Adventures in Uncertain Times

Adventures in Uncertain Times
by Allison Perry

On Sunday, March 15th, I walked into the Patrol Room for morning meeting unsure of only one thing: whether or not we were booting up or not. Pip, our patrol director arrived when there were a handful of us milling about. 

"Good morning! What are you waiting for, get dressed!"

The force of the collective sigh in the room could have blown up an entire bundle of balloons. Normalcy was restored.

That morning we were informed that the Governor of Colorado had ordered all ski areas in the state to close for at least a week. We were all given a copy of the executive order. As we read in silence I found myself scanning the page for verbiage guaranteeing this was just a little glitch; a temporary measure to ensure that we could all return to our daily jobs, our daily lives and, thus, our built-in daily way of viewing the world in just over a week.

I left work that day at around 2 p.m. expecting to return after my weekend to work five days of in-limbo projects until we could just start patrolling again in a week, once normalcy was restored. There's that word again: normalcy. 

The next day I, along with the rest of Loveland Ski Patrol and countless other patrollers throughout the state of Colorado, was informed not only that we were shut down for the season, but that tear-down was canceled and we should stay tuned for information about what kind of payment we would all receive. Just like that, the season ended, unemployed, normalcy vanquished. I didn't know it then, that normalcy, the mundane, even the boring, could become such a dragon to chase. Like a drug we all didn't know we were addicted to.  

If you had asked me how I might react to this if it were to happen even three weeks ago I'm sure I would have said "anger, panic, frustration, sadness." And to be sure, some kind of amalgamation of the lite version of those emotions did and does continue to churn in the nether-regions of my brain, but almost like I'm processing someone else's thoughts from afar. What I mostly felt when the almost-worst-case-scenario actually occurred was nothing. The decision was so, utterly out of my hands, anyone's hands, and had so little to do with any of us it felt almost absurd to get angry or upset. At least in the beginning.

I'm not sure how other patrollers have been coping. It is odd to be in a physical, outdoor job for weeks on end and then, all of a sudden, not only stop doing that job, but be instructed to spend as much time on the couch as humanely possible, as isolated and alone as possible, all while wallowing in an endless void of total uncertainty. Patrolling is a social job and the glue that holds us all together and keeps us coming back like flies to flypaper, no matter how little money we make, how many injuries we sustain, how many days we spend in weather so severe and sometime frightening that we all wonder what on Earth is wrong with us, is the camaraderie. This social distancing and completely sudden imposition of unemployment is particularly tough on patrollers because not only are we used to skiing all day most days, we are used to being around each other and relying on each other to diffuse situations, to lean on, to understand each other, to laugh. I took the news that tear-down day was canceled harder than news of my employment and social life being canceled. Yesterday I took my boot off after backcountry adventure number six and started massaging my foot and found myself missing Paul's voice yelling across the room to me "Alli,, I swear, you have your boots off more often than you have them on." 

So how are we supposed to cope with this? I feel like my family all left town and I never got to say so long. I already miss riding chairlifts all day, running merciless toboggan laps in the steeps, screaming into the wind because I just want to it to stop, laughing about the fact I can't see five feet in front of my face during a whiteout, sweeps, and coming home so exhausted I can't even make dinner, slam a yogurt and some goldfish and fall asleep at 8:19 p.m. while watching Fleabag or Narcos. 

As with any s*it-sandwich, I find it is essential to dig around to find the silver linings. And aside from the uptick, we've all probably experienced in our touring activity, some of the ones I've found have been surprising. So without further adieu, I present a list of silver linings for ski patrollers, but also for anyone who now finds themselves in the throes of unemployment, social distancing, grappling with heeding the CAIC's warning to stay mellow and safe, allergic to the thought of becoming some kind of part-time couch potato germaphobe who can't even hang out with their friends anymore. 

