Know the Code: working behind the scenes to keep the slopes safe | SierraSun.com
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Know the Code: working behind the scenes to keep the slopes safe

ANDREW BECKER, Sierra Sun

It’s important for snowsport participants, from ski school tykes to those older than leather bindings, to know the skier responsibility code, but it’s also good to know what the resorts are doing to keep the skier free from hazard.

And they’re doing a lot.

This commitment to safety is no less prevalent at Squaw Valley USA. Considering the elaborate network of lifts and the nature of Squaw’s slopes, it is not an easy task.

According to Squaw Valley’s Jimmy King, an employee at the resort since 1973 and mountain manager since 1991, Squaw Valley has some of the most treacherous avalanche terrain in North America and therefore one of the largest avalanche safety programs as well.

“We use more explosives for avalanche control than any other single ski area in North America,” King said. “We can’t open one lift without doing avalanche control.”

Avalanche control hinges on Squaw’s cadre of patrollers, run by Bob Cushman. A patroller for 26 years, the 51-year-old Cushman is one of many career patrollers at Squaw Valley. Cushman oversees 57 full-time patrollers, many of whom have worked more than 15 years on patrol, and 85 to 100 volunteer patrollers who have been at it as long or longer than their boss.

A normal weekday begins with a patrol meeting at 7:30 a.m. Cushman may organize his people a half-hour earlier on high volume days before checking the 4,000 acres of terrain and the 35 identified snow safety routes spread over five areas or complexes. There are 500 different slide patterns patrollers examine during their snow safety checks which are required any time Squaw Valley receives more than six inches of new snow. Patrollers can use up to 900 pounds of explosives in one day of control.

Still, Cushman and company typically get it open on time.

Cushman assigns his staff, generally 29 professionals on the mountain with the assistance of anywhere between 10 and 30 national, or volunteer, patrollers areas for three weeks at a time. This is so patrollers can monitor snow stability day to day, even hour to hour if necessary, and know how conditions have been over a period of time. This commitment to safety is an absolute and is accompanied by a certain work ethic.

“It’s a consciousness (the patroller) brings to the work place. (Squaw Valley) Ski Corp. invests in their patrol. We don’t recruit. People really interested can find us. And those people care and are excited about their jobs,” said Cushman.

Most training comes through an apprentice program and on the job. But instruction isn’t simply by patrollers for patrollers. Ski patrol is just as concerned with educating the skiing public on safety and avalanche awareness. For Cushman, it’s a grass-roots approach that begins with teaching ski school students and other youth programs how to be good Patrollers also use fund-raisers throughout the year, the Snow Gods Ball in particular, to raise scholarship money for community members interested in attending the National Avalanche School, the International Snow Science Workshops and/or local classes.

In the winter, the patrollers offer weekly avalanche beacon training classes on Fridays at the Squaw Valley Fire Department.

It’s a year-round pursuit that Cushman’s patrollers embrace.

“I’m motivated and my people are motivated because (our) kids ski here and (our) friends’ kids ski here,” said Cushman.

Cushman’s crew isn’t the only group concentrating on safety. His people focus on skiers/riders moving down the mountain while King and his retinue of lift mechanics watch out for upwardly mobile skiers.

Perhaps the resort’s most versatile employees, mechanics also begin the day early, the hour depending on conditions and day.

For the backup patrollers, product testers and equipment gurus, that time is usually 7 a.m., but it can be a half-hour before that on weekends and at 6 a.m. on powder days. If it storms through the night, there are people on-site running the lifts around the clock to make sure the equipment doesn’t freeze up.

Operations start with the same basic procedure, no matter if the lift is a fixed-grip lift transporting passengers at 400 vertical feet per minute like the Riviera lift or a detachable six-pak such as the Gold Coast Express hustling up the mountain at 1,000 vfm.

A mechanic duo inspects each lift, checking brake alignment, tire pressure, gear boxes, disc brakes and so on. Once the internals of the wheelhouse are secured, then mechanics check each carrier and then the wheelhouse mechanism again. That’s before a single customer sits on a chair. On top of that, mechanics also ride the lift, checking for anything unusual or unwelcome – all day, in morning and afternoon shifts.

“It’s not like walking out on the wing and checking the engine of a 747,” said King.

Though standards aren’t much different. Those in the uphill transportation business are considered by government agencies and insurance companies as common carriers and the regulations are as extensive and sophisticated as those for airlines.

“We check every grip, every carrier, every terminal and the cable,” said Chris Woo, an assistant upper mountain supervisor who has been in lift maintenance for six years. “Our lifts run at a safety factor of eight, meaning they are eight times safer than what’s needed.”

Two teams of mechanics work the mountain at a time, with seven on the upper mountain and seven on the lower, ready for any lift at any time.

“We’re geared up for everything to run every day,” said King.

Like patrollers and their specific complexes, mechanics are assigned to a lift for several days. On top of this, lifts like the Funitel and Gold Coast Express are completely automated and computerized.

Mechanics and operators monitor the lifts all day with a midday check of the internal workings and watching for such things as how fast the carriers enter and leave the terminals “Lifts act differently, depending on the weather,” said Woo, saying that a lift is, after all, much like an automobile.


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