My Journey To Basic

National Ski Patrol
National Ski Patrol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People join the National Ski Patrol for many reasons: an extension of their medical training, free skiing, help others. I joined due to my desire to help others and ski. It could easily be said that my journey to Basic started in mid-1990 when my dad, my brother and I became candidates for the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Patrol. We were living at Johnson Bible College and the Outdoor Emergency Care classes were to be held there. What could be more convenient?

My journey, thought, didn’t start then or there. It started in the winter of 1975 in the small town of Saint Johann, Austria. My dad was in the Army and we were stationed in Karlsruhe. We drove down to Saint Johann for our first ski vacation. My brother and I loved it. A few weeks later, we went again. It was on this second trip that my frustration with improving my skiing started. I tested out of the beginner class, but for whatever reason, I was not able to keep up with the next class level. I was sent back. I skied. I learned. I had fun. Little did I know it would be 5 years before I would ski again (Bryce Mountain, Virginia).

In the mid-80’s, we returned to Germany for what would be by father’s last tour of duty with the Army before retiring. We kids joined the Sitzmarker ski club at Patch American High School and went on a trip every year. We also made several family ski trips, sometimes for just a day, and my skiing slowly improved. I had Elan 190s and a poster of Engelmar Stehmark on my wall. In late 1986 before leaving Germany, my dad bought for me a pair of Head Radial SL 203s. It would be a couple of years before I bought a pair of Tyrolia 480 bindings (yes, the skis and bindings matched).

After retiring, my parents moved to Johnson Bible College outside Knoxville, Tennessee, we would occasionally ski at Ober. Larry Green had a hand in recruiting the three of us onto the Patrol. We signed up and enrolled in the class. Little did I know just how much effort and time OEC takes. It started during the summer and neither my brother nor I had classes. I was attending the University of Tennessee and was studying Computer Science. A few weeks into the new semester, however, and my schedule started to take its toll. Not only was I taking OEC, I had also enrolled in Advanced First Aide and Emergency Care as an 400 level elective. I was the only non-medical student in the class, but I was there for one thing: Red Cross certification in CPR. I needed that card in order to challenge the BLS exam conducted for the JBC fire department.

I was tired. I was behind on computer lab work. Something had to give and I decided to make it OEC. I didn’t want to go one evening and my brother Chris did his part in convincing me. I did go and somehow became energized to finish the course. We all passed and attended both the OEC and on-hill refreshers. Now all we had to do was wait for the snow.

I don’t remember much from the ski training that first year. What I do recall is it being disorganized and not very effective. In those days there was no system of sign-offs. A candidate had no clue where they stood until the pre-test which was conducted at a ski area in North Carolina. I had trouble with the sled. I ended up in a Stem Christie too often. I knew I was nowhere near ready.

Over the course of the next few years, my mother and sister joined the patrol. In 1991, my wife-to-be went through the class during the ski year and joined as my wife in 1992. That year I really concentrated on training, but did not feel ready for the pre-test. I knew I was close. It had to 1993. It had to be.

The 1993-1994 was to be my year. The sled had become easier. I could get down the hill. I had confidence. I knew I was ready. This journey would only last four years. The day of the pre-test I awoke early for the two hour drive. My throat hurt and I was very warm. I had a fever of 101. I was going nowhere. I was crushed.

My wife left the Patrol at the end of that year. My brother and sister had already married and moved away. My parents had moved to Germany. My fifth year on Patrol at Ober I spent by myself. It would be my last there. I was out of gas.

Christmas of 1999 found us preparing to move in with my parents. I had taken a new job with SSI in Cincinnati and we needed to sell our house in Marion, Ohio. Over than holiday, my brother, sister-in-law and I went skiing at Perfect North Slopes. I was interested in the Patrol again and put my name in. By the end of the season I hadn’t heard, so I contacted them again. As a former patroller I had two choices: challenge the OEC test or do through the course again. It had been 10 years since I was in the class and the manual had grown by nearly 200 pages. I didn’t know the local protocols. It was a no brainer for me, I asked to take the class again.

Classes were held at PNS twice a week. This time it wasn’t a 5 minute walk to attend, but a 40 minute drive. I had to leave work early to get there on time. By now I was working at Mycom with some of the same people who had been at SSI. It wasn’t a problem and I stayed later on other days. I made it through. I got my blue candidate jacket.

My candidate year was quite eye opening. Now there was a system. There were sign-off. The skills were listed and explained. Tom Worley got me through the first set. I made good progress and felt that surely I could finish the next year.

At the end of the first year, the names for the candidates are sent to National. Mine kicked back with my old number and an updated region: Dixie to Ohio (yes, I know PNS is in Indiana). At the refresher in 2001, George Allen informed me I needed to have my picture updated as I was listed as an Auxiliary. At Ober, we covered our yellow backcross with blue fabric. As it matched the blue over the shoulders, we were a bit incognito. At PNS, Auxiliaries wore a while backcross. I asked my mother to sow it on lightly. After all, it wasn’t going to be on there very long.

I started my second year at PNS with much enthusiasm. I was determined. The snow fell. I hit the slopes and it all went wrong. I seemed unable to do much correctly. I trained with John McGoff, Pat Flischel, Pete Oka and others. Some expressed concern. One evening they had a training session just for Auxiliaries. I attended and John Cole showed me a problem with my boots. They were eleven years old and would expand when pressed. Great. Need new boots in the middle of the season. Awesome.

