Keeping the mountains safe is their job…keeping you safe is yours.
It’s 5 a.m. on a pristine powder day.
The bowls and glades at Vail Mountain are blanketed in nearly two feet of fresh, impossibly light snow, the sort giddy powder hounds had hoped and prayed and pined for the night before. After comparing the official snow report to the all-important windowsill test, those same powder hounds shuffle through the kitchen to brew coffee and eat a leisurely breakfast. First chair at Gondola One is still more than three hours away – plenty of time to catch up on a few emails before a powder play day.
For Vail Ski Patrol, a long, whirlwind workday has already kicked into high gear. Nearly an hour earlier, just as the last few flakes fell into place, a small crew of avalanche technicians received their first email of the morning. The report came from several weather stations spread across the mountain – one at China Bowl, another at PHQ near Chair 4, yet another at the official Mid-Vail snow stake – which broke the night into a slew of meteorological readings: snow totals, wind direction, wind speed, wind run.
It’s the kind of information even die-hard skiers rarely hear about, let alone understand. But after two feet of fresh, it can also mean the difference between opening and closing a healthy chunk of Vail’s terrain, from the steeps of Prima Cornice to the burly, teeth-like cliffs of Blue Sky Basin. Without minutiae like wind run – and professionals who know how to interpret it – the previously giddy powder hounds face a rude second awakening when they pull into the Vail Village parking structure.
But the like-minded powder hounds with VSP will hardly let that happen. By 5:30 a.m., the avy techs have just about everything they need to gauge avalanche danger across the mountain. Come 6 a.m., they’ve suited up with skis, beacons, backpacks and snowmobiles, then head out into the frigid cold for one of VSP’s most important duties, avalanche mitigation. As the sun peeks over the Gore Range, the techs reach the on-mountain bomb cache to craft explosives – small, custom-built charges used to trip slides before they happen – and traverse across the mountain in search of unstable snow slabs.
Back in the village, those powder hounds excitedly crowd the gondola queue to the faint, muffled echo of blasts. It’s now 8:30 a.m. and the pristine powder day is on.
SAFETY ON THE BRAIN
Once the lifts start spinning, avalanche mitigation is just one of a hundred items on VSP’s daily checklist. Along with the mountain safety department, known by the nickname “yellow jackets,” ski patrol is Vail’s answer to the ever-present dangers of skiing and snowboarding.
The mountain might be laced with heated gondolas and award winning restaurants, but once guests load the first lift of the day, they leave the relative comfort of a cozy ski town and enter a wild, often unpredictable winter wonderland.
For Elizabeth Howe, Vail Mountain’s Senior Director of Mountain Operations, VSP and mountain safety work as a team to highlight that wonderland claim to fame. Both departments promote safety through education and awareness, from speeder control in the Mid-Vail bottleneck to a winter-long avalanche safety series with the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol.
When paired with the Colorado Ski Safety Act – found inside all trail maps and posted next to most chairlift terminals – Vail’s efforts make one thing clear: All guests are a pieces of the safety puzzle.
“The safety of our guests and employees is our top priority and is critical to the ‘experience of a lifetime’ we deliver every day,” says Howe, quoting Vail Resorts’ overarching mission statement.
“Despite all we do, however, the primary responsibility for staying safe on the slopes lies with each individual skier.”
With 5,289 acres and thousands of daily visitors, VSP and mountain safety have their work cut out for them. But casual skiers will hardly notice: Like early morning avalanche mitigation, the majority of day-to-day safety work takes place behind the scenes.
On any given day, teams of ski patrollers trek from one end of the mountain to the other. Along with incident response – say, a broken leg, or a skier caught in a tree well – they also handle more mundane tasks, like strapping pads to lift towers and snowmaking guns. It’s part of the routine, but that routine rarely looks the same day after day.
“One thing patrollers love about their job the most is that the unexpected happens all the time and they never know what will happen next – and they pride themselves on being ready for that,” Howe says.
For the mountain safety team, the name says it all. After the original yellow jackets program was introduced in 1999, it has grown with the burgeoning ski industry. More skiers means a higher risk of collisions – easily one of the most dangerous aspects of in-bounds skiing – and despite speeder baffles in high traffic areas, Howe says slow zones are overlooked or ignored all too often.
