By Kim Kircher
A Skier in a Community of Skiers
Several decades ago, on the cusp of my 18th birthday, I needed to choose a cause. As an adult, I would put away childish things and volunteer my time for something I believed in. I decided that by the time I became an adult, I would start volunteering my time to benefit others. My parents were ski instructors, and each winter weekend of my childhood was spent in either a cramped bunk in the ski school shack or a tiny trailer in the parking lot. I was a skier in a community of skiers. Through this lens, I quickly decided that I’d “give back” on the slopes. I tried out for a volunteer ski patrol in the spring of my senior year in high school and joined the NSP when I was a freshman in college. I celebrated my 18th birthday in the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol locker room. It was thrilling to be a part of an organization that helped people while getting to ski all day. It felt like a win-win. A few years after I graduated college, I decided to become a full-time paid patroller for a season while I sorted out my life plan. That single season turned into several, and now I’m on my 30th season in that same patrol locker room, where, as it turns out, I’ve celebrated my 21st, 30th, and 40th birthdays. In my current position as patrol director, I have a high-altitude viewpoint of the entire patrol operation. It still amazes me that so many quality human beings volunteer their time to help us do our jobs. In the past few seasons, a few ski resorts got rid of their volunteer patrols in favor of a paid staff. In the wake of what may become an industry trend, I’d like to make a plea for the value of volunteers. A Case History The National Ski Patrol is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. An organization that started entirely as unpaid patrollers, it still remains 70 percent volunteer; 97 percent of ski areas have members of the NSP, and 94 percent of all patrollers are NSP members. The NSP currently has approximately 30,000 A SKI PATROL DIRECTOR’S PERSPECTIVE ON VOLUNTEER PATROLLERS BY KIM KIRCHER, CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN SKI PATROL DIRECTOR of Volunteers Getting ready for toboggan training. Photo by Scott Brockmeier. 3 4 N S P.OR G members; about 27,700 of those members are volunteers. Over the past three decades, the numbers have increased slightly; however, most of that growth is due to paid patrollers joining the NSP and previously unaffiliated ski areas joining the ranks.
When Crystal Mountain opened in the 1960s, U.S. Forest Service snow rangers oversaw the avalanche mitigation program, utilizing a small cadre of paid patrollers for hand routes. The ranger would fire the howitzers, and the patrollers would use smaller explosives. The USFS phased out avalanche mitigation duties in the early ‘80s at Crystal. At this point, the paid patrol was still a small group of 10 patrollers, including the patrol director. Until the early 2000s, the volunteers ran the show on the weekends, and the paid patrollers would come in just for avalanche mitigation. When I started as a volunteer, the “pros” and the “vollies” had little interaction. Wearing separate uniforms, shouldering disparate duties, working entirely different schedules, the pros were a breed apart. When Boyne Resorts bought Crystal in 1997, John Kircher, the new general manager (who would later become my husband), had a new vision of managing terrain. Instead of keeping the Southback and Northway terrain pods closed until the weekends, he wanted the entire mountain open every day. The paid patrol numbers blossomed to cover avalanche mitigation routes, which nearly tripled when opening the additional terrain. At this point, there was talk of transitioning all or some of the volunteers into part-time paid staff. Peter Schwartz, who had just taken over as the volunteer patrol director, knew his crew wouldn’t want the pay. “It’s not about the money,” he says. “I already have a job. I’m volunteering my time for something I love.” Kircher claims that while he didn’t want to get rid of the volunteer patrol, in light of operational changes, as well as the financial situation of the company, “We needed to make some changes to the patrol.” The volunteer patrol was scaled back from about 150 members to 100 members, while the paid patrol gained about 10 positions. A handful of volunteers became paid patrollers at this point. I, myself, had already made the switch from volunteer to paid patrol, and a few of my colleagues did as well. In 2015, only 25 percent of Americans volunteered even a single day of their time. The NSP is working to attract a younger generation of patrollers. In this age of distraction, they try new options like the hybrid OEC course, and NSP Executive Director Meegan Moszynski is open to new ways to attract candidates. Moszynski states, “Millennials are interested in giving back, but they are not always interested in devoting all of their time to volunteering for one specific thing or volunteering long-term. We see them getting engaged in a more short-term way or by donating money and therefore checking that ‘giving back’ box in a different way than other generations.”
