Print and Go Back Freeskiing [Print without images]

Monday, September 24, 2012
Updated: October 12, 1:34 PM ET
Embedded with Jackson Hole patrol

Just a typical day in the life of Jackson Hole ski patrollers.

During my few days shadowing the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol last winter, this is what struck me: These patrollers have serious, uncompromising focus peppered with pervasive humor. Alongside the patrol's decades of experience, intimate knowledge of every corner of the mountain, and intense passion to serve, juvenile jokes dominate and wisecracks don't miss a beat. One patroller told me, "We don't call this the world's highest daycare for nothing."

Perhaps they have to have a good sense of humor to handle the toughest moments that their jobs bring. While I was there, I left a serene scene in the patrol cabin to go and ski for an hour. I returned to find a team intensely mobilized to rescue a snowboarder caught in an out-of-bounds avalanche. A helicopter pilot navigated a fog line below the summits to pluck the injured rider out to safety.

Patroller Kevin Brazell invited me out to do an avalanche control run with him one morning. Bright and early and without much more than a 'Good morning,' Kevin led me a few hundred yards past Corbet's Couloir, where we hung a left. We were ski-cutting the hanging snowfield above the looming cliffs below. "Follow me," he said nonchalantly before dropping into the steep, no-fall zone.

At the bottom, he yelled over to me, "I have the best job in the world!" and floated down the rest of the empty mountain, freshly dusted in new snow.

This is how every day is for the patrol -- up at 4 a.m., on the mountain by 6:30, and off again at 5 p.m. After 11 hours on the job, many of them head to the Boom Boom Room (affectionately known as the BBR), Jackson Hole ski patrol's own private bar. The BBR is Jackson's Atlantis -- everyone in town has gossip about where it is and what happens inside. Yet it's disarmingly simple -- a small room, a few tables, a Yahtzee game always in mid-swing. There are clues, though, that there's something deeper here. An old bar top is hanging on the wall to eternally preserve the philosophy that grieving patrollers etched onto it after the death of a colleague.

"The BBR is one of the most important places for patrol," a dispatcher named Alaina tells me. "This is where we find community and support."

That community keeps people around. The most novice patroller I spoke with already had five years under her belt. The most senior had more than 30. They all said they plan to stay on indefinitely.

"I wouldn't ever consider not doing this job," says Jen Calder, who has been on patrol for more than 14 years.

"Why?" I ask her. Surely there are downsides to the job -- it's high risk and low pay, it's seasonal, and there are hours of boring downtime.

"It's like a family up here," Calder says. "It's not really about how you spend your time so much as who you spend your time with."