Interview with Sugarloaf Ski Patrol

Ah Winter. The temperatures have finally dropped, the snow is falling (in some places), and the mountains are starting to look the way they’re supposed to. Regardless of how much or how little snow there is at your ski area of choice, winter is here and there are slopes to be conquered.

But behind the scenes, behind all the snowmaking, lift ticket purchases, and retail sales – there’s a very special group of people making sure your day goes smoothly. There’s a pretty good chance you don’t think about them until you need them, but they are there on the slopes with you, they know every inch of the trails better than you do, and they can handle just about every situation thrown at them. So just who are these incredible people? Ski patrol of course.

While up at Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Ben Defroscia, director of ski patrol. Ben has been a part of Sugarloaf ski patrol since 1994, and became the director last year. Needless to say, he has a ton of great information when it comes to on slope safety.

Instead of asking about helmets (wear them) and slow signs (seriously, slow down), I asked Ben just about everything I could think of that only an experienced ski patroller would know, so here it goes.

What’s the most basic safety advice you have for skiers and riders?

When you’re out and about skiing, try to think about it like you’re driving. It’s a common sense thing. Most people are a lot more careful driving than they are skiing because they think the consequences of an accident are so much worse while driving, but collisions between people are pretty bad as well.

 

What type of injury or accident do you see the most and how could it be better avoided?

Probably the most common is a twisted knee for skiers and arms and shoulders for snowboarders. It’s kind of the sport, but coming into this with a level of fitness will make you less prone to injury. Warming up will also help of course, but a lot of people just jump right off the shuttle and onto the lift.

 

How does ski patrol figure out what types of incidents to train for and how do they train? 

The industry and ski patrol have been around forever, so what we do here hasn’t really change. Just by the nature

of skiing and snowboarding injuries tend to fall into certain categories. All of our training is done in-house and is called “Outdoor Emergency Care”. It’s designed specific for National Ski Patrol. The first aid equipment is really basic just because if it gets too complicated, it starts getting snow in it, freezing, and it just doesn’t work. We train with about a dozen pieces of first aid equipment, and we’re trained to handle just about everything we encounter with that equipment. Anything above and beyond that we call for an ambulance to hand off the care.

 

What is the most extreme situation you have every experienced as a member of ski patrol? 

The lift accident (Spillway in December 2008) was pretty intense, but that was a day it was amazing to see how everything fell into place because it was all things we had trained for. We got so much positive feedback for a horrible situation.

Otherwise, there’s been a few times with the expansion to Burnt Mountain that there are a few areas that if you ignore the boundary ropes and take a wrong turn, you’ll be skiing to the next town over. We had a few times we had to go out and find people. We’ve found people sleeping in the snow overnight and things like that, so you never know what you’re going to find. So far it’s always worked out thanks to ski patrol, fire department, and volunteers from ski and snowmobile clubs.

 

What types of injuries should skiers and riders seek out immediate help for and which ones should they just tough it out and find help at the base? 

It’s always amazed the types of injuries people do make it down to the base with, but if it’s any type of injury you’re concerned about making worse then just get help. We get calls all the time from people just needing rides because they’re scared or their binding broke. We rather get that call than having them try to walk down and sliding off into the woods.

If you’re low of the mountain, you hurt yourself, but you’re comfortable skiing yourself down to where someone can look at your injury, that’s fine. But of course the risk is that if you fall again and land the same way, you might make it worse. So generally speaking, if you’re not comfortable getting up, brushing yourself off, and back into your gear – best just to call.

A lot of times we get a call and by the time we get there, they’re like ‘Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have called. I think I’m ok.’ We leave that up to them, especially if it’s a grown-up, but we taken more leadership with the little kids. We’ll follow them down anyways just in case and let them know we’re right behind them if they need a ride.

With grown-ups, we also consider whether they are sober, alert and oriented. We also look at mechanisms of injury. For example, if someone took a chair to the head we know their going to be dizzy in five minutes, so just take the ride. Or if someone went off a jump, hit their head and was out for three minutes, they don’t fit the sober, alert, and oriented category.

 

Seriously, how useful are cell phones in case of emergency?

A cell phone can be useful, and it can be negative thing too. Some people think it solves everything, so it gives them a little extra boost especially with the backcountry areas. There are huge pockets where radios and cell phones don’t work, and batteries don’t last very long in the cold.

But there have been times where they have been handy. With one of the backcountry rescues, a kid had about a half hour of battery time left on his phone. He was able to text someone while we were staging up for rescue, and he was able to describe where he was. This helped us narrow down where he was, so instead of sending out thirty people to go look for him, we talked him right back to the main area and he was able to ski down and meet up with us and get checked out.

Cell phones can be handy, so we do encourage bringing them, especially if you’re heading into the expansion (backcountry).

 

Do you have any advice for a skier or rider who is at a resort alone?

Carry a phone and let friends know where you’ll be and when to expect you back. Give them an idea of what you’ll be doing as well; so for example if you’re planning on heading out to Brackett Basin by yourself –not a good idea – let them know that and when you’ll be out.

Also be mindful of skiing later in the day. Try to make your last run one of the main high traffic trails so that you know ski patrol will have a better chance of finding you during last sweep if something were to happen.

Some situational stuff:

Let’s say two people are in the backcountry and one hits a tree and is knocked unconscious. What should the other do?

If they have a cell phone, stick with them and call for help. If that’s not an option, start screaming your head off. As big as the backcountry might seem at Sugarloaf, it’s popular and it would be pretty unusual for someone to not hear you within 4 or 5 minutes. Now if it’s the end of the day, and you’re sure no one is coming – that’s different. While it’s good to be with the injured person, unless you are trained you aren’t really doing them any good. As hard it would be, go get trained help. Fortunately, I can’t think of anything like that every happening here.

Skier or snowboarder is alone and gets injured on a remote trail or backcountry. What should they do?

Use your cell phone or start screaming your head off. That has happened here. A skier had slid off a trail at the end of the day, and we had already gone past him by 100 ft while we were doing our last sweep. It was really windy, but we thought we heard something and went back to look. Sure enough there he was. Just be really persistent.

 

How does someone become ski patrol? What skills are essential?

We call it tryouts. You can’t take the time here to teach someone to ski or snowboard, so all of our applicants we go out skiing/snowboarding with for half a day usually around March. It really is kind of like try outs since you’re wearing a bib with a number on it, but a couple of our senior people evaluate their skiing/snowboarding skills.

If they pass that, we sign them up for interviews that day or the next day. Then we stay in contact with them over the summer and fall. Then we do our big refresher for all of our current people, and then start the ski patrol classes on the mountain for the new members. We do it on the mountain to try to give them an idea of what they’re going to see. The entire first year is pretty training intensive.

So of course I couldn’t wrap up the interview with Ben without asking him the official closing questions, so here it goes:

Snowboarder or skier? Skier.

Favorite ski area ever? Sugarloaf because it’s home, and Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, Montana.

Best chicken tenders? Sugarloaf Inn (Shipyard Brew Haus located in the Inn)

A huge thank you to Ben for letting me ask him what now appears to be way too many questions, and another thank you to Communications Manager, Ethan Austin, for setting up this interview for me. Can’t wait to get up to Sugarloaf again!

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About Jillian Bejtlich

Hey! I'm Jillian Bejtlich. I’m a lifelong New Englander with a serious love of the outdoors, adventure, and a pretty serious inability to sit still. I’m plagued by the travel bug, and it seems I’ll try any relatively sane and safe thing once. My big goal in life: Get people outside!