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The Dark Side of Ski Patrol

Volunteer patrollers light up the night


It's a dark and stormy night up at Bogus Basin. You're skiing with buddies when you take a wrong turn down a run that's closed for the night. Or maybe you zip into some trees for a little backcountry powder. After carving a few blissful turns, you realize you're out of bounds. You attempt to trudge your way back to the safety of groomed runs, but you can only see a few feet in front of you in the falling snow. With each passing moment, you become more and more lost as darkness descends. Who will save you from on this dark, wintery night?

Chances are your heroes will find you within a matter of hours, and chances are they'll be wearing signature red ski patroller vests. Last fall, BW met with Bogus Basin's volunteer ski patrol while they were hard at work recruiting new volunteers. Now that the ski season is in full swing, we went back to check up on those red-vested heroes, and to learn a little more about what goes on during the night shift at Boise's closest ski mountain.

"There is a lot of territory up there to work on, and the night brings a whole other set of challenges," says Richard Jayo, one of the many veteran volunteer patrollers at Bogus Basin. "It's dark, it can be cold, it can be windy, and often those factors add up to mean more urgent situations."

Over the 33 seasons that Jayo has been volunteering Friday nights at Bogus, he's dealt with all kinds of issues—from fractured femurs to lost teenage couples to rowdy drunken skiers and boarders—and the fact that it's dark outside while Jayo is on duty makes those emergency situations all the more interesting.

Jayo is one of a handful of volunteers who work the night shift for the ski patrol. Weekend volunteers tend to have a different set of duties than the paid patrollers at Bogus, but in the evenings, volunteers work side by side with paid patrol.

"We're all part of a team," says Jayo. "Volunteers just don't receive the pay, but we do the same things. We respond to the same kinds of incidents, and we are all trained in the same skills."

So when a skier or rider is reported missing, Jayo and the other Friday night volunteers start the search and rescue alongside the paid patrol. The need for search and rescue is much greater at night than during the day, not only because it's dark, but also because it's often evening before people are reported missing. Since official search and rescue teams can take a long time to get up the hill and get organized, Bogus ski patrol is often first to begin the search. Jayo recalls one case in which the crew went looking for an itinerant teenage guy and gal in the mountains and drainages near the back side of Bogus.

"At about 3 a.m., we found a male and female teenager, but we didn't realize that it was the wrong pair until we were almost all the way back to the lodge," says Jayo. They located the duo that was actually reported missing a couple hours later.

And while missing skiers and dramatic rescues may seem romantic, Jayo says that the patrollers are more likely to pin down someone at home eating potato chips than truly lost.

"Almost every instance, it's a communication error, where someone went home, or they're in the other lodge, or maybe they are on the road driving home," says Jayo. "But we treat them as missing until we find them."

Still, volunteer night patrollers have a good record of locating those skiers and riders that are truly lost. In almost every instance, they find people the same night that they are reported missing. Some rescues require locating would-be backcountry adventurers who have meandered a few drainages over; others are as simple as picking up someone who skied to a chair that was closed.

"When the weather gets nasty, at nighttime, we seem to lose people out of the boundaries," says Alan Donnelly, volunteer patroller on Tuesday nights. Donnelly has worked searches until 6 in the morning. He says those long nights make the next day at the office rough, but it's well worth it when you find someone.

The demand for night patrol help is only increasing. When Richard Jayo first started patrolling at Bogus, he says night skiing was very popular. But as cable TV and other evening entertainment options broadened, night skiing at Bogus dropped off. This year seems to be different.

"We're seeing a dramatic resurgence as people realize that they can avoid some of the crowds and that the skiing is every bit as good as during the day," says Jayo. "And with that resurgence, we're seeing some of the challenges that you might expect with more people up here."

But nights are still less crowded than weekends at Bogus, which generally means fewer injuries on the mountain. On slow nights, volunteers can spend their shift skiing run after run, or hanging out in the warmth of the lookout hut located at the top of Pine Creek chair.

"We don't come up here to look for accidents; that's not our primary purpose for wanting to patrol," says Donnelly. "We like to enjoy the elements just like everybody else, and we like to ski." A few Tuesdays ago, for example, the mountain didn't have a single injury, and Donnelly spent the evening making turns. "It was just one of those weeks that the snow conditions were perfect and we had no accidents," he says.

Volunteer night patrollers are all expert skiers, and for the most part, they've all been coming up to Bogus long enough to witness ebbs and flows in skier counts. So what's the motivation for volunteering so much time, when these powder hounds could just come up here to ski?

Spend a little time with the patrollers in a group, and it becomes clear. When they're not whisking injury victims to safety in those signature yellow toboggans or rescuing lost snowboarders from the cold, they spend a lot of time ribbing, joking and laughing.

"When I first started on the ski patrol 18 years ago, it was just about giving back to the community; now it's also about the camaraderie up here," says Donnelly, who stays plenty busy in Boise raising three boys and working full-time. "I think if I wasn't part of the volunteer organization, I wouldn't be up here as much."

Like Jayo, many night volunteers started out years ago as paid patrol who eventually found different jobs or graduated from college, but didn't want to give up patrolling.

"It gets in your blood," says Jayo. "You get older, but you still love to patrol, and you want to be part of the crew—especially the night guys, because it's a smaller crew and less hierarchical in nature than the weekend crew. It becomes a part of your fabric, and you stick with it."