Words by Alison Perry
Photo courtesy of National Ski Patrol
There’s a bomb between my legs. It’s 7:30 am, the wind is unfurling its frantic tentacles along the ridgeline I’m standing on with Devon, hurling little blasts of snow in my not covered enough face and there’s a bomb between my legs.
The bomb is not active, but as soon as I’m done fumbling with numb fingers and crimpers, placing and seating two ignitor caps on the two fuses I’m about to trim, mittens gripped in my teeth, the bomb between my legs will be live. Live enough to cause an avalanche, live enough to blow up any number of giant rocks between my partner and I and the bottom of the slope we’re testing and live enough to turn me into chunky pink mist if I make a mistake.
Ten years ago, on this very day, I had just graduated law school; clomped across a stage in my sensible but edgy Prada pumps and pencil skirt, shook hands with the dean, while reaching for my diploma and thought about the corner office I would certainly be occupying some time in the next decade.
In that decade: I passed the bar exam, said yes to marriage and then broke off the engagement, got hired at a law firm and broke off the employment, moved back to NYC where I languished in an office in a hospital, moved to Colorado, taught myself to ski again and then broke up with my whole life. So here I am, standing on Founder’s Ridge in Colorado at Arapahoe Basin, getting tossed around by the weather, electrified with adrenaline of the particular sort that comes along with holding an actual bomb, listening to Devon walk me through exactly what to do with said actual bomb.
Being a ski patroller was never a job I thought of as within any kind of realm of possibility. I was a law student who was going to become a lawyer. I was going to get married and have a house and a car and never have to be in debt. Maybe we’d have one kid, maybe two. Maybe one dog, maybe two. Maybe I’d become a partner at a firm or move my way up the defense lawyer food chain and eventually defend death penalty clients. That was my dream.
While enmeshing myself deeper and deeper into skiing’s cultural underbelly, learning how to speak the language of skiing with my body and my head, I realized that being a weekend warrior wasn’t enough. Skiing, using my body, being outside: those things quieted the anxiety in my head; quelled the restlessness; vanquished the deflated feeling of various jobs in various indoor spaces, bored, unfulfilled, challenging in the ways of simply trying to rationalize how I was making any kind of different to anyone at all. Slinging retail items or being a glorified errand girl, shockingly, did not come with a sense of pride.
I watched the patrollers at the mountains I taught myself to ski on and I felt the gnaw of envy nipping at my soul. They get to ski every day. They get to help people beyond assisting them in picking out a great jacket and the best pair of skis. They made the thing they loved the thing they do. I wanted that.
As it turns out, you don’t have to be a Warren Miller movie caliber shredder to become a ski patroller. You just have to want it and you have to commit. And I discovered, much to my surprise, that I wanted it badly enough to commit. What is badly enough? Well, enough to spend my meager life’s savings at the time on an Outdoor Emergency Care Technician class and certificate. Enough to push myself out the door to ski the worst conditions I could find on days everyone was “over it.” Over and over again. Frostnip on my face, vertigo, rocks, ice, fear, injuries, humiliation under the lift. Every second I Could.
When I finally got the job at the Basin, I figured the hardest part was behind me.
Being a woman on ski patrol is tough, physically and mentally. I’m a 37-year-old single woman, living with four twenty-somethings, often pulled out of sleep by the slow thump of a biological clock I never heard ticking before. Or the loud thump of my roommates acting their age above my bedroom when I’m trying to sleep at 9 p.m. because morning meeting is at 7:45 at the top of the mountain.
Marriage seems like a pipe dream reserved for real adults who stay in the same place long enough to put down roots. Financial security has become a joke. I don’t want a credit card. I simply can’t live without one.
I ask myself sometimes, terrified of the answer, if I’ll look back when I’m in my mid-forties, still single perhaps, childless, renting a room, and realize I made a mistake.
What if I’ve traded what is really important for something that was less so?
And that’s only the lifestyle aspect.
In this job, I knew nothing when I came to work the first day. I’d always been used to being the smart one, the one getting all the right answers, the under-the-radar chick who magically appeared on the Dean’s List despite refusing to participate in the daily who-gets-the-least-sleep bragging competition. I used to know stuff.
Turns out teaching the brain is a lot easier than teaching the body. Ski patrolling is not about memorizing or regurgitating information. There’s some of that, sure, but patrolling is about teaching your body how to do ten things at once, in my case ten things I’m not even good at when trying one at a time: ski this double black expert line. Now ski it when it’s frozen. Ski it when the sky is the same color as the ground and the absence of trees makes it impossible to see or understand what direction you’re going in or even if you’re going up or down. Now lose your poles. Drop the temperature to a wind chill of - 20 and forget about feeling your feet or your hands. Teach your hands to tie this knot.
When they’re numb. When the wind is trying to rip the rope out of your hands and batter you right off a ridge.
Pick up a snow fence that is so heavy you can barely get it off the ground or better yet a stack of bamboo you must balance on your shoulder that is so heavy you can barely raise it as high as your shoulder. Now drop off this cornice and ski with whatever heavy thing you need to get your project done that must get done now, not when the weather or the visibility gets better. Do your project. When you’re done, go sit on the chairlift, thank god you can go warm up now because who even knew it was possible to sweat so much when it was this cold and who knew how much colder being damp under your endless layers could make you.
There’s coffee up at PHQ. And food.
The radio squawks to life while you’re on the lift. Someone’s hurt. You’re closest. No more coffee for you just yet. Ignore the two throbbing stumps inside your boots, those things that used to be your feet.
That thing you’re terrified of? Go do it.
Can’t lift as much as the guys? Get stronger or figure out a system.
In pain? Harden up.
Put the bomb between your legs and light the fuse.
Well? Is it worth it?
These ruminations pitter-patter through my brain as I sprawl on the Zuma chairlift after sweeps, toasting in the yolky spring sunlight, and childless, broke, tired, single me actually feels lucky.
Allison Perry is a ski patroller in Colorado and writes an advice column for the Telluride Watch. Here, she tackles the age-old question of whether it's worth it.