When he signed up as a volunteer ski patroller, Lee Hunsperger was looking for a good time and free lift tickets.
More than five decades later, Hunsperger is still having a good time and skiing for free.
Hunsperger is working on his 51st year as a volunteer ski patroller and his 41st year as a member of the volunteer ski patrol at the White Pass Ski Area. At 70 years old, he’s the oldest member of the volunteer patrol still actively working the lift-served slopes on skis.
The White Pass volunteers patrol the slopes of the ski area as well as the cross-country ski track. They perform all the same tasks as the pro patrol, except they don’t get paid.
Clad in the signature red patrol parka, Hunsperger is most often patrolling the Hogback basin area. When possible, he’ll rip down the slopes just off the groomed ski runs, skis and knees locked together in the classic learned-long-ago style.
With energy belying his years, Hunsperger skis all day, often stopping only for the hour he’s required to work as a dispatcher in one of the ski patrol rooms or to attend to a skier needing assistance. His day, like other volunteer patrollers, usually stretches from 8 a.m. past 4 p.m. when the lift-ski area closes. Some days may start even earlier if he’s helping set out signs and fencing in the ski area.
Hunsperger patrols three Sundays out of four and holidays that fall on a Monday. He usually logs 20 days of patrolling each season, plus another 20 of mid-week skiing for fun. On top of that, he does “quite a bit of cross-country skiing as well.”
It’s only for the last two years that Hunsperger could lay claim to the honor as oldest active lift-ski patroller. Until two years ago, Gus Pooler held that spot. Pooler, now 85, was forced to quit for health reasons. But Pooler still volunteers as an auxiliary member of the volunteer patrol at the area, putting in a shift in the first aid room most Saturdays. Pooler patrolled actively at the area for 55 years, starting in 1955.
In his early years as a patroller, Hunsperger moved between several ski areas, including one in Pennsylvania while in the military. He began patrolling at White Pass in 1972 when he moved to Yakima to take a teaching job.
Much in downhill skiing has changed since Hunsperger first began patrolling in 1962 at the Snoqualmie Summit ski area. There was no grooming of the slopes and ski equipment wasn’t nearly as sophisticated as it is now. As a result, he remembers, “there were a lot of injuries. The first-aid room was full every Saturday.”
Toboggans then were heavy wooden affairs. Now, toboggans are sleek, maneuverable units with composite shells.
Injuries are different, too.
“In the early days there were a lot of broken legs, lower-leg injuries because bindings were not very good and there wasn’t any grooming,” he says. “Now there’s a lot more upper-body injuries because of snowboarding — wrists and arms.”
First aid has also come a long way. Hunsperger started with a half-inch-thick book on advanced first aid. Now, volunteer patrollers must master a book of more than a thousand pages and they have a two-day refresher course each fall.
Hunsperger has also seen a change in the philosophy of the volunteer ski patrol. “In my first 25 years on patrol, we acted independent of area management. We called the shots. Since then we have worked more closely with area management. Now we all have the common goal of benefitting the area. We feel more obligated to the area than we used to. There is a lot more cooperation between the area and the patrol. We’re the PR people for the ski area.”
What hasn’t changed are the skiers themselves, says Hunsperger.
“They seem to be the same people they’ve always been.”
Volunteer patrollers may develop specialties over the years. It may be first aid, avalanche knowledge or toboggan handling. Early in his patrol career, Hunsperger developed a special affinity for the toboggan. He’s been a toboggan instructor for years. “They’re just fun to ski with. It’s a real teamwork thing.”
And he admits he sometimes skis faster with a toboggan than he should. Without a patient in it, of course, he hastily adds.
Prompted by another patroller to tell the story, Hunsperger recounts the time he and fellow patroller Ed Stolarik used a toboggan to rescue a porcupine at White Pass.
While on patrol, they saw a group of young skiers harassing a porcupine on the Midway ski run. Taking an empty toboggan, the patrollers went to Midway and, using their ski poles, nudged the porcupine into the toboggan. “And then we took him off in the trees and let him go,” said Hunsperger.
As with many volunteers, patrolling runs in the family. Both of Hunsperger’s sons have been volunteer patrollers at White Pass.
The most memorable part of a half-century of volunteer patrolling, says Hunsperger, “are the hundreds of fantastic patrollers I’ve worked with over the years. All these people are really great. That one thing is what keeps me going.”
•Gordon King can be reached at 509-577-7846 or email@example.com.