It's 8:15am. Snow safety supervisor John Millslagle's ski patrol radio crackles, a voice comes through, "30 seconds on the cornice... "
Standing near the edge of the west ridge of Mt. Bachelor's Summit Bowl he turns toward me and shouts over the noise of the wind, "You're going to want to plug your ears and open your mouth... it's going to be pretty loud."
It's a cold and windy 15-degree blue bird morning on the summit. It's been snowing for a few days and the summit has been closed. Millslagle, a 17-year Mt. Bachelor patrol veteran and his patrol partner, Simca Lachman, cover their ears. Along the ridge and across the bowl, the two other pairs of patrollers do the same.
Twenty minutes earlier, we were in the tight confines of the summit ski patrol station with enough explosives to level a house. With charges on the table, the team of seven patrollers gathered around to build their "bombs." Like something out of an action movie, each patroller connects wires and fuses to their charges clustered on the table. But the mood is light, patrollers joke with one another and share stories while they work.
Most of the 10 charges they'll be throwing weigh only two pounds, but Millslagle later tells me that each one is enough to blow a crater roughly eight feet wide and four feet deep in the snow. "You're not going to survive it if it's in your hand," he says.
"Let's go throw some bombs," a patroller shouts excitedly as we leave the patrol station to hike to the summit. I walk by another patroller testing everyone's avalanche beacons. "You're still alive" he assures as the beacon beeps.
Now standing on the ridge, I wonder if 20 seconds have passed and if they they'll count down from 10. It's still 45 minutes before the mountain is open to the public. Below us, cars are already pulling into the West Village parking lot. To the east the early morning sun is shining. Then a cloud of smoke and snow shoots up from below the cornice across the bowl from us. It's immediately followed by the noise of the blast. A few seconds pass, another charge goes off. The patrollers observe. The slope holds. No slide.
The three pairs of patrollers then move to their next blasting sites, the seventh member of the team is on standby to assist. As we ski along the ridge to the first place where John and his partner will be throwing a charge on a line over the edge of the ridge, Millslagle looks at me with a smile. "Not a bad way to start the day," he says.
But really, the patrol team's day started hours earlier. For Millslagle, the day starts around 4:30 a.m. with calls from snow-cat drivers grooming the mountain. They often even call on his days off when they should be calling the on-duty supervisor. Mainly they call to brief him on snow conditions they are seeing so he can determine a course of action for opening the mountain. But sometimes Millslagle says, they call just to chat - at 4:30 a.m.
On days that are clear enough to open the summit, the patrol team meets to car pool from town at 6:15 in the morning. Under moonlight with stars still shinning, they head to the mountain for a 6:45 briefing. As dawn breaks and with avalanche dogs in tote, the team loads onto the Pine Marten chairlift. By 7 o'clock they are heading toward the summit patrol station to start their 10-hour shift. They stop at the top of the Pine Martin chair ski patrol dispatch to leave the dogs on standby, "just in case," Millslagle says.
As we move along the summit ridge, the team has more success blasting the bowl. Two patrollers cheer as their charge breaks loose the biggest slide of the morning. The slide runs for roughly a hundred yards.
"That wasn't that big," says Millslagle. He mentions that one of the largest natural avalanches on Mt. Bachelor happened in December of 2004. That slide occurred overnight during a big snowfall. It slid from the summit halfway down the mountain, all the way down to the beginning of Marshmallow run near the Sunrise chair, taking out trees in its path.
After throwing the remaining charges, members of the team make ski cuts across the top of the far side of the ridge to manually test the integrity of the slope before dropping in to ski the bowl. The slope holds and they head back to the summit chair.
But ski patroller Betsy Norsen assures that they do everything they can to open summit as soon as possible, and any delays are based on safety concerns or maintenance issues. "No one's out there harvesting powder. The public gets way more laps than we do." She says.
Generally, opening the summit comes down to a few primary concerns. First, they need enough visibility to safely blast avalanches or conduct a rescue if need be, and second, they need wind gusts below 50mph to safely operate the lift. "If it's doable, we'll do it," says Norsen.
By 9:15, the lift is fixed and patrollers arrive at the summit patrol station. Since the whole mountain is accessible from that station, at least three ski patrol members are required to be there on standby at all times. Once they arrive, the summit is cleared to open.
As I consider stopping to warm my toes from the early morning hours spent on the summit, patroller Justin Litzer pokes his head into the patrol station, "If you want a day in the life let's go... ." And we're off down the backside headed toward Northwest chair. "Nice day to be at the office," Litzer says as we carve some fresh turns.
But from there it's all work for the next eight hours. "There's no shortage of things to do," says Tyler Prinz. Patrollers are on duty from open till close. On busy days the work can be nonstop. They are always either on standby at a patrol station or on the slopes patrolling and ready to respond to a call or assist a guest with a question. The long day passes quickly for them.
But it's clearly not all throwing bombs, free skiing and rescuing. They cover everything from the less thrilling slope safety maintenance, posting signs, putting up fencing and pads, to assisting guests with a wide range of issues. Many of the calls are minor things, twisted knees, hurt wrists, a guest who's found himself on a slope above their ability level. Still, patrollers say there is a thrill to getting a call and not knowing what to expect. "I love that every day I come to work it's something different," Millslagle says.
Surprisingly, according to patrollers, no more injuries occur in the trick parks than anywhere else on the mountain.
Almost immediately, a plan goes in to action. Soon after, a patroller sweeping the west catch boundary cat-track on the backside of the mountain calls in. "800 we have tracks going out of the catch at marker 24."
Within minutes of the initial call, ski patrol already knows that the lost snowboarder has crossed the ski area boundary leading to flat unskiable terrain that will impede his progress and make for a tough hike. Because of the numbered sign posts everyone knows exactly where the snowboarder went. A patroller on snowmobile is dispatched to run an outer loop and see if the missing boarder is far enough out to necessitate a Deschutes County Search and Rescue operation. No tracks are found, meaning the boarder is not far from the ski area boundary. Shortly before patrollers decide to follow the missing boarder's tracks, or "drop his line," another call comes over the radio. "800 we got him. He's doing fine, he hiked back." The whole incident is resolved within a half hour.
By 4:45, the mountain is closed. With a long day now behind them, the patrollers debrief, make plans to meet for drinks and get ready to start all over again tomorrow morning.
"We're a tight crew. We're all friends off the mountain," Betsy Norsen says.
Check tsweekly.com to see video from the author's day on the mountain with our local patrollers.