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Bearing the Cross

Bearing the Cross

Features
By Nathaniel Reade
posted: 02/02/2004

Dan Elliott is paid just over minimum wage to work outside when it's 30 below or pouring rain. He gets bled on, flipped off and worked over. He's ignored by most of us, unless we're complaining, injured or breaking the rules. Yet when called upon, he must risk his own life to save ours. Elliott, a ski patroller, is part of the safety net that we take for granted. So why does he love his job? Walk in his boots for just one day, and the mystery begins to unravel.

Saturday, 5 a.m. Most skiers are still snoring when Elliott's alarm clock goes off. His workday starts and ends in the dark. By 6:15, this red-haired, 5-foot-8-inch patroller is sitting on a bench in the locker room below the base lodge at Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine, suiting up.

Several patrollers rub their bare feet with antiperspirant; feet that don't sweat won't fill boots with chilling moisture. When someone complains about a leaky "breathable" jacket, Elliott recommends a special product to wash and re-wax it. "Yep," says this 45-year-old, 18-year veteran with a gift for accents and an almost-manic enthusiasm for life, "the secret to patrolling is to wash your jacket, powder your feet and watch your ass."

Yet most ski patrollers not only don't watch their backsides, they tend to do exactly the opposite. "Patrolling is totally about deviant behavior," Elliott says. "Just like how the best game wardens are former poachers." Patrollers cut their own secret trails. They pull pranks. They build potato cannons. "You need really good Idahos," says a co-worker named Bart. "Nice and round."

One year, a Sunday River patroller "liberated" a stuffed coyote from a local restaurant, and someone dressed it in a little red homemade jacket with a white cross. Each morning they'd stand it outside their patrol shack. "It was on the job list," Elliott says. "No. 4 was 'put out the coyote.'"

Elliott is particularly known for such antics. "I don't think I'd want to be my manager, I'll tell you that," he says. A few years ago, with the former patrol director on the back of a snowmobile, he approached the first-aid station at the base of South Ridge and said, "How much you wanna bet I can drive this sled through the patrol room?" The director said he wouldn't dare. So Elliott drove on in. "The general manager wasn?t too happy about it. And the patients lying there on gurneys were a little surprised, too."

"Dan has set the bar here for deviant behavior," says another patroller, "but he's also highly competent."

6:30 a.m. Roll call. The patrollers are in uniform, listening to Sunday River Patrol Director Tim Bruce. He lists today's special events on the hill, work assignments, spots that need bamboo or signs. Three paid patrollers will work each of the mountain's four zones today, supplemented later by about 30 volunteers: doctors, lawyers, carpenters, who in return for a set number of service days get season passes for themselves and their families. They're all tested and certified by the National Ski Patrol, the world's largest winter rescue organization.

Outside, the patrollers speak their own language: Lift One, Zone Three, Code Two. Even the "sno-mos," or snowmobiles, that they'll use to haul yesterday's toboggans back up the mountain have names: Layla, High Roller, Mr. Freeze. The air is cold, the eastern sky tinged red, the snow around the ski racks and lifts still showing the corduroy grooves of the groomers.

As they ride up the lift, Elliott and his co-workers check the cable above. Is it riding on all the wheels? Is it making any strange noises? Then they ski each of the trails, checking for obstacles, from ice chunks to beer cans. "Most of the job," he says, "is picking stuff up. We pick up bamboo, we pick up rocks, we pick up people. We're basically janitors."

The runs are freshly groomed and creamy smooth. On powder days, checking trails is a perk: fresh tracks, hours before the customers arrive. Elliott has been yelled aty the paying public for spoiling the freshies. "But hey," Elliott says, "what they forget is that we're out here every day, including when it's 60 below and when it's 33 and raining."What's their professional technique for dealing with rain? "You just put your hood up and your head down and get soaked," Elliott says.

"These fabulous vented helmets?" chimes in Sam Langlois, Elliott's supervisor today. "They leak." Jonesy, assistant patrol director, takes a proactive approach: "I just put my gloves in the toilet before I go out so I won't suffer any disappointment later."

8:15 a.m. By now the patrollers have swept all the runs in their zones. Elliott sees skiers on the top of White Heat and says in a television game show announcer voice, "The public is here." He checks in at the "top shack," a little cave beneath the unloading platform at the top of the chairlift. It's about the size of a sauna and nearly as warm; a gas-powered stove is cranking. Patrollers meticulously record which trails they've swept and when.

Now, unless they've got work projects to do, the patrollers sit, and wait, and while they're waiting, they talk. One favorite topic among patrollers is us-the public. Today Elliott is recounting the time he came upon a tourist who spoke no English, writhing in pain in the middle of the slope, grabbing his feet and screaming.

"So I do the initial survey," Elliott says, "and I don't find anything. Finally I unbuckle his boot, which lessens the screaming a little. Then I look inside and see the top of his tasseled penny loafer. So I kind of mime to him, 'No shoes.' 'Oh.?"

