WHAT IT TAKES: It's the toughest job you'll ever love—but this isn't the Peace Corps. Ski patrolling is part mountaineering, part triage and part guest-services. Professional patrollers must have strong alpine, telemark or snowboarding skills and the stamina to ski every day, all winter long—whether there's a blizzard or subzero temperatures. When called upon, patrollers must successfully negotiate any terrain or snow conditions. "You need to be a really strong skier—not pretty, but rock-solid, says Julie Rust, patrol director at Vail, Colo. "You've got to have a love for the great outdoors in all conditions. You need to be adventurous and enjoy constant surprise. You've got to be physically and mentally strong enough to get a big person"—in a toboggan—"down everything the mountain's got—and do it with confidence.
Patrollers thrive in adverse conditions. They rise before dawn to report for avalanche-control duty. They stay until nightfall to rescue lost skiers. They can single-handedly restrain a combative patient suffering from a concussion. They stay current with medical knowledge and are as compassionate about helping fallen skiers as they are passionate about skiing.
They aren't cops, though they may have to clip a lift ticket or issue a stern lecture when appropriate. Rather, they're the firefighters of the slopes: They can evacuate a chairlift full of people before anyone gets frostbite or calmly search for a buried avalanche victim. They're taught to make quick decisions—most of them minor,others life-or-death. They must be hardworking, but easygoing and flexible; independent, but also team players. And when duty requires them to make the first turns down a slope to "assess the skiability of three feet of snow, they must do so without complaint.
HOW TO GET THERE: First, find the right fit: Visit with patrollers at your home area or an area you've read about, and find out about their training, culture and terrain. Then get your OEC (Outdoor Emergency Care) or EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) certification; courses are commonly available at community colleges or ski areas themselves. Visit the National Ski Patrol's website (nsp.org) for information. Volunteer for local hospital, ambulance or fire department duty. Hang out in the mountains, where you'll identify and sharpen the skills applicable to patrolling. Ski as much as possible, and take a lesson if you have any weaknesses. And above all, get your boots dialed in for warmth and comfort: You'll be spending a lot of time in them.