The first year that Mount Ashland opened to skiers, Annette Batzer was a first-grader learning to snowplow down the bunny hill.
Batzer pursued the sport for decades, joining Mount Ashland Racing Association and teaching her own daughters to ski. At an age when many skiers start slowing down, the family nurse practitioner found a new way to test her skills while performing a community service.
"It was something I'd been toying with for years," she says.
Batzer numbers among 40-some adult members — 11 women — of Mount Ashland's volunteer ski patrol, who do much more than tend injuries and respond to other emergencies at the ski area. Patrolers work to ward off problems before they arise, checking equipment, erecting barriers to dangerous terrain and sweeping the mountain for stragglers at the end of each day.
"We talk a lot about the patroler's eye," says Batzer. "We'd rather prevent accidents than tend to the accidents."
Mount Ashland's ski patrol handles approximately 250 injuries — minor to life-threatening — per season, says training officer Don Keenan. The presence of female patrolers has a way of soothing not a few injured skiers and smoothing over mishaps at the mountain, he adds.
"Young children respond much better to ladies."
Keenan's wife, Dee, joined the patrol in 1994 to pursue an interest in medicine that a career teaching grade school denied her.
"I thought, 'Wow, I finally get to be a medical person,' " says Dee Keenan. At age 68, she's the oldest woman on patrol, the group's secretary and also past regional advisor to the National Ski Patrol.
About 80 hours of outdoor emergency care classes are required to join the ski patrol, which then requires candidates to pass a written exam and scenario-based tests for skiing proficiency, operating equipment, handling rescue sleds and traversing the mountain. The process usually takes several seasons and costs a few hundred dollars in test fees and patrol dues. But joining their ranks is within almost anyone's ability, patrolers say, citing the expertise of 63-year-old Leslie Blankenship, who didn't learn to ski until age 40 and, five years later, graduated to patroling with Keenan.
"We do not judge our incoming people by their skiing skills," says Don Keenan. Or by the equipment they use.
Traci Loveless, 55, is one of a handful of patrolers — the only woman — who prefer to snowboard while on duty. Whereas the ski-patrol's test used to ban boards, the stance is softening, with Loveless looking to become fully certified to handle a rescue sled while on her board.
"There has been a transition," says Loveless, also noting the shift toward women joining the patrol in more force.
"It's just nice to have a balance between men and women," says Batzer, recalling that the mountain of her childhood seemed more like a setting for daredevil young men to show off.
Although they were not the first women to serve on Mount Ashland's ski patrol, Dee Keenan and Blankenship joined the group at a time when skiing stereotypes and men's attitudes held sway. More recent training has focused on women maximizing the potential in smaller muscle mass to perform the same rescue operations as men, some of whom have asked to learn their counterparts' techniques.
"It's all a matter of just learning how to use your body," says Batzer.
The 52-year-old followed her younger daughter, Rachel, onto the ski patrol. Reveling in 12-hour days of quality time on the mountain with her college-bound teenager, Batzer still hit the slopes after Rachel left junior ski patrol for Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Volunteer patrolers like Batzer must spend four days a month on the mountain when it's open and complete mandatory training, usually while on duty. Mount Ashland employs about a half-dozen paid patrolers.
"We check all equipment," says Batzer. "That's the thing people don't even think about."
With most volunteer patrolers middle-aged professionals, the biggest challenge for the group is simply working around members' workaday schedules to put enough of them on the mountain. And contrary to perception that ski patrolers often are college students with light wintertime class schedules, Mount Ashland would rather attract competent skiers with an interest in volunteering who are settled in nearby communities, members say.
"For some of us, there's a need to serve beyond our careers," says Dee Keenan. "Our skills ... go beyond the ski area."
For more information, see www.mtashlandskipatrol.org or call patrol director Doug Volk at 541-482-2897, ext. 255.