Photo By Tom Vannah
Does Ed Ralicki worry a lot?
The tall, lanky, mustache-sporting skier grins. Ralicki's eyes widen. He shrugs.
"Yes," he says, sounding a bit surprised at his own answer. "At times I do worry a lot."
How could he not? A 37-year veteran of the ski patrol, Ralicki is trained to anticipate almost every possible bad thing that can happen at a ski resort and try to keep it from happening.
"I'd rather stop something before it happens than wait to get the call to come scoop somebody off the hill," Ralicki tells me. He counts his blessings: thanks to innovations in ski equipment, particularly shaped skis that promote turning (and, thereby, control speed), and helmets, as well as continuous improvement in industry risk management practices, ski resorts avoid a lot more accidents today than they used to.
Still, as the sport changes, so do the challenges for the ski patrol.
Many patrols now have snowmobiles, for example, which patrollers use to cover ground quickly when providing first aid, rescue and evacuation services. "But using snowmobiles comes with risk," Ralicki says, describing a series of possible unfortunate interactions between skiers and fast-moving machines.
Having sound policies and procedures for the use of snowmobiles is only one of Ralicki's worries. He also worries about keeping his communications system infallible, allowing his team to stay in touch with each other by radio, no matter where they are-an endless challenge in the mountains even with the best of equipment. He worries about having enough first aid supplies, enough defibrillators, enough toboggans and climbing gear. He worries about scheduling and training and raising money. He worries about how he's going get the backboards back from the hospitals where they end up after injured skiers are transported off the mountain by ambulance.
Of late, one of Ralicki's biggest worries-a worry shared by many within the National Ski Patrol and the ski industry in general-is the growing difficulty of recruiting young patrollers into the fold. "Young people just aren't getting involved," he says.
Is it possible that the volunteer organizations on which the whole of the ski industry has depended for more than seven decades will gradually disappear by attrition?
As director of the ski patrol at Berkshire East Ski Resort in Charlemont, Ralicki views recruitment and training as a top priority. As the average age of patrollers, locally and nationally, increases, he spends a lot of time thinking about how to reach out to the next generation.
"We need to find a way to get them to just try it," Ralicki says, referring to young skiers and snowboarders. "Once people join and see how fun it is, how rewarding it is, very few people here leave."
Since 1938, when Charles Minot "Minnie" Dole pulled together a loosely affiliated network of volunteer patrollers from Western Massachusetts, Vermont and New York State and established the National Ski Patrol, skiers and other snow sport enthusiasts have counted on people like Ed Ralicki to provide help in emergency situations. While skiing has become safer and safer over the years, ski resorts nationally still see, according the National Ski Areas Association, more than 40 fatalities and as many near-fatal injuries each year, not to mention a steady flow of breaks, sprains, bumps and cuts.
Today the nonprofit National Ski Patrol remains a pillar of the industry, adhering to its founding creed of "Service and Safety." The organization comprises more than 28,000 members serving more than 650 patrols that, according to the NSP website (nsp.org), "work on behalf of local ski and snowboard areas to improve the overall experience for outdoor recreationalists." The vast majority of patrollers work on a volunteer basis, not only patrolling, but lending a hand in ancillary activities such as fund-raising, recruitment and training, and helping with the ongoing maintenance of trails and glades.
While many sports rely to some degree on volunteers to help organize activities, officiate contests and provide various forms of support to participants-consider, for example, the volunteers who staff water stations along a marathon route-the ski patrol is unique because of its complex, critical mission. In addition to having the requisite skiing skills, patrollers must be trained, certified and constantly re-certified in outdoor emergency medicine, rescue and evacuation.
Skiing and snowboarding aren't inherently more dangerous that other sports; they're as dangerous as you make them. People who are careful and observe the cautions laid down by men like Ralicki can participate robustly in those alpine sports for a lifetime and manage to avoid any significant mishap. But the world of skiing isn't solely or even mostly occupied by careful people who always observe the rules.
