Out on last-chair sweep with the Keystone Ski Resort Patrol
National Safety Awareness month
January is time to highlight safety and common sense at ski slopes across the country. Summit County resorts are doing their part, hosting a number of free events throughout the month. Here are the highlights.
Ski patrol sweep at Keystone — daily
Want to see a sweep first-hand? Every day this month the Keystone ski patrol invites guests to head out for an insider’s look at what they do when the lifts stop spinning. Plus, you get to brag about skiing the slopes after everyone else has to leave. Just meet at patrol headquarters near the top of the River Run Gondola at 3:30 p.m. Everyone in your group must be able to ski blues.
Safety Fest and Flight for Life at Copper — Jan. 16-17
This weekend, Center Village at Copper transforms into a “Safety Village” with ski patrol sweeps, backcountry awareness and beacon training by the Summit County Rescue Group and more. Copper’s avalanche rescue dogs will also be on hand for demonstrations and meet-and-greet sessions twice daily. Visit all of the vendors to be entered in a daily raffle for prizes, including helmets, lift tickets and season passes. But there’s more: a Flight for Life helicopter will land on Jan 16 at approximately 10 a.m. at patrol headquarters, located at the top of the Excelerator and Super Bee chairlifts.
Helmet safety and fittings at Keystone — Jan. 16-17
Helmets are almost like ski poles these days: You don’t leave home without them. Keystone Ski Patrol and mountain safety are working with Centura Health volunteers on Jan. 16-17 to help with helmet fittings. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., there will be fittings, free hot drinks, giveaways, games and the chance to meet Keystone’s avalanche rescue dogs. The event is on top of Dercum Mountain, with a suggested $35 donation per helmet recipient to benefit the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation.
Safety and backcountry showcase at Keystone — Jan. 23-24
Keystone Ski Patrol hosts a free skier safety showcase Jan. 23-24 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the top of Dercum Mountain. The event goes over day-to-day duties for a patroller at Keystone, including hands-on demonstrations with tools, uniforms, radios, avalanche dogs and toboggans. They will also discuss backcountry safety with an introduction to probes and beacons.
Mike Daly is the kind of guy you want watching over you. Just ask Annie, if she could talk.
On a chilly afternoon in mid-January — the first day of legitimate snow in at least a week or two — Daly was at the top of Keystone in ski patrol headquarters. Outside, the snow was getting thicker and fatter, while inside the ski patroller of nearly two decades we playing around with his avalanche dog, 7-year-old Annie.
“Is one of you taking Annie to the base?” Daly asks his team and one of the patrollers quickly volunteers. “Great. You don’t have to do much. She’ll just go straight to my locker and wait.”
Daly turns to me and in a slight New Zealand accent starts talking about his pooch. Well, she’s not really his pooch — more like the resort’s pooch — but he’s worked with her for nearly six years now and, well, she’s come to know him as dad.
“People always say, ‘She looks so sad and dejected,’” Daly says as Annie gives him big, fat, adorable puppy-dog eyes. “I say, ‘No, she’s just waiting for me. It’s her routine, she knows I’ll be back eventually.”
Most days, Daly rides a chairlift with Annie from the top to the bottom. But not today. Instead, he volunteered to take me on a sample sweep of several front side runs. Every day at closing time, a little after the lifts stop spinning at 4 p.m., a crew of about 22 patrollers “sweeps” the mountain to make sure all guests made it to the bottom safely. That means they’re looking for stragglers in the woods, slow groups on the main runs, occasionally a never-ever who needs help getting to the bottom — anyone and everyone, just to make sure they can officially call the mountain closed.
“The important thing for the guests to know is that they are in good hands,” Daly says, taking his backpack from a row of wall hangers and giving Annie one final pet. “These are people committed to their safety and committed to being the final people down. We are committed to making sure no one is left on the mountain.”
Daly checks his gear a final time and walks out into the blowing snow. It’s sweep time.
On this chilly afternoon, Daly is in charge of sweeping three trails: Bachelor, a mogul run just beneath upper Montezuma chair; the Montezuma lift line; and Bobtail, a small connector trail just beneath the chair base terminal. Even though he rarely gets out for sweep these days, he knows the route by heart after nearly 17 years on Keystone patrol. Before then he was at Turoa, the second-largest resort in New Zealand, but the general sweep concept is the same no matter where he is in the world.
“The sweep routes have been the same since I arrived,” Daly says, noting that all patrollers are charged with knowing and studying the sweep maps. “This is very structured, very organized, very put together.”
We drop onto big, burly bumps on Bachelor and Daly quickly dips into the trees on skier’s left. They’re home to St. John’s boulders, a favorite hangout for adventure seekers, and he knows people occasionally post up in there for a few more minutes of ride time after the lifts close.
“Closing! Closing!” Daly’s voice comes from the trees. I can’t see him for about a minute, and then he pops out on a track near the bottom of Bachelor. Here, he takes a well-hidden spool of rope and pulls it high and tight across the run. It’s a Thursday and night skiing is open, so he only strings the rope across the bump section, leaving nearby Flying Dutchman (a lighted run) open.
“We really don’t have much of a problem moving people off the mountain,” Daly tells me after I ask if skiers like to hang out after hours, something that’s common at resorts like Vail. “When we have night skiing people aren’t too disappointed they have to get on a lighted trail. We also don’t really have a party atmosphere where people hang around.”
After roping off Bachelor, Daly continues through the bumps to the Montezuma lift line entrance.
“It’s been pretty bony through here lately,” Daly tells me. It’s no joke: The lift line might be open, but the track is bulletproof and littered with exposed rocks. Still, the line isn’t roped during the day, and so that means it’s part of the sweep.
“Closing! Closing!” Daly yells again as he drops into the lift line. He stops on a ridge about halfway down and points to a pair of relatively new tracks leading into a stand of boulders on skier’s left.
“Usually people who go down there end up funneling to the bottom anyway, but you still want to look,” Daly says. He’s trained his eye to spot and assess little clues like that, and this time he decides that the tracks are old enough he doesn’t need to drop down.
Daly nods, then continues through the lift line to the top of the Argentine two-chair.
After just 30 minutes we reach the bottom of Montezuma chair, where the connector trail Bobtail takes skiers to Dercum’s dash and, from there, the two base areas. Dercum’s Dash is open for night skiing, but Bobtail has no lights and needs to be closed. Daly repeats his rope-off routine and then cruises down Bobtail.
“Closing! Closing!” Daly repeats a final time. We haven’t encountered a single person during the sweep, and that’s just how patroller’s like it. The routine is like dominoes: Patrollers sweep from back to front, closing trails in sequence, one after the other, day after day.
“We go down with a purpose,” Daly says. “We’re methodical with how we sweep to make sure guests are off the mountain. This is taken seriously. If there are nights where the sweeps don’t go well, either myself or another supervisor will find out why and discuss how to make it better. We have high expectations.”
And then he’s off to the locker room and Annie. One sweep down, the season to go.
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