Nuts & Bolts of Opening: Ski Patrol starts scouring the mountain |

Nuts & Bolts of Opening: Ski Patrol starts scouring the mountain

Luke Graham
Steamboat Ski Patrol director John Kohnke already is busy preparing for another season on the slopes at Steamboat Ski Area.
John F. Russell

By the numbers

1: number of new hires this year

5: number of ski patrollers scheduled to work night skiing

40: seasons Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke has been at Steamboat Ski Area

44: number of full-time ski patrollers

116: number of Ski Patrol employees including volunteers

Walk into the Steamboat Ski Patrol office in mid-November, and the season is underway.

On one side of the room, stacks of “No sledding” signs with stakes look like the childhood game of pickup sticks. On the opposite side are lift and gondola rescue seats ready for training and — worse-case scenario — use in an emergency.

But this being Steamboat, the rescue seats aren’t your average rescue seats. They’re built by local company Kent Eriksen Cycles and might be the nicest in the nation.

“For us, getting ready for this season really starts the day you close the mountain last year,” Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said.

The patrol begins scouring the mountain for pads, ropes and bamboo after the ski area closes. The process continues as the snow melts. They also take a day to do a mountain cleanup by going from lift to lift to pick up items that might have fallen from skiers and snowboarders on the lifts.

Kohnke and his crew have just about everything — from wallets to phones to cremains — in a box.

From there, Kohnke reviews his staff of 44 full-time and 16 part-time patrollers and determines who is going to come back for the next season.

He said Steamboat Ski Patrol has an incredibly low turnover rate with zero to five openings typical each season.

This year, there was one.

For those interested, though, Kohnke will hold a tryout day in the spring. He’ll gather those interested and watch them ski, usually on Chute 1.

“We try to find the gnarliest skiing and have them ski that,” he said.

Finally in the fall, if he has positions open, he’ll go back through the list and look at resumes and applications.

At this point, Kohnke has begun constantly watching the weather and talking with groomers and early-season skiers who already have skinned up the mountain. He said he’s trying to decide what terrain to open this week, and he meets with department leaders every day to discuss the options.

Late last week, most of his patrollers returned to work for a three-day training and orientation session, which covered lift rescues, emergency procedures and the new night skiing option. Kohnke said they’ll have five patrollers working each night.

With his patrollers in town, Kohnke said the final few days before opening are going over procedural and administrative stuff. Refreshers in first aid, avalanche awareness and rescue operations are just a few of the things covered.

There isn’t a fitness test for patrollers, but Kohnke said he never worries his patrollers are out of shape.

Some, he said, spent their summers fighting wildland fires and guiding rafting trips. Others have spent the past couple of months skinning up the mountain.

Even though Kohnke’s days are filled with constant meetings, orientations and getting his crew ready for the new season, he said there always is something special about opening week.

“It’s an intense frenzy of excitement,” he said. “But there is nothing better than the week after opening when you can catch your breath. When the ski area opens, I think everyone is able to breathe a little easier.”

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