Jackson Hole Ski Patrol: Best Job Ever?

Reed Finlay hauling a toboggan filled with gear.
Reed Finlay hauling a toboggan filled with gear. Reed Finlay
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Reed Finlay moved to Jackson Hole in 1992. The summer after graduating with a history degree from Davidson College in his home state of North Carolina, Finlay worked at a dude ranch in Montana. Some of the other ranch hands had worked at ski resorts in Colorado, and they made being a 'liftie' sound like the ultimate job for someone who wanted to ski. Finlay wanted to ski.

That following winter, 1992/1993, he found himself living in Jackson Hole and bumping chairs on Après Vous, at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. His breaks were other people’s vacations, skiing some of the best in-bounds terrain in the country.

But Finlay didn’t want to bump chairs forever. From liftie, he worked his way up to foreman and started working as an auxiliary ski patroller. Since 2005, he’s been a full-time JHMR Ski Patroller.

We caught him one morning when he was on base patrol. Since there hadn’t been any new snow for a couple of days, he had some time to talk.

Fooling around doing chairlift work.
Fooling around doing chairlift work. Reed Finlay

Is being a patroller as cool as we think it is?

Yeah. I think it is. It's kind of a dream job. You can be all over the mountain. You're not micro-managed. You throw explosives. You help with first aid and you help rescue people.

Can you pick a favorite part?

Well, I didn’t even mention all the skiing we get to do. Jerry Blann [the resort president] calls it “sampling the product.” If nothing is really happening, we’ve got the freedom to go out and ski. You can’t ski just anywhere, you have to stay near your station, but you’re still out skiing. Of course, if someone’s injured or lost, we’re not out skiing—our first priority is always injuries and safety—but we do get to take runs more often than not. Even when we’re out doing a job—putting up signs or setting boundaries—we do that and then we have to do a run to get back to our station.

Something about the job has to suck, right?

Telling people to slow down—we call it the “no fun patrol”—or telling them they can’t build a jump somewhere. It’s not that it’s hard, but it’s not fun. We don’t want to be an enemy, but we’ve got slow signs and closed signs for reasons. And then sometimes the weather isn’t the best, say it’s like minus 25 and it hasn’t snowed in 2 weeks. You’re just skiing the same hardpack or coral reef. If someone gets injured at the top of [Rendezvous] Bowl in those conditions and you have to bring them down in a toboggan, that can be hard.

Getting some powder while on the job.
Getting some powder while on the job. Reed Finlay

How good of a skier does a patroller have to be? Are you guys the best skiers on the mountain?

What I’ve personally learned is that it’s good to be efficient. As you get older, you really want to protect your back. You want to be a strong, powerful skier, not necessarily graceful. You want to be able to transport a heavy patient in a toboggan to the clinic without incident-- perfect form is irrelevant in these situations!

You mention getting older. What’s the average age of patrollers at Jackson?

I don’t know that this is accurate, but it’s what my sense is—maybe early 40's. 42 or so?

What’s the average tenure of a JHMR ski patroller?

Having done exchanges at three resorts—Taos, Telluride and Solitude—I’ve found that we don’t have as much turnover. Workers here love the job and the place so much. There are still a few trollers that have been around since the early 70s.

You mentioned explosives earlier...

Bombs are pretty standard as far as [avalanche] reduction. We have different sizes. A two-pound shot is common. They’re made in the morning to be used that day. It’s not like they’re just sitting around ready to go. A crew makes them every day. Some are thrown from the tram. We also use cable trolleys for very effective airblasts. Everyone has their control route. I’m route 8, which includes the Headwall. Throwing them, basically they’re like hand grenades. There’s a protocol to follow every time you light one. We have to take a class and we’re all certified by the ATF. We do a refresher every fall. The bombs are definitely the dirty part of the job.

Doing work above Corbet’s Couloir.
Doing work above Corbet’s Couloir. Reed Finlay

Are they hard to throw?

It helps to have a good throwing arm, but most important is knowing where you need to throw one—having a good sense of where the snow has built up.

What’s the biggest slide you’ve triggered with a bomb?

I used to be on route 2, and that covers Tower 3 chute. The same day [Couloir] restaurant got hit by a Headwall slide, we got a massive amount to go at the bottom of Tower 3. We were worried about the top too—hang fire. We built on the spot a pretty good size charge—we taped some bombs together. We lit the charge and tossed it and the next thing you know, for about 10-15 seconds, debris was coming all the way down through Toilet Bowl onto Amphitheater Run. At places, it had gone down to the ground.

Skiing in Teton Bridger National Forest
Skiing in Teton Bridger National Forest John Johnston

Umm, yeah. Let’s end on that, before we all quit our jobs to go ski and throw bombs.

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