Sugarloaf Ski Patrol

Keeping the slopes safe

Goduti, now in his tenth year with the ski patrol, has been a Sugarloafer since 1964. Owner of the Goduti Building Company, the Cape Elizabeth resident first worked in emergency services as a high school member of the Falmouth Fire Department. Several years ago, Goduti was enjoying a day of spring skiing when he realized it was time to combine his interests and give something back to the mountain he loved.

“It was a quiet, beautiful day, and I heard about a fatality on the hill,” says Goduti. “I couldn’t believe something like that could happen.” Goduti stopped by the site where the tragedy had occurred. Finding a few ski patrollers still at the scene, he thanked them for their service, and acknowledged the difficulty of their job. Then Goduti went back up the mountain. “There was a local guy on the porch at Bullwinkle’s who had his bagpipes out. He was playing ‘Amazing Grace,’” says Goduti. It was a life-altering moment: “That motivated me to join the force.”

Fatalities are, fortunately, rare at Sugarloaf. Sugarloaf promotes the National Ski Areas Association’s “skier’s responsibility code” on its 160 trails, and asks that “skiers and boarders be aware that there are elements of risk in snow sports that common sense and personal awareness can help reduce.” Ski patrollers help reinforce the importance of skiing responsibly. Communicating with one another via two-way radio, they monitor each trail, making sure that safety ropes are in place and rescue equipment is within reach.

In addition to toboggans, used for pulling incapacitated skiers down the hill, each
patroller carries his own pack. A typical pack contains tools used for rescue, equipment malfunction, and personal comfort: a handsaw, gloves, first aid kit, pocket mask, cling wrap, food, water, hand-warmers, screwdrivers, and a headlamp. Sugarloaf ’s 38 volunteers and two paid ski patrollers do everything from locating lost hikers and clearing the trails at day’s end, to assisting skiers with injuries and life-threatening health problems.

Sometimes these health problems are not directly related to skiing. In 2010, 74-year-old ski instructor Roland Bois had just connected with a group of students when he realized that he was having a heart attack. He had been diagnosed with heart problems previously. “I was 100 yards from the back door of the lodge. So I told someone, ‘Take my group, I’m leaving.’ The supervisor came over and he asked if I wanted to call the rescue squad. I said, ‘Yes. Do it now.’”

A ski patroller, who was also a registered nurse, stabilized Bois and started an intravenous line. The local ambulance service picked up Bois at Sugarloaf and brought him to the Carrabassett Valley airport, where a LifeFlight helicopter was waiting to convey
him to Central Maine Medical Center. His heart stopped twice during the journey.

The rapid transport saved his life. “From the time I left my group of students to when I
got to the Lewiston hospital, I don’t think it was more than 40 minutes,” says Bois. Still a ski instructor at Sugarloaf, as well as an avid cyclist, Bois will celebrate his fiftieth wedding anniversary next February. He and his wife, Maria, remain close friends with his ski patrol colleagues. “They do a good job,” he says.

Ski patrollers, who come from a broad variety of educational and occupational backgrounds, each engage in similar basic medical training. They begin with an outdoor emergency care course and augment this with yearly refresher classes at Sugarloaf. Their coursework emphasizes the importance of stabilizing patients and moving them promptly to a higher level of care.

Like Bois, veteran skier Abigail Martin benefitted greatly from the swift response of patrollers. In March 2013, ten-year-old Abigail was skiing with friends when she caught the edge of her ski on a sapling off the main trail. This caused her to collide with a tree at high speed. The ski patrol was on the scene immediately. Helmeted, Abigail had severely damaged her face, sinuses, and the front part of her brain.

By the time her father, Jeremy, found Abigail in the ski patrol base clinic, it was clear that she was critically injured. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Jeremy. “Her face looked nothing like my daughter’s. I wouldn’t have recognized her except for her yellow snowpants.” Thanks to the ski patrol, NorthStar ambulance, LifeFlight, and the medical team at Eastern Maine Medical Center, Abigail survived. She required multiple surgeries, intensive care stays, and months of rehabilitation. “The doctors didn’t think she would make it,” says Jeremy. “It was truly a miracle.”

