By Elizabeth Guest
He was raised by a wolf on a snowy, remote mountaintop. Well, not quite. It was actually a chocolate lab named Solo on the Telluride Ski Area. Still, Jason Rogers admits that handling the avalanche rescue dog his rookie year helped train him for his job as a ski patroller. Now in his fifteenth year as a patroller, and his fourth year as Ski Patrol Manager, Rogers continues to work like a dog. Last spring, he was rewarded with the 2008-09 Colorado Ski Patroller of the Year honors for his hard work and dedication to the job.
Rogers likes to be the first person on the ski hill, which is typical in this town. His dawn patrol starts under coffee-black skies, hopefully with a dousing of fresh, milk-white snow. Powder days are the obviousreason for getting up early, when patrollers have to be on the mountain before daylight to control the snowpack for avalanches. But Rogers also craves the morning quiet, the kind you find in a Robert Frost poem. It’s the calm before a storm of daytime duties. “I love coming to work in the mornings,” he says. “Being up on the mountain before everyone else—it’s so peaceful and beautiful.”
Rogers isn’t the type to wax poetic: He’s much more of a practician, managing a 68-person-strong ski patrol while fulfilling daily chores of heavy schlepping, hiking Palmyra Peak and responding to wrecks. The recent expansion of the resort and the new avalanche artillery keep ski patrol busier than ever before, and all of the additional terrain means there are more red jackets rotating around the mountain. “The expansion has made us one of the best ski areas in North America,” Rogers says. “It keeps you honest, too, when you have to hike the peak three or four times a week.”
It also gets you in really good shape. Rogers is a tall, Nordic-looking blonde with square shoulders and an easy smile. He’s come a long way from the 11-year-old novice skier who once stood on top of the 450 vertical feet of Peek’n Peak in Clymer, New York. Just one trip up Palmyra is like hiking three Peek’n Peaks. For Rogers, though, it’s not the physical labor that’s the toughest part of the job. He says his biggest challenge is managing his fellow patrollers, who range from old-timers to rookies. “I try to make everyone happy, and lead by example,” he says. “I never thought [ski patrol] would be this big. We’re almost like Breckenridge.”
“Almost” is the key word. Telluride’s ski patrol is still one of a kind. Although they’ve doubled in size since Rogers’ arrival in 1996, they are still a tight-knit team of tough mountain men and women. “When I got hired, Mona [Wilcox] said, ‘Welcome to the family,’” Rogers recalls. “It’s so true. It was immediately like being adopted into a family.” There is a heavy social schedule, including the 100-day party in mid-August, celebrating the days remaining until the opening of the ski area, and the evenings after work, when the crew—still energized and amazingly not sick of one another—unwind over beers.
As with any family, there’s also a fair amount of teasing. Heckling happens daily and is directed at the patroller who performs the biggest faux pas: a snowmobile capsized in powder, a yard sale beneath a busy Lift 9, inappropriate comments over the radio. The patrol family also includes some fourlegged friends, dogs trained for avalanche rescue. Enter Doris, Rogers’ five-year-old chocolate lab. Like Doris’ grandfather, Solo, who broke Rogers in during his first season, Rogers’ sidekick is a strong, hardworking hound who accompanies him to work religiously.
There is a local tradition of naming ski telluridefaces patrol dogs after prominent Telluride women. First came Jane “Watenpaw,” after Jane Watenpaugh, the inaugural female patroller. Then there was Ellie “Wunderlick,” for longtime local Elvira Wunderlich. Doris “Roof” is named after the former county clerk, Doris Ruffe, a diligent, spunky woman who would stay up all night counting votes on election night and who passed away in 2007. Ruffe was famously opinionated, but Rogers says she gave the thumbs-up in approval of his newly named pup. Rogers earned his new patroller-of-the-year title from Colorado Ski Country USA for his “ability to make sound decisions during crises and strong skiing credentials,” according to the organization. He remains humble, however, as he pulls out the plaque stashed inside his drawer. “I’ll probably break it before I figure out what to do with it,” he jokes. “They used to give the winner a pair of skis, but I guess that got to be too expensive. I think I would have liked the skis.”
Rogers is a no-frills kind of guy, satisfied by the simple things in life. He built his own house in east Ophir in 1999. Last summer, he added a stone patio, and next is a mudroom for Doris. The room will also be a place to hang his newest jacket, which he wears as a rookie firefighter. Solar panels power the house, and pictures of skiing and mountains adorn the walls, including one of his parents, himself and his brother, Johnny, skiing in Telluride in the late ’80s. “We fell in love with Telluride,” recalls Rogers, who grew up in Erie, Penn. “It was a great ski area that was laid back and right in town.”
After graduating from Penn State, Rogers moved to Telluride with childhood friend, Brett Schreckengost. Rogers supported his ski habit by working at the Scott Fly Rod Factory, but he planned to eventually pursue a medical career like that of his father, a doctor, or his mother, a nurse. Instead, two years later, Rogers signed on with ski patrol. Patrolling and medicine, however, are not as divergent as they might seem. As a patroller, he practices emergency medicine, and has responded to many serious incidents. In his second year, he successfully resuscitated a woman using CPR and an AED, an automatic defibrillator. The woman suffered a heart attack and fell off Lift 3, but she is alive and well today. Rogers’ more recent responses to cardiac arrests and avalanches have had much grimmer outcomes. “It’s part of ski patrol, and I tackle it along with any other part of the job,” he says. “You just have to try to separate yourself from the personal side and do the best you can.”
Fortunately, Rogers receives lots of free ski therapy. It’s the skiing they get to do on the job that makes Rogers and his fellow patrollers love their work. He turns toward his favorite skiing buddy, Doris, and gives her a hearty pat on the muzzle. “We’re all just ski bums, trying to legitimize ourselves and get by.”