  1. The moral dilemma for all of us who are embracing earning our turns, but have been implored by the CAIC and the government not to ski in terrain (or do anything) that is even remotely likely to seriously injure us for fear of overburdening an already wrung-thin emergency response and medical infrastructure. We now have an ocean of time to check off all the big lines we wanted to ski in the backcountry and, guess what: it's big line season and it just snowed. But we are supposed to play it safe enough to all-but guarantee none of us will suffer injuries requiring hospitalization? To me this means skiing low angle, mellow, butt-wiggling fields and keeping approaches Class 2. Goodbye Snoopy's Collar, farewell Shit-for-Brains, adios North Chute, Peak 1, Christo Couloir, see you next season Skyscraper, if I'm still alive. Do I think I'll get hurt on these lines, or caught in a slide? Nope. I'm a relatively cautious skier and I've skied many of these lines before, some in terrifying conditions. Do I want to take even the tiniest risk that I'll bury a tip and take a multi-thousand-foot tomahawk, or that I smoke a rock and end up being airlifted due to a broken femur? Hell no. On a personal level, I don't want to get within 1000 feet of an ER unless I'm working and have all the PPE a gal livin' in a small mountain town during the time of Covid could possibly dream of. So I skin fast enough to get my heart rate up even when I don't lift my heel risers the whole time. And I wiggle down the same mellow zones with my dog hopping along behind, or sometimes even ahead of me. And it has been...surprisingly and unbelievably nice. To ski every day and never have to worry about getting hurt? To have my dog with me every single day, running his little heart out? To be able to ski with friends who aren't into big lines and don't have a ton of experience but like just getting outside, and then to be able to have a conversation the entire time we are skinning. To not worry about being fast or sprinting across slide paths one by one, no ropes, minimal exposure: it has been the proverbial deep breath I think I've been needing for years. There is no pressure. And I have a newfound appreciation for enjoying small things and for creating challenges in ways that don't involve pushing through fear or pain, just going faster, for longer or doing more laps. My dog is now Covid-19's number one fan. 
  1. If any of my bosses are reading this I am sorry and I'm totally lying? Early this season I injured my back. I still have no idea what exactly the injury was, but I was on restricted duty for about 2.5 weeks, awakened at all hours of the night by a sharp knife of pain that wouldn't let me go back to sleep until 800 mg of Ibuprofen kicked in again, my training was set back considerably and although I was back to full strength after about 2.5 weeks my back still hurts where it was injured far more than it ever has and I spend way too much time in the bath, a place I vehemently hate. We are all accustomed to working with a veritable buffet of chronic, acute, and somewhere in the middle injuries. In addition to my back, I've been dealing with lasting nerve damage in my feet, Chilblains and Raynauds syndrome and this year my right foot reached a staggering level of swollen, peeling, discolored, even bleeding nastiness that all I could do was try not to cry, take a ton of ibuprofen, weather the boots-off jokes and sometimes flat out insults and gross people out with photos. I am also relatively certain I skied on a torn meniscus for about six weeks. This is not meant to be a long complaint or an entry into the who-is-the-hardcorest club. Although my M.O. is "suck it up and deal" and managed to still love coming to work, the combination of all the crap this season had me wondering, for the first time even, if I was going to make it until Mid-May without asking for a week working in Chachos and socks in the Aid Room. I have had many physicians tell me my feet and my knees are going to end my career sooner rather than later. I disagree. But this season I was starting to wonder what measures, including an eventual year off and lots of different therapies, would be necessary to ensure a long future as a patroller. The odd timing of this Pandemic has given me time to nurse my injuries and it has taken less than two weeks to feel like a new person. I fully expect that these extra and completely un-requested months off of ski patrolling, as I enter my fifth season on patrol next winter, will have long-lasting beneficial effects, especially as boredom has finally forced me into doing yoga and strength training from home. I do not think that it is a coincidence I have only begun to devote time to these things concurrently with ski areas being shut down and a government order to stay home and stop being social. Perhaps we all sometimes need a forced stint of healing. And perhaps, for me, but not only me, the early ending of this season can also be an opportunity to fix the things that hurt enough to make them really, truly, better.
  1. Yesterday my snow safety director emailed my patrol about a growing need for EMTs in the state. I know not all of us are EMTs, and fewer have IV certifications, but for those of us who have both these certs, we are not only being called upon to help our community in probably the most important way we ever will in our entire lives, we are lucky enough to, quite frankly, get a crack at securing employment for hospitals and ambulance services that likely wouldn't have considered "someone with only ski patrol experience" last month. We also have a chance at being employed again and of receiving regular paychecks soon, which is an absolute gift given the predicament of so many people in our field and in other fields who simply have to sit and wait until it is safe to go back to work again. I am grateful that in the course of becoming a patroller I learned skills that I can now use in a very tangible and meaningful way to better myself and my situation and to help my community. 
  1. When we all get to sit on a lift next, in uniform, together at whatever ski hill we work at: just imagine. Chills. 

Stay safe and healthy my friends. And check in on your mates. Even the weird ones. We are all family, whether we chose each other or not. 

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