Steve Ruskay (32) has been professionally ski patrolling for 13 seasons, 10 of them at Fernie Alpine Resort in the Lizard Range of the Canadian Rockies.
Steve is certified as a snow safety team leader, expert in snow and avalanche explosives blasting, avalanche course provider, rescue course provider and a professional member of the Canadian Avalanche Association. He also writes a monthly column for a local magazine about snow science.
In the summer months Steve works as an expedition sea kayak guide in Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic. He is also an advanced instructor trainer for white water canoe guides and (in his spare time!) will be competing at the World Pond Hockey Championships.
As a ski patroller at Fernie Alpine Reosrt, Steve works in some of the most complex and hazardous conditions imaginable. Fernie has the largest vertical, highest number of runs, and most snow of any resort in the Canadian Rockies (37 feet last year). The sheer amount of snowfall, and the fact the resort sits below a steep headwall, means that Fernie has some of the most complex avalanche terrain of any ski resort in the world. For the Fernie ski patrol, this unique and dangerous challenge is a part of the daily work routine.
Q&A with Steve Ruskay
OTS: How many skiers have you rescued in your 13 years? Is it usually skiers taking unnecessary risks?
SR: I really don’t know, but I respond to an average of 50 accidents a season. Most are minor injuries, however critical and life saving intervetions are performed when needed. In the mountains accidents do happen. I don't think it is always unnecessary risks, but rather people underestimating their abilities, or underestimating the consequences of their decisions.
OTS: What would you say has been the most memorable day you’ve had in your job?
SR: There are so many, and all for good reasons. But for snow – it’s hands down January 17th 2012: 87 cm in 36 hours.
OTS: What would you say is the most dangerous situation you've been in?
SR: In a whiteout on the Lizard headwall, I remotely triggered a cornice failure, but couldn't see it. The cornice had pulled a slab of snow directly in front of me along the safe travel route. I almost walked over the edge. I was thankfully tethered to our fall arrest system. But dangling over the edge of a cliff in gale force winds, waiting to be rescued was not my idea of fun.
OTS: Has the boom in the number of freeriders caused you any increasing issues?
SR: The Boom is great. The more freeriders, the more we can grow our sport for everyone. However, some issues I do see with this boom would mainly concern backcountry, or 'out-of-bounds' freeriding. Education of avalanche hazard, and decision making, backcountry ski terrain access and cost of rescue services are all now becoming hot topics for backcountry freeriders.
OTS: What is the most common error people make when they go freeriding?
SR: Firstly ignoring obvious clues, secondly misinterpreting information and thirdly underestimating terrain and the consequences of that.
OTS: What advice would you give anyone heading out freeriding?
SR: Make safe decisions. Take an avalanche course. Have the necessary avalanche safety equipment. Know how to use it well. Never be afraid to say NO.
OTS: Do avalanche rescue dogs play a big role on the mountain?
SR: Avalanche rescue dogs are used on the resort and anywhere in the area. The dog, and handler train for years to be certified by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. (CARDA). These dogs are the fastest way to find someone who is buried in an avalanche, and not wearing an avalanche transceiver. Using their powerful noses, they are trained to find human scent in the snow, and indicate to the rescue teams where to probe, and dig.
A day in the life of Steve Ruskay
4am: Day begins
Ski patrols start early and the first crew members arrive for 5am. At just after 6 in the morning I regain my footing and stand up delicately. That was the third time I have been blown off balance, landing on all fours, and we are only a quarter of the way into our hike to Polar Peak. Readjusting my headlamp, I can just make out the next location marker in the poor visibility.
Our team still has at least 40 minutes of hard hiking to the summit. It is windy, really windy. Today I am the snow safety team leader of a crew of 3 avi techs. We are tasked with performing avalanche mitigation work and opening the Polar Peak ski terrain for lift maintenance workers and the skiing guests. The goal is to be open at 9am.
Day to day ski resort operation in complex avalanche terrain requires a dedicated, skilled and hardworking snow safety team. This early strike team consists of an avalanche forecaster, an avalauncher gunning team and the Polar Peak team. Access to the upper ski area is normally a short snowmobile ride, but 25cm of fresh snow plus moderate winds make travel on this day a challenge just to keep the snowmobile on the trail.
Steve heading up the mountain at 5am
After the morning weather observation and weather forecast briefing, the avalanche forecaster will make an avalanche hazard assessment and terrain access plan. The first part of this plan involves slope stability testing with explosives. The gun team has already prepared the avalauncher (pneumatic cannon), for firing a 1kg explosive round that detonates upon impact when it reaches the inaccessible avalanche starting zones, high on the ridge.
