Happy 75th Birthday NSP: Mission Accomplished?

Seventy-five years ago this week, two guys from Massachusetts met at the National Ski Races on Stowe’s Nose Dive trail and the National Ski Patrol (NSP) was born. 1938 Stowe Mens Nationals Cover

As the NSP enters its 76th year and reflects upon its legacy, ski patrollers serve a very different skiing population and group of industry stakeholders. In this article we explore whether the National Ski Patrol System has accomplished its mission, and pose the question, “Has the U.S. network of ski and alpine touring resorts now evolved to the point where it can more effectively assume the NSP’s mission to prevent skiing accidents and assist those sustaining accidents?”

The past may inform the future on that point.

The Founding of a National Institution

Minnie Dole was an insurance broker in those days, living in Greenwich, Connecticut and working in New York City. Dole was originally from Andover, Massachusetts, and was asked by the Mount Mansfield Ski Club to create a “Super Patrol” to cover that March 5-6, 1938 National race. Roland Palmedo, Minnie Dole and Roger LangleyThat ski patrol combined the forces of competent skiers trained in first aid from the Stowe and Burlington, Vermont patrols, along with the Pittsfield, Massachusetts patrol, for that event. More than 50 Racers were traveling from all over the U.S. and Europe for the Downhill portion of the race.

Roger Langley of Barre, Massachusetts, was the athletic director at Eaglebrook Academy in Deerfield. He was also head of the National Ski Association of America (NSAA), now the U.S. Ski Association (USSA) – not to be confused with today’s National Ski Areas Association. Langley was instrumental in the development of ski racing and the early U.S. Olympic ski teams. Impressed with the patrol that Minnie Dole and others put together for that race, Langley asked Dole if he would consider putting together a national organization of ski patrols within the NSAA. Minnie Dole agreed and the rest is history.Stow Nationals Downhill Race Registrations - 5 March 1938

The Sport of Skiing: Pre “Lift” Service

The Stowe Nationals predated lift service at virtually all alpine resorts. Skiers literally had to hike or skin up each trail before descending it in the alpine touring gear of the day. Skis had no metal edges and bear trap bindings with no safety releases. Skins were made of mohair and ski boots were “so comfortable you could dance in them”, as Minnie Dole would say. Two runs was a good day. Many of the competitors in that 1938 downhill race were among the NSP’s earliest National Appointments.

The racers that were among the NSP’s earliest National Appointments were:

  • Robert Livermore (6)
  • Dick Durrance (7)
  • Marvin Chandler (8)
  • Alex Bright (14)
  • Fred Wells (15)
  • Charles Proctor (93)
  • A. E. Ritchie (94)
  • Amos Little (803)
  • Roger Peabody (849)
  • Walter Von Neudegg (1562)

The map below shows the 8×12 mile Mount Mansfield area near Stowe in 1941, just after the Nose Dive lift had been installed. That lift was not yet installed in March of 1938, at the time of the Stowe National race. On the flip side of the map is an informal note from early Mount Mansfield Ski Club and Stowe ski patrol member Patty Tasker (photo, below left), showing a typical day for her and her future husband Winston Morris, Burlington, Vermont local residents. On the map itself she highlights the route described.

Patty Tasker (Morris)

“Our day of skiing would be to hike & ski into Ranch Camp, would have tea and [be] given a lunch – Then we would hike the Bruce Trail to the top – rest have lunch at the Octagon hut then ski the Nose Dive – take the chair lift back up. Then [we would] ski back the trail we came up – Back at Ranch we would have a cup of tea the[n] do practice runs around the Camp. Dinner at 6:00 with usually 20-30. After dinner (many of the people are from New York) they would hitch up the dogs to [the] toboggan or little sleighs, then all the men were given torches and when everyone was ready we skied down the trail to the highway. What a wonderful experience. Especially when it was moonlight. So romantic! Would drive back to Burlington – shower & dress and out to dinner. We did this many many weekends from Nov – May.”

Clearly, alpine skiing was a very different experience then in terms of vertical skied and the tendency toward alpine touring (A/T), even after the first lifts were installed. But resorts, including Stowe, are re-focusing on A/T today, and sharing best practices on safety is as important today as it was then, across the range of winter sports areas.

Early Ski Patrol and Resort Development

Stowe’s Mount Mansfield Ski Club (MMSC) had one of the earliest ski patrols in the nation, with its origins dating back to the mid-1930s when it was established as a committee of the MMSC. The Stowe Ski Patrol itself reports that it was founded in 1934, with Frank Griffin as its leader. The Schenectady Winter Sports Club is also a contender for first ski patrol, claiming its founding in 1933 by Lois (Perret) Schaefer and Vincent Schaefer. We won’t weigh-in on that debate here.

