The Story of Ski Patrol From Its Earliest Days
It was the day of Sugarbush Resort’s spring Pond Skimming contest. Win Smith, the resort’s majority owner, and assistant ski patroller Chad Borofsky were riding the Super Bravo chairlift and talking about the wacky costumes of skiers when their radios crackled to life. As details of an accident were reported, Borofsky looked over to a passing forest glade and picked up his radio mic. “I see it right below the Heaven’s Gate traverse.” As he hung up, he immediately turned to Smith: “I know where I am going next.” They reviewed the mogul conditions at the accident location and the decision making that had led patrollers to mark it with caution signage earlier that morning.
The seamless shift in conversation from personal to professional was consistent with what I had already observed of Sugarbush’s patrol culture that morning. Whether gathered in the patrol hut at Allyn’s Lodge or practicing routine sled drills on Murphy’s Glade, patrollers exhibited a sense of light camaraderie while staying attentive to the task at hand.
Colin Cascadden, the patrol director, affirmed that it takes a unique personality and skill set to meet the versatile responsibilities of the job. “A patroller may be skiing the mountain”—interacting with guests—“one moment and be pressed into service the next,” he explained.
“Service” could mean mountain rescue, chairlift evacuation, or search and rescue, as outlined in the mission of the Sugarbush Ski Patrol. More often, Cascadden explained, patrollers spend their time assisting other departments. “There is much more to our job than skiing and doing first aid. We are always there to drop everything to help somebody else.” The patrollers at Sugarbush come from diverse professional backgrounds—they’re doctors, lawyers, and engineers; even a city mayor has served—but Cascadden says they are all “the kind of people that when something happens, there are fifty of them at your door, all asking how they can help.”
They are also highly motivated to learn, adds Borofsky. “Our training regimen includes top-to-bottom toboggan runs, low-angle rescue drills, lift evacuation drills, and first aid scenarios,” he says. “We hold our team to very high standards, so should the need arise, we will be prepared and ready to respond.”
Borofsky was lucky to find this tribe early on. After his father died in a jet ski accident when he was sixteen, his interest in helping people led him to start pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant. But when his job as a Sugarbush lift operator in 1991 led to a ski patrol position, Borofsky realized that he could continue to work in health care by patrolling. “As the first line of defense, I had the ability to prevent people from entering the health care system through hazard mitigation as well as helping them if they became injured,” he says.
NATIONAL SKI PATROL
The underpinnings of camaraderie and professionalism are not unique to the Sugarbush Ski Patrol. These traits are rooted in the origins of the National Ski Patrol (NSP), founded by New Englander Charles “Minnie” Minot Dole in the 1930s.
In widely accepted lore, Dole was skiing the Toll Road in Stowe when he fell and broke a bone. His companions set off for help, but it was hours before they returned with volunteers and tin roofing to serve as a toboggan. This experience, combined with the fatal skiing accident of a friend just weeks later, is credited with spurring Dole’s interest in improving response time to injuries. Others shared his heightened awareness for skier safety, acknowledging the growing popularity of skiing.
Dole and local skiers formed the Mount Mansfield Ski Club (MMSC) in 1934, embedding a purpose to “promote good health” into its incorporation charter. Shortly thereafter, the MMSC established the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol (MMSP) and recruited volunteers to wear distinctive ski patrol patches. Although they initially acted as hosts, advising skiers on equipment maintenance and the skill levels required for various trails, they quickly gained attention for their emergency response system. It was the “super patrol” that the MMSP set up for the national downhill and slalom races at Stowe that attracted the notice of the National Ski Association (NSA)—the country’s skiing governing body, established back in 1905, now the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.
In 1938, Dole extended his vision and established the National Ski Patrol as a committee of the NSA. As the NSP’s first director, Dole helped shape the organization it is today: a professional education association with a creed of “Service and Safety.” He also ensured an organizational culture described as “esprit de corps,” based on the bonds of pride, friendship, and loyalty, which still remain core to the NSP’s reputation.
As the NSP was gaining momentum across the United States, World War II was raging across Europe. Dole took an interest in the Finnish army’s highly skilled mountain division after their notable defeat of a segment of the Russian army. As the U.S. entered the war, interest from the War Department in establishing a mountain division led to a contract in 1941 with the NSP to recruit soldiers. Minnie Dole was put in charge of designing a process to screen volunteers. By the time the 10th Mountain Division was organized in 1944, more than 7,000 men had been approved to join.
