The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 130: Skiing for Skiers

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Expert training, a free place to stay, good friends to ski with, and all you have to do for them is ski. How can you get this deal? This week on The WildeBeat; Skiing for Skiers

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one thirty.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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[SFX skiing]

STEVE: On a mild winter morning in February, I found myself pushing my skis up a snowy hill on the edge of the Mokelumne Wilderness near Bear Valley, California.

STEVE: The snow is still a bit icy and crusty, and I'm climbing the hill about as fast as my lungs allow given the thin mountain air. I'm out for the day with the Lake Alpine Nordic Ski Patrol. Charles Schafer is their patrol director.

CHARLES SCHAFER: We are ...affiliated with the Forest Service. And the Forest Service basically charges us with getting out, into the backcountry and meeting and greeting people, and making it safe for people back there in the backcountry. So our purpose is really to get out there, make sure people are safe, and to enhance their skiing experience.

CHARLES SCHAFER: A typical patrol day, we ...usually start patrolling in the neighborhood of nine o'clock, take, you know, a few breaks as we're traveling along. Eat lunch. And we try to get back to where we've left our cars in the neighborhood of like, say, for and five o'clock on a Saturday. And on Sunday, because people are trying to drive back we usually try to get back like say about three o'clock so people have time to get back home.

STEVE: There are three patrollers in this group today. My tagging along makes us four. One is on alpine touring skis, two of us are on telemark skis, and one is on classic cross-country skis. Everyone is carrying a pretty large backpack.

CHARLES SCHAFER: Basically we have the same sort of thing a recreational person would have but more of it. For example, we carry not just a regular small first-aid kit, but full-blown first aid kit so that we could, ...wind up caring for several people if there was something going on. We also carry an expanded repair kit... We also carry survival gear with us, so that if somebody's stuck back there in the backcountry and there's a storm coming in, we can try an make sure they can safely get through that, and we can safely get through that. We do carry a radio... And we're in touch with the Forest Service, basically the whole time that we're out there. So if there's something going on, for example, we could call-in and let the Forest Service know that there is an emergency going on and then get a response coming to us.

STEVE: We're following tracks made an hour or so ago by some other backcountry skiers. Charles explains that the idea is to go where other skiers are going.

CHARLES SCHAFER: We ...are prepared to offer first aid to anybody who has an accident or whatever back in the backcountry. Fortunately, we are not called-on to do that very much because most people kind of have it together if they're getting out into the backcountry. But we are prepared none-the-less. What usually winds up happening is that we'll go out and talk with people. Perhaps direct them to a fun place to ski. We also lay-in trails around Lake Alpine, so that people have some place where they can ski without getting lost. Also we do things like, one time there was somebody who broke a ski pole, and they were hobbling out because they couldn't ski anymore. And we had some materials so we could rig up a repair for the ski pole, and saved the day for that person. We also, kind of look at people that are going through and try to talk to them to make sure that they're not getting in over their head... That sort of thing.

STEVE: At a shallow clearing about halfway up to the ridge top, we get our first broad view of the surrounding terrain. To the west I can see the lifts of the Bear Valley ski resort. To the south, I can just make out the peaks of the high country in the northern part of Yosemite National Park.

CHARLES SCHAFER: I think one of the big benefits for somebody who is a patroler is getting out into the backcountry, and it really is beautiful country around Lake Alpine. I really enjoy getting out there; I don't ever get tired of it.

STEVE: The Lake Alpine Nordic Ski Patrol is affiliated with the National Ski Patrol. The national organization provides extensive training.

CHARLES SCHAFER: First off, there is what we call an outdoor emergency care class, which is the equivalent of a Wilderness First Responder first aid class. That is required for all patrollers, and that is usally taken care of in the first year when somebody's a candidate. Afterwards we do refreshers, which are basically one-day refreshers every year to try and stay up to snuff on the various things. Also the ski patrol offers several levels of avalanche classes. There's also several levels of what we call mountain travel and rescue classes. All of those are really appropriate for the nordic patrollers, but they're not required. One level of avalanche and one level of the mountain travel are considered to be really good for nordic patrollers. As well, there is a basic candidate training class, which is put on by the patrol every year, which they run the new candidates through all the various things that they need to know to be able to perform the services that we need to do out in the backcountry.

