The morning dawns clear and cold, the eastern sunrise kissing the peaks on the Continental Divide. Up at Eldora ski area, Travis Brock has already been awake for hours. He’s the first cog in the highly professional machine that is one of the most important interfaces between the behind-the-scenes operations that make Eldora run and the more public positions of the resort. If Brock feels the pressure, he doesn’t show it. He’s got a mountain to open and it’s a holiday weekend. Time to rock and roll.
Ski areas like Eldora become small cities during the winter, with hundreds of employees and thousands of visitors. The backend employees such as snowmakers, lift mechanics, cat drivers and maintenance workers are bolstered by the “front of the house” staff: the ski instructors, lift operators, bartenders and ticket window cashiers that interact with most skiers and snowboarders. Bridging this gap are the patrollers. These essential employees perform a complex dance that creates the glue that holds ski areas together.
Not only is the ski patrol tasked with opening terrain and keeping the mountain safe, they’re also first in line when it comes to tweaked knees, lost children and reckless skiers. It’s a delicate balancing act that involves highly attuned people skills, expert skiing and riding ability, and a true passion for the outdoors and mountains, along with the ability to withstand brutally cold temperatures, ground blizzards, frostbite and pretty much anything else that Mother Nature can throw at you. But for the men and women who make up Eldora’s Ski Patrol, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ski Patrol Director Brock puts the finishing touches on the plans for the day. Brock has worked at Eldora for 14 years, serving as Patrol Director for the last seven. In the winter he oversees a staff of 31, the team a mix of 14 full-time professional patrollers assisted by 17 volunteers. With constantly changing weather and snow conditions, each day brings different challenges, from opening new terrain to managing early morning race training or other special events.
Each morning the members of the patrol who are on duty for the day gather for a morning briefing. Along with snow, weather and avalanche updates, the team goes over any special events or other needs. Meetings are open, highly communicative affairs, with plenty of participation and consultation. Employees are also recognized, in this case patroller Zack Ryan, who was named Eldora Employee of the Month for January, and there’s always a review of best practices when it comes to personal injury prevention, including a stretching session prior to heading out for on-snow work on the mountain. While the atmosphere is light, with plenty of good-natured banter and joking, there’s an underlying seriousness and relaxed professionalism that permeates the room.
With the lifts scheduled to open to the general public, the patrol fans out over the mountain to check ski area boundaries, signage and closures. Here, Brock adjusts a rope closure on the edge of a trail. Brock leads by example and doesn’t shy away from hard work or the more mundane on-hill tasks that all patrollers have to do. It’s an approach that has won him unparalleled loyalty from his team and is a reflection of his dedication and passion for patrolling. “It’s always exciting, always changing,” Brock says. “Everyone knows we’re not getting rich doing this job, we’re doing it for the love.”
Charlie Allen is all smiles as he wraps up his morning routes around the mountain prior to opening. Allen, 64, has been a volunteer with the Eldora Ski Patrol for 12 years. “This is my home hill,” says Allen, “and it’s nice to be part of the inner workings.”
“I like the people,” he adds. “I get to work with people of all ages and there are new people here every year. I’m happy to be part of it.”
“O.B.” holds down the first aid room at the base of the mountain. “It’s an amazing crew,” says O.B. of the Eldora Ski Patrol team. “I like doing patient care and I like to ski, so I get to do all the things I like to do. Plus you have a lot of other outdoorsy people who like to work with people, so it’s a really good environment.”
Ed LeBlanc talks to customers on top of the Corona sector of the mountain. A love of interacting with people is a common theme Eldora ski patrollers use to describe why they like their jobs and stick with it year after year. LeBlanc was seeing if he could connect a lost wallet with its owner. “I’ll find her,” LeBlanc says. “We’re not that big of a mountain so it’s easy to track people down.”
With an afternoon storm expected to roll in, Zack Ryan monitors the weather from the top of the Corona lift. Rapidly changing weather and snow conditions add an extra dimension of responsibility for ski patrollers, as they need to make real-time decisions regarding open terrain and monitor unusual weather events to ensure that mountain operations are not impacted by sudden storms or high winds. The bonus? Knowing when it’s going to snow, how much it’s going to snow and exactly where to find first tracks on a powder day.
As an afternoon storm blows in, patrollers have a room with a view at the top of Eldora’s Alpenglow lift. The structures serve as a private warming hut, command center and a place to resupply with boundary ropes, bamboo, signs and other tools of the trade.
Patroller AJ Baeseman works the phone while on duty at patrol dispatch at the top of the Alpenglow lift. From skiers who don’t have lift tickets to missing kids to emergency responses dispatch oversees the day’s patrolling ecosystem. “I love that it’s a small patrol here and you get to do everything,” says Baeseman, who oversees dispatch one to two days each week. “You get a lot of autonomy here.”
Assistant ski patrol director Matt Phillips wrangles snow fencing in the Indian Peaks sector of the resort. “We didn’t have these hammers back in the day,” laughs Phillips, “But now the snow fencing isn’t as good!”
With the mountain shuttered for the day and the storm gathering strength, it’s time for a sweep and one last look to make sure that everyone is off the mountain safely. Ed LeBlanc surveys the landscape before heading down to wrap up his day. “You sometimes find people out here when it’s all closed,” he says. “They have a flask of whiskey or something and they’re just enjoying the moment, the quiet.”
According to Brock, Eldora usually has a few openings each winter. “You need to be a hard worker, have a great sense of humor and be an expert skier,” Brock says. Along with those traits, EMT or Outdoor Emergency Care certification is required. Additional courses such as Avalanche I training can help a candidate move to the front of the line. Eldora usually holds on-snow tryouts in late March, with positions commencing when the ski area opens in November.