One calls himself “the world’s worst-skiing ski patroller.” That’s Eric Miller, who lives in Colorado Springs when he’s not traveling as a flight nurse, a member of the Air National Guard.
The other, John Cameron of Salida, calls himself “an accidental ski bum.” He, like Miller, never saw himself becoming the first responder he is today on Monarch Mountain’s slopes.
Yet it is this unlikely pair delivering a new book on Colorado’s niche profession. “Ski Patrol in Colorado” enters Arcadia Publishing’s lexicon of local and regional history, the next addition to the series called Images of Modern America.
“Is it the true, comprehensive history of Colorado ski patrol? No,” says Miller, downplaying himself again. “But the pictures are fascinating, and there are definitely deep roots of history in the pages.”
He doesn’t claim a deep connection to patrol, nor does Cameron — each with 10 years under their belts, more or less. But both felt called to the tribute. For them, the book was a way to honor their duty — the men and women who are “ambassadors of the mountain lifestyle,” as they write in the introduction — while also finding their place in a tradition as old as World War II.
A few of the photos are Cameron’s own. There’s a fellow patroller plowing through a powdery stash, “enjoy[ing] the perks of the trade,” reads the caption. Perhaps that’s the image that comes to the mind of the casual skier.
“Yes, there’s a lot of skiing in ski patrol,” Cameron says. “But there’s a lot of other work that goes into it.”
Cameron also captures a team member rappelling from a chairlift, a training exercise in the case of a malfunction. Another shows a patroller measuring water content in snowpack, a daily task in the effort to monitor avalanche risk. Many more show a crew of red jackets surrounding guests in stretchers.
Cameron also reveals a ritual among patrollers at Monarch Mountain. In their shack of an outpost, the team is gathered around the Wheel of Misfortune as one spins to determine what he will owe the others in beer — a glimpse into the camaraderie born by partners who count on each other for their lives, a subculture like no other.
“There is a mystique about it,” Miller says.
It was two years ago in the shack that he and Cameron hatched the idea for the book. Any dedicated skier in the world knew about skiing in Colorado, Miller figured. But what did they know about the people in those red jackets, other than the part about being paid to ski?
It was an easy pitch to Arcadia, Miller says. “Best skiing in the world and the top three or four coolest jobs in the world. It’s a winner all day long.”
He too includes photos from his own brief history on the job. That’s him on the scene of a Black Hawk crash in 2009 near Monarch Mountain, after a blizzard brought down the chopper from Fort Carson. Prepared for something ugly, Miller was relieved to find the three soldiers unharmed.
But most of the photos reach further back in time. They come from several museums and ski areas, though Miller and Cameron found many more by sifting through private collections, Polaroids kept in dusty drawers and shoe boxes.
The first pages are dedicated to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Any ski bum-turned-buff knows the story by now: A specialized warfare unit was stationed at Camp Hale near Leadville, assigned to train in the wintry mountains for missions in northern Italy. Those ranks of skiers went on to establish resorts we know today. And the man who recruited them, Charles “Minnie” Dole, established the National Ski Patrol.
Miller and Cameron show the ways of early times — makeshift splints and sheet metal that brought the injured down before toboggans were popularized. The changes in practice are seen with every turn of the page.
But what hasn’t changed, the book creators learned, is the spirit of patrollers, the type of people drawn to the mountain.
Miller and Cameron are perfect examples, wanderlust and benevolence at their core.
As a boy in Indiana, Miller wanted to be a fire truck. “I hadn’t quite realized I couldn’t grow up to be a fire truck,” he says. “However, here I am, 52 years old, and if I hear a siren, I’ll walk to the window and stare. Same thing with helicopters.”
He started his medical training at Colorado State University in Pueblo and went on to be a flight nurse, a career that took him to four continents and five countries last year. Ski patrol felt similarly adventurous.
Cameron was also out for adventure when he came to Monarch Mountain. Freshly graduated from college in Texas, he embarked on the Colorado Trail, skirting the ski area and feeling inspired to work there. He later felt inspired by the patrol, the few and the proud.
But since the book’s release, he’s been surprised by the sheer number of people who have introduced themselves, patrollers of past generations recalling life on the mountain.
“They’ve got all these great memories and stories,” Cameron says.