Spring 2010 Michigan Tech Magazine

Mont Ripley Ski Patrol

By Dennis Walikainen '92/09

Safer skiing for over seventy seasons

Innumerable skiers have wiped out on Mont Ripley's vertical slopes, and since 1938 the ski patrol has been there to help them safely out of harm's way.

"Thirty-one years in this business, and this patrol is the best I've ever seen," says ski hill manager Nick Sirdenis.

The tradition of excellence stems in part from the late Fred Lonsdorf, the longtime ski hill manager, ski coach, and member of the legendary 10th Mountain Division in World War II, when he befriended Charles "Minnie" Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol. That connection with the National Ski Patrol helped Mont Ripley develop one of the finest patrols in the US.

Among its accomplishments, the Mont Ripley Ski Patrol pioneered techniques for using rescue toboggans on steep hills in the 1970s that are still the standard. It served as the pilot for the National Ski Patrol's Winter Emergency Care Course. And in 1984, the patrol was the runner-up for Outstanding Patrol of the Nation.

Kristin-Ann Beck started patrolling as an undergrad in the late 1990s, left after graduation, and returned to the Copper Country. Re-upping with the ski patrol was a no-brainer. "Once we get you, you can't leave," she laughs. "I'm going tonight, in fact," she said on a late February afternoon. She'll be working off some of the eighty-hours-per-season requirement.

About a dozen new ski patrollers are trained annually, many of them Tech students who leave in a few years and join other ski patrols on other mountains. About five hundred skiers have earned their ski patrol crosses at Ripley. With this "constantly rotating community" of Tech student members, "we really are a feeder patrol for others patrols across the country," Beck adds.

A cadre of local alumni forms the core of the patrol. Don Close '74 is its director. Dan Dalquist '76, who has been a member since the 1970s, says it serves as the foundation for many relationships.

"Just a week ago, an alum from the 1980s stopped by," he says. "It's great to keep in touch with the Tech graduates and see what they're doing in their professional lives. And the friendships! I met Scott Veenstra back in 1974, and we're still good friends." Dalquist figures the two of them have dragged the rescue toboggans—a World War II vintage sled and a sleek, new model—up and down the hill thousands of times between training sessions and real rescues.

Serving on the patrol keeps him in touch with the students' "infectious sheer love of skiing," Dalquist says. And the students love getting in touch with the greater ski community.

"It's a great mix, and I enjoy meeting other people," says Michigan Tech senior Aaron Havel. "It also helps me develop leadership skills. I'm helping people and learning the medical side of it."

That "medical side of it" can come in handy just about anywhere, says Dalquist, who once patched up his three-year-old son's head following a living-room wrestling encounter with the fireplace. "I went into rescue mode," Dalquist remembers.

Demands on the ski patrol have changed over the last forty years with the rise of snowboards and terrain parks. Injuries run the gamut from broken wrists and ankles to concussions, back injuries, and knee injuries: "the X Games factor," says Dalquist.

That said, serious accidents are a rarity, thanks to Ripley's relatively uncrowded slopes; the famous steepness of the hill, which drains much of the energy from a fall; and the fact that some injuries just aren't reported.

Accidents do happen, though, and often when you least expect them, something Beck discovered while undergoing training.

"A patroller broke his arm," Beck recalls, "and he called all of us over to show us what it looked like, so we would know one when we saw one."