10TH MOUNTAIN DIVISION
Similar to the MMSP and the NSP, the 10th Mountain Division attracted men who had an affinity for the mountains and were proficient in the outdoors—notably skiers, mountaineers, hikers, farmers, and ranchers. Enduring snow, cold, and harsh conditions was second nature. Morale was said to be high during the division’s training years at Camp Hale in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains because the soldiers wanted to be there. “They were inspired by the mountains around them,” describes 10th Mountain Division member Earl Clark in the Warren Miller film Climb to Glory. “They came together around a common purpose to win the war, but they enjoyed the same love of skiing.”
In 1944, the 10th Mountain Division was deployed to the war front in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy. Historical accounts describe the division’s role in interrupting German army supply routes and capturing locations. In February 1945, the ski troops made a victorious assault on Mount Belvedere, the highest mountain in the Apennines, which included a daring nighttime operation on the snow- and ice-covered Riva Ridge.
The division was pivotal to the outcome of the war in favor of the Allied forces, but their involvement came at a cost. Over 114 days of action, 1,000 10th Mountain Division soldiers lost their lives.
The 10th Mountain Division was deactivated in October 1945, and the soldiers returned home. “They were outdoorsy types that loved the mountains and were well educated,” says Mac Jackson, a member of the 10th Mountain Division Descendants Organization and a veteran ski instructor at Sugarbush. It is estimated that 8,000 of the 14,000 10th Mountain Division veterans were responsible for establishing the nation’s ski infrastructure—from ski resorts, patrols, clubs, and schools to equipment and retail businesses. For middle-class Americans experiencing a booming economy and increased leisure time, this access allowed skiing to evolve into a mainstream pastime.
“Sixty-eight ski resorts across the country were formed by 10th Mountain Division veterans,” says Jackson, whose father was in the division. “My grandfather turned my dad down for a loan after the war, because he thought he was going to build a ski area.” Although Jackson’s father settled on a farm in Maryland, he continued to ski. “Whenever a buddy opened a ski area in New England, my father went.” That included Sugarbush in Vermont.
SUGARBUSH PATROL ROOTS
As a ski instructor at Camp Hale, Jack Murphy became friends with many of the 10th Mountain Division soldiers, and it was only natural for him to join them in the ski industry after the war. “His experience with the 10th Mountain Division provided the channel for him to develop his talents,” says Jack’s son, Mike Murphy, formerly Sugarbush’s cabin cat operator. “He was gregarious, athletic, and loved the outdoors—perfect character traits for the jobs he ended up doing.”
In 1948, Jack Murphy was recruited to be the general manager of Mad River Glen and later given the job of building and operating Sugarbush Resort, which opened on December 25, 1958 (see “Sugarbush’s Sweet Beginnings,” page 28). Joining Murphy at Sugarbush was another 10th Mountain Division veteran, George Wesson. Wesson brought influences from training in Colorado and fighting in Italy as well as having been an original member of the National Ski Patrol and the Mount Mansfield Ski Patrol. As patrol director, he established the Sugarbush Ski Patrol and the resort’s service and safety systems.
As skier visits increased, resorts across the East saw the need to extend patrol shifts beyond the weekends to weekdays as well. Wesson was involved in the growing recognition that paid patrollers were necessary to cover the demand, and he helped form the Professional Ski Patrol Association (PSPA). Although Wesson had founded a certification program with the NSP, it was largely volunteer-based, and the PSPA filled a niche of recognizing and supporting the growing number of paid professionals in the industry.
WOMEN IN THE SKI PATROL
Another key difference between the NSP and the PSPA was the latter’s men-only bylaw. From the NSP’s formation, women who did not have ski and toboggan skills could still be part of the patrol through its first aid auxiliary unit, which was available at resort bases for walk-in patients or injured skiers brought off the mountain.
Women under eighteen could also serve in the NSP as junior patrollers. Mary Bozack started as a junior patroller at Glen Ellen in 1969 (which opened as a separate resort from Sugarbush in 1963 but was acquired and renamed Sugarbush North in 1978) and served as a patroller until 1983. She recalls the early challenges for women: “[We] had to work harder and be tougher at doing the same things the guys were doing.”
