Alyeska has a new chief of the powder police

December 6, 2010 

Ideally, you'll never see Ben Habecker or any of his 54 red-jacketed employees or 67 volunteers on the hill.

Habecker, the new ski patrol director at Alyeska Resort, roams the mountain, an eye peeled for trouble.

Injured and need help getting off the mountain? One of the patrollers will be there.

Skiing out of bounds? You may get caught and warned or disciplined.

Even during the summer, if a bump sends you catapulting over the handlebars of your mountain bike, Habecker may be there to lend a hand.

"If I delegate right, though," Habecker notes, "I don't have to do anything."

A native of Michigan, Habecker got most of his early ski training in Loveland, Colo. His first job at Alyeska was on the tram crew and his first application for a patrol job was unsuccessful. But he persisted and caught the attention of Peter Zug, Alyeska's longtime ski patrol director and Habecker's predecessor.

"It was obvious from the start he was very motivated with a great work ethic," Zug said. "He's engaged in everything that's going on.

"The biggest thing is that Ben's attention to detail is exactly what the resort needs. There are a lot of big things that are easy to see out there. But he can see smaller things that might be problems along the line."

Securing any ski patroller job is tough, never mind the top one.

"Competition, I would say, is fierce," Habecker said of his big staff of patrollers, who meet 9 a.m. daily at Alyeska's Roundhouse to plan the day and discuss issues raised by the previous evening's crew. "Turnover is typically one or two (ski patrollers) a year, though this year we had seven."

The patrol director starts an hour before the crew arrives, getting weather updates, checking reports from the night before, reviewing what snow-making and avalanche-control efforts are planned.

Occasionally, everything goes right -- a moment that makes the job particularly rewarding.

"We had a great example last year," Habecker said. "It was a child with a head injury pretty far up on the mountain. Patrollers quickly recognized the severity and responded quickly.

"Everything came together perfectly, we got the kid down quickly and an ambulance was waiting. The kid survived, which gave us all a lot of warm fuzzy feelings."

Perhaps the opposite of that came in March when then 19-year-old Matt Davis of Eagle River was skiing in a steep closed area and began tumbling after a ski caught and flew off. Davis' fall didn't end until he slammed into a tree and landed on his back, breaking his leg so bad it flopped unnaturally across his chest.

Because Davis was out-of-bounds in a dangerous area for both him and his rescuers, he was fined $845 and banned from the mountain for a year.

"The accident is a good example of why such areas of the mountain are closed," Habecker told the Associated Press at the time. "It's too hazardous for skiing and too difficult for rescues."

Habecker said 135 skiers and boarders were cited for violations last winter, down from about 220 the previous year.

"That was nice to see," Habecker said. "Out of 181,000 lift tickets sold, I guess we shouldn't be complaining."

And sometimes, patrolling even yields a brush with fame.

Nearly two years ago, Habecker was patrolling near where Sen. Lisa Murkowski was skiing, midway down Mount Alyeska. Murkowski took a nasty fall, tearing two ligaments and cartilage in her knee.

Habecker reached her in about a minute and eventually helped transport her down the slope in a rescue toboggan, her leg in a splint.

"She was actually smiling," he told the Associated Press. "She was fine, and said she hurt her knee. She looked embarrassed."

Accidents happen at Alyeska nearly every day, even if U.S. senators are rarely involved.

Stubborn cold and clear weather typically produce the most, as the mountain gets firm and skiers become bored with the same conditions day after day. Twenty five accidents on a busy weekend isn't unusual.

"People just tend to go faster, it's human nature," Zug said. "But get some fresh power, and you might sneak through a day with no problems at all."


Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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