I bought a pair of Nordica Flex 7’s from the Ski Train Depot. This was the start of knowing Myron. He balanced them for me and adjusted the cant. When I hit the snow with them, my Kästle Pure Machines came to life like never before. Sign-offs came, but so did the end of the season. Ugh!

During the off-season, Frank Clearly, our Patrol Director, contacted my via e-mail. He wanted to know how serious I was about reaching Basic. After all, there wasn’t much need for a skiing Auxiliary. I said I was going to finish this year, no matter what. I was committed and ready.

The Monday before Thanksgiving 2002, I was laid off. I was the last one left in my group at Mycom. I figured it was going to happen soon and had taken my personal computer books home. I hoped to get through the holidays as I knew how had it is to find work as a developer before the beginning of the year. They offered me 6 weeks severance and time would show I would need every bit of that and then some. The season started a few weeks later. Nearly every day, I went out to PNS to train and get those last sign-offs. I would start my day looking through job posts and submit at least a dozen applications. Some days I would be lucky and have call backs. The afternoons were spent at PNS. I could almost taste it.

My last sign-off loomed. I spoke to Fredda McGoff about it (she was in the same candidate class as I was) and she talked to John. He hadn’t signed me off on confined skiing yet, so we setup to do it Monday night. Little did I know how many times he would make me go down the hill to earn it.

That night we met at the top of the red lift. As I only had one more sign-off, I took precedent over the others. We went down the right side of deception. I was loving my shorter 190 shaped Rossignols that evening. I thought I did well, but he wanted me to do it again. Off I went and stopped at the bottom of red to wait. Only one word: again.

For whatever reason, I decided to go down the left side. Once at the bottom of the hill, John asked which side he had said to ski. “Right side,” I replied. Basically, the wrong one. We loaded to do it again. At the top of the hill, Rick Prinz expressed his annoyance and strongly encouraged me not to have to do it again. Down the right side I went. Met at the bottom. “Ok,” was the only response.

Once again at the top of the red lift, we went down Center Stage. Now we did confined skiing, side-slide, falling leaf, etc. Once at the bottom, John said I was done and could either hang with the class or ski. Sorry, I don’t remember what I did. All I remember was making sure John signed the book and put in to Frank that I was done. All that remained was the ski along with the Director.

The next day I received an e-mail telling me when my ski along would be. It would cover every sled and skiing skill and I needed to be ready. This was no automatic venture and it was not odd to not pass and have to review some more. That night, Deception had bumps the size of small cars and they were making snow. Dan Dickman needed a lead review for Senior. Somehow I ended up on tail first and Adam Heist rode. Great! My worst skill was going to be reviewed first.

Dan took a good path and made it easy for me, even if he did nearly pop Adam out of the sled near the bottom. On the next run, I was in lead. Though I had treated by glasses with defogger, my old Scott goggles let me down and fogged up. I had to take them off to see. I did many falling leaves to make it through the bumps and snow, but I made it.

Run three was Adam’s turn to take lead. At last, I thought. I get to ride. Nope. Tail again. Adam was smooth and confident. We made it down. I didn’t fall. I looked at Frank. No smile. No reaction. No emotion. “Ok, let’s go down Center.”

Center that night was smooth. Box turns. Emergency stops. Finally done with the sled. Give it to the training class and time to free ski. We made several more trips with little word from Frank. Adam and I rode up together on the lift. We talked to one another. Did we make it?

At the top again, Frank talked about patrolling. We reviewed various situations. He had us ski ahead of him this time and he followed. Closing was approaching and patrollers were started to gather outside the aide room. Without telling us anything, Frank reached for his radio and announced Adam and me as the two newest Basic patrollers. Alas, I had made it. I was the last of my class to make Basic. My 7+ years of work had finally paid off. I asked the crew chief for a few minutes before he made assignments for closing.

I clicked out of my skis and ran into the Patrol room. Out came the Swiss Army knife I had purchased in 1990 when I started at Ober. Quickly and carefully I cut the thread holding the white backcross on. No disrespect to Auxiliaries, but I was not closing the hill as anything but a Basic tonight. It didn’t matter that this wasn’t my normal crew. It didn’t matter what assignment I got. All that mattered was that beautiful yellow cross. It hadn’t seen the light of day for over 12 years.

When I returned to my parent’s house that night, my wife met me at the door. I didn’t want to give anything away and my mom needed me to take the trash out. I handed my boot bag to Deana and took the trash from my mom. The front door was closing as I turned around and I heard my mother say “Look at his back! Look at his back!” Returning to the house, my wife was all smiles. Congratulations all round.

It has been nearly 11 years since that night. This year marks my 14th at PNS and 19th as a Patroller. My skiing as come a long way and I have seen many things on the hill. Yes, it gets hard when you find a 14 year old unconscious in the snow, when people complain about the snow guns or when bratty teenagers seem out to ruin everyone’s day. Those 8 hour weekend shifts in 38 degrees and rain are awful and the early morning first tracks seem too few. From time to time, a customer will truly thank you for taking care of them or a loved one. Perhaps it is a smile, perhaps it is a bit more. We don’t get paid. We do it because we love it.

And when I’m done. When I really feel like there is no more. I close my eyes and I relive the moment Frank announced me as a Patroller. I recall where I started. I recall my Journey to Basic.

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