Opportunities changed in the spring of 1973. “I passed the necessary ski and toboggan tests to be NSP certified, which qualified me to be a member of the PSPA,” recalls Bozack. “I had to leave the room while the PSPA voted to revise their bylaws to include women.” She became the first female in the PSPA, paving the way for other women to become recognized as professionals.
Like Borofsky and so many others, Bozack has made a lifelong path out of her experiences in the mountains. “When I was at UVM earning my degree in education, I told my professor that I wasn’t sure about teaching in the classroom, that I might want to keep working as a patroller,” she recalls. “He told me that I shouldn’t choose, so I combined the two. As a working patroller and risk manager, I educated and trained many people, just like Sugarbush patrollers do today.”
Since that time, women have been a constant presence in the Sugarbush Ski Patrol; twenty female professionals and volunteers are currently serving, some of them for decades. One of those is Barb Masser, who has been at Sugarbush for twenty years. “Patrollers come back year after year because of the team and the rewarding work,” says Masser. “The culture is a major draw—the patrol feels like a family.”
SKI TECHNOLOGY INNOVATIONS
While gender makeup in the ski patrol has steadily evolved over the decades, innovations in equipment and communications have transformed the responsibilities and functions of the job of mountain safety and rescue.
Ski equipment had already been redesigned specifically for the needs of the 10th Mountain Division in the 1940s and went through rigorous testing during mountain military operations. Cable bindings provided stability. Skins allowed for uphill travel. Boots were versatile enough for skiing, mountaineering, and snowshoeing. Waterproof canvas packs and wool clothing maintained dryness and warmth.
However, it was the postwar era when quantum leaps were made in ski technology. A surge of research and development in the 1950s was driven by a new breed of leisure skiers who sought better equipment. They were attracted to the improving conditions of resort slopes, which were made more accessible by modernized lifts and snowmaking.
As an early adopter of snowmaking, Sugarbush was at the forefront of this shift. Jack Murphy was a key influence on the fast-changing technology by constantly testing equipment and giving feedback to manufacturers—from weighing in on the design of snow guns to helping his friend Howard Head develop the first integrated metal-edged ski with a plastic base. “The industry was small and tight back then,” recalls Mike Murphy. “Everyone knew everyone, and although they were competitors, they were collaborators.”
With faster skis, groomed runs, and better lift access, the number of skiers at Sugarbush boomed in the 1970s. The patrol ramped up their presence and operations. The first aid equipment that Wesson had initially brought from Stowe, such as a basic backboard and splints, became commercially available and improved the patrol’s ability to stabilize injured skiers on the mountain. The production of the lightweight Cascade toboggan in 1962 made it easier to navigate a patient off the mountain for medical care.
The medical and engineering community increasingly took an interest in skier injuries, most illustrated by the clinic set up by Dr. Robert Johnson and Carl Ettlinger at Glen Ellen in the early 1970s (see “The Sugarbush Study,” Sugarbush Magazine, 2016–17). Not only did their research aid technology and treatment, it enhanced training options for patrollers. “Having a medical clinic at the base of a ski resort changed how the patrol functioned,” remembers Bozack. “Learning about injuries, such as dislocated shoulders and broken ankles, confirmed our first aid skills and validated our instincts because we had the medical diagnoses.”
Improved communication methods also modernized the work of the ski patrol. Bozack acknowledged the unavoidable delays involved in reporting an accident at Glen Ellen early on. “We were limited to having patrollers skiing to look for people in trouble,” she recalls. “Or a skier might report an accident to the lift operator at the bottom of the mountain, who would call the top operator, who told a patroller.”
Wesson was key in advancing communications systems by installing Army surplus field phones on the trails as patrol director, first at Stowe Mountain Resort and then at Sugarbush. Dave Stone, a patroller at Sugarbush, remembers that the system was in place when he joined the patrol in 1973. “These field phones were set up on the trails in red wooden call boxes with instructions and a hand crank,” Stone recalls. “Although the boxes were numbered, skiers or patrollers still needed to describe the location of an accident to the best of their ability.”
In recent decades, portable phones, radios, and, cell phones have been game changers. Neil Van Dyke, the search-and-rescue coordinator for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, says that where the cell coverage in Vermont’s mountains is better, the job of managing rescues is easier. “When we get a call, the dispatch screen identifies the latitude and longitude of the location, and we can guide out the skier or begin the rescue with greater accuracy.
