Word of the lost skier reached Craig Klascius just as he was finishing his shift at Skibowl’s rescue center in western Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Details were vague: A woman had gone missing somewhere in a 300-acre stretch of particularly rugged terrain known as the Outback. It was about 2 p.m. on a Saturday in early March. Sunset and a dramatic drop in temperature were just a few hours away.
Klascius and a Mount Hood Ski Patrol colleague left immediately. A second ski patrol group joined them, and then a third, as their sweeps across the Outback failed to turn up any sign of the woman. Her panicked fiancé – a novice skier unable to keep up after they headed down the steep, ungroomed series of runs – had no clue where she had gone.
As Klascius was making his second pass though the Outback, a ski patroller in the rescue center started to zero in on the lost woman’s location based on the GPS coordinates of her cellphone signal. As a result, Klascius’ team ended up at the top of a massive hundred-foot cliff. Another group of searchers ended up at the bottom. But neither team could locate the missing skier, until they realized that she had gone over the cliff – and was stuck somewhere between them.
“It took a minute to realize the patient was wedged between two trees about 50 feet from the bottom of the cliff,” says Klascius, an Iraq war veteran, Legionnaire and longtime ski patrol volunteer.
He became the gear sherpa, making trips to the rescue center for a cervical collar, a rope long enough to reach the woman and the bottom of the cliff, and other equipment. Two other ski patrollers rappelled halfway down the cliff – one to assess the woman’s condition, another to bring first-aid supplies and tree-trimming tools. Over the next four hours, the woman was strapped to one of the patrollers, sawed out of the tree, then lowered to a backboard and sled. As she began the precarious journey to a waiting ambulance in the dark, Klascius and another ski patroller gathered the remaining gear and skied out on a double black diamond run without headlamps or flashlights.
“That was probably one of the most difficult rescues I’ve ever been a part of,” Klascius says. Yet this sort of grueling day on the slopes is exactly what he signed up for. It has helped him transition back to civilian life after 10 years in the military and three deployments – one with the Army, one with the National Guard and one as a private contractor – and deal with the lingering effects of a grenade and two IED attacks.
“It’s something that really helps fill my heart from the losses I have seen,” he continues. “This will be a lifetime thing for me.”
FAMILY ATMOSPHERE Because his father was on the Mount Hood Ski Patrol, Klascius took to the slopes when he was 2. He was part of a state champion ski racing team at Sandy High School and joined the National Ski Patrol while attending West Point. He is one of about 50 veteran volunteers on the Mount Hood Ski Patrol, the oldest continuously operating ski patrol west of the Mississippi. Their ranks include everyone from active-duty National Guard to Guard veteran Buzz Bowman, who has volunteered with the ski patrol for more than 70 years. Some, like Navy veteran Matt Gerling, have been skiing almost since they started walking. Others, including Marine Corps veteran Cleo Howell, took up the sport when they went to college on the GI Bill. Collectively, they handle about 1,000 incidents a year at the four ski areas in Mount Hood National Forest, east of Portland, Ore., including mountain-biking mishaps and other summer accidents.
All of them became involved because they want to give back to their community and relish the opportunity to work on a team. Few have had as dramatic an introduction to the work as Ed McNamara.
Soon after McNamara’s wife persuaded him to learn to ski, they came upon a man who had run into a tree and broke his leg at Mount Watatic Ski Area near Ashby, Mass. A ski patrol volunteer arrived on the scene a few minutes later and, in the process of trying to render first aid, fell on the injured skier’s broken leg. McNamara and his wife stepped up.
“I do emergency medical services for a living,” McNamara says. “My wife is a nurse. So we offered to help.” The Watatic ski patrol director recruited the couple almost the moment they arrived at the first-aid room with the injured skier. Thirty-seven years later, they still serve on ski patrol at Wachusett Mountain near Princeton, Mass. McNamara has also served as National Ski Patrol board chairman and is on the board of directors.
“We both love the people you meet on ski patrol,” says McNamara, a member of Hiram O. Taylor American Legion Post 189 in Sterling, Mass., for more than 22 years. “And with both of us being in the medical field, we enjoy helping people.”
John DeBisschop III, past commander of American Legion Post 17 in Naugatuck, Conn., shares this passion. “The best part for me is the family atmosphere,” says DeBisschop, who is also a former district commander for the Department of Connecticut.
He was introduced to the National Ski Patrol by a fellow firefighter. “They thought I was trainable, so they took me on,” DeBisschop says. The Mount Southington Ski Patrol is active year-round, providing first aid at events including the local triathlon, a snowmobile race and fundraising events. A self-described serial volunteer, he is also involved in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.
“I find that with my fellow ski patrolmen as well,” DeBisschop says. “They are volunteer firefighters, EMTs, baseball coaches. It’s just the type of people you attract.”
