Skiing with a Shovel: a Paleotechnician in Paradise

Article by George Sibley

Ski History – December 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

by George Sibley

When I moved to the mountains of Central Colorado, thirty years ago this winter, I imagined myself to be in retreat from “urban-industrial America.”

I arrived in an automobile with the back seat and trunk holding a record player, toaster, boxes of mass-produced clothes and books, and various other standard accouterments of the mass-produced life — enough to have told me, had I been listening, that maybe I wasn’t so much fleeing civilization as advancing it.

But I also arrived in the mountains with a residual 19th-century sense of what “industry” was — a picture shaped not so much by my liberal education as by the backdrop for that education: the city of Pittsburgh. When I attended Andrew Carnegie’s temple of learning in the early 1960s, Pittsburgh was still a place of steel foundries, fabricating plants, and other great dark, smoke-belching industrial hulks.

So when I hired on at the Crested Butte Ski Resort, which didn’t look at all like Pittsburgh, I did not immediately realize that I had just arrived at one of industrial America’s new frontiers — where industry was moving from the mass-production of goods into the mass-production of good times.

The history of the Industrial Revolution consistently shows, though, that the reorganization of capital, labor, technology, and resources into efficient industries does not happen overnight. It takes time to reduce production to a set of discrete tasks (some eventually done by machines, others requiring human labor). First, the tasks must be identified and the machines invented.

So, in the transition stage, you often find humans doing simple (or even stupid), but stressful and often dangerous jobs that will eventually be done by machines. Social philosopher Lewis Mumford calls this the “paleotechnic” period in industrial development.

It was quite obvious a century ago in Crested Butte, with “heavy industry” in its paleotechnic stage, as hundreds of poorly paid and grossly endangered miners clawed away at coal seams with hand tools.

Thirty years ago in Crested Butte, with the “recreation industry” still in its paleotechnic stage, it was me, skiing with a shovel. I was hired onto the Ski Patrol there, but it was a very different Ski Patrol than one finds today.

These days, Ski Patrollers are “paraprofessionals,” with a lot of emergency medical training and, increasingly, crowd-management and law-enforcement skills. The industrial tasks have been sorted out and some that must be done by human beings rather than machines — like getting accidents off the hill and out of sight quickly and safely — have been identified and assigned to a technician class.

But when I hired on in 1966, that task-sorting process lay in the future, and we needed fewer credentials for the emergency medical part of the job — a simple Red Cross card was enough. Back then, we did a lot of things that Ski Patrollers no longer do because the machines to do them better had not yet been created.

When I think now of some orthopedic disasters I brought off that mountain with no more training than you get for a Red Cross card, I break out in a cold sweat. But I was young and stupid at that time — which of course eminently qualified me for the rest of a Patrolman’s duties in that “paleotechnic paradise.”

In my youth, the ski industry worked to produce a “good time” under natural conditions that have traditionally been associated with misery and stoic endurance. Before there was an established ski industry, skiing was primarily transportation in snowy country, something you did because you wanted to get somewhere. But for those who became even moderately proficient, the “going” became as good as the “getting there”. It was, and is, a most gratifying kind of transportation.

In its early form, what we call ski-touring or cross-country skiing is more work than what goes on on the lift-served hills today. When the preindustrial skier came to a hill of the “down” variety, he got a free ride with no more effort than it took to keep his balance. But if he liked coming down a hill enough to do it again, he had to trudge back up the hill. This factor — together with the primitive equipment, and that it was out in the cold and wet — served to make skiing a recreation that attracted only a few who were strenuous, agile, and crazy.

The basic challenge in “ski area production” is setting up a circular up-and-down assembly line on which the largest possible mass of customers have at least the illusion of creating the “good time” themselves. In other words, you need to get as many people up the hill, on your lifts, as can safely come down the hill, on your trails — and get them up and down again and again. The more you can get them up and down, the more you can charge for tickets.

Other “product qualities” enter into it, of course: a “sense of challenge” (without so much real challenge that it would take a month or a year or a lifetime to meet the challenge), enough scenery to convey a “sense of communing with nature,” and enough slope space to convey a “sense of solitude” (in the midst of the freeway-style crowds that economics require).

But that’s all fine-tuning on the basic challenge, which is getting ’em up and getting ’em down (both willing and able to go up and come down again).

That’s where the Ski Patrol came in. Back in the paleotechnic stage of the development of industrial skiing, my job meant heavy work with the hand tool that had earlier built Crested Butte as a heavy-industrial town: the Number Two scoop shovel — an invention of the devil, presumably, since the miners believed there would be no coal in heaven.

But we were lucky, in a way. The founders of Crested Butte had installed an Italian gondola as the main lift, and apparently Italy had used up its quota of industrial efficiency in establishing the Roman Empire (the unholy one that built roads and aqueducts, but forgot why). That three-passenger gondola was so inefficient at hauling people up the mountain that the Forest Service required only a seven-person Ski Patrol — since it was impossible to put more than a few dozen people on the slopes at a time.

In those days the resort — along with the industry in general — was just about as clueless when it came to the other half of the “good times assembly line”: getting people down the hill enjoyably and safely enough to be both willing and able to go through the line again.

This involved keeping the slopes skiable. And when you’re part of a seven-man Ski Patrol trying to maintain the whole side of a mountain, and your main tool is a Number Two scoop, that gets challenging.

Until you’ve lived in a place that gets a real blessing of snow, like Crested Butte, you can maintain a lot of misconceptions about the stuff — that it’s soft, fluffy, and light.

