At about 6 a.m. before every highly anticipated powder day at White Pass, the ski patrol hits the slopes to ensure they're safe for eager visitors.
By the time crowds arrive for the 8:45 a.m. opening, up to 15 full-time patrollers have already mitigated any hazards, including the mountain's seven avalanche routes. They'll spend the rest of the day answering calls, maintaining boundaries and addressing any other safety concerns.
Patrol director Chris Talbot said it takes about 200 hours of training to become a full-fledged ski patroller at White Pass, and no one does it for the money, especially the approximately 150 members of the volunteer patrol. But for those willing to put in the effort — typically young avid skiers — Talbot said the job comes with plenty of benefits beyond the free season pass and significantly discounted passes for family members.
"I've raised my family here and all my kids are ski racers and honestly my favorite part is just being a part of the community because we're helping people out," said Talbot, who's entering his 27th season on the patrol and works year-round at White Pass, doing construction and carpentry work in the offseason. "That's pretty cool, and all the long-lasting friendships."
Mission Ridge patrol director Delcie Proffitt agreed most patrollers and especially the ski area's 35 volunteers love the camaraderie formed on the job. She said their staff of 27 full-time and part-time professionals consists of veterans or younger patrollers in their 20s.
"They love working outside and not at a desk job," Proffitt said. "They love the mountain and they do love to ski."
Like most ski patrols, the groups at White Pass and Mission Ridge also feature a handful of physicians and nurses who volunteer their time to assist patients during the season.
They administer care in facilities at the areas, which improved considerably at White Pass in 2017. Talbot served as the general contractor for a much-needed three-story, 5,200 square foot building and said it took seven years to raise the money required to replace a single room in the main lodge.
Volunteers work only three weekend days per month at White Pass but must meet the same qualifications as professionals, starting with a test of their skiing abilities in early January. Those who pass go on to a toboggan training March, followed by an extensive online medical class in the fall, six weeks of hands-on training on the weekends and then finally shadowing experienced patrollers for a month before concluding with an on-hill test.
A handful of volunteers who work exclusively on the nordic trails or in the ski patrol building don't need to pass the ski tests. Talbot noted the pros do virtually all of the avalanche work, which occasionally requires explosives.
Talbot said the job's changed some over the years, and not just because White Pass's expansion and growing popularity of winter sports forced the patrol to grow from three professionals to 15. Improved equipment and gear made the sport more accessible, allowing a greater number of people to access difficult slopes.
The national trend of higher backcountry usage can be seen at White Pass, where Talbot said plenty of visitors tend to get lost with tempting fresh powder in wilderness areas less than 100 feet from the top of lifts. Professional patrollers offer assistance at a minimum cost of $500, which Talbot said covers the cost of sending out patrollers and resources such as snowmobiles, pickups and Sno-Cats.
Ignoring boundary lines and not knowing how to use gear often leads to problems, Talbot said. Proffitt's noticed a growing number of visitors inclined to enter marked off areas, not believing patrollers simply want to ensure people's safety.
Injuries and incidents still happen, of course, and Talbot said White Pass usually sees numbers close to matching the national average of three calls to ski patrol per 1,000 visitors. Snowboarders most often suffer upper body injuries like hurt wrists, shoulders or clavicles, while skiers see more knee injuries.
Most ski areas fund their own patrols, but the volunteer groups that help them depend entirely on donations.
Washington's only nonprofit ski area, Mt. Spokane, uses a 140-member all-volunteer patrol formed in 1938, making it one of the oldest in the country. Nearly 200 volunteers make up the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol, which helps pro patrollers at five of the mountain's ski areas.
Volunteer groups rely on occasional fundraisers, including last weekend's Brews, Brats and Boards fundraiser and the High Class at White Pass wine event later this season. Donations can also be made any time and Talbot said with high turnover for such a demanding job, they're always in need of new patrollers.
"We're not looking for a dude doing a bunch of backflips and stuff," Talbot said. "If they can that's cool but we're looking for a solid expert skier that can ski every run in every condition because that is your job basically during sweep times, boring times or any day we're open."