Long Run

A seasoned ski patroller looks back on 60 years on the slopes.

With Brian Barker August 15, 2012 Published in the November 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Lisa Wyatt

AMID THE CLANK of metal carabiners and the high-pitched beep of avalanche beacons at a Mt Hood Ski Patrol training session on the flanks of Mount Hood, patroller Buzz Bowman squints up at a comrade dangling (voluntarily) in a rickety double-chair some 50 feet in the air. After pulling on a pair of worn yellow leather gloves, Bowman clips a safety rope into the black harness he wears over his old Levi’s and yells, "On belay!" As he lowers the stranded lift-rider to earth, a junior patroller up the hill calls out jovially: "Hey, Buzz, you look like you’ve done this before!" Bowman just grins.

He’s got good reason. Bowman, or MHSP No. 134, is the longest-serving member of the Mt Hood Ski Patrol, a feat that’s earned him the honor of having a run in Timberline’s new Still Creek Basin (officially opening Dec 8) named after him: a steep, woodsy shot called Buzz Cut. When he joined the patrol, the oldest in the country, in 1946 as a skinny 17-year-old, the road to Timberline’s one chairlift—long unplowed, thanks to wartime gas-rationing—had just reopened, and the choice skis of the day were of the wooden army-surplus variety. The fledgling ski patrol was barely 100 strong then; today, the badges number into the 1,500s.

"Of course, nowadays you have to ski godlike to be on the patrol," says Bowman. "But in the old days, you just had to show ‘em you could ski, and then they’d train you." Now it’s Bowman who trains the patrol’s nearly 250 volunteer members. And during the ski season, the plucky, 78-year-old semiretired pharmacist spends about 15 weekend days coordinating the patrollers and monitoring the radio for distress calls. After more than six decades with the squad, he’s come to view the patrollers he directs quite literally as family.

In fact, three of his five children served on the patrol, including his youngest son, 49-year-old Steve (badge No. 973), who Bowman jokes has been on patrol for ‚"only" 27 years. "We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we take our job seriously," Bowman says. They have to. Each year MHSP responds to about 1,000 calls.

For Bowman, it isn’t just the action, but also the quieter moments that keep him returning every year. Like that last run of the day, on the patrol’s final sweep, when the mountain is silent, the light fading and the snow still falling in soft, pillowy flakes. Bowman can click into his skis, zip up his jacket and dart down the mountain, chaperoned by the familiar rush of wind as he makes his way toward home.

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