Rachael Efta is the Ski Patrol Summit Supervisor at Big Sky Resort in Montana. Some of her responsibilities include making the call on when the mountain is cleared and ready to be opened, running the logistics and ensuring resources are available for rescues and other operations, and supervising fellow ski patrollers. Though it can be a gruelling job, Rachael loves being a ski patroller and can’t imagine her life without it. For her, training alongside her team creates trust in herself, her teammates, and her gear, enabling her to truly stay and feel alive in the mountains.
Q: What made you want to become a ski patroller?
Rachael Efta: My friend Kristen Cooper made me want to be a ski patroller. I was working ski school and some odd jobs at gear shops, and Kristen was a patroller at the time. She said, “Rachael if you want to be here and if you want to work in this industry, the best job to do is ski patrolling.” So, I applied, and it took me a couple of years to get a job, but I got it and there’s been no looking back ever since, because she was right.
Q: What skills or knowledge do you have to develop to become a ski patroller?
You most certainly need your EMT prior to becoming a ski patroller at Big Sky Resort. But I think that the thing that’s most often skipped over is having a good attitude and a good heart and being an agreeable person. I think that is the biggest prerequisite that we have in joining the team. Showing up and being a good person adds something that’s really difficult for us to teach.
We can teach the kind of skillset that you need to work on a mountain and to be able to aid and rescue, but we’re unable to teach someone how to show up and be honest and kind. We can’t teach someone to care for their teammates and the quality of work that they’re doing or to have good follow-through. So that’s really the biggest part of being a ski patroller—just wanting to show up and wanting to be the best person that you can every day. Those are the people that we’re really looking for.
Q: How important is trust when working within your team? Could you describe your team relationship and dynamics?
Trust is absolutely what we need in order to open the mountain every single day. I trust the ski patrollers to go out and assess and make sure that we are creating a safe environment for the public, and they’re trusting me to make decisions on what we can and cannot open every single day. Trust is also really important because we need to have faith in one another that at the end of the day we’re going to make it home. We train, for one another and for ourselves, to make sure that we’re always making the safest possible decisions.
Q: Could you describe a typical day of training with your team?
The beginning of the season starts off for patrol in November with a month of solid training. We do a medical refresher, we get our hands on all of our equipment, we practice scenarios and we’re oftentimes working with paramedics in the area, who mentor us to be able to really dial in our skills. That mentorship is really important through the entire season, constantly gaining mentors and taking trainees under our wing. We maintain that training for years on end in order to be able to move up to certain levels, so whenever we’re not actively ski cutting or building infrastructure to open up terrain, we’re hands-on technical rescue and medical training throughout the season as well as chair evacuation training and more recently psychological first aid training for our first responder team to make sure we’re mentally healthy as well.
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We’re constantly engaging in our training and making sure that we are up to date on the best practices in our scope, and we’re constantly learning from one another, as we each have our own individual talents and things that we’re really passionate about within ski patrol.
Q: What’s it like working at Lone Mountain?
Lone Mountain is towering and ominous. It’s rocky and difficult and treacherous, but also beautiful. It’s a happy and dangerous place all at once, and it is the coolest place I have ever been able to spend my time. It can be the most fun playground that’s ever existed, and it can truly be a paradise that, to me, comes alive the most in the trickiest conditions where I’m being tested the most.
Q: What don’t people know about the upkeep and maintenance of the mountain?
I think people assume that when things are closed, ski patrollers are all skiing private powder stash, and I don’t think that things could be further from the truth. When things are not open, we’re typically side stepping and clambering through rocks and making our way through ice, so that we can prepare the mountain for our communities to stay safe and have fun. Is there a lot of pressure each day to open up the mountain and how do you do that without compromise?
“Lone Mountain is towering and ominous. It’s rocky and difficult and treacherous, but also beautiful. It’s a happy and dangerous place all at once, and it is the coolest place I have ever been able to spend my time.“
There is absolutely pressure to open up everything on the mountain on-time every single day, and the way that we manage that pressure is by being as efficient as possible. We will never sacrifice our safety to open up the mountain, and we will never sacrifice the safety of our guests to open the mountain early. We move with purpose every single morning and we are motivated by bringing joy to people and guests on the mountain as soon as we possibly can, for as long as we can, in a day.
Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment as a ski patroller and why?
My biggest accomplishment as a ski patroller thus far has been the relationships that I’ve formed with the people around me and the trust that I have with my peers. I feel so rewarded by the amount of respect that I have for my team and the amount of support I feel by them as well. I moved up pretty quickly as a patroller. I think I was a supervisor by my third or fourth season, and I was only able to accomplish that and be where I am now because of the trust that I have in my team.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with the mountain and what is it about skiing that makes you feel alive?
The mountains are where I find myself, where I feel the most present and the most accomplished, but maybe most importantly, it’s where I feel the smallest. I think I find my faith in the world in the mountains, in the quiet and calmness and gargantuan peaks around me.
I think that there is this divine focus that you find when you’re skiing in the mountains, and it’s a moving meditation being out there. You’re in this beautiful atmosphere and there’s something about the pristineness of the snow and its beauty and the quietness that’s all around you, especially when it’s snowing. I think that that beauty and that alertness and that oneness with my environment really makes me feel alive in the mountains.
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Q: When did you first learn to ski and how did that influence your decision to become a ski patroller?
I think that my dad’s greatest excitement in having children was teaching them how to ski, and so I grew up within a very ski-centric life. He just really always wanted to ski for the joy of skiing, and he taught me a lot about ski culture. I never skied less than two days a week my entire upbringing and I feel so incredibly lucky for that. I always had this space where I could feel the most like myself, and so when it came to figuring out what the next step was in my life after graduating high school, I tried to split off and do something different and grow in different ways. I found myself going to art school for a little bit in San Francisco and I just couldn’t be myself there and I had a really hard time, so I moved back home and decided that that wasn’t where I wanted to be either. So, I ended up in Big Sky soon after that and I haven’t left since. Looking around, the people who are the happiest and have stuck around in their jobs for the longest are ski patrollers. I don’t think that I exactly knew what I was getting into when I started patrolling, but once I started, everything fell into place, and it felt like the most right decision that I had ever made for myself.
Q: What do you love about ski patrolling?
I love being a patroller. I have certainly tried to imagine my life without it though. How can you not when you know that love also comes with the pain of putting on ski boots every single day and wearing them for over 40 hours a week? But what it really boils down to now is I just can’t imagine my life without it and it’s not even because of the skiing. It’s not because of working outside. It’s not because of the beautiful places where I live. It’s because I cannot imagine my life without this group of people that I’ve met and these bonds that I get to experience every single day here. I finally felt like I found people where we could really jive with one another, and I think that is one of the reasons why I keep coming back. I can just be myself entirely and others around me can truly be themselves, too.
Text supplied by Helly Hansen.