Stories from the Schweitzer Ski Patrol
Schweitzer patrollers recall the highlights of
working on the mountain
- By Sandy Compton
It’s not quite light and nukin’ snow, as ski patrol says. A snowmobile with two men on it sweeps past the Great Escape, skis and poles balanced on the machine with them. In the gloom, I just make out white crosses on their backs before they are out of sight. The silence closes back together, and I hear the creak of a wind-blown chair swinging on a lift cable.
Ski Patrol has gone to work.
In 1974, a 15-year-old girl came to Midway of Chair One at what was then Schweitzer Basin and told the lift operator her brother was buried in an avalanche. The operator called the patrolman at the top of the chair, 21-year-old Duane “Blackie” Black, who told the liftie, “Send her up.”
“We had three radios on the mountain then,” Black said, “so I phoned the bottom to notify our posse of a possible burial.” The “posse” was every able-bodied skier working on the mountain.
While this group mobilized, the girl took Blackie to where she had last seen her brother, 15 feet into the no-ski zone that the South Bowl was then.
“Everything from A-chute to the C’s had come down,” said Black, “a slide 200 yards wide.”
With Tom Anderson calling cadence, “Probe left. Probe right. Probe forward. Move up,” a line of searchers using 16-foot aluminum probes began across the rubble pile.
The boy’s chances dwindled fast. At 6 minutes, survival rate for someone buried in an avalanche is 50 percent; at 10 minutes, 25 percent; 15 minutes, 5 percent. It was at the 90-minute mark that Anderson’s probe hit the buried skier, and the digging began.
John Olson, patroller since 1971, says that the difference between fairy tales and patrol stories is that fairy tales begin “Once upon a time,” and patrol stories begin, “No (expletive deleted), there I was, and I thought I was gonna die.” Not every patrol story begins like this. Some end like this, and when you ask, “Well? What happened?” the teller says, “So-and-so showed up and got me out of the jam.”
Writing about Schweitzer Ski Patrol is like writing a Russian novel. There is a lot of snow and wind and a huge cast of characters to whom numerous and sometimes not-so-pleasant adventures happen. (It’s easier to remember the names, though – and I’m not making any of this up. The stories all belong to someone else.) Black is expert at telling ski patrol stories. “In 1963 – or was it ’64? Let me think … ”
He’s only been on patrol since 1972, so Black didn’t actually witness this, but patrol stories often have vague time frames. After you’ve patrolled for 30-plus years, it ceases to matter when it happened as much as it does that you survived it. Not everyone does when things go sideways on the mountain.
“Maybe it was ’64,” he continues. “Anyway, a woman skiing in South Bowl got onto a big patch of ice, slid into a tree and died. Sam closed South Bowl for 13 years.” (Everything 100 yards south of Chair One and above the top of the T-bars was closed.)
Any monolithic statement about “Sam” refers to Sam Wormington, who supervised the installation of Chair One and ran Schweitzer for 14 years.
Wormington hired original patrol director Jessie Mask – qualified by the fact that he was painting bathroom floors at night – and put him in charge of other young men who couldn’t ski either. They learned together.
“I paid $35 for a new pair of wooden skis.” Mask said. “Broke one tip off the first week. By the time we had our first aid, though, most of us could ski – and get a toboggan down the hill.”
Mask put current Patrol Director John Pucci on patrol in 1965. He told Pucci, an operator on Chair One, that the only way he would get on patrol was if someone broke something, so when Gary Valliers broke his leg, Pucci had mixed emotions. Valliers patrolled again. When he stopped in 1977, Pucci was his boss, having become patrol boss in 1975.
Pucci’s training was not as exacting as patrolmen receive now. Toboggan class was short and not-so-sweet. On top of Chair One, Mask told him, “Take this sled to the bottom and bring it back up.” Pucci did, in less-than-graceful fashion, prompting a lady skier along the way to say, “Thank God there’s nobody in there.” Pucci was already doing that.
Sled training isn’t the only thing that has gotten more thorough. In the ’60s, patroller Bill Currie’s dad, Fred, taught a day of basic first aid to patrollers in exchange for a ski pass. Now, an 80-hour Outdoor Emergency Care course is required for patrol, with a two-day refresher every year.
Currie began on patrol in 1965, when “we didn’t patrol above Midway, which was OK. Nobody knew how to ski powder anyway, and Sam had the South Bowl closed. The most common injuries now are wrists, tweaked knees and backs. Then it was broken legs.”
Mask recounted splinting a dozen breaks in a single day in 1965. Broken legs still happen, but not as often; and Michael Thompson recalled an incident on Headwall when both he and an injured skier thought it was a broken leg. “I felt the leg and something sure was wrong. So, when Jonah (Pucci) and Jay Leeper showed up, we put him in a traction splint.”
This device tucks up into the crotch of a victim and very assertively pulls the leg straight, preventing further damage inside the leg from the broken bone. In this case, though, it pulled the skier’s dislocated knee back into place.
“In the meantime, his wife is thanking me for saving her husband’s life.”
All in a day’s work, ma’am.
The workdays have changed. In 1966, Mask said, “Patrol’s first duty was to shovel the steps and balconies of the day lodge, then shovel and pack the ramps at the bottom, Midway and top of Chair One.”
Now, early day is not so mundane, but time for avalanche control work, something that has also changed over time. Avalanche control in the ’60s was minimal but interesting.
“We had a nitrogen cannon on the knob just south of Midway,” Mask says. Using compressed nitrogen, this device lobbed finned “beer cans” full of explosives at the cornice in the South Bowl, with the idea that concussion would knock them down. Sometimes it worked.
A cornice, if you don’t know, is a big overhang of snow built by the wind on the lee side at the top of steep slopes. They are prime avalanche starters.
