For the Ski Patrollers

The death of Alpine Meadows patroller Bill Foster shook the Lake Tahoe community in a very big way. Foster was a 30-year veteran, a mentor and a friend to everyone he ever worked with in the industry. During routine avalanche control work on December 24, 2012, Foster stood in the “safe-spot” when the charge was thrown. No one expected the resulting avalanche to reach him, but it did. He had probably stood in that exact spot hundreds of times before.

The memorial service held at Alpine Meadows hosted over 600 patrollers from around the world who wanted to pay tribute. Gretchen Brugman, wife of Sugar Bowl patroller, Andrew Pinkham, attended the service and tells her story of our unsung heroes. —Ed.

I stand at the rear of a huge room in the lodge at the Alpine Meadows Ski Resort. It is packed tight with people—sitting, standing, some of them standing on chairs. This is the memorial service for ski patroller Bill Foster who, after nearly 30 years as a patroller at Alpine, died on the job on December 24, 2012.

I can’t see the speaker from where I am, but it doesn’t matter. Even when I can’t understand his words, I can hear his emotion. There are humorous stories to be shared, passionate stories, and personal ones as well. When his voice cracks, I hear the tears streaming down his cheeks even if I can’t see them. Tears spring to my own eyes.

I am here because my husband and many of my friends are ski patrollers. Even though I’m not a patroller, I feel deeply connected to this community. I feel the loss when I see the grief on the faces of my friends. And I can’t help but stand there, listening to the grief of others, and wonder what it would be like if it were someone from my own inner circle; if it were my husband.

“I can’t even contemplate that,” a patroller friend told me after the service when I confessed this thought to him. “I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I did.”

I nod. This makes sense to me.

It occurs to me that it is difficult for those outside the community to understand how complex and challenging the job of ski patrolling is. Every day, patrollers are expected to perform at top level in myriad different disciplines. Peoples’ lives literally depend on their work. They analyze weather data and dig snow pits to determine the avalanche hazard. Most patrollers are certified blasters so they can throw explosives to set off avalanches before people arrive on the hill, thereby decreasing the risk that someone will get caught and buried in a slide. They are EMTs, giving emergency medical care on the hill, often in challenging conditions. They are search-and-rescue experts, moving quickly over varying terrain, using avalanche beacons, setting up complex rope rescues, and training and handling search dogs. They are masters of grunt work to get the hill set up safely—shoveling snow, setting up rope lines and signs, moving tower pads. All the while, they are top notch customer servants—answering questions and providing assistance to guests at the resort.

It also occurs to me that a great deal of what they do is unrecognized by many of the people they’re keeping safe.

On this evening, however, that feeling is quite the opposite.

The ceremony ends and people rise from their seats, making their way slowly to the edges of the room. I see one thing: an absolute ocean of red. Everywhere I look, people wear red jackets, a large white cross emblazoned on the back of each—the uniform of a ski patroller.

They have come from resorts near and far to show their support, their respect. I meet patrollers from all over California, from Oregon, Utah, Canada. My husband tells me he just met a patroller from Chamonix.

These men and women share something unique because they spend their days doing the same things at different mountains all over the world. While many people don’t understand how risky and how multi-faceted their job is, they stand right now in a room full of people who absolutely get it. Bill Foster made the ultimate sacrifice, and even if they have to shove that thought to the depths of their minds in order to do their jobs, these patrollers know they face the same risks he did every time they go out for avalanche control or on a dangerous rescue.

All around me friends greet each other with hugs. There is sadness, yes, but there are also smiles. The beer flows freely and the volume in the room grows. A rock band takes the stage. I, too, greet friends I haven’t seen in many months. We catch up on each others’ lives, happy to be together but wishing for better circumstances. I look around for my husband and quickly realize I will never find him with nearly everyone in the crowd wearing the same jacket.

More than any other emotion tonight, I am struck by the sense of community, and I am humbled by it. I can’t think of many other professions where people feel this connected simply because of what they do for a living. I guess that’s because it’s one of those jobs that’s far more than just a job.

Thank you, patrollers.