If you’re lucky enough shred with a ski patroller, you're likely to push yourself to new limits, find the best terrain and snow while always feeling safe. Winter Park's Ski Patrol made up of ~230 patrollers of which ~180 are volunteers, is no exception. This, long-tenured, tight knit group returns every season, balancing ski patrolling with careers as physicians, attorneys, company founders and painters along with family, education and travel. All on-the-hill patrollers have the same duties. However, only the paid patrollers dispatch, drive snowmobiles, and conduct avalanche mitigation (throw bombs!).
We were lucky to catch up with Martin Halzel and Timi Davenport, volunteer ski patrollers at Winter Park (WP). Martin has been a ski patroller at Winter Park for more than 35 years. He started as a patroller there in 1984, served as the volunteer ski patrol leader from 1996-97, and has volunteered for ~25 days per season since then. Timi has been a part of the Winter Park Community for 20 years as a volunteer ski patroller and most recently, as part of the Competition Center. They gave us the inside scoop on becoming a ski patroller, the challenges of the rescue missions and the latest technological advances in safety. They also share how the mountain and culture of WP have evolved, where to find fresh snow and the best dining and après spots in town.
Joining the Winter Park Ski Patrol
Q. When did you first consider joining the ski patrol?
A. (Martin) My first interaction with ski patrol was in high school on a day trip with friends to Waterville Valley. One of my friends fell and cut his face on the edge of his ski. A ski patroller came to the rescue and took him to Plymouth hospital. Once he was stitched up, we returned to the slopes to finish out the day.
Not too long after that, we were skiing at Killington when a friend suffered a “boot top” fracture (this is a fracture of both the tibia and fibula). His binding didn’t release after a fall and he broke his leg. Ski patrol again came to the rescue with an air splint and I started to think this could be something I would like to do.
Q. What brought you to Winter Park, especially in light of your Northeastern roots?
A. (Martin) When I finished at the University of Rhode Island with a degree in Geology, my wife and I moved to Houston, Texas to work for Getty Oil Company. As New Englanders who loved the mountains, we immediately knew that Houston was not for us. After looking at all of the Getty Oil locations in the United States, I found one in Denver and six weeks later the transfer was complete. Shortly after moving, a friend recruited me to the Winter Park Ski Patrol. I've been in Colorado ever since, including returning to graduate school in electrical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Q. Tell us about the process of joining ski patrol. Did you face any challenges?
A. (Martin) Well, I failed my first ski assessment test at Winter Park in March,
1982. The test was hard, one-third of patrollers who attempt it fail on their first try and the pass rate is only 10 -20% in any year. The conditioning needed to successfully complete five continuous runs on the steep, bumpy terrain at Mary Jane is intense. Form is critical — patrol skiing is similar in style to racing. You must be able to carve turns, even in the bumps. This is essential to descending with a sled without it running you over. There are no lessons to help prepare for the ski assessment test.
After failing the test, I had to work on physical conditioning. I undertook an intense routine of weight training including leg extensions and free weight squats as well as lots of aerobic activity, mostly biking and some running in the mountains.
Q. Clearly, you put in the work and made it through, what happened next? A. (Martin) Then it’s all about safety. Winter Park’s safety standards are extremely high, probably on the upper end of those nationally. The minimum first aid requirement when I started was the American Red Cross Advanced First Aid and a CPR course.
Within a year or two, I realized I was not comfortable with this minimum level and became an EMT. Ironically, not too long after completing my EMT certification, the National Ski Patrol, a national organization founded in Vermont in the 1930s that most Ski Patrols are members of, came out with its own, more rigorous, course. The skiing component of the test is only for initial entry to the patrol. Ski patrol teams regularly practice together. Further, every fall, the National Ski Patrol requires a refresh on first aid, including the ability to perform CPR. At the start of each season there is also training on new technology and how to best adapt to the outdoor environment. For example, we recently acquired LUCAS machines that do automatic chest compressions.
On The Job
Q. Have you had to put your skills to the test? Describe some of the more challenging rescues you’ve made.
A. (Martin) I have seen a few “Code Reds” or life threatening situations over the years. It can be tree strike, or a medical event like a heart attack, but we are all well-equipped and well-trained to handle anything we see on the mountain.
