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At the end of the four-week Junior Ski Patrol program, junior patrollers were given an up-closed tour of a search-and-rescue helicopter. Photo courtesy David Neff

Teen Skiers to the Rescue

Junior ski patrollers get a behind-the-scenes look into mountain safety with Vail’s new program.

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It’s not every day that a teenager, just old enough to have his learner’s permit, is asked to grip the handles of a rescue toboggan and race down a snow-covered mountain with a wounded passenger in tow; or put CPR training to the test at 10,000 feet after encountering a skier in cardiac arrest.

But these are a few of the experiences that 15-year-old Max Williams had while progressing through Vail Mountain’s first Junior Ski Patrol Program, which debuted during the 2018 ski season. Williams and 17 other Eagle County students in eighth through 10th grades learned on-mountain safety and skills—avalanche awareness, CPR and first aid, and toboggan training—from professional ski patrollers.

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A skier for most of his life who had aged out of Vail Mountain’s youth development ski team, Williams was excited to shred Vail’s 5,200 skiable acres solo, when he learned about the Junior Ski Patrol opportunity through local advertising. To apply for the program, Williams had to submit a video of himself skiing, and explain why he was interested in the program. Next, Williams had to take an in-person ski test—students must be level seven skiers to be accepted into the program, meaning they have to be able to ski all types of terrain, including back bowls and moguls.

“There’s always been an interest by Ski Patrol and locals to create a program for teenagers who have finished ski school and aren’t interested in ski racing,” says Brice May, Vail Ski Patrol director. “The idea is to give participants training and safety knowledge, so parents can feel good about their children exploring the mountain alone.”

When Williams signed up, he had no idea Junior Ski Patrol would be so engaging—and so realistic. “Just like the ski patrollers they shadowed, our junior patrollers were the first ones up the mountain in the morning, and the last to leave at night,” May explains.

From 8 a.m. trail checks to end-of-day sweeps, junior patrollers got a behind-the-scenes look into what it takes to manage a mountain. Each of the four days had a different theme. After a morning debriefing, Williams and his peers were divided into groups of three, and each group was paired with a patroller to learn specific duties and responsibilities of ski patrol.

“We find that with teenagers, it’s better to keep them moving,” May says. Training was done on the mountain where ski patrollers set up simulations for their protégés to tackle. During CPR training, junior patrollers encountered six medical scenarios. Participants were tasked with assessing their “patients’ ” conditions—from broken arms to heart attacks—and carefully moving them to safety.

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Specialty patrollers were called on to teach skills such as snow analysis and search and rescue. Racing down the slopes with a rescue toboggan was thrilling, but Williams’ favorite moment came during the group’s avalanche safety training, when junior patrollers were asked to track buried beacons.

“The closer you get to the buried beacon, the louder your beacon beeps,” Williams explains. When Williams finally located a buried beacon, he and his fellow patrollers began frantically digging through the snow. “All of a sudden, a rescue dog came running up, and helped dig the beacon out,” Williams says. “That was pretty funny!”

The Junior Ski Patrol Program closed with junior patrollers being invited inside a search and rescue helicopter. They didn’t get to ride along on a rescue, but the crew told the students what they’d have to do if such an emergency occurred.

After completing Junior Ski Patrol, Williams feels more confident to conquer the mountain on his own. “I definitely know what to do in a tough situation,” he says. “I know how to handle it like a ski patroller. And I know a lot better what not to do!”

Application Details:
Each year, the application for Junior Ski Patrol opens in November, and closes January 1. View all details at vail.com.

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