Ski patrollers join skijorers to raise avalanche awareness
The snowpack in northern Utah is good this year – 135 percent of the median, according to the National Weather Service.
Which was the reason why a group of ski patrollers from Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association and Wasatch Backcountry Rescue sat around a fire pit at Soldier Hollow on Saturday.
The snow was deep enough for the Midway venue to host a Utah Skijoring competition on Friday and Saturday – the sport in which a horse and rider tow a skier over a course as they race to collect rings while flying off of jumps.
The snowfall had also caused a large number of avalanches in the Utah portions of Wasatch, Uinta and La Sal mountain ranges at least three of which were fatal for outdoorsmen.
For the patrollers, the competition accomplished multiple things: to promote avalanche safety and their upcoming fundraiser, and to have a blast as a skijoring group.
The patrollers had three teams competing, two in the sport competition (just below the top level; Pro) and one in the novice competition, in which Kirah Solomon, one of the founders of the patrollers’ skijoring group, was the rider.
She had seen the event two years ago and started talking to fellow patrollers about assembling a team to compete. They planned to compete last season, but the event at Soldier Hollow was canceled due to poor snow conditions. Since then, it’s grown to three patroller teams.
“Our team just kind of came together,” she said. “Now it’s big.”
Solomon said the event was the perfect place to talk about avalanche safety, because of the sizable crowd it attracts and, more importantly, the cultural breadth of people at the event.
“It’s this rural, more Western, horse riding community, then it’s also this skier community,” she said. “What we love about that, too, is it’s a way (to reach) this cowboy community who may not be as savvy with avalanche rescue.”
Solomon herself exemplified that cultural crossover. Like the rest of her patrollers, she wore one of her retired uniforms – a bright red jacket with the iconic white cross – but she also had the trappings of cowboy culture. She wore riding chaps and boots with spurs, a pink, paisley wild rag nestled around her neck, and a wide-brimmed felt hat with an owl feather poking from its band. She describes herself as a “4H kid” who grew up in Colorado before moving to Park City.
Solomon’s novice team had struggled a bit. On Friday, their horse, Honey, had gotten spooked on the course.
“She has not been exposed to crowds or loud noises,” Solomon said.
Honey had taken a few tentative steps onto the course, then balked.
“She’s saying no with her entire body,” Solomon said.
Meanwhile, Tommy Pozzi, the skier Honey was towing, stood holding the rope, waiting.
Dropping the rope meant a disqualification.
“Even in the face of this horse looking me in the eye and saying, through their expression, ‘I’m going to kill you now,’ we persevered,” Pozzi said.
Somewhat ironically, Pozzi had joined the team in part to help overcome his fear of horses (which he said he had made strides in by the tournament’s end). His grandparents owned horses in his home state of Michigan, and he said they’d made a bad impression.
In the past few days, Pozzi had gotten to know Honey and the other horses.
“I really tried to warm up to the horses a little bit – feed them some apples, scratch behind their ears – that way when they look behind them as they are running and I’m chasing them, they don’t feel like I’m a predator,” he said. “They are like ‘oh, that’s that guy who gave me apples, he’s cool.’”
He also said that skijoring was a natural fit for patrollers, who often carry objects and ski off drops as part of their job.
“It’s like a patroller’s to-do list,” he said of the sport.
Though she had been spooked, Honey eventually made it to the end of the course, but stopped before pulling Pozzi to the finish line.
Pozzi, left stranded, completed the run by skate skiing across the finish.
Their run on Saturday was better. Honey had hesitated in the middle of the course, but didn’t rear.
“A solid run – under five minutes” Pozzi said with a laugh.
In addition to riding in the event, the group had a booth where people could talk with patrollers, and performed an avalanche dog demonstration following the pro round.
They were confident the avalanche dog demonstration would go better.
“They are really effective, and that’s part of what we’re psyched to (show) with the demonstration,” Solomon said.
The handler, Lauren Edwards, and her dog, Tucker, were coming off of a tragic operation – a recovery in the La Sal Mountains south of Moab, in late January when an avalanche had buried a snowmobiler.
A group of eight riders who were with the snowmobiler searched for the buried friend, but were unable to find the person before nightfall.
The day after the accident, a line of searchers gathered to probe the avalanche debris with poles, but, it turned out they were searching in the wrong part of the slide. Tucker and Edwards were part of a two-dog team that found the body of the avalanche victim soon after arriving.
“It might take the probe line three to five days to recover some of these things, and it took the dog … probably 20 minutes,” Solomon said. “(The La Sal accident), I think, has helped the snowmobile community also see the importance of avalanche safety and knowing what equipment you need, what training you need and how important it is to have a prepared partner.”
Solomon hoped that a good dog demonstration at the skijoring event would help attract donors to support the avalanche teams through the Backcountry Bow Wow, a fundraiser on March 21 at O.P. Rockwell in Park City.
Soon after the Pro category finished on Saturday, Solomon explained the dog demonstration that the spectators were about to see through the PA system.
One of the patrollers, Max Magill, had been buried in snow in a slope beside the cross-country track above the skijoring course. Lauren and Tucker started searching several hundred feet away.
Though the crowd chatted through Solomon’s explanation, as soon as Tucker, a black lab, started traversing the white slope, he drew the spectators’ attention.
The dog searched in out-and-back trips, crisscrossing the terrain until he caught the scent of a human beneath the snow.
“As soon as he starts digging, that means he’s found someone,” Solomon said over the loudspeaker.
And as soon as Tucker poked his head down into the snow, the crowd gave a cheer.
The lab tugged at Magill, who emerged from the pit in his red uniform and waved to the cheering crowd.
All eyes were on the patrollers.
The Park City High School baseball team was knocked out of the Class 4A playoffs on May 15 when they lost to Bear River 8-6.