Mountain Passages—Should Volunteers Patrol the Backcountry or Not

Do we really need backcountry patrols? And if so, who should be patrolling?

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I ask for a couple of reasons: first, because I’d like to know what you think, and, second, because M. John Fayhee, editor emeritus of Mountain Gazette, was here in Boulder last week. And he had an opinion on the subject.

Big surprise.

Breakfast was a sausage, bean and egg burrito with chipotle in adobo sauce served here at The Creak House. It met with Fayhee’s approval. He had had three cups of coffee and was fired up. He wanted to know what I was doing with Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol (BMNSP). I said we were working on a proposal for the Forest Service to patrol out of the Brainard Lake and Moffat Tunnel trailheads next winter.

It was as if I had told him I was developing several acres of mountain property in a wilderness area inholding. He sort of sputtered and said, “Hell, I helped found a coalition up in Summit County to protect the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area. Now there are volunteers in uniform shirts up there patrolling like fucking Boy Scouts or something. I never envisioned that.”

He was trying to be nice, which is often a real effort for him, but the thought of any sort of “official person” patrolling in the backcountry just flat out offended him. “Some people think it’s fine to have patrols in the backcountry, they sort of need that official presence, but the rest of us just want to be left alone in the back country. If you get hurt, ask for help or drag your ass out of there.”

I explained that BMNSP would simply be a “presence” on these trails, a source of information to anyone who had questions, and first aid if anyone needed help. Period. We plan to be up there doing what we have been trained to do. We’re not rangers, or cops. We’re volunteer backcountry ski patrollers. BMNSP has been in business for 40 years.

The conversation moved on to other cosmic issues but the question still stands: should anyone be patrolling the backcountry?
In my view, the answer is yes. There need to be skilled people in the backcountry who can answer people’s questions, who can explain to people such basics as letting Spot chase wildlife is a bad idea, and who can initiate first responses if someone needs help.

It seems like this should be a high priority of the National Park Service, National Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. But it is not. Fifty percent of them are bureaucrats who think moving paper back and forth between their desks and driving around in trucks is real work.

Not.

And the fifty percent who really care… well, there aren’t enough of the good ones to patrol much of the territory they manage. So in many locations, it is left to volunteers to patrol.

But does the presence of volunteers in the backcountry impact your enjoyment?

I have to beg the question.

When I was into bagging 14ers, the first thing we would do on top was to look 360 degrees for approaching thunderboomers. If a cell was vaguely close, we would sign the register and beat feet downhill to treeline.

On our way down, we almost always came across folks making the approach in shorts and T-shirts and mostly empty water bottles from the Jiffy Mart, often with kids—all of them totally unprepared to weather a mountain thunderstorm. We’d tell them that the sky was about to explode and that the temperature was about to drop 30 degrees. We’d tell them they should turn around. And they almost always ignored us and pushed on for the summit. At the very least, I know they had a miserable experience. I’m wondering if they would have listened to me if I’d had on an official looking shirt or instead of ratty, layered polypro?

Should we patrol Moffat and Brainard, we’ll have our radios, and our red vests (filled with medical stuff) with the white crosses on our backs. So we will look official. If we see someone struggling on an easy route and suggest that it’s only going to get more difficult, the question becomes, will they listen to us and turn around because we sort of look official, or will they ignore us?

I suspect that they will ignore us in spite of the official gear and push on. But I also suspect that we will continue our patrol but make sure that we return to their route to check on them.

Big Brother ruining people’s wilderness experience?

Nope. Volunteers watching our for people who might get in trouble.

But I also admit that the presence of an official person does impact your enjoyment of the backcountry. In point of fact that person is there to watch you and that fact alone is annoying to folks like Fayhee, maybe you, too.

A partial answer might be to do away with any uniforms or insignia, hide the radios and just patrol. And I think that those of us who love the backcountry do just that routinely. We are always watching other people on the trail and offering information or aid if needed. But I need to be honest here about my motivations. I joined ski patrol because I wanted to be part of an organization that can actually be of service—so there is an ego thing to carrying the gear and wearing the cross.

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Without some sort of an organization and insignia, I think it would be hard to recruit, train, and keep volunteers. Generally people who volunteer want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and expect some level of management.

Finally, I have to go back to my 14er’s experience. I think people might pay more attention to our warning of danger if we appear to be more official.

That’s my opinion.

Fayhee is still sputtering.

What do you think?

Alan Stark is a freelance writer and recovering book publisher who splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge.

Photos are of BMNSP member and world-famous guidebook author Alan Apt.