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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Rick Wood watches and respects Whiteface

February 9, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR Correspondent , Lake Placid News

WILMINGTON - Most winter weekend mornings, Rick Wood is on the road by 6 a.m. He drives the two hours (he'll do the same again at night) between his home in Colton and Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington, the Olympic ski mountain with a 360-degree view of the Adirondacks around it.

It's a hefty commute, much farther than the Big Tupper Ski Area, where he patrolled until the mountain was closed in 2002, and he decided to transfer to Whiteface. But Rick says he never considered stopping.

Rick loves skiing. He grew up strapped to wooden skis and worked as a ski instructor before becoming a father. Having kids changed how much time he could spend on winter sports, so he decided to become a ski patroller in 1978. It meant maximum time on the slopes, and leveraged skills he'd acquired as a volunteer firefighter.

Article Photos

Richard “Rick” Wood, at the summit of Whiteface. Taken by Meghan Felser (Rick’s daughter) in 2015.

Rick says when he started, patrollers only needed basic first-aid training. But that's changed drastically, and today to work National Ski Patrol, patrollers are required to take Outdoor Emergency Care training. Rick describes it as extremely rigorous, and on par with EMT training. After all, until patrollers can get injured skiers off the mountain, they're all the medical personnel that's available.

A day at Whiteface

On an normal day, Rick will arrive around 8 a.m. and receive his assignment. At Whiteface, there are usually around 30 patrollers stationed at five different areas all over the mountain.

"We get booted up and dressed, and we all carry backpacks with our lunches, because when you get up to the summit, there are no facilities. We have a warming hut, but you're there, and you stay within an area."

Patrollers are dressed in big red and black jackets with white crosses on them. Rick says he's asked if he's Swiss just about every season. They observe the skiing conditions, ski their area looking for accidents and reckless skiers, and wait for an accident call to come in. When one does, a pair will jump into action.

"One ski patroller goes to the scene and determines the severity of it. And then you call different stations and tell them what type of sled you need, or if you need oxygen ... then transport the patient to the medical service area at the base lodge."

In these situations a cool head, intimate knowledge of the mountain, and extraordinarily strong skiing skills are crucial. They're not rare situations, either.

"I've seen as many as 30 wrecks in a day, and some of them are very severe."

It's not if there will be a wreck, but when. On the weekends, Rick says they usually have an ambulance waiting, with critical care techs on scene.

Dangers on the mountain

Rick says it's difficult to control the way people ski, but that the ski patrol's presence is sometimes enough to keep things calm. If patrollers spot someone skiing recklessly or carelessly, they'll call them out and issue a warning, which is signified by a clip on the skier's lift ticket.

Two warnings and a skier will be pulled off the mountain.

"A lot of accidents are carelessness, because people don't give the downhill skier the right-of-way when they're overtaking them."

Rick says too many people ski outside their limits and don't respect the terrain enough. For instance, there's a gondola at Whiteface that Rick says everyone wants to ride. The issue is that once you get to the top, there's only one green trail (the easiest level of trail) going down, with most of the others being black diamonds (the hardest level of trail).

"People get in way over their head."

Other huge factors are trail and weather conditions, which is why the ski patrol monitors the iciness of trails and will shut down areas if they deem them dangerous. Snow conditions in particular will make or break a day.

"When it's really icy, the accident rates go way up. Whereas if you have good snow conditions your accident rates are down."

Rick says the wind on the mountain can get downright treacherous, turning the slopes "almost like a skating rink." If the wind picks up, often patrollers will ride the lifts and decide if they think it's safe for passengers. When asked if he's ever frightened up on the mountain, however, Rick didn't stop to think about his firm answer.

"No. I've been doing it since I was two."

He also says he respects the mountain, and that's the most important piece - self-awareness and humility, because the "mountain doesn't respect anybody."

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out www.ncpr.org/work.)

 
 

 

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