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ABOVE AND BEYOND
HOLIDAY VALLEY PATROL MEMBERS WILL MOVE MOUNTAINS TO HELP SKIERS

This certainly fell outside a ski patroller's normal duties.

"I was heading uphill on a snowmobile when a streaking skier went by me," Jim Decker, a member of the Holiday Valley Ski Patrol, recalled of an evening two years ago. "I was near the bottom of the hill and he stopped 100 yards below me, so I called the situation in on my radio."

Decker surmised that after "perhaps a few too many drinks" the young male had accepted a challenge from his friends.

"A buddy carried his clothes down and was to meet him, but the buddy skied away leaving him at the bottom."

Alerted by Decker's call, another ski patroller came and fingered the cheeky skier, who was all undressed with no place to go.

"He was arrested and paid some sort of fine," Decker said. "He seemed to be more upset with his buddy for leaving him than he was embarrassed."

Collaring this young man is not among the reasons the Holiday Valley Ski Patrol was named the NSP Outstanding Large Area Alpine Ski Patrol for 2001-2002.

The award is based on training levels, leadership, accomplishments over the last four years, safety promotion and community service. It usually goes to one representing a much larger resort.

Holiday Valley won because it has men and women who, like Decker, give their time beyond patrolling the slopes of their home ski area.

Decker is the Western New York regional director of the ski patrol, a position he was elected to by other patrol representatives. He gives an average of five hours per week to regional business in addition to his two shifts at Holiday Valley.

Holiday Valley has three full-time and six part-time paid patrollers who cover the Monday through Friday daylight shifts. Volunteers cover the other hours, working either eight-hour weekend shifts or five-hour evening shifts.

Randy McNeil serves as the Eastern Division Ski and Toboggan (S&T) leader. He trains the 180 division trainers who teach patrollers how to get injured people onto a toboggan and off of a hill.

Each Thursday during ski season, he drives the 2 1/4 hours from his home in Concord, Ohio, to Holiday Valley. He works that evening's shift and then a Friday day shift. Many weekends, he then heads for Maine or Vermont to run a training event. Those last all day Saturday and half of Sunday.

Then he heads home, sometimes spending the night in Ellicottville before commuting back to the manufacturing and industrial products distribution company that he runs. He puts 40,000 miles per year on his car.

"Patrolling is the most rewarding thing I've done," McNeil said. "I find it as a way to enjoy a sport I've done all my life, as a way to give back to the sport."

He came to Holiday Valley on vacation and was going to give up patrolling after eight years. Instead he joined the team in Ellicottville and has been there for 17 years.

David Johe, an orthopedic surgeon from St. Mary's, Pa., is the national medical director, a position to which the chairman of the board of directors appointed him. He's in charge of the committee that sets policy for national patrols for pre-hospital care in the ski patrol environment.

He's also the co-editor of "Outdoor Emergency Care," a patroller's textbook for first aid training that came out two months ago. All medical education goes through him, although he has a committee of 10 to 12 doctors, all patrollers, who consult with him.

"It's fun. If it wasn't fun I wouldn't do it," he said.

Some of the work they do is deadly serious. Two years ago, Holiday Valley received a national safety award because it had an accident rate that was 25 percent below the national average. But, Dr. Johe said, "accidents do happen."

Ski resorts don't like talking about injuries because they reflect badly on their business. Patrollers don't like to talk about them because of concerns over patient privacy and over possible legal actions that are ongoing.

"We do deal with accidents that are severe enough to call in Mercy Flight (from Olean and Buffalo)," Decker said. Training is rigorous for ski patrollers at any area.

At Holiday Valley, candidates go through an 80-hour first aid course inside and then, once the area opens, they do three hours of training a week for five or six weeks in the snow. Then they get tested. Next they get ski and toboggan instruction twice a week for three hours each for two months.

After the first season, candidates become provisional patrollers who get paired with a mentor for a year. The third year, they become full-fledged members. They still aren't finished.

Refresher courses include topics such as high-angle rescue, risk management, customer service, EMS helicopter ground school, and ACL-injury avoidance. Each year, they must do one lift evacuation practice despite the fact that lift technology has made evacuations almost a thing of the past.

