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Timber Ridge Ski Patrol

They're dedicated, well-trained and all-volunteer

Seven Ski Patrol members gather around a 13-year-old boy on a Timber Ridge slope. The snowboarder has taken a hard fall, hitting his head, and even though he’s wearing a helmet, he lost consciousness for a few seconds.

A few moments earlier, Ski Patrol supervisor Ken Young saw the fall and radioed for assistance. Young arrives on the scene first, with other patrollers quickly following. Jason Kovacs drives up on a snowmobile, pulling a rescue toboggan behind him.

“Thirteen-year-old male ... hard fall ... compromised consciousness ... strong vitals,” one of the patrollers radios to someone in the Patrol lodge who will call an ambulance dispatcher.

The patrollers strap the boy to a backboard and stabilize his head and neck. They want to make sure he’s not injured any further during the ride down the hill. Five of them lift him onto the toboggan, placing a first-aid supply bag over him as a blanket.

As all of this is happening, the boy’s mother walks up. She seems calm and, as her son is transported to the Ski Patrol lodge, walks down to the lodge to help Young fill out paperwork on her son’s fall. It turns out she’s a nurse in Bronson Methodist Hospital’s outpatient surgery department, which might explain her demeanor. She also happens to know one of the patrollers. She calls him “Dr. Smith,” but he responds, “Who’s that?’”

Young explains that patrollers who have medical training — like Jim Smith, a hand surgeon — never use their titles when volunteering. They just go by their first names, helping to build “a sense of equality among patrollers,” Young says.

A Life EMS ambulance stationed near Gobles is already at the Ski Patrol lodge when the boy arrives. Once the patient is handed off to the ambulance crew, Young finishes his paperwork. But before Young can head out to the slopes again, another injured child is brought in — a girl with a cut on her forehead. She’s alert and looks to be about 10 or 11 years old, and her injury isn’t serious.

Seeing kids will be a repeated occurrence on this Friday. Three school groups with a total of about 120 kids are visiting the family-owned ski area, and two more injured youth will be brought to the Ski Patrol lodge before the day is over.

It’s not uncommon to see injuries when school groups visit because half the kids have never skied before — they take lessons in the morning, have lunch, and then “think they’re ready for the big hills,” explains Young.

In class, online, on snow

Young is one of nearly 90 volunteers who serve on the Timber Ridge Ski Patrol. Unlike patrols at some bigger resorts, Timber Ridge’s is made up entirely of volunteers, about 60 men and 30 women. Some patrollers have skied for only a few years, others for decades. They come from varied occupations and range from late teens to mid-80s — Young is 84 and a stronger skier than many who are a quarter of his age. (“I’d trust him to take me off the hill just as I’d trust any other patroller,” says Doug Mesara, 44, and the director of the Timber Ridge Ski Patrol. “I hope I can ski that well at 84.”)

Having a love for the slopes and good skiing ability are important qualifications for someone to become a ski patroller, explains Mesara, but the role also requires a significant time commitment and intensive training in emergency care.

“The average patroller will work about 10 to 16 hours during a week,” Mesara says. “There’s weeks for me when it’s 20 hours or more. From Dec. 1 to mid-March, most patrollers average around 100 hours on the hill.”

The training to become a patroller also takes time — about 150 hours of classroom and online learning, plus instruction on the slopes and additional study hours.

“But it all depends on your skills coming in,” Mesara says. “For me, it was 150 to 200 hours of studying time outside of class. We tell people it’s like a college-level course. We teach ours over about four months of time, and typically it’s evenings. We’ve been pushing it to about one night a week, and we are starting to use some online instruction that the National Ski Patrol has created for us. We tell people the first year is the hardest year timewise. We call that your candidate year.”

Patrol candidates receive what’s called outdoor emergency care (OEC) training. It’s “roughly equivalent to an EMT basic course,” Mesara says. “It’s first-responder training — everything from medical anatomy to medical emergencies, diabetic shock, anaphylactic shock from allergies, broken bones, twisted knees, scrapes. It gets into water emergencies, poisonous plants, CPR and how to use an automatic external defibrillator. It’s a wide-ranging course.”

