For 84 years, Mt. Hood Ski Patrol has kept recreationists safe
By Drew Myron
Donning big red coats with bold white crosses, members of Mt. Hood Ski Patrol face cold mornings and freezing nights, first aid and tempered fears, triage tests, and sled savvy.
This group of specially trained and highly skilled volunteers is dedicated to the rescue, emergency care, and safety of those enjoying Oregon’s most famous peak.
Formed in 1937, MHSP is the oldest ski patrol in the western United States. The nonprofit organization boasts 200 volunteers who commit to a minimum of 25 volunteer days each year.
Patrollers provide year-round rescue and emergency care to alpine and nordic skiers, snowboarders, hikers, and bikers at Mount Hood Meadows, Mount Hood Skibowl, Timberline, Summit Ski Area, and Teacup Lake Nordic Ski Area.
Tasked with saving lives, potential patrollers immerse in a yearlong training program that includes four months of weekly classes and hands-on actions to build knowledge and skills. Patrollers must have physical and mental strength, along with strong mountaineering skills and the ability to rise to the challenge of all terrains in blizzards, avalanches, heat, and ice.
A sense of adventure is an essential job requirement, along with compassion and composure.
While the need for volunteers is great, not just anyone can join. Tryouts are each March, followed by interviews, skills evaluations, and year-long training. Typically, only 30 will make the cut. Even fewer will graduate to become patrollers.
“Training is a huge effort,” says 65-year-old Matt Rea, who has served on Mt. Hood Ski Patrol for more than half his life. “It’s an intensive training program.”
Fellow patroller Alaina Waller agrees.
“You go from knowing nothing to wrapping up a finger fracture to putting them on a backboard,” she says. “Before I even finished my training, one of our own patrollers broke his femur. I got to put those skills to use real quick.”
Born and raised in the shadow of Mount Hood, Alaina, 30, is a fifth-generation Pine Grove resident. She is in her fourth year with MHSP as she continues her family’s commitment to mountain safety. One of her grandfathers worked ski patrol on Mount Bachelor, another served on Crag Rats.
“I joined the patrol because I wanted to give back to the community I grew up in,” she says.
A day on patrol starts in the early morning dark, with volunteers on the mountain hours before the first recreationalist arrives. Working to ensure the safety of every skier and snowboarder, patrollers spend hours marking obstacles and routes.
“Every piece of rope, every stick of bamboo, has been put in place by a patroller,” Alaina says. “Each one has to be standing and visible.”
Later in the day, patrollers respond to a variety of incidents, accidents, and rescues. They treat injuries, dig out tower pads, pull sleds, and more.
“Every day is different,” Alaina says. “You’ve got to be prepared for whatever’s next.”
Some days are perilous, others are paradise. In storm and sun, in cold and COVID, what keeps the volunteers coming?
“It’s a social outlet as well as a volunteer opportunity,” says Lisa Hargrave. “Many of us consider each other good friends.”
Ski patrol is a part of family history. Lisa’s father served on MHSP.
Lisa signed up as a young adult. She lives in Hood River, works as an accountant, and has served on MHSP for 35 years.
“Skiing gets boring without a purpose,” she says. “It’s just not that exciting. As a ski patroller, you approach the whole mountain differently. It’s about challenge and service and the people.”
Patrollers are highly skilled skiers and snowboarders from a variety of backgrounds. Thirty-three percent at MHSP are women, which is above the national average of 25%.
“We have doctors, lawyers, winemakers, and auto mechanics,” Lisa says.
While volunteers may come and go due to jobs, families, and life circumstances, many are long-timers.
“The people who stay, it’s not because of the rush, not because of the macho thing,” Lisa says. “The people who really stay are there because of the camaraderie. It’s a great group of people.”
That fellowship is never more evident than when patrollers talk about Buzz Bowman, the longest-serving member of Mt. Hood Ski Patrol. Buzz joined the patrol in 1946 and has helped train more than 7,000 volunteer ski patrollers. Although he hasn’t actively patrolled in three years, he remains an icon.
“For many of us, Buzz represents the true character of MHSP,” Matt says. “He has been a leader, a teacher, and an inspiration to generations of ski patrollers. He is a living legend and a connection to our history on Mount Hood.”
An expert ski run—Buzz Cut—was named for him several years ago. Last month, a celebration marked his 75 years of patrol service and included a surprise announcement: Mt. Hood Ski Patrol headquarters in Government Camp was renamed in his honor. It is now Buzz Bowman Mt. Hood Ski Patrol Center.
Though rain and pandemic precautions tried to dampen the celebration, a sense of joyful devotion prevailed.
“It’s the best group of people I know,” Matt says. “They are very dedicated. The skills developed in ski patrol just make you a better person for the community.”
Learn more at the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol website.