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Former Marshall ski patrol takes to the backcountry

The Marshall Mountain Ski Patrol has never really gone away.

The resort's lifts shut down eight years ago, prompting volunteer patrollers to contemplate their future. The patrol migrated to the Bitterroot Resort, aiding in snow-coach skiing. But when Bitterroot halted that operation and sold its coaches in 2008, the volunteers were once again homeless.

Now the remnants of the Marshall patrol have carved out a new niche for themselves. With skier and snowboarder traffic steadily increasing outside ski-area boundaries around Missoula, Mike Gue and his associates have reformed as the Five Valleys Backcountry Ski Patrol. Starting this winter, they'll be at the beck and call of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department, lending their medical skills and backcountry experience to remote rescue operations.

click to enlarge Need a hand? We’ve got a backboard. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"People are using more and more terrain that isn't accessible even by snowmobile, be that for legal reasons in wilderness or technical reasons, terrain-wise," says Kai Thorsgard, the search and rescue liaison for the new patrol. "There's a growing need for it."

Backcountry patrols have been popping up in the National Ski Patrol over the past few years. It's not altogether a new phenomenon. Nordic ski patrols like Cascade in Washington and El Dorado in California have aided outdoor enthusiasts for decades. The Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol—originally the Essex Nordic Patrol—was founded in 1975 to provide emergency services to cross-country skiers at the Izaak Walton Inn. Now that template is catching on nationwide as volunteers try to match recreational trends.

Gue says the Five Valleys patrol has been in the works for nearly two years. When it came time to drum up recruits for the 2011-2012 season, the patrol's core members found a rich pool of qualified, competent volunteers to draw from.

"We haven't had to do a lot of training, because the folks who have come forward [already] spend a lot of time in the backcountry," Gue says. "They've had avalanche classes, they've had mountain travel classes. The demographic we're pulling from has that core training...Missoula has it in spades: hardcore backcountry recreationalists."

The patrol has so far lucked out. Members of the National Ski Patrol are required to be certified Outdoor Emergency Care technicians, which means they must complete an intensive medical course and annual reviews. Those who have joined the patrol are mostly already certified, Gue says. Those that aren't are nurses or EMTs who can challenge the course and qualify.

Five Valleys' expenses will be limited. Since they're drawing from an existing demographic, Thorsgard says, most members already have the gear necessary for their volunteer roles. The biggest financial hurdle they face right now, he says, is radios.

"We don't need to purchase beacons for every one of our patrollers; they all have beacons," Thorsgard says. "We're not interested in putting anybody out there that doesn't have their own gear. They most likely don't have the experience."

While the former Marshall Mountain patrol is finally back to work, they're no less homeless than before. The majority of NSP-affiliated patrols nationwide are based at a single resort. Five Valleys, on the other hand, won't be. It's a shift in responsibility and profile that even the national organization is struggling to come to grips with, says Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol Assistant Director Corey Ledbetter.

"Historically, all patrols were associated with a ski area, be it an alpine ski area or a Nordic ski area," Ledbetter says. "There's still some of that Nordic ski area patrolling going on, but there's definitely been a shift to more of the kind of thing we do and Michael's group will do—not assigned to any particular area, but to a geographic region."

Five Valleys will work like Missoula County Search and Rescue, responding to calls from local authorities and executing the types of missions they're specially trained for. Gue says he's had several conversations with the Missoula County Sheriff's Department regarding activation protocols. Sheriff Carl Ibsen has been extremely supportive of the initiative so far, Gue says, as has search and rescue.

"This new organization's really going to have to work hard to prove itself, first and foremost, to the Missoula Sheriff's Office as well as Missoula Search and Rescue," Gue continues. "They need to look at us as a benefit not just to them but the Missoula community."

With the national qualification that comes with NSP membership, Gue adds, the patrol will be able to expand their service area beyond the county as necessary.

If the Flathead patrol is any indication, Five Valleys' ranks could swell over the coming years. Ledbetter says Flathead has gained 12 new patrollers in the last couple years. The Outdoor Emergency Care course he's currently instructing has 12 students, at least a few of whom he expects will join the patrol. Others have merely taken the course to increase their knowledge as backcountry skiers and snowboarders.

For years, Flathead has been the only backcountry patrol in NSP's Northern Division.

"I think we'll see some more patrols like Five Valleys," says Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol Director Jerry Lundgren. "Especially in the West."

For now, Gue's simply looking forward to Five Valleys' first official season. The Marshall patrol has been bouncing around for a while now, he says. It'll be amazing to "hit the ground running...

"It's one of those things where I find myself pounding my head against a wall sometimes, and it's definitely a challenge. Now we've gotten to the point where we're rolling, I have different patrollers taking on different responsibilities. I'm excited about this year...This is a need that can now be filled."

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