Ski Runs and Ski Trails of Mount Mansfield, Vermont - 1941A converted loggers’ quarters deep in the forest at Stowe known as “Ranch Camp” was the MMSC’s headquarters, as Patty Tasker (Morris) notes in her “day of skiing” story. The MMSC, which remains a thriving club today, had installed a number of strategically-placed caches of first aid gear around the mountain. Each cache is identified on the Mount Mansfield “Ski Runs and Ski Trails” map (right). As you can see stamped in the lower center, that map was handed out for free to Ranch Camp guests, and is one of the first ski trail maps ever published.

The map’s publication was halted by the Vermont Forest Service during the height of World War II because it was believed to offer too much detail on the area. At the time, there was great concern that German troops would be entering Canada via the St. Lawrence Seaway, before invading the U.S. from the north. Mount Mansfield’s Smugglers Notch was an early travel route, and the US military didn’t want to risk that level of topographical detail on a map being available to German forces. Also during World War II, Minnie Dole was the key figure behind development of the US Army’s legendary 10th Mountain Division. That organization was populated largely from the ranks of NSAA members at the nation’s early ski patrols and ski clubs around the United States.

The conclusion of World War II truly marked the beginning of ski resort development. Many of the early resorts were founded by NSAA and 10th Mountain Division members. The 10th Mountain Division headquarters, in its later years, was located near Vail, Colorado. Again, Stowe was at the center of that expansion, and ironically, at the center of the debate around the focus of today’s NSP.

Roland Palmedo was instrumental in forming the Stowe patrol and many early ski patrols of the mid 1930s, with Dole, Langley and many others. Palmedo is “NSP National Appointment” number two. Dole and Langley are numbers 3 and 1, respectively. Palmedo raised $100,000 in capital to build the Nose Dive lift at Stowe from 50 investors that included the Vermont Railroad and Standard Oil, forming Ski Lift Inc. to manage the longest lift in America at that time. Skiing was an expensive endeavor then as well, at around $1 a lift ride. But the large crowds that lifts attracted ultimately turned-off many skiing purist pioneers, including Palmedo. The legacy of the early skiing experience that Palmedo later institutionalized at Mad River Glen in Vermont continues at that mountain today. But the early resorts were largely a collection of separate lift companies, ski schools, restaurants, stores, land owners and ski patrols, including at Stowe. The experience could be very frustrating.

Industry Consolidation and Growth: Skier Safety Research Impact

CV Starr (below left), founder of the American International Group (AIG) and ski resort insurance pioneer, changed all of that at Stowe. C.V. StarrStarr arranged for the capital to combine the various skiing entities around Stowe in the late 1940s and early 1950s, ultimately acquiring it. Starr immediately recognized the entrepreneurial spirit of Sepp Ruschp, allowing him to lead the initial lift company funded by Starr, and ultimately the Mount Mansfield Company.

Ruschp was a participant in that Stowe race as a member of Europe’s nascent Federation Internationale du Ski (“FIS”) and the Austrian Ski Association. He was also one of three Stowe instructors featured in the Race Program, along with fellow Austrian racer and Mount Mansfield Ski School colleague, Edi Euller, and French instructor, Jacque Charmoz, ski instructor at Stowe’s Lodge. The resort at Stowe continues to be owned by an AIG subsidiary today, and the foundation controlling the estate of CV Starr is one of AIG’s largest shareholders. While the NSP traces its origins to Stowe, ironically, the Stowe Ski Patrol was one of the first resort ski patrols to leave the National Ski Patrol System right around the time that AIG took control.

The legend of why Stowe left the NSP System centered on a dispute about NSP policy on the use of traction splints. NSP research in the early 50s determined that traction splints should only be used for mid-shaft femur fractures. Stowe refused to adopt that policy, at the time, and that reportedly created a rift that led to Stowe dropping its NSP affiliation. But the real story may have had as much to do with the influence of AIG and its roots in the insurance business, and reluctance to debate policy on accidents broadly. AIG also became one of the world’s largest insurers of ski resorts.

Sharing accident statistics and best practices to improve skier safety is literally at the core of the NSP’s strategic purpose. But a reluctance of resorts to share accident statistics has only grown throughout the NSP’s existence, and risks associated with liability have virtually eliminated any formal safety research published by the NSP. This is doubly ironic, since it was a skiing safety research project led by Minnie Dole that facilitated the founding of the NSP and innovations in race course and trail design, and even the creation of the first US Giant Slalom at Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in 1937 at the Franklin Edson Memorial Race.

Skier Accident Data Collection: Now and Then

A study by three Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) students highlights the issues facing skier safety research today. Peter Kaineg, Chris Von Valkenburg and Carsten Winsnes concluded a study of ski safety research in 2006, entitled “Issues Facing Ski Safety Research“. They found that it was insurance companies, ski resorts, and the associated threat of litigation that has virtually eliminated skier safety research.

