The Cataloochee Ski Patrol began in 1961 as a group of friends who enjoyed skiing at the new Cataloochee Ski Hill, the first ski area to open south of Pennsylvania. As Cataloochee Ski Area grew and became more popular, it’s Ski Patrol grew and became more professional.
Today’s Cataloochee Ski Patrol is still a group of friends who love skiing on the local mountain, but their numbers have grown to more than 100 counting paid staffers and volunteers. And they are all highly trained professionals with a minimum of 80 hours of Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) training.
According to Wayne Morgan, director of Cataloochee’s Ski Patrol for the past seven years, OEC is a worldwide standard established and regulated by the National Ski Patrol. The National Ski Patrol system is composed of more than 625 patrols with more than 26,000 members across the U.S., Asia and Europe.
“That standard is the same across the board,” Morgan said.
Dan Greene, the representative for Cataloochee Ski Patrol volunteers, said the OEC program is designed “to prepare individuals from all walks of life and all backgrounds from the high school graduate to the PhD to work side by side providing the same level of care.”
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“The focus of Ski Patrol is safety on the slope,” Morgan said. And that begins with the slope itself.
“We survey the slope for any kind of hazards that might be a danger to skiers,” he said. That could be anything from holes to ridges that develop that could bump skiers into a different flow of traffic to snowmaking equipment.
“North Carolina law mandates that all snowmaking equipment be marked, so we flag all the equipment plus any other hazards we see,” Morgan said.
“We are most visible in that we provide rescue and first aid,” said Greene. “That’s what Ski Patrol is known for. But the overarching principle is safety on the course, whether it’s the slope itself or skiers on the slope.”
“We don’t like being policemen, but it’s part of the job,” Morgan said. “We try to be proactive, rather than reactive,” he said, but still it’s a tough job.
“Face it,” Greene said, “we’re dealing with a public that doesn’t necessarily show a lot of common sense all the time.”
Morgan said that how Ski Patrol is perceived on the slope usually has to do with the attitude of the skier. “If we see people doing unsafe things and have to intervene, they may not be happy to see us.
“I’ve been on the slope slowing people down, and I’ll have some people cussing me and some will stop and pat me on the back and say thanks — good job — we’re glad you’re out here,” Morgan said.
The basic training to become a patroller begins with OEC training.
“That course is usually between 80 and 110 hours and begins in the summer,” Morgan said. “OEC test are given the first or second week in November.”
Morgan said that one of obstacles the National Ski Patrol’s Southern Division has is finding competent skiers. The Southern Division runs from West Virginia to Alabama and includes Cataloochee, Beech Mountain, Ober Gatlinburg, Wolf Ridge, Wintergreen, Massanutten, Appalachian, Sugar Mountain and other southern ski areas.
“Here in the Southern Division we have smaller mountains and we don’t have that real skier mentality. Great skiers don’t flock here, like they do at Vail or Whistler to join the Ski Patrol. So we’ve created a ski school in our division and each slope has at least one PSIA [Professional Ski Instructors of America] certified instructor. We’re really fortunate here at Cataloochee. Our guys are really enthused and we have about 10 PSIA instructors on our patrol.”
After a Ski Patrol candidate has successfully completed OEC training, they must pass a basic ski and toboggan course (S&T) to become a basic patroller.
“The toboggan is basically a stretcher or litter on a sled, designed to transport an injured person off the hill,” said Greene. “There are very specific skills required to handle them.”
Morgan said Cataloochee has about a dozen toboggans that ski patrol stashes at strategic points along the slopes so that they will be accessible in an emergency.
“To become a basic patroller, a candidate must pass an S&T test on the hardest slope at his area,” said Morgan. “To progress to a senior patroller, the basic patroller must pass an S&T test on the toughest slope in their region. Our senior patrollers have to pass their test on Mogul Ridge at Ober Gatlinburg.”
And the rigors only get tougher to become certified in S&T. According to Morgan, of the more than 26,000 members of the National Ski Patrol there are only about 7,000 who are certified in S&T.
But that doesn’t mean your care is compromised. The ski patrol candidate has the same OEC skills as the certified patroller.
“As your level increases from candidate, to basic, to senior patroller you acquire more and better management skills regarding multiple traumas and managing an accident scene but OEC is OEC,” Morgan said.
“We’re somewhere between a wilderness responder and a paramedic. We have victims in a hostile environment and we have to stabilize them and get them out of that environment, then assess the injury and decide the proper course of action.”
And every patroller is trained to do that whether he is a candidate or certified said Morgan.
All National Ski Patrol members have to renew their certification every three years. Their continuing education is done once a year and the course topics and structure is mandated by the National Ski Patrol so that any patroller could walk into a course anywhere and get the credit needed for that year.
Morgan said that during the week he generally had five or six patrollers on the slope. On the weekends ski patrol duties generally fall to Greene’s volunteers and because of the extended hours they run two shifts and generally have between eight and 10 patrollers on the slope.
This is Dan Greene’s first year as patrol representative, but he has more than 20 years experience as a patroller. Volunteers have to pass the same tests and meet the same requirements as paid patrollers, they are just rewarded in a different way — free skiing. According to Greene all volunteers have a set rotation that they are required to fill, but other than that they ski at any time.
“They can also patrol at any time and there are added benefits to putting in more hours. The management here is very generous and we get rewarded with complimentary tickets,” Greene said.
For Greene, who lives in Atlanta, it’s the love of the sport.
“I do a lot of volunteering in other areas as well, but I love to ski. I love the sport. It’s something my family and I have enjoyed for years, and I see this as a way of giving back to the sport. And, selfishly, it gives me a reason to come up here and play in the snow.”
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Morgan notes that there are other benefits to becoming OEC certified.
“I was able to use my OEC certification to work the Olympics in Atlanta,” he said. He also noted that many rafting companies were adopting OEC as their standard of care and venues like Asheville’s mountain sports festival and area mountain bike races welcomed volunteers with OEC certification.