Fernie Alpine Resort offers up some of the most exciting skiing and snowboarding in North America, and it’s the job of the ski patrol to keep it safe. Never easy but always satisfying, it’s a high-pressured and extremely exciting career. And ski patrollers always get first lines. Here’s what it’s like to be part of the team.
Best job in the world?
With five enormous bowls, knee-trembling steeps, and an average snowfall of 10m, around 75% of Fernie’s terrain is considered avalanche terrain. Keeping it in check involves one of the largest avalanche control programs in North America.
To be part of the Fernie Ski Patrol is a real privilege – they are the best of the best. They proactively manage the resort’s avalanche-control program, and take care of everything from terrain access to emergency rescues.
All about teamwork
As a ski patroller, you work within a team where each person has an important role to play. From forecasters and explosive gunners, to dog handlers and helicopter pilots, the whole team works together to keep the resort as safe as possible, so that skiers and snowboarders can make the most of Fernie's world-renowned terrain and powder.
Your core aim as a ski patroller is to manage public safety within the resort by stabilising the snowpack. Duties include:
No two days are the same in the mountains, and you need to be prepared for every eventuality. Different strategies are deployed each day, and plans can change as quickly as the weather.
As guardian angels of the mountain, patrollers rise long before the rest of us are on a chairlift. In Fernie, the forecaster and explosive gunners head to the top of Whitepass Chair at around 6am. Avalanche guns are fired to assess the sensitivity of the snow conditions, and the decision to begin avalanche control is based on this feedback, as well as overnight wind conditions, snow accumulation and the forecast ahead. Cornices (overhanging snow) pose the biggest threat.
The rest of the ski patrol team will load Timber Chair at 7am and head up to Whitepass Hut, towed up by one of the grooming cats. On a big avalanche control day, it can be much earlier. The team leader gives a rundown of the conditions, and daily tasks are prioritised and allocated. If the risk is high, the focus is on avalanche safety and stabilisation. On days where avalanches don’t pose a threat, the team set to work on other jobs like trail maintenance, rescue training, first aid practice, guest relations and mountain clean-ups.
Controlling the pack
When avalanche risk is judged to be a danger, the patrol team manage the snowpack by triggering controlled slides. You do this by ‘ski cutting’ (skiing across slopes) and setting off explosives.
Hand charges are one of the simplest ways to initiate controlled avalanches. Once in position, you toss your explosives onto designated start points. Safety lines prevent you from stepping onto cornices, keeping you safely away from the avalanche start zones. The patrol usually work in pairs, helping each other to make sure every procedure is carried out correctly. On a big day, 30 or so hand charges could be used.
For big cornices, it’s heli time. The pilot hovers as close to the start point as is safe, while a member of the ski patrol hangs out of the open door and drops the explosives. When a big cornice breaks off, the avalanche can be huge. It’s exhilarating stuff.
When the lifts open, the ski patrol team need to be confident that the resort is safe for public use, but the work doesn’t stop there. You need to continually monitor and maintain the terrain, and be ready to respond to rescues, evacuate lifts, provide First Aid and investigate accidents. If the avalanche risk builds throughout the day, you could be prepping explosives to be thrown when the lifts close.
Once avi control is complete and the resort is open, the order of priority is:
Ongoing training is an important aspect of a ski patroller’s daily life. You need to be ready to respond to any given emergency with up-to-date avalanche expertise, advanced First Aid training, and expert skiing skills on all types of terrain.
Working with certified avalanche rescue dogs is also part of the role. Handlers and ski patrollers need to understand how the dogs work and how to keep track of their search. In Fernie you’ll see the dogs on the slopes almost every day, playing in powder and training to keep sharp and ready for action.
Become a ski patroller
Love the idea of becoming a ski patroller? There’s no better place to train than Fernie, and our 10 week ski patrol course sets you up for success. This intensive course prepares you to work as a patroller with a handful of qualifications, on-snow drills and patrol skills development.
— "The course will put you ahead of the game with a solid set of baseline skills and qualifications to be accepted in to any patrol team, and be at the top of your rookie crew.” -Stu, Team Leader, Fernie Ski Patrol
We look forward to speaking with you.