The ski patrol is more than a mountain police force and an on-call emergency service, however; since its early days, it has played a significant role in shaping the physical and cultural characteristics of North America's resorts in its efforts to promote safety and enforce area policies. And while the National Ski Patrol holds all its members to certain standards, each of its 650-plus patrols operates with a great deal of autonomy, working in cooperation with local resort management, exhibiting unique character and developing unique ways of doing things.
In the minds of many generations of skiers, the ski patrol's iconic red parkas, emblazoned with a small white cross on the front and a larger white cross on the back, inspire images of heroic, adventurous, self-reliant men and women, dedicated to serving the skiing public by enforcing the rules of safety while also participating in a sport and lifestyle populated by free spirits, rugged individualists and thrill-seekers.
The history of the ski patrol is, it turns out, also about more than the recreational and competitive sport it serves. During the Second World War, NSP founder Minnie Dole convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to establish the Army's 10th Mountain Division, using the ski patrol to screen applicants. Many of the people responsible for the establishment of ski areas in the United States served in the famed 10th Mountain Division, which played a critical role in the war.
Despite its place in history, the ski patrol has been facing a general recruiting problem for some time. In response, the NSP recently launched a visibility campaign to encourage recruitment and gain monetary support and recognition for its 75th anniversary in 2013. As part of its campaign, the NSP released a video that highlights some of the patrol's attractions: camaraderie, beautiful scenery, fresh powder turns on untracked lines.
"We really wanted to create a video that captured the fun, excitement, knowledge and bonding atmosphere that makes ski patrolling what it is," said Candace Horgan, communications director for the NSP. "Ski patrollers are needed more than ever with the increasing popularity of snow sports."
It's hard to think of a ski industry without a ski patrol, says Jon Schaefer, the general manager at Berkshire East. Schaefer says "leaders like Ed Ralicki have enabled the survival of the sport by providing their skills to the skiing public." The survival of the patrol and the survival of the industry aren't "mutually exclusive," Schaefer says: "I don't think there is an easy answer here. We just need to do a better job of attracting more folks to the industry."
While he may be worrying about protocols for the safe use of snowmobiles on the inside, Ralicki is as cool and unflappable on the outside as you'd expect of a Navy veteran who's spent more than six decades on skis, most of those as a high-level instructor and patroller.
In 1968, after serving on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, Ralicki came back to the Pioneer Valley and joined the ski school at Thunder Mountain (now Berkshire East). He joined the patrol in 1975 and has been the ski patrol director at Berkshire East since 1995. He's skied at Berkshire East for close to 50 years, starting back before the legendary Roy Schaefer, Jon Schaefer's father, bought the mountain and built it into the successful ski resort it is today.
Now 70, Ralicki moves with the athletic grace and power of a fit man half his age. He is not only respected by his team members for his leadership and experience, but for his skill and toughness as a skier.
A few years ago, Liam O'Brien, one of Berkshire East's patrollers, told me, "Ed Ralicki is one of the fittest guys on the mountain. And if you ask him, he'll tell you he wasn't really fit until he turned 50."
When I ask Ralicki about the comment, he laughs: "He means I'm one of the fittest old guys." As for not reaching his peak until he turned 50, Ralicki shrugs and says, "Nah, I was pretty much always a jock."
It is late November, a few weeks before the anticipated opening of winter season at Berkshire East. We're sitting in Ralicki's office in the ski patrol building at the base of the mountain. Ralicki has been busy coordinating some of the endless logistics involved in getting his 80-member team outfitted and organized for a new year. He is occasionally interrupted by a member of his team, each working on one of the many tasks that need to be tackled before the chairlifts start running in mid-December.
"Dee!" Ralicki shouts as one of Berkshire East's veteran patrollers enters his office, followed by her husband, also a patroller. "Mark!"
Dee and Mark Todd, Ralicki tells me upon introduction-like all of the members of the Berkshire East Ski Patrol-put in a lot of time on the mountain that doesn't involve actually patrolling the slopes on skis. Whether it's putting away the little bit of ski equipment that didn't sell at a recent ski swap held as a fundraiser for the patrol, or helping out with a building and maintenance project in one of the patrol's facilities, or helping trim trees and remove downed limbs in the glades, there's always something to do.