The Heart of a Patroller Today, Kircher says he is extremely appreciative (of the volunteers). “They are an essential part of making the mountain run on busy weekends and holidays. It amazes me that such highly qualified people want to come work so hard. I hope this volunteer spirit never changes.” Moszynski adds, “All patrollers have passion and dedication to patrolling, but it can be different for volunteers than pros. Volunteers have done it for decades, and they take immense pride in their work. They have dedicated so much time, they have taken part in trainings, and they often become instructors in order to bring in new volunteers. Their passion is a huge part of it. For volunteers, this isn’t their day job, and their passion and dedication can be so much more pronounced because of that. The fact that they’re spending so much of their free time training and volunteering is pretty remarkable.” Schwartz agrees, stating, “It’s not about the money. That changes for me if I’m an employee. It’s how I view my role and what I’m doing here. It’s not about the season pass, either. It’s about passion and dedication and being a part of a great community.” While most people who work Monday through Friday, Moszynski claims, “say thank God it’s Friday, now I get to play, volunteers come up to the mountain to patrol.” When I was in high school, my chemistry teacher, Laurie Macartney, spent her weekends volunteering at Crystal. It was the snowy pictures on her desk and her encouragement that ultimately led me to become a patroller. Laurie once told Schwartz, as they were driving to the Miller Memorial Awards dinner, of which they are both recipients, that, “You don’t need to be the strongest skier (to be a part of the team). You need to have the heart of a patroller.” When selecting patrol candidates, Schwartz still asks himself: does this person have the heart of a patroller? He defines this heart as someone who is “excited to be here as a patroller. He or she might have different ways of showing it. Some are passionate about sled running, others are more interested in the first aid. Still others love to teach others and become mentors and instructors.”
Macartney would play a role in the addition of another patroller at Crystal Mountain. It was January 2006, and Steve “Swany” Swanson was skiing with a friend at Crystal. He’d been a part-time ski instructor in the past, and wondered if he should go back to instructing or perhaps join the volunteer patrol. It was a powder day, and Swany had just skied down West Face to wait at the bottom for his friend. The snow was deep, and his buddy was struggling to get down in the heavy snow. As he watched his friend, he saw a man waving his arms halfway up the slope. The man was Laurie’s husband, John, and he was trying to pull her out of a tree well, but John didn’t recognize Laurie’s skis. John thought he was pulling out a stranger. Swany doesn’t really know how he was able to climb up the slope through the deep snow. He only knew that someone desperately needed his help, and Swany somehow crawled on his knees to the tree where John was frantically digging. When he arrived, Swany helped John as they worked to free Laurie. Her body was deep in the tree well, and each time Swany pulled up on her ski boots, his own legs sunk deeper into the hole. Finally, on the count of three, they pulled her free, but Swany feared it was too late. That’s when he heard John say, “Oh my God. It’s Laurie.” She wasn’t breathing, but Swany thought he detected a faint pulse. “Who’s Laurie?” he asked. Another skier, who had hiked up behind Swany, said, “Laurie is his wife.” Swany directed John to start rescue breathing. Even though John and Laurie had been volunteer patrollers for decades, John needed Swany’s urging to kick-start him into action. They needed to remove her helmet, and as they did so, the world shifted for Swany; he too knew Laurie, but in the heat of the moment, he hadn’t recognized either her or John, who he at least knew of. Up until that moment, he’d been helping strangers. Now he was helping two people with mutual friends. Swany didn’t know them well, but they were members of the same ski lodge and had crossed paths. Laurie was fighting cancer, and when they removed her helmet, he realized that he’d seen that bald head. During her valiant fight against cancer, Laurie had never tried to hide her baldness, and now it was the distinguishing feature that Swany recognized. While John gave Laurie rescue breaths, Swany took in the scene. “I was holding her head when she blinked her eyes,” Swany recalls. Laurie regained consciousness. Later, after Laurie was taken down in a toboggan by others who knew and loved her, Swany was approached by another patroller, thinking Swany was a doctor who had stopped to help. “No,” Swany responded. “I’m in construction.” A seed was planted; Swany decided to try out for patrol, thinking, “I might be good at it. Maybe this is a sign that I should try it.” Swany joined the volunteer patrol the following season and now acts as a sled trainer, passing on his passion for helping others to new candidates. Giving Back Schwartz believes that volunteer patrolling has both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. “It’s not a cult,” he says with a smile. “But in addition to individual rewards, you belong to a group who shares your core values and beliefs. There’s always someone to ski with, to vacation with. We help each other out.” When Schwartz broke his leg skiing, a fellow patroller came over and mowed his lawn. In a special health report published by Harvard Health Publishing, volunteerism was linked to greater happiness. Researchers at the London School of Economics found that the odds of being “very happy” rose 7 percent for those that volunteered monthly and 12 percent for those that volunteered every two weeks. The increase in happiness among weekly volunteers was 16 percent, which is comparable to an income increase of $75,000–$100,000, the researchers found. Volunteering, at its best, builds lifetime bonds. At Crystal, dozens of patrollers have found their future spouse in the ranks of their fellow volunteers. Ski patrol is like a family, and once you’re a patroller at Crystal, as Schwartz will tell you, “You’re always a patroller.” It also shapes you who are. In my experience, it means something to say, “I’m a patroller.” While this is true whether a patroller is paid or not, there’s added value to volunteering. Further, I can’t think of a better place to find your sense of purpose than on a mountain helping others who are injured, scared, tired, or just in need of some directions. “The camaraderie motivates volunteers,” Moszynski claims. “The more you do it, the more you love it.” If someone offers you an opportunity to get paid nothing and wake up at 4:30 a.m. to do so, she says, “It’s hard to believe how or why people want to do that, but that challenge and that camaraderie make it all worthwhile. It’s tough work, but it’s rewarding in so many ways, and that makes you love it more.” She recognizes that many people don’t “get” the passion and dedication involved in patrolling, but as all patrollers know, “Either you get it, or you don’t.” As Laurie Macartney might say, “You either have the heart of a patroller, or you don’t.”
