Imagine lying on the snow–shivering with cold–as pain shoots through your leg or arm after taking a bad fall. You keep your eyes peeled, hoping the ski patroller your friend went to find isn't too far away.
Finally you see that familiar red jacket and sigh with relief. But as the figure gets closer, you realize the person pulling the toboggan isn't a skier–a snowboarder has come to your rescue.
Nationwide, the number of patrollers on snowboards is rapidly growing. In fact, the National Ski Patrol, the organization that certifies and educates patrollers, now includes tips in its training manual on toboggan handling for both skiers and snowboarders.
“Pulling a toboggan is easier on a snowboard because you're in your most natural, comfortable position,” says David Levy, a patroller at Mammoth Mountain in California.
Patrolling on a snowboard has another advantage as well. The flexible boots snowboarders wear make caring for patients on the slope that much easier. In addition, there are several situations in which a patroller on a board is the best choice to send on a mission.
“The only way to catch a snowboarder who breaks an avalanche closure is to send a snowboarder,” says Levy. “A skier just can't keep up.”
Certain snow conditions and terrain features, like ice or flat spots, are more challenging for snowboarding patrollers. George Lemerise, patrol director at New Hampshire's Attitash ski resort, says some patrollers carry ice grippers to help stabilize themselves on steep, icy terrain. Because snowboarders must remove one foot to skate, pulling a victim in a toboggan over a flat area can be tedious. But possibly the biggest problem board patrollers face is the snowboarder stereotype.
“I often get an older skier-type saying something like, 'Some snowboarder cut me off,'” Levy says. “But then they look down at my feet and usually the sentence just trails off.”
While having snowboarders on patrol might bother some of the more close-minded clientele, administrators and marketers say it's great for the mountain's image and can be crucial in assuring safe conditions in the resort's terrain parks.
“It's a benefit to have snowboarders to check the safety of the jumps and provide feedback to the groomers,” says Dan Healey, Ski Patrol Director at Loon Mountain, New Hampshire.
Despite the trend, some mountains still have a policy against snowboard patrollers. At Snowbird, Utah, for example, patrollers do a lot of avalanche-control work. According to Ski Patrol Director Josh Bennett, they often have to gain elevation in a hurry, and in deep powder a snowboarder would have to use snowshoes, which slows down the process.
Other resorts with similar situations have come up with creative solutions. At Mammoth Mountain, snowboard patrollers share many of the responsibilities of patrollers on skis. For safety reasons, Mammoth draws the line at avalanche-control work.
“When you're trying to release the loose snow, often it'll break above you and you'll get caught in a small avalanche,” Levy says. “On a snowboard, the board acts as an anchor because it doesn't release.”
While in some cases snowboard patrollers are restricted from performing certain duties on the mountain, National Ski Patrol Education Director Judy Over says they receive identical medical training.
“There should be no difference in their patrolling abilities or response time,” Over said. “The only thing that's different is that they're using another form of transportation.”
Attitash Mountain's George Lemerise concurs.
“Good lifesavers are worth their weight in gold,” he says. “If someone is good medically and can make it work, I don't care what's on their feet.”–Melissa H. Bearns