Superheroes on the slopes, by Leslie Bek

Look—up in the sky…it’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s Superman!
Not exactly, but close.
If you are downhill skiing or snowboarding, it’s probably a member of the National Ski Patrol riding the chairlift and heading to the rescue.
You won’t recognize the ski patroller on the street corner, in the line at the grocery store or in the office just down the hall. Most of the time they are regular people doing routine things with no flapping capes. However, once they get to the ski hill and into uniform, these regular Joes and Janes are transformed to superheroes on the snow.
They are most recognizable by the traditional rust parka with gold cross, or the more contemporary red jacket with white cross. Unlike traditional superheroes, their unique and varied abilities aren’t transformed by the uniform. The jacket must be earned through extensive training in Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) which includes first aid services in an outdoor setting, ski proficiency and toboggan handling.
Setting the standard of care and proficiency is the National Ski Patrol (NSP) system. The role of NSP according to its Web site is: “Since 1938, the nonprofit National Ski Patrol has dedicated itself to—and has become the preeminent authority on—serving the public and outdoor recreation industry by providing education and credentialing to emergency care and safety services providers.”
The Web site further describes the origin of the organization: “NSP was organized and directed by Charles Minot ‘Minnie’ Dole as a committee of the National Ski Association (now the United States Ski Association). Through his efforts as the first national director of the NSP, the organization spread its effects and esprit de corps across the nation. Upon his retirement in 1950, Dole had built the NSP into an organization of 4,000 members serving 300 ski patrols.
“During World War II, Dole was responsible for the establishment of the famed 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. Applicants for this remarkable military unit, which saw much of its fighting activity in Italy, were screened by the NSP. Many individuals who were responsible for the establishment of many ski areas in the United States served in the 10th Mountain Division and have contributed significantly to the sport.”
Marquette Mountain is honored to have 10th Mountain Division member and local resident, Walter Cook skiing in our area today.
“Thanks to this distinguished legacy of altruistic service, the National Ski Patrol was recognized with a federal charter by the United States Congress in 1980,” according to the site. “This is a coveted endorsement that only a few other American institutions have earned, including the American Red Cross, the YMCA and the Boy Scouts. The federal charter stipulates that the NSP continue to promote safety and health in skiing and other outdoor winter recreational activities. Accordingly, the NSP annually reports directly to Congress.”
For the past seventy years, the NSP has followed its creed of “Service and Safety.” Today the organization is composed of more than 26,000 members serving more than 600 patrols.
NSP members work on behalf of local ski and snowboard areas to improve the overall snow sports experience for outdoor recreationists. For example, local ski patrollers are members of the NSP and affiliated with Marquette Mountain Ski Area. The NSP is a nonprofit organization. Its primary financial support is generated from membership dues, donations, user fees and corporate sponsorships. The national office is located in Lakewood (Colorado).
“Cliff’s Ridge was the first official downhill skiing area in Marquette and opened in 1958,” said Vern Barber, manager of Marquette Mountain Ski Area. “After a change in ownership in 1981, the property became known as the Marquette Mountain Ski Area.”
Members of the National Ski Patrol have been on duty for all of those nearly fifty years.
Today Marquette Mountain has grown to twenty-five runs over 169 acres of skiable terrain. This includes specially contoured runs known as the “terrain park” designed for the growing sport of snowboarding. The skier and snowboarder moving capacity is 4,600 people per hour, with two double chairlifts, one triple chair and a paddle tow. The ski season varies with the weather and snow making ability, but usually you can count on an average of 135 days; for most skiers and snowboarders, that means from Thanksgiving to Easter. Night skiing begins in mid- to late December five nights per week and extends well into March.
Anyone seeking NSP membership is required to participate in comprehensive educational lessons with skill and scenario application, complete various workbook exercises, take a final written exam and demonstrate skills and knowledge in final scenarios in the winter skiing and snowboarding environment.
“Persons wishing to join the patrol go through a ‘candidate season,’ which begins in October and ends in March,” said Marquette Mountain ski patrol director Jim Grundstrom. “Of that time approximately four months is spent on Outdoor Emergency Care and three months on ski proficiency and toboggan handling.”
