HQ on high: Get the story behind Steamboat Ski Area’s ski patrol shack
February 12, 2017
You see it every time you get to the top of the Sundown Express lift, sitting beneath a wind-loaded roof as a beacon of safety for riders and skiers all over the mountain. But save for those venturing in for a screwdriver, directions or frostbite help, what lies inside has always been a mystery. Until now, with this first-ever inside look at the 1,200-square-foot Steamboat ski patrol shack at the top of Mount Werner.
Our benevolent guide, Steamboat Ski Patrol assistant director Wes Richey, a wily veteran in his 37th year, gives us a quick tour before the afternoon's annual Old Guys vs. Young Guys dual-GS race on Headwall. And he's doing so despite having to pay the $2 fine into a communal kitty every time you're in the paper.
The patrol shack was built in 1983 by Gary Cogswell and designed by Pete Wither. "It's coming up on its 35th anniversary," says Richey, who started patrolling four years earlier. "If only those walls could talk."
This sun-bleached wrap-around is a hot spot come spring time, with speakers (today blasting the Allman Brothers) and an eight-year-old Weber Genesis Silver BBQ, sporting grease the same age. "That unit gets a lot of use come March and April, from brats and burgers to fancier fare," says Richey. Above the barbecue hangs "The Wrinkle Room" plaque memorializing Gregg "Bomar" Tipton, a class of '77 patroller who died in 2012, and a set of wind chimes handcrafted by Jeff "Soda" Davidson. To the left, flap flags for America and the state of Colorado.
Trail map wall
"These are from all the patrols we do exchanges with, plus some others," says Richey of the map-adorned upstairs wall. Lining it like wallpaper are maps from such domestic resorts as Monarch, White Fish, Squaw Valley and Solitude as well as Canada's Whistler and Sunshine Village. A smattering also come from abroad, including Les Menuires, Meribel and Val Thorens. Nearby hangs a poster of former Steamboat patroller Kate Dupre, who now lives in Les Menuires. Annually, the patrol hosts five regional short-term (two-day), one five-day and a season-long exchange in France. On the far end hangs a heralded plaque from 1992, when Steamboat's patrollers won the dual slalom and team toboggan race at the All States Pro Patrol Convention.
This is where it all happens: the calls come in and the patrollers head out. Patrollers take turns every 10 minutes or so staffing the station, monitoring two computer screens and the radio. They use Google Earth to pinpoint locations, as well as a giant, aerial photo of Fish Creek "for when people get lost." On the wall, maps show every lift and snow tower, with another showing bomb placements for avalanche routes. "It gets kind of confusing, because there are four or five names for everything outside the area boundary, from runs to landscape features," says Richey. "We have to know them all." Adjacent to the maps, of course, are ski posters: a signed one from Mikaela Shiffrin; the scantily clad Marker/Technica girls; and "Shred like Ted" Ligety. Also on the walls are a chalkboard housing an age-old illustration of the patrol shack, a newspaper clipping of resort co-founder John Fetcher and photos of now-deceased patroller Cody St. John.
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The Bat Cave
AKA the basement, whose nickname evolved from a room at the top of the Priest Creek lift. "The cave used to be filled with couches and hippie tapestries, but then, we got rid of it all to the chagrin of some," says Richey. "That's when patrollers wore "Save the Cave" T-shirts, and mysterious, black bat stencils began appearing on its walls. It used to be a pretty cool hang-out zone." Now, the room serves as storage for signs, water tanks (trucked up in summer for winter use, with a UV filtration system), fencing and snowmobiles (an old turnstile still commands a side room, "from when before snow machines had reverse, and we had to spin them around.") The room also harbors a tuning bench, where today, John "Pink" Floyd is waxing his boards for the afternoon's race.
Cleanliness next to godliness
Yep, it's the patrollers who take turns keeping everything all neat and tidy. "The patrollers are the janitors," says Richey. "Toilets, trail checks, CPR, we do it all. It's like a firehouse." Crews who come up early to patrol for First Tracks every day are responsible for tidying things up, as well as brewing the first batch of coffee.
Dry-erase “sweep” board
In all, the Steamboat patrol employs 50 full-timers, 20 part-timers, 12 volunteer medical patrol, eight courtesy patrol and 30 volunteer courtesy patrol. Full-timers work nine of 14 days in a two-week schedule, with 35 or so working any given day (about 60 percent stage out of the Sundown shack and the remainder out of Thunderhead). Shifts are marked on this nothing-fancy-but-the-system-works dry erase board, with a color-coded calendar schedule. Yellow indicates first-year patrollers, green the French foreign legion, and everything else for those like Richey with, ahem, slightly more longevity. Saturdays see the most on hand, followed by Sundays and Fridays. Patrols also use the board to sign up for sweep duty on a different run every afternoon.