Paid versus Volunteer As the director of the paid patrol, and having begun as a volunteer, I have a unique perspective. Most weeks, the paid patrol looks forward to the weekend when our ranks swell with enthusiastic volunteers. These fellow patrollers are volunteering their time to help us do our jobs. Most Saturday mornings, you can hear the refrain, “Thank God for the volunteers.” When it comes to the relationship between ski areas and NSP patrollers, the patrollers are agents of the ski area. “We have a Joint Statement of Understanding (JSOU) with the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), which does a great job outlining the relationship between our patrollers and the ski areas,” Moszynski explains. “Basically, NSP members act as agents of their ski area and follow the direction of ski area management. NSP does not manage patrols. NSP provides training and credentials to our members who then go out and obtain a position at a ski area and report directly to that area. The area is in charge of management, setting protocols for operations, and determining the standard of care. NSP sets the standard of training. Because of this dynamic, the ski area is expected to protect its agents (paid or volunteer) if a legal issue does arise.” Crystal is a day ski area, and our guest numbers can fluctuate from less than 1,000 guests on any given Tuesday to six or seven times that on a busy Saturday. We need a workforce that can ebb and flow with the public tide. Unlike rentals or the cafeteria, the ski patrol cannot rely on a transient workforce, one working simply to buy a new snowboard or receive a free season pass. Ski patrol needs highly skilled, motivated employees who care about the safety and well-being of our guests. Crystal could not operate without our volunteer patrollers. Many are high-level managers, doctors, and construction workers in their day jobs. “You’d lose diversity,” Schwartz states of losing the volunteer patrol. “An all-paid patrol would tend to be younger, less diverse. Volunteers bring life experiences.” Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in Colorado and Park City Mountain Resort in Utah recently eliminated their volunteer patrols. A-Basin’s decision stemmed from operational changes, and the volunteer patrol knew at the start of the 2016-17 season that it would be their last. The Park City decision came as a surprise to the volunteers. Moszynski has been told that the decision came from Vail Resorts, which bought Park City in 2014. “The volunteer patrol didn’t see it coming, and many folks were confused as to why the decision was made,” she explains. Moszynski doesn’t know yet if we will see a trend in the ski industry to move toward paid patrols, or if that decision lies with Vail Resorts as a company. Whistler Blackcomb and Stowe Mountain Resort, both owned by Vail Resorts, have large volunteer patrols. “Many volunteer patrollers have been around for decades, and losing those folks can mean losing a lot of institutional knowledge,” Moszynski believes. “Beyond the numbers, you can lose experience and passion when you lose volunteers. Every ski area must make their own business decisions.” While the legality of volunteering varies by state, the economics are interesting. “The role of volunteers, and how they are treated in the legal system, varies state by state, including the parameters of workers’ compensation laws and how they affect groups like ski patrols,” Moszynski says. “I can’t draw a direct causation between patrols that turn pro and the legalities around having volunteers. I think that the decisions are due to a variety of reasons, including general business decisions, economics, shorter winters, etc.” Perisher Blue in Australia near Sydney, which is owned by Vail Resorts, recently published a study on the economic value of its volunteer ski patrol. They were able to put an actual dollar value on their volunteer patrol. By creating a formula for the patrol activities, which included customer service experiences, risk management mitigation, and patient care, Perisher calculated that each patrol/customer event was worth $108 Australian dollars. Further, Perisher found the volunteer patrol provided AU$927,292 in net economic value for a net cash expense to the ski area of AU$62,313. Without the volunteer patrol, Perisher’s cost base would increase by about AU$449,782. On the flip side, members of the volunteer patrol willingly incurred approximately AU$276,760 in actual and opportunity costs to the benefit of Perisher. This all means that Perisher and Vail Resorts, “currently enjoy a total benefit of approximately AU$1.2 million per annum from having (the volunteer patrol) and its members and this benefit is the result of 50 years of effort by both parties.” Clearly, volunteer ski patrols are too important to let go. While maintaining an entirely paid patrol might be worthwhile for some of the bigger resorts of the West, most ski areas need volunteers. Giving one’s time not only benefits the individual, but also the organization. As a ski patrol director, I value our volunteers for both the hard work they provide and the passion and commitment they bring to the table. We couldn’t do it without them. +
Originally published in Ski Patrol Magazine