Pictured: King, one of MMSA’s four avalanche dogs./
Of all the uniforms on Mammoth Mountain, Ski Patrol may be the easiest to recognize; that crisp red broken by a white cross could mean anything from a scolding to salvation, depending upon the circumstances. A close-knit band of brothers and sisters, Ski Patrol exudes the same aura of authority and mystery one might associate with elite members of the military. Indeed, like our other men and women in uniform, patrollers train hard, take their jobs seriously, and sometimes give their lives to protect endangered ‘civilians’ on the Mountain.
This week Eric Diem, former director of June Mountain Ski Patrol and current Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA) Ski Patroller, offered to take us behind the scenes to reveal some of the current goings-on in the world of Mammoth’s Ski Patrol.
Sheet: So how is it up there?
Diem: Conditions have been a lot of fun this past month; the new snow looks soft and sweet.
Sheet: Does this mean more avalanche training?
Diem: Patrol is always training in between the storm cycles to keep up with our skills and to be top notch in the ski industry. We did some avalanche rescue training scenarios this month up in Roger’s Ridge where we had 3 different mannequin victims. We bury them out there and then we have patrollers come in and go through a practice avalanche rescue.
First we sound the alarm, and Patrollers arrive on scene and perform a ‘hasty’ search of the area. They verify the location and the scope of the slide, call for additional resources, and if there’s a witness, talk to the witness. Then they begin a transceiver search, because maybe the person is wearing a beacon and we can find them quickly.
As patrollers are performing a beacon search, they’re looking for any clues, like a glove sticking out, or an arm sticking out. As other patrollers come on scene, they start a Recco search, checking likely catchment areas, like tree wells or rock outcroppings to see if maybe they’ll get lucky. The Recco devices send out a signal that bounces off the reflector inside some clothing and boots, which gives off a tone.
At the same time, the dog handlers on duty that day are getting their dogs to the scene as fast as possible. The last stage of an avalanche rescue would be a probe line, which could be multiple lines of 10 people across probing the entire area, although at that point it’s realistically body recovery.
Sheet: Can you tell us more about the avalanche dog program?
Diem: The dogs also go through an ongoing training program. Every week we pick a part of the mountain and we’ll bury somebody or some articles. These dogs are trained to smell human scent buried under the snow.
Mammoth has three avalanche dogs right now. We’ve got King, the golden retriever, who was just up in Squaw Valley last week, where he got revalidated. And then we’ve got Chief, a black Lab, and he’s been in Mammoth 4-5 years, and he’s certified. Then we’ve got a new dog, Atlas, he’s another Labrador, and he’s going to be up for his first certification this spring. I’ve been bringing my avalanche dog, Ruby; she’s been my avalanche dog at June for 8 years, and I brought her up to Mammoth two weeks ago and she got the chance to go out and do some searches. We’re working with those 4 dogs.
We’re excited for some certification training and some helicopter training coming up in April. You have to recertify dogs every 2 years to keep their skill level up.
Sheet: How long have Mammoth and June had their dog training program?
Diem: It’s been about 9 years, because King and Ruby are both 8 years old, so that’s how long we’ve been doing it. That’s about as long as Bobby [Hoyt] has been the Director here. Ever since Bobby took over, the dog program has been launched. Because Patrol felt that on a big mountain like Mammoth you’ve got to have dogs. We already had an avalanche scenario this year up in Climax, and Chief went through the area. If he doesn’t alert to anything, you feel pretty confident that nobody’s in there. Dogs are pretty remarkable. Knowing that you have a good dog program makes the Patrol that much stronger.
Sheet: What else has Ski Patrol been up to?
Diem: We have our Ski Patrol exchange program. Last month we had 2 of our Patrol guys, Art Eisberg and Scott Quirsfeld, who both went to Jackson Hole on an exchange, and we had some Jackson Hole patrollers come over here. When you exchange patrollers with other mountains, you get ideas from what they do at their mountain, and we give them ideas from what we do at our mountain. Jackson does a great job, but there’s certain things through the exchange program that we found out we do really well.
Then we’ve got 2 of our patrollers, Mitch Dreese and Scott Wheeler, going to Whistler, Blackcomb, for an exchange with them. It’s really neat, because Whistler has gondolas and trams and things like that, so we can talk about how they do their evacuation systems, and harnesses and ropes, and it’s really technical stuff,
When our Patrollers come home, we have a night where they show us photos and we talk about their experiences. So we’ll be excited to see how the guys come back from Whistler, Blackcomb, and see what they bring back.
Sheet: How does this season compare so far to last?
Diem: Like I said, the conditions have been really fun this past month. Historically it always snows a lot in February, but for some reason this month was high and dry. But that’s a good thing, because we’ve got the numbers; we’ve got the people here; we’ve got the economy running in Mammoth. We’re really happy about that. And the conditions have been great. You’ve got those sunny days when you’re cruising and everything’s fun. But it’s nice to see it snow again, and get that fresh powder, and get back to maybe doing some avalanche control work. The game is on, and it’s a lot of fun.
Sheet: To me it seems as though many people, locals and visitors alike, are intrigued by the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol. Do you think Ski Patrol gets a mostly positive reception on the Mountain?
Diem: We do. We enjoy talking with people about the Eastern Sierra, our hill, the snow conditions that day and the season. I think we all feel pretty lucky to be doing what we’re doing. It’s really nice when people come up to us and say thanks.
(Photo courtesy Mammoth Ski Patrol)