Wall of Shame
Initiated in the 1980s by patrollers Dano Richey and Karen "Red" Vorster, this shrine occupies the top of the west wall above the windows. "'Red came up with the idea," says Richey. "The idea was to bring in photos of yourself doing anything but skiing, but a lot of people only had skiing shots." It's adorned with photos of patrollers rafting, climbing, camping and more, including a shirtless, 1983 photo of seven of the eight original saw crew that cut the trees for Three O'clock, along with Sundown and Storm Peak lift lines. They're in the process of starting a French wall of exchange patrollers on the building's north side.
The first thing you see when you walk in is like a mullet: business up front, relaxed in the back. The counter harbors an array of tools for quick fix-its and above it resides a cabinet full of medical supplies, including oxygen, AEDs and other safety gear. Further proving the patrol's stripes, a framed story on Howelsen Hill's 75th anniversary patrol hangs on the wall.
Each Crystal or Cascade patrol sled is named after a patroller—Kate, Dozier, Chaz—often with traits resembling its namesake, such as low handles or tall handles, new or old. "Just about everyone has one," says Richey. "You get a name on one based on your tenure." Case in point: Veteran Paul Draper just got his name on one of the older toboggans.
The living room
Aside from a dining table lined with chairs, the entire shack harbors only one two-person couch, separated from the kitchen by a half wall. Originally from the Grand Summit (before it became the Steamboat Grand, says Richey), its frayed arms and butt-impressioned cushions belie a well-worn history of resting those who spend their days hoisting heavy sleds. "There'd be sleeping going on around here if we had more than one," says Richey. "The crew does a good job staying out on the hill."
Don't get your hopes up about beating the line at Rendezvous Saddle; this one's nothing fancy. Just enough to get the job done. It's a small, one-seater located behind the dispatch room next to the first-aid cabinet, marked by "Do Not Block This Area: Emergency Access!" sign. Inside are such wall hangings as a Tram Fresh sticker (with New Tram Scent!) and an Andy Irons surf poster.
Ever live in a house with roommates? Multiply that by 20, and you'll get a feel for the kaleidoscope of food stuffs stacked in the fridge, whose door is opened more than shack's main entry. "We definitely have to clean it out every once in a while — the patrollers do a good job keeping up with it," says Richey. Inside today's refueling station is a tipped over bottle of orange juice, assorted lunch bags, a couple of half-eaten pies, 11 bottles of salad dressing, a few bags of lettuce, countless leftovers and enough Noosa to open a smoothie store. Before broaching the barrier, you have to get by a door so littered with stickers it blots out its original color, gems such as "MauiSkiBus.com," "Cougar Day," "You don't shred, you just live here," "BCA" and the obligatory "Ski-Naked." On top of the fridge roosts a Stonehenge of empty egg cartons. "We cook a lot of eggs up here," Richey admits. "Michelle Baxter has chickens and brings them (eggs) in all the time. She is the breakfast queen."
The half counter
This delineates the kitchen from the dining/living room, as a half-baked way to keep crumbs at bay. It most often serves as a serving counter, with Richey saying lunches are tending to get more and more elaborate, especially when exchange patrollers are visiting. On our tour, it's topped with a platter holding a leftover salmon skin with scattered pieces of red onion and a few lonely capers.
Lined with a no-slip, crumb-catching rubber mat, the most important corner of the shack was remodeled two years ago with new flooring, handcrafted "Sven" Ikea cabinetry and its third stove ("We go through those quite a bit.") An industrial Bunn coffeemaker rides herd over the countertop, wired directly to the water source, a key feature for quick fills. Above a sink filled with "wash your own" dishes hangs a bevy of posters, including one for Hurley Pro Surfing and others of the Himalaya's Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. A Jenga game of tea boxes lie stacked like cordwood on top of two microwaves in perennial need of sponging-up spilled chili and Cup-o-Noodles. Errant crumbs surrounding the toaster signal a similar workload. "We use the microwaves all the time," says Richey. "They should probably get some sort of award."
The wood stove
On frigid days, patrollers huddle around a Vigilant cast-iron wood stove, warming their toes and fingers around the fire. The stove is fed by wood from downfallen trees in the area, gathered by patrols throughout the fall. "We use it about 30 percent of the time, on the very coldest days," says Richey. "A lot of times, it gets too hot. Still, the guests like it."
Tunes help kill the time between being called to duty. For that, the patrol relies on a hodgepodge Sony and Sherwood stereo system, funneling reggae, rock, bluegrass and more to two interior and two (weather-worn) exterior speakers. "It used to play CDs, but now, it's mostly iPhones and iPods," says Richey. "We have to be a little careful what we play out on the deck."