Bernie Protsch is a treasure trove of stories that seem almost too good to be true.
This story isn't easy to find in the archives and Protsch, the manager of Whistler Blackcomb's ski patrol, certainly isn't going to volunteer it himself, so the details are scarce. But this tale, like the rest of them, is true.
Several years ago a Japanese skier went missing on the south side of Whistler Mountain. Ski patrol began a night search, setting out into the darkness with just headlamps, their memory and skill to light the way. Protsch followed the tracks down the Cake Hole to the Cheakamus River, where they disappeared, a desperate sign of things to come. He crossed the frigid river and found the man sitting frozen in the dark, his rear-entry, clamshell boots filled with snow and ice. Protsch put the man on his back and carried him back across the river to a point where snowmobiles could finish the rescue.
"He's relentless," said his friend Roger McCarthy, who started patrolling with Protsch in the '70s. "There isn't anything he hasn't done or he wouldn't do."
Whistler Blackcomb is presenting Protsch with his 40-year length of service award this week for his four decades of work on ski patrol. He, along with groomer Drew Tait, who recently passed away, are the only two 40-year recipients this year.
"It's gone by fast," said Protsch.
There was no skiing on Blackcomb Mountain when he started; there were no high-speed, detachable quads and the thought of a gondola linking the mountains was the stuff of local jokes. The grooming was limited and the backcountry a far-off place. Skier visits were counted in thousands, not millions.
Things have changed a lot in the 40 years Protsch has been patrolling; his ability to change with them is one of the reasons why he's now WB's ski patrol manager.
And while the changes mean the job has evolved — more training and demands on staff to learn how to evacuate lifts like the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, for example — some things remain the same.
People are still getting lost in the mountains.
"It's the human condition we're dealing with," said Protsch. "People are so caught up in the euphoria of the day, sometimes they don't even bother to read the signs or look at the signs; they just follow people out there."
The south side, he added, places like the Cake Hole and Khyber's have taken on an almost mythical-like status in Whistler.
People go out, and they're not prepared for what awaits if the conditions change or if they take a wrong turn.
"It puts us in a situation where we have to spend a lot of time looking for these unfortunate souls," said Protsch.
These are areas, remember, that are out of bounds, not officially patrolled. Inevitably WB responds, working hand in hand with Whistler Search and Rescue and the RCMP.
Protsch remembers two lost skiers reported missing on the south-side. They found them the next day, down about 1,000 feet. And just as they were flying out, they found 15 more people hunkered down at Cheakamus Lake.
"They had all spent the night down there," said Protsch.
He's seen it all from a front row seat.
He weathered the merger of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains in March 1997. He's weathered rumblings of patrollers unionizing. He's weathered his years as Whistler's ski patrol manager and then, seven years ago, taking on Blackcomb patrol too. He weathers the different personalities every day of more than 300 staff — pro patrollers, vollie patrollers and rotating on-mountain doctors — all with his trademark sense of humour, patience, and dogged determination for the job.
This is the place, after all, where a man can go into cardiac arrest on the top of the mountain, and two passing skiers, who just happen to be paramedics, stop to help. Patrollers and on-mountain doctors rush to the scene with a defibrillator and keep the man alive. He is airlifted to hospital where he goes in for a triple bypass and survives. If there was a time and place to have a heart attack...
True story. Just ask Protsch.