One of the prime examples of non-cooperation cited in their research is an NSP-affiliated resort, Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Mass, just 30 miles from the WPI campus. The most prominent positive exception cited in the study was a research program conducted by the members of one ski patrol at a mountain once called Glen Ellen, now known as Sugarbush North. The “Sugarbush” research cited by the students was, in their view, a best practice that should be replicated throughout the industry to improve skier safety.

From the WPI student study:

“Through proper ski industry research studies, we believe there are a significant amount of injuries which can be prevented. Yet there are few proper injury studies being conducted at American ski areas. The leading injury study is being conducted by Carl Ettlinger and Jasper Shealey at Sugarbush Mountain in Warren Vermont. In order to promote ski injury research the original objective of our group was to establish an injury study emulating [the] Ettinger/Shealy study. However, ski areas were uncooperative in allowing injury research on their mountain.

The results of this project show that most ski areas are not cooperative in conducting injury studies. The ski areas feel that the publishing of their injury statistics could be used against them in litigation and in business. Also, they feel there is no proven return on the cost of the research. Instead of trying to prevent injuries, the ski industry is largely focused on reducing their liabilities to injuries. The underlying misconception of the ski industry is that injury studies are viewed as negative. If injury studies were embraced by ski areas their liability, business and insurance rates could all benefit.”

On that latter point, we would add that skiers (and boarders, alpine tourers, cross country skiers, tubers, and any other winter sports enthusiast) would benefit. That is what the NSP was founded as a non-profit public service organization to do, right? Clearly much has changed since this week 75 years ago in the world of skiing. But should the purpose of the NSP in 2013 be substantively different than the original purpose of the NSP upon its 1938 founding?

To answer that question, it would be important to understand the challenges faced by ski industry safety leaders of that day. It should be no surprise to see that an article entitled “Ski Patrol” was published by the NSP’s founder, C. Minot Dole, in the March 1938 Stowe National Race magazine (see article below).

In the words of Minnie Dole, whose byline in the article was “Chairman Safety Committee, Amateur Ski Club of New York”:

“Skiing presents definite problems to clubs and communities responsible for the pleasure and safety of skiers coming from far and wide to ski their local terrain. Whereas it is assumed the skier voluntarily accepts any risk involved, communities feel a strong moral obligation to protect the skier from hazards lightly contemplated. Experience has proven skiers will not confine themselves to terrain within their capabilities to negotiate safely. Ski Patrol, by MinnieDoleAccidents have increased as the sport has grown. Rescue work in the early days of skiing proved that serious harm resulted from the handling of broken bones by willing but inexperienced hands. Shock and exposure, perhaps more serious than the actual injury, put a premium on speed in transportation of the injured. The proper handling of crowds at race meets for safety of both racers and spectators became acute.

To meet the need—the ski patrol was evolved—a group in any community trained to meet these very emergencies. It sounds simple—but it isn’t, for prospective patrolmen must be competent skiers, having taken a first aid course, be trained in rescue technique, be familiar with all trails, be willing to sacrifice their own skiing pleasure and be a tactful but firm individual, to help, but not antagonize all manner of people.

It therefore behooves us all to remember always that the ski patrolman is a picked man from his community wearing a badge of honor and service. We must remember he is patrolling for our safety and that to respect his judgment and requests for cooperation will work for the general pleasure and safety of all. To welcome him as a brother skier, always ready to act in our behalf, will make his duty a pleasure rather than a task, and compensate him for all his work.”

A Man’s World?: Women in Ski Racing and Patrolling

Special thanks to Dana Morris and the Morris family for making available this rare copy of the 1938 Mens’ Race Program pictured above, and many other artifacts contained here and in other articles. We understand they will soon be donated to the MMSC. In our interview with Patty Morris in the fall of 2012 we found that there were both men and women on the Stowe ski patrol from the start. While no women received NSP National Appointments until Dorothy McClung received the first one on 16 January 1941, several were key figures in patrolling from the beginning. We should also note that 1938 was a year of firsts for women in ski racing as well, with the first-ever Womens’ National Races hosted at Stowe a month later on April 9-10.Stowe Womens National Ski Races - 1938

The woman pictured in Minnie Dole’s article above, with the caption “‘Powder’ at the Summit of Nose Dive” appears to be early U.S. Olympic skiing athlete and fashion icon, Ann Bonfoey Cooke, then nicknamed “Nose Dive Annie”. While there is no record of Ann serving as a ski patroller at Stowe, she was certainly a key figure in skiing at Stowe in the day. Minnie Dole even made time to write a song about her that was performed at the March 1938 race awards ceremony at Stowe.

