SKI PATROL: IN THE HANDLES – Taking A Front Row Seat At CSPS Patroller Training

Week of January 7, 2010, Issue #742

Kirk Zembal /

It’s an unfortunately common sight on ski hills the world over: some poor skier or boarder has caught an edge, cased a landing, fell off a rail or collided with a tree, lift tower or fellow skier. They’re lying prone on the snow surrounded by a few onlookers. Someone yells out, “Get ski patrol!”

Soon, a first-aid-trained patroller comes skiing down and tends to the casualty. Here in Canada they’re often wearing a blue-and-yellow jacket emblazoned with a blue maple leaf inset with a yellow cross—and they’re volunteers. They are, of course, your friendly neighborhood Canadian Ski Patrol System patrollers.

I’ve been lucky on the hills—knock on wood—in that I’ve never been one of those tended to by CSPS patrollers. So it was with curiosity that I headed out to Rabbit Hill to talk to the Edmonton Division of the CSPS and observe one of their training days. On the docket were the final on-hill evaluations of the new first-year patrollers.

As luck would have it, it was the now-infamous “second-coldest-place-on-the-planet” morning. For most people, being informed that the thermometer was reading -42 C would be grounds for a postponement. It’s a tribute to the professionalism of the CSPS that the first-year patrollers and trainers continued booting up without any talk of rescheduling.

When it gets this cold, says John Nesbitt, Edmonton Division’s VP of Communications, “if a lift were to go down skiers would become hypothermic in minutes and it would be our job to get them down and to shelter.” This means, simply, that the CSPS doesn’t take a day off, no matter the weather. If the lifts are turning, patrollers will be on duty.

Today, the main event is to see how the new recruits, in the bitter cold, performed “in the handles”—that is, towing the Cascade toboggans that are a constant companion to the trained ski patroller. A simulated casualty situation is set up on the slope and the rookies’ job is to deal with the first-aid emergency and get them off the hill.

It’s clear that everyone out here, recruits and trainers alike, is taking these drills seriously.

This is the culmination of 64 hours of training—twice weekly for seven weeks—that primes a rookie patroller for the big show. All will be affiliated with a local ski hill and in subsequent seasons—and sometimes in their rookie season—they will have an opportunity to patrol at Marmot Basin, which the 150-patroller strong Edmonton Division is tasked with covering as well to complement Marmot’s permanent, paid patrollers. According to Nesbitt, “We deal with an average of eight casualties a day at Marmot Basin. It’s inevitable with an average of several thousand skiers a day.”

Fortunately, all the recruits today have succeeded admirably—with constant input from the trainers, they’ve demonstrated the fundamental steps: unload the toboggan, deal with the first-aid situation, load the toboggan and get the casualty down and off the hill safely.

These skills are not only essential on patrol, but could come in handy at the CSPS Mountain Division Toboggan Competitions in March. As the seasoned veteran George Tribe—the weekend’s training coordinator—tells stories of racing a toboggan filled with sandbags through slalom gates, I reckon he’d be the right guy to ask for my first—and hopefully last—toboggan ride down the hill. My offhand thanks as I get out probably pales by an order of magnitude to the thanks I’d have given had this been an emergency where I actually needed to be evacuated off the hill.

At least now, if that unfortunate time does come and I’m laying in a daze, cold and staring up into the sky and the first thing I see is a bold blue-and-yellow jacket, I’ll know I’m in good hands.

So you want to be a ski patroller?

The process of becoming a CSPS Patroller couldn’t be simpler. Just talk to a patroller. They’ll answer any questions you may have and let you know about the time commitment and technical requirements and training involved in being a volunteer patroller. They might even tell you about the perks and the swag.

At the end of this conversation, they should hand you a yellow card. Fill out the front and get them to fill out the back and tear off the bottom. You’ll keep the top and they’ll submit the bottom to head office. Pretty soon you’ll get a call from John Nesbitt and he’ll take it from there.

The Edmonton Division also holds on-hill recruitment days at local hills.

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