Before arriving at Big White Ski Resort, I heard countless tales of champagne powder snow and an amazing ski-village lifestyle. I listened to nothing but amazing experiences – save for a few inevitable encounters with ski patrollers. These infamous “mountain police officers” were known to suspend your pass for riding too quickly, or making you take courses in avalanche safety if you accidentally rode into the wrong area.
Soon after making it to the mountain, I quickly realized the famed champagne powder was more than just talk. However, I had yet to encounter any of the police-like ski patrollers. Deciding to do some investigation on my own, I took a visit to the ski patrol hut to spend a day with the ski patrol, and find out exactly what’s involved in the work of these alpine officers.
I arrived at the hut just before 8 am, in time to attend their morning meeting. A crew of about 20 full-time members were present and Kris Hawryluik, the Patrol Director, split the team into pods, each responsible for a certain area of the mountain. They then discussed new areas that had opened and hazards that had appeared.
After a 15-minute chat, the meeting broke up and the patrollers took off in time to make the first lines down the hill, checking for any new hazards that may have appeared overnight. This gave me some time to talk to Kris. He was eager to dispel the common misconception that his department existed to curb people’s enjoyment and explained the full function of his outside operations department. It turned that things were broken up into three main functions: Ski Patrol, Slope Watch and Avalanche Control.
The Slope Watch department is what often get referred to as police, as it’s their job to educate people on the Alpine Responsibility Code. They ensure everyone stays safe on the hill but Kris stressed that the job “is not about trying to be a cop, it’s about trying to educate.” As a family resort, Big White has a high standard of safety to maintain and it’s Slope Watch’s responsibility to ensure that equilibrium between freedom and security is maintained.
The Avalanche Safety team then deals with some of the more treacherous mountain terrain. Their primary function is to track and mitigate avalanches within the resort boundaries. Before taking field action, they look into meteorological records and updates to track avalanche activity to determine high-risk zones. When action is required, the first attempt will be through ski cutting, where team members ski through avalanche terrain attempting to trigger a natural snow slide. For more extreme scenarios, they’ll use explosives to trigger quakes in order to prevent larger ones later in the season that would endanger groomed runs and village property.
Finally, Ski Patrollers are the most visible members of the team. They’re the ones who open the runs and eliminate, control and document hazards through trail maintenance, signs and fencing. Kris summed patrol responsibility up as “anything on the snow that has anything to do with safety.” While maintenance is their main responsibility, they’re also the primary respondents on scene in the case of an accident.
After my chat with Kris, I had the opportunity to accompany Tristan, an energetic Ski Patrol pod leader, on a few runs down the hill. On our way out, we passed a team who were prepping new signage to put out along runs to warn riders about avalanche risk.
During our run down the mountain, Tristan pointed out a group of medical response sleds at the peak and several stashes of bamboo poles along the run that get used for hazard marking. Although I had been down the run countless times prior, I had never noticed either the sleds or the bamboo, both being tucked discreetly out of the way of both groomed trails and tree routes.
Partway down, we stopped to examine a fenced area to determine the state of the hazard. Approaching the fence, it appeared to be roping off an average, flat section of terrain. However, once I had gotten within about 1 metre (3.2 feet) of the line, a large rocky gully appeared. It suddenly became clear that without the marking, it would have been all too easy to tumble into the crevasse. Most riders don’t take the time to fully investigate each hazard – I know I never stopped ripping down a slope to examine safety markings. Without a full knowledge of what the Ski Patrol department really does, it’s easy to assume they just “police” riders and try to take away from their experience. In reality, it’s the last thing anyone in the department wants to do. Their jobs are instead to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the hill as much as possible, without sustaining any injuries. At the end of the day, patrollers take on their positions because they love to ride, not because they love stopping other people from riding.