A patroller's life, for all the work, "is a fun life," Dee Todd tells me. "It's a great way to spend time outdoors in the winter and be part of things." She says she enjoys serving her community-"the skiing community."
When the Todds leave, Ralicki tells me he doesn't mind talking about what he does as patrol director, "but remember that this is a team." As if on cue, Norm Jacques, a longtime Berkshire East patroller who began his service at the now-closed Mt. Tom Ski Area in Holyoke, steps into Ralicki's office. Jacques is responsible for all the computers and wireless technology the ski patrol uses.
"Norm, like a lot of the patrollers who come to Berkshire East from other mountains, has become a better and better skier since he's been here," Ralicki says, with a smile. The remark is laced with a bit of pride in his status as a Berkshire East skier, and Ralicki adds to his gentle ribbing of Jacques by referring to him as a "flatlander." Jacques seems to take Ralicki's words as they were really intended-equal parts teasing and high praise.
"We're perhaps better off than most areas," Ralicki tells me, returning to the subject of recruiting new patrollers. "This is a great hill to ski and Roy and his boys have done a great job upgrading the facilities, making Berkshire East a place great skiers and riders want to be." Against the trend, Ralicki has a few really young patrollers starting at Berkshire East-"under the age of 18." He views the young recruits as an investment in the future, for sure, but not one that comes without a cost upfront. The junior patrollers will need chaperones in the early days, he says, smiling at the thought and shaking his head. The newbies will have to prove themselves.
While it's important to attract talented skiers to the patrol, he says, that's only part of it. "I don't really care that much about skiing skills," he remarks. "Thing is, we have some of the best skiers anywhere here, and that makes it harder to put people on the flatter terrain." Besides, he adds with a knowing grin, "most of the people who come here thinking they're good are soon surprised that they're not as good as they think they are."
The Berkshire East Ski Patrol is a close-knit group that thrives on friendly competition and a sense of shared values and esprit de corps. Many of today's patrollers are the children of patrollers. Walking by a row of lockers in the patrol's main facility, you see lockers marked not only with individual names, such as "Liam O'Brien," but family names, such as "Hicks Family." When Ralicki tells stories about certain members, he often notes a family legacy: "George Hicks, whose dad Frank was on the patrol, was coming down Flying Cloud one day..."
In addition to the rewards of camaraderie, there's the skiing itself. Working on a patrol has a rhythm that appeals to Ralicki, who says he never feels shortchanged on time to enjoy skiing.
"I felt shortchanged when I was on the ski school," he says, recalling the dual struggle to be a good instructor, which meant spending a lot of the day skiing far below his desired level of ability, while keeping his own technical skills sharp and improving. "On the ski patrol, we'll have already skied at least a couple of runs before we open the lifts."
Again, he credits Berkshire East and its owners with putting the quality of skiing first: "I've skied a lot of places, including out West. Yeah, they get more snow, but they also get thousands and thousands more people pounding it down. On powder days here, you'll still find fresh, untracked snow well into the afternoon."
Jon Schaefer and his three brothers, all top skiers, grew up under the watchful eyes of Ralicki and his crew. "They used to help my parents track us down," Schaefer says. "We all figured out that if dad was waiting at one lift, all you had to do was go to another lift to evade capture. The ski patrol was often tasked to track us down."
Did the Schaefer boys run the patrollers ragged?
"I have only been down in a sled once: I was eight or so and I got knocked down and out by an out-of-control skier on Flying Cloud [trail]. I remember the experience like it was yesterday," Jon Schaefer says. Like most kids, he liked to test the boundaries. "I think I was generally harassing [the patrollers] by skiing too fast. Let's just say I wasn't worried about losing my pass."
Now the man in charge of day-to-day operations, Schaefer regards Ed Ralicki and his team with respect and gratitude.
"They are loyal friends and supporters of the ski area and have seen us through some lean times," Schaefer says. "Their network into the ski world has helped us define our business to a larger customer base, and their dedication to us beyond the patrol work has enabled the mountain's survival."•