To master the objectives and NSP standards, a candidate typically needs to devote eighty to 100 hours of class and study time to the course.
Each fall all patrollers in good standing must attend an annual OEC “refresher” consisting of a third of the total curriculum. The refresher is taught locally in each ski area by members who have attained instructor status. Early in the actual ski season, each patroller participates in an on-the-hill refresher of skiing and tobogganing skills.
There are numerous opportunities for a ski patroller to expand their knowledge through continuing education such as an advanced patroller certification called “senior patroller” or by becoming instructors, trainers or testers in OEC, ski proficiency and toboggan handling.
A final skill for every patroller to acquire is expertise in chairlift evacuation. In the event that the chairlift ceases to function during operating hours, ski patrollers are called to assist ski hill management for the safe and efficient evacuation of riders from the lift. This is done through a system of ropes, pulleys and an evacuation seat. Chairlift evacuation is a part of a candidate’s training, as well as the annual patrol refresher.
The Marquette Mountain Ski Patrol (MMSP) is about as close as one can get to superhero status when you consider:
• More than seventy percent of its members have obtained advanced levels of qualification and certification
• Fifty percent have received National Ski Patrol recognition
• Several have received purple or yellow merit stars for outstanding assistance in lifesaving or life-threatening situations
• The MMSP director has been recognized as one of the top in the country
• The MMSP has been recognized as Outstanding Patrol in the North Central Region
• The MMSP has been recognized as Outstanding Patrol in the Central Division
• The MMSP has been recognized as being in the top ten of all patrols within the National Ski Patrol system
Once on patrol, a person is required to serve one regular four to five hour patrol shift per week; an average of six patrollers make up a single shift. A paid, pro-patroller covers the weekday hours of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday; approximately sixty-five volunteer patrollers cover an approximate thirty to thirty-five hours each week. To maintain NSP membership a patroller must log a minimum of eighty skiing hours. Marquette Mountain requires the NSP minimum with a 100-hour minimum to obtain skiing privileges (non-patrol skiing) for the following season and a 125-hour minimum to obtain privileges for family members.
Once a person is on shift, the jacket goes on and the transformation takes place. There is now a small core of superheroes ready to respond to any call. Patroller are equipped with radios for communication between themselves and area management. One patroller is designated as leader of the shift.
Preparation is the key to preventing injuries and the ability to respond quickly. The patrollers will determine which runs are open for the duration of their shift, ski those runs to identify and mark any environmental risks and check the toboggan stations throughout the hill to ensure they are free from snow and ice and fully packed with aid supplies. Some runs are unlit and must be closed for the evening. This closing consists of the patrol marking off the start of the run as closed and skiing the run to assure no skiers remain in that area.
Patrollers on shift also will become informed about the makeup of the skiing population during their shifts, such as numbers of ski school participants, race teams or leagues, group buses from outside the area or special events.
There are times when Spiderman can prevail on his own, but more often than not, he can accomplish even greater feats with the assistance of Superman, Superwoman or the Incredible Hulk. Such is the case with the Marquette Mountain Ski Patrol.
Following the NSP creed of “Service and Safety,” the MMSP partners and collaborates most extensively with Marquette Mountain hill management staff. The success of this partnership has at least one statistical measure of success.
“Marquette Mountain has approximately 70,000 visitors per season,” Barber said. “Our injury incidence is between 180 and 230 cases per season which is below the national average.”
The MMSP extends its safety and prevention messages to the Marquette Mountain Race Team, Wendy’s and the Mining Journal Ski/Snowboard Schools, and the Kohl’s/Marquette General Hospital helmet use and safety program.
Like most superheroes, the prestigious MMSP is on call twenty-four hours a day, every day. Its volunteer efforts extend far beyond the ski season and include other outdoor recreation venues such as hosting the Superior Bike Fest, assisting with Noquemanon Ski Race, Ore to Shore bike race, Noquemanon Trail Network system, the U.S. National Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, NMU Outdoor Recreation training and U.S. National Ski Trails.
The MMSP is a family and a community. It offers a camaraderie that more than makes up for any personal sacrifice one makes in volunteer service.
—Leslie Bek

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