The following autumn, Abigail was able to run cross country and resume many of her former activities. This year she is in seventh grade in the magnet program at Islesboro Central School.

The ski patrol would prefer to prevent problems whenever possible. Sugarloaf ski patrollers begin their routine daily duties before the sun has fully risen. Aside from lift operators, they are the first ones up the mountain, and the last ones off. They help determine if it is safe to ski. Weather conditions play a big part in this. According to assistant ski patrol director Roddy Ehrlenbach, “It is hard to stand upright when the wind is 50 miles per hour. At 60 miles per hour, the wind will actually knock you down. At 80 miles per hour, you can’t breathe.”

Ehrlenbach tells me this as we enter the ski hut at the top of Spillway (also called TOS). I have just herringboned up the hill from the lift, far behind the people I am supposed to interview. I can’t breathe, and I am humbled. We soon learn that there is a “wind hold” on the lifts, and that the National Weather Service has reported sustained winds of 60 miles per hour, with gusts to 85. Despite my years of skiing and running, I am no match for the mountain gales: the weather today is extreme. Ehrlenbach offers perspective. “There was a high wind advisory this fall in Portland,” he says. “They were expecting winds of 25 miles per hour with gusts over 40. That would be a normal day for us. We’d still be running lifts.”

Wind was partially responsible for a chairlift derailment on Spillway East in December 2010. This 100-chair lift (which was replaced in the summer of 2011) disengaged from one of the towers the day after a major snowstorm. Five chairs fell 25 or 30 feet to the ground. Of the 220 people estimated to be on the lift, nine were injured. “Coincidentally,” says Goduti, “we had a training that fall—three months before this lift came down—specifically for a lift derailment. We went through the entire triage and evacuation.” As a result of their training, they had everybody off the hill within 40 minutes, and “the whole line was cleared within an hour. Everybody that had to be transported somewhere was gone. It went very, very well.”

Ski patrollers must be able to cover every part of Sugarloaf ’s 1,230 acres of skiable terrain, and do much of it with a rescue toboggan behind them. “It’s expected that candidates are able to meet the demands of the job,” says Ehrlenbach. “They don’t need to be expert skiers—just able to handle what the mountains throw at them.” Handling a toboggan requires additional skill, and patrollers are tested to be sure that they can maneuver the equipment properly. “Toboggans can control your skiing,” says Goduti. Due to its bulk, a toboggan can push the ski patroller who is towing it down the hill more quickly, and it adds weight behind a patroller who is skiing up an incline. “They can act as a gas pedal and a brake,” says Goduti.

Ski patrollers become an integral part of the Sugarloaf community. Some patrollers, like 38-year-old Ehrlenbach, who has a back round in recreation resource management, work there year-round. Many patrollers have been on the mountain for decades, and are continuing a ski tradition they may have been born into. Ehrlenbach’s family has skied at Sugarloaf for four generations—his father and uncle raced on the ski team at the University of Maine. “When I was trying to find a job, ski patrol kept coming up as the thing I enjoyed the most,” says Ehrlenbach, who began with the patrol at age 15. “It took a few years to make a decent living at it, but I was finally able to and I’ve stuck with it.”

Ski patrolling is not a job for the faint of heart. Like many mountains, Sugarloaf can be a place of high winds and early darkness. It can push people to their limits. But ski patrolling at Sugarloaf offers an experience rarely encountered in the larger world: community. “When I’m riding up a lift on a nice day, I’ll see races going on one trail, teaching groups on another, and the mountain’s buzz- ing with people.” At that point, says Goduti, “I just sit back and smile. When the whole place is clicking, it’s really fun to be a part of it. Ski patrol is a captivating job.”

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