“The cannon was used when we got it,” Pucci said, “and didn’t have all its parts. The charges were lit, stuffed into the gun and shot toward the ridge. Once, we put a lit charge in, pulled the trigger and nothing happened. It was like a cartoon – everyone diving off that knob in all directions.”
The charge turned out to be a dud.
“In the ’70s, we knocked down cornices in the South Bowl in the middle of the day ’cause no one could get over there anyway. Took out the top of T-Bar 2 twice. Then Sam sent me to Whistler for an avalanche course, and I wrote a snow plan for Schweitzer.”
John Pucci and Arlene Cook in 1999
In 1977, with avalanche control work minimizing the danger, Wormington reopened the previously forbidden portion of South Bowl.
“We bought our first defibrillator by giving tours of the South Ridge for a dollar each,” Black recalls.
Part of patrol’s job on a daily basis is to make sure snow slides down the hill on demand rather than piling up to dangerous weights that might release unexpectedly and, well, kill someone. They do this by various means, but the most common is the use of dynamite “bombs.” Everybody’s got a bomb story and an avalanche story. Sometimes, they are the same story.
“The most exciting part of the job,” Greg Gibson said, “is shooting the cornice in the North Bowl when you can’t see the edge.”
Six years ago, when Harbor Properties began to guarantee lift opening, control work became more important still.
Mike Rogers, patroller since 1982, says: “A couple of guys take the early-early call, go to the top in the dark, generally on a snowmobile. One guy goes to Six, the other to One, and we assemble bombs.
“It’s hard to read the mountain; wind, snow, what the load is, so if I think we need 10, I make 12. It’s not good to get out there and not have enough. Then the early-call folks show up and we go throw bombs.”
Jay Hall, Steve Brown and Assistant Patrol Director Arlene Cook were throwing bombs in the North Bowl, ready to drop one at Shot Point Ten, just above the Banana Chute. “I had the explosives,” Cook said, “and Jay had Brownie on belay. The snow was hard, and not much had been falling (from the bombs). Steve put a hole in the cornice with his pole and a crack opened right between his feet. The whole thing ripped out from Upper Kaniksu to us. Jay pulled Brownie out, and the slide took all the ice out of Colburn Lake.”
Ted Cook launches off the cornice in South Bowl, pulling
a Cascade Tobaggan behind him.
Photo by Ken Barcelou, Courtesy of Cascade Toboggah
Cook has also had the thrill of hearing someone on the radio say: “Ted (her husband) just went over. I’ll call you back when I know more.” Ted survived the slide, but he skied to Number Six Midway on one ski and shaky legs. Rogers has ridden one, too. “It made me realize that my greatest fear wasn’t being suffocated but being pummeled to death at 120 miles per hour,” he said. Black’s slide ended with him buried, but when he picked up his head, it came out of the snow. His patrol buddy Frank Stonebarger then skied over and stood on his chest. Patrol humor is sometimes on the dark side.
Pucci rode one under Chair One. “Three of us were ski-cutting the Face, and Jon Jaeger (then patrol director) yelled, ‘Hang on! You’re going down.’ It picked me up and buried me. When it stopped, I couldn’t breathe. That’s about as scared as I’ve ever been, but the slide started again, and I ended up buried to my waist. Phil Owens was there, but Glen Phillips was missing.
“A liftie riding up the chair yells, ‘Over there! Something’s moving over there!’ Glen had one finger out of the snow, and it was wiggling.”
It’s not all about adrenaline. Arlene recalls the satisfaction of finding an autistic boy who bolted from his mother at the bottom of Chair Six. Scott Hadley, who patrolled for 30 years, said: “The most satisfying thing was taking care of the injured, wiping a tear out of their eyes. Working with the kids, making sure that they were happy. That’s what the job was about, making sure that people were taken care of, kept healthy and happy.”
It’s about family, too. Pucci met his wife, Joan, in a lift line at Schweitzer, as Hadley met his bride, Jackie. Ted and Arlene Cook have almost as much time married as they do on patrol. They met on the mountain. Pucci’s sons, Jonah and Allo, both patrol, and there are some other patrol family members coming up who will be wearing the red coat with the white cross on the back.
This family goes beyond blood. Currie, who has been back on patrol for five years after a hiatus in Alaska, said: “We’re a family group who helps each other. We’re concerned about each other’s welfare. I’m the oldest guy on the crew, but it keeps me about 12 years old every day I go up there.”
Meanwhile, back at Eichardt’s, Black finishes the story of the first avalanche probing back in 1974.
“When we found him, we started dinging, and when we got about three feet down, we came to his head. He was breathing! We dug him out and strapped him to a sled and took off for the lodge. We get him to First Aid, and the doctor takes his temperature. He’s 92 degrees. He’s supposed to be dead.”
Black grins. “So, (Craig) Harris and I strip down to our skivvies and get under the covers with him. He was cold to the touch, but we warmed him up.”
All in a day’s work for a patroller. All in a day’s work.
Black finishes his beer. “Wanta hear the best part?” he asks.
Of course I do.
“The next day, I’m working at the top of Chair Four, and about 11 o’clock in the morning, I look out the window, and here comes that kid, riding up the chair.”
Another Schweitzer Ski Patrol success story.
It’s snowing hard and a bit foggy to boot. I’m riding beloved old Chair Six out of the back side. It’s last ride, I’m the last man on the chair and it’s completely silent except for the hum of the cable running over the tower rollers. As my chair comes up out of the woods, swinging up the hill above Kaniksu, a single, dark figure comes out of the gloom and stops almost below me. “Clo-osing,” the figure sings. “Clo-o-o-osing.” I watch over my shoulder as he goes on his way, making graceful arcs into a white oblivion. I can barely make out the white cross on the red coat, but I know who he is.
All in a day’s work.