With thousands flocking to the slopes from states with high rates of infection, Vermont’s 1,300 registered ski patrollers – like everyone else – are having to figure out how to do their job safely.
As Vermonters get in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, the governor’s decision to prioritize ski patrollers ahead of teachers and grocery clerks angered some.
But the men and women who provide slopeside care for injured skiers and snowboarders are highly trained first responders. Most are licensed Emergency Medical Technicians with additional outdoor emergency care training.
Most are also volunteers, and Vermont’s $1.6 billion ski industry could not operate without them.
Just before 8 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, about 20 ski patrollers gathered below Stratton Mountain’s gondola, getting ready to start their shift. They stood out in their bright red jackets and vests – outerwear emblazoned with white crosses and walkie talkies.
They were masked, chatting and joking from a safe distance until patrol director Chris Schilling called them to gather round for their morning briefing. Normally, this group would gather indoors, in the warmth of the first aid room. But because of the pandemic, they now meet outside, and Schilling was pleased to see such a large turnout.
“Am I missing something, why are there so many of you here today?" Schilling said. "I'm grateful! I'm grateful to see you all here. This is awesome."
Most patrollers in Vermont are volunteers, and they’re not young. According to data from the National Ski Patrol, the average age of patrollers is over 50.
At Stratton, a third of volunteer patrollers chose not to work this year because of health concerns, and Stratton and other Vermont ski resorts have had to hire new recruits to compensate.
Nationwide, professional patrollers, despite their high level of training, are among the lowest-paid workers in the country. According to state patrol officials, in Vermont, pay typically starts around minimum wage. And because they're seasonal workers, most don’t get benefits.
"This is not a job you do for the money," said one patroller with a shrug. "But it's a Friday, and we're skiing and not behind a desk."
During the morning meeting, Schilling went over what trails had been groomed, what if any problems snowmakers had reported, and what kind of temperatures were expected at the base and summit that day.
The day's forecast called for 6-12 inches of new snow, which drew a loud cheer from the group.
Before the patrollers got their assignments for the day, Brian Hazard, the resort’s Emergency Medical Services chief, made a last pitch about masking up and having plenty of personal protective equipment.
“So, guys, just a reminder, PPE all the time, right? Hazard said. "Any time you’re with a guest, any time you have an interaction, base area, summit, on the hill, make sure you have the PPE. We have lots located at the summit."
Ski resorts, in consultation with state health officials, are taking extensive measures to keep visitors, employees, host towns and ski patrollers safe, but it’s not always enough. Earlier this month, Hunter Mountain, a ski area in New York, had to close for three days after members of its ski patrol got COVID-19.
Patrollers at Stratton were buzzing about it. One talked about how he reminded a guest in the base lodge to mask up and when the skier brushed him off, the patroller brought up Hunter Mountain as a warning.
Schilling wrapped up the morning meeting, and as the patrollers headed to the slopes, he called: “Okay, have fun, and be safe out there!”
Josh Rosenblum was among them: He stopped to get his trail assignments, adjusted his walkie talkie and headed to a nearby lift.
Rosenblum lives in Londonderry, and has been a paid patroller at Stratton for 19 years. He’s part-time now. His full-time job is as a physician assistant at Grace Cottage Hospital in nearby Townsend.
Patrolling this year, in the midst of a pandemic, is different, he explained, and he misses the camaraderie.
“I mean, part of being on ski patrol was the atmosphere," Rosenblum said. "These people are your family, and, you know, being separated day to day between different buildings, not getting to see them, it’s not the same.”
Figuring out how to implement all the new protocols has also taken work: “Things like the masking and just all the different... layers between the neck and the face,” Rosenblum said. He added the pandemic has meant he’s clean shaven this winter for the first time in years.
“The masks get wet, they’re not as effective," he said. "There’s no way to wear a face shield as you’re skiing. I mean, luckily we have goggles.”
Rosenblum wears a regular mask most of the time he skis. But if he has to stop for an injured skier, he said he’ll switch to an N-95 mask, like those worn in hospitals.
“And it's difficult, because you got to take your helmet off to get them on, so you come across a wreck on the trail, and you have to take a minute and kind of step back and suit up," he said. "It's been a bit of a learning process for us.”
With overall skier traffic down because of the state’s public health guidelines, Rosenblum said there aren’t as many injuries.
Rosenblum said he’s had COVID already. He got it last March, after a ski trip out west. He’s also been vaccinated, something he’s grateful for. So he’s not personally worried about getting sick while patrolling. But he said there’s still a lot we don’t know about how the virus spreads.
A few hours later, outside Stratton’s first aid clinic, a skier who injured his leg the day before was checking to make sure it wasn't broken. A staff member from the clinic ran through a list of questions: where was the skier from, had he quarantined, had he been feeling any COVID-like symptoms?
All of this happened outside the clinic’s sliding glass doors. When the man was allowed inside for treatment, his friend, who’d been waiting with him, headed to her car to warm up. She wasn't allowed inside with him.
Kevin Glassman, a long time volunteer patroller, stood nearby. Glassman is an anesthesiologist in New York, and he’s got a ski home in Manchester. He can patrol in Vermont as an essential worker, but since he doesn’t live in the state full-time, he’s not allowed in the first aid clinic either.
He also can’t use the ski patrol locker room this year, which he admitted makes patrolling a lot less comfortable. But he loves to ski, and said to ensure resorts stay open, it's crucial to follow all of the pandemic protocols.
Working as a physician in New York, Glassman said he’s seen the ravages of COVID-19 up close and unfortunately too often. That experience has not made him afraid to patrol this year. But:
“It just makes me way more defensive about my own safety, and the safety of everybody else that's here," he said.
Most skiers at the resort are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, he added, though he admitted he has a very low threshold for anyone who’s not.
Glassman hasn’t had COVID yet, which he found amazing. And he said he’s grateful that he’s gotten his second dose of the vaccine.
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