HEFTY COMMITMENT Veterans find some of the benefits they miss from their active-duty days by serving on ski patrol, including camaraderie, teamwork and a shared sense of purpose. Ski patrol values their ability to perform in any conditions.
“Veterans are able to deal with crisis,” says Jaye Miller, past president of the Mount Hood Ski Patrol. “They have the discipline of working in groups. They understand the chain of command, and they are focused.”
“People who come from the military bring leadership, problem solving and a get-’er-done attitude,” adds Howell, who has served as first aid chief, vice president and is now a trustee for the Mount Hood Ski Patrol.
Gerling, who deployed in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, loves the opportunity to ski freshly groomed runs and check for hazards before the public hits the slopes first thing in the morning. Despite that sort of perk, ski patrols are a hefty commitment. First-year apprentices attend 20 weeks of night classes to earn their Outdoor Emergency Care certifications, the equivalent of an EMT Basic. This includes studying an 1,100-page textbook and taking weekly quizzes, a written final and two scenarios where new recruits must demonstrate their skills on volunteer patients. That’s followed by 10 to 12 weekends of hands-on training on the ski slopes, where they learn to extricate a patient from a chairlift and perform avalanche rescue.
“We’re constantly training people to use the resources they have,” Howell says. “The equipment we have is pretty much what we can carry on our back and what might come on a toboggan later on.”
Missing the annual refresher training means starting over. Though he has served on ski patrols in four states, Klascius had to retake the entire Outdoor Emergency Care course because combat deployments interfered with his ability to meet that yearly requirement.
Yet this is the sort of rigor that attracts people like Howell. He retired as a division commander after more than 26 years with the Washington County, Ore., Sheriff’s Office, joined FEMA – about the time he joined the ski patrol – and deployed to 35 natural disasters in a dozen states, including hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
“I really like helping people,” Howell says. “I get a real sense of satisfaction helping them feel better and getting them pointed down the mountain in the right direction.”
FIRST ON THE SCENE Ski patrol volunteers save lives off the slopes, too. They often are first on the scene of vehicle accidents, using their training to triage the injured until an ambulance arrives. Howell has happened upon several car accidents, including discovering a one-car rollover on his way home from a ski patrol shift on Mount Hood. He assessed victims’ injuries and called back up to the ski patrol’s first-aid room at Timberline for equipment to help an injured child breathe while fellow ski patrollers treated other patients.
Last April, John Lacey was attending a show in downtown Portland when a cellphone app alerted him that someone in the auditorium needed CPR. He found the lifeless man with the help of auditorium staff. “He did not have a pulse, wasn’t breathing and his color was very pale,” says Lacey, an Army veteran and member of the Mount Hood Ski Patrol.
After Lacey started CPR, another man tried using an automated external defibrillator. Nothing happened. Lacey took over, readjusted the AED and restarted the man’s heart. He lived.
Two years ago, Klascius received one of the National Ski Patrol’s highest honors – the Purple Merit Star – for saving a man’s life after an accident on the Bull River near Sandy.
“I was climbing out of the water when I heard a crack, snap and a splash,” he says. His future wife yelled – and he turned to see a man face-down in the water after the rope swing he was using had broken, causing him to careen into rocks as he fell to the river. There was blood everywhere.
“I was the only strong, sober swimmer there that day,” says Klascius, who immediately dived in after the injured man. Once back on shore, he realized that the patient didn’t have a pulse.
“I’m sitting there on my knees, and for a brief second I look up and I go, ‘Does anybody know CPR?’ And then I realize, ‘That’s me.’ And that’s when the years of training as a ski patroller really kicked in.”
When paramedics arrived, Klascius and another citizen swam the injured man across the river to a spot where firefighters could strap him to a backboard. Then Klascius helped carry the swimmer up a hill to an ambulance.
The injured swimmer was taken to a small airstrip where Life Flight was waiting. Klascius later learned that the man suffered nine broken ribs, a skull facture, a broken collarbone and other injuries. In addition, his heart had stopped for a couple of minutes. Thanks to Klascius’ quick action, however, the patient recovered.
A little bit of every rescue stays with a ski patroller, Klascius says. That June day on the Bull River is particularly indelible because he was in a car accident nearby when he was 16.
“I ended up flying out on Life Flight myself – from that same small grass airstrip,” says Klascius, whose car struck an elk as he was driving to school. “So it was kind of touching that the gentleman from the Sandy Fire Department who rescued me from the car wreck 20 years earlier was actually there for the rescue of the guy I saved.”
What’s most important to Klascius, however, is what happens to accident victims once they leave his care, whether it’s the swimmer who had the mishap on the Bull River or the skier who went over the cliff in the Outback.
“You want to hear the end of the story,” he says. “You want to know if they are going to be all right. Hearing that the woman who had fallen off the 100-foot cliff was able to walk again? It was a weight off my shoulders.”
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.