CAMERON PASS — The wind is swirling snow and shaking the aspens. It’s single-digit cold.
“Such a harsh environment,” says Owen Richard, raising his voice in the gusts as he sticks skins to his skis for another lap in knee-deep powder. “And here we are having fun. So, so lucky.”
Backcountry skiers on Cameron Pass are indeed lucky. Thanks not only to plentiful snow and a wide variety of terrain, but also to Richard, who directs the state’s unique Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol. The backcountry patrol — one of only a handful around the country — has an army of skiing volunteers regularly slipping through the powdery glades beneath Cameron Peak, ready to help at the first crackling call over the radio.
“Our mode of transportation is maybe a bit more refined than the traditional search-and-rescue, right?” Richard says, skinning up a glade below the powder-draped Montgomery Bowl. “They are generalists and we tend to move a little bit further, a little bit deeper, into the backcountry.”
The Diamond Peaks patrollers are on the ground several times a week, connected via radios to dispatchers in Larimer and Jackson counties and State Forest State Park, ready to offer immediate assistance. They are the first wave of first-responders available when a skier gets lost or injured in the snowy forests and alpine ridges.
There are about 50 volunteers with the backcountry patrol, the only one of its kind in Colorado. They take training classes and each member spends around eight days a season patrolling on the pass, a popular zone for Fort Collins residents. Patrollers also teach avalanche education and rescue classes, earning revenue that supports their own training and gear requirements.
The Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol has partnerships with a host of municipalities and agencies, including local, state and federal agencies. The patrollers operate under a complicated web of agreements.
“A paperwork drill, to say the least,” says Ron Splittgerber, who in 1990 helped create the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol and its summertime mountain bike patrol five years later.
Splittgerber was a ski patroller with Hidden Valley ski area in the 1970s and 80s before it closed in 1991. The area inside Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park offered easy backcountry access, so its patrollers were pioneers in skiing remote powder far from civilization. When the ski area closed after the particularly lean 1990-91 winter, citing the challenges of competing with major resorts, about half the ski patrollers formed the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol.
They registered with the National Ski Patrol, which didn’t really have a model for patrollers working outside a traditional, commercial ski area.
“We ended up giving a lot of talks and writing a lot of papers for the NSP and some commercial areas used our pretty complicated documentation with all these different agencies to help them create working agreements with operators and other agencies,” says Splittgerber, who became a Hidden Valley ski patroller in the early 1960s as part of a Boy Scout program. “There were just very few of these types of organizations back then.”
Recreation on Cameron Pass has changed a lot since the early 1990s, with wide skis and lightweight equipment enabling adventurers to explore deeper in the backcountry. Add in population growth and, like any group working to manage popular winter recreation areas, the challenges are growing. But the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol mission remains the same as it was 30 years ago, with a dual focus on public service and education.
Patrollers aren’t out there enforcing any rules. They go through the Forest Service’s “good host” training and technically are considered volunteers for the federal land management agency. Their job is to be ready to help.
Their radios are dialed into local dispatch centers. They count cars in parking lots every weekend and keep a cache of rescue equipment tucked into discrete areas, in case they need to evacuate injured skiers. When a tree falls across a trail, they clear it out. They occasionally will dig snow pits to assess weak layers and send their observations to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
They don’t wear red jackets or white crosses on their parkas. The Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol logo is on small patches on their packs.
“But we keep it low-key,” Richard said. “We have been told that a lot of people don’t really like an official presence up here.”
A busy day involves helping a lost skier or bandaging a ski-sliced dog. They generate daily reports from each trip, detailing weather and the folks they saw on the hill. Those reports are shared with state, federal and local officials, who are able to keep a record of shifting traffic patterns on the pass. Spoiler: It’s way busier this season than ever before. (On Feb. 6, Richard, assistant director Mac Fuller and veteran patroller Bill Cotton counted 26 skiers, three snowshoers, five snowboarders and three dogs. They stopped and spoke with most of those folks, all of whom knew the team and shared insights into their day.)
Joe Owen, an emergency services specialist for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, likes to call Richard “the mayor of Cameron Pass.”
Owen shares the same appreciation for the backcountry ski patrol as his counterparts in Jackson County.
“The Diamond Peaks team is our go-to if we get into a scenario where we need folks with backcountry winter travel expertise,” said Owen, noting that the patrollers also are trained to help in the summer as well, with Cotton as part of the on-call wildfire program and other members ready to help in any season. “They have a great program up there and it’s really a showcase of folks who want to help out their community.”
It’s a scramble of boundary lines atop Cameron Pass. A state park abuts Forest Service along two county lines. Radio signals bounce between the Jackson and Larimer county sheriff dispatch centers.
Calls for help can see long delays as teams scramble, especially if a distress call routes to sparsely populated Jackson County.
“Every response and call is affected by who is coming, where they are coming from and what equipment they have,” said Lee Freeburg, the park ranger at State Forest State Park who also is the commander for Jackson County’s search and rescue team. “We are remote and we don’t have a lot of help for a quick response. With Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, a lot of those concerns are relieved. They know so much and I know what they know and I know they have the right equipment. It’s refreshing when you are up on a mountain with someone who is injured and those guys are able to show up. They are in shape and ready to go. I love those guys.”
Diamond Peaks ski patrollers also rally when neighboring counties need wintertime help. Earlier this month, Richard joined Diamond Peak patrollers on skis searching for an overdue hiker in Boulder County.
They fund their gear and training by teaching avalanche education classes to hundreds of backcountry travelers every winter. That funding has collapsed this winter, as in-person, overnight classes in State Forest State Park’s yurts are not happening. And there are lingering closures on federal land from the Cameron Peak fire. And a new concessions contract with Colorado State Parks limits all education to Colorado Mountain School, so the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol can’t offer its avalanche or rescue classes on state land.
But the patrol is saving money by not sending its members for advanced training so they can teach. Still, raising money to stay afloat has become an issue.
“T-shirts,” Richard says. “We are selling lots of T-shirts. And we got some hats coming too.”
And members are signing up to join the patrol. Which is good, as the patrol is counting roughly 50% more cars in the pass’ parking lots every weekend. The area feels a lot like a small ski area, where everyone knows each other and shares their adventures over tailgate beers. (Even when it’s so cold the cans stick to your lips.)
“It’s just a good way to meet other people who really appreciate this place,” says Fuller after a chilly day of touring and skiing through charred old-growth, which, thankfully, did not involve any calls for help. “This is my way of giving something back to this place and this community.”