Sunday, December 10, 2023

Passion for patrolling the slopes

Staff Writer | November 19, 2023 1:09 AM

The Lookout Pass Ski Patrol is a close-knit community of gung ho skiers who strive for mastery and excellence. 

“That’s a big draw, too,” Patrol Director Becky Schoonmaker said. “We’re really a community and a family. We really get to know each other. It’s huge.”

The Lookout Pass Ski Patrol joined the National Ski Patrol in 1938, making it one of the oldest ski patrols in the U.S. 

Schoonmaker, from Kingston, manages about 60 patrollers, which she’s been trying to increase to 100. Lookout Pass opened a new slope, roughly doubling its size in the 2022-23 season, so she needed more patrollers to protect people on the runs.

“It’s a huge commitment,” Schoonmaker said. “Most people get into ski patrol because they love skiing, they love the outdoors or snowboarding,and they want to help people. They see us on the mountain and they want to be a part of that.”

As a team the ski patrol will tackle challenging situations in intense conditions, sometimes to save lives. 

“There’s nothing like a team of five working on somebody for reals,” ski patroller Todd Wendle said. “You get that from doing something special that most people don’t ever get to do or may not want to do. You have to want to help.”

Wendle and Schoonmaker liken the experience of helping skiers when they fall on a run to the experience of paramedics working to contain trauma. 

Each patroller goes through tiers of training, and many are nurses, engineers, judges, professors or waitresses in their day jobs. Most live in Coeur d'Alene, Post Falls or Spokane, with some coming from as far as Mullan, Pullman or Deary. Then, they all come together on the hill. At the end of their training, everyone is on the same level, Schoonmaker said. 

“People just love to be trained,” Wendle said. “You want to improve. So if you want to improve skiing, ski patrol is a continuous journey. We are trainers and we’re always training.”

And that training doesn’t stay behind when Wendle leaves the slopes. 

“It’s been tremendous for me,” he said. “Having that level of training out with the family doing anything or with friends, your confidence just booms. You just have this confidence that you can do stuff.”

Volunteers have to commit to 14 days they can patrol through the winter, with flexibility in scheduling. Wendle likes to patrol weekdays when the trails are more wide open. College kids on the team will do their 14 days over Christmas break. But flexibility is a selling feature that Schoonmaker touts when recruiting patrollers. 

Wendle, 68, has been a skier for decades, and now he volunteers on the ski patrol and spends extra time helping with the organization’s fundraising events. He drives to look out from Hope, near Sandpoint, and sometimes stays with friends on the patrol in Mullan. 

This year the fundraising board decided to show a movie for a fundraiser and were able to secure Warren Miller’s “All Time," a compilation of his best shots, spanning 74 years, in two parts. 

Miller, who died in 2018, was born in Los Angeles and joined the military. When he left his military career he traveled to Sun Valley with a camera and a camper. He would go on to film an annual ski movie each year, which snowballed in scale and popularity over time. He narrated the films in his molasses voice and quick wit. 

“He’s just as funny as all get out,” Wendle said. “He had an absolutely amazing life.”

Wendle grew up on Miller’s films and used to drive to Spokane in the 1980s to watch the new releases in theaters. 

“They said, ‘You guys can’t do Warren Miller, that’s like some big god,’ you know what I mean?” Wendle said. “It’s like going after some big country star to play at your wedding.” 

When the Ski Patrol team was able to get “All Time” at Hayden Cinema for the group's recent fundraiser, Wendle was thrilled not just to relive parts of his youth, but at the turnout of two sold-out shows. 

Proceeds from the fundraiser will cover about a third of the ski patrol budget, which ranges from $10,000 to $15,000 per year. The costs to train patrollers, their travel and membership dues with the National Ski Patrol are all included in the budget. 

“All of our instructors are volunteers as well so they have even more training that they do,” Schoonmaker said. “Then we have people from other mountains that travel to different resorts to help their patrols with their training. There’s a lot of workings that goes on within the National Ski Patrol.”

For the skiers who volunteer, it's all worth it. It's more time on the slopes dedicating themselves to something they love. 

    Two Lookout Ski Patrol volunteers train on a back country ski run.

    Members of the Lookout Ski Patrol team complete a training exercise.

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