As the end of ski season creeps closer (though kept alive momentarily by recent storms), Arapahoe Basin is preparing to retire its colorful and dedicated gang of ski patrol volunteers.
The volunteer ski patrol unit has been around since the ’40s and is an integral part of A-Basin's culture. For Alan "Al" Henceroth, the resort's chief operating officer, the move was an easy business decision but a tough personal one.
"The mechanics and the financial decision — that part was actually pretty easy," he says. "The hard part was that it involved all of these great people who have volunteered with us during the years. If we didn’t have such a fantastic group of people, we probably would have done it sooner."
The decision was made as A-Basin has become more popular and is preparing to open the Beavers Expansion, a 400-acre playground of intermediate and expert terrain that will put new demands on professional ski patrollers who alone can conduct avalanche control. Since volunteers are barred from these avalanche operations, their time at A-Basin — which has lasted decades for some — is coming to a close.
Relieving the volunteers of duty, Henceroth says, is purely to make sure that all patrollers are on the same page. The news was disappointing to Ken James, a veteran volunteer patroller, but he says that there are no hard feelings.
"We're physically getting bigger, and we’re busier than we used to be," he says. "A-Basin is catching on with more and more people, so there’s more for us to do all the time."
The news was disappointing to Ken James, a veteran volunteer patroller, but he says that there are no hard feelings."I totally support what they're doing," he says. "Am I sad? Yes. But there's no grumbling. I would say that lots of people are just sad that it's going because it's such a great thing to do."
James says that all 22 volunteers understood when the decision was made last fall that this was the program's final season. "Nobody said, ‘Screw you, we’re leaving,'" James affirms. "Everybody said, ‘Okay, we’ll keep doing what we do.’"
The patrollers, who rescue injured skiers and snowboarders, open and close trails and conduct avalanche control with explosives, also helped build the distinct, easygoing character of A-Basin.
By volunteering on the weekends, James — who laments that he has a "real job" — was able to teach his kids how to ski at the Basin and build some deep community ties. He knows his colleagues' kids and who skies what, and makes a point to grab a beer with other patrollers at the end of the day.
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But the next phase of the patrolling program, says Henceroth, is a fully professional staff — even if it is hard to let what he calls a "fantastic group of people" go. "At some point, the ski area realized that we need consistency and for people to be here regularly," he says. "[Volunteers] were very much a part of the culture. This decision had nothing to do with personalities — it was just the most effective way to get all of the ski patrol done."
James can't speculate on how many patrollers will apply for professional positions when the season ends. But he says his forty years as a volunteer will come to a close with the last run of the season. When he leaves the staff of A-Basin in a few weeks, along with the other volunteers, he hopes that a whole lot won't change. He'll continue to ski with his friends at the Basin as much as he possibly can.
"It's a camaraderie that is just special," he says. "We’ll have to make an effort to continue getting together with the whole group. That's what I think I'll miss the most: the gang going up on Saturdays, working with both the paid staff and the volunteers.... We're still a good group of people."