In the middle of the week, there aren’t as many people skiing.
As a result, there aren’t as many people getting hurt. Not to say that there isn’t as much to do – there’s plenty to do. There are tower pads to raise and/or dig out from the new snowfall, and/or to replace because a groomer has nicked one with his tiller. There are bamboo poles marking hazards to retrieve or place and/or replace because a groomer has nicked one with his tiller. There is training to do, sleds to pack, brush to cut back out of the trails. There are ropes to coil because snowfall opens a trail or to string because snowmelt dictates we close it, and/or ropes to replace because a groomer has nicked them with his tiller.*
And, of course, there is always the deck of the summit restaurant to shovel, because…well, I’m still not sure why that’s our job.
Every once in a while, however, something serious happens. Someone hits a feature in the terrain park, under-rotates and lands on their head. A skier goes off-trail and hits a tree, spitting blood from a lung. Skiers collide. A guy has a heart attack. A dude has one (or four) too many at the summit bar and tries to ski down. Every once in a while, someone gets lost.
One of the things I love – love – about this patrol, is that we’re ready for that, all of that. We’re pretty good, and I’m not talking about myself (although, of course, I hope I am).
A few weeks ago, a kid went missing.
At the end of every day, Ski Patrol sweeps the hill. Sweep is a methodical clearing of every open trail, usually undertaken in sections. First, the section of the hill to be checked is closed. Then, skiers (usually Patrol, sometimes with the help of Ambassadors) ski each trail in the section in unison. Each trail is skied from the top, and at each junction the Patroller must wait for the adjoining trail’s sweep Patroller to signal. In this way, we ensure that the trails are free of injured or slow or tired skiers before the lift(s) that serve that terrain are shut down. Like most ski resorts, we do not sweep the glades although we will rescue injured skiers there. When you go into the trees, you are officially on your own. This is made clear on your ticket and on the trail map.
We always close the north side first. It’s the steepest part of the hill, served by two lifts and somewhat segregated from the rest of the resort. It is solely “difficult” terrain.** When wind closes lifts, it’s often the north side that closes first. Furthest to the skier’s left (looker’s right) there is a swath of tree-skiing that extends to the area boundary. If a rider skis beyond the marked boundary, there is a chance that the terrain will funnel them away from the resort, especially if they aren’t paying attention.
If there is one unwritten rule-of-thumb in the ski industry, it is that the public is never, ever, ever, paying attention. Ever.
We had just wrapped up the sweep when Matt got the call from dispatch: A skier reported missing in The Trials. The Trials are the glades to skier’s left of our left-most trail; beyond them is Green Mountain National Forest. It isn’t wilderness, really. But as the signs say, these woods are as dark and cold and lonely of a winter’s night as they were 200 years ago.
In other words: Don’t Be A Dope.
Sweep of the North Face begins around 3:30pm most days. The last main-face lift goes up at 4:00pm and we sweep the rest of the hill shortly thereafter. If everything goes smoothly (and by late February it usually does) we’re done with the whole closing procedure around 4:30 or quarter-to-five pm.
So it was probably about 4:30 when we got the call: A skier was lost. Nobody had seen him since 12:00 and the last place they had seen him was in The Trials.
I happened to be standing next to Matt, who was the Hill Chief that day, when the call came over the radio. “So, what?” I said. “We sweep The Trials?”
He agreed that was pretty much the story. The two Patrollers nearest to hand were me and Chandler, a rookie. I say he’s a rookie, which he is, but he was the best guy for this situation. Chandler is local to the hill and has been riding it since he could stand. He knows it much better than I do and though he’s been on Patrol for a season less, he’s more valuable to this kind of incident than I am in an important way: if there’s a stick out of place in the woods of The Trials, Chandler knows it.
So we towed up to Summit Rescue behind a snowmobile and rode over to The Trials. Before we went in, we decided to divvy it up this way: I would stay within about 15 yards of the nearest trail to about the center of the glades, and Chandler would ride from the boundary to the middle. We’d try to overlap our route.
There’s a blend of jaundice and urgency to this moment. Some dope has lost himself in the woods. What a dope. Most of the time, that’s the limit. But the reason we train and the reason we’re here is that every once and while, that’s not the end of the story: Someone is hurt; someone is badly hurt. So we live this moment in the strange space between exasperation and vigilance, not knowing which emotion to feed, waiting to understand the circumstance.
We ski the trees. Skiing in trees can be fun, especially when the snow is good as it is this day. But it can be exhausting to ski and to search at the same time. We patiently traverse the space between the left-most trail and the boundary of the resort lease, side to side, riding and stopping, looking, calling, then dropping down another 15 yards or so and repeating the routine. The sun goes down as we do, and by the time we coast out on to Olympic, the gloaming is upon us.