One of my most challenging rescues was for a guest who had torn the ligaments connecting his spine to his skull. This guest was a surgeon and knew something was wrong. We immobilized him immediately and calmed his friend. We even gave his friend a ‘job’ to keep her occupied and calmer - a tactic that I now use more regularly if a concerned friend might be distracting us from helping the injured person.
Q. Describe the conditions that lead to a greater number of injuries or rescues.
A. (Martin) The conditions have a significant impact on the number and nature of rescues. It’s always busier when the snow is hard packed even though it’s never as icy as New England. People ski faster and the snow is less forgiving if you fall — it’s even worse over spring break when you have a lot of young men with less inhibitions!
Injuries are somewhat bifurcated by ability level more so than age. Experienced skiers are likely to sustain more serious injuries such as torn ACLs. Beginner and intermediate skiers get in more, but less serious accidents. Sometimes, kids are just not having fun or nervous and they come to us seeking help, but they really just want to get off the mountain.
Q. Do injury rates differ between skiers and snowboarders?
A. (Martin) Anecdotally, I would not say there is a higher incidence of accidents in skiers vs. snowboarders. However, they do sustain different types of injuries. Snowboarders tend to injure their upper bodies whereas skiers sustain more lower body injuries.
Insider Tips on Winter Park
Q. What makes Winter Park unique and has kept you coming back for 30 years running?
A. (Martin) The camaraderie and absolute trust at Winter Park is special and keeps this eclectic group with a diversity of backgrounds coming back. We have complete confidence in one another’s skills...and we leave our lockers unlocked! We also appreciate the down-to-earth culture here; it’s not pretentious, just authentically Colorado.
Winter Park also receives more snowfall than any other major area in Colorado. There are three distinct weather systems with potential to bring snow — the Gulf of Alaska, the LA Basin and the Gulf of Mexico’s upslope. Having all three systems act on this area increases the likelihood of catching a storm. That said, Winter Park’s terrain does need a large snow base for the skiing to be good.
A. (Timi) Winter Park is great for families or groups made up of different ages and ability levels. There is tremendous variability, but the ski area is not overwhelmingly huge, making it easier for groups to stay together.
Q. What are your favorite trails at Winter Park? A. (Martin) This is of course highly dependent on the conditions and I am always seeking the freshest snow. Eagle Wind is my favorite area of the mountain. Sterling Way on Mary Jane consistently delivers. A. (Timi) I agree with Sterling Way on Mary Jane. I could also take endless laps in Parsenn Bowl, there is always a new line to cut into the trees. Mostly, I just try to go where tracks and people are not. Q. Share your tips on where to relax, grab a bite or après.
A. (Timi) Don’t miss Mary Jane Ale at the base lodge of Mary Jane during Happy Hour. This Colorado craft brew is only available at the mountain. For lunch, I like Rudy's Deli, the sandwiches are great for lunch or dinner. Deno’s Mountain Bistro is another reliable spot for happy hour, après or dinner. For the family, I’d recommend pizza at Hernando’s Pizza Pub in town. For a special, unforgettable night out, head to Tabernash Tavern.
A. (Martin) We’re really more of a dine at home family, but for lunch, don’t miss the Fraser Valley Hot Dog. This small shack only serves lunch and closes at 4pm. There’s no hiding that
“high end” is not Winter Park’s forte, but Devil’s Thumb Ranch (“The Ranch House”) is worth it! Q. What kind of impact have you seen from the Ikon Pass at Winter Park?
A. (Martin) The Ikon Pass has expanded
the clientele here beyond the traditional demographic where Winter Park has focused its marketing efforts. Winter Park is probably the easiest major resort to travel to from Denver. We’re the only resort with a direct Amtrak Train from the airport (from the airport take the A-Line to Union Station in downtown Denver). The Winter Park Express takes 2 hours and 15 minutes from Union Station and arrives ~100 feet from the lifts (train service is available Friday to Sunday only). We’ve also seen an increase in European travels, there is a flight direct from Heathrow and the train just makes it easy.
Winter Park is Colorado’s longest continually operating ski resort and it prides itself on being a true winter park for Denver and the surrounding community. The Avant Ski Team made a visit to Winter Park this past January and our review is in the works.
Images courtesy of Winter Park Ski Patrol.