CASPER, Wyo. — Bill Maiers' most memorable rescue was his own.
He's helped care for or carry out countless skiers and snowboarders in his 30 years as a volunteer.
He's trudged through deep snow in the trees to save skiers who launched off the trails. He knows how difficult it can be to drag a toboggan in and out of a forest with an injured skier.
Then there was that one time Maiers fell racing. He ripped his femur out of his hip socket and broke a finger.
"Instead of being the rescuer I was being rescued," Maiers said, patrolling at Hogadon Ski Area.
Hogadon only supports one paid ski patroller, Pat Harshman. All others are volunteers. They ski for free but also work 10-hour days, often driving up the mountain before light and leaving after dark. They pay for their own gear, training and dues. They make sure no one is left behind and assure the injured receive proper care.
Sometimes they even evacuate riders from ski lift chairs if the lift stops. It's rare, but when it happens they throw ropes over the chairs and create a makeshift seat to lower passengers to the ground.
Patrolling is a physical job that eventually takes its toll on skiers like Maiers, 75, who, after nearly 600 full days of volunteering, is hanging up his patrol jacket.
"He's one of the oldest and most outstanding," said Gary Vantrease, Hogadon's general manager who is also retiring this year.
"He's dedicated. It will definitely be sad to lose Bill."
Maiers, like other ski patrollers, starts his day early. He eats breakfast, drinks prune juice and Metamucil, showers and heads for the slopes. He's at the patrol hut by 7 a.m. or earlier, making coffee and preparing for the day.
He and other patrollers "sweep," skiing each of the mountain's 24 trails, making notes about conditions and reporting any issues or obstacles.
He wears a radio to communicate with other patrollers and splits his time between the ski patrol hut and the slopes.
Patrollers don't teach skiing, that's what instructors are for. What patrollers do is watch.
"It's like being a police officer. If you're out there and the kids see you, they behave better," Maiers said. "If you're in the lodge, they're jumping out of the trees."
Hogadon averages about 225-275 skiers on an average weekend, said Alan Kieper, special facilities superintendent for the city.
At least one patroller monitors the mountain on any given week day and about eight on a weekend. They tend to about three to five injuries on a Saturday or Sunday and maybe up to three a day on a weekday, Maiers estimates.
On a Thursday morning in early March, he split half of the trails with fellow ski patroller Robert Walker, a 25-year ski patrol veteran. The trails were groomed and the surface was packed powder. The sun beamed and wind stayed calm.
He stopped at the bottom of Boomerang, one of the main hills on the eastern side of the ski area. He looked up at an expert run called Chainsaw, part of Boomerang's terrain park, its moguls winding through the tress. His blue waist pack, full of first aid supplies, stuck out from his red and blue patroller jacket.
Ski patrollers have basic supplies everywhere they go. They never know when there will be an accident, even their own.
It was a beautiful day in the late '90s, Maiers entered a giant slalom race at Hogadon where skiers go around gates. It was just for fun, a citizen's race for anyone to compete.
He felt good. With three gates to go he caught the edge of his ski and went down. The momentum ripped his skis off and sent them 50 feet in the air. His left boot stuck in the snow ripping his femur out of its socket.
"I can tell you, that made me thankful for ski patrol," he said. "These people are some of the best I've ever met. They are caring and experts in their field."
Like he had done so many times before, his fellow ski patrollers came to the rescue, stabilizing him and making sure he reached the emergency room.
He calls himself lucky. Eight years later he had the whole hip replaced and his body felt like new.
Other patrollers have volunteered longer, but most started earlier. Maiers joined the patrol at 45.
He has also worked more days than most patrollers, Vantrease said. Most average seven or eight days a year on the mountain. Maiers averages between 15 and 20.
And after 30 years, he's decided it's enough.
"I don't want to outlive my usefulness," he said, still standing near the bottom of Boomerang. "In a way it's sad, but I will keep skiing."
Maiers paused, then deftly turned his skis and finished sweeping the rest of the hill.
Runs cleared, he stopped by the ski patrol hut to make coffee and check with the other two patrollers on duty for the day.Comment on this story
A crackling sound came through all three ski patrollers' radios. They stopped talking and listened. A fifth-grade girl hit a tree during ski lessons. She was walking to the patrol hut for examination. Each ski patroller needs first aid and CPR. Some are certified Emergency Medical Technicians.
The patrollers ushered her into the hut, Harshman and Walker calming her, Maiers starting the paperwork process with the girls' mother. Each knew his or her role.
For Maiers, helping people like others had helped him is what kept him in the job so long.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com