Friday, February 18, 2005

Volunteer work at Keystone ski area Volunteer work at Keystone ski area

I work as a volunteer at the Keystone ski area, near Dillon, CO in a program known as "Mountain Watch". Copper Mountain has a similar, "Slope Watch" program, Vail has its "Yellow Jackets", and Breckenridge has just instituted a similar program. We do speed control and assist guests on the mountain - most notably getting the ski patrol to the scene of accidents.

I joined the program a couple of years ago after being hit from behind on Frenchman at Keystone by a skier skiing quite a bit faster than I was (and I wasn't skiing slowly - I have skiied for over 40 years now, and raced through high school and college). I tried to complain to the ski patrol I saw on the slopes, but each time, they would ski off as I came up. Then I saw some guys wearing yellow jackets and talked to them, and found that they were volunteers, and one of their primary jobs was speed control. So I joined - and fairly quickly found that we work almost entirely on green (beginner) runs (Frenchman is an extremely well groomed blue (intermediate) run).

So, a typical day goes that we sign in at our dispatch at the top of the first (Peru) lift and get a radio. Then, we spend until about 2:30 or so slowly working our way down a pair of green runs, mostly alternating. Up until two years ago, things were a lot more organized. We had three or four designated "bump" locations on each run where you and your partner would sit and watch traffic for ten minutes or so until either bumped by another pair, or the end of the ten minutes, then ski down to the next bump location. We no longer have those strict standards, but pretty much all still use those same bump locations, even though many in the program weren't in it when they were required.

One problem with the ski area and how it is set up these days is that the snow board terrain park (Area 51) is located at the top of the lower (Peru) chair, but the gondola, etc. go to the top of the mountain. To get to Area 51, the boarders have to ski down the ridge for about a mile on one of those green runs we work (Schoolmarm). Add to this that it would probably be blue-green at Breckenridge (meaning that it is a bit steeper than most green runs). So, you have a bunch of boarders riding very fast down the ridge, through all the beginners, many over their heads.

The worst place is near patrol phone 311, one of our traditional bump locations. I spend a lot of time there, on the lip of the biggest roll on the ridge. They come screaming down the run, popping off the roll blind, taking as much air as they can. Unfortunately for all concerned, that is quite dangerous. For one thing, the beginning boarders tend to rest on the far side of rolls so they can get started again. And they often lie down. The advanced riders, of course, are sometimes airborne when they encounter the beginners. Add to this, a lot of classes of beginners, winding back and forth right below the roll, that, again, these fast riders and skiers can't see when they go over the roll.

So, I stand there a lot, and mostly get fairly good results by yelling at them with my overly loud voice. But sometimes they blow me off, and that is not always to their advantage. I will then follow them to the top of the terrain park, inspect their passes, and see if we need to pull them for awhile. Also, when doing this, I go right by our dispatch, so can often get backup to help pull them over.

One of the things that you pick up after working Mountain Watch for awhile is a sixth sense as to injuries. We probably call in a majority of them on those two green runs - which is one reason we all carry radios (the other being getting help for situations like above when I follow people into the terrain park). This is one reason that we got our own dispatch last year - to keep us amateurs off the patrol frequency - though, as today, we go on the patrol frequency, when we need to.

Most of the injuries are twisted knees and the like, and the patrol has a skido running up and down these green runs for just this sort of thing. The injured are taken to either the bottom or the top of the nearest lift for download, whichever is closest. Do the same for those who overestimate their abilities and can't make it down (remember, these green runs are really blue-green, and first and second time skiers and boarders often can't make it down).

But in the last couple of days I have worked, I had two head injuries. A week or two ago, I had a woman ski up to me and complain that she was disoriented, but otherwise feeling fine. She had been hit above, but couldn't remember anything about the accident. I called it in, and the patrol sent a taxi. Turns out, she was quite disoriented, couldn't tell us what state she was in, or much more than her name and that she was from LA. Shortly thereafter we had five patrol on scene, with backboard, neck brace, O2, etc., and trauma activated at the medican center at the bottom.

Finally, about 2:30 most days, we meet at patrol headquarters at the top of the mountain for Gang Grooming. When the area has night skiing (4-5 nights a week normally, but going to 7 for the month of March), 4-8 grooming machines start at the bottom of the mountain at 3 p.m., start grooming in a staggered formation from the bottom of the mountain up one run (Haywood) across Payflats where all the runs come together (to go to the Montezuma chair) then up another (Frenchman) to the top, then down the ridge (Schoolmarm) to the other green run we work (Silverspoon) to the bottom of the top chair (Montezuma), then up over the top of the chair (Argentine) that would feed Montezuma, if it ever ran (but it rarely does). Then down to the bottom of the gondola (on River Run), back up River Run to another run (Spring Dipper) to the top, where they arrive at about 4 p.m. and head to the back (called the "Dark Side", which by this time is closed and swept). This whole thing is called the "pretzel" for obvious reasons.

In any case, when we have the manpower, we provide most of the manpower to do traffic control and the like for gang grooming. On a typical day (like today), I will start by stopping traffic at the bottom of a couple of the blue runs that feed onto the place where all the trails come together (Payflats) before going to the Montezuma chair. Then, when the groomers go by, we jump on the Montezuma chair, race them to the top, as they groom up Frenchman (which is hopefully closed and swept by then). If we get there early, we help with traffic control at the very top above the Frenchman closure, making sure that there is enough room for the groomers to come over the top (in their staggered formation). Then, as they gang groom over the top, some of us jump ahead of them, and some ski behind, as they start grooming down the ridge (Schoolmarm). The ones in front make sure that the feeder trails are closed and anyone on the side stays there. I almost always ride drag. There, we ski/ride back and forth across the entire trail making sure that no one gets ahead of us and is endangered by the groomers (remember those boarders running for the terrain park? They are the prime culprits here too - as this is the exact same ridge as before). Pressure lets up a lot when we head off the ridge down the other green run (Silverspoon) and the boarders can run for the park. We follow the groomers until the bottom of the run, when the groomers start back up hill again (again, through Payflats where we just were). We take off from there and run for the bottom, to close the feeder trails to the River Run trail, which goes to the bottom of the Gondola. We open those feeder trails after the groomers have gone to the bottom of the gondola, started back up, and passed the trails we have closed. We then run for the bottom to catch the chair paralleling the gondola (as it is faster), again racing the groomers to the top. There we may assist the top closures, until the groomers come over the top and hit the Dark Side.

After that, down the ridge to the top of the Peru lift, where we turn in our radios and sign out at our dispatch. Then, I slowly work my way down one of the green runs, looking for last run accidents. As I have turned in my radio by then, I use my cell phone when I run into such to call patrol dispatch.

That is a typical day. A long, exhasting, extremely rewarding, seven or so hours. Now today (or actually yesterday) is the subject of the next entry.


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