July 2, 2013
Ski patrollers don’t melt away as easily as spring snow. Some ship off to New Zealand resorts for summer, but those who crave warmer weather and can’t leave Park City’s mountain air switch sports.
Mountain bike patrolling allows ski patrollers to sharpen their training. The speedy and speedily evolving summer discipline stretches patrols to adapt to fresh injuries and trail impacts.
Steve Graff, Deer Valley’s mountain biking manager, is working his 19th summer. With 15 cyclists who average 10 seasons ski patrol experience, he oversees daily trail maintenance and emergency response.
Guarding a sport that hums by like a downhill racer conditioned Graff to expect change.
"I started out with a fully rigid hardtail," he said, describing the bike he rides at work. "Now my machine costs more than my first three cars combined.
At Canyons, 12 full-time ski patrollers cover the mountain biking trails around Red Pine Lodge. "Our staff has virtually doubled from last year," said Jenna Prescott, Canyons’ senior director of mountain operations.
With slim staffs ranging across miles of trail, both patrols set disciplined schedules.
An hour before its Silver Lake and Sterling chairs open, the Deer Valley team gathers to discuss special events, detours and trail construction. A few ridgelines over, Canyons briefs its staff.
Canyons patrollers ready trained dogs that trail them to reassure and entertain tourists. "They’re more of an attraction than a service," Prescott said. The dogs live and work with a patroller for the season.
At Deer Valley, the group splits up. Some break out equipment and start up the six-wheeled ATV that replaces the ski patrollers’ sled. Others head straight to the trails to inspect main thoroughfares.
The single-track to success
Canyons patrollers ride their 21 trails daily. They stop for quick repairs, to fill in gaps with rocks, water sandy segments or level long drops.
Deer Valley in summer, Graff said, "isn’t covered like ski patrol is. We don’t sweep every trail." One day each week though, patrollers traverse all 65 miles of single-track, looking for debris and weathered features.
Sometimes they find wildlife instead. A few people have reported bear or mountain lion sightings during his tenure, Graff said, but these stories are "few and far between." He more commonly encounters bewildered tourists, who furnish some entertainment.
"We oversign trails," he said, describing a two-mile stretch that bristles with over 30 signs. "People still get lost. They say ‘we saw that sign, but thought it was pointing the wrong direction.’"
Subtler signposts — mountainous planning and minute adjustments — mark trail construction. Both Canyons and Deer Valley sport miles of cross-country single track that throw mountain bikers back to their discipline’s first days.
Graff’s trail builders frequent unfamiliar bike parks and coordinate with the Mountain Trails Foundation for inspiration. Graff calls this "product sampling."
As bike technology evolves, patrollers redesign trails. When full-suspension bikes arrived, speed increased. Bikers used to take corners at 15 mph. Today they charge into the same turns at almost twice that speed.
To deal with faster machines, Graff’s staff removed some switchbacks from the previous trail system. Now, they grade surf. Bikers drop down, then rise into a turn to shed speed automatically. This technique curtails stutterbumps, dirt ridges that build up when bikers brake into turns.
Patrollers added higher berms and widened turns. Graff said, "very few trails are the same as when we built them."
Mountain bikers who blow a tough turn fall right into patrollers’ practiced medical care. Ski patrol deals with more serious injuries, Graff said, but summer brings more cases.
Social media and GoPro cameras push bikers to bigger thrills, Prescott said, but modern gear tempers the risk. "Injuries are not necessarily worse. We’re just seeing them in different places."
Graff said his bike team deals mostly with scrapes and lacerations, followed by upper extremity injuries — fractured clavicles and tears in shoulder muscles.
In summer, resorts abandon summit outposts and station all patrollers at the base. When an injury call comes over the radio, Graff sends bikers first. "That’s our fastest way to get around the mountain."
It still takes 15 minutes to ride the 14,000 feet from Bald Mountain to the base. Skiers finish that descent in 2 minutes. Graff said in summer, "Everything takes us longer."
To evacuate serious injuries, Deer Valley wheels in its ATV. Canyons rescuers steer their Suburban up the slope. To reach tangled brush off-trail, patrollers on foot drag in a stretcher.
"It’s hard seeing people get hurt," said Prescott, noting that might be a patroller’s toughest duty. That pain yields the greatest reward, however. "People don’t suffer emotionally or physically as much because of our patrollers."
Even bikers with intact clavicles welcome patrollers, who bring patience and compassion to their hectic sport. Bikers and skiers who have suffered injuries "know what it takes for them to soothe and care for us," Prescott said.
That knowledge accrues from CPR training, AED certification and Outdoor Emergency Care courses. Canyons patrollers take these classes during ski patrol training. Full-timers also pass a large part of their lives in the bike saddle and shape into lithe athletes.
Even with bikers jumping 10-foot drops and smashing through banked turns, Graff said in the summer, "the vibe is a little more laid-back. Maybe it’s cause everybody’s dirty."
That’s not to say Graff gets to lay back on anything. With 25,000 summertime users taking an average of six lift rides each, trails erode rapidly and the radio rarely shuts off. Keeping up with trail conditions, he said, takes up most of his time. "It’s not a stagnant process."
Still, 500 or 600 daily users beats the 8,000 guests the resort hosts on a typical winter day.
Graff, smiling and gesturing broadly, pauses to direct three tourists to an easy trail with great views. He said he enjoys the diverse summer crowd.
"We have a very loyal downhill community that’s here year after year, week after week," he said. "Then there are a lot of tourists new to mountain biking. There are a lot of cross-country locals."
Those groups can ride the resorts without anxiety, knowing bike patrols are around the next turn.
A Bike Patroller’s Profile