How to Become a Member of the Ski Patrol
Ever wondered what it takes to become a member of the ski patrol at your local mountain? Expert Zach C. lays it all out for you.
Anyone who has ever been skiing in the resorts has seen Ski Patrol on the mountain in one way or another. Whether they have been roping off the sections of the mountain, carrying injured skiers and snowboarders down the slopes in sleds, or performing avalanche mitigation in the early hours of the day, they are the ones responsible for keeping the mountain and its patrons safe throughout the season.
We sat down and talked with Chris Hoffman, a senior patroller at Homewood Mountain Resort in Lake Tahoe, about what the requirements are to be a patroller and what the best steps are to becoming one. If you are considering joining them this winter, this article is a reference on exactly what their day to day operations look like, and what you need to know in order to perform all the tasks necessary to make sure that you make the cut!
A Day in the Life
Before we dive into the requirements, we should first take a look at what patrol does and what their daily schedule looks like. The first step of any patroller's day is waking up before the crack of dawn, eating a massive bowl of oatmeal, filling a thermos full of coffee, and heading to the mountain to look at the conditions presented from the snowfall and weather overnight. They observe avalanche reports and snow conditions to forecast any slide danger that may be present, and then choose which sections of the resort they plan on opening.
They then take the chair up and begin detonating explosives in high-avalanche areas to trigger controlled slides and make sure that they won’t give out as more and more people ski on them. After they have done this, they rope off any areas that will remain closed for the day and head to the lodge to brief the heads of lift ops, ski school, and the rest of the mountain on snow conditions and the weather forecast so they know about any expected dangers (high winds, excessive snowfall, temperature fluctuations) expected as the day continues.
From here, the rest of the day is spent out on the hill continuing avalanche mitigation to open up more of the mountain, and responding to any calls they receive on the radio about any guest that may have been injured or in need of assistance, oftentimes acting as the first step in the process of getting injured patrons to the medical care and attention they may need. At the end of the day, they sweep the mountain one more time to ensure that no one is left on the mountain after they close, and take the last chair back to the lodge to finish any reports that happened on that specific day.
Skiing Capabilities and Qualifications
Now that we know about what patrol gets up to on any given day, the first question you need to ask yourself is if you meet the skiing requirements for that specific resort's patrol standards. Ski patrollers are expected to be able to ski every inch of the mountain, not only to be able to rescue any skiers that get hurt or stuck in dangerous terrain, but also to be able to properly execute avalanche mitigation and explosive detonation. This requires being able to get into (and more importantly out of) hazardous terrain and conditions, so making sure that you can actually ski this is incredibly important as safety is always the top priority.
Another factor that comes with patrolling, is whether or not you can actually be on your feet skiing for the entire day. While you often see patrol hanging in the shack and listening for calls, they spend almost all of their time out on the mountain changing signs, ropes, and poles to open it up to the public. This requires its members to be in great physical shape as this often means hiking out to untouched territory in deep snow, and being able to patrol throughout the mountain as the day goes on. While someone may be the best skier on the mountain, if they do not have the stamina to perform these tasks patrol may not be the best skiing career for them to pursue.
If you believe that you meet these requirements, upon signing up and moving through the hiring process, you will be tested on your skiing ability and stamina, often while shadowing a senior patroller throughout their day.
The next step in becoming a member of the Ski Patrol is ensuring that you have the proper medical certifications required for the position. Due to the fact that patrol is the first line in medical care for any skiers and snowboarders that are injured on the mountain, patrollers need to be able to respond quickly and efficiently to minimize any risks that these injuries pose. Almost every mountain in the United States requires that their patrollers have their Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification and their Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) certification. These have both been required by the National Ski Patrol since the 1980’s, and there is no way to get around them if you want to be a patroller.
The EMT course is approximately 120 to 150 hours of classroom and exercises, and covers information regarding immediate medical care in emergency situations. The OEC courses are approximately 80-plus hours of classroom learning andon hill exercises, with an emphasis on providing resources to non-urban first responders.
Luckily, these courses are offered at a number of community colleges and programs throughout the country, and can also be found with an emphasis on ski-related injuries and protocols in mountain towns and resort areas. These specific courses will greatly increase your chances of knowing what is required when you are tested on the mountain, and will let you get to know the community you will be working in too.
Another course that you may or may not need to take is your Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification. This course is a five- to nine-day intensive course, similar to the EMT and OEC, but has an emphasis on providing medical care in environments with limited equipment and resources, which makes it a perfect course for patrolling as you will be performing emergency care on the side of a mountain. WFR requirements vary from mountain to mountain, so I would recommend contacting the resort you are thinking of working at to see if they do. That being said, extra education never hurt anyone so it's never a bad idea to obtain this certification. Plus, many of those who enjoy skiing also enjoy getting out into nature in the summertime with activities such as climbing and backpacking, and a WFR is a great resource to have out there as well.
Once you have your EMT, OEC, and WFR certifications, the next step on your journey to becoming a patroller is to be able to identify and mitigate avalanches. This is a bit different than the medical certifications, as these requirements also vary from mountain to mountain. Some resorts will require you to have an AIARE 1 (Avy 1) certification; others will train you through their own means in order to qualify you to work for them.
With this in mind, if you are already thinking about joining patrol, you have probably thought about getting into the backcountry as well. If that is the case, Chris would recommend signing up for an Avalanche course anyway. This will allow you not only to have a leg up in the hiring and recruitment process, but also give you all of the tools you need in order to ski the backcountry safely.
These courses typically span the length of a three-day/24-hour course, and can be found throughout the country through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. They cover identifying avalanche prone terrain and conditions, avalanche rescue practices, and proper beacon usage when skiing with partners. Again, while this may not be a requirement at the specific resort you are applying to, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have this knowledge if you want to get out of bounds and be able to ski the backcountry safely.
Get in Contact with Your Resort
With all of this information in mind, you should now know the requirements and certifications required of any good ski patroller. The last steps in the process are applying to the position through your resorts website, and qualifying through their tests and examinations. Personally, Chris would recommend that you head up to the resort early in the season and ask to talk to either the head patroller or the person in charge of mountain safety. They will give you all of the requirements and information needed for their resort, and let you get a feel for that specific department. Plus, it's easier to make a connection face to face with a box of donuts or bagels for the squad, rather than through a resume online.
For more information on the specific programs and requirements, I have linked them in the article and down below as well. Keep in mind that many ski patrol positions are highly competitive as it is one of the most important and prestigious jobs on the mountain. But if you can ski long hours, identify and eliminate avalanches, save lives, and rip lines, then you should be out patrolling the slopes in no time at all. Hopefully this article helped you find what you needed, and hopefully I won’t be seeing you in the back of the sled!