As we get to Base Rescue we learn that somewhere along the line – probably about the moment that Chandler and I reported no skier found – this search ceased to be the property of the Ski Patrol and came under the purview of the Vermont State Police. In that moment, when we – Chandler and I – reported no skier within ski area boundary, the search became a wilderness rescue and our Patrol switched from running the incident to being one asset under a much larger umbrella.
That umbrella encompassed and deployed many different units. That umbrella – and its deployment – began with the local Fire Department and then spread outward and upward to the resources available to the Vermont Department of Fish and Game and the State Police, with the authority to engage the National Guard if need be.
As an academic matter, this is a good thing. The more resources that you can deploy, the better. You’re going to save a life, after all: A Person is LOST IN THE WOODS. Heavens to Betsy.
I’m not trying to minimize it. You can die overnight in the forest, no doubt. It gets goddamn cold – and this was in the middle of some of the goddamnest cold that southern Vermont gets to see. But there is an…interesting dynamic that springs into play when the resources of America’s Heroes are called upon. It’s one thing to enjoy this work, and another to enjoy being seen to do this work. Sometimes, the latter gets the better of the former.
One patroller (who shall remain nameless, but knows of what he speaks), upon hearing that the local FD had temporary jurisdiction until the State Police arrived, rolled his eyes: “In 20 minutes this place is going to be covered in guys with all kinds of equipment they don’t know how to use, running around with boners in their pants because they get to be superman.”
Sure enough, in 20 minutes the place was crawling with FD in turn-outs. They had an ATV with tracks idling on a trailer, and a Command Station vehicle rumbling into the parking lot.
How can I emphasize this: I don’t fault these guys (and gals – one at least). They’re dedicated to their units and they’re ready and willing to work. But…turnouts? This isn’t going to help. We’re doing an SAR for a kid in the Vermont woods in the middle of winter. The snow is – quite literally – three and a half feet deep. You can’t go tromping around in your turnouts or you’re going to be the next one we rescue. This is a matter of training, of understanding the resources that you have at hand, and of leadership.
Look at us: We’re trained to within a whisker of EMT level (several of us beyond). We have skis; several of us have touring gear. We can sweep the entire watershed with four skiers in about two hours. And, we’re yours to deploy.
But the link-up between the local First Responder management and the ski area resources is less than ideal. They want us to do another sweep of The Trials, but supported from base rather than summit where we have all of our necessary first aid resources staged. They want us to use snowmobiles and snowshoes rather than skis. They want us supplied from base with a sno-cat.
None of it makes sense. Matt finds his voice and carves out our role against the look-at-me insistence of the local FD commander. To their credit, his staff are willing to do only what they’re capable of doing: Hopping on snowmachines and riding the trail that lines the watershed’s base in the hope that the lost skier wanders out. They know the snow is deep; they know they’re not the right resource. Like us, they want the job done and they’re not trying to do it by writing headlines.
So we muster. I guess that’s the word. The Patrol have already worked 11 hours on their skis, but we have a shared sense of ownership against this onslaught of outside help. I suppose that’s the genesis of inter-agency friction, but this is our mountain, dammit, and if the kid is here we’re going to find him – hell, we’d’ve found him already if you’d just let us get out there.
Even within our group there’s a little yutzing. Someone always thinks they know the best thing, but now we’re in a situation where democracy takes the back seat of the bus: There has to be a driver and even if you don’t totally agree with their approach, you need to shut the hell up and do what’s told. If we do that as a unit, we’re golden – and we’ll get the job done. So we still our internal rush to the standard and let Matt issue the order of march:
We’ll take a sno-cat to the summit. From there, Cheryl will stay at the top with access to the radio. In the summit shack we have oxygen packs, AED’s, back-boards, collars, toboggans, extrication rigs, splints, pelvic wraps – anything you’d need to stabilize a back-country emergency and evacuate that person to quick transport. Seven skiers will proceed to the hill. We’ll sweep The Trials, but we’ll extend one link beyond the boundary to crest of the topographical fold that embraces the resort.
We assemble, and load on to the back of the sno-cat. It’s remarkably orderly — everyone has a sense of what needs to be done and falls into a role. The tracks of the sno-cat are steel-belted rubber affixed to treads like blades, awkward to walk on especially in ski boots. One of us gets up in the semi-cage behind the operator’s cab and someone else hands up the skis and poles. We clamber up, someone self-nominating to give a hand from above, another from below.
It’s a singular feeling, to ride up the severe angle of the piste in the dark, the valley growing beneath you, the lights of houses and businesses spreading out below. The cage is spare; the treads throw up rooster-tails of snow on either side; it melts on the cowling of the motor and we huddle together, braced in various poses, grabbing whatever handle is near to hand.
