By Mountaineer & Taos Ski Valley Patroller Dave Hahn.
I thought the house down the road was on fire, and went down to take a look. Turns out it was on fire, and since this was in June when the whole state was drier than dinosaur bones, I was a little concerned. Huge forest fires were burning in Colorado, Arizona and in every direction right there in New Mexico. I jogged down the road as a fire truck and a few other vehicles pulled in, one of which was a cop car. The policeman got out and instead of even looking at the house on fire, he looked at me. I looked back at him. He pointed at me, some thirty feet away from him, and he flexed his finger in the classic come-hither motion – but in a way that caught my attention. He could easily have walked over to me, since he was probably twenty years younger and presumably a lot more spry. I looked around me to see if he was after some other law breaker, but there wasn’t anyone. So I eased on over to the officer. He said, “Where do you live?” I said, “Back up the road.” He said, “God home!” and kind of as an afterthought, “You’re blocking traffic.”
Forgetting for a moment that there isn’t much traffic out where I live and forgetting that it isn’t really illegal to be outside one’s home and forgetting that I’m an EMT and might be useful to have around should somebody get hurt the way they sometimes do in a fire, I apologized and started up the road. I pondered the fact that the young officer of the law had a pretty good power trip going, and for no reason that I could easily pick out. But as I skulked away, I tried not to take it too personally. In fact, I marveled at his technique, thinking perhaps I could learn from it. Certainly, I’m no hard ass, and never have been. In fact, my record of enforcing rules and disciplining bad folk is blemished if not downright poor. I never had any trouble yelling at people who were yelling at me, but being authoritarian and rude to nice people has always challenged me. I remember I went inside my place after the cop had shooed me away, and practiced the beckoning finger in the mirror, the steady gaze, the “Go home!”
I thought about my lesson in power again this last week as I put on my ski patrol uniform and hit the slopes looking for bloodless knee injuries. I love helping people in the mountains. That is why I ski patrol. Not for power and not for powder. Not for the high pay. Not for the cool uniform with the radio on the chest. And I don’t much like blood and guts and gore. I mean, if you cut yourself wide open and start spraying blood all over Taos Ski Valley, don’t come running to me. I do carry gloves and dressings and stuff like that, of course, and I’ll bind you up if I have to, but I prefer knee injuries. People with knee injuries are usually quite nice and calm and into a little pleasant conversation as you bundle them up in the toboggan. They are often grateful and sorry to put you out. But of course, not everybody at the ski area can be knee injured… there are other problems to attend to. To me, law enforcement is right up there with blood and guts and gore. It makes me squeamish. I have only to think back to that bright and sunny powder morning two years ago to relive my shame and weakness. That day at 11,819 ft. in the Sangre de Cristo mountains when I walked into our patrol headquarters and saw Royal Moulton with the binoculars up to his eyes.
The casual observer might have thought Royal was taking in the great beauty of the Southern Rocky Mountains. Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet the highest point in New Mexico, was off in the direction he was looking. So was Kachina Peak. All the peaks were pretty with the new snow on them. But I knew that Royal was looking out at the east side of Hunziker Bowl, which is way out by our boundary. He had the binocs focused on tracks in snow. The eastern half of Hunziker wasn’t open yet. Too little snow, too many boulders. Which is not to say that it wouldn’t be good skiing on a powder day, just that it wouldn’t be safe. Folks would hit boulders, there would be blood and guts and gore. But the closed east half was right next to the open and popular west side of Hunziker Bowl, and sure enough, even with the naked eye, you could see that one or two tracks had already appeared over the line into the forbidden zone.
Royal put down the binoculars, beckoned me over with his finger and reminded me that I hadn’t submitted very many names to the “bad boy file.” That is our computerized list of ne’er-do-wells stretching back through the decades. If the name sounds sexist, it is not in reality. Ninety nine point seven percent of the hell-raisers on our list are “boys” of a certain age… busting rules, skiing recklessly, giving patrollers grief and forcing a guy like me to play at law enforcement. Royal told me to get out there and “rip some lips” which is what he has often told me to do over the years. I nodded and went out, determined to make him proud… it wasn’t the time to be asking him just what “rip some lips” means. I knew well enough that he wanted me out there busting bogies. I vowed to keep Hunziker safe for democracy and the rope line sacred.
It takes a while to get out that way. I had to ski for miles and then ride a long chairlift and then traverse a bit… I was just begging for somebody to hurt their knee so as to save me from my lip ripping fate. But no. When I got to Hunziker and checked out the perfectly good rope line, I saw that a few other scoundrels had made it out into the rock-infested dream snow. The tracks were bound to entice more scofflaws and I didn’t mean to allow that. I skied down Hunziker and waited in the basin below, which had a wonderful view of Hunziker, the ropeline, and the out-of-bounds powder. Anybody skiing out there would have to come by me and I would have witnessed all of their evildoing.
