DURANGO, Colo. — The first injury came less than an hour after the chairlifts opened at Purgatory Resort in Southwest Colorado. “Male snowboarder,” ski patroller Cameron Kautzman, riding a lift, said into his radio, setting in motion an assistance mission for a man lying motionless in the deep powder below.
By the end of their nine-hour workday, the red-jacketed patrollers had tobogganed out multiple knee injuries and a broken ankle, responded to a few crashes with trees and patched one bloody chin. In between, they dug out a snowmobile and dozens of warning signs from thick snow, shooed a moose and its calf off the trails, and summoned a sheriff to help handle a skier threatening lift operators.
It was a routine day, unlike one the week before, when patrollers recovered the body of a snowboarder who fell off a cliff just outside the ski area. But this winter, they are doing the work for notably more pay: The Purgatory Ski Patrol recently formed a union, which bargained for higher hourly wages under a contract signed just before ski season opened.
The patrol is part of a high-altitude labor movement burgeoning as ski resorts have consolidated and crowds have swelled, stressing working conditions for patrollers who are trained first responders — the ranks at Purgatory include many emergency medical technicians, paramedics and a doctor — and are often paid little more than minimum wage.
In the past two years, patrollers at Colorado’s Breckenridge and Montana’s Big Sky resorts also have unionized, and the patrol at Loveland Ski Resort, also in Colorado, has taken steps to do so. They join existing unions at pricey mountains including Telluride, Aspen and Park City in Utah, the latter of which nearly went on strike last year before coming to an agreement with owner Vail Resorts after 50 bargaining sessions.
The ski-patrol organizing is occurring amid high-profile union drives at major employers including Starbucks and Amazon, and at a time of high public support for labor organizing. But the drive to unionize is fueled in large part by soaring housing costs in Western mountain towns, which officials say make it near impossible for wage workers to get by without significant sacrifices, such as sleeping in campers. Patrollers say the bargain struck by previous generations — of low pay in exchange for thrilling work on spectacular slopes — is no longer tenable.
“It’s kind of the old-school thought that we get paid in fun,” said Craig Wood, 34, among the Purgatory patrollers who voted, 35-3, to unionize. “But that doesn’t really work anymore.”
The scorching pandemic real estate market that followed remote workers, retirees and investors to mountain towns has cooled. But boom-time prices persist, and short-term rentals and second homes have reduced inventory for longtime residents and pushed up rents.
In Summit County, home to Breckenridge, the median single-family home price was $1.8 million last year, up from $1 million in 2019. In Durango, a more remote outdoor destination, the median rose 45 percent to $728,000 over that period, and apartment rents rose 20 to 50 percent, according to Bob Allen, a local real estate appraiser. A 14-year deficit in residential construction, he said, “has resulted in a workforce housing emergency” in the city.
Beau Sibbing, the president of the United Professional Ski Patrols of America, which now includes Purgatory’s ski and bike patrols, said skyrocketing costs have accelerated turnover as members find cobbling together second jobs and summer gigs — as nearly all do — no longer adds up to a sustainable lifestyle. That leaves mountains more dangerous for patrollers and skiers alike, he said.
“It makes it harder for the newer patrollers to learn very important skills and harder for the institutional knowledge that exists to adequately teach those skills on the job,” said Sibbing, a patroller at Breckenridge.
Purgatory is a small resort about 30 minutes north of Durango in the jagged San Juan Mountains. The job is often fun, its patrollers say, and it comes with perks such as free passes. But it is also physically demanding and requires certifications that most patrollers pay to obtain.
Patrollers must be able to ski an 80-pound toboggan loaded with a large adult to safety. Some are trained in rope rescues or accident investigation, and others are avalanche technicians who report for work at 4 a.m. to prepare, carry and hurl explosives that blast accumulated snow off threatening inclines.
All have some level of medical training, which Purgatory Ski Patrol Director Blayne Woods views as more important than skiing skills. It can be critical: Last year, the National Ski Patrol, a membership association, gave out 47 Purple Merit Stars — the award is given for saving a life — to patrollers nationwide.
Purgatory patroller Zach McMahan, 28, responded to an overdose last year, helping to save the skier by administering Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses. “On a mountain, it’s just hard to get them down and manage an airway and manage a person breathing and not breathing,” he said. “Those are the days you’re like, ‘It’s really fun to be part of a team that is highly skilled and highly competent.’”
Then there’s what amounts to customer service — providing “taxi” rides down the mountain for frightened and frustrated skiers or calming the drunk and unruly.
On a recent Friday, Kautzman was the patrol’s “red rover,” tasked with skiing the whole mountain, not just a section. On the front side of the resort, he coaxed a woman to slide down a steep hill, patiently helping her back on her feet. On the more-advanced back side, a man skied up alongside Kautzman, scarlet blood from his face spattering the fresh white snow.
“You got any Band-Aids?” he asked Kautzman. A tree branch had whipped his chin, he said.
“Looks like you need more than a Band-Aid!” Kautzman said, taping gauze to the wound and urging the man to consider stitches.
