Ralph Whittum-Comfort zone
Navy veteran discovers the good life patrolling Howelsen Hill
March 30, 2004
Ralph Whittum made an ill-advised attempt to escape from Steamboat Springs almost a decade ago. Itching to see more of the world, he left the Yampa Valley and obtained a master’s degree in international policy studies from the Monterrey Institute.
“There was a time in my life when I was an expert in French nuclear policy,” he laughed.
He lived in Washington D.C. for several years, but he missed life in Steamboat.
“I never fit in there,” he said.
Whittum came home and reported for duty at Howelsen Hill, the oldest ski area west of the Mississippi. He has been there ever since and has no plans to leave.
Whittum is the ski patrol director at Howelsen, where he and his staff of 18 ski patrollers (plus six members of the National Ski Patrol) watch over everyone from Olympic ski jumpers to four-year-olds riding the Magic Carpet lift for the first time.
Whittum has a familiar tale to tell — he and a couple of buddies came here for what was planned to be a ski vacation and Whittum stayed on for the winter and forever.
“Ben Beall, Pat Dudgeon and I arrived in a station wagon,” Whittum recalls. “We were all in the Navy together. We drove up for a ski vacation and I just stayed.”
Beall and Dudgeon could each tell their own story about the Yampa Valley curse and how it got hold of them.
Whittum’s story involves pearl diving and skiing.
“I was sleeping at Ben’s parents’ condo and Nita Beall (Ben’s sister) called up and said, “We’ve got a job down here. Any of you guys want a job?”
The next thing Whittum knew, he was washing dishes at the Village Inn Hotel (now the Sheraton).
His military commitment behind him, Whittum worked with hot soapy water four hours a night, five nights a week, and spent the daylight hours learning to ski.
“I skied all day. That was my introduction to Steamboat and to skiing,” Whittum said. “But I didn’t want to wash dishes and I was looking around and asking myself, ‘How do you stay here?”
One day he spied ski patrolman Hud Labaree towing a loaded toboggan down the mountain and thought, “I think I could do that.”
As it turned out, it took Whittum three winters of polishing his skills before he caught on with the Steamboat Ski Patrol (on Mount Werner). He knew he had finally made it in Steamboat Springs when he received his first paycheck as a “professional skier.”
Whittum grew up south of Boston where his father, Ralph, was a draftsman and his mother, Luella, was a homemaker.
His fondest boyhood memories are of trips to Fenway Park to see his idol, Ted Williams, practice the art of hitting a baseball.
He laughs when he recalls his family’s Revolutionary War history.
“My family, the Whittums, were kicked out of Boston in 1776 because they were loyal to King George as were many people.”
The Whittums avoided New England for two or three generations, after fleeing to Nova Scotia. But Whittum’s grandmother finally figured it was safe to return to Massachusetts.
“I’m a refugee from the East,” Whittum smiled. “There are a lot of us.”
Whittum and Beall served in the Navy Seals during the Vietnam War. It’s a period of their lives they don’t discuss.
“We look at each other and just shake our heads,” Whittum said. “There was a lot of stuff that went on that’s uncomfortable to recall, and the other thing is, people think it’s glorious and it’s the furthest thing from it.”
Beall recalls their days in the Mission Beach area of San Diego, after they were out of the Navy, more fondly. The two men weren’t close friends at the time, but they frequently ran into each other.
“We were always at the same parties and out on the beach together,” Beall said. “Picture Ralph roller skating on the concrete boardwalk in South Mission Beach. He would roller skate to a little place called the Beachcomber Bar.”
Beall and Whittum collaborated on the initial South Mission Beach Easter Egg Hunt, and it was a tradition they would one day establish at the Steamboat Ski Area.
Beall was attending school and planned a holiday ski vacation in Steamboat, recruiting Dudgeon, Whittum and Whittum’s dog to ride along. Whittum recalls that they drove out in an old station wagon, Beall insists it wasn’t a wagon but a late ’50s era Buick. Either man could be correct — Beall bought and sold a never-ending succession of beaters in those days.
When it was time for Beall to go back to school in San Diego, Whittum stayed behind. Beall would return the following year and Dudgeon would become the first editor of Steamboat Magazine.
The following winter Beall and Whittum, along with other friends, formed a loosely organized outfit they dubbed “The Hunt Club.” Its primary purpose was to establish the annual Easter egg hunt on the ski mountain. They gave out the first “golden egg” creating a closing day tradition that persists at the ski area to this day.
Whittum is due to turn 60 this year, and he’s content with his life — he is a commercial painter in the summers and devoted to Howelsen Hill in the winter.
“I really enjoyed my fifties,” Whittum said. “The fifties are a tremendous age. You just calm down and say, ‘Well, this is all just fine, having no other alternative.’ I just hope when I turn 60 in June, parts don’t start falling off.”
Patrolling at Howelsen is very different from being a ski patrolman at the Steamboat Ski Area, Whittum said. His staff only handles 30 to 50 significant accidents a season. The rhythm of work at Howelsen allows the two patrollers on duty at any given time to get more involved in the many events that take place at the city owned ski area. “We get right in the middle of everything and help organize races,” Whittum said.
Rick DeVos, executive director of the Winter Sports Club, said Whittum has become a big fan of club athletes. “He is not only a ski patroller here, but is actually enthralled with the racers,” DeVos said. “It is a personal interest of his. He cheers for those guys, and I have seen him go as far as traveling to Aspen with another patroller to watch them compete. He will pitch in on anything down here.”
The most rewarding part of the Howelsen Hill experience, Whittum said, is getting to know the young athletes with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
“They start at age three, and by the time they are 18, you know who they are,” Whittum said. “To me, the most satisfying thing is when they come back (after going away to college or a job) and say, ‘Hey’ and they sit down and talk. It’s just nice to see how they’ve turned out.”