Wintergreen ski patrol members work hard to keep the slopes safe

The teenage boy is slumped against the cinderblock wall in the Wintergreen Ski Patrol headquarters. He’s not speaking all that clearly, so Susanne Ebling gets close to his face. “Are you okay?” she practically shouts. “What’s wrong?”

In a matter of seconds, she calls for a wheelchair. The teen, about 15 or 16 with a fringe of blond hair hanging over his eyes, crumples into it.

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A crowd descends on him in the examining room, like something out of “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” minus the matching scrubs. The ski patrol members peel off several layers of the boy’s clothing, careful not to jostle the arm that seems to be the source of his pain.

Ebling’s diagnostic guess: a fractured wrist. Ouch.

It’s exactly the kind of injury you’d expect at a ski resort. This one will probably be a “long form,” the crew’s euphemism for broken legs, concussions and other similar injuries that require a sheaf of paperwork.

Yes, even in a job as sexy-sounding as ski patroller, there are plenty of i’s to dot and t’s to cross.

Part medic, part traffic cop and part supreme winter athlete, each member of the Wintergreen Ski Patrol is a highly trained ambassador of the mountain. The crew responds to slope-side emergencies while doing everything in its power to prevent calamity from happening in the first place. The corps consists of about 140 patrollers, including 40 paid staffers who work mostly midweek, when the volunteers have to take care of those boring things we call day jobs.

By at least one measure, the Wintergreen team is pretty good at what it does. Twice the National Ski Patrol has named it Outstanding Large Alpine Patrol, most recently for 2010-2011. I wanted some insight into this elite group, which agreed to let me, an intermediate skier at best, be a hanger-on for a day. I just hoped that I wouldn’t be one of the casualties towed off the mountain by the end of it.

Tools of the trade

At about 7:30 on a Saturday morning, I’m already falling behind, and we haven’t even hit the slopes yet. After hustling through the resort parking lot, I arrive slightly winded at ski patrol headquarters, where the daily muster had started at 7:15 a.m. This is when the patrollers receive their assignments and learn about slope conditions from director of ski patrol operations Tucker Crolius, who starts trawling the mountain as early as 5:30 a.m. to survey the scene and put up caution signs and banners.

They also get briefed on how many tour buses will be coming up from Raleigh, N.C., Richmond and other snow-deprived locales that feed into the central Virginia resort a little over an hour southwest of Charlottesville. Such groups are more likely to consist of those the patrollers refer to as “never evers,” skiers greener than the grass beneath the snow.

When the meeting breaks up, I meet my handlers, Brett Henyon and Ebling. Where they’re sleek in their bright red standard-issue jackets and ski goggles, I’m puffy in a blue down jacket and white-and-pink-tassled alpaca hat.

The tools of their trade include radios, knives, bandages and other medical supplies. “Every pocket is full,” Ebling tells me. She’s used to the extra weight, although eventually “you realize that you don’t need everything.”

Suddenly I’m a little ashamed to be worrying about how to cram my meager journalistic trappings — notebook, pens — into my coat.

I waddle out of the office behind Henyon and Ebling. This is going to be interesting.

Groomed to perfection

We begin our rounds as I get my ski legs back. After a brief run down one of the slopes, we take a lift to the top of the mountain. Wisps of snow scattered by a biting wind filter the morning sunlight into a dull glare.

There isn’t a lot of time to stand around and admire the scenery. Soon, people will start skiing and snowboarding. It’s approaching 8 a.m.

“Mountain life starts early,” Ebling observes, “but it’s very beautiful.”

Below us, a ski patroller wields a drill with about a foot-long bit that swirls its way into the snow. Into the holes go bright orange and black ’boos, a nickname for the bamboo poles used to mark hazards. In this case, the danger is a snow gun protruding from the snow.

Crolius arrives on a snowmobile to further mitigate the risk. With his vehicle facing uphill, he maneuvers it forward and back in quick spurts to flatten the chunky snow that has accumulated in front of the gun.

With Ebling leading the way and Henyon bringing up the rear, we descend over the freshly groomed powder, which has the look of a ridged potato chip. As we approach the bottom, I catch up to Ebling, who emphatically gestures me to move to the side of the slope, out of the path of the groomer crawling its way up the hill. Some years back, a high school student collided with one of the tanklike machines. She managed to graduate on time, Henyon later tells me, but no longer do skiers and groomers occupy the same space.

Satisfied that they’re on their way to a smooth opening, Ebling summons Henyon on her radio: Time for breakfast.

Back at headquarters

The ski patrol headquarters sits atop the mountain at Wintergreen, along with the rest of the main facilities. Crolius calls it an “upside-down mountain,” the opposite of many ski resorts, which are centered around a village at the bottom of the hill. Working against gravity makes transporting patients trickier and means that snowmobiles are an important part of the Wintergreen arsenal. Sometimes it also means that patrollers must take injured visitors down the hill on a toboggan before they can be taken back up by a motorized vehicle.

The patrol occupies a few rooms that flow into one another. There’s the treatment area, equipped with beds for patients. A shoe box of a space has just enough room for the person on dispatch duty. Adjacent is a slip of an office with a computer.

A lot of activity centers on the locker room. It overflows with equipment — ski boots lined up on top of the lockers, gloves and boots hung on a tree-shaped warmer, seating that doubles as storage. A “pray for snow” sign hangs over cubbies stuffed with more gear. A constant stream of on- and off-duty patrollers and their kids cycles through. A Shih Tzu puppy makes a cameo appearance with one child.