The basic-certification evaluation at the end of training involves a 100-question written test and a staged accident. “The candidate is given very little information about it and has to stabilize the patient and prepare them for transport,” Mesara says. “It’s a very stressful situation for the person taking the test.”

After they’re certified, patrollers must undergo recertification training each year before the new season begins. Many of the Timber Ridge patrollers also get additional certification. About 35 of them are Alpine patrollers who can haul toboggans, and roughly 40 are senior Alpine patrollers trained to manage others at the scene of an accident and to deal with multiple patients at once. About 35 Timber Ridge patrollers are certified to teach the OEC course, and 10 offer ski and toboggan instruction, Mesara says.

Bad falls, good catches

All of this training comes into play when a skier or snowboarder goes down hard. Patrollers grab a toboggan from the Ski Patrol lodge or one of the huts at the top of the slopes and head to the scene, where other patrollers join them (on a weeknight or weekend at least eight are on duty and on weekdays at least three). Loaded on the toboggan are a backboard and two big bags of first-aid supplies.

A yellow bag — “we call it the trauma bag,” Young says — holds a traction device, blocks for holding the head still, adult- and child-sized C-collars to stabilize the neck, and straps for securing people on the toboggan. A red bag includes two types of splints and carpet padding to make splints more comfortable or to put behind people’s knees for comfort during transport. In the case of a leg injury, a cardboard splint can be sized on the good leg, cut to the right length, and then secured on the injured leg with duct tape, Young explains. Cardboard splints are inexpensive and allow for a leg or arm to be X-rayed in the splint, he says.

“We see a lot of (injuries to) upper extremities,” Mesara says, “forearms and wrists, actual fractures. People will put a hand out as they’re falling. That’s extremely common in snowboarders. They will fall forward, and their instinct is to put an arm out.

“Depending on conditions, we also will see a fair number of knee injuries where the skier gets caught up in slushy snow and pulls ligaments or tears things. The fall might not involve enough force to get the ski binding to release but enough force to tear up a knee. We see that as conditions get warmer and we get more of what we call the mashed potatoes, the slushier snow.” Last season, when the weather stayed consistently cold and snowy, there was “almost none of that,” Mesara adds.

Head injuries are usually the most serious, although sometimes the outcome is better than feared. “I recall an individual out of our terrain park (where skiers can do those wild twists and flips) who hit hard enough that she cracked her helmet,” Mesara says. “She was unconscious and unresponsive when we got there. We placed her on a backboard and gave her to the ambulance crew.

“She walked into the patrol room four or five hours later to show us the helmet. She probably had concussion symptoms, but there was no internal bleeding in the skull and no permanent damage. To break a helmet takes a significant amount of force. Without the helmet, she would have had very different injuries.”

When the terrain park first opened in the late ’90s and again when it moved to its current location about 10 years ago, “we saw more injuries and more specific injuries,” Mesara says. “We’d see a lot more of the closed-head injuries, and then we were seeing the kids falling off the rails or the jumps and putting their arm out — forearm injuries or dislocated shoulders.

“I think it has stabilized now. It may be declining. The ski area has learned how to build the parks safely. If we have a feature that’s problematic any one day — a second or third accident off the same jump or rail — we’ll call management and they’ll come out and tear it down or maybe reset it. They pay a lot of attention to where the kids are jumping from and where they’re landing.”

But serious situations for the Ski Patrol can go beyond skiers on the slopes or in the terrain park. Although there have been no fatal accidents on the slopes in Young’s 35 years there, in the late ’90s a man suffered a cardiac arrest in the lift line for the double chair that was fatal, Young says. CPR was started almost immediately in that incident, Mesara adds, but the Ski Patrol and EMS were not successful in restoring the man’s heartbeat. “He was in his late 80s or early 90s and died on his birthday, enjoying the sport he loved,” Mesara says.

