Nearly 20 skiers are squeezed into a hut atop Eldora Mountain on March 27, but only a handful know what’s going on as the radios begin to squawk. I’m one of 15 candidates in the room who are trying out to fill the four or so openings on the resort’s ski patrol, and we’ve been taking a break to warm up after an hour of ski drills on icy slopes. Now, we watch as our judges don helmets, pull on goggles, and rush out the door.

Zach Ryan, a patrol supervisor, stays behind with us and listens to the radio traffic. There’s a mechanical failure on the Indian Peaks lift, leaving hundreds of people stranded on chairs. Patrollers must close part of the mountain to ensure other guests don’t ski down to the malfunctioning lift until it’s fixed. While we wait for the tryout judges to return, Ryan fields our questions.

Most of the people in my group are vying to become full-time patrollers, others want to volunteer, and a few teenagers hope to ski their way onto the youth patrol, which would see them learn emergency first aid and assist in incidents to prepare them to join as adults. I’m here on assignment for 5280 to better understand what it takes to be a ski patroller in Colorado—and to see if I have the right stuff to put on the red-and-white jacket. But despite being a lifelong skier and a journalist who often covers the ski industry, I realize as Ryan answers our questions about wages, housing, medicine, and skier fatalities that I know almost nothing about the realities of his profession.

If I’m being honest, I also sometimes ski like an asshole. I’ve ducked ropes and run from patrollers. I’ve straight-lined groomers trying to set a new personal record for speed and weaved between beginners like they were racing gates. And I’ve always kept an eye out for patrollers, hoping to avoid a lecture from the fun police. Call it willful ignorance, but until today, it never occurred to me that the same patroller roping off terrain in the afternoon might have spent her morning responding to an unconscious skier who hit a tree at full speed. I also never considered that she might go home to sleep on her buddy’s couch because she can’t afford housing—or that she might not sleep at all because she’s dealing with crippling stress from her chosen line of work. After one morning on the mountain, I was only just beginning to realize how difficult the job could be.

When the judges return, they’re led by Neil Sullivan, Eldora’s assistant patrol director and the person facilitating the tryout. The 53-year-old is calm and affable, and if his heart rate has risen because of the Indian Peaks call, you’d never know it. He motions the candidates outside, addressing each of us by our first names as we clip back into our bindings. Then he tells us to ditch our poles.

Earlier in the day, we’d done what felt like elementary drills—side-stepping downhill, then climbing back up in herringbone (reverse pizza) stances—but the tests help the judges evaluate our abilities to navigate the steep slopes and tight spaces required to access injured guests. (Eldora Ski Patrol used to recruit snowboarders, too, but skiing the mountain proved easier.) As Sullivan had told us earlier, carving turns is only a small part of the job. Now, though, those of us in my largely capable group have a chance to prove our true skiing abilities. We drop into a mogul run called Alpenhorn with instructions to ski fast and in control. Without poles, the judges watch how well we square our shoulders to the mountain and manage our speeds—essential skills for running a toboggan. A couple of candidates drop in with swagger only to wash out.

When we reach the bottom, I board the lift with Sullivan and ask about his approach to the tryouts. I’d heard other mountains give ski patrol candidates bib numbers and only learn their names if they score high enough. Why, then, does he take a more personal tack? “We’re pretty selective, too,” he tells me. “But we’re not just looking for good skiers. We’re looking for good people on top of those skis.”

In the 1990s, Sullivan tried out for another patrol he prefers not to name. “I remember thinking, It’s interesting they’re not talking to us,” he says. “They have 15 judges on the side of the trail, and they’re ranking us.” Sullivan skied well enough that they learned his name, and he spent several years patrolling at that resort. Now at Eldora, where he’s been for nine years, he’s found that creating a welcoming environment instead of a competition during tryouts is a good first step in building a cohesive group with high morale that wants to come back each season despite what he admits are paltry financial incentives.

Like many skilled workers, ski patrollers do a lot for a little. Sometimes they’re just pleading with out-of-control knuckleheads to slow the hell down. Other times they’re thinning out trees. But on many days, they’re using the professional training they’ve been given, including first-aid medicine and avalanche mitigation, to respond to skiers who need medevac flights and to bootpack explosives into avalanche zones. Historically, their pay has not been commensurate with those skills.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional patrollers in the United States earned an average wage of just over $13 per hour in spring 2021. The patrollers I spoke with told me starting pay in the Centennial State this past season was closer to $15 per hour, still barely enough to survive in most Colorado mountain towns. When Ryan, the patrol supervisor, started working at Eldora in 2016, he was a snowmaker, but when he passed the ski test and was hired as a patroller, he started at $12 per hour, a $2-per-hour pay cut. It was worth it because he planned to go to medical school, and the experience would help him get there. (He enrolled this summer and is no longer an Eldora employee.) To be able to pay the bills, he spent his summers fighting fires in Montana and relied on hazard pay and overtime to squirrel away enough cash to make it through each winter. It’s a balance that is more challenging than ever to maintain as housing costs in Colorado continue to soar.

