An inside view of a mountain "sweep"

Feb 23, 2015

The headquarters of the Aspen Ski Patrol on top of Ajax.
Credit Carolyn Sackariason

Ski patrollers on Aspen Mountain have many jobs but none may be as crucial as their last task: the final sweep of the ski area. Aspen Public Radio’s Carolyn Sackariason joined one and filed this report.

Steve Rausch is one of 16 ski patrollers on Aspen Mountain finishing their work day. While you’re enjoying a beer at the base, the safety crew is leaving the patrol shack atop Ajax. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and they are about to complete what could be the most important part of their shift. Like every patroller, Rausch has his own call out for people who may be stuck on the mountain.

As the sun sets over the valley, these patrollers sometimes comb 675 acres in the dark when temperatures plummet. The operation is called a sweep. They simultaneously and methodically “sweep” the ski area to ensure everyone is down safely.

“The whole mountain. Yeah, we don’t skip anything. You don’t find someone, like knocked out. But you find people that are still skiing and you make sure that you get them down. And you find people that are too tired and they are done and we will call the snowmobile, you know maybe sometimes call a toboggan,” Rausch says.

Outside of the patrol shack, they wait for a radio signal from the base that the last gondola cabin has been sent before it’s shut down. Then patrollers ask stragglers in the Sundeck to finish their drinks and head down. Finally, its time to spread out on the slopes.

One patroller, called the “super,” stays on top of the mountain until he gets the go-ahead that all is clear. He stays up there to serve as a backup in case someone, including his fellow patrollers, need assistance — medical or otherwise.

Another patroller in charge of the sweep stays ahead of his colleagues on a snowmobile and is in constant contact via radio. On a recent afternoon, it was Brad Bensen’s job. He had Zoot on his sled, one of two avalanche dogs that work Aspen Mountain.

Rausch and fellow patroller Mike Britt take Copper Gulch as their territory. They’ve got the run to themselves. They use that emptiness to their advantage. They comb the sides of Copper to make sure no one is stuck in nearby terrain along Gent’s Ridge or Bell Mountain.

They stop occasionally so patrollers in all areas of the mountain can get to the same elevation and clear what they just came down from. It’s called a wave-off.

“‘Cuz the clear is like a level coming down the mountain, so even the guys on Ruthie’s … we call in over there so everyone can stay level. It’s not like a staggered deal. It’s very organized. It’s fairly systematic about covering the spots and as long as you know your clear well, you pretty much clear everything,” Rausch says.

They sweep steeper terrain, like the runs Traynor, the Cone Dumps and Walsh’s earlier in the day. That’s because they want to avoid conducting a two-hour rescue at night, in the dark. Places like Traynor Ridge, on the west side of the mountain, are combed by multiple patrollers.

“We know the terrain pretty good. I mean, we are out there all the time. There is three of us that sweep it. You do your wave-offs. You know the spots that could be hidden. So you check them. You check under cliffs, you check in the holes,” Rausch says.

You can experience this insider view if you are a guest of one of the Aspen Skiing Co’s three hotels in town. This is the first year that the SkiCo has offered “last tracks.” It’s a perk if you are a guest of the Limelight or Little Nell hotels, and the Residences at the Little Nell. Jeff Hanle is the spokesperson for the SkiCo.

“We are always looking for sort of a new, innovative way to offer our guests a new experience in the mountains.”

It’s an educational experience for the public the patrollers are happy to accommodate. Again, Steve Rausch.

“It’s great just for people to have an awareness on what we really do because ski patrol is kind of a … people don’t know what you do all the time. It’s just good to spread exactly what we do out there ‘cuz I  think we do a lot of work that people don’t realize.”

Even though the service has been offered all season, the patrol has taken just two public groups out on the sweeps this year.

Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Public Radio news.