In another instance, patrollers last winter had to deal with anaphylactic shock when a chairlift operator took an over-the counter product for a headache, not realizing it contained a medication he was allergic to.

“Patrollers were able to get him off the hill and into our building,” Mesara says. “That’s very much a life-and-death situation. Because we’re only equipped so far, we got him prepared for paramedics to start treating him. He was breathing when we pushed him into the ambulance. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment and returned to work the next day.”

One of the most dramatic situations for a Ski Patrol member occurred during the 2012-13 season. An 8-year-old girl at the highest point on the triple chairlift was starting to fall. Patroller Paul Carlson saw what was happening and positioned himself underneath the chair to catch her — skis and all.

“Neither were injured,” Mesara says. “We still don’t know how. Everything in that one came together perfectly. It’s one of those freak situations. The mom lost her grip at exactly the right point, and the patroller happened to notice the girl.”

Last year another child fell from the triple chairlift. A lift manager and several bystanders caught the boy using one of the thick pads wrapped around the chairlift tower, Mesara says.

Mesara advises parents to do a few “real simple things” to prevent these situations, which he notes are not unique to Timber Ridge.

First of all, when getting on the chairlift, “put the child on the lift operator side, the left side,” he says. “That gives the lift operator a chance to help the kid into the chair also.”

Second, ask the lift operator to slow down the lift. That gives parent and child more time to get in the right position to get into the chair.

Finally, “if your child does not make it (into the chair properly), let ’em go,” Mesara says. “It’s better to let them drop a few feet. I’ve never seen anybody make it all the way to the top (holding on to a child).”

Bonded ‘like family’

Facing emergency situations together and working to get injured skiers and snowboarders off the slopes safely creates powerful bonds among Ski Patrol volunteers. Those who work the Friday shift say they’ve become like family. They even eat a potluck lunch together each week.

At today’s lunch, Ken Young, tells a visitor that he was an insurance agent for Northwestern Mutual for 58 years. He became a member of the Ski Patrol in 1988 after his son was injured. “A member of the Ski Patrol was very kind to him and me, and it seemed like something I would like to do.”

Young’s wife, Kathy, a neurovascular nurse, has been on the Patrol for 21 years. She often skis on Fridays with Karen Hunter, a retired Wayland school social worker who’s been a patroller for 25 years. “The Timber Ridge Patrol is really a close-knit group,” Kathy Young says. “It’s a great way to do something we love to do and give something back at the same time.”

Before Kathy and Ken were married, when they were co-workers and she told him she’d like to get back into skiing after a 17-year hiatus. He suggested she join the Patrol.

“Don’t you think I should start skiing first?” she asked.

“No, just join the Patrol,” said Young, who never misses a chance to recruit.

Chris Hopper, who has logged 23 years on the Patrol, was recruited by a friend at his Portage church. “He mentioned he was on the Ski Patrol, and I made the mistake of asking about it,” Hopper jokes. “He asked me to be on the Ski Patrol even though I had very, very limited experience as a skier.”

Because Hopper agreed to join the Patrol, all three of his kids grew up skiing, starting at age 2. One of his sons was on the Timber Ridge Junior Ski Patrol, a group that assists patrollers with radio calls, crowd control and other tasks. This son later moved up to the Ski Patrol and now works at an Upper Peninsula ski area. “He loves it,” Hopper says.

Marc Verkaik, the K-8 principal for Kalamazoo Christian Schools, is in his seventh year as a patroller and volunteers about 100 hours on the Ski Patrol per season. He has brought a group of fifth- and sixth-graders to Timber Ridge today as the culmination of an Olympics unit.

Verkaik’s most memorable patrol experience so far, he says, was when a girl hit a tree and broke her leg. “I had to get her pant leg up and splint it. She was a great patient. She didn’t scream or yell.”

