Take 5: An interview with A-Basin ski patroller Kyle Hagadorn
Editor’s note: This is an extended version of an interview that ran in the Nov. 11 edition.
At 5 a.m. on a typical winter morning, Kyle Hagadorn is already on the snow at Arapahoe Basin to figure out what will slide, what won’t and what to do about it before the public arrives in a few short hours.
For the past decade, the Atlanta native has been a fixture on patrol at A-Basin. He and a team of four patrollers rotate through the early-morning weather shifts for avalanche control. The avy technicians keep things running smoothly at the Basin, where the trails above treeline — and they’re nearly all above treeline — require constant attention to prevent slides and other unpredictables. If something doesn’t look quite right, they’re the folks who give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for access once the lifts start spinning.
This season marks Hagadorn’s first as a full-time, year-round patroller — something that’s become increasingly common across the ski industry. In 2002, he graduated high school and came to Summit County for a year off, “just as everyone does,” he laughs. That first season was filled with the usual hourly gigs: room service at Keystone Lodge in winter, construction and kayak guiding in the summer. He spent the next two years on Keystone patrol before heading to A-Basin, where he quickly fell in love with the rhythms and demands of the job.
He’s not alone. In just a decade, he’s seen A-Basin’s patrol grow from about 15 full-timers to a crew of 36, plus another 30 to 40 volunteers. They’re EMTs, nurses, Wilderness First Responders, trail crew workers simply trying to climb the career ladder — just about anyone with steely nerves and a knack for skiing.
In early autumn, Hagadorn and six fellow patrollers were honored with the National Ski Patrol Merit Star for Lifesaving Actions for a late-season rescue. Breckenridge local Todd Ohl was seriously injured when he rode off the snow on Ramrod and suffered dozens of injuries: brain trauma, a skull fracture, a ruptured spleen, multiple broken ribs and a collapsed lung. At the ceremony in September, nearly six months after the incident, Ohl was able to stand and shake hands with the patrollers who essentially saved his life.
The incident was severe, but, after a decade, it was far from the first serious crash that Hagadorn has seen. And, as it goes with skiing, it won’t be the last. A few days after opening day, the Summit Daily News sports desk caught up with the veteran to talk about early-season work, the Ohl crash and where a career on patrol might take him.
Summit Daily News: First of all, welcome back to the ski season. How are you feeling now that the mountain is open again?
Kyle Hagadorn: I enjoy this time of year, absolutely. I can’t say I love this time of year, but it’s exciting. It’s fun to watch how excited everyone gets, good to see the stoke level high. I guess I’m just trying to spice things up until we can open more and get into the season.
SDN: What’s a typical November day look like for an A-Basin ski patroller?
KH: Well, we started with our patroller gathering — a four-to-five-day gathering of our professional and volunteer staff — in the third week in September. We go through everything we need: medical training, continuing education for EMT or outdoor emergency care. That helps us keep our certs up. Then we do chairlift evacuation, do our explosive certs, all of that. It’s just keeping up on the ski patrol, getting our minds back on ski patrol after summer work, whatever that may.
Early season is just about continuing to help with snowmaking, helping those guys blast white on our trails. We just keep our fingers crossed for the natural stuff too so we can work trails, which means rope work, ski packing, ski cutting, staying on top of the natural snowpack. When we do get that two-foot storm, we need to be ready so it doesn’t all slide out.
SDN: This is your 10th year at A-Basin, but you’ve spent a few seasons at other resorts. What do you enjoy most about patrol at your home mountain?
KH: The Basin, with how dynamic our terrain is and how different it is than other Summit County resorts, it’s very different. I think we get to offer an inbounds ski-mountaineering experience for our guests and ourselves, which I feel is a very unique thing. You don’t get that at many other ski areas in the county.
My job is as an avalanche tech at the ski area, and that entails covering a weather shift that gets us in at 5 a.m. We build the snow and weather forecast for the ski area for the day, then build routes for the day given snowpack and weather. There are essentially four forecasters who come in to measure snow throughout the season. On top of that, we look at the snowpack and open/closed trails to determine what control work is necessary before the public gets on the slopes.
SDN: A 5 a.m. shift on a snowy morning sounds kind of miserable. Are there any day-to-day responsibilities you just dread as an A-Basin patroller?
KH: No, not really. I think that as far as ski patrol goes, at least through the county, every patrol is professional and hard working. I don’t think we work any harder than anyone else, other than the fact we have to stay in our boots through July when everyone else is out rafting. That’s the flip side — we get to stay employed, and I think we all benefit from being in our skis for so long. We get to practice all of our skills for a good chunk of the year.
SDN: What kind of skills are you constantly working on?
KH: Lift evacuation is one. We also do lots of doctor talks. We might have someone bring in a case study, either something that happened here or another ski area, and we discuss it as a group. We keep that going all year. Our turnover isn’t significant, but as we start to grow our numbers have increased. I started with a 14 to 16-man crew and that’s now up to about 36 ski patrollers. And, that’s just the paid patrollers. We have another 30 to 40 volunteer patrollers. With that growing staff we’ve been able to accommodate more skiers, open terrain faster (and) offer better conditions with that increased staff.
SDN: Over the summer, you and six other patrollers were honored for rescuing Todd Ohl when he was seriously injured off Ramrod. Talk about that day: Was it your first major incident, or have you been in that situation before?
KH: No, unfortunately not. I’ve seen more than that one. There are inherent risks to skiing and we try as much as we can to mitigate those risks, but that’s part of the deal. It’s always a challenging situation. Sometimes it is more challenging when you have someone like Todd Ohl, a younger guy. When you see someone your age and you see something that is that bad, it can be difficult. I knew even before seeing him that his injuries were extensive from the way it was called in.
SDN: What goes through your mind the minute you hear about a serious injury on the mountain?
KH: Initially, when I started patrolling, that kind of call would almost haunt my dreams, knowing you’re the first person to step up and deal with a situation like that. But, as I’ve seen incidents like that come and go and we’ve gotten through every one of them as best as we can, your confidence increases. You have a better idea of how to deal with that. You know this is the sort of thing we’ve dealt with before, and we train to deal with those situations. Everyone has their job and they just do it.
SDN: Now talk about after an incident. What was going through your mind when Todd was off the mountain and you’re in the office filling out paperwork? Is that when you finally have time to hash through things?
KH: If there’s an incident of that nature, we typically like to debrief the same day it occurred. We go over successes and failures that are particular to the incident. We know we can always do a little better, and if everyone runs back through the incident through their own eyes, you can learn. It an also help you figure out if someone is having trouble with it. We’re all family, taking care of each other. You don’t forget. Just today, as I was driving in for the weather shift, I was thinking of Todd. He’s still on my mind, even at 4:30 in the morning.
SDN: Over the years, ski patrol has become a viable career path, as opposed to just another hourly job. What made you want to pursue patrol as a career?
KH: I’ve always liked the dynamic nature of this job. Every day that I put my ski boots on and patrol jacket on, you don’t know what will come your way. It could be Todd Ohl or it could be profanity thrown at you when you’re standing by a slow sign, like today. There are always those aspects of the job. One day, you have the gratitude of a Todd Ohl and his family, and the next day you have people telling you how to do your job better. It’s a funny dynamic we have in this industry. I truly enjoy helping people who are in need and I truly enjoy offering a great skiing product to skiers and riders. When we can open new terrain, that’s a big success for me. It’s funny — I do enjoy skiing, but the more I do the job the more I find I get almost more satisfaction from offering a great product than skiing it myself.
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