Diary of a Ski Patrolman: Week 7

Monday As of last Friday I’ve acquired yet another honorable nickname. At least, I think it’s honorable. It’s called the “Herb” award. Well, it’s a yellow name tag that I must wear proudly on my vest, just above the old one that says my actual name. Actually, I don’t know what my actual name is […]

By Josh Allen

Jan 21 2011

Icy Chickadee
Photo Credit : Allen, Josh

As of last Friday I’ve acquired yet another honorable nickname. At least, I think it’s honorable. It’s called the “Herb” award. Well, it’s a yellow name tag that I must wear proudly on my vest, just above the old one that says my actual name. Actually, I don’t know what my actual name is at this point, since I think I’m called Josh less and less each week…You see, the Herb award is given out to the patroller that learns the most on any particular day. Yep, that’s right, I learned an important thing on Friday. I learned not to miss the trail that’s assigned to me on sweep. Because missing one’s trail assignment means that everyone, just about, stands around waiting for you to make a connection that you’re not going to make. It means it gets dark with us standing around. It means I had to get a snowmobile ride back up the mountain to fix my error. Which is okay, because it means I get to wear a cool yellow badge until someone else learns a lot on another day by missing their connection! Or perhaps by skiing down the wrong trail, while going out to find someone. Luckily, these mistakes are rare, and we are able to learn from them. We are able to acknowledge that we are capable of error, but also capable of bettering ourselves quickly. That’s what the honorable yellow badge is really about — it is a symbol that we, as patrollers, are human, but work hard to be the best we can be on the mountain. Perhaps one day no one will have to ask me or my fellow patrollers, “Wait, your name is Herb?!” But I doubt it. In fact, that would be a sad day. Learning from our mistakes is important, and inevitable. In fact, it’s probably just a matter of days before I transfer my badge to a friend…I wonder if I’ll miss it, and for how long it will remain off of my chest?

While skiing down Switchback today, a cool little trail off of Mountain Road, I came across a group of kids about to venture into the woods with an instructor. There are a few of these various “Kid’s Trails” across the mountain — hidden little wooded adventures to teach kids how to safely explore that sort of terrain. But I like them too, they’re mostly empty, and have well spaced trees. The best part, though, is that it is quite fun to ski past kids and see their heads turn and regard me. I think ski patrollers must appear as some sort of mythical force on the mountain to some of the youngsters. We have these bright red coats on, often times carrying bamboo, or drills, or giant signs. Those things are practically like capes. So we’re superheroes. How awesome is that!? Alright, maybe that’s a bit too much. But I’ve come to realize that when kids think you’re cool, you’re pretty much cooler than anyone else. It helps a lot, to see them appreciate our presence on the mountain. Sadly, some adults jeer at us, or make some not-so-friendly gestures when we kindly ask them to lower their safety bar. I just shrug it off, and think to myself, “Well, your kids think we’re cooler than you!” And that helps reinforce my confidence that what I am doing is important, and worthwhile, and significant. If the kids turn away from their instructor and watch us go by with a fascinated stare, we are clearly pretty important. At least for that brief moment, we’ve got capes and can fly…with our drills and trusty bamboo at our side.

As I’ve watched the mountain evolve over the past few months, I’ve seen snows come and go, hordes of people, and days when there are few, and all sorts of wildlife. If I was a wee songbird, I probably wouldn’t live on Okemo, amongst the frozen white trees that get pelted with man-made and natural snow alike, and yet we have many birds on the mountain. We have chickadees that practically dwell just outside our summit hut, likely because we have two bird feeders set up there, courtesy of Bob Brandt, one of our veteran patrollers. During training, I recall being distracted by these birds on more than one occasion. I think I exclaimed, “Did you guys see that bird!?” Just as we were supposed to be recognizing something we did in error. Oops. But I was just amazed that such tiny creatures are living in such a seemingly hostile environment. The summit of Okemo is not balmy, it is not windless, and it seems like a tiny bird living there would just get blown off into the valley below. Yet, day after day, the birds come back and flap excitedly through the blasts of icy air to reach their frozen bird seed. It certainly makes me all dressed in my super high-tech winter gear seem wimpy. If a tiny bird can flap through 30 mph winds and negative 10 degree air, I should be able to ski and ride the chair lift without five layers on. On second thought, I’ll keep my five layers, and my non-frozen food, and continue to admire the chickadees from inside our balmy hut. I’ll keep my eyes open for the Ermine, too. It’s been spotted at least once, just outside our hut, with a tasty red squirrel in its mouth. So you see, the summit of Okemo is teeming with wildlife, even on the chilliest days. But the “smartest” life up there needs at least five layers to be comfortable…

I’ve always wondered what skiers did without modern grooming machines. Okemo’s fleet of behemoths can groom the entire mountain between closing time and opening, which is a massive feat of technology and operator skill. What would happen, though, if the glades trails had a thin crust over some nice fluffy powder, and the groomers couldn’t quite wedge themselves between the trees? Well, patrollers would storm into the trees armed with…their feet. Or rather, our skis. And we’d stomp, stomp, stomp down the snow, breaking through the crust, in a heroic, frenzied feat of endurance. Basically, a few of us today were the Titanic on skis. But we were not sunk by the iceberg. No, we most certainly succeeded in marching down the trail horizontally, overlapping each other’s tracks, making a ski-able path down Outrage, my personal favorite glades trail at the mountain. After about five minutes of such activity, I think I was sweating more than is natural on a 10 degree day. So I unzipped my three coats, and continued. I became so thirsty I ate some ice at least twice. But upon finishing the job, I looked up at our work, and felt like we’d accomplished something great. I mean, we beat down an entire woods trail with our feet! And I bet the public, when Outrage is reopened, will appreciate it, too. So if I’m asked by someone in the future, “Why isn’t trail such-and-such open today?” I might reply with, “Hold on, let me go stomp down the snow for you…just give me a few hours, and some water.”

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