End of an era: Arapahoe Basin volunteer ski patrol program finished after at least 4 decades
May 19, 2017
It was the kind of party no one wanted to throw, but that no one wanted to miss.
On May 7, longtime local Darla Whinston — a veteran ski patroller of 33 seasons who's been in charge of Arapahoe Basin's volunteer ski patrol program for a decade — threw a sort of forced retirement party for a staff of 22 unpaid patrollers. Dubbed the "End of an Era" party, Whinston and her crew got together at (where else?) the Beach for skiing, sunning, cake-eating and keg-drinking one final time as A-Basin staff. The scene was bittersweet, filled with expert skiers from 30 to 70 years old who spend anywhere from 20 to 100 days per season doing everything the paid staff does, all with no paycheck.
"There's a lot more to ski patrolling than most people understand," said Whinston, who started her ski patrol career at Eldora Mountain in the '80s and has been with the A-Basin volunteer program since 1998. "I'm sad, you know, because it's something I liked doing. I didn't do it for the pass or benefits, which are nice. It's more about the camaraderie."
Camaraderie ran deep at the End of an Era party, where current and past volunteers gathered to toast their roots. There was Whinston, whose husband, Jon, remembers one of his father's friends volunteering with A-Basin patrol in the '70s. There was one gentleman, maybe the longest-running volunteer in A-Basin history, whose service came to an end after 40 years. His forced retirement party was the night before. There was another gentleman who, according to Whinston, started volunteering at the ski area 60 years ago, and then there were dozens more from Summit County, the Front Range and beyond. Some were angry, some were understanding and some were like Whinston, who's ready to accept the inevitable.
"The Basin was really good to us," Whinston said. "There are some people who are bitter about them ending the program, but for as a long as I've been there they've been good to us. Some people didn't want this program to end, and as the Basin grows we just aren't part of that."
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Ask Whinston why A-Basin's volunteer ski patrol program is disappearing — Copper Mountain and other resorts across the nation have sprawling programs — and she'll agree with the ski area's talking points: as A-Basin grows, most notably with this summer's 468-acre expansion, every last ski patroller needs to be on the same page — every day, all season long.
"The volunteer program has always been fantastic and full of qualified, dedicated people," said Tony Cammarata, full-time ski patrol director at A-Basin who started as a volunteer patroller on his native East Coast. "It's always been great to have their help, but as our ski patrol is growing — and we have the upcoming expansion — we're hiring more paid positions. To be honest, our daily jobs are growing more complex."
But that doesn't imply A-Basin's volunteer patrollers are untrained novices, Cammarata and Whinston said. Her staff gets annual Outdoor Emergency Care refresher courses, just like the paid patrollers, and train at least once per year on basic lift evacuation, toboggan transport and other skills. It's a logistical nightmare to train volunteers for some duties — things like explosives and avalanche mitigation work — but Whinston still fights an uphill battle keeping everyone current and up to standard.
"They really need to have everybody on the same level," Whinston said. "As volunteers, no one is putting (us) on an explosives license. We can't go out on control routes with explosives and we're not certified climbers, so we can't climb for lift evacuations."
This year's volunteer staff is smaller than usual, with about 22 patrollers from an average of about 30 to 35, and the manpower will be sorely missed. Cammarata hopes to fill the gaps with more paid positions next season — A-Basin patrol is one of the hottest commodities in Summit — but he's not sure how many positions will open until summer.
"It's safe to say patrol is going to grow next year," Cammarata said. "It's tough to say how big it will be. I usually have to wait for exit interviews with the current staff, but it's safe to say we've started the hiring process to be ready for what I think will be an exciting expansion."
Gone, but not forgotten
For Whinston, leaving A-Basin won't be easy. She has so many memories there, like her very first day of training with the volunteer patrol, when she and a full-time patroller were transporting an injured volunteer (long story) from Pali to the base. The toboggan wasn't made for big bumps — and neither was the guy riding in it. He was a foot taller than Whinston, she remembered, and that made crashing through moguls at breakneck speed nerve-wracking.
"I thought, 'I'm going to kill myself on my first day,'" Whinston remembered. But she didn't, and neither did the volunteer in the toboggan. That day led to a part-time paid position as volunteer patrol coordinator — her final title at A-Basin, or any ski resort. Like most of the program's older volunteers, this is the end of her ski patrol career.
"That's really a job for young, strong, vibrant skiers," Whinston said. "I have nothing to prove anymore. I've thrown my share of explosives, I've climbed those towers, I've been up at the crack of dawn for patrol runs, and now I think I'd like to watch everyone else do that … I'm too old to be a rookie."
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