Dec 1, 2011 | Marmot, Winter 2011

Jesse Percival… Happy at the Helm of Mount Washington’s Pro Patrol

Jesse Percival looks at ease in his small office in the First Aid Building, tucked into a corner of the parking lot below the Hawk Chairlift.

The dispatch radio crackles sporadically, and today is a quiet pre-season day for Percival, Patrol Director of the Mount Washington Ski Patrol.

It isn’t always this way. Once the winter season begins at the Resort, he will be busy from before sunrise to dusk and sometimes beyond.

The Pro Patrol is comprised of 30 full-time paid members, and augmented by a Volunteer Ski Patrol. A central dispatch oversees the entire Patrol.

The Pro Patrollers have varied backgrounds, from primary care paramedics to professional mountain guides. They are all excellent skiers, and in shifts of 12 to 15 provide first aid and safety coverage seven days a week, from opening until closing,

Patrol duties include avalanche forecasting and a “Safe Slope” program, with members designated to enforce and educate visitors about the Alpine Responsibility Code and educate people about the slow skiing areas.

Patrollers also maintain signage at the Resort – making sure boundaries are well marked and signs are visible. “We do a lot of shoveling. There’s not a whole lot of glory,” Percival said.

The Patrol has the final say as to whether terrain can open or must remain closed due to safety issues. “Once we get the terrain open, then we head off to work,” he said. “When there’s a big snowfall here we’ve got a mountain of work to do.”

A typical new snow day begins at 5:20 a.m. when the avalanche forecaster looks at weather forecasts, updates the snowfall numbers and the website. Then he decides whether avalanche control measures are necessary.

The avalanche control team starts work at 6:30 a.m. after a snow safety meeting, riding snowmobiles to the top of the mountain and preparing explosive shots. “Typically, new snow causes avalanches here on the coast,” said Percival, who is a member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Over time, the avalanche control team has developed an intricate guarding system that allows them to open terrain quicker in the west basin while keeping workers and skiers safe at the same time.

The patrollers raise or lower tower pads, clear signage and make sure it’s all in place. They clear cornices from all the Resort’s structures, mark hazards and monitor the runs by skiing or walking them from top to bottom. They do all this while carrying up to 25 pounds of equipment.

At 8 a.m. the patrol team leader holds another safety meeting, this time involving whatever volunteer patrollers are on shift for the day. “There’s a lot of safety meetings, which we need to have,” Percival said.

At the end of the day patrollers sweep each run to make sure no skiers or snowboarders are left, then meet at the First Aid Station for an end-of-day debriefing. Then the safety meeting for the night shift begins.

When Percival took over the Pro Patrol five years ago, he worked hard to integrate the volunteers in the training program so everyone has the same standard of training.

While the Pro Patrollers are required to have certain certifications (delivered through third parties like the Provincial Emergency Program, for example), the volunteers may sit in on the training and will always have the opportunity to practice the skill set they learn.

Anywhere from five to 25 volunteer patrollers work on the hill on a typical day. “They are our partners in mountain safety,” he said.

All the Patrollers are also part of the customer service base at the Resort as well. Percival has been a patroller for 18 years, and has known since he was nine years old that someday he would work in the ski industry.

The work is demanding, and patrollers have to love the outdoors and keep themselves fit. “We work hard and I’m proud of the work we do. We’re not looking for a hero badge. We do the job, day in and day out.”

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