The photo shows a focus on style and substance that was characteristic of Ann Bonfoey throughout her life; perhaps here, in preparation for racing down Nose Dive after the long hike up. Ann was also a pilot since childhood, training U.S. aviators during World War II. Her marriage to James Negley Cooke, a Vice President of Roland Palmedo’s Ski Lift Inc., ended in a messy divorce in the mid-1940s. The child custody dispute in that case was ultimately argued before the Supreme Court of Vermont, setting legal precedent.Ann Bonfoey (Cooke) Taylor (aka, "Nose Dive Annie")

Ann later married Vernon F. Taylor, and the affluent couple were among the early developers of what became Vail, Colorado. Prior to marrying Taylor, Ann Bonfoey Cook was the original designer of many early ski fashions, including form-fitting race pants with vertical leg stripes. Prior to her designs being marketed commercially, Minnie Dole notes in “Adventures in Skiing” that she hiked and skied in clothes of her own design. Bonfoey Cook is also credited with creation of the “fanny pack” that most of the nation’s ski patrollers have used for 75 years to carry their medical and emergency gear. She can be seen wearing early versions of that innovation in two of the racing photos, above to the right.

Today and Founders Day: Mountains Can be a Cold and Dangerous Place for Injured Skiers – Never Ski Alone

One account that is not often told of skiing at Stowe on that famous race day, March 5th, 1938, is that of Harold W. Smith. Minnie Dole and the event organizers had prohibited skiing by non-racers that day anywhere near the race course. There is evidence of that in race planning documents and in copies of hand-outs to ticket holders on race day. Harold Smith and his friends attended the race, but also skied somewhere else on the mountain at Stowe. A copy of his ticket is included below, along with an excerpt of an article from his local Waterbury, Connecticut newspaper, describing Mr. Smith’s adventure at Stowe that day.

Harold W. Smith of 229 Columbia Boulevard, former Dartmouth athlete, suffered a fractured ankle yesterday while skiing on Mount Mansfield at Stowe, Vt. Stowe Nationals TicketThree companions had to obtain a toboggan to take the local man down the mountain after the accident. Mr. Smith, with his brother, Edmund S. Smith, Alexander Bryan and Roger Makepeace, was skiing on Mount Mansfield when he fell. The local young man was not able to continue on skis so his brother went down the mountain, obtained a toboggan and then climbed back up the mountain to where Harold had fallen. The injured man was then placed on the toboggan and hauled down the mountain slope by his three companions. A doctor in Vermont examined the injury and said it was a bad sprain. This morning Mr. Smith went to the office of Dr. P.J. Brennan who found a fracture.

Thanks to the family of Harold Smith, especially his grandson Richard S. Smith of Stowe, who provided this ticket image and a copy of the article to Mike Leach of the MMSC. While there have been many innovations and incremental changes in the sport during the last 75 years, the passion of participants and many of the challenges they face continue today.

Mission Accomplished?

The NSP has evolved over the last 75 years in many ways. But one of its larger shifts has been from an organization that was a committee within the old NSAA in 1938, the National Ski Association of America, an organization of skiers – to an independent National Ski Patrol System Inc. that is a Federally Chartered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that shares an office building in Lakewood, Colorado with the new NSAA, the National Ski Areas Association, an organization that represents the exclusive interests of for-profit U.S. ski areas.

We close with this quote from AB Coleman, the Mount Mansfield Ski Club’s founding Secretary and newsletter author, who with his MMSC colleagues, was instrumental in the development of skiing and ski patrolling at Stowe and throughout the U.S. Mr. Coleman said in an article about the MMSC in the March 1938 National Ski Races program,Mount Mansfield Ski Club, by A.W. Coleman

“Fortunately, our diverse membership, which includes many skiers from states other than Vermont, has modified to a large extent those excesses of sectional fervor which so often detract from the purest of motives.”

Mr. Coleman’s diplomatic 1930s-era prose may mask its meaning for some modern-day readers. But it is clear that ski patrol and race organizers of that day faced challenges of politics and self-interest, and individuals guided by impure motives and a different moral compass. The increased transparency that is demanded by a larger number of “diverse” individuals and groups always yields more appropriate outcomes.

Given the NSP’s challenges of late (see: “NSP Lawsuit Dismissed: No End to Internal Battles On Horizon” and “National Ski Patrol: In-fighting Begins Anew“), its senior leaders may want to reflect upon Mr. Coleman’s point. That is, should the NSP of 2013 continue to devote resources in attempts to influence legislation, reduce for-profit resort liability exposure and insurance rates, risking its Federal Charter and non-profit status in the process as an agent of for-profit multi-season resorts? Or should the NSP expend its time and other limited resources listening to the voices of the skiing public and the organization’s own 28,000 members to advance the NSP’s original “public service” purpose, which is to help prevent skiing accidents and assist those sustaining accidents?