This explosion acts as a trigger for any unstable snow, causing an avalanche in a controlled manner. With a large boom and a flash of light in the night sky, a long low rumble is heard in the distance. The new snow has formed a slab and conditions are right to see large avalanches today. The avalauncher has been very effective this morning, and with the large avalanches that were produced, the hazard has been reduced enough for the snow safety teams to enter that area to complete the work on skis.
6am: Checking lift towers
My team has made preparations for the long trek ahead. In an ideal world, we would simply hop onto the brand new chairlift and enjoy a five-minute ride to the peak in comfort. But the reality of this harsh environment means that extreme overnight winds frequently freeze sheave wheels and cause extensive damage to a chair lift. Every tower must be inspected and excess snow and ice removed from the top station before the lift can safely run. So in waist-deep snow, we attach our harnesses to the fixed fall arrest line. This acts as our safety net, but also our guide. Visibility is as bad as I have known it. Still in the dark, team mates’ head-lamps are barely visible, let alone where we are headed. Without the fixed rope in place, we would most certainly wander off course, and into harm’s way.
Steve hiking up the mountain in Fernie
8am: Setting the Fernie alarm clock
By the time we reach the peak, the other crews have arrived for duty. The remaining avalanche techs are towed to the patrol shack behind a snowcat. The forecaster facilitates a morning meeting and the crew breaks into teams to cram their backpacks full of explosives. Each team is responsible for an area that consists of multiple avalanche slide paths. Crews will follow strict routes, in safe terrain, and deploy the explosives to the avalanche areas by hand. Depending on the hazard on a given day, each team might be lugging as much as 20kg of explosive product around the mountain. Each bomb is lit by hand and placed in the avalanche start zone. A two-minute safety fuse allows time to take cover in a safe spot. Soon the entire valley is full of the echoing booms. From town these blasts shake windows, and wake up the eager powder hounds. This bombing wake-up call signifies lots of new snow, and is known locally as the ‘Fernie alarm clock’.
Once at the peak, my team has a very busy schedule. There is no time to waste. Matt climbs up the lift station to remove snow and ice, Paul prepares the ridge line safety system, while I open the explosive magazines and prepare the required bombs for our first of several missions. Still in the dark, and fighting with 40 Km/h winds, we set out across the Lizard headwall. This spectacular cliff is the signature view of Fernie. In places it drops more than 400 vertical metres straight down. Our team takes no chances as we lock ourselves into an engineered fall arrest system that stretches 300 metres down the knife edge ridge. Along the way, battered bamboo poles mark the safe travel route and shot placements. The round trip takes us 1.5 hours.
Steve with explosives at the ready
10am: Lunch and emergency response
It is now slightly after 10am. By most job standards a 10am lunch would be considered a little early. But for us, this is our first chance to sit down, rest and take in some much needed coffee, warm the toes, and devour what might be left of our lunches. Avalanche hazard has been reduced, the lift is loading skiers and the boundary fences are in place. We sit quietly in the Polar Peak warming hut. The small propane heater can barely keep up to the vicious wind chill that whistles past the icy windows. The day's focus has now shifted to emergency response. Our cache of first aid equipment, rope rescue kits, toboggans, sleds and chairlift evacuation gear is inspected.
Any terrain that is open in the resort must be quickly and safely accessed in the event of an emergency. Like most rescue teams, our crew have spent many hours of practice for situations that we hope will never happen. We keep a minimum of two ski patrollers in the top hut ready to respond at all times. In ski patrol, you never know what you might be called upon to do next.
Music rattles out of a small speaker. Jokes and good natured barbs are hurled back and forth. This is our way of unwinding before the last run of the day.
4pm: Preparing for tomorrow
We have an afternoon meeting and make preparations for tomorrow. Inventory is made of the explosives. Paperwork and documentation are completed, and a rough plan discussed for tomorrow's “A/C” start. Another early 5am start time, with 15 more centimetres of snow in the forecast, and even more snow storms to follow. The sweep confirms that there are no skiers stranded on the slopes.
Our locker room is full of cheering patrollers when our zone is cleared to base. A guest who has been helped by a ski patroller today has decided to show their gratitude by leaving a case of beer at our door. A toast is made to another safe day on the mountain and for many more to come. It’s just another day in the life of a ski patroller.
Next article: OTS interview with pro rider Tom Burt
Previous article: The BRITS [part 2]: Behind the scenes with Spencer Claridge