Sit around long enough, and you find yourself melting into the background as the banter flies.

“We consider ourselves family,” says Crolius. Several other folks share the same sentiment without making it sound too mawkish. Some, in fact, actually are family — siblings, parents and children.

“After a while you pretty much know everyone here, except the day-trippers,” says Ebling, a German native and eight-year Wintergreen veteran recently named assistant patrol director.

The easy familiarity also plays out over breakfast in the Copper Mine Bistro, where one of the waitresses knows Crolius’s and Ebling’s drink preferences without having to take the order.

As the patrollers down scrambled eggs, bacon and the kind of food I could eat a ton of only if I were the one working nine-hour shifts on the slopes, a message comes over on their portable radios: possible injury. It’s 8:50 a.m.

“That’s really early,” Ebling observes. No need to abandon our meal, though. Another patroller already out and about goes to investigate.

On a bad day, the call could be the first of many. A busy day may yield about 20 long forms. The tally of those treated in an average season ranges from 800 to 1,000.

Hazards ahead

After sufficient time for warming up and carb- and cholesterol-loading, Henyon, Ebling and I return to maintaining peace and safety.

Riding one of the resort’s chair lifts, I meet rookie patroller John Wells, a Charlottesville investment analyst. What urgent situation is taking him to the top of the mountain? That would be a trash bag change.

At the summit, as many of us as can fit — three is too many, really — pile into the diminutive shack that serves as a ski patrol outpost. Important supplies occupy every inch of usable space: backboards, rope, oxygen, extrication gear, coffee. There’s no set schedule for the shifts inside the hut, which brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “ski in, ski out.”

From the hut, we swoosh over the short distance to where the patrol has erected ’boos in a series of X’s. Here, X marks the spot through which skiers cannot pass. Only a thin layer of snow covers the rocks beneath, murder on skis and knees. Ebling and Henyon stand in front of the barrier, and yet — and yet — a half dozen people zip past them to duck through the ’boos as a shortcut to the ski village. Henyon can’t believe it. That’s an obvious moving violation.

Next, it’s my turn to spot the hazard. Henyon, a 14-year veteran and weekend night manager, asks me to figure out what’s wrong with the scene before us. Surely my journalistic observation skills won’t fail me now. I look. And look and look. Nothing.

Using his ski pole, Henyon directs my gaze to a trail sign that has been whited out by a snow gun. Especially for beginners, the last thing you want is someone going down a slope above their abilities.

After clearing the trail sign, we return to ski patrol HQ. Henyon and Ebling could probably have continued for hours. Unused to this demanding work, I, however, need a break.

Medics and wipeouts

As the afternoon wears on, the office gets more and more crowded. More patrol members come to hang out, even if they aren’t scheduled for duty. Injured and ailing skiers and snowboarders take up nearly all the seating available in the treatment area. Fractured-wrist boy definitely isn’t alone.

Patients don’t usually just wander into the office. In fact, a camera out back helps patrollers assess people before they’re taken inside. If someone appears to be suffering from, say, a stomach virus, that’s a no-go. Something that infectious could take the entire team out of commission.

“You have to be really cautious, and you have to evaluate really well,” says Denika Gum, a teacher working dispatch.

Patrollers keep their skills sharp with a refresher course every fall. The constant reinforcement is necessary, Henyon says, because even with all their shifts and all the people out on the slopes, a given patroller may really take care of only one or two patients a season. “You have to stay proficient,” he says.

That said, patrollers will interact with lots of skiers in a non-medical situation. Sometimes they’re called to give a courtesy ride in a sled or pickup truck if someone has a sudden crisis of confidence and can’t ski the rest of the way down the mountain. This doesn’t happen while I’m there, though it might have, had I chosen to accompany Henyon on his morning pass through the black diamond slopes.

In addition to ski patrol members, Wintergreen has a cadre of about 60 safety patrol members with no medical training. We join two of them at the top of one of the ski lifts. They seem to appreciate the assist from Ebling, who helps them in picking up a never-ending stream of skiers who fall down as they slide off the lift chairs. It looks like something from “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” except with a very real possibility of serious injury.

Next we reconvene with newbie Wells, who confers with Ebling about putting up a few more ’boos in front of a snow gun beneath one of the lifts. “A little more exciting than changing trash bags,” he says with a grin.

A few minutes later, as I stand with Henyon monitoring the antics of the largely young, largely male skiers and snowboarders on the terrain park, it’s easy to see how excitement can be overrated. Wells and his co-patrollers would probably agree. I cringe nearly every time someone wipes out.

I ask Henyon about his worst fear as a ski patroller. He hesitates, reluctant to even say the words. Not wanting to scare anyone, he takes my question in a slightly different direction: Now that he’s a father, he says, he worries a lot more about children.

Cold and spent from a day of nervous observation, I decide that my day has come to a close. It’s just about 3 p.m., and the slopes won’t be closing for another seven hours. At that point, the ski patrol has taken 13 calls. Two patients needed to go to the emergency room.

Numbers like that don’t daunt those dedicated to the ski patrol. They love being on the mountain.

“It’s the dream that everyone wants to be a ski bum now and then,” Ebling says. “It’s great work.”

Great but tiring.

“I’m usually in bed by 9:30,” Henyon says.

That sounds pretty late to me.

Details, Wintergreen Resort

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