But try a winter of operating a Number Two scoop — what the old miners called “the roundhead dragline” — in a place that gets three to five hundred inches of snow every winter. Then you know how glaciers could rip down mountains and even create the Great Lakes.

“Moguls” were the main problem. When rugged American individuals ski, few blaze their own trails or “take the road less traveled.” Most go right where others have already gone because it is easier. Snow gets pushed into ever-larger piles beside grooves that get cut ever deeper. The result is “moguls,” from a Norwegian word that, I guess, means “bumps in the snow.”

But “bump” hardly begins to describe a slope after a few days of traffic if the moguls are allowed to persist. Narrow canyons as deep as a person is tall separate carbuncular micro-mountains of hard packed snow. Level or even up-sloped on the uphill side, but precipitous cliffs on the downhill side, those “bumps” are unskiable by all but the best of skiers with shock-absorber knees.

Today, “packing crews” hit the slopes every afternoon after the lifts close. They drive big heated snow cats with tracks a yard wide, pulling huge rollers with hydraulic scraper blades, and they work through the night grooming the slopes, taking the tops off of incipient moguls and filling in the grooves.

Thirty years ago, however, we strong and stupid seven hit the slopes at eight in the morning, an hour and a half before the lifts opened, with our Number Two scoops.

Of course that was the time of day when everything is frozen hardest. But it was also the only time on our shift when there weren’t people all over the slopes. We’d start at the top and start shoveling mogul tops into the canyons between moguls, then stomp them down.

We did that until the lifts opened, then went to our other duties — like hauling off the unfortunate consequences of too-close encounters between skiers and moguls.

But sometimes, when we’d been too long without new snow, we would have to put two or three patrollers on maintenance all day. So there we would be, stripped to the waist and sweating like hogs under the Colorado sun, reducing big lumps to little ones — an industrial tableau that seemed totally out of place with those gaily-dressed skiers zipping and careening past us.

The area did have a couple of snow cats then, but they were as paleotechnic as we were. The early snow cats had been developed for phone linemen and arctic research stations, for travel across a flat tundra on maybe a foot of wind-crusted snow. They had tracks about eighteen inches wide, and worked well enough in any winter conditions except deep snow and steep slopes — which is what makes a ski area.

So we spent a lot of time applying our Number Two scoops to getting our snow cats unburied from something they had slid into, or off of. That also involved some unauthorized trail widening when the cats slid off into the woods and had to be chopped out, as well as dug out.

The cats were most useful for “snow patching.” After a week of the clear weather for which Colorado is famous, the snow on heavily traveled spots would get “used up.”

Today, the baldness remedy comes from snow guns that come on every afternoon and put down a new layer of something resembling snow while the skiers sleep. But thirty years ago, when the bare spots appeared, a band of patrolmen armed with Number Two scoops would ride off into the woods on the snow cat, fill it with snow, then shovel the snow out onto the bare spot and stomp it down.

In the annals of paleotechnic labor, all this labor might be about as stupid as it got. From an industrial perspective, what was done, what was produced? No hogs were butchered, no steel was made — we’d just facilitated an illusion of adventure. But at least the scenery was nice — a whole lot better than the innards of a coal mine.

We found little ways to amuse ourselves, too. On morning mogul patrol, we would cut “snow wheels” out of the tops of the moguls — great hulking circles of snow that we would then heave erect and roll down the slope, with the first after-work beer riding on the greatest distance before the thing would crash. I got so used to skiing with a shovel those years that ski poles felt awkward when I actually got a chance to use them.

Today, the industry is pretty efficient. High-capacity quad lifts scoop up skier foursomes and spill them out on slopes groomed daily by big sophisticated packing machines. The stuff that comes out of the snow guns is not much fun to ski on and still needs some R & D, but it’s a lot better than skiing over rocks. People still complain about the maintenance, but they just don’t know how bad it can be, nor how bad it was back in the good old days of the paleotechnic patrol.

On the down side, there are so many people on the slopes that they are more danger to each other than the moguls ever were to anyone. But that’s the cost of economic efficiency.

The ski patrol, last I heard, is five or six times larger, and they work harder than we ever did, doing just the things that only humans can do, like helping other humans in trouble. There will never be a “robo-patrolman” for that.

But I wouldn’t trade their job for the one I had — even if I were technically qualified. I haven’t skied at a ski area for almost five years now. It’s all too fast, too efficient — too much like work. I’ve reverted to preindustrial skiing, where if you want to go down the hill, you have to trudge up it first, which means I mostly poke around on pretty gentle stuff.

This paleotechnic stage of industrial development may be the only stage I’m psychologically fit for — which means, I guess, that I’m more fleeing civilization than advancing it.

I’m employed in higher education these days, and sometimes — when the legislature starts harrumphing about moving these kids through in four years rather than letting them dawdle for five or six, and we are increasingly forced to deal in “Carnegie units,” “minority quotas,” “retention rates,” “quantifiable assessments” and the like — it’s real déjà vu.

I walk to my classrooms feeling the same way I felt on skis on my way down to some mogul with the shovel in my hands temporarily serving as a balance pole rather than a roundhead dragline, thinking, “This could sure be worse — and it probably will be.”

Once the legislature has made higher education as efficient as the recreation industry has made skiing, I imagine I’ll retreat forward to the next unindustrialized frontier to be conquered.

George Sibley of Gunnison has also published a small-town newspaper, managed a sawmill, and fought forest fires. He teaches at Western State College.