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Alpine patrol starts early to make slopes safe

Paul Raymore, Sierra Sun
Paul RaymorePatroller Justin Klein pauses atop Ward Peak at Alpine Meadows to admire the sunrise over Lake.
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Consider the following scenario…

It’s 4:30 a.m. Friday morning. Awakened by the howling of coyotes in your backyard, you glance out your window to discover that six inches of fresh snow have fallen overnight, blanketing the town in a shroud of white.

Hoping to get some fresh tracks before the weekend crowds arrive, you set your alarm clock for 7:30 a.m., so you can get your gear together and make it to the mountain by 8:30 a.m., when the first lifts start running.

When your alarm goes off, one call to the Alpine Meadows snow phone confirms that it’s going to be a good day: They’re reporting 14 inches of powder on top with a current temperature of 28 degrees.

You’re out the door by 8 a.m., in the parking lot 15 minutes later, and waiting in line at 8:25 a.m. with about 30 other die-hards staring up the hill, drooling at the thought of all those untracked lines just calling your name …

Mornings like this remind many Truckee residents of why they live in the mountains, but for the 28 men and women who make up the Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol, the new snow means it’s time to go to work.

Keeping the mountain safe for Alpine Meadows’ guests is always a challenge, but never more so than after a heavy storm system has dumped a layer of new snow on the mountain, elevating the avalanche danger to extreme levels.

On days with significant snowfall the night before, 364 avalanche paths must be controlled before all areas on the mountain can be opened to resort guests, a task that has Avalanche Director Gary Murphy in the patrol room by 5 a.m. on powder days.

“Basically, every avalanche path here, at one time or another, has threatened all the lifts down here; they threaten our parking lot and the road too. So it’s a full-on war here when the avalanche hazards exist,” Murphy said.

Murphy begins his day by taking a look at the weather data recorded at the resort during the previous 24 hours. Snow totals, temperature readings, wind speeds and other factors all get compiled into an avalanche forecast for the day, which Murphy then shares with the other patrollers gathered in the ski patrol headquarters.

While Murphy and Assistant Avalanche Director Gene Urie are coming up with an avalanche forecast, other patrollers are preparing the dynamite that will be used on the mountain to trigger small-scale slides in the hopes of preventing major ones. In their battle to prevent avalanches within the resort’s boundaries, Alpine’s patrollers sometimes carry as much as 600 pounds of explosives onto the hill.

While hiking along alpine ridges with 30 pounds of explosives stashed in one’s backpack may not sound like fun to everybody, the chance to do avalanche forecasting and prevention is a big part of the attraction of working for the Alpine ski patrol, according to Larry Heywood, Alpine’s director of mountain operations.

“I think what keeps guys coming back here is the avalanche problem and the exhilaration of those storms,” Heywood said. “There’re a lot of rewards in that, though certainly they’re not financial. So we’re lucky that we have a good strong patrol and turnover is relatively low.”

Though maintaining a solid group of experienced patrollers has become more difficult for Alpine and other Tahoe resorts due to the high cost of living in this region, patrollers at Alpine enjoy the sense of camaraderie among the group and the freedom to work outdoors during the winter.

Ray Belli, Alpine’s current ski patrol director, summed up what has kept him on the patrol for more than 30 years: “The enjoyment, the outdoors, the challenge; and it’s just an interesting type of workplace and something I like to do,” he said.

Senior Patroller Sean McAllister agreed: “Just being into mountaineering, the backcountry, and things like that … that’s how I got into it. And I just kind of kept doing it. I got in with a good group of people and I’ve come back year after year.”

According to McAllister, the patroller lifestyle attracts a broad range of outdoor enthusiasts.

“We’ve got all walks of life here,” he said. “We’ve got family guys who’ve got kids and are carpenters in the summer; we’ve got the younger guys. It’s kind of a motley crew of people, so to speak. There are more wild guys and there are more mellow, regular people.”

Working as a ski patroller during the winter often means making a financial sacrifice, as patroller pay rates have not kept up with the cost of living in the area. But the seasonal nature of the work does allow many of the patrollers to work as carpenters, firefighters or at other seasonal jobs during the summer months.

“The standard thing is that a patroller works in the wintertime, and then we’ve got a lot of guys who are carpenters or contractors who work a real job in the summer and then work here for three or four months,” said McAllister, adding that patrolling is “kind of like a paid vacation; and then you go back to real work in the summer.”

Though the financial rewards of the job aren’t great, Alpine’s patrollers do receive other perks, including season passes for family members and equipment deals on skis, bindings, backpacks and other gear.

And while it is getting more difficult to attract new recruits into the patrol, Murphy emphasizes that they are still very selective about who they employ.

“It takes a lot of experience to be a patroller. First of all, they have to be an EMT. They have to have some sort of explosives experience. A mountaineer, a strong person who can handle sleds and steep terrain. They’ve got to be an expert skier and be able to handle any kind of terrain whatsoever, and we like them to have some avalanche knowledge … They have to have all those qualities to be a ski patroller here. We don’t just take anybody.”

Fortunately for director Ray Belli, finding people with those skills and a love of the mountains is not too difficult in the area.

“A lot of the guys on patrol, even on their days off, they’ll go skiing or climbing peaks,” he said. “They’re definitely not the type of people who would do an indoor job during the winter.”

In the hypothetical scenario mentioned above, the patrollers at Alpine Meadows would have been on the mountain by 6 a.m., throwing bombs on slide paths and determining what areas of the mountain are safe to open.

Typically, after a big storm, the resort will shrink down until the patrol has had a chance to ensure that most of the avalanche danger within the resort’s boundaries has been controlled.

“The public has become more demanding and wants more terrain open,” Murphy said. “So we try to give as much of that terrain to them without putting them at risk.”

While the public may be more demanding these days, most of the patrollers at Alpine feel like they have a good relationship with the people they serve and protect.

“Most times, people are respectful, and the locals kind of know what we do … We know a lot of the skiers, and people are pretty nice,” McAllister said.

Respect, for the dangers inherent in the mountains, and for the patrollers who keep those dangers to a minimum, is something skiers and snowboarders often neglect to think about. So the next time you see a patroller at your favorite ski resort, why not let them know they’re appreciated.


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