Ski Patrollers vs. Instructors
In 1993, Sue Green left her highpaying,30-year career with IBM toteach skiing. Since then, she hasn’tlooked back; she’ll tell you she hasthe best job on the mountain – andperhaps, in the world. She has friendsnationwide, thanks to being aninstructor. And when she receives emailslike the one titled “bump city”last winter, she gains more satisfactionthan she would from a fat 401K; thee-mail came from a low-intermediatewoman who insisted on skiing bumpswith just one lesson. Green gave herinvaluable tips, and the woman endedup skiing bumps the rest of her weekin the Rockies.”I love teaching …because my goal is to share my passionand give them enough skills to meettheir goals,” Green said.It soundsperfect, but Copper ski patroller WillBorg never even considered becomingan instructor. For him, the bestpart of patrolling comes from beingon the mountain before anyone else.He remembers his peak day on thejob: Jan. 7, 2007.”We had 16 incheson the boards, and another 9 inchesfell during the day. It came in with nowind. Th ere was no avalanche hazard,so we just slayed pow all day,” Borgsaid, adding with a smile: “We have totest the product.”Hunter Mortensendecided to go the way of patrol afterseven years of instructing. He’s beenpatrolling at Breckenridge Ski Area forseven years and prefers the challengeof the longer workdays and “being outon the mountain with a diffi cult jobdescription.””Every day, you have noidea what, from beginning to end, theday is going to encompass,” Mortensensaid. “We have the run of the mountain,and we’re out there to make surethe guest has the best experience. It’sour job.”
While instructors show up in themorning to see how many group andprivate lessons there are, ski patrolpreps the terrain.If an instructorgets a class, it’s off to teaching.A private can mean a nice tip at theend of the day, as can some group lessons.If there aren’t enough studentsin either morning or afternoon timeslots, instructors are free to enjoy thesnow, or otherwise get on with theirday. Free on-mountain clinics, whereinstructors hone their skills, are anadded bonus.A typical day in Borg’sworld as an avalanche forecaster onpatrol starts at 6:30 or 7 a.m., dependingupon the amount of snowfall. Onpowder days, he “makes up shots,”brings the explosives to specific locationsby snowmobile, then throwsthe bombs. During the early season,avalanche work can include three orfour routes, which take until about 4p.m., especially when working in theback bowls, he said. Other times, thejob becomes very physically demanding,as patrollers manually compressthe snow by sidestepping down themountain; on some of those days, Borgcomes home “absolutely shattered,” hesaid.
Th e type of personality it takes tobe a successful instructor differs fromthat of a patrol person.As Mortensenexplains, instructors need patiencethat lasts all day, whereas ski patrolmight have to maintain patience withan injured guest for an hour “before wedrop them off at the bottom.” Whilecatering to a guest’s learning stylemight not be for Mortensen, ToddCasey, who’s taught at Copper for 19years, loves figuring out how a studentlearns and matching that style. He hasno desire to deal with injuries, sayingit’s just not his personality type, yethe likes helping people learn somethingnew. His satisfaction comes fromteaching people who never thoughtthey’d be able to ski get to the top ofthe mountain to see the view, enablingpeople to ski longer with less eff ort andgreater control, and helping parentscatch up with their teenagers’ ability.Both professions tend to elicit slightlydifferent perspectives.”Patrollershave to be 100 percent in the hereand now for our own safety, our fellowsand the guest,” Mortensen said.”Instructors have a little more focus onloosening up and having fun.”However,Borg points out that patrollershave plenty of fun when their safetytasks are complete: Patrollers tend tobond through joking around, and pokingfun at one another.
Like any job, both teaching andpatrol ling have their downsides.Instructors deal with crying childrenand adults with unrealistic expectations.Patrollers put up with guestsblaming them for not opening certainterrain when patrol doesn’t have anycontrol over the ultimate safety of anarea, or management’s call to keep arun closed. Of course, they all deal withsometimes brutally cold conditions,but as Green points out, “that’s whatwinter is: cold.”Patrollers definitelyhave the worst job when it comes tolife-or-death situations; while very fewpeople die skiing, Borg was one of thefirst on the scene at a deadly accidentin New Zealand, where he spends hissummers. Even when injuries are nonfatal,it’s still hard to watch someonedealing with pain during a vacation,Mortensen said.And yet, patrol hassome of the sweetest rewards, sincethey take all the first runs.”Everymorning when we’re done, ski schoolasks us where the good snow is becausewe’ve already skied it,” Mortensensaid.Though neither job leads toriches – and, in fact, often creates thechallenge of finding work six monthsout of the year – every instructorand patroller keeps coming back forthe love of it. They value an outdoorlifestyle so much, they can’t imagineanything worse than being stuck insome office cubicle.”We get to bringour dogs to work every day, and I thinkthat’s pretty hard to beat, no matterwhat your job description,” Mortensensaid.A lot of people credit the jobsfor keeping them young and strong,as well.”It’s a nice way to grow oldgracefully,” Green said. “You’re exercisingall the time, and nobody knowshow old I am when I wear a hat andhelmet. … My grandchildren think I’mthe coolest grandmother because I canski anywhere they want me to – trees,Pali (a long bump run at A-Basin).
Th e one thing instructors and patrollershave in common is a passion toshare their love of the mountains withothers. While each professional canargue who has the best job and why, nomatter what, the bottom line is:”Thebetter we can work together, the betterit works for everyone,” Casey said,”because we’re all in this together.”
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