"We are overtrained for what we face; we do a great deal of scenario practice," patroller Trish Beagle said.

Six members of the patrol have been awarded the Purple Merit Star for saving a life -- doctors must certify that they prevented a death -- on duty or off.

Jerry Spindler, a plumber from Bradford, Pa., had just arrived in the patrol room two years ago when the phone rang. A 72-year-old bus driver from Punxsutawney, Pa., had dropped off his school kids and climbed a huge pile of snow en route to the maintenance break room to wait out the evening. He sat on a couch and went into cardiac arrest.

Spindler, who hadn't changed into his ski equipment, drove his car to the break room while another patroller, Tim Crissman of Bradford, brought over medical equipment on a snowmobile.

Spindler said he dragged the man onto to the floor and, with the help of a young woman who was filling out a job application in the next room (she got hired), initiated CPR.

A paramedic who happened to be driving by the resort pulled in and shocked the man with an automatic electric defibrillator. The man's heart started, Spindler helped put him in an ambulance and off the man went.

Spindler inquired about the man at a recent high school football game and heard he was still living but no longer driving a bus.

Dana Moore of Buffalo is a welder at Delphi who joined the ski patrol after being moved to a day shift. He had a situation hit closer to home on a February cruise with his fiancee to the Eastern Caribbean.

"We had just come back from a day trip (on one of the islands) -- she picked up some fruit on the walk back -- and she got a piece of pineapple caught in her throat," Moore said. "My heart just started pumping when it happened."

Using the Heimlich maneuver he had learned as part of his first-year first aid training, he squeezed her twice. The piece of pineapple flew about five feet away from her, and she recovered.

"All the training I've been through here has been a wonder," the still engaged Moore said.

Jim Griffin, the former mayor of Olean, was at a Republican party fund-raiser when a woman went into cardiac arrest.

Griffin, with the help of another patroller named Jeff Burgess, started CPR immediately.

"Minutes make a huge difference (in recovery)," Griffin said. "She regained consciousness before arriving at the hospital. I'm happy to have had the training and was there at the right time.

"The woman lived another six or seven years."

Ironically, he got a lifesaving award from President Clinton.

Life is usually more mundane for patrollers. They pick up new skiers and snowboarders at the top of the hill and escort them down, then point them to the beginner areas or to the appropriate lessons. Sometimes they help someone who asks them to "fix my ski." Sometimes they reassure a frightened child that he or she hasn't suffered a grievous injury in a fall.

"When someone has a question, they look for a red jacket," Dr. Johe said.

At the 10:30 p.m. closing time, patrollers do a sweep of the area to make sure no one's still on the hill. They check the warming hut to roust out any teens who are staying warm, and check the children's adventure area.

Sometimes, just as they are settling down for a cold one, the call goes out that someone is unaccounted for. There is a protocol to follow as the patrollers fan out across the area's 52 trails. They check the woods. Most often, the missing are found in the Burger King across the road. One Friday night, the patrol searched until midnight before finding a pre-teen child playing in the snow behind the condominiums.

The real strength of the patrol is its experience, loyalty and diversity. Its members have served an average of 17 years; the national average is four years. Many have brought their children on board.

"Teachers, farmers, engineers and business owners bring varied perspectives and skills" to the patrol, director Bill Marx said. This comes in handy when equipment needs to be designed or built.

Members support the Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program, named for the late Bill Lounsbury, who continued to patrol even after losing a leg to cancer. Last year they raised $7,000 to support Holiday Valley Olympians and $6,000 for Hospice Buffalo.

They also raised $4,000 for a member whose wife was critically burned in a fire in his barn. This is not surprising, given those members often feel as if they are part of a family.

That feeling has contributed to the patrol's ability to attract new people and keep them.

"It's tough to create a long-term culture of success but the patrol has done just that," Holiday Valley President Dennis Eshbaugh told Ski Patrol magazine.

The patrol's award proves it.
e-mail: fdoyle@buffnews.com

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