When he’s not tending to injuries, Verkaik likes to ski with his family. Being on the Patrol makes that more affordable, he says, since patrollers get a free family pass to Timber Ridge. “It’s a cheap way to ski, and I enjoy being outside.”

Of course, it’s not so much fun when it rains. “We have a joke,” Ken Young says. “On rainy days we say, ‘How lucky we are to ski for free!’”

Paul Vellom, an associate professor of education at Western Michigan University, is one of the newer members of the Ski Patrol, having joined in 2012. “I was lamenting not having enough winter activity in my life” when another professor mentioned the Ski Patrol, he says.

In Vellom’s first and second season of training he spent four hours in class two nights a week. “Some of the younger folks can do the training in one season,” he says. “I’d done first-aid and water-safety training through Red Cross, but this was a whole new level. You now have to be able to recognize a problem, establish a safe scene and do an initial patient assessment. Those skills are all beyond anything I had before.”

When faced with an injured skier or snowboarder, the most challenging thing is “remembering all the training and making sure you haven’t missed anything,” Vellom says. “The good thing is we always work in teams so we can double check each other.”

Vellom admits the training has been more physically demanding than he expected, “but it’s such a supportive group of people,” he says.

In addition to working as a team on the slopes, patrollers also work together to raise money for their organization. They raised $50,000 toward the cost of their lodge (built in 2000) through cookouts and special events like ski swaps and raffles. One patroller, an electrician, did all the wiring for the lodge; another crafted benches with built-in storage. The lodge is “about 15 times as large” as the previous Ski Patrol space, Young says.

Two more down

As lunch wraps up, a radio call comes in. “We’ve got another wrist,” says one of the patrollers.

A boy from Kalamazoo Christian Middle School is brought into the first-aid room, joining an injured female schoolmate. “It hurts. It hurts,” he moans.

The girl, who has a splint on her right arm, is stoic. Hopper tells her, “This really cool thing (a sling) is going to go under that. We’re going to put that at a height where you’re super comfortable.”

The children’s principal, Verkaik, walks in. “How are you doing, young lady?” he asks. Then he turns to the boy. “How are you?”

The girl answers first. “I fell backwards, I think.”

The boy points out the spot on the slope where he fell.

“When you fell, did your skis come off?” Vellom asks.

“Yes, and my glasses came off too,” the boy says.

Apparently, one of his skis whacked his wrist. Jim Smith and Ken Young put a splint on his left arm.

“We’re going to be twinsies,” the girl tells the boy. Once her arm is in a sling, Hopper adds ice to prevent swelling and help keep her comfortable.

“Any word from her Mom yet?” Hopper asks, and someone says no.

Then a phone rings, and Hopper tells the girl’s mother that someone from the school is going to drive her daughter home. “We recommend you take her to an immediate care center. She’s sore. She’s upset, of course, but it’s not an emergency. She hurt her wrist.”

The boy is still visibly upset. His face looks like the No. 9 or 10 on the pain chart posted on a file cabinet nearby. “It hurts so much,” he says.

It turned out he had a sprained wrist. The girl’s wrist was broken. Months later, Verkaik reports the two children are “doing great.” In fact, not long after her fall, the girl had a soft cast put on so she could go on a family ski trip, he says.

As for the 13-year-old who lost consciousness, “he made a full recovery within about two weeks” and was eager to get out on the slopes again this season, his mother says.

One of the toughest parts of the work, Mesara says, is when you don’t find out the outcome after a serious injury. “Most times you never find out. That’s one of the things you have to come to expect. You want to know about kids especially, when you know that they’re really hurt.”

But it’s gratifying “being out there with the skiing customers and talking to everybody,” he adds.” Most people know why we are there and are very grateful to see us. That’s really what makes it fun and enjoyable.”

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Bonded 'like family'

Facing emergency situations together and working to get injured skiers and snowboarders off the slopes safely creates powerful bonds among Ski Patrol volunteers. Those who work the Friday shift say they’ve become like family. They even eat a potluck lunch together each week.