Before the raises, Purgatory patrollers averaged about $15.50 an hour, said Pete Kemery, who was on the bargaining team. In Colorado, the mean wage for ski patrollers, lifeguards and workers in other recreational protective services was $14.85 in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state’s minimum wage is $13.65.
Now patrollers make an average of about $20.50 — a dollar over the $19.48 that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator says is a living wage for a childless adult in Colorado’s La Plata County. Durango, a quaint former mining town where ski season gives way to mountain biking and rafting, is the county seat.
Kautzman, 42, also works as a firefighter an hour away in Farmington, N.M. During the previous 2 ½ ski seasons, he worked both jobs full time, sometimes logging 100-hour weeks, to help pay the mortgage on the 1,000-square-foot house he shares with his wife and their two children. His absence was taxing, said Sarah Kautzman, who owns a small marketing business.
“That pressure — just constant — it builds up and builds up,” she said on a recent evening as Cameron Kautzman dished up meatballs to the children after a 48-hour shift at the fire department and three hours on patrol.
The raise allowed Kautzman to patrol part time this season and spend more time with his children. And it felt just, he said.
“There’s never a chance for us to say we don’t have the people to get this done. We can’t say, ‘Sorry, we can’t do CPR on your loved one,’” Kautzman said. That, he added, “lends itself to a position where we can be taken advantage of.”
‘The missing middle’
The Kautzmans are the kind of residents Durango Mayor Barbara Noseworthy wants to keep. Notable about the city of 19,000 is what she calls “the missing middle” — workforce housing for people who do not qualify for low-income properties but are not wealthy.
So many area police officers live in New Mexico, where housing is cheaper, that state law was changed last year to remove a residency requirement. Fort Lewis College in Durango has put up students in a motel because rentals are so scarce and the school district “even bounced around the idea of buying camper vans” to house employees, Noseworthy said.
Since fall 2021, the city has appropriated $2.2 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to create a “housing innovation” division, offered incentives to builders and helped residents buy their mobile home park, she said. Hundreds of new units are being built, but hundreds more will be needed each year to keep the workforce living locally, officials said.
“If we don’t address this, we risk becoming a resort, retirement community rather than a vibrant, multigenerational community,” Noseworthy said.
The housing crisis has hampered recruitment at Purgatory, one of the area’s major employers, General Manager Dave Rathbun said. This year, Rathbun said, the resort was able to open only because it nearly doubled its number of foreign seasonal workers to 95. They live in discounted rooms at a company-owned Durango motel.
Patrollers, who note that reduced costs left Purgatory $1 million under its budget for labor in 2021, see worker scarcity as reason for higher pay. What’s more, they say, they were working with radios that did not function on parts of the mountain and ill-fitting uniforms that were no longer waterproof.
When whispers of unionizing began, many patrollers, including Emma Donharl, 27, had little idea what it meant. But she was intrigued. She started as a ski-school reservationist, then became a lift operator, earning $13.75 an hour. Joining patrol last year got her a raise — to $14. “It was crazy — that I was making that little as a lift operator, but also that it was only 25 cents more for this job where you literally have people’s lives in your hands,” she said.
Now, Donharl, who guides river raft trips in the summer, is the union president. “I’m still paycheck-to-paycheck, but the weight doesn’t feel as crushing,” she said.
The contract raised patrollers’ gear stipend — they buy their own skis and boots — and included new uniforms and training opportunities.
Rathbun, who has spent his career at ski resorts, said the union vote took him by surprise: He thought he had “great, open relationships with all our employees,” he said. Patrollers dispute that, saying they have almost no contact with him.
Rathbun said that retaining experienced and skilled patrollers is important to him but that so is profit. “We want you to feel valued as an employee,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to live up to our shareholder expectations as well.”
As the day wound down last month, Kemery, 28, took a break on a tattered couch in the “Palace,” the patrol cabin at the top of Purgatory. He moved to Durango and joined the patrol midseason last year while also working as an ambulance EMT. Unable to find housing he could afford, he took up residence in a friend’s camper, parking in a canyon outside town. (“It was pretty freaking cold,” he said.)
Now, he shares a two-bedroom with fellow ski patroller Wood and Wood’s girlfriend. The rent is $2,050 — a bargain by Durango standards.
“I definitely didn’t join this job because I want to be rich. But I also want to be able to live in my town,” Kemery said.
Soon, the dispatch radio crackled with news of a wreck under Lift 4. A patroller who is a paramedic — and who also lived in a camper last year — rushed out. Others set out on end-of-day “sweeps,” making sure no skiers were left on the slopes or lifts. The resort, which looked like a snow globe in the morning, glowed under the lowering sun.
As patrollers shed uniforms in their stuffy locker room, Jonny Riefenberg, 53, talked about the old days. Three decades ago, he said, he was paid $6 to $7 an hour at other resorts. But he also rented a cabin for $85 a month.
Now he lives in the employee motel, paying $800 a month for a room, he said, with “no kitchen — but free cable!” Riefenberg said he sympathized with younger patrollers who wanted to make the job a viable profession.
“I’m probably the last generation that could do this and make it work,” Riefenberg said. “Those days are kinda gone.”