top for responding to any rescues,” he said.
As Madden spoke, “Section Four is patrol clear,” came in through his radio.
“There are a lot of aspects that we have to train in as patrollers,” he said. “We have a manual that’s part of an organization called the Association of Professional Patrollers, and there’s certain criteria that’s outlined in that book that we are all pretty adept in.”
Among the criteria are avalanche science, avalanche control, avalanche rescue, medical, hill safety, risk management, rope rescue, skiing and toboggan handling. Madden said that Bear Valley currently has ten paid ski patrollers and about 30 volunteer ski patrollers, many of whom are members of National Ski Patrol.
“There’s no differentiation between the volunteers and the paid staff here; we have a really good relationship,” Madden said. “At some resorts, it’s a little more separate, but these guys fill a pretty solid role here for us. They’re very adept, and they’re top-notch first aid people.”
Madden said that the skiing at the resort has been good, despite the lack of snowfall.
“We still have really good snow,” he said. “Last week was some of the best skiing we’ve had all season.”
Madden began working at the mountain in 2007 as a ski instructor, and is currently working his tenth year as a ski patroller.
“It’s a very solid brotherhood and sisterhood for ski patrol everywhere in the world,” he said. “It’s basically the best job in the world if you’re a skier.”
At 10:30 a.m., ski patroller and paramedic Jeff Dove led a training session for three members of the trail crew – ski patrollers in training – at the top of the mountain. Madden volunteered to be an unconscious patient, while trail crew members Megan Hanson, Steve Smith and Peter Wellman practiced securing him onto a backboard for transport in a toboggan.
“So the gist of this drill right now, is if you find an unresponsive patient, what do you do? And the meat and potatoes of that, is that basically you’re going to assume the worst,” Dove said. “You prepare them to get them off the mountain and down to the first aid room and probably to a helicopter in a way that just takes into account that there could be everything wrong with them.”
Madden couldn’t help but offer some words of advice while the trail crew carefully strapped him to the backboard.
“I hear a lot of talking, unconscious patient!” Dove said.
Dove has been working at the resort for the past 11 years and currently lives in Murphys.
“I used to do CalFire in the summers and be here full-time,” he said. “Now, I’m a full-time paramedic down in the valley, and I do this two or three days a week.”
The trail crew successfully completed the training exercise, and Dove and Madden offered feedback.
Hansen said that she recently moved from Washington state to take a job at the resort.
“I’ve always wanted to work ski patrol, and I thought this would be a really good opportunity,” she said. “It’s a good foot-in-the-door. It’s been awesome.”
Ski patroller Mike Bartholow was happy to get out on the slopes after having spent the morning in dispatch at the base of the mountain. Over the years, Bartholow has worked as a ski patroller at Dodge Ridge and Eaglecrest in Juneau, Alaska, and as the lead winter ranger for Vail Pass Recreation Area in Colorado. This year is his third patrolling at Bear Valley.
“Risk management – hill safety – is pretty much the most important thing that we do,” he said. “A lot of times preventing stuff is way more important than reacting to stuff. That’s the biggest thing that we do – trying to recognize hazards, and taking care of them before they become a problem.”
Ski patrollers are constantly training and honing their skills, Bartholow said.
“We all participate in training – avalanche training, rope training, medical training,” he said. “Everybody can do everything, so we can all teach new folks and we can all learn from folks.”
Bartholow said that guests at the resort could take several steps to stay safe, including ensuring equipment is in good shape, taking lessons if inexperienced, skiing with a partner, paying attention to posted signs, respecting boundaries and maintaining awareness of surroundings.
“Things change so much,” he said. “We could be back into an avalanche cycle and be skiing powder here sometime soon. So then that presents a whole other set of things to think about.”
Ski patrol was having a relatively quiet day, Bartholow said.
“It’s about as mellow as it gets,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve had any calls today on the hill, and only had one walk-in. But quiet days on the mountain don’t necessarily mean quiet days for us. You can have several people get hurt even with low numbers.”
At 3:30 p.m., ski patrollers gathered at the top of the mountain to begin closing the runs for the day. Second year patroller Kate Harrison roped off the backside and headed down Bear Boogie.
“Clos-ing!” she called as she scanned the run for skiers.
Harrison grew up in Arnold and started skiing when she was three years old. After graduating from Bret Harte High School, she went to school in Washington state, and spent several years working in Alaska and Oregon before returning to the area. She said that Bear Valley was something special.
“There’s a lot of really good terrain, but a lot of people don’t know about it,” she said. “The whole lower mountain is pretty awesome skiing for the size of the resort that we have. You’ll have powder days where you’re still finding fresh tracks at three in the afternoon, and I feel like you just don’t find that at other places.”
Bartholow waited at the top of the mountain while the rest of the team performed their sweeps, making sure that no guests at the resort were in need of assistance. The lifts closed down, the lift operators headed home, and the hum of chair lifts and the chatter of skiers were replaced with silence.
“We have one of the best views here,” Bartholow said. “Having the Mokelumne River Canyon on the one side, and then the Stanislaus on the other – it’s awesome.”
One by one, each patroller radioed to Bartholow and let them know their section was clear. He said that he has the utmost confidence in the ski patrol team at the mountain.
“I know that pretty much anybody here has got my back, and I can trust them with my life,” he said. “We’re all a family. It’s a really cohesive group of people, and we have a lot of fun.”
The last patroller called in over the radio, and Bartholow took one last look at the view and headed down the hill.