No sooner had I shoved my ski poles into the snow and turned to watch the mountain than I saw the first two bad people switch to the dark side. They weren’t very good bogies, to tell the truth. Not stealthy at all, not fast, not leaving very pretty tracks. They were falling a lot, wallowing in the powder. Taking forever, wedging their turns. When they finally got down, they skiied right over to me. The were kind of pudgy for “bad boys” and I was a little worried for them since they had snow packed into to all of their bodily nooks and crannies. Even so, the law is the law. “Did you guys go under a rope to get out there?”
I got down to some serious lip-ripping. “You can’t be guessing whether it is ok to go under our ropes.”
“Well, yeah, we followed the tracks,” said the older of the two, with no bad-boy belligerence to his voice. He seemed kind of Dad-like.
“You know that you can’t go skiing out into closed areas just because there are tracks.”
The Dad said, “We sure learned our lesson, that powder is hard!” His boy seconded that, shaking snow out of his trousers.
While I nodded sympathetically, I still needed compliance. I got down to some serious lip-ripping: “You can’t be guessing whether it is ok to go under our ropes… we have that closed because the rocks make it hazardous, and we have other places roped off today for avalanche conditions. You could get killed, you could get somebody else killed. There are laws in this state…” I was just about to ask them to hand over the lift tickets when the pudgy boy spoke up.
“Are there any good places to eat around here?” And this made me realize that I had traumatized the boy enough, he was getting hungry, for God’s sake. I gave detailed instructions to the nearest green chile cheeseburger and they left quickly.
I turned back to the mountain, disgusted with my softer side. I then had a few minutes of quiet reflection out there under Kachina Peak amid gently swaying spruce and pine trees. The sun was beaming down out of the bluest sky onto the white snow and I was starting to think that all was right with the whole world when dang it if I didn’t see two more bogies sneaking into the pow-pow. These guys were skiing fast, leaving nice curvy tracks. What was that noise? It couldn’t be…they were yelping and hooting and yodeling down. Oh man, were these guys dead meat. I got into the intercept position and drew myself up to all six feet and two inches. “Hold on!! Come over here!” And they did, still smiling and happy… and I began to get a little worried by all the pastels and purples and yellows in their clothing. “You guys know you were skiing in a closed area?”
But when the one guy opened his mouth, my heart sank… “Ve haf not so much English please.” All those colors confirmed my worst fears… Euros! It is tough busting European dudes because in the Alps a rope at a ski area simply means “Be careful on the other side, you are on your own.” All the same… I meant to introduce them to American law, west of the Pecos… or north of it, in our case. I went on and on in my best Special English about ropes and hazards and laws until one of them managed to ask where the nearest bathroom was and I gave up.
They schussed away and I tightened the set of my jaw and looked back up to the top line. By God, the next people to test me were going to be in for it. No mercy. No excuses. And there they were… two more guys ducking the rope. These guys were going to get it. I’d place their names into the file over the radio, I’d take their tickets, I’d threaten them with a Kit Carson National Forest Citation… I’d… I’d… “Hey, are you Dave Hahn?” asked a guy I hadn’t noticed before, just behind me in the open terrain.
“Uh… yes, I am.”
“I thought so! Hey, you probably don’t remember me, but we used to play Ultimate Frisbee together like fifteen years ago.”
I shook his hand but tried to skate away from him, saying, “I can’t talk to you just now, I’ve got to bust these guys for skiing under a rope.”
He yelled out, “Hey you guys, this is the man I was telling you about, he found George Hillary.” And that really confused me.
But then he said, “Oh, but actually, those are my friends.” Which kind of confused me more. The bogies were coming into range and I was looking back and forth quickly from him to them. He yelled out, “Hey you guys, this is the the man I was telling you about, he found George Hillary.”
And that really confused me. “I… you… the rope… Mallory, you mean? Conrad found… hey, that is a closed area, you know.” But I was sunk. They just gathered round and asked me questions about big mountains and fame and fortune until I excused myself and skied away in embarrassment.
I made my way back up to the mountaintop, a beaten puppy, not worthy of my lofty position on the Taos patrol. I dragged myself into the building and there was Royal with his binoculars again, looking out at that closed area beyond Hunziker that now appeared to be getting moguls from being so tracked up. He shook his head at me and turned away muttering.
But that was years ago. I’m tougher now. I’ve tried to take lessons from that cop at the burning house. I’ve practiced my pointing finger and harsh voice. I’m getting a pair of mirrored sunglasses. If you come down this way, you might see me talking to myself on the chairlifts, practicing over and over, “Do you feel lucky, PUNK?” And if you step over the line on my watch there will be hell to pay. The sheriff of Hunziker rides again… well, at least unless I can find a good bloodless knee injury first.
Dave Hahn, a veteran ski patroller at Taos Ski Valley, is a world-class mountaineer and expedition leader. This article originally appeared on www.mountainzone.com and was reprinted in the 2005 edition of SkiCountry.