February 8, 2011
Ski patrol keeps order on a downhill slope
Largely volunteers, the skiers are a mix of traffic cop, paramedic and teacher
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Greek Peak ski patrol members Alex Eaton, left, and Patrick Sullivan keep an eye on the slopes near the terrain park, putting up signs and marking off trails on Thursday.
VIRGIL — Voices squawked from the scanner strapped to John Megivern’s chest as he listened to what was happening on Greek Peak Mountain Resort’s many ski and snowboarding slopes.
Young people were skiing in an area that was not open, so a National Ski Patrol member was headed over to warn them. Someone working on a trail while riding a snowmobile was stuck in a wooded area and needed help.
Megivern, patrol leader in charge of Greek Peak’s ski patrol, stood Thursday atop a lower slope called Alpha and looked down the slope at a child sitting on the snow with an adult.
“That’s an instructor with a young skier, must be they stopped,” he said. “The child might be upset. No injuries or I would have heard.”
National Ski Patrol members are the people, mostly volunteers, who help groom trails and slopes, then patrol or respond to emergencies on the slopes all day. They handle medical emergencies, skiers caught on a slope beyond their skills, people skiing in a reckless way that endangers others and other situations.
They actually spend much of their time educating skiers, starting with young people getting their first pass to the slopes. They teach skiing skills and etiquette toward other skiers.
“We have a six-week program for beginning skiers at the start of the season,” Megivern said. “You have to earn the right to be on the slope.”
Greek Peak’s patrol had three paid and six volunteer members watching over the slopes that day. They had helped to work on trail and slope maintenance two hours before the slopes and lifts opened at 9:30 a.m.
Ski traffic was light on the slopes, as it usually is during a weekday, but that would pick up in late afternoon when high school ski clubs arrived.
The slopes had 16 inches of fresh snow, fallen over three days, on a solid base. The day was sunny and without much wind, at 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Weekends and Friday nights tend to be busy when the weather is clear.
Megivern, 60, directs Greek Peak’s force of 65 patrol members, most of them volunteers who live as far away as Endicott and Greene.
They range in age from 21 to 79, with some semi-retired. Eleven members are women.
One member, John Doll Jr. of Greene, is the son of the original patrol leader, John Doll Sr. of Dryden. The elder Doll was patrol leader from 1953 until 1959, moving from Snowcrest Ski Area to Greek Peak when it opened in 1958.
Every ski mountain must have patrols trained by National Ski Patrol standards, in a nine-month program that encompasses emergency medical procedures, crowd control and physical techniques for removing injured skiers by toboggan.
Candidates spend three hours per week on classroom work, with a written test in November.
They then spend one weekend day a week in training once the slopes are open to skiers, studying medical emergencies and handling a toboggan.
Greek Peak will have a new class starting soon, with six candidates, to be ready for patrol duties next winter, Megivern said.
Song Mountain in Preble has 55 patrol members, all volunteers. Labrador Mountain in Truxton has 75 volunteers and 12 paid patrol members. The two resorts currently have a combined ski patrol first aid class with Toggenburg Mountain and Highland Forest Park in Fabius, with 15 candidates.
Besides being excellent skiers, the patrol members must pass extensive interviews to gauge their people skills, Megivern said.
Megivern cruised along the easier slopes for most of the afternoon, taking two runs along the Mars Hill trail on the mountain’s eastern shoulder.
Megivern has belonged to the ski patrol since 1986, as a volunteer every day from Thanksgiving time until April, when he resumes his job of driving a truck for Suit-Kote Corp. A Cortland native who raised his family in Virgil with wife, Lori, he grew up skiing at Greek Peak and its predecessor, Snowcrest.
He admits that he was one of the kids who skied fast and wildly, trying to elude the ski patrol. Now he is serving his second stint as patrol leader, since 2003, after serving from 1995 until 1999.
John Gerty, a 39-year ski patrol veteran who lives in Greene, said he joined ski patrol because “you get bored going up and down, and I wanted to help people.”
Gerty said advances in technology have helped to cut down on injuries, as boots are designed to support more of the leg and skis release easier when a skier wipes out.
“I think a lot of engineers started skiing in the 1970s, got hurt and went into the rental shop to look at the release mechanism,” he said.
Gerty said his duties might be as simple as helping a boy put his skis on. If a skier goes down a trail that is beyond his or her abilities, the ski patrol member can carry skis down while the skier walks along the slope’s edge.
Ski patrol members can warn a skier who has been reckless, taking away his or her lift ticket on a second violation. They have skiers fill out a blue card listing the violation and their contact information, almost like a police officer’s ticket.
The ultimate test for the patrol is tending to an injured skier and taking him or her off the mountain on a toboggan, with two patrol members steering it like a stretcher on the snow. Toboggans are stored in small structures around the mountain, which the patrol has nicknamed “doghouses.”
The shifts are from 7:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., 10:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., or 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. on weekdays. The slopes are open until 10 p.m. on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays.
The patrol operates out of a lodge that has a kitchen, eating area, office, equipment storage, award plaques and a “wall of shame” for any ski patrol member who has done something embarrassing, such as getting a snowmobile stuck.
On this day, the ski patrol had trapped a skunk that had been living under its back deck. Megivern, Gerty and several others joked about whose car to place it in.
Megivern said the patrol will have a new warming building next winter on top of the mountain, built by Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES construction students and carried up the slope by a Suit-Kote truck. Donations from individuals and businesses have paid for much of the wooden building, measuring 10 feet by 12 feet.
The building will be just for ski patrol use, partly as a place to treat injured skiers before taking them down the mountain.
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