STEVE: At the top of the ridge, we meet a couple of the skiers who's tracks we were following.

CRAIG BLENCOE: My name's Craig Blencoe, I'm from Fort Bragg, up on the Mendocino coast.

STEVE: So when you come back into the backcountry like this, do you expect there to be a volunteer or an organization out here kind of looking out for you?

CRAIG BLENCOE: Never. It's always amazing if you see anybody else. And then to see someone who's actually with you know, the SAR group or the Forest Service is highly, highly unusual. Usually you don't see anybody. And we don't expect to see anybody. You're pretty much on your own.

STEVE: So you come out prepared for sort of the worst case you can imagine might happen to you?

CRAIG BLENCOE: You have to. Yeah, you know, we're prepared to spend the night if we have to though we hope we never have to. But you've got to be if you're going to be back here. It's the risk you're taking to have the solitude.

STEVE: All right. Thanks so much for talking to me.

CRAIG BLENCOE: You bet. Take care.

STEVE: Have a nice tour.

CHARLES SCHAFER: I joined the ski patrol for a couple of reasons. And basically what I'm looking for with the ski patrol is the chance to get out and ski with a lot of people that are similar-minded ...who enjoy the backcountry a lot, and also enjoy the cameraderie of skiing with other people. It's also, you know, a cheaper way to get out there and do the skiing because we do have a barracks that is available for our use, so we don't have to pay for a room someplace. There's also the great educational classes that are offered by the patrol; and one other thing that is really a fun benefit, is that you get to improve your skiing. We have several patrollers who are certified ski instructors, and they're always willing to give people tips, and help them out in terms of their skiing abilities. ....But then I think it all comes back to basically getting out there and enjoying the backcountry and enjoying the cameraderie of everybody else that's out there skiing as well.

STEVE: We followed the tracks left by other skiers that day. We didn't find anybody who needed help. But it sure was a great day to be out on the snow.

STEVE: A few days later, I talked to Jeff Gurolla. Jeff is the Far West Nordic Supervisor for the National Ski Patrol.

STEVE: So for someone who thinks it looks like fun to be part of one of these backcountry ski patrols, ...who do they contact, and what are they going to have to go through before they go out and play?

JEFF GURROLA: Most ski area patrols ...have a "Ski With a Patroller" day, or a shadow kind of day. It will vary per patrol, ...and so one of the things that skiers need to know is, "can you ski?" Now nordics has a nuance because it's just more of, "are you willing to transport yourself in adverse conditions in the backcountry?" So as a nordic patrol we might be looking more for, "are you comfortable with carrying a moderately sized pack, twenty, twenty five, thirty pounds?" We can train you on map and compass, we can train you on the first aid skills and such. But is your character willing to go in the backcountry in a white-out condition and sleep overnight? ...Once the patrol knows that you can ski... you're willing to commit to the days of the week... and that varies by patrol from eight to maybe fourteen or twenty one days depending on the number of public that visits that patrol, it's taking the O-E-C class, and that's a ninety hour class, usually over two or three months and it's quite intense.

STEVE: What kind of outlay in expenses paid to your organization are they going to have to make in order to get to the point where they're a sort of a full-fledged member of one of these patrols?

JEFF GURROLA: We pay dues to the patrol, the region, the division, and then national... it's I believe seventy five dollars to join our patrol, and then we require them to take avalanche one and M-T-R one in the first three years, and each one of those classes are around thirty five dollars each.

STEVE: It all sounds like a great way to get more backcountry skiing in. But what really stuck with me was something Jeff said that I also heard in their own way from everyone else in the backcountry ski patrol.

JEFF GURROLA: And there's something amazing about ...providing first aid care to someone. And giving them comfort that it's going to be OK. The worst is over. That really kind of drives home, no matter how many times you do it, that you're now a part of this world's society, and making it a better place and making it safer.

STEVE: If you've had experience on a backcountry ski patrol, we'd like to hear about it. And we always want to hear any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to find out more about ski patrolling and their training, and an extended high quality stereo version of this show, on our web site.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one thirty. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- California snowshoe trails.

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