“However, it cuts both ways,” continues Van Dyke. “The downside of cell phones is that they are used as a safety net.” He is concerned that skiers and riders increasingly depend on smartphones to be prepared in the backcountry. “The map, compass, phone, and camera all work great—until the battery dies.”
In most cases, those who get lost and call for assistance have started off at one of the ski mountains. “They get adventurous and duck a rope intending to explore the woods just outside ski area boundaries,” Van Dyke explains, “and get sucked into the more remote backcountry.”
EMERGENCY SYSTEM INTERCONNECTIVITY
Van Dyke’s observations match up with the experience of ski patrollers at Sugarbush, where skiers and riders are increasingly exploring areas just outside the resort boundaries, areas that often drop out to nearby roads. Cascadden attributes the increase in proficiency and confidence in abilities to the advancement of shaped skis, alpine touring gear, and split snowboards.
Arrangements with regional and state emergency management resources have led to a more sophisticated response, regardless of the emergency at hand. “We have established systems and protocols with the state police, search-and-rescue teams, GPS coordinators, and multi-city ambulance squads,” says Cascadden. “And patrol members are required to do training exercises for search and rescue.”
Sugarbush’s partnerships are the result of a state law that mandated an integrated system among state agencies, ski patrols, game wardens, search-and-rescue teams, fire departments, and emergency medical services, among others. It also led to Van Dyke’s position as a point person in state government. “It has brought groups together and created relationships that have improved systems for search and rescue around the state,” he says. “We are saving lives.”
THE PATROL FAMILY
Though much has changed over the decades in skiing and riding, the people behind service and safety in the mountain landscape have remained much the same.
“The mountains were the magnet,” says Earl Clark in describing the allure of becoming a 10th Mountain Division soldier. Mary Bozack would say that the same is true for those on the patrol; yet something beyond the mountains keeps patrollers working over the years. “Patrollers may start wanting to ski for free or be on the mountain every day,” she says, “but the ones that stick with the hard work, season after season, making careers of the work, stay because of the teamwork.”
Chad Borofsky emphasizes that it is the deep experiences of duty and friendship that cement the patrollers’ esprit de corps and ensure the success of their mission. “We spend ten hours a day together in small patrol huts in the most severe weather in the East. During those ten hours we become very close to our coworkers,” he explains. “We become what we refer to as the ‘patrol family.’ We rely on each other for support and we are always there to support those who are part of the family.”
Borofsky believes that it is often the challenging circumstances that drive members of the patrol closer together. “It’s not uncommon for a major accident or lift evacuation to act as a catalyst that in turn cements the bonds of a class of patrollers. These events force the group to set aside their differences and work as a team to solve a problem. It’s during these times of great stress and pressure that petty arguments and squabbles are forgotten and camaraderie is built.”
Borofsky recalls the intensity of a particularly serious accident, in which a skier hit a tree and sustained a head injury. From the time Borofsky first arrived on the scene to the time he assisted loading the patient into a helicopter for transport to the trauma center, there was an intuitive interdependence between patrollers as they performed examinations and made decisions. “Within minutes there were five of the most experienced patrollers at the scene,” Borofsky recalls. “Without words—which is often the case when the most experienced at a particular discipline join together to accomplish a task—the six first responders treated and packaged the patient in minutes, had him out of the woods, loaded into the sled, and headed to the first aid clinic at the base of the mountain, where the physicians, helicopter, and ambulance would be waiting.”
These deep experiences and the cumulative time of community service in the mountains have become a way of life for those in the profession. They are why the culture, values, and accomplishments of the 10th Mountain Division, the National Ski Patrol, and the Sugarbush Ski Patrol over the last sixty years so mirror each other, and have had such a significant impact on the country, communities, and individuals.
“The greatest [gift] that came out of the 10th Mountain Division was a common love of the mountains,” reflects Clark. “It seeped into my body, and I knew it was going to be something that I enjoyed for the rest of my life. It became the lives of most of us.”
For Borofsky, who has spent twenty-five years among the volunteers and professionals of the Sugarbush Ski Patrol, working on the mountain has become his life, too. “I can think of no other job that I’d rather be doing.”