A broken femur and two deaths occurred in Alicia Leggett’s first few years working as a ski patroller at California’s Sugar Bowl Mountain while she was still in high school.
The severity of those experiences might scare some off, but not Leggett, who is now a junior at the University of Montana and a patroller at Montana Snowbowl, just outside of Missoula.
Leggett said being a ski patroller is serious business, and it often includes stabilizing an injured skier before getting them down the mountain to an ambulance. A patroller’s job ranges from talking to a person screaming in pain from a torn knee, being there for skiers who are dying from serious head injuries, and searching in tree-wells for the bodies of missing persons.
When being a patroller gets hard, Leggett said, “It’s just what you do.”
While working as a ski patroller can put a person’s life in your hands, Leggett said on smaller mountains like Snowbowl, a lot of time is spent waiting in the hut for a call to come over the radio.
Snowbowl’s patrol hut is perched at the top of Big Sky Mountain, and it hangs over the West Bowl, one of the ski area’s infamously steep features.
A few weeks ago, as Leggett stood on the patrol hut’s deck, her cheeks turned red in the bright winter sun while she reminisced on the good times between medical calls, hours filled with board games, teasing and the occasional nap. Sleeping in the patrol hut is technically allowed, Leggett said, but it garners enough ridicule to make it a rarity, no matter how rough the night before was.
Leggett said patrolling includes pre-skiing runs, marking dangerous terrain with red bamboo sticks and raising or lowering the pads that cover chairlift towers.
Sometimes, Leggett said, the dynamite and pulleys come out for avalanche control. When it snows more than 6 inches or is windy enough to gather snow in the cliffs, the patrollers bomb the snow to release avalanches that could sweep the runs below.
“All we want to do is ski around and throw bombs at stuff,” Leggett said, making it clear why she describes herself as an “adrenaline jackass.”
The ski patrollers in the winter are typically people who work as river guides, EMTs and wildland firefighters in the summer. They seem to crave a way to stay outside year-round.
Ellie Turner has been pulling toboggans as a volunteer patroller, and now a pro-patroller, for the past seven years at Snowbowl. When she goes out on a serious call, she makes sure to take a breath in the middle of intense situations.
“Look up,” Turner said. “If you don’t, you’re going to get lost.”
But when mistakes happen, they’re rectified by pitchers of beer and rounds of shots, bought by the patroller who bungled a task. Turner relates patrol to a family that works together under high stress and through boredom, then drinks beer together after.
“Snowbowl is a beautiful community,” Turner said. “The mountain has given so much to me. This way I can give back a little to people.”