9:12 a.m. The first code comes over the radio. It's nothing too gory-the patient has brought himself into the first-aid room at the base of White Cap-but Elliott flies down black-diamond Obsession. Most people assume that ski patrollers are the best skiers on the mountain, but some are better at driving a toboggan than carving turns. Dan Elliott's first day wearing a patrol jacket was also his first on skis. He'd been hired in the mid-'80s at a small ski area in New Hampshire that tested his medical credentials but just assumed he could ski. "For the first month," he says, "I tried to go where there were no people. If I saw someone, I'd just stop and wait for them to move along, so no one would actually see me ski." But Elliott is a gifted athlete who played football and baseball in high school, then picked up soccer and played on his college team. So by the time he had to ski with the assistant patrol director a month into the job, he says, "I was much better." Now he rips.

At the bottom, Elliott pops out of his skis and runs inside. The patient is a 13-year-old boy who fell on his head and shoulder in the terrain park. Elliot asks lots of questions. "What day is it? Where are you?" The boy's answers demonstrate that he's thinking clearly, but Elliott's probing fingers reveal a broken collarbone. He puts the boy's arm in a sling, ices the spot with a plastic bag of snow and commences filling out a form with questions tailored to protect the resort from liability. "Do you wear glasses or contacts? Were you wearing them at the time? Do you own your own equipment? Who adjusted your bindings?" The boy goes off to the clinic with his mom for an X-ray.

Patrollers are a kind of reference book for ski injuries. Terrain parks, they say, produce a lot of "bilateral calcaneal" fractures, where flat landings cause a skier's heels to shatter. They talk about jumps as a way to get "hospital air." And skiboards, since they don't release, have ushered in the return of a lower leg fracture that improved binding design made nearly extinct 20 years ago: the "spiral tib fib," caused by twisting the tibia and fibula to the breaking point. Patrollers see the most accidents after lunch, from about one to three. After three, a lot of people go home.

I ask Elliott what's in his pack. "Beer." Then he pulls out a little first-aid guidebook and says, "and I use this in case I forget something." He's joking, of course. He's been an EMT since the early 1980s, has additional training in wilderness first aid, is finishing his second year of nursing school and has level-three avalanche training-more than many backcountry guides.

And his flippant attitude, Elliott admits, is partly a way to deal with the stress of the job. In 18 years of work, he's been covered with other people's blood and vomit. He's seen a ski pole poking through someone?s hand. He's put people on the life-flight helicopter to Portland and lost one patient, a heart-attack victim, just outside the base lodge. "It can definitely have a detrimental effect on people," he says. How does he cope? "I figure, I'm there when they need me the most, and they're probably pretty happy to see me."

Just as Elliott is finishing up the paperwork on the 13-year-old, an older woman who fell on her wrist walks in. He gives her ice, starts another form and listens as the woman complains about kids skiing too fast. "I told some of them to slow down," she says, "and they told me to learn how to ski. You should do something about that."

Patrollers are the EMTs of skiing, but they're also the police. If skiers duck a rope on a closed trail, a patroller must find them. If someone jumps off a chairlift, they must track him down and explain that he could derail the cable. Elliott once found a group of 30 kids hanging out at a shack they'd made in the woods that was built and furnished entirely with things they'd stolen from the ski area, from trail signs to base-lodge chairs.

Patrollers must enforce the ski area's rules, but they?re also not supposed to touch anyone. That's why, Elliott says, "skier intervention is an art form." His peers say he's one of the masters, perhaps because he's spent many summers working with tempestuous adolescents for Outward Bound. One patroller described with amazement the day she came upon Elliott pulling tickets from two young men, and as they walked away, they actually thanked him.

1:10 p.m. In the Zone One top shack, Sam Langlois pulls a can of soup from her pack, pokes a hole in it with her Swiss Army knife and sets it on top of the gas heater. Elliot produces a sandwich. "Sometimes," he says, "we've found boxes of brownies or cases of soda that have fallen off the cats going up to the lodges. And needless to say, they don?t get returned." Almost all of the patrollers brown-bag. Even with an employee discount, they can't afford not to; these people might save your life, but at most ski areas, they make many $7 to $9 an hour-not much more than minimum wage.

The low pay is curious, considering the huge economic effect patrollers can have on a ski resort. The final arbiters of skier safety, patrollers decide when to open or close a trail. They ensure that pylons are properly padded, obstructions clearly marked. Their interactions with the public can placate people or chase them away. And they testify in court. Elliott has twice appeared for Sunday River at jury trials.

If he'd said the wrong thing, it could have cost the resort millions in awards and insurance premiums. Yet the former owner at Sunday River, Elliott says, saw the ski patrol as just a cost center, something to be controlled. "What he didn't realize," Elliott says, "is that we were saving him money."

3:45 p.m. The patrollers start "pulling ropes," closing trails where the lifts have already shut down. Later they'll have to wind up those ropes so the groomers can get through. Then they sweep each trail to make sure no one was left behind. While the ski patrol isn't responsible for anyone who skis out of bounds, they've been known to save the hides of those who do. Several years ago Elliott helped find a kid who'd skied off the backside of Barker Peak completely unequipped, dressed in jeans. If they hadn't rescued him that night, he might have died, or at least lost some toes.

