Dialed In: On the Hill with Claire and Warren

March 14, 2023

We sat down with two of our ski patroller friends, Warren Bunnell and Claire Joubert, to get their insider perspectives on mountain safety, common injuries and what patrolling is really like.

Let’s start with the basics—how long have you both been patrolling, and where do you patrol?

W: I’ve been patrolling for six years now. Mostly at Keystone Resort in Colorado, but I also patrolled at Perisher Resort in Australia.

C: I completed my training in February 2014, and have been patrolling at a ski area in Minnesota since then. 

What is the training and certification process like?

C: The requirements vary from ski area to ski area. But typically the training involves a medical component, usually at the level of a first responder, ski or board proficiency work and toboggan handling.

W: Medically speaking, Keystone requires all patrollers to be EMT certified, but we also do refresher training on OEC skills every year at the start of the season. We’re constantly training throughout the year to make sure our skills stay up-to-date. From a mountain maintenance standpoint, we practice knots, rope skills and other skills related to keeping the mountain in good shape. And there's always somewhere to practice an avy scenario or do a beacon drill. 

That sounds intense.

W: Patrolling really is a job where you’re constantly training and developing new skills. And the amount of training you go through as a rookie before you’re actually “in red” is extensive. You’re running rigs to practice before you have a patient and doing mock medical scenes to learn the ins-and-outs from the more senior patrollers. You also need to learn the mountain entirely, including all the names of the trails. In total, there are over 250 phone numbers, trail names and lifts to memorize… and you have to get a nearly perfect score to pass. 

Wow. Knowing all that, what advice would you give to a patroller just starting out?

W: Nobody is an expert. Do as much training as you possibly can, take as many avy classes as you can and continue to practice your skills. Just because you took one class doesn’t make you an expert—just because I’m a patroller certainly doesn’t make me an expert. If someone asks for a volunteer, be the first one to raise your hand. You have to seek out opportunities to learn on your own, with your friends and from the community. And don’t forget to thank your dispatcher and feed the lift ops.

C: Well said. Piggybacking on that, I’d say that if your ski area does not have a formal mentoring program for new patrollers, find one or two seasoned patrollers and ask if they’re willing to have you ski with them. You’ll become familiar with the area faster and learn some pro tips.

What got you both into patrolling?

C: I was looking for a volunteer opportunity. I love to ski and to be outdoors, and I also love what I do for work (I’m a physician assistant), so patrolling was a perfect way for me to help others while pursuing one of my passions. After being encouraged over several years by a friend who was a patroller, I decided to try out.

W: As a kid, I saw a few people get injured and had some run-ins with patrol when I was going where I wasn’t supposed to go. I always looked up to those in red and knew that was the job I wanted to have when I got older.

What does a typical day on the job look like for each of you?

C: I often patrol as hill captain on Saturdays, so I’m at the hill by 7:45 a.m. if there are early races to support the patrollers scheduled to cover those events. I check our transport vehicles and crash packs to make sure they’re ready for the day. We review any safety issues and concerns, which lifts are running and any special events scheduled for the day. Throughout the day, I respond to calls for ski patrol that come over the radio, dispatch patrollers and vehicles as needed and care for patients in the aid room. When my shift ends, I sign out to the evening hill captain. I also get a few runs in if things aren’t too busy.

W: Days usually start out the same for me—a morning meeting in our Patrol Headquarters, a quick dynamic warm up and our trail openings. After that, there’s really no predicting what the day will look like. Sometimes you’re dealing with lots of injuries, sometimes you’re out on a work project and sometimes you’re just out skiing and trying to find something that needs to get done. The only consistency there really is to the job is that you’re in the same uniform.

I imagine you have to be pretty flexible to succeed at this job. What other skills do you think are important?

C: I think it’s important to be a team player and to be able to remain calm when the situation is telling you otherwise.

W: Totally agree. I think you also need to be adaptable, capable of learning new skills and open to feedback. You’re never going to know everything, but you have to be willing to try anything even if you know you suck at something. The biggest risk is getting complacent—you have to make sure you’re never on autopilot. You need to keep your head on a swivel and always expect the unexpected.

Let’s pivot to a topic no one ever wants to talk about—injuries. What are the most common injuries you see? And where do the majority of them take place?

W: There are lots of head injuries, wrist breaks and shoulder dislocations. A lot of injuries happen on beginner trails, but that’s because of the volume of people on those trails—accidents happen everywhere. Oh, and If you're learning how to snowboard, remember to fall on your butt or your elbows—it’s better to have a bruised butt or forearms than a broken wrist. 

C: I would agree with that. There are also a lot of knee injuries. And like Warren, I see injuries all over the ski area, but definitely plenty in the terrain park.