The diesel fumes blast and the roar of the engine fires me back to 1995, making snow at Waterville Valley. It is early season, and we ride up in the workbed of an ancient snow-cat, grabbing the front-rail to keep from sliding down the bed and being bounced out the back. The air is frigid, and we take turns grabbing the exhaust stack to warm our hands, rotating around to the rail, suddenly hot gloves sticking to the steel pipe, frozen at the surface on contact. The fumes give me a headache, and the vertigo of being in two places at once makes it worse.
Soon, we’re at the top.
The order is this: Sabrina, who is small and a nimble skier, will be our link to the groomed terrain, skiing the tight trees within 15 yards of the last groomed trail. The trees are close here, and it makes sense to have someone there who can manage them deftly in the dark. To her left will be Phil, then Matt our leader in the center, then me, then Mark – a patroller with 20 years experience in the east and the Mountain West – then Carl, then JC who has been on this hill for over a decade, extending our reach into the woods beyond the area boundary.
We’ve been issued powerful headlamps with auxiliary batteries. They’re a little cumbersome, but very bright – most of us own a headlamp of our own, but few of us pack them for work. These are a bit heavier than the ones we’d normally have but in the end it doesn’t really matter: I don’t think any of us actually skied with them on our heads. They’re flashlights. We each have a theory about how we’ll ski and sweep, but finally everyone comes out about the same. You can’t ski in the dark and look for a skier. You have to ski, then stop and look, then ski some more. In the woods there’s no sweeping with a wide beam – there’s too much to do to keep yourself from falling over or hitting a tree.
We string ourselves across a sweep line about 150 yards wide. We ski back and forth, seeking to overlap each other’s course through the trees. But the terrain and the flora have their own say, and the exercise is opaque. We’ve learned that the missing skier was wearing black; every shadow could be him, every divot behind every mogul, every shadow beneath each balsam. So we peer into the darkness and search for signs of a skier out of control. Are there tracks into that covey? Are there tracks out of it? What’s behind that root ball? What shadow hides behind that shadow?
It’s cold – single digits – but before twenty yards I’m sweating. It’s harder to ski methodically than it would be to thread through these trees for fun. And always there’s a kind of doubt. What have I missed? Have I? Did you see behind that bump from your end? I can’t see into that draw from this side…I’m looking up and down it; did I miss the middle? Have we knit our patterns closely enough?
And somewhere our there, a person in the cold.
We shine our lights back and forth. It’s a challenge to keep out line solvent. Over on skier’s right, Phil and Sabrina are winding through tight lines of trees and it’s taking them a bit longer than JC and Carl out on the left in more open glades. Spreading from top to bottom threatens to widen our gaps from left to right. We could miss a spot, a dell, a divot. Matt dresses us up over the radio.
JC is far to the left, trying to track the trails that go off into fresh powder and don’t return. It’s an impossible job, really. The wonderful snow has encouraged practically everyone who is willing to ski in the trees to go left, and left, seeking new lines. The ridge folds back toward the basin of the north face of the resort, but it’s possible to miss that contour – especially if you’re focused on just making it down and having fun.
Periodically, JC traces an outlier until it returns. We aren’t initially sure what we’re looking for – the word from incident command hasn’t been as thorough as it might be. We only know for certain that we’re looking for a skier rather than a snowboarder after we’re halfway down.
Yet it’s also a kind of fun.
We’re skiing at night, our lights the only light and our best contact with each other. Each of us is acutely aware of the oddness of it all. And in those moments when we have to pause to reconsolidate the line of search, the cold and stillness creep in – sweat down my back, but cold toes. In the deep darkness there is no peripheral vision. Phil skis over a stump he can’t see and tumbles; his foot will ache for two weeks. I ski into a dead balsam branch that stabs me on the bridge of my nose. I wasn’t wearing goggles because I have no untinted lenses for the dark. It was pure luck and maybe a last instant twitch that kept me from impaling an eye.
After an hour and a half, we’re done. Later, in the locker room, JC says, “I was sure, SURE, I was going to find that kid. I was certain of it.” And all of us nod – we were all thinking the same thing: This is up to me. I am going to find this boy if I have to look under every log and rock and root-ball in this woods.
We were all also thinking one more thing: This kid went missing at noon, but we weren’t alerted until 4:30. We searched once then, then again at six. But all of us know this: If we were to find that boy at 6, we weren’t likely to find a boy, but a body. The Trials aren’t all that big. If you’re hurt so badly that you’re still in the spot where you were injured, in this cold, for this long…
And there’s this, too, which we all agree: What’s to say he’s there? What’s to say that his friends missed him there, as they say, but that he went on to a fine day on the hill and got hurt in a different tree-stand? Or met some girl and had himself a little vacation? Or anything? His cellphone is in the buddy’s car. There’s really only one thing to go on: He was behind them in The Trials at noon. That’s it. They waited at the lift for 20 minutes, then ran The Trials again, then went back to the other side of the hill where they parked and skied the lift-line trail on the theory that that’s where he’d head after they got separated. It was only at the end of the day that they admitted something might be amiss. He could be anywhere, really.