5:25 p.m. It's dark outside the patrol room at South Ridge.s in case I forget something." He's joking, of course. He's been an EMT since the early 1980s, has additional training in wilderness first aid, is finishing his second year of nursing school and has level-three avalanche training-more than many backcountry guides.

And his flippant attitude, Elliott admits, is partly a way to deal with the stress of the job. In 18 years of work, he's been covered with other people's blood and vomit. He's seen a ski pole poking through someone?s hand. He's put people on the life-flight helicopter to Portland and lost one patient, a heart-attack victim, just outside the base lodge. "It can definitely have a detrimental effect on people," he says. How does he cope? "I figure, I'm there when they need me the most, and they're probably pretty happy to see me."

Just as Elliott is finishing up the paperwork on the 13-year-old, an older woman who fell on her wrist walks in. He gives her ice, starts another form and listens as the woman complains about kids skiing too fast. "I told some of them to slow down," she says, "and they told me to learn how to ski. You should do something about that."

Patrollers are the EMTs of skiing, but they're also the police. If skiers duck a rope on a closed trail, a patroller must find them. If someone jumps off a chairlift, they must track him down and explain that he could derail the cable. Elliott once found a group of 30 kids hanging out at a shack they'd made in the woods that was built and furnished entirely with things they'd stolen from the ski area, from trail signs to base-lodge chairs.

Patrollers must enforce the ski area's rules, but they?re also not supposed to touch anyone. That's why, Elliott says, "skier intervention is an art form." His peers say he's one of the masters, perhaps because he's spent many summers working with tempestuous adolescents for Outward Bound. One patroller described with amazement the day she came upon Elliott pulling tickets from two young men, and as they walked away, they actually thanked him.

1:10 p.m. In the Zone One top shack, Sam Langlois pulls a can of soup from her pack, pokes a hole in it with her Swiss Army knife and sets it on top of the gas heater. Elliot produces a sandwich. "Sometimes," he says, "we've found boxes of brownies or cases of soda that have fallen off the cats going up to the lodges. And needless to say, they don?t get returned." Almost all of the patrollers brown-bag. Even with an employee discount, they can't afford not to; these people might save your life, but at most ski areas, they make many $7 to $9 an hour-not much more than minimum wage.

The low pay is curious, considering the huge economic effect patrollers can have on a ski resort. The final arbiters of skier safety, patrollers decide when to open or close a trail. They ensure that pylons are properly padded, obstructions clearly marked. Their interactions with the public can placate people or chase them away. And they testify in court. Elliott has twice appeared for Sunday River at jury trials.

If he'd said the wrong thing, it could have cost the resort millions in awards and insurance premiums. Yet the former owner at Sunday River, Elliott says, saw the ski patrol as just a cost center, something to be controlled. "What he didn't realize," Elliott says, "is that we were saving him money."

3:45 p.m. The patrollers start "pulling ropes," closing trails where the lifts have already shut down. Later they'll have to wind up those ropes so the groomers can get through. Then they sweep each trail to make sure no one was left behind. While the ski patrol isn't responsible for anyone who skis out of bounds, they've been known to save the hides of those who do. Several years ago Elliott helped find a kid who'd skied off the backside of Barker Peak completely unequipped, dressed in jeans. If they hadn't rescued him that night, he might have died, or at least lost some toes.

5:25 p.m. It's dark outside the patrol room at South Ridge. Elliott's been on the job for 11 hours and says he had a pretty easy day: He's treated the broken collarbone, the sprained wrist, a broken leg, a broken arm and one concussion. As he changes back into his civilian clothes, I ask him again why he likes this job. He thinks maybe it's the co-workers. "I really like being a small part of a very large team that does something extremely well. These are highly capable, dedicated people who truly love to be outside skiing, and the camaraderie that develops is pretty unique. Last summer a volunteer patroller died in a car accident, so two patrollers rented a bus and 40 of us went down to his service on Cape Cod. There were more patrollers there than family."

He hikes off to his truck, parked far away in employee parking. "I'm not quite sure why I love it," he says. "But I'll always do it. I know I will." dge. Elliott's been on the job for 11 hours and says he had a pretty easy day: He's treated the broken collarbone, the sprained wrist, a broken leg, a broken arm and one concussion. As he changes back into his civilian clothes, I ask him again why he likes this job. He thinks maybe it's the co-workers. "I really like being a small part of a very large team that does something extremely well. These are highly capable, dedicated people who truly love to be outside skiing, and the camaraderie that develops is pretty unique. Last summer a volunteer patroller died in a car accident, so two patrollers rented a bus and 40 of us went down to his service on Cape Cod. There were more patrollers there than family."

He hikes off to his truck, parked far away in employee parking. "I'm not quite sure why I love it," he says. "But I'll always do it. I know I will."

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