Do most of these injuries come from beginners, intermediates or experts? 

W: Generally, the most severe injuries happen among people who are pretty good at skiing or riding, but they get into situations where they overestimate their ability, or their ability to adjust as quickly as they need to. 

So beginners tend to stay away from more advanced situations that experts typically thrive in—leaving a dangerous gray area for intermediates. How can these accidents be avoided? 

W: Know your limits. Just because there’s a foot of snow doesn’t mean you’re suddenly superman. Sometimes accidents happen because someone jumps in front of you and you’re not able to adjust quickly enough to avoid them. These types of unexpected situations can only be avoided if you’re capable of stopping yourself regardless of what happens ahead of you.

What insider advice do you wish the everyday rider knew about mountain safety?

W: Rope lines are not there to keep you from finding good snow—they’re usually there due to operating permits and the risk of lengthy and hazardous extrications. Additionally, injuries are very expensive—most people don’t think about that risk until it’s too late.

What would you say is the most challenging part of the job?

C: For me, it’s managing resources and patrollers when there are multiple calls for injured patients coming over the radio in quick succession.

W: I think the hardest part for me is dealing with bad injuries. The longer you patrol, the more you’re exposed to, and it can be emotionally taxing in ways that you don’t expect. 

It definitely seems like it can get very stressful at times…

W: Let’s just say those post-shift beers with your coworkers at the local bar really hit different after a challenging day. 

I bet. How else do you decompress after a tough day?

C: I find it useful to debrief with other patrollers the most difficult incidents of the day regarding what went well and what we could have done differently. This process helps us identify issues for management of future incidents and also opens the door for us to share the stresses that come with helping injured skiers and boarders.

W: Similar to what you said, Claire, our team does a great job of supporting each other and being open about how we’re feeling after a difficult scene or day, and there’s always someone to talk to. Also, I think getting out and skiing can be a great way to decompress—even if it’s just telling your dispatcher that you’re going out for a lap. They understand that one run by yourself or with a few friends after a tough day can really center you and make you appreciate what it is that you get to do. 

What’s the biggest impact patrolling has had on you?

W: It’s helped me become a lot more confident. You’re often faced with situations where you’re thrown into a leadership role and have to make very tough and important decisions. It’s made me a better leader, collaborator and co-worker both in uniform and out. 

What’s the most memorable moment you’ve experienced on the job?

W: The early mornings when there’s no one else out there and you feel like you have the whole mountain to yourself. Ski resorts these days rarely feel truly peaceful… but those moments when you’re out skiing a powder-filled trail with no tracks and nobody else around you are always more memorable than the last. It’s hard not to just stop and recognize how lucky you are and how incredible the job is. 

Sounds dreamy. Patrolling is a part-time gig for you both—how do your full-time jobs prepare you for patrolling?

C: As a physician assistant working in orthopedics, I spend my workdays interacting with a wide range of patients—some higher acuity than others—addressing their concerns and managing their injuries and post-op recoveries, which is also a lot of what I do while patrolling.

W: My job as an account manager at Spot makes me really appreciate the opportunities I have while patrolling. All of us at Spot work remotely, which is amazing because you get to travel and work wherever, but it also means there’s a lot of time spent alone. Whereas patrolling is highly social—you’re either with your coworkers or dealing with the public. I appreciate being able to get out and interact with guests, talk with other patrollers or just ski a run with some friends who are out on the mountain while I am. 

Skiing on the clock is a pretty sweet perk. Where’s your favorite place to ski on your days off?

W: The Pike Glades! Check it out on Instagram @ThePikeGlades.

C: Anywhere!

Okay, now let’s talk gear. What’s something you absolutely need?

C: My heated socks.

W: Good goggles and a good helmet. Can’t ski safely if you can’t see, and can’t be fully protected if your head isn’t! 

Go-to skis for patrolling?

C: For patrolling in the Midwest, I love my Head Super Joys. They’re lightweight, have a short turning radius and are very nimble.

W: Whatever pair I’m okay with damaging the most! Skis are tools, not jewels. 

Well said. Go-to snack while on the job?

C: Protein bars and almonds.

W: Like Claire, I keep protein bars on me at all times. I’ll also have oatmeal, some yogurt and anything high in calories. I lost 20 pounds my first year of patrolling because I wasn’t offsetting how many calories I was burning per day. And believe me, I did not have 20 pounds to lose—I was a skeleton! 

Warren, Claire, thanks so much for sharing your perspectives and insider advice. I hope you enjoy the last couple of weeks on the hill before the lifts stop spinning.

Looking for more tips and advice? We’ve got some great stories in the works—check back for more to come soon.

Want to chat about a Spot partnership? Collabs? The best breakfast tacos in Austin? We’d love to hear from you.

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