We’re tired. Incident Command has thoughtfully ordered pizza and we all help ourselves. This group buckled on its boots at 0700 and it’s now 2230 and getting later. Skiing the woods in the dark and slowly is taxing, but most of us are ready to do it again if we need to.
The thing is, he isn’t there. There’s no way we missed him – not us, not Chandler and me, and not all of us together. We didn’t see a ski, a skier, a pole – nothing. We’re a little worried that we missed him, but convinced we didn’t. And we want to be right for two reasons: If he’s where we looked, we think the chances are good that he’s dead. And if he’s where we looked, then we blew it, too.
The powers that be are ordering more resources. Apparently, they’re satisfied that the skier is off-resort, in the woods somewhere. A helicopter with infra-red technology has been scrambled from the National Guard. The VT Fish and Game are here and ready to ride the trail with snowmobiles and see if they can locate him by stopping and yelling. One or two resort employees will go with them, but I’d seen enough.
There’s an instinct to stick around – it’s like “face-time” in cube-land, this pressure to be seen and by being seen be seen to care about your job, as if simply being there was the work. But I’m cashed out and I know it. I could ski The Trials again, maybe, but I’m not about to slog around in the woods. I head back to the locker room and before too long I’m joined by most of the others on Patrol.
Most of the time, my opinion is that you’re stupid. If you get lost on this tiny hill, you’re an idiot who probably shouldn’t leave the house without some kind of transponder. Sometimes, though, I’m willing to give some credit to the “lost” skier. Usually, that credit is extended when they’re making a sensible effort to save themselves – sometimes, this actually happens.
They found him about half-an-hour later. He’d abandoned his skis, and he’d been post-holing through the woods for the last ten hours. He’d heard us calling to him, heard the snowmobiles on the main trail, and headed steadily in that direction. He hadn’t panicked, hadn’t worked himself into a lather – just taken slow and steady progress, downhill, and toward a landmark. He was cold, and tired, but otherwise OK.
It was Fish and Game that went in to get him. Two agents slogged 350 yards in from the snowmobile trial on snowshoe – SAR specialists. Badasses. They gave the kid a pair of their own snowshoes to get him out, but then had to go back for the guy who gave them up; the snow was waist deep. That guy had been patiently slogging through waist-deep snow for 10-plus hours with ski boots on his feet.
It’s not hard to panic. A week after that happened, we had another blazing powder day and I went off for a jaunt through different woods with Chandler and Aaron. At the rejoinder to the main trail, I misjudged a little booter and went over the tips of my skis into a ditch. The skis hung up on a couple of saplings and I was suspended upside-down, with a face full of powder, unable to move. I had to still myself to find and release my bindings before righting myself and climbing out. You can’t breathe snow. We quickly laughed about it, but there was a moment…
A few weeks later, Porter gave me a mission to find a gully officially off-resort and check it out. It used to get skied pretty frequently, but I’d never been there. I missed it, heading too far along the ridge. I angled back to the resort. I have a good sense of direction and of topography cultivated over my last few decades of walking around in the woods, but the shagginess of the landscape was still a challenge. At one point, I tipped over when I stopped to check my direction. When I disengaged my skis to get up, I put my foot down and sank in literally up to my waist. It’s hard to communicate that feeling to someone who has never been standing in unresisting powder that deep. It is exhausting to move through; it requires a plan, and persistence, and calm. It took me two hours to get back and I was glad.
Frankly, I’m a little impressed by that dope. To flounder through that kind of snow, for that long, without losing his shit – he’s a dope to get lost, but after that, he did everything right. I think I would’ve kept my skis on, but other than that, he did right. He managed himself, and that’s the only thing you can really control when the shit hits the fan.
Even if you’re the monkey who threw it.
*Let’s be real: The only reason we need to replace shit chewed up by a snowcat is because, a) grooming management is too lazy to submit a grooming plan, so we don’t know what is going to be groomed, b) and this is mainly the reason, because the groomer is too fucking lazy to take his damn slippers off, put on his boots, get out of the fucking cat and move the shit, c) the groomer was sport-grooming and, in addition to mowing the forest or trimming rocks, got too close to the Skier Awareness Device and tilled it up, or d) a distant fourth, because someone forgot to take in the fence/rope/bamboo at TCP when we close the hill the night before. I admit this happens.
**We aren’t allowed to call it “beginner,” “intermediate,” “expert” terrain. There is no “beginner” terrain. Only “easiest” terrain, followed by “more difficult,” “very difficult,” and “most difficult.” There can be a “beginner” skier, but no “beginner” terrain. It’s all relative. And if on the basis of those five sentences you understand the liability concerns of the modern ski industry, then you’re either a lawyer or suited to be one. Congratulations, I’m bored.