Busting Theirs, Saving Yours: The Dartmouth Ski Patrol

by Matthew Ritger | 12/3/07 3:36am

Yardsale. Eat it. Bite it. Bite it hard. Take a digger. A huge digger. If you've ever been skiing, you know how easy it is to wipe out, fall, whatever. One minute your Dumb Friend is tucking a cross-cut, the next second someone comes over the rise and takes him out: radius, ulna and ski poles snap. Hopefully you've never been that friend.

Whoever first thought of sliding down a mountain with two metal-edged boards strapped to their feet must have seemed like the Dumb Friend at the time. Over the years, though, recreational skiing has become an institution and a favorite winter pastime for many. Still, the sport is undeniably hazardous.

Skiing or snowboarding has its dangers and delights. If Dumb Friend had used some common sense, and listened to a safety recommendation from Matt Fulton '96, he would've been fine: "Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield." Fulton is the director of the Dartmouth Ski Patrol, a student group dedicated to protecting skiers and riders at the Dartmouth Skiway.

Chaos can characterize the job description of Dartmouth's elite ski patrollers. Kari Cholnoky '10, a ski patrol member, described one day when there were three simultaneous emergency calls at once.

"Every patroller on the mountain was rushing to three different calls, so it was total pandemonium," she said. "By chance I was on scene of the first one right as it happened, and as I was helping a patroller bring the sled down with the patient, we saw the second call happen."

None of the patients were seriously injured, thanks in part to prompt response of the patrollers.

"We respond to cuts, bruises and some broken bones and concussions," Fulton said. "Every several years the worst case scenario does happen, and we train constantly to be ready."

The ski patrol was started in the 1930s, when Dartmouth students and Hanover residents skied on the golf course and Oak Hill. In 1956, the Skiway opened, creating a permanent home and responsibility for the ski patrol.

Today, the club operates under the umbrella of the Dartmouth Outing Club and is notorious as one of the most exclusive and time-intensive commitments on campus. Unlike most clubs, the ski patrol doesn't accept applications from upperclassmen. Freshmen undergo a rigorous year of training that whittles the original field of about 80 applicants down to 15 new members. In Ivy League language, that's an acceptance rate of about 19 percent.

This year, ski patrol has overhauled the application process. Usually, 80 or so freshmen will interview. About 35 are then asked to continue training. In past years, these 35 students would spend the entire winter training at the skiway and won't find out until the spring if they would make the final cut. This year, that cut will come earlier -- in mid-winter -- and will be based on an exam.

Cholnoky and Alyson Guillet '08, the student director of ski patrol, both explained that for the past few seasons their unit has been attempting to find a more objective way to make its selections.

"I think it's way better for the freshmen," Cholnoky said. "Spending the winter at the skiway is a lot of hours, just to be let down."

After the first winter, it's often a process of self-selection. Many students know they don't want to continue in the spring, but still spend the winter putting in hour after hour.

"Especially because no one wants to come across as a quitter," Guillet said.

With the new process, no one will have to go through the entire winter and then be disappointed, but there's still time for the freshmen to get adjusted.

"There's still the social aspect, giving them a month to find out if they work well as a team and with our ski patrollers," Guillet said.

The Dartmouth Ski Patrol is also well known for that "social aspect." Ski patrollers have to amuse themselves during their long hours on the hill, as disaster doesn't always strike. Cholnoky mentioned antics as silly as trying to revive a dead bird, or "when you would get pelted by bits of burned grilled chicken as you got off of the chair lift."

On one occasion, Cholnoky and a fellow apprentice were charged with carrying a vat of hot chocolate -- on skis -- down the hill. This ended in disaster, with a spill directly under one of the chairlifts, which looked as if "a large animal, maybe a moose, got slaughtered on the trail," Cholnoky said.

Patrollers have a reputation for being even more rambunctious off the mountain. In fact, most members don't even bring skis to their annual weekend trip to Mont Tremblant in Quebec. In addition to this tradition, the ski patrol often plans alluring adventures to other locations -- last year it was Alyeska ski resort in Alaska.

"For a lot of alumns, [ski patrol] is a nice social network to come back to," Guillet said.

In her four years at Dartmouth, Guillet has, however, noted a shift.

"Since the '08s, [ski patrol] has gotten more Greek," she said. "I think the majority of the '05s were unaffiliated."

If ski patrol is a more tightly knit community than most clubs on campus, it's undoubtedly because of the hours of training and patrolling. Every ski patroller must become Outdoor Emergency Certified (similar to EMT), a process that requires 100 hours of medical training. Some ski patrol members are pre-med, and ski patrol is an excellent way to get hands-on experience.

"It's an actual experience with medicine that a lot of undergrads would never have otherwise," Guillet said. "It makes a lot of people think about medicine who wouldn't have normally."

From time to time, this training gets put to serious use. This summer, working on a ranch in Montana, one of Cholnoky's coworkers fell and "split the end of their fibula right up the middle, and broke the end of their tibia off," she said.

"As I saw the bottom half of her shin at a right angle with the rest of her leg, I realized that for the first time since becoming OEC certified, I would actually have to use the skills I spent 100 hours learning this past spring, which was really bizarre."

Luckily, Cholnoky was well trained.

"I was incredibly nervous at first, but the second I got to the patient it was total muscle memory. I had run through this scenario so many times that it ended up being pretty fluid," she said.

Ski patrol is one of the most intense activities on campus, as it should be -- patrollers often find themselves in truly dangerous conditions.

"I've done rescues at the Skiway in conditions where one wrong step would have had the patient and the rescue team in a heap at the bottom of the mountain," Fulton said. That would be worse than a yardsale, or even a huge digger.

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