When skiers or snowboarders barrel through slow zones, mountain safety employees are typically on hand to make “contacts,” or one-on-one conversations to go over rules and guidelines. Contacts typically end with warnings, but in extreme cases, employees can pull passes.
“We’ve been focusing on safety more and more every year, particularly in the last few years with increasing the mountain safety department size and focusing their efforts more on skier and snowboarder contacts,” Howe says. “We use these contacts to praise good behavior, educate guests and impose consequences when necessary. We have and will continue to take an educational standpoint and we do not tolerate inappropriate behavior.”
It’s 4:30 p.m. on a pristine powder day.
Shortly after the lifts stopped spinning and VSP wrapped up a 12-hour day, the dispatch office for Vail Mountain Rescue Group in Edwards received a panicked phone call. Earlier that afternoon, a group of skiers entered the Minturn Mile through the designated backcountry gate at Ptarmigan Ridge. They left with all the equipment they needed – beacons, probes and shovels, plus plenty of water – but when they didn’t drop by the Minturn Saloon for a post-Mile margarita, their friends were anxious.
Although the Minturn Mile is relatively simple on the backcountry scale, it still takes skiers along a meandering four mile trail from the top of Vail to the back roads of Minturn. Once the group of skiers passed through the gate, they were at Mother Nature’s fickle whims.
“People need to understand there’s no avalanche control in the backcountry and there are many misconceptions about those areas,” says Steve Zuckerman, the Operations Director and a 16-year veteran of Vail Mountain Rescue. “Every winter we go out there and respond to something that could be tragic, and it’s often because someone was overconfident in their ability. I don’t mean to be arrogant about it, but just because you’ve been out there once or twice doesn’t mean you’re an expert.”
Within minutes of taking the call, Zuckerman and his crew of volunteers scrambled into action. They’re an eclectic group: ski techs, business owners, restaurant managers, even a few ski patrollers who just finished full shifts. But during the 16 busiest weeks in the heart of ski season, the 40 members snap into professional rescue mode.
While VSP occasionally lends a hand during daytime rescues, particularly at nearby hotspots like the Minturn Mile, Vail Mountain Rescue is the first point of contact. They work closely with local groups like Eagle Valley Paramedics and Eagle’s High-Altitude Aviation Training Site, an Army National Guard facility with Blackhawk helicopters. Yet even with high-end partners, the rescue group never charges victims for services.
Throughout the winter, Zuckerman says Vail Mountain Rescue responds to an average of 25 incidents across the state. The hypothetical Minturn Mile rescue might only take an hour or two, but for deep backcountry rescues in East Vail and Eagle’s Nest Wilderness, the timeline can balloon from 6 to 15 hours. By the time rescuers craft a plan and set out, it’s dark, cold and dangerous – the same conditions lost skiers have struggled with for hours. Along with avalanche gear, Zuckerman always recommends a headlamp, fire starters like waterproof matches and a GPS with extra batteries.
“Once you leave the ski area, you should always treat it as though the ski area wasn’t there,” Zuckerman says. “The ski areas do a lot to develop their own safety, so if you assume you have those resources available to you, you’re assuming incorrectly. Any travel outside of the ski area boundary should be accompanied by education and common sense.”
At Vail and Beaver Creek, safety comes in many shades. We take a quick glimpse at the colorful uniforms – and duties – of the on mountain safety gurus at both resorts.
There’s a reason the mountain safety department goes by the unofficial nickname “yellow jackets.” From Bwana to Blue Sky, look for yellow-clad employees placing baffles, patrolling slow zones, assisting ski patrol, chatting with guests and handling just about anything related to in-bounds safety. They’re the first line of defense, day in and day out.
RED & WHITE
Like a slopeside EMT unit, Vail Ski Patrol is the resort’s guardian angel. Patrollers are local experts on everything from lost skis and broken wrists to backcountry closures and avalanche mitigation, not to mention the best powder stashes (don’t be afraid to ask). They also help with out-of-bounds rescues, but don’t expect VSP to trek through the heart of East Vail. That’s a job for the volunteers at Vail Mountain Rescue.
Want to ride Chair 11 with Chris Jarnot, the Chief Operating Officer of Vail Mountain? Just look for the Star Wars stormtrooper outfit. Known for eye-catching light gray jackets, Jarnot and the rest of the Vail executive team make regular rounds across the mountain, stopping often to help the ski patrol and mountain safety crews between powder laps.