On a sunny morning this February at Park City, I stepped into a gondola with three male skiers, a twentysomething and two middle-aged guys. (Before I began working on this story, in the fall, Vail comped me a media Epic Pass. I didn’t use it while reporting this piece and instead paid $217 for a lift ticket.)
“I was thinking about working here on the mountain next year,” said the twentysomething as we ascended.
“You could hook up with these guys, ski patrollers,” one of the others replied in a New Jersey accent as he pointed to a group of ski instructors. “Make a little money to pay the bills, buy a little booze. Not bad, right?”
The patroller’s union voted to accept the new contract by just 51 percent. Tommy got a good-sized raise, to $22 an hour, and now made a living wage for one of two working parents with two kids. But he worried that inflation would catch right up. (Indeed, his living wage hit $23.69 this summer.) Even meeting that threshold means he can only just cover basic needs like food, shelter, transportation, and health care—there’s no cushion for savings, seasonality, or unforeseen expenses, like when Tommy’s white 2008 Toyota Tundra, which he purchased with 120,000 miles on it in 2018, breaks down, as it often does.
We’ve long accepted that ski resorts—and other outdoor employers, like mountain and river outfitters—pay the low wages they do by supplementing employees with a dreamy lifestyle. But as housing prices in mountain communities have skyrocketed, workers say this barter is outdated. “The sentiment of getting paid in fun is a thing of the past,” says Eric Andersen, a Park City patroller and member of the union’s negotiating team. Patrollers in particular have responded to the consolidation of the ski industry and the rising cost of living in resort towns by unionizing to demand better wages: since 2019, patrols at Breckenridge and Purgatory in Colorado, Stevens Pass in Washington, and Big Sky in Montana have all organized, following in the footsteps of unionized Colorado patrols like Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat, and Telluride.
I met Tommy at the patrol shack where he and his team were stationed for a two-week rotation. Terrain maps, backboards, bamboo poles, and other odds and ends hung on the wood-paneled walls; in a corner, a gas stove heated the room and the guys’ lunches, which were placed directly on the hot metal grill. (Like most patrols, this one is male dominated, at a ratio of 70/30.) On a whiteboard, someone had scrawled current conditions: “Snow is super fast/compact but turning is for the weak so don’t.”
Tommy pointed to the irony that his employee ski pass gave him access to any Vail resort, but he couldn’t afford a ski vacation: not the gas to get there, the hotel to stay in, or the ski lessons for his kids. Noting a recent $118 million acquisition by Vail, he said, “It’s like, what about the people who make all this possible?”
It was a rare quiet day, but the team didn’t fully relax, since they knew a call could come at any moment. From time to time, patrollers left to run errands or practice avalanche-beacon search drills. Otherwise, they alternated between bouts of brainy banter and comfortable silence. A baby-faced patroller named Ryan, who had a wisp of a blond mustache, read a self-help book about how to have a growth mindset.
Patrollers are known for their close bonds and camaraderie; core to the profession is the idea that “patrol is family.” Garry Jordan, the Park City patrol union’s representative at the Communication Workers of America, told me that when the CWA brings in new unions in other industries, it teaches them the union concept of solidarity. But “the thing about ski patrol is, the union didn’t have to teach them,” he said. “They know that if they don’t look out for each other, they die.”
All of the guys on Tommy’s team, except for one, lived outside Park City, where the average home value rose 40 percent year over year to $1.5 million in February. Many of the patrollers reside in Salt Lake City, an option they acknowledge they are fortunate to have. But it also involves a 30-minute commute that can become twice as long when it snows, and requires them to own snow-capable vehicles and pay for the fuel such rigs guzzle. At the time, Tommy spent roughly $70 to $80 a week in gas, a figure that, depending on price fluctuations, will likely be higher this season.
On a typical day, patrol clocks in at 7:30 A.M. Before guests arrive, they head out on their opening runs, marking hazards, roping off terrain, and skiing or walking trails with questionable coverage to see if they are safe to open. Once the chairs are spinning, calls start coming in. They can be bizarre, like the time a snowboarder got mowed down by a moose near the bottom of a lift. More often they’re wrecks, like last week when an older skier flew off a trail, down a steep embankment with tight trees, and had to be belayed out on a backboard by several patrollers.
The Outdoor Emergency Care certification all Park City patrollers must obtain takes about 100 hours to complete, and while it focuses more on outdoor medical issues like hypothermia or altitude sickness than an EMT program does, ultimately a patroller’s job as a first responder is similar to that of an EMT: to “package” and transport injured patients. (Unfortunately, neither profession pays particularly well—the median wage for EMTs and paramedics in the U.S. was $17.76 an hour in 2021.) One of the more stressful aspects of being a rookie patroller, said union co-business manager and fourth-year patroller Lee Moriarty, is not knowing how serious the injury is that you might be skiing down to. During her rookie year, she assisted on a call where a man was coding, meaning he didn’t have a heartbeat. Fellow patrollers performed CPR until the fire department arrived and took over, and the man survived. When I said it sounded like her colleagues saved his life, Moriarty hedged. “I hope so,” she said. Or maybe he got lucky, she proposed, because he coded in an area where people could respond quickly.
This self-effacing attitude seems to be culturally ingrained within patrol, where many are reluctant to extol successful rescues. But even if they don’t like to talk about it, ski patrollers save lives. From July 2019 to March 2022, the National Ski Patrol, the governing body that oversees training and certification for most U.S. patrols, issued 126 purple merit stars to patrollers nationwide. Each of these represented an emergency scenario, verified by a medical doctor, in which a patient would have died without on-mountain intervention.
But sometimes there’s nothing anyone can do. When avalanche accidents occur in the backcountry outside Park City’s boundaries, patrollers often assist with search and rescue. Years ago a man was buried after he and his partner left the resort to ski out of bounds. While his colleagues searched for the missing man, Tommy escorted the survivor, who was distraught, to the base of the mountain. The snowy walk was a long ten minutes. “I knew that their ski partner was not going to be recovered alive,” he remembers now. But obviously, he couldn’t say that at the time.
He was in the LZ, the landing zone, when a helicopter flew in with the body. He watched as rescuers moved it into the coroner’s van. “I probably will never have a day I don’t think about that,” he said.