Chatting with Ski Hesperus' finest
Volunteer ski patrolling amid the scrub oak

Sidebar: A peak inside Kathy's pack

A rescue sled partially covered in snow rests near the ski patrol hut at Ski Hesperus on Monday./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Each year when hundreds of National Ski Patrollers rally at Ski Cooper near Leadville, size doesn’t matter. With the Rocky Mountain region being dotted with some of the country’s largest and most popular ski areas, it seems a given that the big guns from the big resorts would take the cake when patrollers square off on an obstacle course.

Yet that’s a faulty assumption. The cake goes to Durango’s own. More specifically, it goes to the Hesperus Ski Patrol – an all-volunteer group of dyed-in-the-wool skiers who carve up a small hill west of town.

The patrollers’ get together always revolves around a competitive, on-mountain course, where teams of three display their skiing and first aid prowess by tackling obstacles, tending to victims and troubleshooting dangers. For the last six years, attending members of the Hesperus Ski Patrol have handily won the competition.

When talking about it, Don Fritch laughs – but it isn’t a gloating laugh. It’s more of a “we’re-small-but-mighty” laugh.

“Here we are up there competing with a bunch of pro patrollers who work at big mountains and then along come a bunch of us who patrol at this tiny hill in Hesperus,” Fritch says. “They are always surprised that we can win it so easily, because I don’t think they realize what Hesperus has. We are a very qualified group.”


What Hesperus does have is a lot of scrub oak. It has avalanche danger; it has crud; and, for its size, some tough black diamond runs. The combination, patrollers say, turns out some of the best skiers.

“When you ski up there in all that oak, you learn pretty fast how to ski with obstacles,” says Fritch.

Rob Stafford, a member of the patrol for the past 20 years, says the crud separates the experts from the novices.

“Believe it or not, even with the good care they take up there, there is such a thing as Hesperus crud that even the most expert skier would be challenged to ski,” he says.

So, last year, organizers at the national competition gave the Hesperus Ski Patrol a new challenge – they charged them with designing the course. “Gladly,” Fritch and the others said. That’s because members of the Hesperus Ski Patrol have dozens of years of collective patrolling experience, and dozens of patrollers who are members of the old guard, including Fritch and his wife, Kathy.

The Fritches have been skiing the slopes of Hesperus since 1961. At the time, Don had been on the National Ski Patrol since 1949, when he was 16 years old. About six years later, Kathy joined the patrol. Together, they’ve been patrolling at resorts in the intermountain west for nearly 40 years. They completed stints in Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, Wyo.; Wolf Creek; and Durango Mountain Resort (Don actually helped create that resort’s first ski patrol) – to name a few.

With all the area and backcountry terrain they’ve skied, which has been far and wide since Don worked as a snow ranger for the Forest Service for 35 years, the Fritches have a love affair with patrolling Hesperus.

“It’s just so great because you get acquainted with people on the slope. You are skiing all day, not sitting up on top of the mountain in some shack until something happens,” Kathy says. “You have caring contact.”

That’s exactly the reason Rob Bitner, a member of Hesperus Ski Patrol since 1991, remains part of it.

“There is a skiing family among the patrollers, and it’s great,” he says.

Don agrees. “With the camaraderie among us, it’s just a thing to do.”

No one, he says, thinks twice about spending time at a small, family-owned ski hill.

Bitner says that’s mostly because you can’t compare skiing 4

Hesperus 4to skiing anywhere else. “It’s too unique,” he explains.

Stafford further explains that patrolling at Hesperus is like “stepping back in time.”

“Ski areas used to be family oriented as opposed to corporate oriented as they are today,” he said. “Hesperus is a place for families, and that’s the primary reward. It’s just so down home and low key.”

Kathy – who, along with Don is now an alumni patroller – says that patrolling at Hesperus puts her in front of people who otherwise go unnoticed at larger ski areas.

“You get to see if there is some kid standing to get on the lift with red cheeks and shivering,” she says. “As a patroller you can go up to him and show him how to put his hands under his armpits for a few minutes to warm up or even help him find his family.”

Hesperus ski patroller Bob Croll takes a
break from shoveling the deck of the ski
patrol hut./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Stafford adds that working among people like the Fritches, who have been an integral part of creating local ski safety awareness (they helped start the Silverton Avalanche School and then started their own Hesperus Avalanche School), draws a lot of patrollers to be part of the Hesperus squad.

“They know so much and you can learn from them,” he says. “They are pioneers; they are legends. The entire ski industry would agree with that.”

Together, patrollers help keep each other’s skills fresh. Actually, the National Ski Patrol requires it. But Bitner, who patrols at Hesperus about 12 days a year, says that being part of the Hesperus patrol makes everyone better because of the varying levels of skiers. Patrollers must often take refresher courses on avalanche safety, mountaineering skills and first aid. So skiing is only half the job.

“That’s the gravy,” he says.

Above all, Stafford says, volunteer patrolling ultimately gives something back to the sport. Once you are taken with the sport, you can’t help but embrace it fully, especially working on a patrol squad like Hesperus’.

“Creating a safe place to ski is in our blood,” he says.







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