More than just red coats on the mountain

Mt. Spokane volunteer ski patrollers form strong bonds within the community Mountain mamas, twin sisters, ski brats, adopted aunts and uncles, ski-sters, and mountain families, all nicknames for ski patrollers, gather under the roof of the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol lodge. Many new patrollers are unaware at the beginning of their career as a volunteer patroller that when they put on the ski patrol red coat, they pick up a family — that becomes obvious very quickly.

The National Ski Patrol began in 1938 after a physician named “Minnie” Dole broke his leg and spent hours waiting in excruciating pain for help to return and assist him off the mountain. That same year Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol (MSSP) became the fourth patrol to register nationally and begin serving the public, according to MSSP’s website,

MSSP has been running for more than 70 years and is unlike many other ski patrols in the nation. The majority of mountains in the nation do not have a ski lodge for patrollers to spend time with each other, get ready for their shifts, and have their family with them. Mt. Spokane does.

According to George White, third-year patroller and Outdoor Emergency Care Instructor, the ski lodge was built in the early 90s. Like the ski patrol it- self, which is 100 percent volunteer-run, the ski lodge was built by the community with funding from ski swaps, donations from local businesses and other fund-raising activities.

“The ski lodge is a piece of infrastructure that builds a place where people can be together,” White said.

On any given day, patrol family members any- where from 2 months old into their 70s can be found within the lodge. It creates a unique sense of community among the patrollers and their families, as well as exposing patrollers’ children to new responsibilities and experiences.

“All the kids who come up, help out,” said Megan Highberg, wife of a fifth-year patroller. “They help clean. They look after the other kids. They become part of the family.”

Many of the children who grow up within the ski patrol family, including Highberg’s daughter, eagerly count down the days until they turn 15 and become part of the Ski Patrol Youth program, a program designed to expose teenagers to the demands of patrol.

Once in the SPY program, 15-year-olds are expected to act like mature adults. Jacqueline Essig, a 12-year veteran and OEC instructor, joined the patrol at 14 years old (age requirements have changed since then).

“I had to act like an adult, to learn how to act quickly in high stress situations,” Essig said. “I had to learn how to be professional and not act like someone my own age.”

If the “SPY kids” can meet the challenge, they are seen as just another red coat.

A patroller’s job can be anything from giving a guest a complementary ride down the hill to help- ing people with broken bones, concussions, heart attacks or simply putting a 6-year-old’s ski back on. No matter the challenge, patrollers know they have a strong team behind them.

“Patrol is the great equalizer,” White said. “We have doctors, lawyers, nurses, single moms with four children, teachers, builders. On the hill everyone is a patroller. Everyone is trained in the same material.”

Most choose to patrol at Mt. Spokane because it is the mountain they grew up on. They come to ski patrol for many reasons: life changing circumstances, looking to meet like-minded people, wanting to spend more time on the mountain as well as give back to the community, and hoping to develop advanced first aid skills as well as improving their skiing or snowboarding abilities.

This year, those interested in joining the MSSP can sign up on March 11 at 8 a.m. They will go through an interview as well as a ski (or snowboarding) test. If their abilities are determined to be inadequate for toboggan training, they will be offered a “toboggan free” position.

Beginning in April, new candidates are required to go through a 110-hour OEC (Outdoor Emergency Care) class, then spend five weekends in “on the hill” training, as well as several other volunteer requirements.

The benefits of the OEC class go beyond learn- ing advanced first response medical training; it beomes a bonding experience.

After OEC, bonds only strengthen. Essig said that on the mountain patrollers become more than colleagues, they are family.

“They almost know you better than your own family,” Essig said. “They see you at your best and your worst. They’re there to back you up and tell you ‘You can do this. We’re not going to let you fail.’”

Chris Bernardi, MSSP’s only full-time snowboarder went into OEC nervous about his lack of medical knowledge. But one study session on the circulatory system led to a lifelong friendship with a fellow candidate.

“My ignorance medically led to a bond that will last a lifetime and that’s with my best friend,” Bernardi said.

That bond is further strengthened through the teamwork of patrolling.

“We have a job to do and our job is very serious,“ Bernardi said. “You can’t do it alone. You need the right people so we tend to surround ourselves with people we trust.”

For the newly qualified MSSP patroller putting the red coat on for the first time is just the beginning of the journey.

Story and photography by Nerissa Kresge Staff Writer

Contact Nerissa Kresge at

Photo caption: Patrollers come to work on the mountain for many reasons including improving their skiing and snowboarding skills and giving back to the community.