What It’s Really Like to Be a Ski Patroller

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what a day on the clock entails. This week, Whistler Blackcomb ski patrol supervisor Tracey Morrison gives us a glimpse into her grind

ski patrol

Official title: Ski patrol supervisor, Whistler Blackcomb
Age: 46
Education: Wildlife recreation, environmental fisheries and forestry diploma from Selkirk College; also accredited as an avalanche forecaster, rope access technician, longline helicopter rescue technician and level one ski guide

How long have you been skiing? 41 years

Wow, that’s nearly your entire life! My mother loved to ski and she made me learn from the time I was five. For the first few years, she actually took me out of school one day a week so I could learn—and I hated every moment of it.

Whoa, didn’t see that coming. What turned things around for you? When I was 10, we moved and I made a new group of friends who were all skiers. All of a sudden, it was really awesome to go up to Whistler and ski together. That’s when I started loving it.

How did you end up turning your love of skiing into a career? Originally, I was leaning towards nursing. Skiing was always a major part of my life, and I actually chose to study nursing in Castlegar, B.C. because there were hills around there. I ended up switching from nursing into the wildlife recreation program, and when I got out of college and one of my friends suggested I start ski patrolling. I got the job and quickly realized it was along the lines of going into nursing because I still got to take care of people, and I got to ski.

As a full-time ski patroller, what is your year like? We start about the middle of October and work until the middle of May.

What do you do in the off-season then? Right now, I’m a mom to my six-year-old. Before I had my son, I worked in the oil and gas industry as a professional rope-access technician. I started out in the Northwest Territories and I would be up there for three or four months. I also worked in Alberta and Oman for a few months. I did that for eight or nine years. It was a lovely way to travel around and still be out in the mountains and fresh air. But once I had my son, I didn’t want to go away to work anymore.

 When you are working at Whistler, what are your work hours? Four days on and three days off. It’s a 10-hour workday.

Whistler is a very large mountain, how do you find out when a person needs help? Each ski patroller has a radio and then we have a hub where there’s a person that acts as a dispatcher. We have different hubs throughout the ski area, so we’ll have four patrollers up in one area and four in another, and you’re assigned there for the day. In those areas, we’re always doing safety and run checks. When we get a call, the dispatch figures out who is the closest and sends them to check it out.

What is the most common call that you get? We get a lot of knee and shoulder injuries.

How is providing first aid different when you’re on the slopes compared to other situations? When you’re caring for patients in a hospital or clinic, it’s a warm, sterile and controlled environment. Whereas with what we do, it could be raining or snowing or sunny, there’s so many people skiing past, and tons of variables that you have to be aware of while you’re taking care of this person.

You’re also certified in rope access, longline helicopter rescue and avalanche forecasting—have you had to put those skills to use? I do quite often. When people are lost or out of the ski area boundaries, injured or we’re worried about daylight, we take a crew of two or three people and bring in a helicopter with a longline. We fly to their location and the helicopter will lower us down to the help the person, and then we get longlined back out to the nearest spot.

Rope access is kind of like rock climbing but in snow. Sometimes someone is on a precarious cliff and they can’t get out, so we’ll put together a rope team and repel down to them. Sometimes it’s just about helping someone out of a situation that’s a bit beyond their skill level, so we’ll toss them a rope and help them walk back out so they’re secure and they don’t fall.

We also do a lot of avalanche control, which includes heli-bombing, hand charge bombing and using the avalauncher, which is a gun that shoots bombs into a far-off slope. We make avalanches to provide safety on the hill, ensuring that the overload of snow isn’t there for our ski guests.

ski patrol

What is the most memorable call you’ve gotten? It was someone who was lost. It was New Year’s Eve and this lady was by herself, talking to me on the phone. I am a night-search manager as well, so I take calls from anyone who is on or off the mountain to help get them where they need to get to. This girl called me about 3:30 p.m. She had a cellphone so I was able to GPS her onto my computer and see that she was in a good spot and would make it out fine. But then her battery started to die. She called me and said, “I can’t do this. I’m tired and wet. I need to get out of here.” I was following her on the computer and I told her I knew where she was and encouraged her to keep moving in the direction we had talked about. I told her to turn off her phone and keep moving for the next 30 minutes and I would make a plan. At that point, her dad had called me and he was quite upset. By 7 p.m. she had still not come out because she was moving pretty slowly. I got a colleague of mine and together with her father, we started hiking up the mountain. In 45 minutes we had her out. She was exhausted, but so happy. And her dad was so happy. She had been outside by herself for seven hours and it was amazing to drive home after that and know that we got her out.

Before you hit the slopes, how do you get yourself in the zone? It’s about having a routine. I get up at 5:30 a.m. and I start my coffee, drink some water, have a stretch and during my 25-minute drive into work, I listen to some music and CBC. I get in around 6:30 a.m. I like not to be late. If I rush around, it starts my day off not super awesome.

When you get in, you have to gear up before heading out. What does that gear entail? Ski boots, ski pants, depending on the weather I’ll have different layers. Sometimes I wear as much as two pairs of long johns, and up top, as much as 10 layers including a wool tank top, wool sleeveless top, wool t-shirt and long-sleeve, wool hoodie, thin down pullover, down vest and down fleece, all under my uniform gortex jacket. We also wear beacons [which transmit radio signals to help locate victims buried in avalanches] and a helmet, radio and backpack.

From there, what does a typical day look like you? In the morning, we listen to the weather, which gives us a good idea of what’s happened overnight so we can kind of gauge what the snow conditions are like. I have a few different pairs of skis, so I’ll decide what to use based on the weather. Then we cover what’s going on, get updates from Blackcomb, and talk about what’s coming up—like what we need to do to open up different areas on the mountain. We also discuss housekeeping items like what fences need to go up or if we need snowmobiles for the day. By 8:30 a.m. we’re all out the door and starting to check the runs in case grooming left behind balls of snow that need to be crunched up, or if there are fences that need to be closed. By then it’s almost 11 a.m., the hill is in full swing, and it’s just a matter of skiing around all day. We close at 3 p.m. so at the end of the day we gather up and start doing sweeps of the runs. Most of the time we finish in the dark, skiing down with headlamps.

What is the best part of your average workday? The mornings when I’m up here by myself. It’s so peaceful. I’ve got this incredible view and it’s quiet and sometimes it’s blizzarding or there’s a beautiful sunrise. No day is the same. At night, I also have a whole entire hill to myself. Normally people don’t get to see that.

What’s the worst part of your day? Every day is different and has its own challenges. For me, I have a lot of frostbite on my feet so I really have to take care of them. Sometimes we have these super cold days and if I haven’t gotten on it early enough, my feet will hurt so badly and I’ll have to go inside.

You’re there to keep people safe and help treat any injuries, but have you ever been injured on the job? Last year in the spring, I was headed down to do some weather observations and I literally made this one turn, and both my skis stuck into the snow and I got ejected right out of my skis. I thought I was OK and skied down. The next day, I was sore all over and went to push my legs into my ski boot and it didn’t feel right—which I later found out was because I had torn my meniscus and needed surgery. We’re so good at looking after other people, but we often forget to look after ourselves.

What attributes does someone need to work in this field? Generally speaking, we need full-time ski patrollers to have their Avalanche 1 training. They have to have their 80-hour first aid, and a good positive attitude because like I said, your day isn’t the same. Everything is always changing.

After a long day on the slopes, how do you unwind? I come home to a six-year-old who is waiting at the door. We have a snuggle on the couch and talk about the day and often times I’ll have a stretch too. A glass of wine never hurts either.

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