Nowhere is this truer than in Breckenridge. With pay failing to keep up with the town’s high cost of living, patrollers at Breckenridge Ski Resort voted to unionize in 2021 and began bargaining with Vail Resorts, which owns the mountain, to establish a new wage structure. In March, Vail Resorts finally announced a $21 hourly rate for entry-level ski patrollers at its 37 resorts—a higher wage than the union expected. While the increase was cheered across the industry, $21 per hour equates to about $41,000 a year. In Breckenridge, the average annual rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $30,000, and that’s if you can find a unit that hasn’t been turned into a short-term rental. “You could argue $21 an hour gives you a little more breathing room,” says Ryan Dineen, president of the Breckenridge Ski Patrol Union. “But if it’s impossible to move here unless you’re wealthy, we’ve eliminated so many people for whom this [profession] is not attainable or available.”

Still, Vail Resorts’ announcement could force other resorts to raise their wages to attract and, more importantly, retain patrollers. There are encouraging signs: In 2022, Eldora and Copper Mountain, both owned by Powdr Corp., raised starting pay for patrollers to $18 per hour. “For us to be able to get people to stick around for a couple of years, that’s been a challenge,” Sullivan says. “With all the effort that goes into the training, it’s disappointing if someone leaves after a year or two.” That high turnover makes it harder for patrol leaders to build reliable, experienced teams. In 2021, for instance, Eldora had to onboard nine patrollers, and because their first year on the mountain is essentially a training course, more than half of Sullivan’s full-time team of 16 that season were learning on the job.

Larger resorts also struggle with retention. “Our patrol is younger now,” says Kara Flores, a supervisor at Winter Park. Flores has been patrolling for 16 years, and like so many of her colleagues, her love of skiing is what keeps her coming back. “You don’t do this for the money,” she says, but she recognizes that passion alone is no longer enough for many. “We used to have a ton of patrollers who’d been here for 30 years. Now, three to four years is average. With the cost of living being so high, it’s hard to keep people around because they don’t have a place to live.”

She hopes the job will become more viable as a career and not just as seasonal work, especially as pay increases and the advent of lift-served mountain bike parks help some patrollers keep their jobs year-round. But many resorts don’t have bike parks, and even if they do, there’s no guarantee they’ll pay the same in the summer as they do in winter, meaning most patrollers in Colorado are still on a seasonal grind. That financial stress only compounds the job’s mental toll.

“There used to be this misunderstanding that, as long as the powder was good, nothing we saw could actually hurt us,” says Laura McGladrey, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and a longtime patroller. “That was somewhat magical thinking.”

When skiers are critically injured on the mountain, those who respond often experience so-called stress injuries, which can manifest as sleep loss, lack of motivation, anxiety, and depression. That’s why, several years ago, McGladrey created Responder Alliance, a program that helps outdoor professionals by connecting them with each other and resources for psychological first aid and stress management. She created the program with techniques adapted from the United States Marine Corps and law enforcement, filling a gap in the outdoor emergency response field. “I saw some of the patrollers I worked with have career-ending stress injuries,” she says, “and I thought it was time to start adapting some of those tools.” Today, McGladrey volunteers at Eldora as its stress and resilience adviser. She trains patrollers to recognize stress injuries in themselves and others and helps them communicate about traumatic on-mountain events.

Over the past several years, Eldora, Vail Resorts, and others have also committed funding to help patrollers via counseling and other peer-supported initiatives. Many patrollers, however, still struggle to talk about their experiences. “It’s a lot more fun to tell someone on a chairlift I get to ski powder,” says Breckenridge’s Dineen. “[Not that] I did CPR on a dad while his daughter watched. People don’t want to hear those stories, and first responders don’t want to tell them.” When coupled with the economics of seasonal work and mountain town life, stress injuries can make it difficult to justify staying on the mountain.

As the tryout ends at Eldora, Sullivan lets the group know he’ll be in touch one way or the other. Then he quietly speaks with a few skiers, including me, to let us know we made it to the next round. Over the next several weeks, he will invite those who passed back to the mountain for a ride-along to see how well they mesh with the existing team.

Whether they stay on for multiple seasons, however, depends on how the profession continues to evolve. Powder laps and pro deals on new gear are great perks, but in the long term, they aren’t enough to overcome the “mountain tax,” the term for accepting lower pay to work in the outdoor industry than what you would receive doing a similar job elsewhere. Multiple patrollers told me that to stop the burnout—and the brain drain that comes with it—they need better access to affordable housing and health care, and they need some guarantee they won’t have to find a new gig every time the snow melts. “The future of this profession depends on retaining experienced patrollers,” McGladrey says. “But many people who love patrolling have to leave it because they feel they’re betraying their families for their jobs.”

That’s bad news for Colorado’s skiers. As crowds have grown, Sullivan has seen skier speeds and poor behavior increase, too. “It’s what I call a reckless, out-of-control X Games mentality,” he says. Which made me think about my less-than-responsible behavior over the years. Even though I didn’t end up joining Eldora’s team, I’ll slow down the next time I pass a patroller. And I’ll keep in mind what that white cross on their jackets really means.

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2022.
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.